Monday, April 2, 2018

Greta's Waiting.


When my dad was dying he was adamant that an 'older Australian woman' - his words - was standing in the corner. If she was, we couldn't see her. That incident inspired this short story.

When Valerie Jenson walked into the back bedroom, Greta Banks was standing in the corner between the wardrobe and the floor to ceiling window. She looked at Valerie, who'd walked in carrying her tea in one hand and her book, a Stephen King, in the other. Valerie had thought she, Valerie, might sit in with her father, Ronnie, for a bit because who knew how much longer they'd have him? It would be quiet and she could catch up on her reading. Ronnie was sound asleep, both arms on top of the doona, his fingers slightly splayed. The doona was drawn up to his armpits. His pale arms were hairless, the skin smooth and somehow young looking despite Ronnie Anderson's 82 years.

In her corner, Greta wore a pale yellow high collared swing blouse over a tapered tweedy knee length skirt. Flesh-coloured nylons covered her shapely calves. On her feet were black patent pointy toed sling-back pumps. She clasped her hands just below her waist. She'd turned her head at Valerie's entrance before resuming her watch over Ronnie.

Valerie, stopped dead in the doorway. She gripped her tea and book in tense hands, aware of a tremor in the right one, which threatened to spill its tea. She swallowed, noticed a familiar adrenaline surge and goose bumps on head, neck and arms. Told herself to breathe. Eyes still on Greta, she backed out of the room, turned and carefully walked the few steps along to the bathroom. She placed her book and cup on the side of the vanity, turned on the cold tap, cupped her hands under the stream, leaned forward and splashed water into her face.

'Here we go,' she told her dripping face. 'You know you're insane.' She mouthed the words at her reflection, reaching for a towel and dabbing her face dry. This has been going on too long, she thought, looking into her dark eyes.

Two days earlier, according to a panicked phone call from Audrey, their mother, there’d been a crow in the house.

'I must have left the fly-wire open when I went out to water.' She imagined her mother, standing by the kitchen bench, phone pressed to her ear, staring across at the blue stone fire place that extended to the ceiling. Ronnie had constructed it himself when they’d built the house twenty years earlier. He’d hefted every one of those blue stone clinkers, with occasional assistance from sons and sons-in-law. They’d all expressed incredulity at the weight of each stone block.
'How did you get it out?' Valerie had her headphones in, her phone tucked in the front pocket of her apron. She lifted the glass lid on the saucepan on the stove and gave the stew a stir with a wooden spoon.
'I didn’t. I got Rod from across the road. The bloody thing was dead in the shower recess like a great black mop head but with a beak and staring eyes.' Valerie tried to picture it but kept seeing a mop rather than a dead crow. 'There’s bird lime all over the house where it’s been flying around. And all up the hall carpet. Ugh, I feel sick just thinking of it. Scared me to death.'
'Oh, mum. That must have been awful for you. Lucky Rod was there to help, eh?'
'Suppose so. I couldn’t look at it again. At least it didn’t get into your dad’s room. Ronnie would have moved it if he could.'
'I know, mum. Look, we’ll be down on Saturday. You’ll be okay. Talk tomorrow.' She’d popped her headphones out, trying not to think of the mythical association between death and wild birds getting inside. She wasn’t sure they were just old wives’ tales. Setting bowls out on the bench top, she tried to think of something else. It’s just a coincidence, she told herself. So dad’s old, infirm, maybe dying…Oh, don’t think it, don’t think it. She grabbed a handful of forks from the kitchen drawer and plonked them on the bench, walked over to the kitchen door and leaned through it. 'Dinner!' she yelled, at the top of her voice.

