The Alamein train

I sprayed my glasses with
lens cleaner this morning to get a better perspective. I wiped them with the
soft cloth one of my daughters gave me some time ago after her travels in
Holland.  It imitates a Delft blau pattern of birds, flowers,
leaves and squiggles, in blues, black and white.  
I need a fresh
When I was ten I sat one
day at the front gate of our house in Wentworth Avenue for long enough that the
sun began to warm my skin. I sat still, hopeful no one might notice
My older sister had
issued house-cleaning instructions to me and my other sisters and brothers and
I did not want to join them. 
I could have been
clearing out lost objects from under my bed, or wiping over the dusty
mantelpiece, instead I sat in the sun.  
Why must I work? 
Why must I bother with the busy stuff of life when there was all this peace to
be had at a gatepost in the early spring sunshine?
The others must have been
busy enough not to notice my absence, or they, too, might have taken to hiding.
 Only my older sister would be hard at it, cleaning and sweeping, mopping
and dusting. 
Only my older sister
cared about these things.  She still does.  Her house is immaculate
while mine is a frenzy of clutter. 
In those days, our mother
took the train from Alamein.  It stopped at all stations to Camberwell and
only there joined the Lilydale line to the city.  
My mother was the only
one in my family to take this train. Every Saturday when she was rostered
to work she took the train to Alamein and from there she walked to Elgar Road
and the children’s home where she worked.  
And every Saturday at the
end of the day from five o’clock onwards my sister and I waited for our
mother’s train to make the return trip to the city, stopping at all stations,
including ours in East Camberwell, from which she would emerge. 
Train after train came
and went and each time I heard the thrumming on the line that signified a train
approaching, I peered ahead filled with expectation. 
 My sister and I
watched after each train had stopped as doors opened and passengers alighted,
hopeful that the silhouette of our mother might soon step onto the station and
then we would be safe. 
But there were as many
trains passed without my mother on board as the train that eventually carried
her to us.
My sister and I, one on
either side, then walked with our mother through the tunnel from the station
that led up to the electricity output station, across past the scout hall and
down through the park that eventually joined Canterbury Road and the final
stretch home.
We did not tell our
mother about our day at home with our father. We had learned to keep our minds
focussed on the happy things, the good things, the joy of walking side by side
with our mother at last, the smell of pink blossom from the trees outside the
scout hall, the first sprinkling of spring rain. 
We held our hands over
our heads and sped up our steps to keep from getting wet before we reached the
shelter of the shops. 
I did not want to go home
to my father, but I knew there was no other choice, no other way of living our
lives other than the way we lived. 
By now his mood had
dropped into one of darkness.  A tall angry man stuck in his chair,
cemented there, as if frozen in time.  His comfort, the bottle at his side
from which he took slurps, like a hobo in the movies. 
We did not greet him on
our return but went straight for the kitchen where my mother took off her coat
and filled the sink with water.  She dropped in a pile of potatoes and
held each one in turn to scrub off the dirt with her fingernails, until her
nails were black and each potato bare skin.  Then she left the potatoes on
the sink to rinse before taking them to the chopping board for skinning and
My father staggered into
the kitchen from time to time and each time he grew louder and angrier. 
He hectored my mother from the door but we said nothing.  
We were trained in the
art of pretence.  We were skilled at behaving as though we were not
Two small girls crouched
under the kitchen table holding onto our dolls as if they were safety harnesses
until our father left the room, only to wait again for his return. 
In time, my mother went
into the lounge room to talk to my father who had called out for her so often
she could no longer ignore him, however skilled she was in the art of
We two girls sat under
the table and addressed our dolls.  How bad they were.  How much they
needed scolding.    
The potatoes boiled in
their water till there was no water left to boil. 
‘Autobiographers lead
perilous lives’. We write our version of events and wait for others to attack
in much the way my mother waited for my father in the kitchen.  We wait
for someone to raise objections to what we have written.  To some, those
most critical, the content of the writing is all that matters.  The
content and the associations these readers make to their own lives. 
‘You have violated my
privacy,’  they say.  You have spoken about people who do not
want to be written about.
‘Tough,’ my daughter says
when I complain of recent events.  ‘That’s what writers do.  They
write about people.’ 
And those who read with
an agenda, who seek to find traces of themselves in the words, or to find fault
with the writer, do not read with open minds, but with a scorched earth policy
that says:  you have exposed the family to ridicule.  You must be
In totalitarian regimes,
writers develop ways of communicating underground, ways in which the
powers-that-be are unable to detect dissent. 

else can we offer a fresh perspective in this perilous world?