Language and Memory

‘Language is a metaphor for experience. It’s as arbitrary as the chaotic images we call memory. But we can put it into lines to narrativize over fear.’ Lidia Yuknavitch

When I was ten, I stayed home from school one day with a fever. In my bed with a book about a dog who travelled with its family and got into scrapes and adventures, I fell into the trance of other worlds. No longer in my bed at home alone with my father nearby. 

Why ever I fell ill with some unknown ailment at the time my father was home, I cannot say. But the two are linked in my memory. My father’s ailment had a name. Pleurisy. At times he could scarcely breathe. Even his beloved cigarettes became impossible. 

Alone in bed with my book I tuned him out. In this room which I shared with two other sisters, there was a stand-alone wardrobe, a skyscraper to me. When I was well, we sisters climbed to the top of the wardrobe and looked down at the puny world below. 

The dog in my book lived in the bush, surrounded by gum trees and the call of birds, magpies, whip birds and currawongs. From my bed to the top of the wardrobe I transformed my life into a series of magical kingdoms where people were under my control, in so far as I wanted to control anyone. At least they left me alone to explore the bush, to dip my toes into the ice-cold water of a stream, which my story dog leapt over in one stride. All thought of my father in the room next door disappeared. 

When I tried to throw my legs over the edge of my bed and tiptoed to the outside toilet for a pee, my head spun as though it had lost its anchor. I held onto the side of cupboards and walls to make my way outside. 

The air had an ethereal haze as if I had gone through one of Alice’s mirrors into another place where the smells were different, and animals could talk. The ants crawling up the weatherboards of the outside toilet shone in their blackness as if they wore suits and shiny shoes and the birds squawking overhead spoke their own language. Foreign to me, but as familiar to them as the morning sunshine. 

In childhood, before the rot of understanding sets in, our lives are ruled by sensations, the smells, the touch, and taste. A visit to the toilet, for all that it stank of stale cigarettes and urine, held magical possibilities there among the cobwebs that fantailed across the ceiling and in the dank corners where toadstools spouted, a home for goblins. They scared me under my bed, but here outside they took a different form as if the very fact of living out of doors gave them an authority and sensibility lost to them indoors. 

Here on the concrete floor of the toilet which I could barely make out once I closed the door and could only make out shapes from the light cast under the cut off slats I conjured a dream.

Another toilet at my school. One in a row, each identical, black plastic seats over white porcelain bowls that dug into the ground as if they grew there. I sat on the toilet and listened to the sound of my pee as it crashed like a waterfall into the pool below. I worried someone might be outside my door, another kid, a teacher perhaps, and they would hear my insides running out. My face reddened as if these matters were shameful and the fact that toilets held such solid doors to block light and noise suggested no one needed to hear your bodily explosions even when you could not help it.

Then at the door I saw a pair of black shiny shoes. Priest’s shoes, my father’s shoes, a man’s shoes. The hand attached to the shoes further up a body I could not see rattled at the door handle. I slid off the toilet and stood on the seat. I fiddled with the slats behind high up on the wall. Frosted slats that moved under the pressure of a silver mechanism to let in air or to block it. I imagined myself sliding through these slats as a way of escape, a way of slipping back outside and away from this toilet, now the most dangerous place in the world. 

The shoes stood still. And waited. The shoes waited. I could wait them out. The shoes on a man who stood at the toilet door and wanted to reach me. I woke to a beating heart and the clammy skin of a person unwell, and unable to engage in coherent thoughts. The panic I could escape in my story of the dog who lived with a family who loved it. 

When I was a child in bed with a book, I had no idea my life would unfold as it has. I had no idea that the making of babies is such a fraught process even as ten days after my tenth birthday my mother gave birth to still born daughter. 

Born dead, as Lidia Yuknavitch writes of her own first-born daughter. No life, no pulse. A dead being in your arms whom you have carried to term only to discover this child could not make it beyond the safety of your womb. And the grief that follows for women who lose a baby in this way, including my mother, cannot be spoken out loud for fear it will wake all those babies born dead and they will wail their grief out loud. They who have started on the journey but were not able to get through the first hurdle of finding breath. 

‘She was born with the winter in her bones.’ Kate Atkinson

Aurelia, thin and angular, pulled her socks to her knees. She wore them over thick stockings for extra warmth under drill trousers. Work ready trousers so she need not worry over unwanted holes in the fabric. 

Her mother had raised her to work, beginning as a four-year-old and first-born girl in a family where babies arrived year after year. She could change a nappy and prop a bottle on her baby brother’s chest as she folded clothes with her spare hand. She learned fast to keep order and during this time came to resent the mess piling around them in this overfull house of babies and neglect. 

Whatever happened to Aurelia when she was ten I cannot say but just like that, her ability to remember stopped one day overnight. One day she was a child who could recite her times tables, wipe bench tops clean, set out knives and forks in correct order, enough for seven, clear dishes, wash and stack them away. The next day she stumbled over every movement. She dropped plates, smashed in pieces on the floor and could not remember where the dustpan and brush lived to sweep up the shards. 

School became a nightmare, a fog of ignorance and the nuns reported Aurelia must be lacking something upstairs. Best she leaves school when she hits fourteen, they said. She could still be useful at home. 

Only Aurelia was no longer useful at home. She was a burden on her parents, a child who weighed them down with her slowness. 

A disease had crept into Aurelia’s bones. Some malady of mind that left her grasping for ideas. It squashed her memory and the slower she became the more her mother pondered her fate. It was never a matter of love. 

Love was not a commodity within this family of many heads, legs and arms all pistoning in unison to get through the tasks of life, the cooking, the eating, the washing, the cleaning. The walk to school, the books to read, the tasks to be completed outside in the woodshed, the gathering of firewood for the older boys, and stitching of holes in fabric for the girls below Aurelia who had not yet lost their minds. 

Aurelia’s mother feared this might turn out to be the fate of all her daughters. One after the other when they came of age, nine or ten, overnight these girls would shift their weight in the world and disappear.

It had happened to Aurelia’s mother, too, only she managed to hold onto a few shreds of memory, enough to get her past the end of her school days at fourteen, enough to rote learn the rudiments of house care, enough to find a husband. A burly tall man who was not unkind but who did not know any more than Aurelia’s mother that small children need love if they are to burst into bright stars that glow warm. If they are to grow into minds that can think and feel, that can run, hop and skip like John and Betty in the first-grade readers. 

Aurelia’s mother knew there had been other possibilities for her, but once she married and the first seeds of a baby swelled inside, there was no turning back. 

Then there was Aurelia. And her disappearance. 

Her mother then imagined a Hansel and Gretel story for her daughter. She the wicked stepmother, for no actual mother would abandon her child, however forlorn. And she cajoled her burly husband into taking Aurelia to the government house where cast off children were processed. Leaving her there.

Aurelia in a fog in the great hall at the centre of a crumbling mansion where bureaucrats took details of children lined up like ten pins one after the other ready for life to bowl them over. 

But Aurelia had no details to report. Aurelia could not remember. She was born with the winter already in her bones and although she wore clothes that kept her warm enough, thick stockings, socks to her knees over drill trousers and all under a great coat for the out of doors, her insides were laced over in memory loss. 

Aurelia was the raw forgotten part of her mother’s life. Her mother knew this and tried to rid herself of the unknown and unremembered by casting her daughter aside.

But Aurelia would rise again like the characters in Roman myths who once abandoned on hillsides as babies, refused to die. 

Let us hope Aurelia meets a similar fate. We cannot abandon her to words on the page, to the life of our imaginations, to the skin of words and of language. Aurelia is our memory of all that is forgotten. She needs us to hold her tight.