But this Saturday morning had been strange. Ronnie had been woken by a magpie at his bedroom window, flapping and pecking at its reflection presumably.  Well, they lived at the beach on a treed block. Of course there’d be birds. But this was different. The magpie marched up and down on the brick veranda, stopping to peck at each turn. Then it sat and seemed to stare at Ronnie, peck, flap, peck, flap. 'Audrey, come and see this!' he’d shouted. It seemed funny at first. Audrey had wound the window open and clapped her hands at the bird. It had leapt backwards but then continued its strange percussive dance. Eventually, Audrey had pulled the cord and drawn the black out curtains, hoping to end the performance. They could still hear it peck-flapping outside.

Later Audrey did her own flapping. 'Get away with you!' She was outside the window in dressing gown and clogs flicking at the bird with a tea towel. It leapt and dodged and then returned to its pecking. Audrey’s white hair was blown about and tattered like a scarecrow in a windstorm. Her face was drawn and grey and she hadn’t put her teeth in. 'Sodding thing!' she cried, while Ronnie and Valerie, who’d opened the curtains, watched in increasing horror. Michelle had ended the play, taking Audrey by the hand and leading her off the set.  She’d filled the kettle on the way through then guided her sobbing mother into the bathroom for a shower. 'It’s not doing any harm, mum. It’ll stop soon,' they heard her reassuring the mother, to a backdrop of peck flap at the window.

Her dad was dying and had been for a while now. Of course that would upset her mum.

For a few years she and her sister, Michelle, had been doing weekend shifts at their parents' house. They were on a roster with their older brothers, who managed to be terribly busy elsewhere when it was their turn. Most weekends it fell to Valerie and Michelle, who'd drive down to the coastal town on Saturday mornings, leaving respective kids at home with their fathers, and drive back late Saturday night. Lately, though, they'd been staying the night as it became clear that Ronnie wasn't getting out of his bed again. Weeks back, his double bed had been replaced by a hospital bed as per Occupational Health and Safety regulations. It was the only way you could get a palliative care nurse to attend. It was all sponge baths, bed pans and regular pain management now, amongst which Ronnie remained sanguine.

'How are you today, dad?' Valerie would ask.

'Worse every day, lass,' he'd say, not feeling sorry for himself; just matter of fact. Valerie used to counter with platitudes, like 'use it or lose it' as she hobbled him up the drive for a walk around the block, until it became clear that despite his efforts to exercise he was deteriorating and feeling embarrassed as well.

Another one of his lines was 'I'm sitting here waiting for the grim reaper.' Ronnie's gallows humour. It made it easier for them, well, Valerie anyway. She'd never coped well with sentiment. Seems her dad's last lesson, and there had been too many to count, was about dying with dignity. He wasn't afraid to die. His  concern was for Audrey, staying behind and having to deal with a life without her husband of fifty-seven years.

Valerie's tea was getting cold. She leaned back on the side cabinet and drank it in the bathroom, wondering whether it was all clear to return to Ronnie's room or whether Greta would still be in her corner.

Valerie had been left to watch Ronnie for a few hours while Michelle took Audrey out for a bit of respite. No one was doing it harder than Audrey. She'd been caring for Ronnie since his illness had robbed him of his flexibility, his beautiful singing voice and lately his ability to simply enjoy an evening glass of whisky in front of the telly.

'Of course, you go, Michelle. Great idea. No need to hurry back,' she'd told her sister. Michelle had half carried her mother out of the house, an arm around her waist, and helped her into the passenger seat before walking around to the driver's side. Audrey had sat there, staring ahead, expressionless, hands holding the bag on her lap.

'Thanks, Val. Might take mum past the hairdressers and see if she can fit her in.' They both looked over at their mum's bedraggled former bob and back at each other.

'Good idea,' they both giggled before remembering not to. 'Yeah. Have some lunch. See you when you get back.'

'Cheers, Val.' Michelle climbed into the station-wagon, started the engine and with one arm resting behind Audrey's seat, reversed out of the drive.

