Platonic love

Dennis Pryor took us for lectures in a small room on the second floor of the Old Arts Building, in groups the size of tutorials given the lack of interest in this most ancient of subjects.

He knew us all by name, which bothered me as not only did he know our names he also recognised something of our talent or lack thereof in translating Virgil or reading the poems of Catullus.

Vivamus, Mea Lesbia Let us live, Lesbia.

The words rolled out effortlessly as if he spoke this language every single day when everyone knew that Latin was a language as dead as dead can be.

‘It killed the ancient Romans and now it’s killing me.’

I should have stuck with French when I left school and began my degree.

I knew French, I understood its peculiarities, its seemingly feminine wiles, but Latin with its strange declensions and different uses of the conditional tense troubled me for its hard edged logic.

I came to think of Latin as a masculine language and French the feminine, and yet I took it on this man’s language out of love for a woman, love for and a desire to be loved by my favourite teacher at school.

Sister Mary Vincent still wore a habit but would soon shed it for the life of the laity but before she did, she and I concocted a plan that one day soon, after I had finished my university degree, I would join her in the convent cells where I could hide my horrible body behind the habit of a nun and never again have to worry about all the things that bothered me in those days, most particularly my attraction to men and theirs to me.

The nuns had warned us school girls away from men and even though I had five brothers not one of them gave me a hint of sexual desire and my father’s creepy advances in the night left me determined to steer clear of men until I could get through my university degree, find a job or enter the convent and so be free.

Dennis Pryor asked us questions with the confidence of a teacher who believed – and in large part he was right – that all his students shared his love of Latin.

He asked questions confident that we would know the answers.

I bumbled my way through the translations like someone in a trance, Still I managed to get through his classes without too much obvious embarrassment, much as I felt a fraud.

I had studied Latin for my favourite nun. She taught the language at school and although she did not love Latin quite so much as Dennis Pryor she loved it well enough and understood it well enough to leave me with a sense that if I were to understand it too and excel in it, then despite all the protests from students in earlier years when Latin was compulsory that Latin was dead, I could fine a way of communicating and turn her into a woman in love with me.

It was platonic love I looked for then, the sweet and gentle, the uncomplicated, the non body oriented, the love that required nothing by way of physical exchange but only demanded soft sighs and the deep understanding that comes of being with a person with whom you feel as one.

The joy of holding that person in my mind for hours and hours on weekends and when we were away from one another, of being able to imagine my teacher in the small cosy corner of my pocket and sliding my hand inside from time to time to stroke her hair.

To know that she was mine and I was hers and that the two of us had a bond so secure, nothing, not even the slightest discord could pull us apart.

Mea Lesbia, vivamus, atque amemus. Let us live and love.

I could be Catullus writing to his beloved Lesbia whose name he chose as a tribute to the poet Sappho from the island of Lesbos.

But my wishes were more of the possessive love of tiny children towards their mothers, od the AA Milne variety like

James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree who ‘took great care of his Mother, though he was only three… “Mother,” he said, said he;

“You must never go down to the end of the town,
if you don’t go down with me.”

Nor the solid love of King Solomon. He solved the problem of two mothers fighting over the same baby by threatening to cut the baby in half. The real mother then stepped forward and let the other have the baby, preferring to have a live baby not in her care than to have a half a dead baby.

In those days I might well have been the false mother the one who was happy with her half dead half alive baby as long as she was in my control, and so it came to pass that the months rolled by and I struggled through my Latin assignment and scraped by with mere passes in all my exams.

Dr Pryor stopped asking me questions in class and I resolved to stop studying Latin by the years end and concentrate instead, not on getting into the convent with my beloved favourite teacher but instead of concentrating my attentions on the fickle hearted boys who had once seemed so off limits and now seemed so much more desirable.

The free floatings

I’ve been waging war with myself and doing battle with the dreaded anxiety.

The free floatings, I call them, those moments when the lightness of my being seems to hover there, as if my heart might stop beating and at any moment I might drop down dead, or someone else, who matters to me, might likewise disappear.

Whether it harks back to my childhood, or whether it’s connected to more recent events, I can’t say, but I find myself drifting back in time to those nights in my childhood, those rare nights when visitors came and my mother was abuzz with energy and enthusiasm.

My mother loved to party. She loved the excuse to put on her Sunday clothes and dab powder on her nose.

She loved the work involved in that extra trip to Mr Brockhoff’s grocery store to buy tins of smoked oysters, which she later peeled from their can and spread onto a plate, each murky brown morsel resting in its tiny puddle of yellow oil.

