The dangers of doing good

Heat radiated up from the concrete footpath through the soles of my sandals and onto my feet. I knew I should have worn rubber-soled sandshoes for the extra protection they gave but they covered too much surface area on top and did not breathe. 

All morning on the radio there were reports of bushfires throughout country Victoria. Even the Dandenongs were under threat. 

I had looked across to the edge of the horizon in the gaps between houses and imagined I could see the glow of fire in the distance, or at least the smoke. I could smell smoke. And not just the residue of the burned toast from breakfast, nor of my father’s cigarettes in the hallway. This was a different type of smoke. This smoke stuck in your nose and left you feeling you were in danger. 

There was nothing to worry about, for us in built up areas my brothers had said, fire would not travel into built up areas. 

Why ever not? Hadn’t they heard of the Great Fire of London, the one Samuel Pepys wrote about in his diary, the one where more than half of the city of London went up in smoke.

‘But that was centuries ago,’ my brother said when I reminded him of the story. ‘And the houses were all made of wood and set cheek by jowl. It’s not like that today.’

Maybe not, I thought to myself but there were other dangers closer to home. 

I wanted to walk in the shady side of the street but by the middle of the day with the sun immediately overhead there was no shade, only the relentless yellow orb blazing down. Most of the year I loved the summer time. The freedom of movement it offered, the long periods of daylight and the summer holidays but here we were two weeks before school went back and I found myself dreading the thought of more heat. If only the promised cool change would come and I could stop worrying about going up in smoke, not only our house, the houses around us but me as well and other people. 

Death by fire was not a death I could think about for long before it became unthinkable and my thoughts ran on to Mrs White in the old people’s home. Mrs White the woman in her eighties whom I had chosen to visit one day after the parish priest told my mother a good way to get your daughters from worrying about things at home is to get them out there doing good deeds. 

‘They can help other people and why not start where you work, at the old people’s home.’

We did not grace older people with honorarium such as ‘senior citizen’ or the elderly, they were old people and with the label went all other insults imaginable, the sense of being past it. Of no further relevance. 

People like Mrs White, who told me she had no family left as she had never had children of her own and her nieces and nephews were all spread throughout Australia and had no time for the likes of her. 

It made me wonder in the first instance about the cruelty of these people who could so neglect their elderly aunt and then about Mrs White. 

I was no judge of character then, though I thought it best to trust my instincts and to go for the person in the ward who best represented someone I could help. I imagined a friendly warm person on the receiving end of my ministrations but Mrs White, who looked for all the world as though she would be gentle, turned out to be bitter and cantankerous and demanding. 

Once I chose her as my target each week, the one I should go back to visit again and again, I was trapped. I decided to ignore her taciturn ways and make the most of my visits as though I were like my namesake Saint Elisabeth of Hungary who cared for the sick and the poor and who sought nothing in return. I tried to figure out what it was Father Brackyn the parish priest had imagined might work so well for me and my sister through this process and how it might take our minds off worries at home with our father raging and drunk in his corner of the house. 

Beyond Farm Road the bitumen pathway turned to grass and it was not so hot on the soles of feet though in parts the ground was lumpy and the rhythm of my walking adjusted to take in the occasional unexpected rise and fall of the ground. 

I needed to walk the full length of the old people’s home when you approached from the seaside end of Warrigal Road and it took another ten minutes before I reached the entrance then down the sloping gravel path to the red brick building that housed the several old people who were waiting there to die, or so my brothers said. 

My mother worked at the old people’s home, as a cleaner mostly, but one of her jobs was to go through the old people’s effects after they had died. She could then decide what should happen to these objects, spectacles, gloves, scarves, hats, dentures, the works, only when there was no family left to collect them, or even when there was family most did not want this stuff. It could go to the local opportunity shop or the rubbish bin but not before my mother had retrieved the things she might find useful at our place, things we kids despised for their old people smell and feel and sense of general uselessness attached to spectacles designed for one person’s eyes that could not be adjusted to suit my mother’s eyes and other personal objects, even wrist watches, which in those days were still considered precious but to us another person’s watch, unless that person was close to you, felt like wearing someone else’s underwear.

Mrs White sat beside her bed dressed in her lacy pink matinee jacket over a thick white nightie too think for this weather, but old people felt the cold my mother had told me often enough. There was a large jug of water by her bedside and more than once during the course of my visit a nursing assistant came by and told her to keep up her fluids. 

Mrs White sipped only one or two drops before going back to her sour, dry non communicative stare that left me having to make all the conversation.

‘Did you bring my antacid powder?’ she asked. ‘The one I told you about.’

I had it there tucked away in my dress pocket. A blue and white roll of white tablets that I tried once before from my mother’s stash. De Witte’s antacid tablets for her digestion.

