War stories

A few weeks ago, I shared a dinner with my three sisters, four women squeezed onto one small table in Thom Phat restaurant in Brunswick.

It’s the first time we four have been together in several years and the first time ever we could remember the four of us being alone together.


In other words, without parents or brothers or children, or partners present.

Two of my sisters I see regularly but the one below me, twenty months younger, I rarely see. She lives in NSW and we fell apart in our early twenties after years of closeness as children.

This sister was eight years old when they called for the ambulance. I was playing with friends a few doors down.

‘You’d better go home,’ my friends’ mother said. ‘Your sister’s ill. She may have polio.’

The woman could not get me out of her house fast enough and I went home to an empty bedroom.

It was not the same without my sister. The house had a hollow ring for all that it was still filled with people.

We visited my sister one Sunday several weeks later. By now we knew she had contracted rheumatic fever like our older brother had some years earlier and that she would most likely be okay. No polio or life threatening illness, but she needed to stay in hospital till the bacterium that had attacked her heart cleared.

We took the yellow bus from  Deepdene to the Ivanhoe East railway station and from there walked to the Fairfield Infectious Hospital, now home to my younger sister.

The hospital consisted of a series of rectangular wards scattered apart from one another on flat land perched above the river at Yarra Bend. It was a long walk from the station, my brother in the pram, me on one side of our mother, and my little sister on the other.

We found my unwell sister in one of the long wards, her bed one in a row against a wall, and opposite another row of beds on the other wall in the women’s ward. My sister was the only child in this room filled with mainly old women, the youngest our mother’s age, but my sister did not mind.

The others in the hospital, staff and patients alike, had taken to looking after her and I figured it was better there in that white walled hospital, with its rows of beds and green bedspreads, with its fly wire doors that led out onto long open verandas and its smells of disinfectant, cooked cabbage and onions, much better than at home.

My sister looked smaller than I remembered, her dark curly hair stark against the white of the pillow.

‘Hop out of bed now,’ the nurse said to her when we arrived. ‘You have visitors.’

The nurse helped my sister onto a chair and fussed over her with an extra blanket across her knees while we kids stood around like cows approaching an open grille. We dared not step forward to greet her.

Our sister had become a stranger and she had a new authority she never had at home. My little sister who was close enough to me in age in my mind to be my twin but we looked completely different, as different in appearance as my mother and father.

Beside her bed I noticed the pile of books, the story of war heroines like Violette Szabo and Vivian Bullwinkle. By then matron of the Infections Diseases hospital, Vivian Bullwinkle had loaned them to my sister.

War stories sustained her during this hospitalisation in a way I could not understand, though when we met for dinner during the week and my youngest sister talked of life in Singapore where her daughter is currently living, I heard my other sister of rheumatic fever fame mention her recent visit to Changi prison while in Singapore.

Now when I imagine that infectious diseases hospital and my sister holding court at her bedside and her books on war stories, especially the women who made their mark, I come to see her with fresh eyes.

In honour of the artefact

This story does not begin in a house, in a room, or on a boat. It begins in my head, unframed, uncertain, unplanned.

Weighed down by the conventional, by all the rules I have learned over the years about what I can say and must not say, about how to put one word in front of another, I cannot find my way into this story other than to say I had planned to write a paper on feminine desire, one based on other people’s ideas.

In it I would draw on the thoughts of people like Helene Cixous, and Julia Kristeva, French feminists and philosophers. I would draw on the psychoanalysts, the upcoming thinkers from the relational field.

But as I sat with my screen open and my thoughts on the verge of tipping in, I felt exhausted. The very thought paralysed me.

I could not connect with these words. Feminine desire. Women’s sexuality. It was all too hard.

I went back to bed just now, at nine o’clock on Saturday morning, hoping to shift my state of mind from one of inertia into one of action, but it didn’t work.

In bed, I pulled on an eye patch to block out the light. I rolled onto my side and began to count the number of times my husband snored, snorted or snuffled, and the more he failed to fall silent, the more infuriated I became and the less I could sleep.

And so I considered the next best thing to shake me out of this paralysis: a walk. To get my muscles moving, left right, left right, across the Fritsch Holzer Park; sticking to the grass because whenever I walked on the gravel little stones caught inside the webbing of my sandals.

There were the usual folks up early on a Saturday morning, most with at least two dogs in tow; all dogs off leads, because this is a leash free park.

How I wished there was not a leash on my mind, one that constrains me and keeps me walking at someone else’s pace.

I went to a conference in the middle of last week, one on autobiography and biography, the theory thereof, though most of the people were also life writing scholars, people who have a story to tell.

This is not entirely true. The group divided roughly into three types, those who write their own stories, whether in prose or poetry, traditional memoir or experimental; and others who write about other people, the biographers; and still others who write about the theory of life writing, the use of objects, the nature of the texts themselves, whether online or in material form.

One woman is checking out Google Books’ plans to develop an online encyclopaedia of every book in existence with the intention of scanning as many as possible.

They take old books like Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and scan each page one after the other. It’s a laborious process and Google employs desperate folks of an indeterminate nature, probably half-starved students, my guess, or out of work administrative assistants, who know how to scan page after page, hour after hour.

The job is so tedious and boring these scanners make mistakes. They inadvertently scan in the content of a letter that somehow found its way into the scanning room, for instance. There are library stamps from the libraries that once housed the books, and any amount of marginalia. There are places where the scanner’s glove covered thumb and fingers appear. All of this scanned for posterity.

The researchers then wonder about the meaning of these unintended aspects of the book’s life.

I have a trunk under my writing desk that is filled with bits and pieces, the memorabilia of my life going right back to when I was a teenager and first found myself wanting to hold onto my past in material form.


In those days not only did I keep this stuff – holy pictures from school, an autograph book, hand written letters, bits of ribbon that I had collected at some event or another, a twig of palm from Palm Sunday forty or more years ago, the torn out pages of books that once meant things to me, poems filled out on scraps of paper.  All these things I collected and once pored over for long periods in idle moments.

There were plenty of those moments when I was young and loved nothing but to look back over my then short life and reflect on how far I had come.

By the time I entered adulthood, and began to branch out with teenagers of my own, I had little time for poring over artefacts.

One day when my oldest daughter was studying for her final school year she came upon the idea of life capsules and wanted to explore my treasure trove.

I unearthed the trunk and spread its contents though the room. In so doing, I turned what was once a vaguely ordered chest of bits and pieces into a mess.

I had no time to sort it out then, over fifteen years ago. Instead, I threw it all back inside the trunk.

The trunk is full to the brim now, along with the collected Christmas cards and birthday cards I’ve kept over the years, and I dread the thought that one day soon, I will go back inside the mess of my life to see what’s there and consider whether any of it is worth retaining.

I will not leave 600 boxes, as did Any Warhol on his death, knowing that his fame would not stop curators and the curious from throwing out a thing. Another topic under discussion at the conference.

These boxes are fast deteriorating, given Warhol kept such things as food scraps and toothpicks, all of which must be tagged and identified.

You’d need more than a ten-storey museum to house the stuff.

No wonder we have to be careful about what we leave behind. Only the objects of the famous will escape becoming landfill.