My mother: an anemone buried in the sand.

St Columbs church near the corner of Launder Street and Burwood Road looks like something from a BBC period drama. Dark grey flat rendered walls with an elaborate edging. A protestant church to be sure. It sits in the shade of Swinburne university, a lego block set of buildings put together as if by a three year old.

Is that why I felt uneasy going inside? I had been there once before many years earlier in my twenties for the funeral of the mother of a friend. I felt then as though I was sitting inside what I imagined to be a Quaker church, bare benches, no kneelers, stark white walls faded with age and minimal mosaic work on the high barred windows. The shape of a church but none of the trimmings of the Catholic churches of my youth.

It held nothing of the sanctity of a church to my mind, and seemed better suited as a meeting place.

I had decided to go alone. I had decided to arrive unannounced. I had decided to make myself enter this church where I would know no one.

I could be anonymous I thought then and see myself through the eyes of others: a middle aged woman, slight build, average height, broad Australian accent, educated perhaps, diffident perhaps, but someone without a visible past, without a history, someone whom people might puzzle about.

I knew that I too would be faced with the mystery of these people.

The woman who sat to my right did not turn to introduce herself to me as I had imagined she might. I had imagined from my childhood memories that people might greet one another like this, like the handshake or kiss of peace in Catholic churches, but then I remembered the anonymous bit.

Privacy is important. We were there on business. We were there to deal with the alcoholism of a parent, a friend or a relative. We were there to develop detachment.

‘Detachment’, that accursed word, my mother’s favourite and with it she once learned to leave the rest of us out of the equation.

She had needed to do so for her sanity. She had needed to remove herself from the life she then lead, to put herself, if only in her mind and imagination, into some other safe place, some place where my father could not reach her, some safe place where my father could not hurt or impact on her in way way. And in so doing she excluded the rest of us, her children.

My mother had needed to develop detachment in order to become more like her husband. Just like him, she could cut off her pain, he with alcohol, she with detachment, a cut off manner, an inward seeking, like an anemone buried in the sand.

You could not know the anemone was there until it raised its tendrils. Just the slightest touch to those tendrils and the anemone disappeared again. My mother’s eyes glazed over, like a shut down anemone.

As I looked around at the women in this strange protestant church I could see my mother’s eyes in them.

No wonder the woman who sat beside me, clutching her black handbag on her lap, tugging at the skirt she wore to better cover her knees, no wonder this woman did not turn to introduce herself to me. She had developed detachment, or so I imagined. But then it was possible that this might be her first visit to this place too.

She, like me, might have been a new person in this dank church.

I felt my feet flat on the floor and curled my toes inside my shoes to better connect with myself. The muscle on my right shoulder above my breast plate, the muscle that
I would imagine was my heart were it on the other side of my body, tore its painful way across my chest and, once again I thought, if I can get through this, I shall go to Pilates.

My mother is an alcoholic

I could not understand what we were doing there. These dark draughty halls that you entered though equally dark corridors, the windows covered with thick drapes that scarcely let in any light from the setting sun. We had arrived straight after school. No time to get out of our uniforms. No time to do anything but drop our bags and my sister had us back on the bus, onto the train and into the city.

‘Room 6A,’ my sister said over to herself as she led us though corridor after corridors checking at each door for the right number. I knew we must have found it when we came to a room whose door was open, wide open such that we could not even see the number and filled with people.

I say filled, half filled perhaps, people seated in chairs, mostly young people, and children my age, lined up in rows, each with their backs to us as we walked in behind them and took our places in the last few chairs still vacant.

I could not understand what I was doing there, the youngest of my four siblings to come along. I had not thought to ask my sister why we were there and what we had come for. We would be safe with her and my brothers sat on either side of me their knobbly knees white at each bend.

‘Welcome,’ a woman said to the room and people stopped their chatter and looked to her expectantly. ‘I see we have a few newcomers.’ All eyes turned to the back to look at us. They looked at us with inquisitive eyes, no smiles more curiosity as if to say, and what brings you here, what are you here for?

I would not have answered such a question if anyone had directed it to me. At that moment I could not understand what I was doing there.

‘We have quite a deal of business to get through tonight,’ the woman said. All eyes turned back to face her and we were left once again facing a montage of backs, hunched shoulders, cardigans draped over chairs, and the hush of expectation. ‘We might start with your stories. Damien, would you like to start?’

There was the scraping of a chair against the hard parquetry and a boy not much older than my older sister stood beside the woman in front and looked at us with a nervous expression on his face. He looked as though he had been caught unawares, as though he was wholly unprepared for this position which he had now taken up in front of us in the draughty room above the clocks at Flinders Street station, but he cleared his throat to speak.

My name is Damien,’ he said. ‘My mother is an alcoholic.’ Damien told us then about his life as one of three children, born to different fathers and each living each day with a mother who drank all day long and in between drinking she slept or ranted. ‘Sometimes she hits us,’ Damien said, ‘but it doesn’t bother me much any more. She’s not strong, and now I’m bigger I just push her away. But the two little ones get scared. And she used to hurt me bad when I was little. She used to make me cry.’