Listening for ghosts

There was not much traffic as I stepped out into the middle of the road. I could not be bothered walking all the way to the traffic lights, which I saw some way in the distance and well out of my way.

I wove through this traffic easily but when I reached halfway, the cars that had moved through slowly like Brown’s cows, were now replaced by a convoy of fast paced motorbikes. The roar of the engines echoed from the underside of the metal roof tracks on the rooftop that formed a bridge for the trains above.

I managed to dodge them and laughed to myself when I saw one old bike driver spit out his phlegm into the gutter. The wind blew it back up at him and it landed on his coat. He almost veered off the road in an effort to wipe it off.

Serves him right, I thought. Disgusting habit. No sooner had I savoured this thought than a collection of bicycles streaked through, followed by a number of mounted horses.

The road was an obstacle course and I wondered would I ever get through, or would I inevitably be knocked over.

Such is the nature of my dreaming at the moment. I prepare to be knocked over by life. It seems too hard. Too much stuff creeping in at the seams, and too many memories invade my space.

Last week I went with two of my sisters on a tour of our old school with about twenty other women. My sisters and I were by far the oldest. None of our contemporaries from the sixties and seventies were there, only one from the eighties and the rest from the nineties, including one girl who went to Vaucluse the year the nuns decided to close down the school.

Vaucluse was a convent for ladies run by the Faithful Companions of Jesus and steeped in the traditions of this teaching order, a brave strong academic tradition, the female equivalent of the Jesuits. The school began in the early 1880s and for a time was the oldest girls school in the southern hemisphere, but they closed it down for want of students.

The school had always been the poor cousin of its sister school, Genezzano, in Kew. And we, my sisters and I, felt this deeply.

The sporty girls played in competition matches against Gen, and our younger but richer sister school invariably won. Our school attracted the poorer Catholic families of Melbourne, those who wanted a convent education for their daughters but could not afford the higher fees of the prestigious Genezzano.

I was struck by the disparity of our memories, not only those of my sisters and I, but also, the younger women.
‘This was where the Sacred Heart dormitory stood,’ I said when we passed upstairs and gathered on what was once a balcony but has since been closed in to form a few small classrooms.

I could tell the dormitory by its ceiling and its position near the stairs, just as I could tell the year twelve classroom, the room we then called Matriculation. The younger women remembered what I thought was the Sacred Heart dormitory as the secretarial room, the room which my generation once called Commercial. For me Commercial stood where the library and computer room still stands.

I tried to listen out for ghosts as we traipsed through the corridors that had once been off limits, the house in which the nuns’ small rooms stood, row after row, neat tiny cubicles and I shuddered at the thought of a life lived in so small a space, a single bed in a room the size of an en suite.

Yet I did not feel the shiver of fear I had thought I might have felt travelling over what to me was once almost sacred ground.

The nuns have long gone and now the Christian Brothers have taken over the school. They bought it from the nuns and use it as a year nine campus for the boys from Saint Kevin’s and as a central office for their order.

In place of the few pictures that once adorned the walls of our old school, throughout the main hall there are rows of images of boys who triumph in sporting events.

It was like going back to visit your childhood home now taken over by another family who have moved things to their tastes and wiped away most traces of you and yours.

And yesterday we went to the wedding of a friend’s daughter, a friend whom my husband has known for some forty years, well before the birth of the bride.

There is something in the wedding vows that stir up intense feelings. The ones whose marriages have survived the test of time, can feel triumph, confident in the success of their efforts, however strained. They have managed to get through for better and for worse, while those who have not survived their vows and whose marriages have not held fast must cringe internally.

A friend suggested they should remodel the legal and compulsory words of the marital vows into something like: We promise we will try to stick together, but if we wind up divorcing, we will do so with respect towards one another, despite our differences’.

I consider events at this friend’s house, which is where they held the reception to be a measure of the passage of time. I have been going to birthday parties, to wedding anniversaries and celebrations of all kinds for a number of years here, for over thirty years now.

My husband and I started as newly weds and then as parents of very young children. Our children once came to these functions, too but as they reached adolescence they chose to stay away.

The years roll by and we now attend these events alone, not yet quite elderly but almost.

Many among our generation have retired or are considering retirement. Their children are grown and married, in many cases with children of their own. There was a rush of new little ones at this wedding, the grandchildren of the bride’s relatives. She is the first to marry in her sibship of two.

