War stories

A few weeks ago, I shared a dinner with my three sisters, four women squeezed onto one small table in Thom Phat restaurant in Brunswick.

It’s the first time we four have been together in several years and the first time ever we could remember the four of us being alone together.


In other words, without parents or brothers or children, or partners present.

Two of my sisters I see regularly but the one below me, twenty months younger, I rarely see. She lives in NSW and we fell apart in our early twenties after years of closeness as children.

This sister was eight years old when they called for the ambulance. I was playing with friends a few doors down.

‘You’d better go home,’ my friends’ mother said. ‘Your sister’s ill. She may have polio.’

The woman could not get me out of her house fast enough and I went home to an empty bedroom.

It was not the same without my sister. The house had a hollow ring for all that it was still filled with people.

We visited my sister one Sunday several weeks later. By now we knew she had contracted rheumatic fever like our older brother had some years earlier and that she would most likely be okay. No polio or life threatening illness, but she needed to stay in hospital till the bacterium that had attacked her heart cleared.

We took the yellow bus from  Deepdene to the Ivanhoe East railway station and from there walked to the Fairfield Infectious Hospital, now home to my younger sister.

The hospital consisted of a series of rectangular wards scattered apart from one another on flat land perched above the river at Yarra Bend. It was a long walk from the station, my brother in the pram, me on one side of our mother, and my little sister on the other.

We found my unwell sister in one of the long wards, her bed one in a row against a wall, and opposite another row of beds on the other wall in the women’s ward. My sister was the only child in this room filled with mainly old women, the youngest our mother’s age, but my sister did not mind.

The others in the hospital, staff and patients alike, had taken to looking after her and I figured it was better there in that white walled hospital, with its rows of beds and green bedspreads, with its fly wire doors that led out onto long open verandas and its smells of disinfectant, cooked cabbage and onions, much better than at home.

My sister looked smaller than I remembered, her dark curly hair stark against the white of the pillow.

‘Hop out of bed now,’ the nurse said to her when we arrived. ‘You have visitors.’

The nurse helped my sister onto a chair and fussed over her with an extra blanket across her knees while we kids stood around like cows approaching an open grille. We dared not step forward to greet her.

Our sister had become a stranger and she had a new authority she never had at home. My little sister who was close enough to me in age in my mind to be my twin but we looked completely different, as different in appearance as my mother and father.

Beside her bed I noticed the pile of books, the story of war heroines like Violette Szabo and Vivian Bullwinkle. By then matron of the Infections Diseases hospital, Vivian Bullwinkle had loaned them to my sister.

War stories sustained her during this hospitalisation in a way I could not understand, though when we met for dinner during the week and my youngest sister talked of life in Singapore where her daughter is currently living, I heard my other sister of rheumatic fever fame mention her recent visit to Changi prison while in Singapore.

Now when I imagine that infectious diseases hospital and my sister holding court at her bedside and her books on war stories, especially the women who made their mark, I come to see her with fresh eyes.

My mother hums

We take the yellow bus to Camberwell. It smells of shoe polish. It smells of leather. I sit beside my mother near the front. Today it is just the two of us, my mother and me, and we are taking the bus to Camberwell to shop.

I want to complain about my mother’s plans to buy my sister pantyhose. I am older than my sister and I am still in socks. Why should she have stockings before me?

But I do not want stockings. They are too grown up. Pantyhose are the new thing – stockings like tights that go all the way up to your waist. You pull them on like trousers and do not need to support them with a suspender belt.

How I hate suspender belts. I wear them in winter for school. Mine invariably loses the little bobbles that I poke through the hooks to keep the stockings in place. Once I lose the normal bobbles, I use three-penny bits but the coins are not attached except by the force of the stocking through the hook. They easily come adrift and I wind up with a threepenny bit hanging around my ankle underneath the stocking, which sags on the side where the coin has come loose.

Pantyhose belong to a new breed of women, modern women, not twelve year old girls like my sister, besides I should have them first. I am nearly two years older. But I do not ask for them and my sister nags. She nags and nags and drives my mother to buy them for her, even though we do not have enough money for such items.

My mother hums. She must be nervous. The bus turns the corners too fast and I slide across the seat right up against her. My mother’s body is hard and soft at the same time. She has lost her stomach muscles, she tells me from having so many babies.

An ambulance screeches past. Its siren splits the air. My mother hums on as though she has not heard. I watch the driver’s neck. It has uneven black stubbly bits that run down and hide under his collar. The bus driver has fat stubby fingers that work the gears whenever we slow down to stop.

My mother looks ahead, still humming. Her nose juts out hooked. She is proud of it. Aquiline, she says, like an eagle. A sign of aristocracy. My mother is proud, but she sits hunched over in her old green coat with her handbag on her lap. She does not wear pantyhose. She wears stockings held up with her girdle. The girdle is pink, skin coloured. She wears it to hold in her stomach muscles on account of all those babies.

My mother is fat and frumpy and I am pleased about this. I would not want a mother who looks young and is pretty. Mothers should look like mothers.

My mother fiddles in her handbag for her compact. It opens with a puff of powder; sweet and tacky to smell like Lux Soap. My mother dabs the powder on her nose. She does not want her nose to shine. She squints into the compact’s tiny mirror and smears on a line of lipstick. Glossy and red.

My mother was very beautiful once. We have a photograph. In it she looks like a movie star. She gazes out from the photo with movie star eyes, with a wistful look, as if she is performing for a camera.

The top of the bus brushes against the branches of street trees as we turn corners. At Stanhope Street it stops for an old man who fumbles in his pocket for change and nearly falls over when the bus starts up again.
‘Pull the cord,’ my mother says. ‘We mustn’t miss our stop.’
I am taller than my mother. The cord like a skipping rope is taut till I pull on it. A loud buzz and the driver slows down. We walk towards the shops along an alleyway that leads to the train station.

My father will kill us all. The thought pops into my mind and I want to push it away but it will not go away. He will kill us all one by one. He will start with my mother move onto my sister and then it will be my turn. He will work through the girls and then start on the boys. I have not yet worked out how he will do it, but I know he will.