Geographic tongues

Is it possible to watch something happening and not see it at all?

Without a doubt. To watch with your eyes or read words on a page, and not take in a single thing, even as the images flash before your eyes. Dissociation or reduced power of observation. 

Or is it a matter of focus? The way a small child might zone in on the tiny mouse featured at the bottom corner of the page in a children’s story book, well away from the action of the story. As if to emphasize the hidden and not deal with the obvious. 

The way I have lived in this house for forty years and this whole time as I walked along my street towards the junction I did not once notice the swastika painted on the concrete footpath outside the flats a block away. 

I did not know it existed until my daughter pointed it out on a walk with the dogs yesterday. ‘They’ve finally covered over the swastika,’ she said. ‘At last.’

 A square of white paint in middle of the footpath. ‘If you look closely,’ she said, ‘you can still see the outline. It’s been there for so many years I almost stopped noticing.’

A swastika, symbol of fascism and superiority, a symbol we’d do well to remove, rather like the dreadful Katie Hopkins I first heard yesterday on radio, espousing her right-wing nonsense about the incursions on our liberty in Melbourne because people were forced into lockdown when there were only three cases of the virus in the community. 

This is not true. There were more cases, not many more, but many of us, if not most understand, I hope, that this strain of the virus does not discriminate and once out and about, it piggy backs on anyone’s blood steam for a free ride. A dangerous ride for that person and if not for that person, as in, they don’t get symptoms, then for anyone else from whom the virus might hitch a lift. 

Blind prejudice that fails to factor in our responsibilities to one another beyond a selfish disregard for our communal good. That’s what fascism initially preys upon. The insecure tendencies of many who want to rise above the dross of everyday life and imagine we can get there by riding on the coat tails of people like Hitler, or Donald Trump or any of the shock jocks on the radio who urge us to put ourselves first and ‘fuck the rules’. 

I woke last night to the nagging sensation of an ache building up in my right ear. Took two Panadol and it disappeared. An ache in my ear that stirs up childhood memories of such pain. Alongside the pain in my once rotting teeth. Pain I wanted to ignore, given the only solution to the tooth ache was a visit to the dentist and the only solution to my ear ache was to alert my mother to my existence, and depending on the day, a trip to my father in the lounge room where he might examine my head and pronounce a solution of I-know-not- what given his experience during the war, when doctors were scarce on the ground and they had to make do with home-style remedies. 

For my father an earache would pass if I simply wrapped a scarf around my head. I have tended to steer away from doctors all my life. The pressure of their judgement on all the wrong things I might do to my body, given its propensity to fade. 

Don’t get me wrong. I come from a long line of stalwarts. My mother prided herself on her children’s ability to ward off coughs and colds and other common childhood ailments through our advanced immunity which came from her side. 

The fact that two of my siblings copped rheumatic fever in childhood did not count. Despite my reservations in later years about her tendency to look towards the physical strength of her children and their immune systems, I was guilty of the same and when two of my daughters complained that their tongues hurt. It took the observations of a doctor who looked onto the tongue of each and diagnosed geographic tongue. 

No wonder my daughters hated tomatoes. Too much acid. There was no treatment for this condition. At least not then. It was simply a fact of life. A scoriated tongue. Geographical because it looked like the map of a country loaded with roadways that curved and rippled with rivers that ran through. 

My daughters learned to live with these geographical tongues to the point they no longer mention the discomfort but unlike the swastika on the side of the road, the state of their tongues and the incursions on their taste buds has stayed with me. A reminder of the way our bodies can fail us unless you are the bearer. Like a small pimple on your tongue you worry away at it on the roof of your mouth and can only imagine that others will see a boulder on the extremity of your tongue as you talk. 

Because

Because I lost the green notebook in which I kept the thoughts of my adolescent self, I do not have a record of my early written words. Only a memory of sitting in the back of the chapel at the convent school where I spent six years from the time I was twelve until I turned eighteen.

On those pages I journaled my interiority. 

The passions of a fifteen-year-old who fell in love with her teacher. One who wore a habit of black after taking her vows to become a Faithful Companion of Jesus, when she was still a young woman, not much older than her student. 

I did not long to touch her or be touched by her. I longed only to be near her, to be in her presence, to hear her voice, to receive her words written on slips of paper which she passed onto me after I had sent my first messages to her during the holidays when I could not see her at school.

This then was my first foray into letter writing. My first attempt to put my hand into that of another and share my innermost thoughts in the hope of a warm response. 

The nun wrote back letters and over time they held greater weight.

These letters came to feel as if she had me in her mind but when my younger sister a year behind me at school began to fall in love with my favourite teacher, too, something began to sour.

By the time I left the school with its green garden beds and high fences to keep out the sooty factories of Richmond and hide the smells from the brewery further up the Yarra River and close to the city, I had eased my way out of this love.

It is best to ease your way out of love. Best to let the glowing warmth in your heart, the hope and desire to be with another, fade away into a trickle of affection that barely lights your sky at night, rather than hold fast to the deep pain of lost love. 

Or so it was for me with this teacher, this nun, this young woman who first taught me desire beyond the passions I once felt for my mother.

I am wary of the word love, of the depth of its charge. I use it freely to mark an affection for others whom I hold close, but the passions I once felt as a child and adolescent, as a young woman are harder to reach.

As when I fell for a young moon-faced man who tended towards heaviness and walked with an easy restlessness, as if those two opposites could co-exist.

Those loves have bypassed me. Filtered down to something gentler, more centred on the ground of the familial and of friendship. 

Loretta Smith was three years older than me but, despite the disparity in our ages, she became my friend. She lived with her huge family in a ramshackle house at the end of our street and held the distinction of being in the girl guides. 

Loretta urged me to join her and after much pleading my mother relented. My mother did not object to her daughter joining such a movement, given various of my brothers had taken to the boy scouts over the years, but she baulked at the cost of the uniform. 

There were no hand-me-downs available from my older sister. who took no interest in the guides. No one among my mother’s extended family who could hand over the clothes their daughters had outgrown. I was the first girl in my family to join the guides.

Once a week after dinner I walked with Loretta, who collected me from my front door. Down the hill on Canterbury Road and through Shierlaw Avenue to the scout hall, a rectangular weatherboard box with large double front doors on top of which the words: Canterbury Scouts and a Fleur de Lys

My skirt and blouse were crisp with their newness, something I had not known before.

In my family new clothes belonged only to firstborns. And the pleasure I felt was soon offset by a chafing sense of guilt when I remembered my mother’s unease in the Girl Guide shop in the city when she looked at the price tags she needed in order to be properly fitted out. 

A year later when my younger sister wanted to join me and Loretta, the thought of buying another such uniform again for me (my younger sister could take over my, by then, too small uniform) was too much for my mother. And too much for me. 

What is it with younger siblings admiring us so much they want to do exactly as we do and then we’re left with a sense that our achievements are taken from us?

Or so it was for me. My favourite nun, my girl guides and later still a boyfriend. 

But I did not factor in the way my sister paved the way for me with some of her friends.

That because we were only one year apart at school, because we were thrown in together in our family as the little girls, we spent hours of time together and formed the closest bond imaginable.

Why do these bonds fray? Why do these loves go cold? Why not endure the test of time?