Not the staying type

“Like sexual desire, memory never stops. It pairs the dead with the living, real with imaginary beings, dreams with history’ Annie Ernaux

Unlike sexual desire, which is capped by pleasure, memory has its devastating moments when we trawl through the past and rediscover our pain. The dead paired with the living.

In her book, The Years, Ernaux reminds us, over time we will be forgotten. This erasure involves pitching into the future to a time, as in the past, when we did not exist. A sobering thought.

In the January of 1972, my nineteenth year on earth, my sister Claire, and her friend Kris, whom we nicknamed Honey, moved into the back section of a spacious brick Edwardian house in Caulfield near what was then known as the Caulfield Institute of Technology. The section we rented backed onto Royal Parade at the end of a narrow walkway. 

We moved in during the warmth of summer with no idea of how cold the place would get once winter kicked in. We moved there as an escape from life at 336 Warrigal Road in Cheltenham, where my sister and I lived. A double fronted, cream brick veneer, my mother loved because it was brand new and held every promise, for her at least, of a better life. 

As in most stories, this better life did not follow, and my sister and I could not wait to get out once my sister finished her final school year and knew her fate tertiary-study wise.

I was already at university on a cadetship to the health department. They paid me $12.00 a week during my four years of study, on condition I repay them by working for at least two years in a health department facility, most likely a hospital.

The prospect didn’t faze me then. Like the place we rented in the summer when we had no idea of how intolerable winter’s cold could become when a single kerosene heater that stung your eyes and made them water was all we could afford for heat. 

I had no idea a hospital social worker’s life could be so grim, any more than my mother realised within almost minutes of moving into our new home in Cheltenham when my father’s drinking escalated to the point we spent many weekends bunkered down with relatives to protect us from his rages.

Life has a way of turning out differently from how we expect. In the two-bedroom section of our new home on Royal Parade, my sister and I shared the larger bedroom with its one window facing the side footpath and one wardrobe. At night I watched stars through the scrim curtain. 

The shower recess, at the end of a corridor onto which our bedroom backed, led to a broom-cupboard sized bedroom, which Honey occupied. Beyond the corridor, as you made your way to the only exit, you moved through a dark windowless room, which we used as our living area. 

In the centre, we plonked an old blue couch, a hand me down from some friends. Beyond this door the kitchen consisted of a single sink and stove, and room enough for a tiny table and three chairs. Its windows, row upon row of frosted slats. The type you find in toilets which you flicked up in summer for whatever breeze they offered. But the place never became too hot, hidden under the bushes of an ancient garden that must have been there for at least one hundred years. 

Despite its raw ugliness, like the outhouse or woodshed of a grand house, our place became the go-to of all our friends, most of whom still lived at home with their parents.

We spent the night of the election-to-end-all-elections in 1972 when Gough Whitlam finally because our first Labor Prime Minister, stretched across the living room floor on mattresses and inflated Li-los people had brought from home for the long night of celebration.

Those were the times when the young men in our midst, Jack, Neil, Mick, Hurry, Pete, Ernie and Kevin, to name a few, all Saint Bernard’s boys downed beer by the dozen, while we girls guzzled on cheap port mixed with lemonade, or those who were less inclined to sweetness or more health conscious, brought litres of orange juice to mix with vodka. 

I did not have a political bone in my body then but picked up on the fervour of my friends for the Labor Party and for reform for a way beyond the born to rule mentality of those who backed people like Billy McMahon. I followed their lead but could never take on their passion for football. 

Memories come back with all the resilience of the past however much it disappears almost the minute it’s lived. Memories skitter, like the time we watched a football game in Collingwood and later ate pizza in South Yarra, my first taste of pizza beyond an earlier genuine version with my first ever official boyfriend from university. Alex.

Alex sat at a table among a group of his cronies from another Catholic boy’s school somewhere in Preston where he lived with his mother and father. His father ran a concreting business.

A success story. His family lived in a double storey house with a concrete front and back garden. Alex was tall and skinny and to my mind he was gawky. Gomer Pyle gawky. But he liked me. And given no other boy took an interest in me I went along with him to visit his parents, to parties at the Italian Club in Brunswick, to gatherings of his cousins.

Alex introduced me to pizza, thick with a thin topping of tomatoes, basil, and olive oil. Napolitano style, he told me. I disliked its stodge, and lack of topping. 

Alex studied applied engineering and lived in a world so different from my own. But he drove his own car, a grey Falcon and was prepared to travel all the way from Preston to Cheltenham to pick me up for events and to take me home after late nights studying at university. 

Alex was good to me, but I was not so to him. I was dismissive of his overtures and although sexual desire rumbled underneath and Alex and I tried furtive manoeuvres in his car outside my home late at night, we never moved beyond what people described as funny business. 

We wagged university one day on the pretext of travelling to study in the Monash University library and parked in the back of someone’s parking lot where there were plenty of trees and no one to be seen. Alex tried again to offer sexual satisfaction as we listened to Carol King on the radio. The earth did not move under my feet. It stuttered to a halt. 

