I want to write about silence. About the things people don’t say. The way we have conversations and our words, from one person to another reveal only a fraction of what is going on between them, and even then, their unspoken body language might say more.
Actions are louder than words, but silence is loudest of all. The silence that falls between two people who refuse to see one another for years after an argument, the fracturing in families.
When I was thirteen on the cusp of womanhood, though I did not know such things then, only that my body was taking shape and those things I thought might never happen for me, my breasts erupted, and I wanted both to hide and to show off.
Especially to hide the hideous pubic hair below. I first noticed it in the change rooms in the Camberwell public baths, at a time when I freaked that anyone should see my naked body and insisted on getting into my bathers alone. Black sprouts on my pink skin and no one had forewarned me this would happen.
At first I thought there was something seriously wrong with me but then I had conversations with my older sister who warned me about more to come in the form of periods.
Breasts were something else altogether. I took pride in those. The day my mother spoke to me quietly and handed me an old bra once owned by my sister and told me I would need to wear it, left me aglow with pleasure.
I took the sense of triumph I felt over my younger sister whose chest stayed flat given she was nearly two years behind me. She did not like the way I was growing up and away from her, I could tell.
She begged me to go on playing with dolls long after the desire to sit under the kitchen table on our boat blanket, dressing and undressing our dolls and concocting imaginary stories, had left me.
By then I preferred the company of my two older brothers. Preferred to camp out in the back yard at night under the stars, full of the magic of the open night sky.
By then I had decided the world of adulthood, as scary as it might once have seemed, was filled with enticements. Like the boy/man up the street who lived in a house with his Mediterranean parents in a house block converted into a vegetable garden.
This tendency to convert every ounce of available garden space into a place that was useful for vegetables and the like instead of keeping it manicured lawn bordered by bright exotics from Europe was at odds with the rest of the street. As was this dark haired, tall and to my mind, handsome young man who noticed me as I walked up the street on the other side of his house and thrust my small breasts forward snug under my older sister’s cast-off black jumper. As proud of my shape as if I was a folk singer like Judith Durham from the Seekers. Though people called her demure and I did not feel demure. I felt like a risk taker in those final days when my family still lived in Wentworth Avenue. Before we took off for Cheltenham and another life further away. To a new house where the street on which we lived was a main road and many of our new neighbours used their front gardens only for the growth of vegetables.
One day in my letter box, I found a small note in a purple envelope which was not addressed to my parents or any of my older siblings and therefore could only – in my centrally focussed mind – be intended for me.
I cannot figure out from the scraps of my memory how I came to this conclusion other than to know this letter was for me from the boy up the street who lived in the house whose garden afforded only vegetables and whose English was poor.
He could not spell:
‘I like to meet up with you someware, soon. You are prity.’
And my body thrilled at the prospect of a movie style romance with this young man whose body held a shine on his olive skin that I longed to touch as terrified as I was at the prospect. The fantasy was enough.
I showed the letter to my younger sister.
‘You can’t meet that boy’ she said. ‘You don’t know him.’
She was right, but I decided she was jealous. I slid my letter under my pillow for safe keeping but later that night when I went to bed and wanted to re-read his badly spelled words for the sheer thrill of my imaginings, my letter had gone.
‘I tore it up,’ my sister said when I asked her what she had done with it. Only she knew of its existence and something unspoken came between us, my sister and me. Something that has stayed between us ever since.
After the move to Cheltenham, I gave up all thought of boys. I settled into my larger body that in time became too large for comfort, while my younger sister erupted into full beauty like a Botticelli angel and the tables turned.
My turn to be jealous of her. Her dark wavy hair like our mother’s. Her oval shaped face. Her clear blue eyes and skin less tortured by the pimples that beset me. Her clean white teeth. She took care of them in a way I never managed. She cared about her appearance in a way that put me to shame. She even insisted that our mother let her go to the dentist for a check-up even as we knew our mother could not afford it.
I stood in awe of my sister’s words: ‘Mum I need to go to the dentist’. In awe at her determination to do the right thing by her body but appalled at the idea that she should draw attention to her teeth.
To draw attention to her teeth when she was younger than me was to draw attention to mine. The state of my mouth was my biggest secret in those days. Much as I spent many a night tossing and turning under the ache of my molars which were crumbling in the middle. I could feel the holes behind my incisors with my tongue.
At night in throbbing pain, I tossed my head against my pillow. Earlier I smeared tooth paste into the gaps hoping the mint flavour might allay some of the pain. I did not want to take these teeth to a dentist to get the help I needed.
If a dentist looked into my mouth he would see with horror the ravages of tooth decay that I had hidden for years, and he would not keep his response a secret. ‘You have not been cleaning your teeth,’ he’d say. I was bad and should be ashamed.
In those few months when I was on the cusp of womanhood, when my body first began to shoot into a shape desired by the world, my teeth were less of a problem, than in the years to come when the glorious shape of my body became too much, and I needed to hide it behind my school uniform or loose dresses. Cover my splotchy red face with makeup pinched from my older sister such that I looked like a patchwork of pink and barely concealed bumpy red, and my mouth kept closed to hide the yellowing teeth behind my lips.
On the cusp
While my younger sister who was once jealous of me became the one whom others admired for her beauty. Then I decided the only way forward was to hide in my school books, and learn about the world from a distance but stay out of the world as much as I could while my body became a source of unspoken shame that lingers to this day.