Memories warm you up from the inside. They also tear you apart.’ Haruki Murakami.

His car is a Volvo, silver gold, in the days before Volvo drivers were mocked for their poor driving skills. In the days when the Hume highway was still a one lane highway, ragged in parts, and many people lost their lives speeding. 

My brother at the wheel. In his early twenties but pretending to be older with his three years older wife at his side. Such details matter. My brother is a man of pretension, a man who aspires to greatness and in the front seat behind the wheel of his Volvo he has it all. The promise of wealth, a fair haired and beautiful wife, his wife, carrying their first child, first grandchild of the next generation and the eucalypts on either side of the highway bow down as we approach.

‘Bow ye to Simon,’ he chanted when he was younger than I am now, in his mid-teens after a long stretch in hospital for infectious diseases where they nearly took off his leg, the infection in the bone so bad only penicillin could cure it until it didn’t. 

He was lucky but his leg bears the scar, a crater below the knee of his left leg and he likes to show it to us to fuel the fantasy of his superiority. 

‘Bow ye to Simon. King of kings, God of gods Ruler of all men.’ Spoken in his cultivated Oxford accent.  

The leather seats are sticky against my bare legs. The cusp of summer and already the grass in the fields to either side, dotted with cows and horses, are turning yellow. We’re in for another drought, the bureau has warned. Another stinker summer, but I have dreams of renewal. I am going places, too. The first person in my family to enter the University of Melbourne. The first woman among my generation of siblings and cousins to get the education my parents so admire. 

‘I need to pee,’ my sister-in-law says from the front seat beside her young husband, and he pulls the car over at the next service station, stops and points her in the direction of the toilet sign.

There’s no question of not stopping for her. The baby inside her weighs heavily on her bladder and she can’t wait. 

My brother watches her walk cross the bright concrete of the service station then turns around to peer at his two younger sisters in the back.

Look at you, his eyes seem to say. Such pathetic creatures. ‘You remembered to use deodorant?’ he asks as if we are twelve-year-olds who needed to learn about hygiene for the first time. I nod. ‘She taught me to use deodorant,’ he says looking toward the retreating figure of his wife. ‘Before she came along, I was a slob. You girls have no one to teach you what’s right. The oldies are useless.’ 

I’d like to agree with him but something in his patronising tone, something in the way he compares us to his new wife rankles. There’s no thought that we too might like a toilet stop and we’re both too scared to ask. We are there as his guests and he has generously offered to let us travel with him and his wife in the back seat of their car like two small children. But I am on the cusp of my eighteenth year and although I am not sophisticated enough yet to speak for myself, and although my body is large enough to give the impression of a woman in full flower, I feel small under the weight of my brother’s gaze.

It’s late by the time we pull into the caravan park, mid-afternoon and the dusty roads on the outskirts of Canberra before you hit the main drive, are studded with potholes. Inexpensive accommodation is all my parents can afford to get to the wedding of their first-born son, close on the heels of Simon’s wedding and we girls must get ourselves ready in the five minutes to spare before we travel into town for the celebration. A church wedding with all the trimmings. Three bridesmaids in emerald-green satin frocks with Shakespearian ruffles around the neck, all the way down to their feet, and the groomsmen in dark suits. 

The wedding, like most weddings, goes in a blur, over in minutes, even as the wife had asked for a nuptial Mass and the priest droned on endlessly when he blessed the lovely couple. 

I wore a long gypsy dress in a paisley pattern that went midway to my ankles. It too boasted a scrunched ruff around the neck that accentuated my cheek bones on my otherwise long face. I sat at the family table alongside siblings close by the bride and groom and their attendants, one of whom asked me to dance.

I had not been asked to dance since my school formal months earlier and the thrill of being chosen by a man thrilled me. This man was tall and old. As old as my decade older oldest brother and he spoke with an air of knowledgeability.

I cannot fathom that he was allowed to drive me home to the caravan park that night but something about the overflow of bodies and not enough drivers and cars to go around meant I ended up in a car alone with him late at night after the groom and bride had driven off to the strains of ‘Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye’.

