A parade of ghosts
The kid in the photograph is thin and timid-looking. She clutches nervously at her dress with one hand and shades her eyes with the other as she looks towards the lens. It was probably taken on a very bright day. You know the sort of day when Auntie suggests you come outside for a couple of snaps and you have to run inside afterwards for cold drinks? Photos on those sorts of days are usually terrible. But this picture is different. Although there are a few dark shapes of garden sheds and the photographer’s shadow in the foreground, the subject is clear.
According to a pencilled note on the back it’s Lilian aged twelve. The writing is uneven and indecisive, a bit like print you'd find in a child's diary. Experts reckon it's possible to tell character from handwriting but I think that’s rubbish. My own handwriting varies a lot. Sometimes it’s neat and assured, a credit to any accountant. More often it’s just an indecipherable scrawl. The quality is so unreliable it can’t possibly reveal the real me.
I put the photo on the window ledge and get back to sorting Lil’s jewellery. Cheap trinkets mostly but a bit of good stuff like the gold brooch I’ve just put in my pocket. No sense in letting that go. It’s got a diamond missing and is engraved ‘Lil - love always - Eric’ but it’ll be worth something to someone. Apart from that there’s only shoes and dresses, a couple of dog-eared novels and a boxful of papers. I’m hoping to find a birth certificate but there are only old receipts from pawn shops and piles of yellowed news cuttings. No trouble reading three inch headlines from the Sydney Morning Herald but I need my specs for the articles below. For a while I’m absorbed in reports of New Guinea, Pearl Harbour, Guam and Okinawa.
Later, as I’m rummaging through a big drawer of knickers and bras, I remember these are the intimate things Lil loved. Years ago I was used to touching them but now the fabric is cold under my hands. The satin, muslin and silk are like ice, almost as if the clothes were never warmed by flesh. My fingers tremble when they touch each surface and eventually I can’t stand it any more. I need a smoke. I push everything back, slam the drawer and slump to the edge of the bed.
So this is where it all finished. This grubby little pit. Dark wallpaper, thin rugs over bare boards, a scratched Victorian dresser and the bed where I’m sitting high and springy. In one corner there’s a turquoise enamelled sink installed like a kind of altar to modern plumbing. It’s a late addition to the room because you can see where they’ve bashed holes through the old walls to fit the pipes. The plaster is still white where they slopped it in to fill some gaps. The room is so stuffy that my cigarette smoke barely curls. Strange that someone as luxurious as Lil ended up here.
I remember she once had a room in a better hotel. I’m coming in late, tiptoeing along the corridor so I don’t wake the other guests. When I pass Lil’s room, I see a little wedge of light coming from her door. She’s left it open a chink. I peek in and see Lil lying on the bed face-up. On either side of her are two young blokes, the two I’ve seen earlier in the bar. They’re stroking Lil from head to foot, running their hands slowly over her creamy thighs, her breasts, her face. Lil has her eyes closed. She’s lying there purring like a big Persian cat.
Next day the two travellers are gone and Lil’s behind the bar. She’s dressed in black and there’s not a hair out of place. She pours drinks, chats to customers and yells orders to the kitchen. Her fingers glint with rings as she tilts a glass under the tap to let a beer foam to the brim. She barely wastes a drop, swivelling a fresh glass under as the first one fills. With her spare hand she lines up the lagers even and glistening along the bar. I begin to believe I’m in love with her.
That night the flying squad from Ballarat springs a surprise raid. It’s after six o’clock but Lil is still trading. The blinds are drawn and there’s only a few regulars still there. We’re not making a lot of noise either. Someone’s tipped off the cops: that bastard publican from the Black Oak probably. They burst in led by a fat sergeant whose silver buttons are bristling with importance. Lil is furious. ‘Why don’t you take off your hats in front of a lady?” she screams at the fat sergeant. He doesn’t have an answer for that - just goes red and gasps a bit. It’s a surprise raid all right.
