The free floatings

I’ve been waging war with myself and doing battle with the dreaded anxiety.

The free floatings, I call them, those moments when the lightness of my being seems to hover there, as if my heart might stop beating and at any moment I might drop down dead, or someone else, who matters to me, might likewise disappear.

Whether it harks back to my childhood, or whether it’s connected to more recent events, I can’t say, but I find myself drifting back in time to those nights in my childhood, those rare nights when visitors came and my mother was abuzz with energy and enthusiasm.

My mother loved to party. She loved the excuse to put on her Sunday clothes and dab powder on her nose.

She loved the work involved in that extra trip to Mr Brockhoff’s grocery store to buy tins of smoked oysters, which she later peeled from their can and spread onto a plate, each murky brown morsel resting in its tiny puddle of yellow oil.

She took tooth picks then and speared each oyster through its heart in readiness for the party when she could walk around the room, plate proffered in front and her guests might lean over one after the other to scoop up the speared creature and pop it into their mouths.

I hated the smell of these things, the look of them and the sense they existed for the pleasure of the grown ups, who chatted away in our lounge room and somehow drowned out my father’s voice, as he grew more drunk by the minute.

Somehow he kept a lid on his worst behaviour in the presence of guests.

As often happens in my memory, my siblings are absent.

Never once did I enjoy the solitude of a room of my own in childhood. My room was always occupied by at least one other, usually in the form of one, if not two or three sisters, but in my memories oftentimes they were not there at all.

Likewise this night, I stretched myself out under the blankets, keen to iron out the ache that crept up on me whenever I noticed the laughter from the lounge room and wondered yet again when my mother would come.

Ages ago that same night, I had snuck into the kitchen after I heard the door in the corridor into the lounge room open and shut, followed by the clump of my mother’s heels on the carpet and then their click clack on the kitchen tiles.

I knew she was out there spreading Jatz biscuits with butter and plucking out thin strands of salmon from another thin she had brought home from Mr Brockhoff’s.

I knew she was slicing up tomatoes into thin slivers to put alongside the salmon and in time she would bring back a plate full of these biscuits into the lounge room and once again make her journey around the room, plate proffered.

‘Can I have a cup of tea, too?’ I had asked my mother when she turned to see me at the door, ages ago.

My mother did not scold me for getting up out of bed, not the way my father might. Instead she smiled and looked back to her plate of biscuits.

‘In a minute,’ she said. ‘First, I offer these around to the others and then when I make the next round of tea, I’ll bring one to you. Now back to bed.’

Something of my mother’s promise offered me comfort.

I could lie still now, less fidgety, more ready for sleep, but I did not let myself close my eyes or slip into sleep. I listened instead to the laughter from the lounge room and tried to picture proceedings.

My Auntie Anne in her glamorous, waisted floral frock, big roses on a white background and my Auntie Junie in her dark colours, flanked by a thick cardigan.

My Auntie Junie felt the cold.

She had lived in Indonesia during the Second World War. She had met my uncle in Holland not long after she had returned there, before they married. She had lived in Indonesia when she was young and during the war was interned by the Japanese.

Auntie Junie had suffered, my mother told me. She had even seen a Japanese man kill her brother in front of her eyes. She had seen this and she needed to stay warmer than the rest.

My mother did not like my Auntie Junie for all her suffering.

I could not work out why this was so. Except my Auntie Junie was a woman who valued efficiency, who kept her house immaculate and besides she had married my mother’s younger brother, not the youngest but a brother whom my mother loved and somehow my Auntie Junie did not meet my mother’s standards or else it might have been the other way around and my mother did not meet my Auntie’s standards.

They could not tolerate one another, though you would never know this from the chatter in the lounge room where the woman’s voices rose to a high pitch above the dull drone of the men.

My father’s voice, when he spoke, was the loudest and most guttural.

Whenever my mother entertained her visitors, her family from Holland, her brothers and their wives, she followed the Dutch tradition, a small drink of alcohol followed by coffee and cake.

Tradition she brought from back home and somehow thinking on these traditions my mind wandered back to the cup of tea she had promised me not so long ago.

A cup of tea, milky, with two spoonsful of sugar, a sweetness enough to slip me off into sleep.

But the tea did not come, nor my mother, and as I waited and my eyes grew heavy with a sleep I could no longer evade, I pondered the significance of a mother who could not keep her promises.

When I woke in the morning, the memory of that promise lingered. My mother had forgotten me.

But my mother had made a promise she could not keep because, although she had spoken the words of promise to bring me that cup of tea, she had spoken those words from a distance and she had not taken them into her mind as intention.

She had spoken those words to send me away.

