Filthy fingernails and green leaves in fishbone

‘My truth doesn’t travel in a straight line, it zigzags, detours, doubles back.’ Abigail Thomas.

When she was eight, an ambulance took my eight year old sister to the Fairfield Infections Diseases hospital which was then a quarantine facility to guard against polio and tuberculosis. These diseases floated around my childhood consciousness in words I overheard on the lips of grownups. The way they took people from their homes, disrupted lives and whole families implicated in the contagion. 

At least rheumatic fever did not spread from person to person in the way of polio, but it erupted in overpopulated areas and unhygienic places. With hints at the contagion of dirt, even as we knew a modest amount built up resistance. 

Thomas Embling hospital for the criminally insane has replaced the infectious diseases hospital in Melbourne today. When you walk through parkland close by the Yarra River you can see the old buildings in their higgledy-piggledy glory, as if they are still trying to keep people at arm’s length. 

For many months my mother struggled to visit my sister in hospital, not only because of restricted hours but because her youngest still needed a pram and my mother had to endure a long walk beyond our primary school to the bus stop near Cotham Road and from there the yellow bus all the way to Ivanhoe.Then more walking. An eternity’s worth of time, so many houses to pass, so many strips of grassland, so many foreign sights before green pastures and eucalypts surrounding row upon row of wooden buildings came into view. 

Me and my sister among the hydrangeas before they hauled her away.

It comes back to me now during this most recent Covid pandemic alongside memories of my time at Heatherton psychiatric hospital, which was once used as a sanatorium. 

And all these places, these sanatoriums and quarantine stations bring to mind Janet frame’s Owls do Cry in which she writes about the fictional Withers family: Francie, Daphne, Toby and Chicks, dirty children. To be dirty was to be spurned and set aside like so much rubbish in need of removal.

‘Look at your fingernails,’ Mother Mary John said to me in my tenth year when she inspected my doily for needle work. A lace edged piece I had chosen; it was covered in deep crimson red poppies and blue cornflowers. The stamens were buttercup yellow. The colours sent thrills through me, so much I failed to notice the smear of grubbiness that inched its way into the linen gaps every time I stitched my corn flowers and poppies into place. Chain stitch round the edges, stamens in French knots, and green leaves in fishbone. 

I hid my hands behind my back as Mother Mary John scolded me for the dirty child I was. How was it most other children in my class had pink fingernails with white moon crescents at the base and clear white lines where the nail ended? None of them had the thick pencil line of black that sat as stubbornly as a bitumen road under each finger. 

Filth amazed me, the way it built up over the course of each week. From Saturday night when we each had a bath – our only bath – all the way through to the end of the week when I noticed other lines of black on my legs and arms, like ants crawling in disorder. My socks which started the week a dull white from too many washes, by the weeks end were brown with a build-up of dirt that crept through the gaps in my blue plastic sandals and turned to mud whenever it rained.

These things were a problem at school. At home with my sisters and brothers no one cared. No one checked my nails for the black lines, as my older sister dragged my long hair into tight plaits that sat on either side of my head. 

‘Hold still,’ she said as I fidgeted from one foot to the next and she tugged at my head to keep it in place. Her hands were firm and deliberate. She only hurt when she encountered a snag of tangles, which happened often enough but less often once she had wrangled my hair into braids. I slept in them at night so that in the morning when my sister unravelled them to begin again, the only tangles were in the superficial stray hairs that fell out of place by day.

This could be a metaphor for my life in those days, a metaphor for my life now, only I do not know how to use it beyond the thought of life as unruly, and unpredictable. And even though in my head I’m steeped in Murakami’s notions of fate, the way all seemingly random events come together to create an order that makes some sense. In my life the patterns which become evident when I step back and cast an eye over past decades, once upon a time seemed as random as the weather. 

My admiration for Murakami pales by comparison to Janet Frame’ s writing. A woman who speaks to my childhood like no other. 

One of my literary supervisors once complained that although the character of Mrs Withers in Janet Frame’s Owls do Cry was said to be based on Frame’s mother, her actual mother was nowhere as slovenly as the book suggests. 

Does this matter? 

Frame’s story is of a mother, like her own, a woman of elegant words, and strangled hopes who tries to survive against the odds. Who fears her husband and is terrified of things going wrong. As they do. She cannot wrangle her children into shape any more than my sister could. My sister pulling my plaits into order only to have their strands fall loose. A thick strand falling across my eyes in class, and my teacher, who could not abide dirty children, whose presence offended her eyes, scowled. 

We were a blight on the landscape like the people in quarantine facilities and infectious diseases hospitals who must be kept separate from the rest of us for fear of contagion. 

2 thoughts on “Filthy fingernails and green leaves in fishbone”

  1. Oh, you are a mucky kid
    Dirty as a dustbin lid
    When he hears the things that you did
    You’ll get a belt from yer da
    — Liverpool Lullaby

    I’m not sure how mucky a kid I was growing up. I don’t ever recall my mother telling me to wash behind my ears (that only happened in The Beano and The Dandy) but I know that as a kid I didn’t like being dirty. Like you we only bathed as a family once a week and in the same bath water—I think I’ve spoken to you about this before, how Mum always went last—and so the rest of the week we washed in cold water mostly or had to boil a kettle. When Dad came home from work he always had a “swill” in the sink—odd choice of word—and I do have memories of washing there but how often? who knows? I remember my sister having her hair brushed, often accompanied by tears, as it was always “loggy,” my parents’ term for knotted and tangled. There are plenty of photos of us as kids but none of us look grubby in any of them. I’ve seen loads of black and whites of Glaswegian kids from the sixties and all they look like they walked right out of Dickens but that was never us.

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