I disliked Alex’s desperate attempts to pleasure me. His other overtures. He sent me poems, handwritten on paper torn from lined note pads, with his awkward attempts at illustrations. Someone else’s words, because Alex could never find the right ones. 

By the end of that summer Paul returned into my life, fresh from his sojourn to Tocumwal where he had worked in a hotel to get a handle on his future. After a short spell with his parents in Edithvale, Paul moved into an apartment with a friend Ivan. They rented a second floor flat in brown brick where the two men shared cooking and cleaning.

Ivan called me aside at a party one day, ‘He’s not the staying type,’ he said of Paul and for a minute I believed him. 

It was not Paul in the end who was not the staying type, nor Alex. It was me who wandered away from what seemed to me in those days when I could not predict what the future might hold, a grim future ahead with either of these men. 

Sexual desire and memories clash between the living and the dead, to jumble Ernaux’s words, and all we have left are scattered images across the tapestry of our lives. 

Unanswered letters

A rectangular wooden box, the length of a football with a hinged lid that lifts and falls, and a small hole on top, which once housed a latch, long gone.

It belonged to his mother’s mother and sat in her kitchen in Mansfield. Inside he stores treasures collected over the years and hidden in this box which today sits on our mantel in the bedroom. 

Until now I have not spent long examining the box, but last night we went in search of lost euros, squirreled away in containers throughout this house from trips our children have made to Europe over the course of our married life. 

My youngest is off to Italy and Greece today for a holiday with her boyfriend and a few loose euros would not go astray, even as they have access to money enough for their trip. 

On the lid someone has engraved the words Many Happy Returns, as if the box was once a gift and below, two words on the diagonal, Unanswered Letters. The box could fit many unanswered letters and his mother might have used it as such. 

A strange concept, the unanswered letter. All those letters filed away for further work.

On one side of the box, our engraver has carved the words Three Little Rascals and beside them etched the image of three small dogs, two in a basket, the other tail wagging nearby. 

On the other side, there’s a horse’s head in the middle of an elaborate horseshoe and the words Remembrance. On the narrow end, our engraver has carved the picture of a kangaroo, on the other an emu.

An Australian example of pyrography which, until last night, I did not know existed. 

Pyrography, as the name implies, involves drawing and writing with heat. The person who created this box, a century ago, used a small, pointed soldering iron, held like a pen, it’s point heated repeatedly over a flame. Rather like a pen dipped in ink. Today woodburning wands are electric, so there’s no need to heat and reheat. The iron maintains a steady flow of heat to etch in the burn.

When I was a child I invented my own form of pyrography in secret. I retrieved the stubs of my father’s cigarettes almost used up to the orange butt with enough tobacco remaining to get a red glow sufficient to burn a pattern onto toilet paper.

In this way I etched my initials onto toilet roll sheets, secreted in the outside toilet so no one could detect the whiff of smoke. Though why should I have worried, when my father smoked in the toilet often and no one was to know it was me hidden behind the wooden door?

I’ve been tuning into a reading of Annie Ernaux’s The Years, enthralled by the way she travels across time from her birth in 1941 and her childhood memories through adolescence into adulthood. The way she maps the history of France across her lifetime from then into the mid 1980s. Through all the dramatic years, the crises, the 1968 year of revolutions when she was a young mother keen to get onto her childhood ambition of being a writer. She held off as her life as wife, mother and teacher demanded she put aside such desires until her children grew and she divorced. 

I’m intrigued by the effortless way Ernaux slips from first to second and third person in shifting from her own singular experience to that of her generation. The ‘we’ voice is prominent when she describes the politics of her day. How ‘we’ as a people, mainly middle class, though she sometimes alludes to the wealthy and even the poor, but always the ‘we’ of her generation: our taste in furniture, our inclination to watch television for the first time, then upgrade our sets, next learning about the new gadgets the CD’s and video tapes that keep us at home. The Walkman to pump music into our bodies as we travel. The ways in which a society kids itself that all is well, even though the arrival of the other, in the form of Arab and Muslim migrants, shatters the homogeneity. Thoughout, Ernaux harks back to conversations of past eras: World War Two, conflict in Algiers, their fight for independence, Vietnam war and the endless civil unrests that have sparked bright and dangerously throughout Ernaux’s life. 

It strikes me when we trawl through a life, as Ernaux does, you see how minuscule our individual lives are and how much as a people over time we learn little about the horrors of war, only to allow such conflicts to keep on in the name of some fantasy that one day peace will prevail.

There’s also the relentless march of progress. The way washing machines took over the back breaking work of hot tubs and scrubbing boards, and ovens took over from open fires. Electricity, hair dryers and the vacuum cleaner. Domesticity reduced in hours but not in its ability to bore us silly in its relentlessness.

And my husband’s wooden box throws me back to a time when we wrote letters on sheets of paper. Sealed them in envelopes and stamped the outside in the right hand corner above the address, and offered one another small gifts of words, sometimes etched on wood.