We can’t be all good or bad

When I was a child, I patterned the world into obvious contrasts, cold winters, hot summers, happy times like holidays and hard sad times like housework or a scraped knee.

There were good people and bad people, my favourite teacher Miss Anderson tall, elegant, her hair in a tight French bun, and bad people like my father. Good people like the saints and angels and bad people like the devil. 

Not that we ever met the devil. We only encountered him in bad deeds, our own and others. Hence the need to get as far away from the devil or our misdeeds by visiting the confessional at least monthly.

My mother fitted into the category of the good person, warm kind and predictable, silent and long suffering. I could rely on her to be there for me, or so I reasoned until one night when we had visitors and she promised to bring me a couple of tea before I fell asleep, but the tea never came. 

I waited and waited in my bed into the darkness. Heard the hub bub of voices from the lounge room where my aunts and uncles, mother and father talked together over cups pf coffee and sweetened liqueurs, but no tea for me. 

She had promised she’d bring one to me, the next time she popped into the kitchen to refresh the biscuits she served as savouries, smoked oysters from a tin on salty crackers, and Russian eggs, which she had prepared earlier in the day. She boiled the eggs hard then sliced in two, took out the yolks mashed them together with mayonnaise, a sprinkle of curry, salt and pepper then returned the yolks in a pile to fill white oval space. 

I had not asked for an egg or food, only a cup of tea but my mother became so engrossed with her guests, so intent on focussing on them, the hours slipped by and with it I slipped into sleep but the memory of this one too-long-wait for my mother marked her copy book.

I kept a copy book of sorts in my head. A place in which I listed the misdeeds of people who let me down.

I did not consider myself in those days a Scorpio, a person born in November under the eighth astrological sign therefore prone to vengeful fantasies, like the scorpion who stings when wounded or afraid. I thought everyone kept a record book of other people’s failings.

My father’s misdeeds were many, my mother’s few. Until the day I bounced my ball up and down the path that ran alongside our house to the side door which we used as our front entrance way. 

Up and down with my ball on the pavement. The trick to keep it in motion as long as possible without it derailing off course or having to catch it. Up and down until it slipped sideways and into a plate of glass someone had leaned against the fence. 

The glass was intended to replace the window in the kitchen that one of my brothers had smashed with another ball. He out of carelessness, me out of misadventure. My mother did not see it that way.

‘The glass broke,’ I told her after she came running at the sound of a crash.

‘How could you,’ she said. ‘Not again.’ Her eyes glowered and her cheeks were flushed. My mother had never been angry with me. My mother had always been kind. This was not my mother. This was someone else who had entered my world and did not understand the ways of a ten-year-old child who could not stop her ball from flipping at a right angle and into a plate of glass after it collided with a stone on the concrete.

My mother in the middle, surrounded by some of her children in a familiar pose.

This was not my mother. This was some other monster mother, and I fled from her down the road to the Canterbury park where I pushed the slide swing up and down to soothe my fury at her cruel misjudgement.

I was a good person. I had to be a good person along with the saints and the angels, along with the nuns. I was a good person. If I was not good, then I became bad and to be bad was the worst fate of all. It put me there among the fallen archangels, among the sinners in purgatory, the devils in hell. It put me there with the people whom no one liked, the people like Hitler who started wars, or like the barbarians and Huns the nuns taught us about in history. It put me into the place of the unmentionables.

This was a dilemma for me. An insoluble problem. We could not both be good anymore, my mother and me. Not after she had raged at me. Not after she had shown such hatred in her eyes. 

We could not both be good. One of us had to be bad. And I feared it might end up being me.

What gives you the right?

The telephone rang and interrupted my first fitful efforts at sleeping.
‘You fucking bitch,’ he said. ‘You fucking bitch.’ His voice trailed off. Time slowed down. Is this a dream, I wondered? Is this a phone call in my sleep? In a minute I’ll wake up.
‘Everyone knows what you’ve been up to. Everyone knows but me. I’m the last to know.’
I found my voice, but the words were croaky.
‘What are you talking about?’ I knew what he was talking about but I wanted to deny it even as I knew it was true. I wanted to think it did not matter. I wanted him to think it did not matter that I had betrayed him.

I had slept with someone else. Slept with, such a euphemism. Had sex with, fucked, shagged, you name it in biblical terms. That I had gone off with another man while he was away for weeks on end.