I shall give him a name. Patrick, in place of my memory. The exhilaration of sitting in the front seat beside the driver and not stuck in the back like a small child, sent ripples of pleasure up my spine. 

‘Would you like to see the Canberra lights?’ Patrick asked. He needed no response from me, I was butter melting in his fingers. At the top of Black Mountain, we pulled into the lookout car park and gazed onto a thousand stars below. He leaned across and pulled me into him. I’d seen movies enough to know that he might kiss me then, but he did not.

‘I’d like to do things,’ he said. ‘But your brother is my friend.’ 

The past is shattered and can never be put back the way it was. There I was, on the edge of adventure with a man who smelled of Old Spice after shave and the mustiness of clothes left in wardrobes for too long. On the drive back down the mountain, like Cinderella as the clock struck midnight, I reverted to my small child self. Unlike the stars from the top of the mountain the cascade of lights from the tiny windows where people had not yet gone to sleep were like flickering candles and a disappointment from the grandeur of where I had been. 

Patrick opened my car door, offered a hug and drove away. 

I did not know then I would never see him again. Two states apart and all those kilometres along the Hume Highway, he flickered from my memory like the confetti that fell to the ground outside the church. In the next rain it would be pulverised into a pulp and washed down the drainpipes into the rivers then the sea. An extra incumbrance to the horrors of climate change, only I did not know that then, too. 

Only then I was thrilled and saddened back in the Volvo behind my brother and his wife, alongside my younger sister with thoughts of what might have been. And a cow looked up from chewing grass to watch our car speed by. 

A fly on the wall

The baby in my dream last night was thin. When I tried to feed her, she was already full of milk and regurgitated my offerings. Blobs of white, thick and vomit-like, spread over her blanket and I worried she was not thriving. 

This much I remember. Along with Theresa’s diary from Owls do Cry. Theresa who was called Chicks when she was a baby because she had dark hair and ran after her other siblings like a small bird pecking after scraps.

Chicks who in the story is the youngest and only one of the four Withers children who seems to move beyond the poverty of their childhood. She turns out to be shallow and a self-confessed snob. She lacks compassion for her siblings in adulthood, especially for her brother Toby who takes fits and embarrasses his younger sister for his sloppy ways, his greasy hair, his inability to move beyond his mother’s care as if he remains an oversized baby.

And Chick’s sister Daphne who is taken away to an insane asylum for reasons not elaborated. But I know from further reading that Daphne is a thinly veiled version of Janet Frame and her character tells us about what it was like to be considered insane and locked away in a mental institution in the 1950s in New Zealand. 

I spent a year in the 1990s visiting a similar institution in Melbourne Australia. One day a week and not an as an inmate but as an observer. There better to understand psychosis. The business of being mad, or that was the task assigned during my brief foray into psychoanalytic training. 

‘Be a fly on the wall,’ my mentor told me. I took him at his word. I went to immerse myself in a Janet Frame experience only I was lucky. I was not one of the ones detained. I could come and go at will.

The Heatherton Hilton, the staff called the hospital which shut down not long after I left when psychiatric hospitals faded from view as part of the new trend in sending our once hidden mad people back into the community so they might no longer be institutionalised as they once were over the centuries. 

Twenty years earlier during my social work placements I had visited hospitals like Larundel and Royal Park. I once sat in a room with the late Cunningham Dax and listened to him regale the virtues of electric shock therapy even as I knew it was a cruel practice designed to shock people into forgetting what troubled them and get back into the swing of life. 

It was worse in Janet Frame’s day when they did not use anaesthetic. Instead, the people clenched a piece of rubber between their teeth and bit down hard when the electricity flashed through their brains so they did not bite off their tongues.

To me this treatment was designed to take away people’s tongues, their abilities to speak of their sorrow if they had not already done so first. They were not allowed to speak of their sadness in the first instance and no one wanted to know what it was that led them there.

Madness, they said, was an aberration of the brain, a chemical imbalance, a few wires short. All you needed then was a good dose of electricity to put you back on track. To be ordinary like the rest of us.

