“There are reason for the appeal of bold writing that go beyond fascination of watching authors in danger of breaking their literary necks. Good writing is honest, alive. The more honest and alive our writing, the more we show ourselves. The more we show ourselves, the greater danger we’re in. The greater danger we’re in the more scared we are. Hence fear is a marker on the path towards good writing. “When you stiffen,” said Toni Morrison of anxious moments while writing a novel, ” you know that whatever you stiffen about is very important. The stuff is important, the fear itself is information.”
When Jasper was about seven years old and his Goong Goong was already in his eighties we sat talking of death and dying. Jasper said the worst way to go would be wart failure. He qualifies the statement – you know covered in warts. He talks about this because he has one wart. A plantar wart. And it has bothered him. Slowly it is going away, dabbed daily with some liquid. Jasper says the best way to die is as an old person – not sick or anything, just plain old. Goong Goong then talks about an old woman we all knew called Mary Nunn who died at the age of ninety when she was sitting in an armchair in her own flat holding some-one’s baby. A party went on around her and then someone realised she had passed away. Goong Goong says – that’s how he would like to go – holding Jasper’s baby.
“the standard of dressing for the prospective mother should be garments of the lightest wool and silk if possible, so lightly hung that a butterfly can walk the length of her body without tearing its wings…. If she is wise she will work in direct contact with sunlit earth. Gardening ensures the truest sense of physical well-being.”
Writers who over protect themselves produce pallid results. Philip Roth said he found niceness even more deadly in writers than he did in people generally.
Whatever happens to the writer is fair game – material. Even the rage of family members can be a source of literary energy. Writers by definition talk behind other people’s back. Much of their work is refined gossip. They are snoopers, eaves droppers.
“I am of a generation that did not know their parents as just plain folks – as Tom and Agnes. Eddie and Wanda. Ted and Dorie – as democratically undifferentiated from their children as ballots in a box. I never once thought to call my parents by their first names, never thought of their lives – remote as they were – as being like mine, their fears the equal of my fears, their smallest desires mirrors of everyone else’s. They were my parents higher in terms absolute and unknowable. I didn’t know how they financed their cars. When they made love or how they liked it. Who they had their insurance with. What their doctor told them privately (though they must have heard bad news eventually). They simply loved me and I them. The rest they didn’t feel the need to blab about. That there should always be something important I wouldn’t know, but could wonder at, wander near, yet never be certain about was, as far as I am concerned, their greatest gift and lesson. ‘You don’t need to know that’ was something I was told all the time. I had no idea what they had in mind by not telling me. Probably nothing. Possibly they thought I would come to truths ( and facts) on my own; or maybe – and this is my real guess – they thought I’d never know and be happier for it, and that not knowing would itself be pretty significant and satisfying.”
“The novelist E.M Forster writes: ‘a wonderful physical tie binds the parents to the children; and – by some sad strange irony – it does not bind us children to our parents.’ He imagines the possibilities ‘if we could answer their love not with gratitude but equal love.’ The entrancement, the concern, the intuition of a parent can’t be neatly returned. But I don’t think it’s lost…..
It seems to me that for Forster, we humans stand in a column, loving the child in front of us, who will grow with their back to us and will in time love the child in front of them, who turns their back to love their own, and so on. But is he right? Am I taking the time to write this, I ask myself, with my back to my father?”
One day when I visit Dad in hospital he asks me if Mum has divorced him. If not, why is she not here?
No communication, he says.
You’re not divorced Dad. She’s just up the street at the nursing home. You’re still married. Fifty years you’ve been married.
Because she might have a boyfriend up North somewhere. I seem to remember her going up that way to see someone when I wasn’t around.
What is the memory he has?
He looks confused. Like he is searching the back catalogue of his mind. Rifling through it.
I think she had a boyfriend once…
Or was that my mother?
He says mudda. His Dutch accent means that th sounds like d.
Dis and dat. Mudda and fudda and brudda.
She had boyfriends. Because my father was .. and he raises his fists, clenches and shakes them …always do this and do that.
But we didn’t know my brother and me. We were kept in the dark. All secret secret, hush, hush puppies.
