The bottom drawer

My mother hid the tape recorder in the bottom drawer below the bookshelves.

‘This way we’ll be able to prove to him how bad he gets.’

I had been recording my father’s words for weeks. Night after night, I wrote down his crazy words after I had finished my homework at the kitchen table. I wrote his words on pink scraps of paper that I had peeled from my sister’s note pad and collected them together in the back of my Story of Art for safekeeping.

Unlike my mother who planned to play back my father’s words to him on Sunday morning after his binge, I decided to keep my scraps of paper until in adulthood, when I planned to get them into print so that all the world could hear what I had to endure along with my mother and sisters over all those years.

The bookshelves were top heavy with books mostly with Dutch titles, books my parents had brought with them from Holland when they came ten years earlier.

The books were out of date then but they were a way of staying connected to home, or so my mother told me, a way of remembering her culture in this awful country where men and women sat on opposite sides of the room at parties; the shops were all closed by six o’clock at night and on weekends; and there were no outdoor cafes where you could sip your coffee on the footpath and watch the passers by.

The idea of the tape recorder in the bottom drawer bothered me. What if my father heard it click into position. Not that he could over the hubbub of the television which was blaring all day on Saturdays.

Knowing we were spying on my father, gave me a sense of power I had not felt before.

It gave me a sense I was standing shoulder to shoulder with a group of people from the parish or whoever else my mother might tell, like spies hidden behind the wall paper of the lounge room listening to my father rant.

All afternoon, after opening his first botte of brandy, he slept and woke, woke and slept.

After that first long stretch of sleep in his chair I heard my father and saw his silhouette through the frosted glass door that led into the kitchen.

I was seated at my usual place at the kitchen table, my homework in front of me and learning the French declensions, trying to translate Virgil’s Aeneid into half decent English and reading about the wife of Bath in her Canterbury journeys.

All the while, I had an ear cocked to the door, ready for my father’s words.

I planned to keep up with the recorder with my pencil in hand, and my slips of paper at the ready, tucked into the back of my art book.

Not only did the recorder in the bottom drawer act as a shield, my schoolbooks all around me felt like a wall of other people’s ideas I had built to protect me from my father’s voice.

‘Where’s my dinner?’ my father said to my mother who just then walked into the lounge room in search of the newspaper.

‘It’s too early for dinner,’ my mother said. ‘But if you’re hungry I can get you something.’

My mother’s voice was steady but I sensed a tremble behind every word and imagined the recorder in the bottom drawer soaking in the sound.

‘You’re a stupid woman,’ my father said. ‘You never do anything. You and your bloody children.’

The rant ran into sentences and paragraphs enough to fill entire books. My mother said little and her words only inflamed my father’s rage.

We were at the tail end of summer, late February and school was beginning again with all the excitement of a new year.

I wondered what the nuns at school would make of my situation while I wrote as neatly as I could into the pages of my exercise book.

They could not see us. Nor could the tape recorder take in the full measure of my father’s madness as he began to take off his clothes.

He started with shoes and socks. Then peeled off his shirt. His chest looked hollow and thin, the ribs showing when I caught sight of him on his way to the toilet.

He came back naked and walked around the house, pink and menacing.

I imagined him then push up against me with full force so that I might feel the sticky weight of his arms and legs against mine.

What might he do with his penis?

I looked down to my schoolbooks to my wall of protection against this man and wished only that we not only had a record of his words, we also had a camera.

A Good Work Ethic

There are ants in the toilet bowl. In search of water, perhaps. I wonder that they go there. They come by night and by the morning’s first flush they are drowned. They float like so many specks of black fluff on the surface of the water until the day’s toilet use gets rid of them altogether. The following morning the process starts again, and a new batch arrives.

Ants often appear at the turn of seasons, when the rain begins. I imagine their nests have been flooded and they come inside for drier quarters. Why then make their home in the base of a toilet bowl?

I do not understand ant behaviour. I do not understand my own behaviour either.

So often I find myself wishing that something good would happen, as if I need an external jolt to shock me out of my current state. A sort of non-electric ECT.

The other day I tried to talk to my youngest daughter about her state of mind, which she reassured me was fine. She was just having trouble adjusting to the demands of her final years at school. She would learn to adjust, she told me, and then asked why I had been so gloomy of late.

Gloomy was her word and I pondered on this. I have not felt myself to be particularly gloomy. Despite the generally pessimistic tenor of my blog posts, I am a cheerful person; at least this is how I see myself. Optimistic, one who looks on the bright side, nicknamed Pollyanna by my analyst years ago for my tendency to see things in a positive light. How then could I be gloomy?

Maybe, I thought, I have not been making such an effort these days to hide my dissatisfactions. No longer do I pretend not to mind such inevitable frustrations as housework. No longer am I so bright and cheerful about all the things that need fixing, the things my family look for from me. I grumble more. I am less forthcoming. I groan. I grizzle.

A friend had asked my daughter, if she could have her wish come true, what would she want most of all.
‘A good work ethic,’ she said.
Her friend was surprised. ‘Most people want money.’

A good work ethic, my daughter’s wish. I ponder on this. Perhaps that is what I am missing of late. I have not lost it in relation to my professional work, that remains, but I have lost momentum as regards my thesis and my enthusiasm wanes.

My daughter is confident she will develop a good work ethic. I have only to find mine again and all will be well.

‘Autobiographers lead perilous lives’, writes Paul John Eakin. They smash up against the rocks of non-compromise, their own and other people’s interpretations of what they have written. Shipwrecked on the judgments of others, all the autobiographer can salvage from what can sometimes feel like a volley of criticism, is the knowledge that she tried her best to communicate an experience – her experience – and that although others might see things differently, she is not her writing, nor is hers the only perspective. Her writing is but one aspect of her and it changes.

My husband has just walked in with a new wind and waterproof jacket to wear while riding his bike. It is bright canary yellow.
‘Excellent, ‘I say, ‘people will see you coming.’
This slick will keep him safe. It will keep out the wind, keep off the rain and make him such a target that it might keep others on the road out of his way.

If only the autobiographer could clothe herself in such a jacket. If only I could find better protection from the elements. Instead I am like those ants it seems. I keep reaching towards the perilous toilet waters for a drink only to be flushed away next time someone else needs to use the toilet.