Back in the house, Valerie had glanced through a collage of various bills and papers that Audrey had spread on the bench. Valerie was careful not to change their order, if you could call it that. It was Audrey's way and it worked for her. Valerie filled the sink with water, squirted a bit of detergent in and set about wiping out the fridge and then the bench tops. She moved a display of pottery jugs, the food processor, juicer, bread crock and toaster to get into the grease, grit and dead insects behind them. Poor mum, she thought, knowing what a cleanliness freak her mother had once been. After she'd given the window a quick spray and wipe while standing on a kitchen chair, she emptied the sink, thinking it was time for Ronnie's lunch. She'd made him a ham sandwich, cutting it into sixteen bite-sized squares. He'd been sitting up in bed at that stage and had accepted the plate gratefully.

'Thanks, love. Where's Audrey gone?'
'Out to Geelong with Michelle. She won't be long.' Ronnie frowned down at his sandwich, took a square,  chewed it slowly and swallowed with an effortful gulp. The second piece precipitated a fit of coughing. Valerie held the plate and waited for the coughing to stop, which it usually did.
'You'll be right, dad,' she said, handing him his plate back and offering him a sip of water from a glass with a bent straw in it. He drank, swallowed again and picked up another sandwich square.
'Thanks, Val,' he murmured before resuming his fraught progress through the sandwich. The mercy was that he still enjoyed eating, despite the problems with his swallowing reflex.

She'd waited while he finished, her eyes travelling around the walls, looking at his few framed pictures, most of which had been found in the charity shop where Audrey volunteered. Audrey had a bit of an eye for it. In twin water colours, opposite Ronnie's bed where they caught the light, two men facing the ocean, backs to the room, fished companionably in the shallows, conveying a sense of peace. A framed certificate hung over Ronnie's chest of drawers. It had been presented to Ronnie, when after thirty years of sustaining the tenor line in his beloved choir, he'd been forced to retire. The commute to rehearsals was just too far. Ronnie had had a strong tenor voice and tremendous musicianship, despite being entirely self-taught. Singing in his choir had been an obsessive passion, something he did alone, Audrey not being a singer. She'd never missed one of Ronnie's concerts though, even though she'd confided to Valerie and Michelle that the modern classical stuff had given her a headache.

Valerie's pulse had slowed now, she was relieved to notice, as she tipped the cold dregs of her tea into the basin before rinsing it out. She hadn't seen Greta Banks since they'd left England a long time ago. But Valerie remembered that yellow swing blouse. Suppose it had been a maternity top, Valerie thought now. In memory, it had been covering a sizeable mound. Greta and Audrey had been young mothers together, close at one stage. Valerie remembered their endless talks at the front gate. She'd wondered how they could possibly think of so much to say, her own child's vocabulary being so slight in comparison. They'd pop in and out of each other's kitchens, which faced across a couple of concrete driveways. Their houses almost matched, mirror images of one another, being on opposite sides of two duplexes. Greta, Valerie remembered now, had a small refrigerator, a luxurious novelty in the bri-nylon early sixties. In England's north you didn't need it. Their milk was always cold and fresh, straight from the outside step in the mornings. Greta's husband wasn't there much, and Valerie found she couldn't summon him to memory now. He'd been a travelling salesman or something. Their five year old daughter, Diana, always wore pretty dresses, coats and shoes. When Greta's condition had started to show, she'd begun to wear the smocks, one of which she'd apparently been wearing a few minutes earlier in Ronnie's room, what would it be, fifty years later?

It had been at least two years since they'd had the letter from Mrs Wilkinson at number 57 across the road, informing 'my dear Audrey and Ronnie' that she thought they'd like to know that Greta Banks had sadly passed away after an illness.