Then he starts circling in on his parents’ marriage. But not penetrating deeper. Just that they separated. His mother strayed. His father was unkind. It is simple. In his face it looks like he wants to know more about why the separation happened. But he is still like the child he was then and there is no one to ask anymore. The time for asking has gone. And he missed it.
I can only guess how he might have felt. But I think it was bewilderment, abandonment.
Is my father dead? He asks.
Oh yes Dad, a long time ago,
I don’t remember the funeral, he says.
That’s because you didn’t go Dad.
And my mother?
You didn’t go to her funeral either Dad.
He wants me to explain to him why he didn’t go.
I don’t know Dad. Perhaps because it was a long way to go and in those days it cost too much money. Remember how you worried about money?
But I don’t know why he didn’t go. It was probably around 1976 and I would have been twelve. I don’t remember seeing him grieve.
When, as a child you see your father show no emotion at the loss of a parent, you wonder what’s wrong with him. Or perhaps he was parented so poorly that the grandparents warrant no tears.
You worry about what love is and why he doesn’t feel it. You wonder how you will feel about your own parents and if they died how sad would you be? You make excuses for his lack of emotion. Well he’s an adult now – that’s why he’s not crying when his father has died. But you feel he is missing a bit of his heart. You love your dog more than he feels for a parent. You bury your face into the side of the animal, despite its greasy seborrhoea, and imagine its death. It hurts so much that you can’t stay with the thought too long. Why does a brown Dachshund with a smelly coat and bad teeth so easily absorb all the love you have to give? There is something about fur and tears; sobbing soothed by fingers buried deep in animal hide.
Now my sister and I had no living grandparents. My mother’s mother had died when I was two and she had had no contact with her father since she was herself a six year old child after her parents had separated.
As teenagers we knew there was a more interesting story but my mother never let it be discussed. Her father had abandoned them. She had a simple explanation for his badness – a gambler spurred on by the Chinese and a drunk.
Her mother, our maternal grandmother was, on the contrary, worshipped. Mummy as she was called by her daughter had never enabled her children to know or love their father after the separation and although he lived into his eighties he never saw his children again. He was demonised and his attempts later in life to reconnect were thwarted by their belief that to see him would be disloyal to Mummy.
Even now, as an eighty five year old, my mother won’t allow more than a few minutes talk of her father before cutting the conversation off at the knees.
As far as the Dutch grandparents went they too were little known to us. Our Grandpa visited in the summer because he was a keen cricket fan, but my memory of him is of pipe smoke and a scratchy walrus moustache. He wore a look of jowly disapproval. We spent three months in Holland, me as an eight year old and my sister ten. To us our paternal Granny was European summer, roastie potatoes, dining out. Neither of the Dutch grandparents knew how to play with children or engage them. Seen and not heard types.
We had no connection to them and it seems my Dad felt little warmth to them either. Around them he took on a scolded boy look. He became reticent in his speech, a bit tongue tied, awkward. Now though they keep coming back to him like the past has pushed forward into the space normally occupied by recent memory. His early life; with all its disappointments, his short comings made plain by a strict father, have taken on more significance. Like they just can’t be held down any longer. They bob to the surface, never lost in the first place.
It is as if recent memory is fine dust, grit and it is sieved out, leaving the heavier more solid rocks of the past caught in the mind’s mesh. He worries these pebbles, over and over. He holds them between his fingers, feeling their smooth surface, reclaiming them as known.
As teenagers we wondered if our parents were suited to one another. We were concerned for what look to us as unfulfilled lives. Lives that were tragically dull and filled with work and banality. I think now how naïve we were to think that we could see something they couldn’t. We gave them no credit for just getting by. For sticking together.
Long into the night my sister and I discussed from our beds how much better off they would be without one another, or if they just concentrated on their own betterment. We wanted our Dad to quit his job and find a passion. We felt deeply that his work was a grind, where Aussies looked down on him and even made fun of him. We bemoaned his acceptance of a poorly paid job that he just did for the pay check. Hiding out in the garden or the garage on the weekends he was perpetually nagged and hen pecked by our mother whose soul purpose appeared to be yelling at him from the back door. Occasionally he would explode back and she would burst into tears. Their weapons against one another were simple; his – swearing, hers – tears. During the week while we were at school she watched Another World and Days of Our Lives and organised luncheons with her girlfriends. She had no career, no car and an inclination for snobbishness. To us they looked like two people, one boat, two oars, both rowing for opposite shores.
