A fly on the wall

The baby in my dream last night was thin. When I tried to feed her, she was already full of milk and regurgitated my offerings. Blobs of white, thick and vomit-like, spread over her blanket and I worried she was not thriving. 

This much I remember. Along with Theresa’s diary from Owls do Cry. Theresa who was called Chicks when she was a baby because she had dark hair and ran after her other siblings like a small bird pecking after scraps.

Chicks who in the story is the youngest and only one of the four Withers children who seems to move beyond the poverty of their childhood. She turns out to be shallow and a self-confessed snob. She lacks compassion for her siblings in adulthood, especially for her brother Toby who takes fits and embarrasses his younger sister for his sloppy ways, his greasy hair, his inability to move beyond his mother’s care as if he remains an oversized baby.

And Chick’s sister Daphne who is taken away to an insane asylum for reasons not elaborated. But I know from further reading that Daphne is a thinly veiled version of Janet Frame and her character tells us about what it was like to be considered insane and locked away in a mental institution in the 1950s in New Zealand. 

I spent a year in the 1990s visiting a similar institution in Melbourne Australia. One day a week and not an as an inmate but as an observer. There better to understand psychosis. The business of being mad, or that was the task assigned during my brief foray into psychoanalytic training. 

‘Be a fly on the wall,’ my mentor told me. I took him at his word. I went to immerse myself in a Janet Frame experience only I was lucky. I was not one of the ones detained. I could come and go at will.

The Heatherton Hilton, the staff called the hospital which shut down not long after I left when psychiatric hospitals faded from view as part of the new trend in sending our once hidden mad people back into the community so they might no longer be institutionalised as they once were over the centuries. 

Twenty years earlier during my social work placements I had visited hospitals like Larundel and Royal Park. I once sat in a room with the late Cunningham Dax and listened to him regale the virtues of electric shock therapy even as I knew it was a cruel practice designed to shock people into forgetting what troubled them and get back into the swing of life. 

It was worse in Janet Frame’s day when they did not use anaesthetic. Instead, the people clenched a piece of rubber between their teeth and bit down hard when the electricity flashed through their brains so they did not bite off their tongues.

To me this treatment was designed to take away people’s tongues, their abilities to speak of their sorrow if they had not already done so first. They were not allowed to speak of their sadness in the first instance and no one wanted to know what it was that led them there.

Madness, they said, was an aberration of the brain, a chemical imbalance, a few wires short. All you needed then was a good dose of electricity to put you back on track. To be ordinary like the rest of us.

They gave my father one dose of ECT when he stayed for several weeks at Delmont private hospital, to stop the sorrow that caused him to drink too much. When I heard through my mother that my father had also received a full dose of this barbaric treatment, I trembled inside. 

I had wanted him dead as a child. As an adult I wanted him to stop drinking alcohol, which he did. I did not want to see him shocked out of his sorrow or whatever else it was that made him the strange man he was.

It is a peculiar thing to have a parent who is nothing like the other parents you see around you. Nothing like the other fathers who might have been stern and aloof, who spoke in deep voices and could be gruff, but the other fathers did not talk as though they saw sex in every movement of a woman’s body. The other fathers did not comment on an aunt’s pert breasts as she sat at the Easter lunch table, or the shape of my cousin’s bottom.

Other fathers did not look at women and girls like they were objects at a marketplace ready for purchase and consumption. And other fathers did not have heavy accents, the way the words rolled into line, under the weight of a stuttering throat that strangled each letter as it came out. 

In the houses of other people’s fathers, you would see half-finished bottles of spirts or of wine, fridges with beer on the shelves as though the other fathers could wait for their next drink and did not need to finish the bottle to the last drop. Much as I knew there were other children, unlike me, who could leave some lollies, a roll of life savers or a block of chocolate, uneaten. They did not need to eat the lot in one sitting. 

I worried that I might be like my father. A person who could not stop at one or two but, once started, could not stop. 

The baby in my dream last night was too thin but overfull. A metaphor for me. I can leave lollies and liquor unfinished these days. I have learned restraint. I have learned restraint so well that there are times when I can hold back from saying the things I might want to say to another person because I imagine the words might offend or hurt the other person or shock them into feeling uncomfortable much as an ECT machine might whirr them into discomfort.

I have learned to stop eating even food when my insides are full. But I cannot say whether this is because I am indeed full or whether it links to my fear that like my maternal grandmother I will one day die of stomach cancer. 

It crept inside her during her visit to Australia from Holland in the year 1953, it must have been the year of de ramp, the great flood in Holland that I read about as a child.

My parents had a book with illustrations. Cows perched on hill tops surrounded by water. A lake so wide and rippled along the surface under the tops of chimneys where birds could perch, the spire of a church in the distance, the openings and entrances obscured under water. 

My fantasies of this flood percolated my childhood with a sense of my parents’ sorrow. My mother’s sorrow made worse when her parents returned to Holland after a visit, and she never saw her mother again. Dead in her sixty seventh year. And my opa left to fend for himself so they employed a housekeeper Mevrouw Bepp. Her name rings through my brain, a kind woman to whom my grandfather left money after he died so she could go on to enjoy a comfortable life without his salary. 

And all this meandering through the land of memory back to Janet frame’s Owls do Cry and the way my life is now. 

I stood to pour a cup of tea and found myself gazing at the bottles of spirts my son in law has stacked neatly in one corner of our kitchen. He has included three plastic polar bears I bought recently at an opportunity shop for my grandchildren. The children don’t play with these animals, they are too heavy and inert. But they are perfect companions to the bottles of spirits that sit sentinel in the corner of my kitchen. 