Valerie raked her fingers through her wavy dark hair and gave herself a final appraisal in the mirror. She placed her hands on both cheeks and drew them back in a face lift, removing the creases from around her mouth. After a few seconds she resignedly dropped her face back into position, turned around purposefully and walked back across the hall and into Ronnie's room. She was relieved to see that Greta had melted back to wherever she'd come from. Ronnie was still asleep, head tipped back, mouth open and breathing oddly. Valerie went to straighten the doona, which was now slipping towards the floor but changed her mind, reluctant to wake Ronnie. She glanced behind her to see if she could catch her ghost by surprise but of course she was being ridiculous. Valerie's spirits had their own agendas, even if it was just crossing through to light and take a few puffs on a hand-rolled cigarette before disappearing back into the woodwork again. That ghost, frequenting her old suburban home, was somehow a comforting regular, although some of her friends told her her old Californian bungalow creeped them out and wondered how she could stand it.

Why Greta Banks? Valerie wondered. Why now?

Valerie remembered reading Nora Wilkinson's letter. It had been amongst the drifts of paper on the kitchen bench.
'Mum, you didn't tell me that Mrs Banks had died.' Audrey usually kept Valerie and her siblings apprised of the deaths of the dwindling numbers of friends and relatives 'back home'.
'I didn't think you'd be interested, love.' Audrey continued to watch the television in the corner. Ronnie closed and folded his newspaper, switched off his reading lamp and went outside to put the bins out, it being collection day next day. Valerie set off home shortly after and hadn't heard of Greta Banks since.

Some people say that on their death beds the dying claim to see a relative or friend who's passed away. A psychiatrist might dismiss this as a toxic brain causing hallucinations.

Sheesh, hope I'm not dying, thought Valerie. Nah, I'd have been dead long ago in that case. She wondered what a good shrink would make of her propensity, despite being far from her death bed, to occasionally see fully fleshed apparitions in various period costumes. Over-active imagination? Delusion? That's how Valerie lived with it; saw it as the rubbish bin of her mind. Maybe she was just a day-dreamer. Her 'ghosts' rarely said anything and didn't seem to be leading her to resolve issues they'd had during their lives, as far as she could tell. Considering it wise, she hadn't offered herself up to solve cold cases or advise the bereaved. 

Shouldn't dad be the one having the vision? she wondered, sitting now at the kitchen table. Valerie shook the image of Greta's face from her mind, opened the paper and waited for Michelle and Audrey's return.

                                                                         ***

'She's been again! She won't leave me alone.' Ronnie, staring into the corner, was hugging his doona up to his chin. Audrey, in her faded cotton ankle length dressing gown had her face close to Ronnie's as first Michelle then Valerie entered the room. The red numbers on the clock blinked 2.03 am. Audrey took Ronnie's face between her hands and forced it towards her but Ronnie struggled continuing to stare into the corner. His pale blue irises in bloodshot eyes focused fearfully. They all instinctively followed his gaze.

'Who, Ronnie? What are you talking about?' asked Audrey.
'I can't remember, oh, I can't remember,' Ronnie wailed. Michelle, at the foot of the bed, patted her dad's foot through the doona. Valerie looked on helplessly.
'Never mind, Ronnie,' Audrey soothed, stroking his white hair back from his forehead. 'Try to get some sleep.'
'Look, she's back!' Ronnie shouted now and again they turned to the corner, so convinced did Ronnie seem. Of course there was no one there but the hairs bristled on Valerie's arms.
'It'll be the morphine,' said Audrey. 'He had it not long since.' Ronnie allowed Audrey to make him more comfortable. She lifted him forward while Valerie adjusted his pillows. He alternately gripped and fidgeted with the top of his doona, all the time staring into the corner. Audrey turned off his bedside lamp and they crept out. 'Let's get a cup of tea, mum,' Michelle suggested, and Valerie followed them both down the passage and into the kitchen.

