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.