Somehow he expected me to sit at home, the good and loving girlfriend, the good and loving partner, always faithful, irrespective of how he behaved.
‘I’m coming over now,’ he said. ‘I’ve got your stuff. You can have it back. I never want to see you again.’

The dial tone buzzed in my ear. I kept the phone close. I could not believe he had rung off. Soon he would be here. I dragged on my dressing gown. Good, I thought. He’ll be here soon. I’ll settle him down. I’ll soothe him. A few gentle words.

I heard his car pull up in the carport below. I looked through the blinds. He opened the car door and flung the books and clothes that I had left behind at his house as a mark of our relationship.

When we had separated three months earlier, we agreed on an amicable split. We agreed to go our separate ways, that we would each be free now to explore new relationships.

I pulled up the blinds and swung open the window. ‘Come up,’ I said. ‘Don’t just throw stuff. Come up and talk.’ He continued to throw more books, my old grey cardigan, my CD case, my sunglasses onto the pile. I kept my voice low. I did not want to wake the neighbours.

‘Please talk,’ I said again to the silent man whose arm moved up and down like a piston as he threw the last of my shoes onto the pile. He slammed his car door shut. He had not cut the engine. He reversed without looking up to see me.

That was how we left it. The end of the scene. The death of a relationship. Silence is the best revenge.

I have no trouble with the word ‘hate’ these days. It rolls off my tongue easily. I can tell someone that I hate someone else; even that I hate them as long as I also feel a fondness, a love for the one to whom I might direct the word hate, otherwise I can only talk about such hateful feelings behind someone’s back.

I can try to qualify my comments, when I am angry with my husband for instance, to say to him, I really hate it when you do that, not, I hate you when you do that, but the truth is, in that moment, I hate him.

I know well enough that it is a sign of confidence in her mother’s love when a child is able to say to her mother directly, ‘I hate you’. To know that her mother will tolerate such an expression and not retaliate or go under into shock and horror, or be destroyed by it because this mother recognises that her child says these words out of hurt or disappointment in the mother whom the child also loves.

It is not unusual to hear such utterances from three and four year olds, but as we get older it seems we learn to modify such outbursts. We learn, if we have gone to the right behavioural schools, to criticise the behaviour, not the person.

‘It’s not ‘you’ I hate, it’s what you do…when you get drunk, when you refuse to tidy your room, when you don’t pull your weight, when you carry on like that, when you’re slack, when you give up on yourself, when you stop caring about others, about me.’ It’s okay to hate these things, these behaviours, but to hate the person who does these things becomes a no-no.

It is important to distinguish the person from the behaviour and yet, the satisfaction that comes from really being able to say to someone or of someone, ‘I hate you’ knows no bounds. It gives great satisfaction, and yet almost immediately there is a wish to qualify it. I hate you when…

We throw around the word ‘love’ with such ease, but the word ‘hate’ we are wary of, for good reasons – all those wars, all that bloodshed.

Hatred is not something to spread, but it can be spread in subtle and secret ways and often even by people who purport to love and to care.

When I was at the Writer’s House, Peter Bishop urged me to write into my rage. Write into your rage he said, vomit onto the page.

Peter Bishop also says to write out of ‘doubts and loves’. Where do we put the hate? I wondered. Is not hate on a continuum with the love? The ones we love are the ones we hate, beginning with our parents.

When I first read William Gaddis’s words quote in the Sunday Age in an article by Don Watson I knew that these words were important for me.
‘The best writing worth reading comes like suicide from outrage or revenge.’

It is not the first time I have been in a creative hole as deep as this. It is not the first time that I have sat alone at my writing desk wishing for something to come to me, some thread, some thought, some feeling or image that I might follow, but it is no less painful. I ache all over with the refusal. My mind will not give it up. My mind will not let the words flow, will not let me arrive at some point where I can think, ah ha I have it. I know now what I am writing about. I know now what this book is about. I can proceed. I start again and again, so many false starts so many attempts to move beyond this desperate feeling of not knowing what I am doing.

And the audience whom I tried to send away only five minutes ago is back again, my parents and siblings in the front row alongside my conscience. They say to me again, in a chorus, what are you on about? We don’t want to know this. Tell us a story instead and make it good. Make it interesting.

But if I start to tell a story, I fear I will be in trouble with someone. That someone will tap me on the shoulder and say ‘What gives you the right?’