The following night it was worse.
'Audrey!' he was screaming, 'Audrey, I'm sorry!' he cried. Again they all herded into his room but this time he was thrashing his head from side to side with more energy than he'd seemed capable of for a long time.
'It's Greta, Audrey. She's waiting for me. She wants me to go with her. I don't want to go,' he whimpered now.
'Really, Ronnie, don't be so daft.' Audrey's voice with its Yorkshire accent sounded kind and calm, quietly undercutting Ronnie's hysteria. 'Fancy. Greta Banks?' Again, she stroked his face and smoothed his hair as he sobbed. 'I think we might need to call palliative care.' This last was addressed to Michelle, who set off down the hall to the landline in the kitchen.
'It's the morphine,' she said to Valerie, who wasn't so sure. She couldn't quite make out the expression on Greta's face as she stood vigil, it being so dark in the shadow cast by the half open door.

                                                                            ***

Ronnie was dead when Audrey went in to him the next morning. Her scream, followed by wracking sobs woke her daughters. It was a blustery, blue autumn day and cockatoos shrieked in the ironbarks.

The family gathered for the funeral and apart from the vicar’s mobile phone going off under his cassock during the service, things went to plan, as much as that could be said about the worst day of their lives.

Audrey walked around in a bit of a bubble for the next three years, participating less enthusiastically in excursions with other neighbourhood women, some of them already widowed. She sat back at family events, smiling fondly at members of her large family, but gladly relinquishing the role of matriarch; letting her sons and daughters and their children call the shots. At home, she quietly enjoyed the peace of her garden, her friends, her books and television and the sense of a life well lived, full of grown children, and their grown children.

On a warm January day, Audrey died suddenly of heart failure. A neighbour found her lying on her side between the roses and the flowering tomatoes. Her broad brimmed hat, as she’d toppled sideways from her knees, had shaded her eyes. The fingers on her yellow and white gardening gloves were grubby with soil from her work. Her lower legs were bent under from the knees. Her bucket, in which she’d collected weeds, had fallen on its side spilling its contents. Apart from that, she looked, the neighbour had said, for all intents and purposes, like she’d lain down in her beloved garden for a little nap.

They say it’s easier when you lose your second parent. Maybe. When the first one goes you don’t think it could really happen. Oh, in theory you know it’s going to happen, but emotionally you just don’t get it until it does. So when her adored mum died, Valerie had been expecting it, given that her dad had blazed a trail.

                                                                                 *** 

Their appointment was at ten in the morning in the solicitor’s Cromwell suite. Her brothers, well, mostly Nigel, the oldest, had finally got involved in sorting things out after Audrey had died. Typical, Valerie thought. She and Michelle had done the hard yards and Nigel had jumped in to write a few letters and make a few phone calls when his inheritance was involved. Suppose he was being practical, thought Valerie. Outwardly it seemed the boys were coping better with their grief.

Valerie and Michelle had wept buckets as they’d gone through cupboards and drawers, sobbing over stores of useless saved paper bags and rubber bands, throwing out opened packets of flour, rice, sugar – their tops sealed with pegs - and all the other goods you keep in your kitchen cupboards. Ronnie’s shirts had elicited the most tears when Michelle had opened the wardrobe and called Valerie in to look. The shirts were still hanging there, pressed and ready for him to wear. Audrey clearly hadn’t been able to part with them. They knew she’d continued to wear his old dressing gown and had staunchly refused to put it through the wash because, as she said, it had smelled of Ronnie. Likewise, his top drawer still had all his socks, and underwear in neat piles. It was like he’d died all over again, Valerie thought, putting them all into large bags to take to the opportunity shop.

Despite its proximity to the coast, no one had wanted to keep the house. It hadn't been where they'd grown up and until the last five years or so of their parents' lives, once their own kids had grown up, visits had only been occasional, it being such a long drive after a busy working week. Anyway, Nigel and Grant were more involved with their in-laws than their parents. It was just the way it was.

Between them, Nigel and Grant had negotiated with the Cromwell solicitor, cc-ing Valerie and Michelle into correspondence. Euan Mitchell's office was in a modern blank windowed block. With Michelle, Valerie caught the lift to the first floor and announced their arrival to the receptionist, who offered them tea or coffee, which they both refused. The whole settling of the will was supposed to be seamless, according to Nigel's report after his first meeting with the solicitor.

