Humiliation in her bones

‘Evidence is always partial. Facts are not the truth, though they are part of it. Information is not knowledge. And history is not the past. It is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It is no more the past than a birth certificate is a birth, a script is a performance, a map is a journey.’ Hilary Mantel

With Mantel in mind, I go in search of the past. Or some semblance of it in the knowledge we can never re-live it only recreate some hint of what it was like.

When I was a child, somewhere between eight and ten – Iet’s compromise and make it nine years old – I went one day on an errand for my mother. To buy Milk or sugar or flour, some essential from those days. 

I stood at the counter as the milk bar man went out back in search of whatever I had requested. He was out of sight. I was out of sight. At that moment, as I gazed longingly at the rows of chocolate, the White Knight bars, tinsel covered with a hard mint chewy centre coated in dark chocolate; Crunchies, thicker bars of honeycomb, again coated in milk chocolate, Cherry Ripes, another variation on the chocolate bar theme but this time filled with a cherry concoction and coconut. So much to choose from, it occurred to me I could take one. Or two or three. Stuff the into my pockets with no one any he wiser. 

In the past my heart thumped when I dared ask the man behind the counter if he could sell me a bag of mixed lollies and put it onto our account. The milk bar man never asked for money. Every item we bought went onto the account and once a month my father paid it. A list so long I figured he might not notice the occasional illicit purchase of lollies. It never occurred to me my siblings might do likewise, and the list of lollies might be long. I thought only of the moment and in the moment another thought occurred. 

Next day a Saturday, when my mother was away at work cleaning the convent and there were no errands to fetch, I constructed a fake list of necessities. A pack of rice, a stick of butter, anything that would require the milk bar man to leave the counter in search. While he was out back I shoved a couple of chocolate bars into each of my pockets. 

‘Will that be all?’ he asked when he handed me the rice. 

‘No thanks,’ I said, and went on my way.

I ditched the rice on the kitchen table. It would be used for Nasi Goreng and not wasted. Our house was a short walk from the shops, and I took off alone to roam the streets of Canterbury and eat my stolen chocolate.

It was the strangest of pleasures, the delicious sweetness on my tongue, and so much of it. Never had I enjoyed a full chocolate bar to myself. Chocolate bars were shared with siblings. 

Never had I eaten such a quantity of chocolate in one hit. Chocolate was precious. If you were lucky you might get to choose one from a box of Cadbury Roses my mother received on Mother’s Day or for her birthday, but otherwise, you ate mixed lollies. The only chocolate in your white paper bag, scrunched at the top to prevent spillage, was coated into Clinkers with their pastel-coloured interiors, against the sticky chew of chocolate coated Caramel Cobbers. A chocolate bar was something else. 

The sweetness was then offset by a growing sickness in my stomach, an ache of too muchness that along with the knowledge I had done something wrong, something more wrong than I had ever done in my life before, I found it hard to go home. 

I found it hard to sit in front of the television later in the day with my sisters and brothers when the cartoons came on late afternoon and our mother was home from work and our father had gone off to the hotel to buy alcohol for the night. Not only the thought that soon he would be drunk and horrible but also that I too had taken something I should not.

Years later when I was an adult and in psychoanalysis my analyst talked to me of these episodes of stealing. For there were several. She talked of how something stolen can never be used. She also talked of how hard it must have been for me as a child when the milk bar man found out about my stealing. Perhaps he knew from the onset, but it took several visits to the shop, over the course of several weeks in my memory, and always on a Saturday morning, for him to complain to my mother.

‘I could report this to the police, but I thought it better to tell your mother first.’ My mother was apologetic. Later she called me aside. In my memory I knew it was coming. One school day, I knew at the beginning of the day that he had spoken to her. All day at school I was unable to sit still, unable to get my mind off what was to come. 

Would I go to prison? Would I be shamed in front of my family? Would my father belt me on the bottom as he had done when I was younger after my sister, and I had taken lollies from the milk bar they then owned. 

At five years of age or even younger I didn’t consider it stealing then. It was our shop, but I knew I should not take anything without permission and when my brother dobbed me and my sister in, my father took us on his lap in turn, leaned over, and belted us on our backsides. 

The humiliation more than any pain stayed with me. And humiliation is a far greater punishment than any physical assault. Humiliation gets into your bones. Like a bruise, it swells your blood vessels until they burst. Humiliation is the thing that separates us as humans from animals and I knew it that day and had not forgotten.

This the child who stole.

When I finally came home from school and my mother called me away from the television and into the kitchen where she was stirring onions into mashed potatoes for dinner.

‘Mr Davis tells me you’ve been steaking chocolates from his shop. Is this true?’ I nodded. She looked at me face on. 

‘I did not think it was you. Your younger sisters maybe, but not you.’

