If as WG Sebald writes, first person experience is the closest we can get to the truth, then I’m left wondering, whose truth?
You’ll regret it, my sister said when I told her I’d shaved my legs for the first time. I must have been under fourteen. We were still living in the Camberwell house.
What possessed me to do this? Whose razor did I use?
‘Your hair is so fair,’ my sister said. ‘You can barely see it, but from now on it’ll grow back spikey, and only get darker.’
It was okay for her to save her legs. Why not for me?
In memory, I was standing in the front garden of our house in Wentworth Avenue close by the low red bricked fence where geraniums sprouted in untidy rows, tucked between the endless weeds and nasturtiums.
My father’s grey station wagon was parked at the curb in front of the house. He must have been home. Luckily this conversation took place outside his earshot. I did not want to alert my father to the fact of my body. The fact I had legs that at this moment felt as shiny as a newborn baby’s skin.
In this same garden a week before our dog Peta was stuck to another dog in a way I knew signified sex, only I did not fully understand the process and ran inside fearful that something dreadful was happening to Peta. The dog whose name we spelled with an ‘A’ in the hope our father might believe she who had followed one of my brothers home from school was male and therefore safe from the possibility of pregnancy, and therefore okay to keep as ours.
‘Throw a bucket of water over them,’ my mother said as I panicked. One of my brothers grabbed a plastic bucket from the laundry, filled it with water from the garden tap and drenched both dogs, who then disappeared up the street.
Peta was a free-range dog and took delight in chasing cars up and down Wentworth Avenue. In no time she was back at it.
I grew accustomed to the terror Peta might fall under the black car wheels as they sped up our street but somehow she managed to stay alive and had litters of puppies, one after the other, until one day a woman who lived several houses up the street from us offered to take Peta off our hands.
She could afford to have the dog spayed, she told my mother, and my mother who in those days was herself considering the possibility of going onto the contraceptive pill, despite the church’s opposition, agreed.
Peta grew fat then and slow. She stopped chasing cars.
I was sad, as sad as when my father called me into the lounge-room soon after my tenth birthday to tell me the baby my mother had gone into hospital that morning to birth had died.
As I get older my memories coagulate into a mess of times and places and I cannot get to the truth Sebald espouses.
Yesterday I cleaned the mould from my bedroom windowpane and already I feel better. As if I had decided in my mind the mould had been giving me trouble and now it is gone I can breathe freely again.
Scottish moss that bears no relation to mould except in my imagination. The way it covers a wide surface area. But I’ve yet to hear of any human allergy to moss.
All the tiny spores disappeared under the weight of the industrial strength mould remover I bought from Bunnings where all things magical line up for sale.
‘The landlord’s friend,’ my daughter, said decrying the way landlords take easy solutions to rid their tenancies of mould, typically applying a coat of white paint over the affected area as if this alone will remove all trace. Only to know it will return soon enough as it might for me despite the promises of my industrial strength remover.
To this day I marvel at my suggestibility, the ease with which I slip into panaceas, promises of improvement, simply based on a clear liquid wiped across my windowpane.
This also happens when I take a Panadol to remove a groggy head when I’m not feeling well. Within twenty minutes I expect to feel better and most times I do, unless of course I’m sick with something Panadol cannot budge.
My mother fed us the line growing up that we kids inherited her brilliant immune system and could withstand anything. How she failed to connect this to the fact that two of her children in relatively close succession developed rheumatic fever – a bacterial infection that attacks people’s hearts – is beyond me.
On medical advice she shipped off my unwell sister and brother to Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital for months at a time.
My mother believed in miracles and when bad things happened she usually managed to find a way beyond them into hope and optimism.
Mrs Milanova once talked to me about the thin line between optimism and denial when I talked of my mother’s propensity towards miraculous belief. I was sceptical. But Mrs Milanova did not agree with my take on the spiritual as somehow akin to the religious mumbo jumbo of my upbringing. She baulked at my irreligiosity. As much as she decried my almost religious fervour for the analysts.
My mother distrusted psychiaters as she called them. Anyone hell bent on religious conversion into the psychological dimensions that were rife at the time. The existentialists, gestalt practitioners, or transactional analysts.
All were dangerous in my mother’s mind. Their practices could lead to loss of faith and faith was her one constant. Without faith you might as well be an empty vessel, a creature with no moral compass, a person hell bent on pleasure alone and therefore subject to the downfall of hedonism.
Sodom and Gomorrah, my father said in broken Dutch when he was drunk. I did not understand what he was on about, only I once read something in the bible about this place called Gomorrah and I knew the dangers of sodomy, sex with sheep, even as I did not yet understand what the two dogs stuck together in our front garden were getting at.
Any more than I understood the process of conception, despite the fact my mother was constantly pregnant throughout my first decade of life, her body swelling into a hardness around the belly I remember well. A hardness and size I could not get my arms or mind around.
Yet I knew with all the perspicacity of any small child who as Maria Tumarkin reckons are like sniffer dogs for secrets, there was something going on here behind the scenes, something in the area of impure thoughts, worse still impure actions that we were not to know as much as they stared us in the face.