I find myself studying her. I look at the way her eyebrows are carefully manicured. She is younger than me. That always hurts. She has an imperfect neck compared to mine. But a beautiful neck, what is that? She has very large brown eyes with lots of white. A vessel breaks its perfection. She has a few brown moles on either side of her nose, small. Like dabs of cocoa. She has nice hands with delicate thin fingers and practical nails. Clear varnish, another thing that shows she cares, like the eyebrows.
She went to the tsunami. In February, after the rest of the media was gone. To see what was left behind. Who was going to stay to help clean up? How do you clean up? What would it have been like to see that? She wouldn’t have been able to pluck or wax eyebrows there, in the tsunami affected land. Or could she? With tweezers and a small compact mirror? Perhaps being French you do these things wherever you are. In mud even.
I am wondering if he finds her attractive. I find her attractive, so I think he must do too. Because we are like-minded. We appreciate the same things. I find myself less and less attractive the more I speak. I find my voice grating and gnawing inside my head. Compared to her, with her rolling r’s. With that accent. Audrey Tatou. Juliet Binoche.
Her French skin holds moisture, like her voice. There is lushness to her. A field of green. There is a softness to her cheek when she brings her face to yours that is so un-Australian. There has not been sun beating down on this complexion. Not drought affected skin. Under grey sky this skin has lived its life. Has lived off Brie.
I don’t know what he thinks about her. Yes, he likes her. But I don’t know if he compares us; wishes I was her, she was me. Why am I torturing myself over her? But to pretend there is nothing is not real. Yes, there is something there. Now I have said it I feel a panic in my stomach. A million beating moths, making their home; my ribs their cage, my heart the bright filament.
More tea perhaps. Something to settle and soothe.
What does it take to feel inadequate? Is it because he sits next to her. Is it because of the way he smiles? Is it the way, when her hand is on her computer touch-pad, his hand is there too, and then there is a moment. A touch.
I imagine it happening when I am at home feeding pasta to a child and he is out entertaining the foreign photographers. Because it is his job to be out till two in the morning.
I have had a hundred dreams before I hear his key in the door. The dog acknowledges him. I hear his movements in the kitchen. I think he has been smoking dope. He is reheating food. I hear the beep of the microwave, zapping left over chops. I imagine him standing at the sink to eat. No knife, no fork, just a bone held between fingers. His lips smeary with grease.
He comes to bed. There is no smell of her. Nothing but beer and lamb fat. The child is coughing in the night. In the background to my dream, a staccato kuh kuh. As annoying as the mosquito the night before. But the boy is ill. The man gets up to him to administer the puffers. For he has had asthma. Once he nearly died in a volcanic town filled with fine dust. He lay on a hotel room floor dreaming of being able to breathe. He can relate. I only think; take a sip of water.
In the morning the boy is still coughing. He can’t finish his cereal. Rice bubbles at the back of his throat. At the chemist they ask questions when I want more Ventolin. Like I am a drug addict. Does he need it more than three times a week?
The child can’t take it without the spacer. He makes a fool of himself in the corner of the chemist shop trying to swallow a puff of spray. His shoulders are rounded, his chest a moist wheeze. I take him to the doctor’s to make an appointment. But it is after Easter and everyone must see the doctor. Just stop coughing. Don’t run. Don’t take big breaths if it hurts to breathe. Don’t laugh. Put a jumper on.
Should I buy Chesty cough or Dry cough?
Dry cough is just codeine really. It’ll make him sleep. Sleep. That’d be good.
What does the French woman think in her limestone converted stable apartment at the rear of the art gallery? With its steps and balcony that overlooks a rusted corrugated iron roof top. Does she think about him? His hairless Asian chest? Or is she interested in feral men. Ones with lots of hair. Ones that smell. Big feet, large noses. For he is not this kind. This scent-less man. With small hands. An infectious laugh. A sleepy, harmless drunk.