After they’ve finished writing all our names in their little notebooks they clear off. The regulars trudge out like naughty schoolboys. They’re going home to tell their wives some of the usual pathetic excuses. The wives listen patiently, exhausted by the kids and a day’s housework. They’ve heard it all before. Lil looks tired too. Her eyes are swollen with tears and I know she’ll need me tonight. A few bottles from the top shelf and we’ll snuggle ‘til sunrise.
The rollie is burning my fingertips so I drop it on the rug and grind it under my heel. Another mark won’t be noticed amongst the other scorches and liquor stains. Glancing towards the door I spot a cardboard box I hadn’t noticed before. Lil has pushed it right to the back of her hat shelf. There’s an agony of creaking springs when I get up to investigate. The box is full of letters. Originally they were bundled with rubber bands but these have now perished and the envelopes are stuck together with decayed wriggles.
6th September 1943 ... not that I don’t believe you Lil but remember you are still a little girl...
Some quick calculations tell me she was about thirteen.
People think little girls make up stories so I think it’s best to just keep this between ourselves.
But all women make up stories I reckon - not just little girls. Someone, their mothers probably, trains them all from an early age.
When you are a grown woman you will understand.
There’s no signature at the bottom. The letter just ends. It’s difficult to see it as a letter at all really, more of a memo. I flick through the others. Most are still in their envelopes and there’s a lot from the USA. The stamps are a history of American involvement: the defence of Corregidor, raising the US flag on Iwo Jima and troops marching through Paris. Later the war seems forgotten and America has drawn in on itself again . There are commemorative issues for California and Nebraska, pictures of pioneer wagons and log cabins and portraits of American heroes from George Washington Carver to Casey Jones. The correspondence goes on for quite some time. The last letter I find is from Hawaii and postmarked 15.12.1956.
Sorry to hear your Momma died . Guess it was something of a relief though. All that suffering now over. I owe her a huge debt of gratitude for a cosy billet during R & R. God knows they were tough times! It was a real comfort for us guys to get a decent home cooked meal and clean sheets I can tell you...
The handwriting slopes awkwardly. It is very like my own.
Sorry I can’t get there for the funeral. Ellen-Jean has organised some flowers and they should arrive in a day or two. We both send our deepest sympathy.
There is some general chit chat about the family then a signature: Neville . He was a pretty busy correspondent this Neville. I reckon there was a letter a fortnight at the start but after a few years he’s writing maybe once every three or four months. By 1950 it’s down to Christmas cards and short notes.
I don’t usually read other people’s letters, they’re none of my business. Give me credit for a few scruples. Phil has handed me a hessian sack to chuck out stuff for burning so I tip the letters into it. Can never understand why people hoard the past. You’ve just got to get on with life I reckon. That’s what I’ve always done anyway: take no enemies, leave no footprints. By the time I finish cleaning out cupboards the sack is nearly full and I drag it to the landing.
Downstairs the television is blaring away uselessly. Kegbelly Phil’s no sportsman so I have to smile when I hear something about British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Perth. His main exercises are lifting bottles onto the shelves behind the bar and lifting a glass to his pudgy lips. The drift of tuneless humming is Phil’s wife Lois preparing food in the kitchen.
What would they have done if I hadn’t passed through? Helen wouldn’t come down from Queensland. They were lucky to even find her address up north. Just shows that the police can be some bloody use after all. ‘Please send me the jewellery and the family photograph album. You can do what you like with the rest’, she told Phil on the phone. Well there is no bloody album and the jewellery is a few pieces short. Apart from Helen it looks like the Salvos will be the beneficiaries of Lil’s extravagant hoard. There was no will. Now the coroner has finished his little investigation it’s really just a matter of tidying up. Pack, sell, donate, burn. The end.
A single glass-panelled door leads to a wooden balcony outside Lil’s room. From here I can see most of the main street. To the left there are about twenty assorted shops, several banks and a red-brick courthouse. To the right there’s another pub and a small park with a statue of a soldier. A couple of boys are chasing each other around the grass while their mother watches from a park bench.
