Practice Autobiography

To Jim from The Truth about Lies, to prove that I can sometimes at least try to fictionalise the truth.

I wrote the following piece as far back as fifteen years ago and I have polished it again and again till I fear it has lost most of its shine.

I should not say this but such is the editing work that goes on behind the scenes, like an orchestra practising for the big event.

The audience does not want to hear the mistakes and disharmony of these practice attempts; the audience wants to hear and see only the finished product. Though that is not entirely true.

These days audiences are also interested in process, at least many in the blogosphere are interested in process, because the blogosphere has become one big practice area for all sorts of creative endeavours. It is like one long writing workshop, a painting class, a photography lesson, in which people share their productions, their best, and sometimes their worst efforts, and discuss them.

With these thoughts in mind I dare to post a scrap of autobiography written largely from almost imperceptible memories and heavy doses of imagination. Does it hold any emotional resonance? I wonder.

The Dynamics of Liquids: Blood

I woke in the night to the sound of my mother moaning. A sad, choking sound, as if she were calling for comfort but at the same time stifling her need. It was dark in my room. A dog somewhere outside barked and the magpies began their morning warble.

I slid my feet over the edge of my bed and shivered as they hit the cold linoleum with a thud. The light broke up in blocks of gold along the darkness of the corridor as I crept close to my parent’s bedroom door and listened. My father would be angry if he saw me.

‘Momma, Momma,’ I said, and peered through the crack. She sat on the edge of her bed, gripping the sides of her dressing gown together. At the sound of my voice, she stopped and stared out towards the hallway, her eyes ringed with shadow and her face the bleached white of the stones that lined the creek bed near our house. She yanked at the bedspread and tried to cover herself with the top sheet.

Ga maar terug naar bed, schat. Ik ben okay. Okay? Her voice trembled and through the crack in the door I could see the strain on her face.

I dawdled back to bed and as I slid under the blankets, my little sister, who was asleep in the cot against the wall, opened her eyes, stared at the ceiling, and then fell back to sleep. I pulled the blankets up to my chin and squeezed my eyes closed. Maybe then, I thought, maybe, then I could keep out the pictures running through my head, pictures in red, red blood on sheets and my father standing above the bed looking down at my mother.

That morning when my little sister woke crying in her cot, my mother did not come. My father came instead and took her to their room. He did not notice me. I pretended to be asleep. My big sister came a few minutes later to get me up. She was already dressed for school.

‘You better be good this morning. Momma’s sick.’
Inside the kitchen, two of my brothers, the little ones, sat at the table along the bench. I slid in to join them. The two big boys had already left for school. Their empty bowls were smeared with traces of dried up porridge.

‘I don’t want any,’ my youngest brother said as our sister put a full bowl in front of him. He was about to protest when my father walked in. I could hear the soft tick tock of the clock on the wall. My father walked the length of the kitchen out through the back door. His shoulders stooped over his long arms in which he carried the remains of a towel rolled over itself. It was stained red. He walked across to the sink; pushed aside the dishes piled there and crossed himself,
‘In the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.’

When he had finished, my father collected the towel and walked out through the back door. It slammed shut behind him.
‘What’s he doing?’ I asked.
‘He’s baptising the baby.’ My sister stood over the stove, the wooden spoon in her hand ready to ladle out the next bowlful from the saucepan. Strands of porridge had spilt over its edge and turned black at the bottom where the pan met the flame. It gave off a burnt smell.

‘Momma had a baby last night. It wasn’t ready to be born. It wasn’t big enough.’ For a seven-year-old, my sister knew a lot. ‘Father told me all about it. And now he’s gone to the back yard to bury it.’ She paused looking at us as if testing our reaction.

‘Father was too late, so the baby will go to Limbo. You have to be baptised before you die if you want to go to Heaven.’

‘What’s Limbo?’ I asked. My sister had just spooned out my bowl of porridge and put it in front of me. The steam made my eyes water.

‘Limbo is where babies go when they aren’t baptised. And because it’s not their fault they didn’t get baptised, God made limbo. And it’s as good as heaven. You get to eat whatever you like, whenever you like. And you don’t have to do any work or anything and you can play all day. But the trouble is, in limbo you don’t get to see God. In Heaven He’s around all the time, but not in limbo. In limbo you can have a good time but you’re on your own.’

Through the kitchen window, we watched our father force the heavy spade into the ground with the full force of his boot. He dug up clumps of dirt, which he threw in a mountain beside him. The soil soon changed colour from the dark brown of the surface to the khaki yellow of the clay beneath. He was intent on his digging, and brushed away flies with the back of his hand. He dug a deep hole. Our goat, Hettie who was tied to a eucalypt at the far end of the yard dragged on her rope and managed to reach the edge of the hole. My father waved her off with his spade. Hettie tottered away. Even she knew to keep a distance from my father.

It was hot the day our mother lost her baby. What began as a drip became a flood. Drips of old, brown blood that later gave way to new blood, fresh and flooding. All day long, she felt the outward flow of a life that had only just begun. Like a penny doll in its little cradle, she said. Twelve weeks into the world and it was gone.

Life is plotless: Things Happen

Something in Truth and Lies’s latest posting, on Amos Oz’s Rhyming Life and Death has inspired me to include this short story here, to back up my view that life is plotless: I called it ‘Things Happen’. It was published in Island Magazine

Things Happen

My friend invited us to dinner. It was hot. She had left the side doors open to catch the breeze. One of her rabbits hopped through and skittered across the carpet.
‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘My rabbits are toilet-trained.’
My friend served wild duck soaked in red wine and garnished with slivers of prosciutto. She had stuffed it with pine nuts and raisins.
Once again she argued with my husband over the meaning of life.
‘How can you say something’s meant to be as if someone’s in charge? Life’s not like that. Things just happen.’ He was glaring at her across the table. Her cheeks were flushed from too much wine.
‘It’s presumptuous to assume it all stops and starts with us,’ she said, sticking the carving knife into the side of her duck and sawing furiously as though the meat were tough. It fell away like crumbling cheese.