They gave my father one dose of ECT when he stayed for several weeks at Delmont private hospital, to stop the sorrow that caused him to drink too much. When I heard through my mother that my father had also received a full dose of this barbaric treatment, I trembled inside. 

I had wanted him dead as a child. As an adult I wanted him to stop drinking alcohol, which he did. I did not want to see him shocked out of his sorrow or whatever else it was that made him the strange man he was.

It is a peculiar thing to have a parent who is nothing like the other parents you see around you. Nothing like the other fathers who might have been stern and aloof, who spoke in deep voices and could be gruff, but the other fathers did not talk as though they saw sex in every movement of a woman’s body. The other fathers did not comment on an aunt’s pert breasts as she sat at the Easter lunch table, or the shape of my cousin’s bottom.

Other fathers did not look at women and girls like they were objects at a marketplace ready for purchase and consumption. And other fathers did not have heavy accents, the way the words rolled into line, under the weight of a stuttering throat that strangled each letter as it came out. 

In the houses of other people’s fathers, you would see half-finished bottles of spirts or of wine, fridges with beer on the shelves as though the other fathers could wait for their next drink and did not need to finish the bottle to the last drop. Much as I knew there were other children, unlike me, who could leave some lollies, a roll of life savers or a block of chocolate, uneaten. They did not need to eat the lot in one sitting. 

I worried that I might be like my father. A person who could not stop at one or two but, once started, could not stop. 

The baby in my dream last night was too thin but overfull. A metaphor for me. I can leave lollies and liquor unfinished these days. I have learned restraint. I have learned restraint so well that there are times when I can hold back from saying the things I might want to say to another person because I imagine the words might offend or hurt the other person or shock them into feeling uncomfortable much as an ECT machine might whirr them into discomfort.

I have learned to stop eating even food when my insides are full. But I cannot say whether this is because I am indeed full or whether it links to my fear that like my maternal grandmother I will one day die of stomach cancer. 

It crept inside her during her visit to Australia from Holland in the year 1953, it must have been the year of de ramp, the great flood in Holland that I read about as a child.

My parents had a book with illustrations. Cows perched on hill tops surrounded by water. A lake so wide and rippled along the surface under the tops of chimneys where birds could perch, the spire of a church in the distance, the openings and entrances obscured under water. 

My fantasies of this flood percolated my childhood with a sense of my parents’ sorrow. My mother’s sorrow made worse when her parents returned to Holland after a visit, and she never saw her mother again. Dead in her sixty seventh year. And my opa left to fend for himself so they employed a housekeeper Mevrouw Bepp. Her name rings through my brain, a kind woman to whom my grandfather left money after he died so she could go on to enjoy a comfortable life without his salary. 

And all this meandering through the land of memory back to Janet frame’s Owls do Cry and the way my life is now. 

I stood to pour a cup of tea and found myself gazing at the bottles of spirts my son in law has stacked neatly in one corner of our kitchen. He has included three plastic polar bears I bought recently at an opportunity shop for my grandchildren. The children don’t play with these animals, they are too heavy and inert. But they are perfect companions to the bottles of spirits that sit sentinel in the corner of my kitchen. 

Unlike my father’s bottles, these ones are not drained the moment they appear. These bottles are like the bottles I saw in other people’s drinks’ cabinets. Or like the bottles of wine and spirits you see lined up along the wall of a restaurant or bar. Some full, some half full or three quarters but none of them drained of every drop. 

The people who drink from these bottles, unlike my father, can restrain themselves. And even I can now leave a block of chocolate half eaten. Like the posh woman in Janet Frame’s story who is so wealthy she has a room filled with uneaten, still wrapped chocolate Easter eggs. A woman who is so restrained she keeps her eggs for year after year even though you and I know if she leaves those eggs for too long, they will go stale. The dark chocolate underneath the glittering wrapper will grow speckled and white as if mould has overtaken them from the inside and they will lose all their chocolatey goodness and no longer taste the way they would were she to eat them, not necessarily in one sitting, but in good time from their date of purchase.