Flower girls and horror movies

It’s happened before. I sit in front of the computer and type away, eyes on the keyboard. I cannot see the screen or notice, not a single word I’ve typed has registered.

A blank page and I have been writing for over fifteen minutes. 

I could go back and try to write all the things I put down earlier but now it’s boring. I’ve already been there, and I don’t want to return to the same old territory. 

Nothing to show for my efforts. It demands a certain calm, otherwise, I might be left feeling even worse than when I began.

So I start again.

My mother’s cousin Ria worked for the VVV (the tourist bureau) in Haarlem, Holland and every year she arranged for a different group of girls to represent her city as flower girls, Bloemenmeisjes.

They dressed similarly in the fashion of the day and each carried a flat basket of flowers and wore a wide smile. They travelled on a float throughout the city as part of the celebrations. 

There’s something icky to me about the concept of flower girls. I think of vestal virgins and young girls used as sacrifices to the gods, their beauty and innocence the biggest drawcard to seal their deaths. 

During my early twenties, I stayed one time on holiday with my husband, before he was my husband, in a basement flat, which my mother’s cousin owned. 

One-night late, curiosity overtook any respect I might have held for my cousin’s privacy, and I went exploring the secret places in her flat. 

In a separate bedroom from where we slept, I came across a deep trunk filled with photos and memorabilia of flower girls.

My second cousin had collected newspaper cuttings, photos of her bloemenmeisjes and photos of herself with the mayor and other dignitaries. 

My imagination went berserk. Fuelled in part by reading Daphne Du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now and haunted by memories of the film I had seen a couple of years earlier and based loosely around Du Maurier’s story, with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as leads. 

The film follows a grief-stricken couple whose daughter Christine dies in an accident in the sprawling grounds of their country home after slipping into a pond in search of her ball. 

The daughter, Christine, was wearing a red hooded raincoat at the time of her death. The story is pockmarked with signs of what is to come. A naked woman’s dead body is winched out of the river in Venice. A killer is on the loose. Shots of gargoyles loom menacingly.

Christine’s father, who restores antiquities visits Venice to work on a crumbling stone church, flanked by monstrous gargoyles. His wife struggling over her daughter’s death accompanies him. In typical British style, the couple ships their son off to boarding school. 

The film then centres around their time in Venice. At dinner one evening, after a delicious lovemaking scene, the only joyous moment in the movie, the wife is fascinated by a couple of tourists, elderly sisters, one of whom is blind. The blind woman is a psychic and the wife encounters them in the toilets and begins a conversation. The psychic channels Christine who wants to warn them her father is in danger. 

The father won’t hear of it when his wife begs him to talk to the blind woman, and the film, which takes a long time to get you there, ends in tragedy.

I should not describe the end for fear of ruining the story, save to say when I first saw it I had not seen it coming. 

I should have seen it coming. In retrospect, there were plenty of warnings. A rock falls from on high as if pushed by a malevolent gargoyle and nearly crushes our hero. There’s the naked woman her dead body dripping wet, and in the blind woman’s future vision, we see flashes of a funeral, a coffin carried on top of a boat along one of the canals in Venice.  

Finally, the father races through the streets following a small figure in a red raincoat just like his daughter’s coat on the day of her death.

We think he might be following Christine, reincarnated. He thinks he’s following Christine, or someone come to tell him about her. But the red-coated creature turns into something from a horror movie. 

I refuse to go to horror movies and even as I write this, the horror stays with me. 

I could not sleep for days after I saw this movie and later in Haarlem when I stayed at my cousin’s house and decided I must read the actual book to put my mind at rest, I became terrified at the thought that my cousin’s preoccupation with flower girls might be something else. 

The two things merged in my mind, however unrelated.

In the flat below my cousin’s sumptuous apartment had windows in the kitchen that looked out onto the pavement. You could see people’s feet as they walked past. I sat in this basement apartment and read my book at the kitchen table becoming more alarmed every day. 


In the haunted kitchen circa 1980

There’s no great conclusion here. I finished the book and it did not affect me so deeply as the film adaptation, perhaps made worse by the jenever (Dutch gin) and tonic I drank in copious quantities at night to help me sleep. 

When we left Holland for home, and I heard several years later that my mother’s cousin had developed Parkinson’s and died young, it left a hollow feeling. 


Knees up on the couch, I traced a line with my finger along the length of my thigh. One of those summer days during the 1960s before we knew about climate change but still so hot as to leave me breathless and reluctant to do anything other than curl up on the couch with one of my father’s Time Magazines. 

At first, I thought I’d contracted some rare disease that gave off a rash of unspeakable black, but I scratched at it and watched it peel off under my fingernails with an already thin line of black where the nail joined the skin. 

No doubt about it, this was dirt.

One of those moments in my life when I knew things had to change. When I knew I must now listen to my older sister’s warnings about my body.

