Mother Margaret Mary stood in front of the class and handed
back our papers.  One after the other we stepped
forward onto the raised platform where she stood in front of her desk and reached
out from her pile
I knew it would take an age to come to my name.  Mother Margaret Mary went
Some kids smiled as they walked back to their desks; others
When she finally called for me, I scraped out from behind my
desk, one where the top was attached to the base and you slid in and out sideways. 
‘I knew you weren’t any good at mental,’ Mother Margaret Mary
said as I reached out to take my test. 
‘But not this bad.’
I had not known I was this bad either. 
I’d tried hard to figure out those numbers, those additions
and subtractions, multiplications and divisions, but my head went fuzzy and it
took me ages to get out one sum after the next.
‘Two out of ten,’ Mother Margaret Mary said. 
She said it in a way that made me feel small.  She said it in away that made me wonder
whether she enjoyed my bad mark.
This was not unusual. 
Mother Margaret had a way of triumphing over our childhood mistakes.
When one of the boys talked to his friend during class when
he should have been silent, she called him out to the front and then took a
ribbon from her desk.  She kept a
collection of ribbons there, ribbons that had fallen from the hair of some careless
girls and been lost.
She took the ribbon and lifted a piece of loose hair from the
boy’s head then tied the ribbon round it in a bow.
Then she ordered the boy to
stand outside of the classroom in the middle of an empty rubbish bin that stood
near the door.  She kept him there for hours.
‘If you act like a girl, you’ll be treated like one.’  That presumably was a reference to Mother
Margaret Mary’s choice of ribbon for his hair, but I never understood the
reference to girl’s behaviour nor the purpose of the rubbish bin, other than to
tell the boy he was nothing more than rubbish.
I didn’t know about humiliation in those days. 
I didn’t know then that some people took pleasure in making
other people who were already vulnerable by virtue of their size or some other
difficulty, feel even more vulnerable.
Years later, when I was at senior school and had grown taller
and begun to realise that maybe I could be good at other things and, although I
was still no good at arithmetic, I could at least count and measure size.
I met Mother Margaret Mary one day at my new school.  She had come with other nuns to visit when
they appointed a new reverend mother.  I saw
her at the back of the chapel.  I swear
she had shrunk.
She looked so much older that I remembered her.  And for the first time in my life it occurred
to me that people can change, and those who wield power over you one day, can
the next, become like the emperor of no clothes.
‘The queen wipes her bum, too,’ my husband once said to me
when I was approaching a meeting that terrified me.
He was trying to give me courage.  And in a strange way it helped. 
Not the sight of the queen on the toilet, but the idea that
Mother Margaret Mary might also have used the toilet and that she, too, had a
When I was a small child who failed her mental arithmetic test
I had imagined Mother Margaret Mary had no body. 
I had imagined she did not eat, or sleep, or use the toilet
like the rest of us, and that outside of the classroom and staff room she spent
her days in church. 

Breasts, Brains and Cold Sores

Today is the sixth week since I broke my leg. It is fast becoming my leg again. I can bend it effortlessly though not as far back as I once could. I am not sure I could sit on it yet. I can bend well within a ninety degree angle, though not much further. I have enough movement in my knee to be able to drive my car again. An automatic. My healthy right leg does all the work.

It is still an ordeal of sorts to get into and out of the car but I can now do it unaided. I hobble to the front door, release one crutch and lean it there beside the car, I open the driver’s door, and then toss in my crutches over onto the passenger side. Finally I slide myself into the driver’s seat all the time careful not to twist my bung leg too much at an angle so as to disrupt the bone. Once behind the wheel, I am mobile again, an independent woman in her car.

I have almost stopped worrying that the bone might move. I think it is held in for good now, but still I must take care not to bear weight on my left leg yet, much less to fall or I might not so much displace the bone as fracture it all over again.

Someone told me – in the blogosphere as I recall – that you cannot break a bone in the exact same spot again, that the scar material of bones becomes fixed like the most rigid of concrete, while somewhere else I read that once broken, a bone is more vulnerable, that the fracture points of bones are far more brittle.

I do not know the truth of this. I do not understand the science. I rather enjoyed the idea that once broken, never broken again, like once bitten twice shy, once hurt, never open again, but this is not so perhaps. Points of vulnerability become even more vulnerable.

We have returned for a dose of bitter winter weather again this weekend, with much of the State of Victoria on flood alert. This after over ten years of drought. The dams have moved from being slightly over quarter full a little over a year ago to almost half full today.

Half filled dams are a bonus. I do not remember in my lifetime a moment when the dams were almost full. Half full is about as much as we dare hope for. But then again I rely on memory and my limited knowledge here.

