The thoughts that follow emerged as I was struggling with an essay I am writing about Helen Garner and her writing. It’s tough stuff critiquing this writer, but I persevere because to me she exemplifies a writer who struggles with issues of rage and the desire for revenge. It’s not easy to link such emotions with creativity but that’s my aim.
I cannot manufacture the sense that comes over me unbidden when someone says something that triggers a memory of a feeling, that I know is beyond words. Often it’s stirred by thoughts of things, objects from the past, the needlework, the colours of the silken threads we wound together into two thin strands to get just enough depth to our stitches. I could stitch then, the names escape me, featherstitch, hemstitch, knot stitch. The little knots we sewed in the centre of each flower as the stamens, the pure straight line of the French stitch, the outline of the eye blue cornflowers, the blood red poppies. I wanted to put together the yellow gold and purple, religious colours. If you chose them in your colouring book, they signified an unhappy childhood. I wanted people to know. The three crosses marked against the round green dome of a hill, the crucifixion. I copied this image from others, an Easter image along with the oval shapes of eggs, lined and patterned. My memory of working on colouring in: the pleasure of keeping the colours within the lines. My pleasure at making sure the spread of colour across the centre of the image was evenly spaced. I learned to tilt my pencil to one side and use the spread of the exposed lead to shade in colour. All the tricks we learned as children. All the colouring-in skills, to compensate for the knowledge that I could not draw freely. I could not create images out of nothing like my big sister and brothers. They could draw. They could paint. They were artists. I could only imitate and clumsily at that. But the feeling the sheer pleasure of trying remains with me. It rockets through my mind, like the blur of lights on the Christmas tree, blurred under my unfocussed eyes whenever I tried to create a whitewash of colour. It was a way of escaping inside my mind, every thing smudged, the outlines blurred, the details reduced. Life was less difficult that way.
The pleasure of reading out loud to the class. Sitting at my desk in grade five and six, hoping against hope that my turn would come. The joy of leaping over words, pronouncing clearly even the difficult words. This was something I could do. I could read out loud, even though I was a dullard. Why did I feel such a dullard? Did Mother Mary John tell me as much?
‘I knew you were bad at arithmetic,’ she said, peering over her wire spectacles, ‘but I didn’t think you were this bad.’ Mother Mary John once in my final year at primary school told me that I was as senseless as a wet hen. I had accidentally knocked over a flowerpot. Bill uses the expression against me whenever he considers that I’m in too much of a rush and accident-prone. Whenever I make a mistake.
To fictionalise requires a letting go. These feelings I write about, these inchoate child feelings of ecstasy and pleasure at the sheer brilliance of things, the smell of freshly ground coffee beans, the sight of diosma in spring, the smell of jasmine, the smell of a rock freshly plucked from the ground after I breathe onto it, the sight of certain colours captured at just the right moment, the sense of déjà vu, when I go over an event in my mind, exactly as if it’s happening again for another time, my dreams. All of these. I have lost my train of thought.
This is my struggle. To hold firm to a line of thought, a line of reasoning that can travel from one point through the middle to its end. Now it has come back to me. I associate Helen Garner’s difficulties with fiction, my own difficulties fictionalising with a rift between my adult self and the sensations of that little self. Helen Garner rarely seems to write about her childhood experience, at least not lately. She draws on adult hood. Where have her memories gone? Has she written them all out? Is she too fearful of the label, too self preoccupied, too narcissistic. Murray Bail probably canned her that. He’s got that male objectivity, that distance that marks one sensibility off from another. I have to keep telling myself that it’s okay to write like a woman. It’s okay to write from my autobiographical self. It’s okay to put myself on the page with all my self- preoccupations. Once down on the page they are no longer mine anyhow. Like the experiment we did in Mrs Raj’s biology class.
Twenty five year eleven girls at Vaucluse Convent for ladies. Mrs Raj our new and exotic biology teacher who speaks with an accent and wears brightly coloured saris over a cropped bodice. I can still see the line of her coffee coloured flesh between the waist of her sari and the edge of her top and I wondered two things: Why isn’t she cold and what do the nuns think? This is in the late sixties. Women do not expose their midriffs except in advertisements for bathers or those Metre Maids on the Gold Coast. The nuns are already railing against the amount of leg showing under our school dresses when we hitch them up desperate to wear a mini dress, a la Jean Shrimpton.
We are sitting on our high stools in the new science block, which was built on government funds where the old tennis courts once stood. Our arms are adjacent to the bench tops in pale pinewood. The copper taps each shaped like a swan’s neck fall into sinks along the line of bench.
‘Each of you girls take a glass.’ Mrs Raj has put out a series of clear glasses and set them on the bench top, one per girl. ‘Now I want you to spit into your glass.’
What! A murmur from the classroom that bounces off the walls. What is she saying?
‘Spit into your glass, girls, as much saliva as you can get.’
We look at her face. She is serious. We spit away. Giggles grunts and the splashing whistle of twenty-five girls spitting into glasses.
‘Now set the glass in front of you and wait.’
The puddle in the bottom of my glass of bubbly saliva is thick and sticky. My stomach roils. As if I have exposed something that should not be seen. As if I should rinse the glass under the tap for fear that others will see it too. I cannot look over at the other girls’ glasses. It is as if we have been asked to take our clothes off and we are standing naked, eyes ahead, hoping that no one will notice our vulnerability, that no one will cross our gaze.
‘Now,’ says Mrs Raj. ‘I want you all to drink it back up’
‘Yuk,’ the class calls in one voice.
‘Do as I say girls. It will not hurt you.’
Loud swallows and grunts as each girl tries to take back inside the saliva she had so eagerly parted with a few minutes ago. It is cold on my tongue, worse to swallow than medication but I get it down.
‘Now, girls, the reason I have asked you to do this is to show you the difference between the inside and the outside.’ Mrs Raj is serious. Her voice does not falter, even underneath the singsong lilt of her Indian accent. ‘When the saliva is in your mouth, as it is every minute of every day, you don’t notice it. Your saliva is you. Spit it out and it becomes not you. Drink it back and it’s like something completely foreign to you, when only minutes ago it was you.’
Mrs Raj beams a smile that shows all of her large straight teeth, white against the gleam of her skin. The red smudge of paint on her forehead matches the redness of her lips and the faint blush in her cheeks.
I could talk now about sameness and difference not only between aspects of your self but between yourself and others. I could go into an academic tirade but I’ll resist and let my anecdote stand alone for what it’s worth.