That last time I saw my friend I was still bleeding. When I went to the toilet, and saw the pad soaked through to my dress, I realised I must have been dripping through onto her seat cushion. The cushion was coloured a dark burgundy like my dress and the room was lit with candles. I hoped she would not notice.
I had lost the baby three days earlier. The doctor called it the lottery of pregnancy.
‘Not to worry,’ he said. ‘You can try again’. He took me into his surgery to scrape out the left over bits but the bleeding went on.

My friend wrote poetry: long tortured pieces about the mad people she met through her work. She was a doctor, but I could not tell her about the baby or the bleeding that night. I was still picking over my grief.

One evening, months before my miscarriage, my friend came home and found two of her rabbits gone. She lived close to the city but her house was opposite parkland that ran all the way down to the Yarra River. Foxes lived by its banks in a maze of dens hidden among the ti-tree and gums.
My friend offered two of the surviving rabbits to me. She wanted them to breed. They would be safer in our house, away from the river and the park. But we never loved them enough. Not like my friend. We left them outside in the backyard in tight wire cages and their toenails grew long from never being able to dig or run free.

‘The pregnancy took but for some reason the egg and the sperm did not fit properly,’ the doctor had said, pointing to the empty sac on the ultrasound screen. ‘It’s just one of those things.’
I did not tell him how I had named the baby Horatio, after the Roman general who held the bridge. I did not tell him he was a boy. You’re not supposed to know those things, not at ten weeks. But I knew.

The rabbits mated. My friend showed me how to cordon off a section of the cage. When the mother rabbit was about ready to deliver her babies, my friend told me, I would notice her rip out lumps of fur from her body which she would use to line the cage.
‘Then you separate the male from the female. Male rabbits are likely to damage their young.’
There were five babies curled up together like pinky mice, their eyes covered with a thin shield of skin. My friend warned me not to touch the babies for several days, otherwise the mother might refuse to feed them.

Weeks before I miscarried, my friend came to our house for dinner. With each glass of wine her voice grew louder. She loved to argue, especially with men. We joked about the dangers of sitting beside her. She made her point by grabbing the nearest person at the table in a headlock and shaking him till he begged for release. She was strong, my friend, with long pointy fingers weighed down by silver rings.

My friend was born a twin but only she survived the birth. Her brother was born and died thirty minutes later. He became her shadow. She liked to think he was there with her all the time. At work meetings, as a laugh, she would insist on occupying two seats, one for herself, one for her twin.

My friend never had children of her own. She had wanted them, she told me, but they never happened.

In her fiftieth year, five years earlier, my friend had bought a red sports car, sleek, contoured and close to the ground. She drove it with the sun -roof down, her green scarf streaking behind in the wind. An Isadora Duncan scarf. My friend laughed when I told her how, in the 1920s at the height of her dancing career, the scarf on Isadora’s swan-like neck got caught up in the spokes of her car’s wheel and strangled her.

My friend wore glasses, with lenses thick like the bottom of milk bottles.
‘I couldn’t bear to go blind,’ she said, lifting her glasses to rub at her eyes. ‘I’d rather die first.’
At night she sat close to the computer screen composing letters of complaint to the editor, her last surviving rabbit, a barren female, hopping under her feet.
‘Silence is a crime,’ my friend said.

My friend bought tickets for a jazz concert the week after our dinner. ‘You’re sick. Go to bed,’ her husband said.
‘I’m not wasting my money.’ She closed her eyes, threw back her head and soaked in the music.

A bug crawled inside my friend and took over. It traveled along her blood stream letting off a poisonous gas. Within hours of the concert she went into a coma.
‘We need to make an oxygen chamber,’ the doctors said. ‘This bacteria hates oxygen.’ They hacked away at her dead flesh. Peeled off her right shoulder, part of her leg and stomach. My friend’s body swelled like a balloon as it struggled to defend her. The doctors spared her the pain by anesthetic and split her skin from shoulder to wrist to stop the constriction in her fingers and gangrene. Through it all she slept.
‘This hateful bug,’ her husband said, wiping my friend’s face with the back of his hand. ‘We must beat it.’

My bleeding stopped while my friend slept. I found a get-well card in a bookshop, a ‘bug’ card, depicting a green bug sitting up in bed, ill. But I did not buy it. It was too raw. I wrote her a letter instead: ‘What talks we’ll have when all this is over.’

The nurse came and washed my friend’s hair. Only her family could visit. Her husband was certain she enjoyed the water’s warmth, the touch. But the doctors insisted she was now brain dead and could feel nothing.
Without the machine, she breathed only three times a minute. She needed fourteen. She could not speak. She could not eat or shit. She was lonely and in despair, her husband said, but the doctors were certain she could feel nothing.

My friend died in the afternoon when the temperature in Melbourne reached 40.3, the hottest November day for 86 years. They turned off her life support. She did not tell me she was leaving. I did not hear a whisper.

We buried her and held a memorial. Tea and cucumber sandwiches. She would have preferred a glass of red.

Last night I saw my friend in a dream, sitting at her kitchen table, laughing, full bellied roars. She was wearing her green scarf, loosely draped around her neck. She sat, legs akimbo, as always, arms flying to right and left, as she remonstrated with us about the meaning of life, then grabbed hold of the nearest person at the table and pulled him to the ground.
‘Submit,’ she said. ‘On the count of five, I win.’