I have one memory of my parents together. I was about five years old. It happens to be my earliest memory. The vision comes to my head with the noise of raised voices, the tension alive and vibrating in the house, within my heart.
They were in the hall, it was dim, it must have been late afternoon. I could hear the panic in my mother's voice and I came around the corner to see them. He was on top of her, straddled across her waist, pinning her arms above her head. I saw a two person battle, locked in a familiar ritual.
They couldn't see beyond themselves. Trapped.
But Dad turned and saw me, his brown hair hanging over the crease of his face.
'Look,' he said, answering my expression, 'I'm just holding her down. She wants to kill me. Its for her own good. Look.' I looked and saw the helpless frustration of my mother. She was pitiful and in my child's eyes was the weaker of the two. Her struggles were barbaric, animalistic, twisting desperately on the floor. She did want to kill him. I carried that image with me for many years before I reviewed it.
Watching in Silence
My father put James and I onto the vacant lot beside our house. We had been fighting viciously, so as punishment he placed us side by side and watched from the front door. I was in primary school. James is two years younger and he was laughing, his skinny legs tucked up and his arms making a hoop over them. I was beyond rational thought. I was hysterical and undisciplined. I began to push at him and tell him to shut up.
I yelled it over and over until my pushes turned into punches while James laughed, his body rocking, his face creased. My screams were loud, hoarse, making me dizzy so that I fell back into a daze of wide eyed hysteria. I ended by thrusting myself into the grass and rubbing my arms vigorously and violently until I was pulled up from the ground. I was immersed in the swirls of my mind. There was nothing beyond the void surrounded by wavering, pulsations of violet and red. There was no pain. That emptiness was sacred and gave me a glimpse of the meaning of peace.
It is the first time I can recollect moving outside of my physical body. Freedom. There was no demanding self. Just a disengaged, unattached soul, watching in silence.
Or some might just call it shock.
She was in the front seat. We were waiting for him. He was in the TAB. I don't know where my brother or sister were. I was quiet, waiting.
Its the 70's and the woman has an afro hair style, a fluffy sparrow coloured haze around her face. Her cheeks are sunken with drunkenness, her wet lips slack.
The two were in the white panel van, with his easels and paints in the back. He has had the lot stolen a couple of times. He took it in his stride though Mum felt the invasion like rat's claws over her skin when she saw the mess they made.
The woman has a black top and a long flowered skirt. She wears a black band around her wrist. Her body is hunched over, her hair falling forward. And then she began to light a cigarette, flick, flicking, the light flaring up in front of her face. The flare turns her skin warmly yellow for a moment. The cigarette is dangling from her partly painted lips. I watched, leaning over into the front seat. I knew what to expect, my hands were ready.
Then her hair was sizzling, frizzling up, the smell instantly bitter and ashy in my nostrils. I screamed her name, pure fear piping the word out, my hands grasping the fired hair, trying desperately to stop the lightening-quick barely seen attack.
Her head jerked forward several times but the woman really had no perception of her state. Flames or none, there was only one reality available for her.
I pressed myself back into the seat and felt the cold upholstery. My body was overheated with confusion. I turned so I could still see her bowed head.
She told me this one
He tore her books up in her face. It was her only secret pleasure, something that could take her away from the here and now of his needle sarcasm and deliver her.
I don't remember it. She says i was five or six. He'd been away a couple of weeks on a job. My older sister whispered that he was visiting his other family.
"There are three of them, we're the second family."
She had beautiful brown eyes, long brown hair parted down the middle like any 70's child. The cut of her hair emphasized her large eyes, the doe expression.
I didn't feel anything about what she said. I don't recall thinking. It was acceptance and adjustment and listening and waiting. I wasn't the little kid that suffered in silence and looked cute doing it. I smiled a lot. I was a girl. Cute enough to learn the fundamentals of female charm.
Mum was reading on the lounge, her feet elevated. He left the car around the corner; one of his tricks, so she didn't know he was in the house. Her surprise can only be guessed at. He was like living with a taut wire across your throat. The tension he created by being in the house was enough to rip your breathing to shreds.
She would have felt the air change before she heard him. He was light on his feet. He would have been watching her for a few moments, possibly minutes, before she became aware of him. Her throat tightened, her eyed widened. Her pose is fixed, the glare of his presence pinning her.
Only after tense and definite fear had caught hold of her would he begin to speak; low, sharp, his body deceptively casual, the coy lowering of his eyes drawing the moment to its peak with studied drama.
She wouldn't be able to avert the scene. It was impossible. She knew him and feared him and felt her stomach clench in horror at the thought of him. And he stood before her. Accusing her when he had been away for days...
