Songs to keep me warm

I was the girl without a coat. I never needed one until in my forties I began to feel the bite of winter. Before then my age or the fact that I spent most times outside in a car where a coat was redundant, left me layered.

And singlets, what was the use of them? A thin line of insulation that invariably rode up people’s backs. And created a draft. 

Besides I disliked the look of a man in an otherwise crisp shirt when underneath you could see the thin outline of his singlet straps. To me it looked clumsy as if such a man belonged with his mother cosseted because he could not handle life. 

My prejudices from my youth embarrass me now. Even as I tried hard as an adolescent not to go with the mainstream.

When I resisted the Beatle mania that ran through most girls at my convent school like a rash. When I refused to listen to the Rolling Stones and could not for the life of me see what all the fuss was about when large groups of young women and girls screamed at airports after the Monkees’ plane landed on the tarmac.

How they carried on as though their lives depended on a brief encounter with these pretty young men with dark near shoulder length hair who carried guitars and sang into microphones as though they were eating ice creams.

Not for me such savage idolatry. I preferred to listen to Mozart or embrace the sad tones of Paul Robeson and his Ol’ Man River. 

When Marilyn came to say in our house in Camberwell when I was still not wearing bras but aware my turn would soon come, she wore her dark hair long and straight. It hung around her face like the folk singing females coming out of America.

Marilyn played a guitar seated on the bed I had vacated to make room for her in my sister’s bedroom. I went back to share a room with two younger sisters. I don’t remember objecting to this move.

I was glad I did not need to sleep alone in a room. That would have distressed me then as a child. Besides no longer sharing a room with my older sister meant my father was far less likely to visit in the night. Maybe too he might stop visiting my older sister given a complete stranger had taken up residence in our house for one entire year. 

Marilyn came from Queensland where she lived with her father. She had met one of my older brothers while he was travelling through and he brought her home to Melbourne, at first under the guise of being his girlfriend. But in almost no time he had met another woman, three years older, who held more allure. She fell pregnant to my brother and the two arranged to marry.

Marilyn was stuck in Melbourne therefore without a boyfriend but my father agreed to let her stay with us for the year so she could complete her final year of school at Canterbury Girls High, a few streets away from us. The reason she’d come to Melbourne in the first place.

When you’re one of the young ones in a family, things happen between your parents and among your older siblings that make little sense.

Still, you take it for granted as a given.

No one asks your opinion on such activities or asks if it bothers you. It’s a done deal, as was the fact that Marilyn moved into the bed that was once mine in the room I had shared with my older sister and I was back with the younger ones. 

Marilyn brought folk music into our house, music that my older sister was already beginning to embrace but Marilyn’s voice was alto deep while my sister’s was soprano high.

There was a depth to Marilyn’s voice and her sorrow that somehow eclipsed my sister’s and everyone I knew. She matched the songs she sang and few of them had religious over tones.

My sister went for God fuelled songs:

To everything turn turn turn, Kumbayah, songs she learned with the church choir, but Marilyn introduced the songs of the civil rights movement. Old songs straight out of America and the civil war, out of the UK and its long history, Scottish ballads: 

The river is wide I cannot cross over. 

Nor do I have light wings to fly. 

Give me a boat that will carry to and boats will bring my love and I.

The Birmingham five, the dead women in Ohio.

This music spoke to me. And despite my wish to avoid the mainstream when The Seekers came into vogue in Australia, I sat alongside other people in my desperate desire to become another Judith Durham.

She also of the long straight shiny hair that flanked both sides of her face. Her voice was like an angel’s and always accompanied by the three young men at her side who sang in harmony and strummed their instruments as though they were all part of a whole. 

The music of those times held me tight. I did not need coats or singlets when I could be held tight in my mind under the thick embrace of the words that floated over the notes, I sang out loud out of earshot of all people but in my imagination, I sang to the clouds who were my audience and imagined myself a great voice, the voice of a songbird on the wing or settled on a branch.

Ready to stop the world with her sound. 

My folk singer self.

Each hour, a roomful of shame

Here come the catkins. In a matter of days, they’ll sprout filaments that in time fall to the ground like confetti and get caught in my pillowcases as they dry on the line, or creep under doorways. Only to disappear when the first leaves arrive. And the tree becomes a summer umbrella that wards off heat and houses birds.

An empty tram rattles past. How must it be for tram drivers, these days, for train drivers and bus drivers, those people whose task is to ferry people throughout the town, when there is no one to ferry?

A sense of purposelessness, of futility. Why run if there’s no one travelling.

The catkins on the pin oak pay scant attention to the pandemic.