Only in the morning, and on other nights at other times, when I was still a small person and asked my mother to come to visit me in the night, did I realise I had fallen from her mind.

And as soon as I fell from my mother’s mind, I fell into that well I call anxiety today.

A well, not only of abandonment, but one in which all sorts of fears assail me.

I am bad, I tell myself and dredge up all the events of the day in which I have behaved badly or I might have behaved badly.

I said something wrong. I spoke out of turn. I had not studied my times tables. I had not worked on my multiplication and division. I had not practiced the piano. I had kicked my dirty clothes under the bed and left them to pile up with the dust. I had not scraped under my finger nails, which were black with the dirt of every day.

I was bad and my mother’s absence became proof of this. Only her presence could save me.

But when visitors came, they took her away and for the rest I slipped into the free floatings of my life as they persist today.

Broken pledges

We used to call them ‘demos’, demonstrations against the things that troubled us.

These days we call them rallies. We rally against or we march against. We no longer demonstrate.

Why the shift I wonder? Why not demonstrate, remonstrate, jump up and down against the things that appal us?

Like our treatment of asylum seekers.

No point in getting into a rant.  No point in getting hot under the collar on the page.  Best to go out there and protest, but elsewhere I read from someone online that they think all these marches and rallies are just a waste of time.

Worse still they’re a way of appeasing people’s guilt so they can go home after each rally feeling they’ve done their bit and no longer need to worry about the fact that not much of anything has changed for the better for asylum seekers in this country.

Though I reckon it will change. It has to change.

One day apartheid stopped in South Africa.

One day the Berlin wall came down.

One day the Vietnam War ended.

But each new atrocity is followed by others.

My optimism about the good of human nature wanes.

At the same time, I refuse to get onto the bandwagon that says things are getting worse, apart from in relation to the climate.

Things go up and down.

I’d prefer to be living today as against living in medieval times, but if I lived in medieval times I might have preferred that era to the previous one.

You make the most of what you have, if you have the sense, and there’s not much point in hoping for something else from before your time or into the future that’s out of your reach, except when you daydream.

Delicious day dreams like when you win Tattlslotto and how you’ll do this and that, get rid of your debts, buy all your children a house, donate to charity, too.

But from what I’ve read, it rarely works out that way for folks who win the lottery.

Last weekend, I cleaned out the trunk that sits under my desk, which I’ve filled with Christmas and birthday cards and other memorabilia from my past.

It took the best part of the day and put me in touch with my childhood and adolescent selves, folk I scarcely recognised.

Thank goodness I went to university. Without it, I fear I may have stayed stuck in my puritan mentality.

Among the treasures, I found a certificate signed by the head nun from my school certifying my pledge to abstain from all intoxicating liquor until my twenty fifth birthday. The Sacred Heart Pioneer Total Abstinence Pledge.


What was I thinking?

My first alcoholic drink came in the form of a Brandy Crusta, which I sipped in a bar beside the Edithvale beach, while I was visiting my first serious boyfriend.

It had a sweet though sharp edged taste from the bitters and I waited for the heady sensation to follow. I looked out across the waves and noticed them shimmer more than before I had taken those first few sips.

Could this be it? The lure of the demon drink? There was a delicious taste of wrong-doing in every mouthful.

Nineteen years old and I was breaking my promise to the nuns and to myself that I would never be like my father, who had lost his head to alcohol.

Before that day, alcohol was the beery smell that wafted out of the Palace Hotel whenever I walked past on a Saturday afternoon on my way down Burke Road to the Camberwell shops.

It was the chemical smell that stained the bottom of the sherry glasses left out in the mornings after we had visitors.

It was the unlabelled brown paper bags in which my father hid his bottles of Saint Agnes brandy, the ones with three gold stars and a picture of the saint in green on the front.

It was the stack of empties in the outside laundry where my mother stashed those bottles every weekend.

Alcohol was the man who came to our front door one night asking for money. My older brother answered and told him we had no change, which was true no doubt.  But it seemed an odd thing that we should turn away one drunk, while my father inside was also sunk low on alcohol, as low as the beggar who had come to our front door.

The shame of it all, my fifteen-year-old self thought. To have a father who could not control his drinking and who would one day wind up in the gutter. Always the gutter, never on the streets.

In those days I did not consider where my father had come from, what he had been through, even as my mother pleaded for us to show our father some respect and to recognise his dreadful childhood.

A dreadful childhood, I thought then, was no excuse for bad behaviour.

These days, I consider it is every excuse, though it cannot justify worse behaviour. It simply makes it understandable.

Still it’s hard to understand an entire nation’s bad behaviour.

It’s hard to fathom why a whole group of us cannot recognise what’s going on in our own back yard, even when the rest of the world can see it.