I have only started to attend to the state of the dams in recent years. When I was young and felt more omnipotent than I do now I did not bother with concerns over the state of the land, though I can always remember a terrible fear during the bushfire season even as we did not live close to the bush.

Bush fires are a feature of every Australian’s consciousness. They begin early summer and erupt unpredictably one after another till the end of the hot weather. They are one of the reasons I could not bear to live in bushland.

To worry all summer long about the weather and those hot fire ban days, which arrive with increasing regularity in this country, would throw me out.

There are so many things over which I have no control, weather being one of them, I could not bear to be daily anxious about what the weather might bring during bushfire season.

When I was young, my other uncontrolled worry was the arrival of cold sores on my face. When I was young I might have copped a cold sore almost monthly. Someone explained to me early in the piece that once you have suffered with cold sores you have them for life.

Cold sores are caused by a virus which lives in your lip. Usually it sleeps there and gives you no trouble, but the minute something goes wrong for you, it flares up like a bushfire.

The cold sore virus is linked to my emotions, like the handle of a tap. Become upset by something and the handle turns. It can even be an upset of which my mind might not be aware, though not my body. My body knows more than my conscious mind, but my unconscious mind drives the other parts of my mind and body or so I believed as a ten year old trying to fight off the inevitable but uncertain arrival of cold sores.

They start as a tingle in your lip and turn into a watery blister that swells to what feels from the inside when you scrape it with your tongue to be the size of a cricket ball. In the mirror this blister stage looks nowhere as bad as the next stage after the blister bursts, usually a large blister or a series of little blisters clustered together.

When I was a chid there was an ointment my mother sometimes bought from the chemist called Stoxil. I was not the only one in my family who copped cold sores. The sooner you applied the Stoxil the more likely you were to beat the virus, or so the writing on the side of the Stoxil tube said. I never had the ointment on hand to test this theory out. My mother, if she bought it, bought it after the event.

Once a cold sore took hold on my lip it was there for up to ten days or more. After the blister burst it became a wide spreading and throbbing red welt that over stretched the edge of my lips and to my mind made me look even more ugly than I imagined myself to be when I was a child, uglier even than the ugliest child in my classroom.

In my family the theory followed that the oldest were the ugliest, growing more beautiful down the line. The youngest girl and boy were the most beautiful. To compensate for this, the reverse applied to brains.

The oldest were the smartest and the youngest were the dumbest. This put me, sixth in line, in the invidious position of having neither brains nor beauty, right here near the middle. I figured in my position, one below the middle, my cleverness won over my appearance if only by a muddling amount.

I was not smart at school, as Mother Mary John in grade six testified after I failed mental arithmetic.
‘I thought you were bad,’ she said, when she handed back my exercise book covered in crosses, ‘but not that bad.’

Mental arithmetic troubled me by its name, mental. Mental with its links to mind, and numbers and to cold sores.

There was a direct line from somewhere in my brain to the place in my lip where the cold sore virus lived. When I was thirteen, I worried about the line for weeks before I became bridesmaid at my second oldest brother’s wedding. I was in between dress sizes and the dressmaker my sister-in-law-to-be had appointed complained to her that people like me were the worst to make dresses for. We were neither child nor woman.

If I had copped a cold sore on my brother’s wedding day, then not only would I be this hybrid creature who needed a bra that had so much padding inside the cups that my brothers laughed the first time they saw me lined up on the steps of the church before the wedding, I would also be ugly.

I recognised my brothers’ sneers. They knew my body was fake. I knew my body was fake, but the dressmaker had insisted there would be no point in making a dress that fitted my exact size at the time. Within weeks my breasts might erupt just like a cold sore and, given that she had started to make the dress at least three months before the event, she needed to be sure she could accommodate all eruptions.

Breasts, brains and cold sores, they go together for me in an uneasy sequence. I could not control them. I could not control how much my brain might hold in of the times table I rote learned on weekends in readiness for Monday morning tests when we lined up in the class room and took turns to recite the tables one after the other.

My surname began with the letter ‘S’. I was always to the end of the line and the end of the line was where the hardest sums landed – the seven times eight type questions, which so often evaded me; the nine times six.

Even now I can feel a prickle in my lip as I remember how the impossible sum tripped the point in my brain that pulled the cord that sent the signal down to the virus in my lip and told it to wake up and get back to work.

To fail mental arithmetic not only showed up on my school report at the end of term, it showed up on my face and everyone could see, how dumb and ugly I was, even when my sister-in-law-to-be had dressed me up in a canary yellow silk ball gown that fell all the way to my feet and was topped off by two enormous bosoms that were not my own.

Eruptions came all to easily in those days. Perhaps it accounts today for why I make such terrible mistakes and can never quite manage to conceal them.