The empty trams, schools, playgrounds, the bus shelters. The seasons go through their cycles, a marker of time. For most there is a sameness to the days, as if we’re held in solitary and must resort to our minds and memories for comfort.

There’s little else to give pleasure unless you’re good with your hands, and can sew dresses, make masks for the protection effort, grow vegetables and keep your house clean.

These human tasks that help to keep us purposeful even at a time when so many of us feel useless.

The way I felt as a child when we stayed for days at my brother’s house. During school holidays with no structure in our lives, left to make sense of our time on our own.

I had books to read but coming out of a full school term I wanted something else beyond books. And this was not my home. This was a series of rooms in a small half house where my brother who had taken on work as a printmaker, lived alone in anticipation of marrying the new woman in his life.

We could stay with him for a few days during the holidays to give us a break from our father’s bender, to keep us safe. It was not home.

When you’re at home, you can always find ways of occupying your time. No matter how trite. Your space and time are your own and if boredom hits, there are ways around it.

But staying in my brother’s house there was no way around the boredom. He showed us how to use his record player and I sat for hours listening to the plaintive voice of Paul Robeson, Ol’ Man River, the songs of the slaves and I linked my own situation to theirs even as I knew I had it so much better.

To feel sorry for myself was a danger I needed to bypass but tempting.

When you’re fifteen years old and the grownups have left you to your own devices, in charge of younger sisters and a brother who can amuse themselves in front of a television set or in the garden dragging sticks and loose bricks to make a fort, my mind soared to lofty thoughts.

These were the days of terrible poetry, words scrawled onto scraps of paper, forced into rhymes that made no sense but sounded exquisite to my fifteen-year-old ear.

Poetry in preference to doing things.

These were the days when my body felt like an enemy. Every day my clothes too tight and getting tighter. Every day a smell that came from under my armpits, between my legs, a strange sickly smell, the smell of my mother, of ageing, no longer the jam and butter toast smell of childhood.

I roamed from room to room. Scraped my hand along the sheen of my brother’s red velvet coat, the one he wore on weekends when he was out to impress the woman who was to become his wife. In the days when he clenched a pipe between his teeth, twenty-one years old and as ancient as my grandfather whose pipe tobacco he imitated.

Amphora of the forest smell. An old man and not yet married, but ready to enter the new world of adulthood, which called to me too through the stink of my body, only I did not want to go there. Not yet.

Did not want to struggle with the sense I needed now to preen and pamper myself as my older sister did. Smear lipstick around my mouth much as mother did at five o’clock before my father came home when she needed to take on a smile of welcome.

Welcome to what? I did not want this life of shame. This life of closeting myself inside a body that was no longer mine but belonged to any man who would have me.

The nuns taught us we must take care not to offer ourselves up too soon. Chaste love is pure love, like the love of god for us, his children. The other type of love, the lustful type was sinful and belonged to the territory of that dangerous garden, the one in which Eve tempted Adam.

Original sin on our souls forever more.

It was Eve’s fault and she has paid for it ever since as all women were to pay for it. I too when my turn came, and I did not want it.

I only wanted the day to pass. Inside the kitchen beside the bench that shone silver under the weight of the dishcloth I had dragged over again and again.

Our sink at home was never so clean as my brother’s sink. He had learned under the ministrations of the woman he was to marry. She taught him how to keep a clean house. How to wear deodorant under his arms so that he no longer wore the stink of untamed adolescence, the way I smelled myself, only mine was a female smell, more sickly than my brother’s smells and worse in some ways. An in-between smell, between stale clothes that have been left piled in a cupboard for weeks on end. The musty smell of neglect.

The musty smell of my underarms as the day dragged on and my body became even more of a burden when my mind could find no way of offering solace.

I think of these days now. The days when time dragged. Nothing to do. No place to go and no one nearby to offer the comfort of friendship or a mother’s love. We were alone in those days. Sisters and brothers rattling around our older brother’s house watching out windows as the sun moved across the sky to signal the day’s close when my brother returned home from work and there was activity again in the form of a meal to prepare. Food to eat and then the bliss of sleep.

I think of these days now, under Covid. Endless days when nothing happens and yet everything happens. Our lives slip by and the catkins will soon turn to lime green leaves, that splendid spring colour, which lasts only a short while before the green deepens and then sometime later as the end of summer turns to red, yellow and brown. Then dry out, crackle and die.

The cycle begins again.

In Covid the only cycles come with the weather. The cycle of human activity, the trams filled with people on their way to work, the cars on the roads going somewhere, the people on the street walking purposefully.

Now we can only kill time until time stops killing us with its relentless fear of contamination.