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.

The glories of sorrow

The year I turned fourteen, my brother came home with a gramophone, an antique he picked up for almost nothing from a second hand store somewhere nearby. He put it in one corner of the lounge room near the stereo system that played records on a turnstile you operated electrically. The gramophone you cranked up with an Allen key and wound till it stopped and was ready to play at least one of the songs on your standard LP record all the way through.

During the long summer holidays when we were away from school and my parents were away at work, my brother did not complain when I played his gramophone for hours, one song after another.

On the couch, feet curled under my torso, I listened to the deep voice of Paul Robeson and his Ol’ Man River. The notes flooding my veins.

‘He don’t say nothing but must know something. It keeps on rolling…’Robeson’s words gave me permission to sit indolent, hour after hour, to listen as the Mississippi rolled along.

Paul Robeson’s voice was powerful but sad, the sorrow of an American slave living on a plantation back in the barns with the other slaves and handlers and with no life of his own other than church on Sundays and long hours of work, planting ‘tatas’ or picking cotton, while ‘Ol’ Man River, he just keeps rolling along’.

The more I listened to Paul Robeson, the less I felt like a ‘motherless child’, the more I recognised the struggle of the slaves to lead a life of dignity, while I in my adolescent angst fell prey to the whims of others, especially my father, but could see others had it worse than me.

The gramophone was heavy and sat like a rectangular boulder on the floor beside the couch and I needed to bend down to crank it up, its brass horn opened like a flower.

‘Lissie, go and clean you room, please,’ my older sister called from the kitchen where she was busy making sandwiches for lunch. ‘And when you’ve finished, we’re going outside to get rid of those weeds along the fence. I can’t even reach the washing line, they’ve grown so high.’

My sister relished household chores, or so it seemed to me then when I wanted only to sit and dream. I wanted only to listen to the voice of the singer, even as I knew I must get on with these tasks, that hardship was ‘character building’ like the learning of Latin at school, and that going against your own wishes was the best way to cultivate a mature and considerate personality, and so become a person others might admire.

My mother’s mantra played in my head over and again, the value of suffering to make you a better person, the glories of sorrow to lift you into a better place in readiness for Heaven.

But these ideas clashed with another voice in my head that railed against the notion I should be grateful for my lot. That I should not complain and that I should not presume anyone was there to look after me. I needed to go it alone, despite my many siblings, despite my prayerful mother, despite the nuns at school.

At the same time, it did not feel right that I, still a young person, budding breasts and all, should have to work all the time, cleaning the house like my sister before me, clearing away after the others, weeding the garden, when all I wanted was to sit on the couch lost in my thoughts as the mournful voice of Paul Robeson filled my head.