Eastbourne Beach Art House. Geelong.

This morning in that half-awake state where sleep has left me, reluctant to abandon the warmth of my bed, I agonise over a ship in a bottle.

How to get the boat inside? 

Piece by piece with tweezers, a steady surgeon’s hand, glued onto a flimsy plinth?

The memory from childhood of four children who threw stones at their bottled ship after casting it adrift at the edge of a stream running below their family home.

One stone collided after several others had fallen afield and sunk. 

The children in darkness on top of a cliff overlooking the sea. Salt spray in their noses and the last of the night gulls calling. The mast of their ship released now from its glass prison, afloat on the ocean. 

Two boys, two girls. The eldest scales the cliff then leads his siblings on board their ship. The journey begins.

In search of adventure. In search of treasure.

The sky is a cross between grey and blue. The Ferris wheel is still. Boats lie at anchor outside my window like slick lazy seals. People jog along the sand beyond the road that runs alongside this art house, a white painted brick dwelling built a century ago and pitched perfect across from the sea.

The usual composition, eight women writers, this time led by the inimitable Cate Kennedy and my mind is word-logged, ideas abundant. All of it needing time to percolate and process. Cate is a master storyteller, a weaver of yarns. She works magic with words. 

My own words flag at my fingertips, but I shall not let my childhood awe stop me from my own lumpy efforts to bring to life a story.

In springtime before the turn of this century, my family of four small daughters, husband, and one French exchange student travelled through Geelong on our way to Anglesea for a holiday by the ocean. 

We passed through the sloping highway that runs alongside the water before a bridge that took us further down the coast. I marvelled at this city, once home to a young man who came into my life as an eighteen-year-old innocent on a holiday job at Hall’s Book store in Elizabeth Street in the city.

I did not tell you the name of the older female daughter in the story of my ship in its bottle is Elizabeth, after the Queen. My own Elisabeth after several saints. My mother’s name. My name. 

How I despise this name. Its vulgarity, as though it has been around too long and needs up dating.

Give me a name that sings. A name with music in its path. Like Persephone, or Felicity, Marigold. But I digress.

We pre-booked a beach house in Anglesea at great cost for this holiday. While two of our number stayed nearby in the house of friends, we others languished in the cold. Caught in the lag of seasons, winter still biting at our heels. Although there were electric blankets on the beds, this was the only warm place in the house. None of the heaters worked. 

In a fit of pique, my husband and I travelled back to Geelong that first morning while our girls stayed in their cosy beds and we bought a couple of moveable oil heaters, upstanding and expensive to run. Who was to care? The owners of the house from whom we rented could fit the cost of the cold. They had misled us into imagining a cosy retreat by the beach.

We were not about to freeze.

Geelong, gateway to the sea. One side of the bay. 

I have been married to the same man for 46 years and during those years what looks like a long and so-called happy marriage was anything but. Give us full marks for perseverance. Me, especially. I took that vow in church or at least the religious centre where we chose to make our promises to one another, to love, honour and cherish, but never to obey. Obedience belongs in the army or boy scouts; it does not belong in marriage. 

At twenty-five years of age, the idea of forever was as alien to me as wrinkles on my skin. I saw them on other people but could not imagine my own. I tested this marriage, pulled at its strings, dragged up the anchor, tried to take off, but stayed, even as the fantasy of a better life with someone else whispered in my ear. 

I came back. 

The rages of his ways when he was under pressure with his career in law, negotiating deals for other people with millions of dollars at stake while we struggled to cover the cost of school fees have softened. 

Even as he is still fearful that during our ancient years, we will wind up in a Rosebud caravan park. This will not happen, at least not to him. Of this I’m certain. 

In moments of despair when he lambasts me with his anguish, ‘You made a bad bargain,’ he says. And I rant back, ‘Which one of us has made the bad bargain’. As if marriage is a bargain, where you buy a product in the store with a lifetime guarantee of success. Even as you know this bargain will wear and wither with age. Its internal mechanisms will rust and squeak for lack of oil, and you will patch it up as best you can until the wheels fall off and you need artificial means by which to lug it around.