Unlike my father’s bottles, these ones are not drained the moment they appear. These bottles are like the bottles I saw in other people’s drinks’ cabinets. Or like the bottles of wine and spirits you see lined up along the wall of a restaurant or bar. Some full, some half full or three quarters but none of them drained of every drop. 

The people who drink from these bottles, unlike my father, can restrain themselves. And even I can now leave a block of chocolate half eaten. Like the posh woman in Janet Frame’s story who is so wealthy she has a room filled with uneaten, still wrapped chocolate Easter eggs. A woman who is so restrained she keeps her eggs for year after year even though you and I know if she leaves those eggs for too long, they will go stale. The dark chocolate underneath the glittering wrapper will grow speckled and white as if mould has overtaken them from the inside and they will lose all their chocolatey goodness and no longer taste the way they would were she to eat them, not necessarily in one sitting, but in good time from their date of purchase. 

Filthy fingernails and green leaves in fishbone

‘My truth doesn’t travel in a straight line, it zigzags, detours, doubles back.’ Abigail Thomas.

When she was eight, an ambulance took my eight year old sister to the Fairfield Infections Diseases hospital which was then a quarantine facility to guard against polio and tuberculosis. These diseases floated around my childhood consciousness in words I overheard on the lips of grownups. The way they took people from their homes, disrupted lives and whole families implicated in the contagion. 

At least rheumatic fever did not spread from person to person in the way of polio, but it erupted in overpopulated areas and unhygienic places. With hints at the contagion of dirt, even as we knew a modest amount built up resistance. 

Thomas Embling hospital for the criminally insane has replaced the infectious diseases hospital in Melbourne today. When you walk through parkland close by the Yarra River you can see the old buildings in their higgledy-piggledy glory, as if they are still trying to keep people at arm’s length. 

For many months my mother struggled to visit my sister in hospital, not only because of restricted hours but because her youngest still needed a pram and my mother had to endure a long walk beyond our primary school to the bus stop near Cotham Road and from there the yellow bus all the way to Ivanhoe.Then more walking. An eternity’s worth of time, so many houses to pass, so many strips of grassland, so many foreign sights before green pastures and eucalypts surrounding row upon row of wooden buildings came into view. 

Me and my sister among the hydrangeas before they hauled her away.

It comes back to me now during this most recent Covid pandemic alongside memories of my time at Heatherton psychiatric hospital, which was once used as a sanatorium. 

And all these places, these sanatoriums and quarantine stations bring to mind Janet frame’s Owls do Cry in which she writes about the fictional Withers family: Francie, Daphne, Toby and Chicks, dirty children. To be dirty was to be spurned and set aside like so much rubbish in need of removal.

‘Look at your fingernails,’ Mother Mary John said to me in my tenth year when she inspected my doily for needle work. A lace edged piece I had chosen; it was covered in deep crimson red poppies and blue cornflowers. The stamens were buttercup yellow. The colours sent thrills through me, so much I failed to notice the smear of grubbiness that inched its way into the linen gaps every time I stitched my corn flowers and poppies into place. Chain stitch round the edges, stamens in French knots, and green leaves in fishbone. 

I hid my hands behind my back as Mother Mary John scolded me for the dirty child I was. How was it most other children in my class had pink fingernails with white moon crescents at the base and clear white lines where the nail ended? None of them had the thick pencil line of black that sat as stubbornly as a bitumen road under each finger. 

Filth amazed me, the way it built up over the course of each week. From Saturday night when we each had a bath – our only bath – all the way through to the end of the week when I noticed other lines of black on my legs and arms, like ants crawling in disorder. My socks which started the week a dull white from too many washes, by the weeks end were brown with a build-up of dirt that crept through the gaps in my blue plastic sandals and turned to mud whenever it rained.

These things were a problem at school. At home with my sisters and brothers no one cared. No one checked my nails for the black lines, as my older sister dragged my long hair into tight plaits that sat on either side of my head. 

‘Hold still,’ she said as I fidgeted from one foot to the next and she tugged at my head to keep it in place. Her hands were firm and deliberate. She only hurt when she encountered a snag of tangles, which happened often enough but less often once she had wrangled my hair into braids. I slept in them at night so that in the morning when my sister unravelled them to begin again, the only tangles were in the superficial stray hairs that fell out of place by day.

This could be a metaphor for my life in those days, a metaphor for my life now, only I do not know how to use it beyond the thought of life as unruly, and unpredictable. And even though in my head I’m steeped in Murakami’s notions of fate, the way all seemingly random events come together to create an order that makes some sense. In my life the patterns which become evident when I step back and cast an eye over past decades, once upon a time seemed as random as the weather. 

My admiration for Murakami pales by comparison to Janet Frame’ s writing. A woman who speaks to my childhood like no other. 

One of my literary supervisors once complained that although the character of Mrs Withers in Janet Frame’s Owls do Cry was said to be based on Frame’s mother, her actual mother was nowhere as slovenly as the book suggests. 

Does this matter? 

Frame’s story is of a mother, like her own, a woman of elegant words, and strangled hopes who tries to survive against the odds. Who fears her husband and is terrified of things going wrong. As they do. She cannot wrangle her children into shape any more than my sister could. My sister pulling my plaits into order only to have their strands fall loose. A thick strand falling across my eyes in class, and my teacher, who could not abide dirty children, whose presence offended her eyes, scowled. 

We were a blight on the landscape like the people in quarantine facilities and infectious diseases hospitals who must be kept separate from the rest of us for fear of contagion.