Through my most grievous fault

My impulse to ‘help’ others is deeply ingrained. It is an impulse so strong that I find myself holding the lift open for the next person who might still be metres away to the consternation of other people already in the lift who are keen to get off. My do-gooding can hold some people up as much as it might be helpful for others.

My husband hates it.
‘Stop social working,’ he says. ‘Stop being such a do-gooder.’

When I first met my husband and told him of my qualification then as a social worker he said with a twinkle in his eye: ‘Social workers are mawkish dabblers in the dirty washing of others’.

The saying has stuck, but please all you social workers, do not take offense. He meant it only as a joke, but we all know that jokes carry kernels of truthfulness.

Do-gooders are boring people. If I meet such a person in life I tend to dislike them. I see myself reflected there. It is an appalling trait masquerading as helpful.

My mother’s mother whom I met only once when she came to Australia to spend several months with her oldest daughter’s family now settled here, suffered from scruples, or so my mother has told me.

Scruples are the knotty bits at the end of ropes, thick stubby short ropes attached to a handle that the monks used in days gone by as a means of whipping themselves. They walked along the streets their backs bloodied and striped in raised welts from their self-flagellation.
‘Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.’ Through my fault. My own fault. Through my most grievous fault.

They had sinned. Sins of impurity, sins of selfishness, sins of lust and of greed and they must atone for these sins to a God whom in their minds derived some satisfaction from their bloody mortification.

My grandmother took herself to the priest for confession and although she did not use a scruple stick, she used her words.
‘Father I have sinned. You can never know how badly.’
‘In what way have you sinned my child?’
‘I cannot say, Father. I cannot find words to tell you how bad I have been, but God knows and how can he ever forgive me?’

The priest by now familiar with my grandmother’s litany of remorse tried to cut her short.
‘Say three Hail Marys. I absolve you now, in the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost’.

My grandmother shuffled from the church after saying her prayers, went back to her home and her kitchen, her husband, her children and her sinfulness only to return later that day with the same complaint.
‘Father, you do not realise how bad I have been.’
The priest tried again, day after day, week after week, month after month, but to no avail.

On her trip to Australia my grandmother worried. She wore a summer dress with pencil thin straps over her shoulders. Too much flesh visible. But in the heat of Australia, my mother reasoned, many women dressed this way. For my grandmother, another sin for the priest back home.

When she returned to Holland, my grandmother took to her bed. She was 67 years old. The scruples had turned into cancerous knots in her belly and she died.

I think of her often when I consider this pressure in me to relieve myself of the burden of my existence. I have long ago relinquished any belief in such a cruel and heartless god as one who might demand relentless recompense, and yet the need to help goes on.

The monks who flagellated themselves in the eyes of the people and of their God were motivated by a desire to punish themselves. Helping others compulsively has similar overtones. For which reason we must set limits on such impulses and allow others to help us in turn. Turn the selfishness of selflessness into a shared exchange, a give and take.

Lesson learned?

Travel without a ticket

During my seven days at The Writer’s House, Varuna, in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, I felt at times overwhelmed by a sense of my inability as a writer, by my fraudulence. The experience led me into memories.

I travel without a ticket. My concession card has long expired but I keep it tucked inside my blazer pocket in the hope that every time I flash it past the stationmaster at the gate, he will not notice and will wave me through.

For a year we travel like this, my sister and I. From Parkdale railway station beside the sea to Richmond and its factories in the middle of which, in a green oasis of garden and trees, sits our school.

It has become something of an art this business of concealment, with many different strands and possibilities. Every day as we stand on the platform waiting for the train we look to the ground for cast off tickets. There are some, which are useless. They have a pink stripe or a bold print declaration that marks them as tickets once used by someone in a special category, different from ours. We need tickets that belong to concession-eligible students and there are plenty of these around if only we are lucky.

I also have a store of these tickets in my blazer pocket. I use them at the other end of my journey. I have become adept at walking past the station man with a cool air. I toss the ticket into his open hand along side all the other people who do likewise. It is important to get into the middle of a large bunch of people. This way the station man does not have time to look too closely at out tickets, my sister and I, when they fall into his hand. Concealment comes in numbers.

Anxiety is at its height at these times. That climactic moment, as if in a movie when the ticket man looks down at your ticket, drags it out from the pile in his hand and looks at its past-its-use-by date and sees that it is a ticket for a journey that stopped four stations before in Malvern, or sees that it is a ticket that should have been used last year, and recognises that you are a fraud. He calls for you to stop within the crowd of strangers, selects you out as a non person, a person who is not worthy of such travel. It gets worse.

In my imagination my sister and I are held hostage in the station master’s office until the police arrive. I am not so young and foolish these days as to imagine that we will be sent to prison for our crime, nor am I worried about what our mother will say. She does not have money to give us to buy our tickets. She must know that we travel on imaginary ones. She never says a word about this to us and we know not to tell. She has worries enough about finding money for food.

Nor do I worry about what the nuns might say. The nuns are more tolerant of poverty than many, and since we have started to travel to school from Parkdale, since our parents have separated and the nuns know the story from my older sister – who once planned to be a nun herself but they would not take her on the grounds of insanity – since then, the nuns have been kind.

They turn a blind eye to my partial uniform, to the fact that my indoor shoes are worn out and should be replaced, to the fact that I hold my pinafore together with a safety pin. They turn a blind eye. But I wear these things badly in my mind and it is my fellow students who torment me with their stares, like the anonymous throng of people scurrying from the train. I see them in my mind’s eye when the ticket man calls to us to stop – ‘that’s not a proper ticket’ – when he grabs me by the wrist as if he imagines I will attempt a quick get away. Then it becomes the single eye of the anonymous crowd like a giant eye blinking down from the sky that stares with accusation and criticism. It is a look I have seen in my mother’s eyes when she disapproves. It is a deadly look, the look of the curse – the curser looks upon the cursed, and the cursed one is damned forever.

Can you imagine? A year of this? A year of traveling on trains twice a day, of sitting in the middle carriage, hands on our laps, our bags at our feet, sharing the bag of lollies a school friend and her sister who live in Bentleigh buy at the shop in the tunnel of the Richmond railway station on our way home.

I wonder that they do not resent us. We do not reciprocate. We do not buy lollies. We do not have money to share. We sit together in a huddle, white gloves in summer, brown in winter, demure schoolgirls chattering about the day’s events. Four of us travel together but two of us are frauds. Two of us do not have a ticket.

I watch the doors at every platform when the train comes to a halt. I watch for the men in grey – the ticket inspectors. I have a plan laid out in my mind. The ticket men will prepare to walk into our carriage. We will see them as the train pulls into the station. As soon as we see them we will stand up, make a sudden excuse to our friends, grab our school bags and leave. Then we will take ourselves to the toilets in the middle of the platform, well away from the exit gate and the stationmaster and wait for the next train, but we will not take the next train or the train after that. We know that ticket inspectors get on and off from one station to the next. It will take at least five or six more trains before the ticket inspectors have exhausted the stations and we will be able to complete our journey without detection.

After a year of traveling in this way I have an entrenched sense of guilt, the danger of being caught.

I struggled with this throughout my seven days of writing at Varuna, the writer’s lament. In time I shook the monkey from my shoulder and wrote like a train, but it only came after the pain of remembering.