‘I cannot live without my soul’

‘Be with me always. Take any form. Drive me mad. But don’t leave me here alone in this abyss where I cannot find you. Oh God! It is unutterable. I can live without my life, but I cannot live without my soul.’ Emily Bronte Wuthering Heights.

Scene one: My parents kept only one photo of me as a baby, one my older sister reckons must be of me given the fact in this photo my mother wears a summer dress, and I was born in November.

My brothers closest to me were born in the March and April when the weather would have precluded such a dress.

My mother could not remember which of her babies she carried in her arms in this photograph, but I like to think of it was me.

It’s an uneasy certainty given it’s not certain. Despite my conviction when I was a baby, my mother loved me. 

To prove it, I asked one day if I could buy a butterscotch bar from the shop. Just one, for me, and she said,


I asked again. 

Her brow was furrowed. She stooped over a basket of washing, overloaded with stuff our family of eleven wore.

She had her latest baby to consider. He, cradled in the room next door asleep. Still she had no will power against an older insistent child who wanted only sweetness.

And although she had no money, the tension fell in my direction and she relented. 

The butterscotch was soon mine. The memory of its smooth buttery sweetness on my tongue a reminder of her love. 

In those days love was simple. You felt it, especially when things went your way.

I could not say the same of my father. To him I was invisible. Just one of the many children who scrambled at his feet or scattered at the thud of his footfall in the hallway each evening when he returned from work.

Scene two

Boarding school. A fifteen-year-old girl falls in love with her Latin teacher, a nun. The schoolgirl sits in the chapel morning and evening and does not pray to God.

Instead, her heart flutters with thoughts of when she might next see the nun; of when she might next slip into the sacristy where the nun arranges flowers for Mass. When she might offer her favourite nun a chance to share her company on the pretext of being a good girl who likes to help. 

Does her favourite nun hear the beating of the girl’s heart? Does she detect any of the passion running through those young veins? A passion that has nowhere to go other than through the girl’s body, already hot with a desire for which she has no release.

All she can do is write in her green journal in the boarder’s study each evening after she has rote learned her Latin declensions. 

Oh mea Lesbia

But to be a lesbian is a terror that confuses her. She has not yet directed such feelings towards anyone other than her mother.

Scene three. 

She met him at the bookstore where she worked through the summer holidays. He downstairs, in fiction. She upstairs, in second-hand books. She, with the many of her contemporaries who took on such summer jobs to get by before university began.

He downstairs, a university drop out and full-time employee, who preferred the company of his fellow permanently employed book sellers, who were years older than the girl upstairs. 

Yet one day he noticed her. He called her Frenchy for reasons she could not fathom. He asked her out for reasons she could not fathom. He held her hand on the way to the movie house for reasons she could not fathom. But his affections could sometimes cool towards her and it was nothing for him to disappear for days on end. 

She hoped one Friday after work that they might meet but by the time she had grabbed her handbag and was downstairs in fiction, he was gone.

She walked down Elizabeth Street to the station, bound for home. Unbearable longing caked her every step. She saw the people around her; busy office workers clattering on low stilettos or in the leather soled shoes of professional men in suits, all of them bound home.

She too bound for home but so heavy of heart, she could not bear to go on living inside this mind that ached with loneliness. 

Scene four

All these accumulated longings piled high in her heart. Despite them, she married, held babies in her arms one after another. Took photos and loved those babies and the man she married. But the longings remained. 

Her analyst was different from all those who had come before. Her analyst listened to her. Took her inside, gave an impression of singular devotion, even if it lasted only fifty minutes of every day during the working weeks, year after year. Her analyst showed her what it was to love and be loved. 

Still the longings remained. 

There was once a man, illicit as the sweets she stole as a child from the milk bar owner. Illicit as the pages she plagiarised as a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl desperate to sound erudite in her European history essays. Illicit as the betrayal of all others she knew and loved. 

And this love, too, went unrequited. 

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