He is my man, I think. Claim him as mine. For he is the father of the boy I love the most. He is the man that has brought me the son. A son is the honey, the home, the hurt. He is just that – to me and not to her. Don’t fear her, I tell myself. Bred from Brie. You from Gouda. You with the blue eyes not brown, with the skin too used to the sun, with the arms strong from obsessing with the sink, with the moles that need to be checked, with the breasts that have fed the child, felt his pull.
I had trouble with jobbies, he says. Even now as a woman in my late forties, my father using this word irks me. But there are no good words for it. Not my mother’s favoured expression inquiring about the opening of your bowels either. But definitely not jobbies.
So hard like a rock. I had to use my fingers and pull it out. He is showing me his hands, making an action like someone miming milking a cow.
Ooh yes. It was so hard.
A cleaner (she no doubt has a different title to this) tells me the toilet is blocked from too much paper. She keeps flushing despite this.
I relay the message. Dad don’t use too much paper.
Well of course I had to clean myself up after that. Maybe I used too much paper. I don’t know.
Well remember next time – use less paper. I think of saying “maybe not use your hand” but I don’t want to go there – to bring it up – to have to fully conjure the image.
Dignity is leaving him like fog lifting. Soon it’ll be gone completely.
I wander into the corridor to find a nurse. Two stand chatting beside a trolley. My dad, room 1226. I think he’s constipated. I don’t tell them how I know and they don’t ask. Normally, at the nursing home, he’d be given something for that.
She returns with a little plastic cup of vanilla syrup.
See Dad they have medication for that. You can ask the nurses.
I didn’t know that.
How’s the car? he says.
You don’t have a car anymore Dad. You can’t drive. I sold your car for you. Remember?
To be honest about it I don’t. I wouldn’t have a clue.
Where’s June? he says pointing to the ceiling with his thumb.
Lately he thinks she is upstairs in another part of the hospital, when he remembers he is in a hospital at all.
It’s a private hospital where nurses seem more akin to flight attendants than trained medical staff. You know it’s not vital that you get another gin and tonic, just be nice is all. But they’re busy. You can see that. Well that’s how it is here. Bells sounds. No one comes. Out of peanuts. Landing soon. Turbulence means we need to sit down and get our seatbelts on. They fuss with their charts, with their temperatures and blood pressure measurements making sure their pen marks are on the paper, the signature scrawled. But nursing, Nightingale-style takes time, takes talking. It means touching, using your senses; the real grit of nursing.
My father has had a partial penectomy. Perhaps you have to look that word up. Spell-check says there is no word but I know there is.
I’ll save you the trouble. It’s a penis amputation. Although he still has enough so that he can pee.
He needed this radical surgery because he had a squamous cell carcinoma on the head of his penis.
The cancer grew erosive and plaque like in a few weeks, shocking the staff at the nursing home with its rapid and seemingly malignant growth.
None of the staff at the nursing home had been faced with something like this before.
It was right before Christmas. My sister was in town with her daughter of five years old. Urologists, like most surgeons, take Christmas off. But we found one working through – not going the way of the Maldives. Infinitely practical, he saw little difficulty in the amputation surgery and excising the tumour.
We’ll leave enough length for you to hang on to he told Dad. So you can direct it down when you urinate. After all he just needs to be able to pee.
The doctor and my old dad are behind the curtain that does for privacy in the doctor’s rooms.
The receptionist has told me they have 7000 tracks on their i pod music selection. We’re all out of love, what am I without you … Air Supply takes me back to Countdown, Molly Meldrum. Dad loved ABBA, Blondie, Sheena Easton. If he heard a track now would it remind him? Would he remember being a Dad to teenage girls – hassling us at 5 o’clock on a Sunday night to clean up our rooms when Countdown was on and it was a matter of life and death to see who was Number one? .
I can’t see anything but I can hear my dad groaning. A pitiful sound. Unfamiliar. Animal. My sister and I wince together and raise eyebrows when we hear the doctor ask whether he is circumcised or not. We whisper to one another. Can’t he tell?
Why can’t he tell?