I’m just about to leave when I notice the photo still propped on the window ledge. Maybe I’m sentimental but I think there is a kind of wisdom, even worldliness in the kid’s eyes. It’s something I could never see in the grown woman. I rip the photograph into fragments and toss them over the balcony where a little gust of wind catches them. Some pieces flutter to the pavement, others spiral upwards and float away to settle on the roofs of nearby shops and houses. One little piece drifts back and falls at my feet. It is part of the face with a child’s eye staring up at me.
When music played on the radio, I sometimes tried to waltz my mother around our small suburban kitchen. The polished linoleum became our varnished dance floor and there was enough space between the stove, refrigerator and kitchen table for us to step out like a suburban Fred and Ginger. Although we occasionally bumped into a kitchen chair or stumbled over our cat who insisted on wandering between our legs, we usually managed to take a few turns around the room before giving up, convulsed with laughter or entwined in an ungainly tangle.
Though not an accomplished dancer, I could sway to a melody and move in time, if a little ungracefully. But my mother took to dancing as if it were another household chore. Her firm grip and unyielding body resisted any attempt at guidance, whether by a dancing partner or cadence of the music. To her, dancing was another task to be accomplished with vigour and energetic application. It had nothing to do with languishing gently in a man’s arms. Why couldn’t she allow herself to relax, I asked myself, to just let the music flow through her mind and body and enjoy its sensuality?
‘Don’t hold my hands so tightly’, I’d complain as her calloused hands clasped mine.
‘Let me lead and try to follow what I’m doing’. Her grip would loosen momentarily, only to resume ferociously seconds later.
‘I’m trying to do what you tell me,’ she’d retort, her brown eyes a mixture of indignation and humour ‘But you keep pushing me and I don’t know where you’re going’.
My mother’s head reached only to my shoulder so I had to stoop a little to put an arm around her waist. Our posture was awkward and encumbering, my lanky body pressed against her small frame. As a consequence, our attempts were frequently disastrous. She was unnerved by moving backwards as a female partner is generally required to do but pushed forward aggressively, taking the lead and compelling me to follow. I was often stepping forward at the same time so our feet met in clumsy opposition. The only solution to the predicament was to stand completely still, futilely jiggling our hands together and humming an accompaniment.
About the same time as our attempts at dancing, my mother decided she should also learn to ride a bicycle. It was another of those experiences she never had in girlhood. My brother and I both owned bikes and rode to school each day with kitbags of textbooks strapped to the rear bike racks. Mine at least was full of books. My brother’s probably contained a football and stale sandwiches. Mum watched enviously as we swung our legs over and settled on the saddles.
‘One day I want to learn how to do that’, she declared ‘and I want you boys to teach me’.
‘These are men’s bikes Mum’, we argued, ‘you need a ladies’ bike! Women can’t get their legs over the crossbar or crank the pedals properly. Even the handlebars and grips are different’.
Mum eyed the bikes suspiciously. ‘I can wear slacks and if you lowered the seats a bit, I’m sure I can get on’.
Months passed before the first lesson took place. We secretly hoped our mother would forget her mad plan, that our arguments were so persuasive she would see how unreasonable it was to ride a bicycle clearly unsuited for female anatomy. Logically, a woman should learn to ride on an appropriate vehicle. Besides, it was very unfair to expect us to instruct her in the arcane physics of balance, speed and equilibrium. These were naturally acquired understandings that either one possessed or did not. They required empathy with the machine and an ability to feel at ease with its design and inclinations. No amount of instruction could instil such innate qualities.
My mother was not convinced by our protests. There being no ladies’ bicycles available, she would learn to ride one of ours and we would be her unwilling supporters. With my brother on one side and me on the other, she clasped the handlebars, put her right foot on the pedal and attempted to swing her body over the frame. It was a valiant effort, despite missing the seat altogether and landing painfully on the top tube. We tilted the bicycle and helped her dismount. Her second attempt was better although it required all our strength to prevent her toppling onto the back lawn.