He drank to get away from the spirit of wasted and befouled genius and she drank to get away from him. He drank to forget his life and she drank to live. They balanced each other by being Mummy and Daddy and pretending to the world out there (of school and dance classes and cannabis parties) to be a family.
So they argued and threw things around the room and there is nothing, to me, so harsh as an Australian man and woman screaming at each other. Its the accent, the stress they put on the words of abuse. The same cruel taunts came up every time. The same words, the same tone, the same screeching the wild whothefuckcares stance of both partners that ticks inside our heads. We heard the words a million times, but the desperate way she sometimes screamed his name shot straight into my stomach.
She didn't buy herself another book for about twelve years. Then I inadvertently brought her a book on hiking and heard the reason she only had a few magazines in her book shelf. I remind her of him, but I can't help it. There is nothing I can do to plug the memories she has. She's like a different person now, but it leaks through every now and then. A taste of bitterness, a tightening of her eyes.
My father used to take us fishing. Camping trips all around and sleeping all together in a tent or the back of the combie. He sat me on his knee and let me hold the fishing rod. I mostly remember warm sunshine and seeing mutilated and scaled fish in the bottom of the bucket. Or squiggly worms, still alive, being squeezed onto hooks. Right up their arses, he said.
He used to lay traps around the house so he would know what we had been up to. His room used to have invisible bits of string showing him if someone had been into his closet or had opened a draw. I never touched his things so this part of his life didn't concern me directly. Unless it was the threat of being falsely accused. Though this never happened.
I felt Dad managed his drunkenness better than many I have seen. He did have an explosive, violent temper. He brooded a lot. He was melancholy, distrustful and generally a foul personality.
But he had a warmth about it. As if he was lit up inside by a glowing flame. He was generous, he laughed a lot and his hand was comforting on my shoulder.
He used to wake me up in the middle of the night to perform tricks for his friends. I had to show my legs, they were athletic and he was proud of them. Wiggle your ears, roll your stomach, flare your nose, press your elbows together. Freakish circus tricks. Dad performed the finale by lifting James and myself up off the ground by holding a handful of our hair in each hand. The secret was gripping the hair close to the scalp. And he would raise us up, using the strength in his shoulders. Then we could go back to bed, to lay and listen to their laughter and the sound of glass bottles filling the corridor.
His mother is a compulsive cleaner. I mean, totally fanatical. Everything is cleaned and re cleaned every day, possibly three times. And vacuuming went on at all hours of the day. I have a theory that people tidy their houses so ferociously because its the only domain in the world they feel they are in control of. They feel the limitless expanse of the world, and in defense, so as not to fall off, they make sense of their house by buying things for it and tidying the little rooms and dusting and wiping and vacuuming and it goes on and on in circles, because circles are contained and any lateral movement might let them fall into some void of crazed insane possibilities. And so, she cleaned.
She's a neat, straight as a pin lady with not an ounce of fat on her. Not particularly a cuddly grandmother and not particularly kind. Though she did her duty by her husband and son.
When he was ten his father won some money in a lottery and left her. He took the boy, Daniel, my dad, and they travelled to the bigger cities. The money fled into the hands of pub-owners, hotel rooms, party-girls, and sure pals. Empty of pocket but with memories that were going to have to last the rest of his life, he returned to his cage. The door opened and my grandmother let him back in, where, with her silence, she never let him forget his wayward prance into the great unknown.
Grandad worked, came home, ate his dinner and sat in front of the television. He gave what money he earned to her.
She took care of the boy.
My father told several stories about his childhood, but I think they were mostly made up moral tales, with a severe punishment in the ending. The things he said, in retrospect, couldn't possible have happened. That must have been my grandmother's input into his personality.
My mother actually believes that evil dwells in that house. Its a pretty horrific thought.
I've seen pictures of him when he was a boy. Dressed neat, like a little man. His hair parted severely to one side. He was in short pants. His face is so serious. I felt a genuine movement in my heart when I first saw that picture. It seemed to embody the beginnings of a life. A life seemingly capable of moving in many directions, yet only moving in one.
But he craved a warm family, a child to hold.
Though he couldn't do it. He tried, several times.
The family would begin, and his heart would be hardened and he would enforce his personality upon household until it couldn't breath.
There was a disease in his mind, holding him back from life. It was the disease of memory, of life experience, of upbringing. He didn't see the greater good. It passed him by while he dreamed life in bitterness.
The first full length memory I have of myself sprouting my individuality was in a tantrum I threw about going to school. I said I wouldn’t go, I screamed it, I cried and frowned and my face was red with unhappiness.
‘You don’t have to go. Don’t go. But you’ll have to go and get yourself a job if you stay home. I won’t have a pack of loafers in my house.’
I went to school, slamming the door as I left. Tears of rage, my feet in brown strap sandals.