I have flash back of my father coming naked from the bathroom, sauntering down the hall to the laundry where he had his wardrobe. He never worried about modesty, till we were old enough to object strongly. He loved nudity, did my Dad. Maybe it’s a European thing, a Dutch thing. He cared little who saw him naked. He didn’t bother with the towel around the waist thing by the open car door at the beach. Just let it hang out. I remember the penis, elephant trunkish. Not circumcised.
The reason the surgeon can’t tell is because the tumour has pushed the foreskin back and the tumour has grown so that the prepuce can no longer move freely over the penis.
Dad can’t answer the question about circumcision. It’s equivalent to asking him the day of the week, the season of the year, what floor he is on.
I think back to the mini mental score chart. 13 out of 30 about six months ago. I wonder what he would get now.
Not circumcised, I pipe up.
The surgery went well. He seemed unaware that anything of such significance had happened to him. He said the nurses were taking his stuff and he was squirreling away sachets of jam and butter and mini boxes of cereal.
He started to talk of buying land at Leeman, a small fishing town north of Perth and somewhere I don’t think he has ever been. But the town name took hold.
But now after only two months back in the nursing home he is back in the ward again.
The remaining few centimetres of the penis has become woody the surgeon says. He thinks it is thrombosis after an ultrasound helps rule out recurrence of the tumour or infarction.
I can tell he’s not all that sure himself about why it has happened and what might happen from here. A hand rises to stroke the stubble on his shaven head. But he admits him for investigation and so I guess there is relief that something is being done or will be done or will be thought of being done.
I wonder how demystified the penis must be for this man who pokes and pulls and prods at them all day.
Because for a week before this the nursing staff at the old people’s home were wondering why the irritation, why the blood spots on the sheets and why the reluctance by him to let them clean up down there.
I am sitting in his empty room. The bed has been made up but not with clean linen because I can see his breakfast stains, canary yellow egg and smeary cereal, on the white cotton blanket. Why do I think this means they don’t care about him?
Odd bits of clothing are about the room. I picture him getting them off and on unaided. Not really knowing what to put where. It’s not like the nursing home where the carers are really carers – deeply committed to his welfare. Cajoling and coaxing to get him to do it their way. Here the nurses are young, I sense they can’t be bothered with him. I hear my disdain for them in my writing. My contempt for their smooth skin. Give me an old nurse any day.
So I sit waiting. He shouldn’t be long I am told. Another ultrasound.
I’m new here, smooth skin says, I don’t know how long it takes.
The room is right by the desk, the nurses station they call it. Behind nurses gather, all chinking with their keys and badges and tags hanging off their belts and on bum bags about their waists. Beneath their Polly cotton tops and pants are detectable rolls of fat around their middles. Proof they don’t work hard enough I think or else is just everyone fat these days.
There’s lot of inane chatter. A nursing assistant says her husband thinks he deserves a medal for hanging up some washing. Another makes a phonecall to her own doctor requesting an appointment. Someone else is wanted but she’s at tea. Mrs So and So in room 14 has a temperature of 38.7 but is refusing Panadol.
A navy blue cardigan hangs over the back of a swivel chair like a cormorant hanging its wings out to dry on a pylon. But there’s no sea here. No wildlife. It’s decidedly hospitillian; low ceilings, the sounds of nurses moving – keys and tags rattling, trolleys, clanging pans, lift bells. There’s a whiff of meths, antiseptic, a chesty cough, old heart patient shuffles, a doctor’s voice – see you tomorrow.
In the end I leave without seeing him this day. There’s a limit to how long I can look at thin Venetians, count terracotta tiles on the roof opposite, read his chart.
But I still feel guilty leaving. If someone asks me I will say I have a school thing to do. And I have a life, or at least I want one.
It’s the time of the year that corellas come in large flocks. They hang from their toes on olive trees and harvest the fruit, staining their feathers with oil. They waddle on the grass with their seemingly over large heads and heavy beaks but then take to the air as a gang, squawking and marauding. Not a pretty bird song. A truly Australian sound. The Bikies of the bird world.
He is going home. Back to the nursing home where he has lived for nearly a year. But he has no memory of it as a place he knows when I talk of it.