She sat triumphantly for a few seconds to draw breath while we issued further instructions.
‘It’s impossible to just sit still Mum. You can’t simply balance there without moving. Sit upright and let the bike roll forward then start pedalling’. ‘
But how will I stop?’ she asked anxiously. ‘I’m scared of hitting the side fence or going into those rose bushes’.
We demonstrated the efficacy of the back pedal brake and suggested she quickly put a foot to the ground to brace the bicycle after it stopped. Releasing our grip, we allowed her to wobble a few metres before she fell heavily to the yellowed grass.
Despite a discouraging start, she persevered a few more times in the following week yet we never witnessed the slightest improvement. Her obstinate resolve was no match for the unflinching mechanics of the bike. She appeared to dislike the feeling of speed. No matter how frequently we assured her it would be easier to allow the bicycle its own momentum, she clenched the handlebars, unwilling to concede control. After one particularly bruising encounter, she decided to abandon any further attempts.
I have tried to track the development of my mother's resolve and still think about it many years later. Maybe the answer lies in the nature of fear and the differences between courage and foolhardiness. One involves decisive action and overcoming deep-seated fears. The other is a mindless charge into the fray without thought for the consequences. Many people, perhaps even a majority, try to avoid ordeals altogether so when confronted with obstacles, they falter and fail. However I never saw my mother like that. If anything, challenges made her more determined and she rarely conceded until force of circumstance finally broke her resolution. Ungracious in defeat, she would sulk silently for days afterwards, feeling setbacks as if they were physical wounds.
Maybe the answer lay in her youth. Her gambling, hard-swearing father had left when she was five so she was raised in the company of her nagging, British-born mother and a remotely elegant elder sister. Money was short, so under maternal pressure she quit school at thirteen to work in the office of a sewing machine company. Mr. Archie and Mr. Jim, the brothers who owned the business, were darkly moustachioed, dictatorial bosses who terrified the young women in their employ. According to mum it was ‘Yes, Mr. Archie’, ‘Of course Mr. Jim’, ‘I’m sincerely sorry Mr. Archie’ all day long. Personally the brothers were total opposites, despite a shared authoritarianism. Mr. Jim was austerely religious in a proselytizing, judgemental kind of way; Mr. Archie a secret lecher who assaulted the girls in the musty stairwell whenever he had an opportunity. It was only after he made one of them pregnant that the company shut down and the staff moved on.
Following the closure, mum found a junior position at Coopers, a local department store that sold everything from furnishings to fireworks. The premises’ arched windows and stern masonry façade gave it an air of businesslike seriousness. One November afternoon Mr. Cooper strode over to my mother at the cash register and ordered her to work on the third floor.
‘… Just to fill in for a while Lizzie. It’s not busy there at the moment. You’ll have to manage on your own for an hour until the ladies from stationery get back from lunch. Do you think you can do that?’
His thin-lipped smile suggested that despite any personal reservations she may have had, he certainly thought she could.
Pulling aside the brass-latticed concertina door of the elevator, she stepped inside. The lift swayed and rumbled its way to the third floor. Although Guy Fawkes Night was only a few days away there were no customers buying the colourfully wrapped fireworks displayed on a big central table. Above it, for reasons she could never understand, were several large celluloid dolls suspended from the ceiling on thin strings. They floated idiotically with bland smiles and blue eyes staring at the scene below.
She hadn’t been waiting long on the empty floor when the elevator whirred upwards again. Alice, her friend from basement, stepped out and cast a laconic glance around the silent counters.
‘Quiet isn’t it?’ she observed. ‘There’s no one on my floor either. With all this sunshine, they’ve probably gone to the beach.’
She wandered around examining the displays until she came to the fireworks. ‘I don’t come up here often ‘cos it’s usually busy where I am. These are nice aren’t they Lizzie?’ she said suddenly, taking up a box of fancy matches and removing one. ‘They burn forever with a lovely violet flame’.
