A short history of bread

There came a time when bread was delivered to our door daily. Fresh white and crusty. My mother ordered four loves. Not for us the loaves and fishes. In a family of eight we ran out before the day’s end.

At breakfast you could have your choice of white cloud slices from loaves that melted in your mouth under a thick layer of butter and jam. Divine. In Holland people began their day with bread and ended it likewise but given we now lived in Australia we followed the habits of people around us. Cereal boxes from the newly flourishing supermarkets were too expensive. My mother bought them only on special occasions. Bread was a staple.

At breakfast we planned for the day ahead by buttering still more slices to wrap in greaseproof paper and slide into brown bags for school lunch. When school was over and we rocked up home, tired and famished and ready for a dose of television – Simba the white lion, Davy Crockett, exports from the world across the seas – more bread, until the only scraps left were crusts, which had the advantage of being chewy and unpopular, always plenty left for me.

My mother railed against our greed but refused to buy more than four loaves each day. Besides the expense she reasoned we should manage on this number of slices per person. She did not reckon on the appetites of her children, especially the ones who grew fast like me, my two older brothers and my younger sisters. 

During holidays when we kids were home together all day, the bread rations finished too soon. We ate the lot by lunch time. So, my older sister, sixteen by then decided bread was fattening, for her at least, and therefore needed to be eaten in moderation. She set a limit of two slices each for breakfast and two for lunch.

She policed our bread consumption with the ferocity of a lion tamer and stood by the bread bin counting out slices. I was twelve and fixed on my life as a poet. I took my small notebook and a biro from my sister’s stash and walked through the back roads of Cheltenham past half-built AV Jennings specials to the Farm Road Estate which abutted the golf course. I walked past the abandoned chook sheds to the stench of rotten eggs and chicken poop. You could walk inside the shell that once caged thousands of birds and look for signs of life. All you found was the stink of sadness and of death. It fed my nostrils but not my poetry. 

My poetry needed green spaces and open skies. The lofty places like where I imagined my hero, Wordsworth, walked as a child. Cyclone fencing kept outsiders out of the golf range with its manicured slopes and lush trees. On the other side of the road beyond the chook sheds market gardens sat neglected. Long sold to property developers and ear-marked for suburban sprawl. In some places roads-to-be were cordoned off but elsewhere the ground lay fallow. Rows of upturned soil covered in weeds and here and there a clump of carnations, as if someone had forgotten their children at a bus stop. 

In the distance the Lombardy poplars lined the horizon. They pulled my eyes skywards. Drawn to a poet’s lofty thoughts, and inspired words, I wrote knowing even then they were empty but hoping against hope that something might emerge to help me join hands with Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti. 

It did not occur to me then that I might write about my life as I knew it. My small life in the family of my birth, among a tribe of kids who were forever hungry and squabbling. 

My stomach rumbled. The two slices of breakfast bread went nowhere, and words on paper lacked nourishment. I snuck back into the kitchen. My big sister was elsewhere folding washing or sweeping the front garden, my little sister reading a book, my brothers on their paper rounds. I was free in the kitchen.

Bread was off limits. My sister had counted every slice and parcelled it away in anticipation of lunch when we were allowed another two slices for the girls, four for the boys. 

Hunger gripped my stomach as if a hollow space had opened inside, swirling around in protest. I took a chair to reach the top cupboards where my mother hid the sweet biscuits and took a handful to stow away in my pockets. All that was left from our Sunday visitors. Arnott’s Nice with their glitter of sugar and a handful of ginger nuts. I preferred butternut snaps but there was only two left in the pack, and it was too obvious to snaffle them.

I slid the chair back in place once I’d filled my pockets and returned to my journey through the outback of Cheltenham, back to the lonely carnations and poplars, the blue skies of my poet dreams and nibbled on biscuits until my mind forgot the heavier happiness that came with several slices of bread. The way it filled your belly with bliss but also left room for more.   

The bliss of a book and sandwiches.

The incest taboo serves perpetrators

2023, the year of the rabbit, of jumping over obstacles and coming into luck.

None so far from what I see. Or so says the miserable me. While every day is a day of luck, says the optimist.

Be grateful you’re still alive. These words have a church-like quality, as of straight from my mother’s mouth.

I’ve been thinking about her lately. The anniversary of her death on 10 August, nine years ago. The way she cried in her 92nd year when she heard about the death of her six years younger sister far away in Holland.

My mother did not grieve so visibly over her three brothers. They went before their sister, even the youngest, the first to die when he was only eighty. 

My mother and her siblings. In 1982 before they hit advanced old age.

My mother had expected it, given her youngest brother’s years of ill health with leukemia. And expectation of the worst outcome is a good way to foreclose the feeling when it happens.

It’s no surprise then.

You’ve grieved ahead of time in tiny increments and never fully experience the full rush of sorrow that comes on you unexpectedly when someone drops dead out of the blue.