This to me is marriage and it becomes as familiar as old and favourite socks. The ones you might darn again and again. Museum pieces. They belong in hard rubbish, but you cannot bear to part with the feel of the wool on your feet. The way they hug your ankles, lightly now their elasticity has stretched. 

I’m loading the dishwasher with the evening plates crusted with leftovers once delicious and now in the process of digestion. My mind whirls over the day’s events, back in time to the past. 

I take a dishcloth and squeeze it under running water almost too hot, but my asbestos fingers from years of abuse can still enjoy the rigour of heat. Squeeze out the cloth and spray eucalyptus disinfectant over the silver body of the cook top. 

It should not be a gas cooktop anymore. It should be one of the glass-topped digital devices two of my daughters enjoy where there are no flames. Where something happens as if by magic after a click of the digital switch ignites molecules that dance into action under the base of specially designed saucepans with special bases to co-create the heat. 

To use such a cook top is bliss but mine must do for now. As must everything else in my house that is now over a century old despite two renovations. Although this house cries out for restoration or abandonment, I am not ready yet.

This house, like my body, in early stages of decay. 

I see my mother as she lay dying. Furious to be leaving at last. Furious to be there alone under the white sheets of a hospital-tall bed.

In her daydreams she had envisaged a movie star death in her home, in her bed, her children surrounding her like guardian angels filled with love and concern. Each taking on the nightly vigil so she was never alone. I did not realise then when my meltier died that death was not like her dream. Not as in movies where a person is able to speak in whispers. Although struggling, they are lucid and directed at you the living, to offer a farewell, of sorts.

Not so for us, to say goodbye to my mother on her death bed. My mother, already in her shroud of sheets, closed her eyes one last time.

Before she closed her eyes, she looked at me one day when I came to visit. She looked at me with eyes that said, ‘Look away. I do not want you to see me like this. I do not want to see you like this.’ 

I have always been thirty-three years younger than my mother. I have always been behind her in knowledge and understanding. 

She often reminded me of this. I was a fledgling social worker. My mother’s words: 

‘I would never want to see someone as young as you.’ What would you know? You, my baby. Why did you not stay my baby? Why did you have to grow up and become the adult you are? An adult with a mind of her own. An adult who defies my religious convictions. 

‘I can see you go your own way,’ my mother writes in letters to me. Letters written from Cheltenham a half hour’s drive from my house. She cannot speak to me directly. I have fallen from grace. I have lost my religion. She cannot see the value of the cook tops now in use in kitchens throughout the western world. 

Environmentally friendly and far less mess. She wants to open a fire, the log burning stuff that reminds her of childhood even as the smoke floats through the chimney to pollute the skies with more than this earth can handle. 

My mind wanders beyond the stove top to the generational change in our lives. And I promise my daughters I will never let myself believe I know more than they. They teach me about a world they have entered, one out of my reach and soon to be out of theirs as other children race ahead and invent new ways of cooking, of living, and of dying.

2 thoughts on “Eastbourne Beach Art House. Geelong.”

  1. My mother was thirty-nine when she had me but I never rated her experience and wisdom much growing up. Her sister—the eldest, I think—was the dux of the school, my mum, the dunce. She told the story often without shame. My dad was different. I stayed in awe of him for a long time and it saddened me no end when the veneer wore thin. He was the school bully but not something he was proud of despite the fact he remained one for the rest of his life but then I don’t think he saw himself as a bully, simply God’s representative. His City & Guilds was the only qualification he had, earned at night school as an adult. It was not long before my intellect challenged him.

    I do understand why your mother would be reluctant to consult a psychologist younger than her. All the psychiatric professionals I’ve seen were young women and althought pleasant to talk to—and I had no problems opening up to them—there was something missing. The last one—and, in my opinion, unprofessionally—admitted I intimidated her and when I quit a couple of visits later you could see she was relieved. Seriously, I had to explain Kafkaesque to her. We were not a good fit.

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