And now today
‘Go back to your hovel,’ my daughter says when I offer to go out to buy the eggs that we have run out of. ‘And don’t be such a martyr.’

My husband is busy eating the last two eggs and I am trying to write, wracked by the requirement that I attend to my family despite my thoughts to the contrary and their knowledge that they are old enough to attend to themselves.

At this precise moment I hate being me. I hate the pressure I feel I am under to restore everything to order including, the state of my writing room. To make it look like the study I see on certain blogsites of famous writers who work to order, when I am a slob.

My room becomes a storage room for empty shoeboxes, which I stack to one side and the multiple overfilled filing cabinets, necessary for holding my collections.

‘A hovel my daughter calls it, not simply because of the mess I fear but more because she resents my preoccupation with taking myself off to write as I do.

There are not enough hours in the day to lead a writer’s life, but I can always dream.

And then the floods

After all the talk of floods and cyclones elsewhere in Australia, last night it was our turn here in Melbourne. They called it flash flooding: rain that came down in volumes in only a matter of minutes, and the city was drenched. Our backyard was a swimming pool and many of the streets in valleys and low-lying areas were unpassable.

Our situation is mild compared to places where whole houses have been inundated to their rooftops. The only water that entered our house came through one or two points where the roof had leaked because the plumbers who were supposed to have fixed it last year did not completely seal the flashing.

One or two buckets in strategic places has been enough to hold the flow here, but elsewhere in country Victoria where the rivers have burst their banks, people’s houses have been inundated. The drenching rains and winds for us come in the wake of cyclone Yasi, which ripped a swathe through parts of north Queensland two days ago. It is still rocking its way inwards but has lost much of its force moving from a category five cyclone into a fierce storm.

I felt anxious this morning, uneasy in my gut. Too much water now. When will it end?

Last night I went to the historic house where one of my daughters works as operations manager. She was worried that the place may have been flooded. The house, an old mansion in the inner city was once owned by a dignified family in Melbourne, now all long dead.

The house is spooky at night, my daughter says, hence her need for my company.

There was a function in the restaurant when we arrived, for which I was grateful. There were other people around in the garden, but we soon took ourselves off to the main house and away from the crowd.

It took some fumbling through office drawers for my daughter to find the one old-fashioned key to fit the back door and more keys, again old fashioned, for almost every separate room in the house.

The main leak was near the ballroom. One of the workers for the catering company who organised the event nearby had put down buckets, haphazardly as it turned out because the floor was a river of water. Someone had peeled back the carpets long ago. This room is notorious for leaking, my daughter says, but the Trust has no money or will to fix the roof.

After a twelve-year drought it has not mattered so much till now when the El Nina effect has turned things around, from drought to flood, in what seems like the blink of an eye.

We walked from room to room across the musty carpets, past elaborate furniture displays, all held back by light wooden barriers to deter people from touching. In each room we looked to the ceiling for tell tale signs of cracked wallpaper. We listened for the sound of dripping, the splash of water against hard surfaces.

We found a small drip onto the desk in the room they call the ‘Boudoir’, otherwise all seemed okay. We moved upstairs. No further signs of damage. We used paper towels to mop up the mess, then turned off lights and locked up again. Finally we took up our umbrellas that we had left at the back door and made our way home through the teeming rain.

All the way there and back I had wondered about the ghosts on the property. I did not let myself think too long on these ghosts while I was in the house itself. I did not want to spook myself nor my daughter. She after all works there and there are times, in winter particularly, when she finds herself having to lock up alone in the dark. Lights out and it is indeed a creepy place.

My umbrella brushed against the underbelly of one of the Cyprus trees along the side fence and unleashed a torrent of water over my head. It rolled down the sides of my umbrella like a waterfall.

This time last year we were still hoping for a little more rain, after the first drops fell following twelve years of drought, but now we want it to stop.

Last year I resolved to myself that I would never again complain about rain, as if my complaints had been responsible for keeping the rain away. Now it seems it matters not.

The amount of rain falling in the last twenty-four hours is enough to convince me the weather is impervious to my insults, or to my comments. The weather is its own boss. It is thick skinned. It does not heed the feelings of mere human beings.

Even so, maybe we should pay more attention to the weather. There are patterns. There are signs. We ignore them at our peril.