Songs to keep me warm

I was the girl without a coat. I never needed one until in my forties I began to feel the bite of winter. Before then my age or the fact that I spent most times outside in a car where a coat was redundant, left me layered.

And singlets, what was the use of them? A thin line of insulation that invariably rode up people’s backs. And created a draft. 

Besides I disliked the look of a man in an otherwise crisp shirt when underneath you could see the thin outline of his singlet straps. To me it looked clumsy as if such a man belonged with his mother cosseted because he could not handle life. 

My prejudices from my youth embarrass me now. Even as I tried hard as an adolescent not to go with the mainstream.

When I resisted the Beatle mania that ran through most girls at my convent school like a rash. When I refused to listen to the Rolling Stones and could not for the life of me see what all the fuss was about when large groups of young women and girls screamed at airports after the Monkees’ plane landed on the tarmac.

How they carried on as though their lives depended on a brief encounter with these pretty young men with dark near shoulder length hair who carried guitars and sang into microphones as though they were eating ice creams.

Not for me such savage idolatry. I preferred to listen to Mozart or embrace the sad tones of Paul Robeson and his Ol’ Man River. 

When Marilyn came to say in our house in Camberwell when I was still not wearing bras but aware my turn would soon come, she wore her dark hair long and straight. It hung around her face like the folk singing females coming out of America.

Marilyn played a guitar seated on the bed I had vacated to make room for her in my sister’s bedroom. I went back to share a room with two younger sisters. I don’t remember objecting to this move.

I was glad I did not need to sleep alone in a room. That would have distressed me then as a child. Besides no longer sharing a room with my older sister meant my father was far less likely to visit in the night. Maybe too he might stop visiting my older sister given a complete stranger had taken up residence in our house for one entire year. 

Marilyn came from Queensland where she lived with her father. She had met one of my older brothers while he was travelling through and he brought her home to Melbourne, at first under the guise of being his girlfriend. But in almost no time he had met another woman, three years older, who held more allure. She fell pregnant to my brother and the two arranged to marry.

Marilyn was stuck in Melbourne therefore without a boyfriend but my father agreed to let her stay with us for the year so she could complete her final year of school at Canterbury Girls High, a few streets away from us. The reason she’d come to Melbourne in the first place.

When you’re one of the young ones in a family, things happen between your parents and among your older siblings that make little sense.

Still, you take it for granted as a given.

No one asks your opinion on such activities or asks if it bothers you. It’s a done deal, as was the fact that Marilyn moved into the bed that was once mine in the room I had shared with my older sister and I was back with the younger ones. 

Marilyn brought folk music into our house, music that my older sister was already beginning to embrace but Marilyn’s voice was alto deep while my sister’s was soprano high.

There was a depth to Marilyn’s voice and her sorrow that somehow eclipsed my sister’s and everyone I knew. She matched the songs she sang and few of them had religious over tones.

My sister went for God fuelled songs:

To everything turn turn turn, Kumbayah, songs she learned with the church choir, but Marilyn introduced the songs of the civil rights movement. Old songs straight out of America and the civil war, out of the UK and its long history, Scottish ballads: 

The river is wide I cannot cross over. 

Nor do I have light wings to fly. 

Give me a boat that will carry to and boats will bring my love and I.

The Birmingham five, the dead women in Ohio.

This music spoke to me. And despite my wish to avoid the mainstream when The Seekers came into vogue in Australia, I sat alongside other people in my desperate desire to become another Judith Durham.

She also of the long straight shiny hair that flanked both sides of her face. Her voice was like an angel’s and always accompanied by the three young men at her side who sang in harmony and strummed their instruments as though they were all part of a whole. 

The music of those times held me tight. I did not need coats or singlets when I could be held tight in my mind under the thick embrace of the words that floated over the notes, I sang out loud out of earshot of all people but in my imagination, I sang to the clouds who were my audience and imagined myself a great voice, the voice of a songbird on the wing or settled on a branch.

Ready to stop the world with her sound. 

My folk singer self.

Inside the coffin.