Alice demonstrated by striking it against the phosphorous side of the matchbox. However the burning head snapped off, briefly arching in a purple flare before falling among the double bungers, Catherine Wheels and Jumping Jacks set out in colourful stacks. There was an immediate sequence of loud detonations followed by showers of red and yellow sparks that quickly rose to flames. Skyrockets blasted from the table surface to make crazed whirling circuits of the room, landing among the stationery and the curtains where they started subsidiary blazes. Alice screamed in horror and ran to the elevator, leaving mother alone in the inferno.
Fire engulfed the fireworks table and rose to the celluloid figures overhead. The idiotic smiles twisted and gnarled as the plastic melted and burst into flame while bitter smoke filled the room. For some seconds she was paralysed by indecisiveness but falling to her knees, crawled under a nearby counter where she cowered, hands over her head, whimpering like a puppy. How long was she there before the fire brigade arrived and Mr. Cooper dragged her sobbing from her hiding place? Her recollection made no mention of seconds or minutes but she survived and the firemen extinguished the blaze.
The next day Mr. Cooper took them both to the blackened, waterlogged ruins of the third floor. The pungent smell of burnt celluloid filled the air despite fresh air drifting through the broken windows and charred curtains.
‘Alice, your behaviour was inexcusable and caused this event. You left your post without my permission and played with materials that did not belong to you. The damage to my business is enormous and I have no recourse but to terminate your employment.’
Alice hung her head, afraid to confront his quiet fury.
‘Please see Mrs. Harris to collect your wages, gather your things and leave’.
Mother watched as Alice trudged ashamedly to the stairs leaving a trail of silent tears on the burned floor.
‘As for you Lizzie’ admonished Mr. Cooper turning to her, ‘why did you hide under the counter when the fire started? You could have burned to death! It was a stupid and irresponsible way to act. Can’t you see now that you needed to run away, to raise the alarm and prevent the fire from taking hold? You are only seventeen - you will meet many other crises in your life. Let this be a lesson to you. Don’t cringe like an injured animal, get moving, do what is necessary and act with purpose!’
‘Yes, Mr. Cooper’ was all she could say as she hung her head.
Was this the formative episode of my mother’s youth? To what extent did it impact those dancing and bike-riding efforts many years later? They were only fragments of her long life yet remain clear evidence of her determination and tenacity. It is difficult now to imagine the figure before me as the energetic and forceful character of my childhood, but a slow transition started even as we entered adulthood. After leaving school I became a resident student at a university, struggling intellectually in an Olympian world of professors and intimidating tutors. Coming home on weekends, the house seemed emptier and more sombre. My younger brother had begun work at an insurance company, taken up smoking and developed a taste for dark clothes. Mother was not so limber and the kitchen radio was silent.
Once again it is May. The florist shops are full of pink, white and rusty-orange chrysanthemums for Mother’s Day. I stare at a shop window for a while, then examine larger bunches of flowers soaking in galvanised buckets on the pavement. I’m considering sending her some, but she had no recollection of last year’s delivery. The flowers were there all the time. She just didn't notice. Two or three times each year I travel a thousand miles to visit her. I hold her unresisting white hands and caress them gently. The callouses are gone and the skin on her palms is softly wrinkled.
‘Do you know who I am Mum?’ I ask quietly.
‘Of course I know who you are!’ she exclaims indignantly, without mentioning my name.
I smile at her and she replies with a tiny smile of her own before drifting to sleep in the grey vinyl armchair. The autumn sun slants across her face and I notice her hair still has some deeper, darker strands. While the television blares a cricket broadcast that is punctuated by advertisements for new cars, take-away chicken and elaborately tiled swimming pools, she sleeps on. In her dreams she is dancing and moving supplely to the slow rhythms of music. Without tension or inhibition she is languishing elegantly in a man’s arms. And she is soaring, soaring with her feet off the pedals, feeling the momentum of the bicycle as it carries her forward with her hair ruffled and the force of wind on her face.