She took tooth picks then and speared each oyster through its heart in readiness for the party when she could walk around the room, plate proffered in front and her guests might lean over one after the other to scoop up the speared creature and pop it into their mouths.

I hated the smell of these things, the look of them and the sense they existed for the pleasure of the grown ups, who chatted away in our lounge room and somehow drowned out my father’s voice, as he grew more drunk by the minute.

Somehow he kept a lid on his worst behaviour in the presence of guests.

As often happens in my memory, my siblings are absent.

Never once did I enjoy the solitude of a room of my own in childhood. My room was always occupied by at least one other, usually in the form of one, if not two or three sisters, but in my memories oftentimes they were not there at all.

Likewise this night, I stretched myself out under the blankets, keen to iron out the ache that crept up on me whenever I noticed the laughter from the lounge room and wondered yet again when my mother would come.

Ages ago that same night, I had snuck into the kitchen after I heard the door in the corridor into the lounge room open and shut, followed by the clump of my mother’s heels on the carpet and then their click clack on the kitchen tiles.

I knew she was out there spreading Jatz biscuits with butter and plucking out thin strands of salmon from another thin she had brought home from Mr Brockhoff’s.

I knew she was slicing up tomatoes into thin slivers to put alongside the salmon and in time she would bring back a plate full of these biscuits into the lounge room and once again make her journey around the room, plate proffered.

‘Can I have a cup of tea, too?’ I had asked my mother when she turned to see me at the door, ages ago.

My mother did not scold me for getting up out of bed, not the way my father might. Instead she smiled and looked back to her plate of biscuits.

‘In a minute,’ she said. ‘First, I offer these around to the others and then when I make the next round of tea, I’ll bring one to you. Now back to bed.’

Something of my mother’s promise offered me comfort.

I could lie still now, less fidgety, more ready for sleep, but I did not let myself close my eyes or slip into sleep. I listened instead to the laughter from the lounge room and tried to picture proceedings.

My Auntie Anne in her glamorous, waisted floral frock, big roses on a white background and my Auntie Junie in her dark colours, flanked by a thick cardigan.

My Auntie Junie felt the cold.

She had lived in Indonesia during the Second World War. She had met my uncle in Holland not long after she had returned there, before they married. She had lived in Indonesia when she was young and during the war was interned by the Japanese.

Auntie Junie had suffered, my mother told me. She had even seen a Japanese man kill her brother in front of her eyes. She had seen this and she needed to stay warmer than the rest.

My mother did not like my Auntie Junie for all her suffering.

I could not work out why this was so. Except my Auntie Junie was a woman who valued efficiency, who kept her house immaculate and besides she had married my mother’s younger brother, not the youngest but a brother whom my mother loved and somehow my Auntie Junie did not meet my mother’s standards or else it might have been the other way around and my mother did not meet my Auntie’s standards.

They could not tolerate one another, though you would never know this from the chatter in the lounge room where the woman’s voices rose to a high pitch above the dull drone of the men.

My father’s voice, when he spoke, was the loudest and most guttural.

Whenever my mother entertained her visitors, her family from Holland, her brothers and their wives, she followed the Dutch tradition, a small drink of alcohol followed by coffee and cake.

Tradition she brought from back home and somehow thinking on these traditions my mind wandered back to the cup of tea she had promised me not so long ago.

A cup of tea, milky, with two spoonsful of sugar, a sweetness enough to slip me off into sleep.

But the tea did not come, nor my mother, and as I waited and my eyes grew heavy with a sleep I could no longer evade, I pondered the significance of a mother who could not keep her promises.

When I woke in the morning, the memory of that promise lingered. My mother had forgotten me.

But my mother had made a promise she could not keep because, although she had spoken the words of promise to bring me that cup of tea, she had spoken those words from a distance and she had not taken them into her mind as intention.

She had spoken those words to send me away.

Only in the morning, and on other nights at other times, when I was still a small person and asked my mother to come to visit me in the night, did I realise I had fallen from her mind.

And as soon as I fell from my mother’s mind, I fell into that well I call anxiety today.

A well, not only of abandonment, but one in which all sorts of fears assail me.

I am bad, I tell myself and dredge up all the events of the day in which I have behaved badly or I might have behaved badly.

I said something wrong. I spoke out of turn. I had not studied my times tables. I had not worked on my multiplication and division. I had not practiced the piano. I had kicked my dirty clothes under the bed and left them to pile up with the dust. I had not scraped under my finger nails, which were black with the dirt of every day.

I was bad and my mother’s absence became proof of this. Only her presence could save me.

But when visitors came, they took her away and for the rest I slipped into the free floatings of my life as they persist today.