To be honest I haven’t the faintest clue, he says time after time when I ask him if he can picture the place.
When I arrive on the ward to take him home he is lying corpse like on his back, his mouth open, eyes closed. Lately his cheeks have begun to sag inwards and the shape of his skull is more noticeable. I think about the way old dogs lose their temporal muscles on their heads as they get really old, sometimes when they have cancer that seems to strip them of their meat. When you place a hand on their heads there is just bone beneath skin. Dad’s skin too seems draped over the bones, falling with gravity towards the hospital floor. Again I notice the stained bed linen.
He has his nightshirt on over his polo shirt, socks on, but no underwear. He doesn’t know whether he’s been to the toilet when questioned about his bowels.
There are little bits of dried blood on his face where he has nicked himself dry shaving.
You’re going home today Dad.
Is it a big place?
Your room is bigger than this.
It’s a nice place, Dad. Mum is there. She’s waiting for you.
Mum is having her hair done. Each time the in-house hairdresser is mentioned my mother tells me how she is a breast cancer survivor. Lost a bosie, Mum says. Another cringing word uttered by your mother.
My mother has a love hate relationship with the hairdresser. The hairdresser wants her to come more often but my mother doesn’t like to sit there while the set takes and the hair dries and the colour is put in. It is a test of patience that my mother fails. Waiting isn’t something she is good at.
The carers are putting Dad in the room and I go and find Mum to tell her he is back. She sits in a wheelchair, hair tightly set and teaky, waiting for someone to take her back to her room. She is happy to hear that he is back but worried too.
Last time he went to hospital he came back very confused, wanting to go to Leeman and convinced he was not staying in the home.
This time he shows he recognises some of the staff and their room.
But who knows really. He doesn’t want to disappoint either. Something somewhere tells him he ought to know. He ought to remember.
When Mum gets back to the room and she exclaims Darling you’re back he throws his arms in the air and says Ah Nicole. It is my name. But she doesn’t mind. She knows he recognises her. Just as he calls me June when he sees me in the hospital, he also calls her Nicole. We are the two lone moons circling his planet. The names are interchangeable.
From her wheelchair and him from his chair they reach for one another, tottering forward awkwardly and give each other a peck. The bony hands grasp each others.
It is lunch time in the home and together everyone decides to eat in the dining room. He hasn’t had much company in hospital and we all think it is a good idea. Using the frame and with Carol the carer beside him, gripping the back of his trackie pants, we head towards the dining room.
Other residents comment on Mum’s hair. She looks tidy.
Alex is struggling. He is stooping and might not make the table. Carol gets someone to bring a chair and he seems to collapse into it, almost passing out. He has gone a poor colour. The sagginess of the checks seems exaggerated. Three carers are about him as he closes his eyes. One has her hand on his pulse and Carol is behind him holding him into the chair that otherwise he might slip out of.
They keep asking him his name. And he says yes. Still here, he says.
A hoist is brought out to elevate him and get him from the armchair to the wheelchair. He is scooped up like a baby bird. His skin is like the unfeathered bird’s, showing the architecture beneath. A carer has a hand on his chest. Can she feel the baby bird’s heart beating within the thin rib cage?
Back in the room the hoist is used again, lifting him from the wheelchair and over towards the bed. I think of harnesses for Para gliders and kite surfers. I think of the daredevils whipping over the ocean at Leighton and then see Dad’s hands clinging to the metal as he hovers between chair and bed.
His blood pressure is low and the nurse thinks he has lost weight in hospital. She thinks maybe he didn’t eat. Maybe he didn’t. I ticked the boxes. I ordered the food, but I was not there at meals and I wouldn’t know if it sat untouched. Just as they ignored his bowels I wonder if they checked under the lid of the plate.
I leave him as he is falling asleep again, spittle snail-trailing down his chin. I exit through the dining room passing Mum on the way out while she works her way through meat and gravy. All of them at their plates like herd animals with their heads in a feed trough.
He’s okay I reassure her, just low blood pressure. Needs a rest.
When will you be back?
Jasper is at cricket. It is his third day of five hours per day at an expensive boys’ school.