How it was changing. Even I could see that. How I now needed to spread deodorant under my armpits every morning before putting on my school dress, otherwise, my school dress and I along with it would smell like my brothers on a hot day. 

BO. My sister pronounced the letters with disdain. Till then a bath or shower once a week had been enough. Until the hair washing on a Saturday night could leave my hair looking clean enough all week long, especially once I tied it behind in a ponytail. But now this onset from within had begun to attack my hair as well. 

On Sundays after Mass, my sister took her hair out of its elastic band and brushed through repeatedly. She dragged the brush through from the roots to the tips. This way, she told me she was pushing the oil to her hair’s dry extremities and if she did this long enough, she could reinvigorate her hair by coating every strand with her own rich oils. Sometimes she used an egg and freed the yolk which she smeared all over her head. The egg nourished her hair, she told me, but she needed to leave it in for at least ten minutes.  Then she washed it away, oil and egg yolk. Oily hair might have been healthy, but it was ugly, she told me. Hideous, a sign of neglect.

I feared she was aiming her disdain at me. And the way in which my hair had taken on the oily look of neglect.

It was not an easy transition into this shift from hating the effort required to relishing the joy of standing under the hot stream of water and soaking up the perfume of Lux soap or Johnston’s baby powder, the smell of shampoo on a wet head, the feel of clean.

As with so many things, I soon became obsessive about the cleanliness of my body. And showers took longer and longer, as long as my father was not at home to interrupt them. 

Showers and the need to scrape underneath my fingernails to ensure there was not a speck of grime visible.

And deodorant, the most floral imaginable to give the illusion of a Myer make up counter where the perfumes hit you even before you saw the women with flame red lips and eyes covered in darkness in whatever shade was then fashionable.

In the sixties going into the seventies, we experimented with blues and turquoise, purples and pinks. The bluer the better, but I did not start on the eye colour until I left home for fear of my father’s mockery. 

From the vantage point of today, I wonder about the hours lost trying to wrangle my body into this pristine state of cleanliness and almost virginal sanctity. As if I did not want a sniff of my womanhood to be visible. 

I went once to the toilet soon after my mother and the smell of her body, to my adolescent self was revolting, heavy with something intangible. Of sex or vaginal secretions. The smells appalled me, even as I could not name them. 

My mother’s body which I once loved with an infant’s passion became this scary receptacle of the unspeakable.

I began to avoid her and kept well away from the hands she once used on my ponytail as we watched television together. Or she came up behind me while I was sitting in the kitchen over my homework.

My mother’s fingers already showing signs of the arthritis that dogged her in later life took hold of the length of my plait or ponytail and she threaded it through her fingers, wound it round and round her hand, then let it fall. Sometimes she stepped back to see the effect of her caresses. And then she started over again. 

Her affection, which I might once have craved became torture in my adolescence when we walked side by side along Centre Dandenong Road on our way to church on Sundays and the others strode on ahead. I hung back with my mother but hated the way she took up my hand as though I was a child much younger than my fourteen years might suggest or as if I was her adult partner. 

I thought of the men on the building sites. Men who wolf-whistled at me when I was alone or with my older sister, and to my mind approved of my then developing body. They would not do so when my mother held my hand. 

So, I learned to avoid my mother, in the same way, I avoided my father. Not out of fear but out of resistance against childhood and babyhood, when I wanted only to grow up and away.

Away from the smell of my mother and of her house, of her many babies, and of her European tendency to bath only once a week, like ripening fruit, even as she tapped 4711 eau de cologne on her wrists and behind her ears before Mass every Sunday and smeared a line of red across her lips. Even as she tried to meet the cleanliness standards I and my other siblings introduced. She who once spat saliva onto her handkerchief and rubbed away at the remnants of jam still visible on my child chin; who once noticed these small insults of dirt on my face, lost touch with her own messiness under the veneer of respectability that came with lipstick and eau de cologne.

Until after my father died and she re-married a man for whom she adopted a more Australian style of cleanliness and began to shower daily until she was too old to do it herself. Which brings me full circle to where I began.

Under the shower this morning determined to wash my hair, a task I have taken to hating again for its time absorbing potential and for the never endingness of its demand.

I will not revert to childhood avoidance. I will stay as clean as I can while allowing myself the indulgent thought: apart from the pleasure of standing under the warm rush of water.

Apart from the comfort of soap against my skin, the business of shedding clothes, of stepping underwater, the assault of having to dry a once warmed body against the shock of cold once outside the shower and the trouble with towelling yourself dry, making sure I get between every toe to avoid tinea.

These tasks are almost as bad as the tasks of washing dishes after a meal or wiping benches. I do not derive pleasure from the task itself. Maybe it’s like writing, the best of it occurs once it’s done. 

I will keep at it.