Out of the blue. Out of nowhere, only it’s never quite like this. There are hints of its arrival beforehand, however much we ignore the red flags of the future. 

I went to an all-day seminar on the perversity of child sexual abuse where three women speakers filled the day with their words at the Wheeler Centre. They organised this event themselves. No one else had wanted to put on such an event. And because of the sensitive content, they restricted numbers.

The first speaker opened the session to say nothing in the room should leave it. One of those events when we’re urged to secrecy. This is strange when I think on it because the whole time during the discussion – still seeping into my bones – they encouraged us to speak out about our truths.

The incest taboo only serves the perpetrators and one way to counter it is to talk about it. Yet here we were, a group of some forty people, encouraged to speak and to listen while also urged to wrap ourselves inside a bubble. 

Now writing about it here, I find myself perplexed.

Funny the way incest begets more secrecy. It happens in secret and then you’re urged not to speak about it. When you do, shame washes over you yet again. As if you hold a terrible secret that no one else can know and it becomes so powerful it’s almost overwhelming.

For me there was an additional load. The ghosts of the analysts were there in the form of one speaker, an analyst whose paper was most harrowing of all because she talked about the sexual abuse of infants and young children. The whole time she spoke I wanted to vomit. The room was electric, and everyone sat silent, mesmerised. 

As much as these talks left me reeling, the day itself was an adventure. Into the city on the tram, then out on a train towards Brighton – my first ever journey on the Sandringham line – in drizzling rain, for an early birthday dinner for a friend who also joked about keeping her age of seventy a secret. 

I told her there was nothing to be ashamed of. But she worries about the prejudice of publishers who won’t touch a writer past a certain age for fear we will not produce more. 

In the middle of this sumptuous and generous dinner with nine people, including the birthday person’s friends and family, we listened on and off to the gruelling game between the determined French soccer team and the wonderful Matildas. 

I’m not given to paying much attention to sport of any ilk, but this game had me hankering for success. Mostly on behalf of my youngest daughter who was out with friends in Brunswick to watch the game.

She was desperate for the Matilda’s success. A soccer team emblematic of change. Women playing a traditionally male game. 

We might say there’s one obstacle leapt over in the year of the Rabbit. But still one woman a year is killed in Australia through intimate partner violence. An underestimated fact that sticks in my throat.

My mother could once have been such a statistic. And we in turn. 

The bus trip I took as a child in my memory, seated beside my mother. A yellow bus that travelled along Canterbury Road and took you into the heart of the Camberwell shops. It dropped us at the top of the hill near the railway station.

My mother wanted to visit Dickory Dock, an underwear specialist, still standing today. She needed a new girdle.

In those days women were fitted out, not trusting their own ability to match their body size with the underwear needed. The cost of a girdle was an investment, like buying a new overcoat. Maybe almost as expensive. 

There was a picture theatre nearby on the corner of Broadway Boulevard and Bourke Road that’s since closed. Could it be I worked there as an usher when a teenager?

I have memories of doing this but no evidence beyond a faded memory of wandering through the Hoyts’ theatre aisles, torch in hand with an open flat box of ice-creams held by a cord around my neck and protruding from my chest. 

If I held this job, it was not for long. I was fourteen when we left Camberwell, so it must be the sight of myself as usher blended within my imagination and memory that has turned me into this young girl, purposeful and strong as she carries her goods to sell. And for the first time earning money of her own. 

Dickory Dock was nestled alongside other non-prepossessing shops near the Palace Hotel with its stench of beer and stale cigarettes. This was where my father must have bought his alcohol in the days we lived nearby. 

My mother in the fitting rooms of Dickory Dock and my father flashes bright in my mind. Like a shadow.

Through the gap under the curtain, my mother’s pink feet splay alongside the neat black heels of the assistant who was prodding and poking at her thick form to get the fitting just so. 

I watched my mother’s toes, a bunion on either side. The bunions had grown so big all her shoes were misshapen. I dreaded the thought the same might happen to me. Those deformed feet, nails poorly clipped as if it had been too hard for my mother to bend over and tend to them.

My sister often sat on the floor in front of my father’s chair to clip his toenails. He liked her to cut them short, and she, young person of many talents, obliged. 

My father will kill us all one day I thought waiting outside that cubicle. My mother first, then my useful sister, then me and my younger sisters and finally my brothers. 

And we would all lie there in pools of blood, our bodies piled high like the bodies I had seen in books on the Holocaust, only those bodies were naked, and my father would not have taken off our clothes beforehand.

At least, I hoped he would not. 

We took the yellow bus home again that day, back through the leafy streets of Camberwell and when we arrived home, my father was seated in his chair by the fireside, blue soldiers of flame standing in formation along the gas heater. My mother timid as a mouse.

All this in 1966, the year of the horse in the Chinese calendar. People born that year have good instincts and powers observation. They can think for themselves, despite their enthusiasm and friendly impulses. And they’re good at jumping over hurdles.