A man not right in the head asked if he could feel his hair. What kind of man? We are on the bed together while I quiz him. I am getting dressed because when you are paralysed dressing means rolling around on the bed, moving the lifeless legs like they belong to someone else. The dog is with us. Jasper is rolling with the dog. I am rolling with my trousers. Occupied by movement he often comes out with stuff. The other place to talk is in the car when there is no eye contact. The worst place to talk is the kitchen table.
The man wished he was playing cricket in the under nine’s, Jasper says. My mind goes to paedophile. What was this man doing there I ask, not wanting to sound alarmed, alarming. He knows I am worried. I am always a dead give away. Did you let him feel it I ask? Well kind of. I got away from him pretty quick because he was kind of weird. The man spoke like a kid but he was an adult says Jasper.
In my head I am asking Was this man a pervert? Or was he an innocent keen on the blonde, messiness of a small dude’s hair.
I don’t spend too long on these thoughts. I can extrapolate. I can delve beyond.
When I was in primary school I took sweets from a man as I walked home. He was an old man; I think he wore a large coat. He handed out sweets from a crumpled paper bag and I took them. Boiled lollies; the type that take ages to suck down to nothing, so I had to dawdle to avoid getting home before the sweet had dissolved to nothing. Till the evidence was gone. My tongue worrying the indents of my molars where the stickiness stuck. The only bad thing about it, I thought, was that it could rot your teeth.
Then in Assembly, the entire school sitting crosslegged on the verandah, the dusty boards dirtying our school tunics, we listened to the head master talk about not taking sweets from strangers. Had I been seen? Told on? There had been reports and it was dangerous. How so, I wondered. But nobody said how so. I thought maybe the sweets were poisoned. I thought of the old man who gave the sweets and how sad he looked and how much sadder he would have been if I had said no to the sweets. I wanted to defend the old man and say the sweets were good, really good. And taking the sweets had made him smile. But I didn’t want to get into trouble for having taken the sweets in the first place.
When asked in assembly if anyone had taken sweets from the old man no hands went up. Heads swung round and we all looked at oneanother, but no hands went up.
There was a cemetery near where we lived as kids and my sister and I spent many hours in its unkempt bushland. It was a wild, hot place. Its bush rang with cicadas and the earth was dry and cracked under our feet. Gravestones were lopsided, flowers were old or plastic and weeds grew. Large black crows picked their way over headstones cawing. Dead leaves and twigs underfoot rustled with the movement of disturbed reptiles. For suburban kids it was our wildnerness.
Only the soldiers’ graveyard was well kept with green spongy lawns and rose gardens. Here we were solemn. This part we visited with our parents, walking peacefully, reading plaques. Marvelling at young death. Imagine dying at 18. Our parents had taught us to respect this part of the cemetery. We weren’t permitted to rush around it or make a noise. Just like church, but outdoors.
But the remainder was a playground. When our parents banished us from the house on a hot summer’s afternoon, when they couldn’t bare more Monopoly, we rode off on our bikes to the cemetery, dropped them in the gravel and played on fallen tree trunks and behind grave stones. We were nearly always alone. Sometimes people passing through, or walking their dog looked at us askance and we would still ourselves till they passed on.
Here we came upon a man who turned and opened a coat to show us his erect penis. We skedaddled. On bikes, we could get away fast. Gravel crunching beneath black rubber. Back to the pavement, outside a house with a picket fence. Safety. We were surprised. What would he want to show us that for we asked one another? No pleasure could be gained from that sore and swollen thing, surely. We knew it was weird. And children have an instinct to run and avoid weirdness. We thought we were somehow to blame for what we had seen. We instinctively knew that we would be in trouble for having seen it. So we told no one. Telling no one means you stay out of trouble. Just like taking the sweets. No one but the old man who gave them to me knew I took them. Then how could I get in trouble.
Because when your nine you just don’t want to get in trouble.
You want to play fair. You don’t like people who cheat. Jasper gets out in cricket first ball and the coach, the nineteen year old, tells him it is up to him if he is out or not. But he was stumped fair and square so he says he is out. Otherwise it is cheating he tells me. No one wants to cheat like the English.