Nothing agreed with Mrs White, neither food nor company, nor the efforts of a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl who tried to bring a sparkle of sunshine into her world, not for Mrs White’s sake but for the girl’s own because as the parish priest had told my mother. When things are most difficult, it’s always good to look towards helping others more needy.

And so began the mantra of my life.

St Nicholas the patron saint of good deeds.

Corellas and the archive

It’s a while since my fingers clattered across the keyboard and pushed behind the detritus of my life and all its busyness into the limbo of my past.

The corellas are back in all their caterwauling glory and the dog is fearful to go outside for a pee. Those squawking monsters in the sky that drop white feathers and shattered acorns can terrify a small dog. Corellas like mind-clutter. They arrive every autumn to visit the pin oak in our garden. The oak spreads its branches wide like an ancient muscle man to block out the light in summer until the leaves fall. 

In my dreams this morning, a neighbour chopped down the tall jacaranda beside our side fence and I was distressed at how much shade we would lose when the summer sunlight streamed through the upstairs bedrooms, already hot given their height, but soon to be impossible. The corellas woke me then and I was not able to slip back into the easy sleep of a Sunday morning.

Before the corellas came, Ross Gibson died and took with him a mind I have admired for its ability to investigate the past in ways I could only imagine. Gibson peered into the archives, crime scenes from Sydney between wars, in photographic form. The photos were abandoned in a basement of a Sydney police station, detached from their descriptive moorings, photos that so haunted Gibson he studied them with his eyes, mind and imagination then brought them to life through haiku. 

Many were prosaic, as he described, but others held a pulse or flair that made him catch his breath. We look for these diamonds among the ordinary gemstones of an archive, he said in an interview with the wonderful Maria Tumarkin, because they bring out the depth of the ordinary in our past lives. And something of the ordinary captured his imagination as it captures mine.

If I was to approach the archive of my life in the same open way as Ross Gibson approached scenes from the past, which he also explored elsewhere, including in scenes from the Mallee, to look for imprints of what once was, I could find things I do not yet know. 

When I was a child and my father took up photography, he lined the bath with pictures he had printed in trays of chemicals in his dark room. He chose them from the negatives he had pinned along a line of string fixed over the bath. A line of negatives I could never reach, black and translucent, like clouds in a darkening sky. These images awed me for their incomplete state. Like ghosts hanging from a ceiling. Ghosts that might one day become ancestors, or the living, should my father soak them in the chemical baths of his dark room. To bring them into life.

Some he tossed aside in a flat cardboard box that once carried Nestle baby food. The orange birds in a nest feeding a worm to their hatchling on the side of the box, the familiar logo that lets you know you’re buying food from this company I once thought of as a source of goodness, before I knew of their practices in employing child labour to collect cocoa beans. Shades of slavery. Other people’s ancestors and Ross Gibson might have wondered about them, too. But I was stuck with the cast-off photos if my family, all shapes and sizes, some cut to rectangular shape with crimped edges, some with straight line edges from the guillotine. 

So many casts off, including the thumb nail sketches my father developed of me and my siblings, one after the other, for the family album.

I collected a series of such tiny photographs and created my own album from scraps of paper I sewed together with a thick needle and thread. I wanted to create my own archive.

One that has not stood the test of time and lives on only in my imagination.

I placed my siblings’ images in chronological order on the grey backdrop of pages I had pinched from my father’s dark room, pages he kept for his own meticulously planned albums. 

When they first married, my father made an album with all aspects of my parents’ wedding included, the invitations, the registry details. In Holland you needed first to declare your plans to marry at the registry for Births, Deaths and Marriages in your town and only later could you marry in a church or registry office of your choice. 

The album was cream coloured and the archive it contained had yellowed with age. All of it in Dutch and hard for me to dismantle but I could guess the nature of each item, including the letters my father pasted inside, the telegrams congratulating my parents on the day they wed. 

There were other albums my father assembled once the babies came along, the four babies born in Holland. But by the time my mother and her four children arrived in Australia he stopped creating albums and my older brothers took on the task. The official record of our family life included for posterity, a type of family archive that displays only the respectable and leaves out events and people we can only imagine when we trawl through the detritus of memory.

I’m sad Ross Gibson has died. His death has saddened me in ways I find hard to describe. He was someone I met only twice. Once at a conference on creative writing, where he gave a talk on his crime scene photographs and I was stunned by his verbal acuity that accompanied such extraordinary humility. So much so it was nothing to go up to him afterwards for a chat. 

The next time we were together on a panel on memory at Swinburne University where we, among others, spoke of our various takes on memory and later that evening we went as a group for dinner in a nearby Malaysian restaurant. I sat beside Ross, and he told me that fate had not given him and his beloved partner of many years, children. But I considered the many other children he brought into the world in the form of his ideas and his respect for other people’s children from the past.

Previous generations. And if we investigate their archives, including our own, we can see things there that hint at the way others lived then, a precursor to the way we live now.