My memory takes me no further. There was no punishment beyond my mother’s disapproval and my promise never to do it again. My word was good. I never stole lollies again. I never shop lifted again. 

My mother’s disapproval did not require any further interventions from my father and in my memory she never told him, much to my relief. It was bad enough that I had lost her love in that moment. And as my analyst suggested years later, the burden that my mother inflicted on me that day. The idea I was expected to be her good little girl, one incapable of wrongdoing has also stayed with me.

It is bad enough going through life struggling with your ambivalence, your mixed feelings your sense of wrongdoing. But to do so under the weight of a mother who believes, or wants to believe, that like her, you are destined for heaven. To sit among the saints because you are a good girl. When you know you’re not. This then was the greatest punishment of all. 

On balance

‘There are some memories you can’t lean upon. You sense the railings, but you can’t read them.’ Niall Williams 

In the spirit level of my mind things are out of balance. A little too heavy on the side of back ache, and a looming need to sort my annual tax details. A holiday task, I resist.

The earliest memories. The ones that come in snatches. A glimpse of a grass high back yard in Greensborough where we lived when I was two, three and four. In the weatherboard house my father built. An expectation I came to have of men. They could use their hands. While women’s hands were designed for daintier or dirtier tasks. The cooking, the cleaning, the soothing of brows. 

Everywhere around his house you could see traces of the bush that once was. Tall gum tress, scrubby melaleuca. Dry soil, bare in places with clumps of grass in knotty disarray. Across from the front were open fields full of green food for cows. There were cows not far from where we lived. Whether it’s from memory or from photos, I can see them now. At the bottom of the road where the field sloped, a creek ran unconvincingly along the craggy bottom. My brothers caught yabbies there. 

I’m fleshing out my memories from snippets, turning single word flashes into sentences to create a story of one day when I was four, returning from yabby hunting with my brothers. 

The road at the bottom of the hill, formed a t-section with our street. It was finished in gravel and few cars used it. Though on that day when I did not know my road rules and strolled across as though the road was just another part of the beaten footpath, I ran sidelong with a car. Its colour evades me, but I will call it blue. Why not get run over by a car in my favourite colour. 

I was not hurt, not knocked down, only shocked. The car stopped. The driver was alarmed to at hitting a small girl, but I did not like the attention and ran from his solicitude into open fields.

I was afraid of wrongdoing. Afraid to be found guilty of breaking rules of which I had only a vague awareness. Afraid my father would be angry with me for giving people trouble. My brothers pointed to our house and the driver knocked on the door and explained to my parents what had happened. Both parents, one parent, I do not know. Hours later, or so it seemed, my brothers found me hiding. And though they joked I might go to gaol; they also convinced me it was safe to return. 

Years later in adult hood when I watched the movie Short Cuts, a series of stories, there was one based on a Raymond Carver story that had stayed with. The film begins in my memory with a mother buying a birthday cake for her eleven-year-old son. 

We cut to him walking home alone from school. He gets hit by a car. Same thing as happened to me. The driver stops to see he’s okay. This boy does not run away but reassures the driver he’s fine. Then he goes home and waits till his mother returns. He tells her about the accident, and she is alarmed. More so when he becomes drowsy and cannot stay awake. 

The mother rushes him to emergency where the boy slips into a coma. His father joins them at his bedside while they await test results. 

The thing of medicine: test results. Blood tests, ultrasounds, MRIs, the internal prodding and poking, looking into people’s eyes, mouth, ears, listening to the thump and thud of their hearts to figure out what’s wrong. 

In the case of this boy, there are signs of internal bleeding or some such and he’s concussed. One of the parents goes home several hours later to get a change of clothes. They discover an obscene message left on their answer phone from the cake shop owner. Enraged that the woman has not come to collect her custom-made cake. 

He ignores it and returns to the hospital where over time the boy dies.

The parents return home devastated. They listen to the answer machine that is now filled with recorded phone messages from the cake shop man who is increasingly furious at not hearing back from the woman who did not come to collect he customised birthday cake for her son. It took him an age to make it and he cannot give it to anyone else, not with their son’s name on top.

The couple leave their house and go to the cake shop. They tell the baker the story and he is chastened. The three sit around the table together in their grief. End of story.

A story that speaks to what happens when we don’t now all the truth behind things that have happened.

Years later I have written other stories of when I was seven years old and hit by another car in Canterbury Road. The crossing is still there and whenever I drive across it I think back to this memory. This time I was concussed and shipped off to hospital. But the damage was mild, and I was allowed to go home. 

These two encounters with cars and another time of nearly drowning left me with the fantasy, like a cat, I had nine lives. I’ve used most of them up now decades later and no longer live in that fantastic world of childhood. The balance is fast tipping towards the loaded direction of reality.