Julia Cameron talks about ‘morning pages’, a place where writers can go to unload their thoughts, unclutter their minds, free their imaginations before they settle into the serious business of writing. Whether they’re working from memory or imagination – and people like to make the distinction – it’s important to find a place for these excesses of the mind. 

By Saturday morning, mine is full to overbrimming. 

During the week, I read about a writer friend’s shock when he came across these words from the great Ralph Waldo Emerson: I visited Ellen’s tomb and opened the coffin. Too raw and private to be included in Emerson’s writings, my friend believed. Why had an editor not omitted them in 1832? 

The thing that pings for me: what did Emerson see? How long had Ellen been dead? Bones hair and teeth or a putrefying corpse. It must have been easy to lift the lid off coffins in the 1800s, not so these days. 

There were grave robbers in Emerson’s day,too. I read about them when I visited a graveyard in Edinburgh which JK Rowling also visited when working on her Harry Potter books. That graveyard and the one in Shillington where several of my husband’s ancestors are buried remain in my mind as places of both memory and imagination. Places that haunt. 

Lift the lid off the coffin and what do you see?

What will it be like when someone handles my body and settles it into a coffin? A sobering thought, knowing that I, the I of my mind is no longer inside that body. My body the suitcase that holds my mind, a convenient vehicle in which to transport my thoughts and feelings even as I understand my body is also the source of those feelings.

That’s what it was like when I was 22 years old and on the edge of ending a relationship with my then long-term boyfriend, Paul, with whom I had shared a home for the past two years, with whom I had shared my body since I was nineteen. He took away my virginity as people describe it.

Such a quaint expression. As if your virginity is a special something you hold onto with pride and pleasure, at least for a time, but beyond a certain time if you haven’t rid yourself of your virginity, then you begin to worry about your inadequacy as a person. This is particularly so for females but males too, I imagine, worry if their virginity hangs around for too long. 

His name was Shaun, a blond, blue eyed Canadian who came into the social work department at Prince Henry’s hospital where I worked, with all the confidence of a senior clinician. He knew his stuff. He knew how to greet people at their bedsides when summoned by the doctor. He knew how to take a jam-packed history of that person and he knew how to ask the rest of us locals what services he might locate to help the person stuck in the bed. 

Shaun had a partner, he told us, and the two had travelled together to Australia with the intention of settling here. He liked us. A group of women social workers ranging in age from the youngest me, to our senior, who was in her mid-forties. She did not join us for lunch at the Olive Tree round the corner that day. Too much business to manage.

The others left the lunch as soon as it was over, but Shaun and I lingered over our coffees and then, as if in the movies, he suggested we rent a room in a hotel nearby and spend the afternoon together.

I remember the white sheets on the hotel bed, his pink body freckled and studded with curly orange hairs. He was not a great lover, but then again, nor was I. I performed as I knew I must perform, as a woman of confidence, a femme fatale, a woman who had a partner back home as Shaun had his partner, but we were on the road to more important things like staking our claim in a world of sophistication and drama.

‘Possessions hold you down,’ Shaun told me as he pinned my arms behind my head with one hand and tortured me with his touch. From my inner eye we looked as good as any couple, in any movie. From the place where my mind sat inside my body, but I was no more there than Shaun turned out to be.

I was late back to work and in trouble with my boss. I made some implausible excuse like an emergency call from my sick sister, but everyone knew that Shaun and I had lingered longer after lunch. Everyone was suspicious. 

This soon became the trigger for me to find another job, which in the halcyon days of the 1970s when social work jobs were aplenty, I found easy. Easy enough to leave the hospital to work elsewhere, an elsewhere that led me to a future I can now look back on with amazement, though I could not see it then.

When you’re 22 years old, you can’t see the pattern that unfurls ahead of you and the years behind you of childhood and adolescence are still too close to make any sense, only you’re glad to be past them.

Ten years later, by which time I was no longer the muddled young woman of my early social workdays, Interpol contacted me. There was a Canadian man, they said, who had worked at Prince Henry’s during my time there and was an imposter wanted for embezzlement. 

Like Emerson looking into Ellen’s coffin, what I see when I lift the lid on this story, bones, hair and teeth, a carcass and no mind left behind. Only the fading memory of a young and foolish woman who thought she could share in the excitement of being in the movies.