'It's a formality,' Nigel said. 'Lots of people go through this probate thing without a solicitor. They buy a kit, apparently. DIY probate. You just have to go through the process. Should only take a few weeks,' he'd said.

'You know what, Mish? I don't even care about any money. I just want it to be over.'
'Same. I absolutely hear you.' They looked at each other and simultaneously tears welled in their eyes.
Michelle sniffed. 'Maybe life will go back to normal. I'd just like this sadness to stop.' Michelle let out a sob. 'I am not going to cry,' she said.
'Too late, sis.' At that, they managed to laugh. Valerie was sick of feeling like she was next in line for the grim reaper. Having had her parents die, taking nothing with them except others' happiness, for Valerie, life seemed more fleeting than ever. It was as though her whole life was merely a long term rental and the lease was about to expire with no chance of renewal.

Valerie sat upright now on her upholstered office chair and looked around her. What do you wear to a reading of a will? Evidently the same as you'd wear for a light lunch if Michelle was anything to go by. She was wearing a geometric patterned shirt with her bone linen drawstring pants. Valerie had gone for black narrow pants, matching brogue lace-ups, a pale blue shirt and a short denim jacket. She held her leather shoulder bag on her lap. Michelle pulled a small mirror and lipstick from a pocket in her straw bag and touched up her lips, rubbing them together before clicking the mirror shut and returning the mirror and lipstick to the bag.

Nigel and Grant arrived with a ping of the lift bell. Nigel wore a new looking blue suit, white shirt and black shoes. The front buttons of his jacket tugged, a little heartbreakingly Valerie thought, over his paunch. They were all getting old. He approached slowly, raising his eyebrows in greeting, sighing, then bending first to give Michelle and then Valerie a brief hug. He stood while Grant, in new looking black jeans and a brick red polo top gave a slight wave then hugged them both.

'Hmm. Bit strange, eh?' said Grant.
'Yeah, no. Yeah,' said Nigel. 'Hmm.' They both remained standing, shifting from foot to foot.

Valerie let them stand with their discomfort. She wondered whether she'd ever see either of them again after this was sorted. It saddened her, but she'd live with it. Avoiding talk, she studied the windowless space with its shelves stacked with arch files behind the receptionist's bench. An enormous printer sat in the corner. Concealed fluorescent light filtered down into the room through boxed slats. The carpets were olive green. The atmosphere was strained. Polished apples gleamed inedibly on their white tray on a coffee table. The receptionist focused on her screen. 

Grant broke the tension when he strode to the water cooler to yank a plastic beaker from a tubular rack. He pressed a button on top of the tap and water trickled noisily into his cup while bubbles glugged in the huge plastic bottle.

'Sorry,' he shrugged, as they all watched him sipping from the tiny cup. 'Anybody else...?' He pointed at the cup. They all shook their heads.

"Euan won't be a minute.' Valerie actually jumped when the receptionist spoke. 'Just waiting until everyone gets here.' She resumed her screen time.

'What? Who else is coming? Nigel?' asked Michelle.
Valerie's brow furrowed as she looked up at Nigel. 'Nige? You're the one who's been in contact with the solicitor. What's going on?'
'Look, I don't know.' Nigel grabbed his head in both hands, screwed up his face and exhaled through his teeth. 'You know as much as I do, okay.' He pushed his hands into his pockets. 'Christ!' he said, jerking his head forward at the same time. His wavy white hair stuck out on both sides of his head until, in a practised gesture, he smoothed it down.

Grant refilled his cup, drank from it, then shivered. 'I'm cold now,' he said uselessly.
'Look, all Mitchell said was that there'd been an issue with probate and we had to come in and sort it. Hello! Why else are we all here? I told you what I knew, okay.' Despite whispering, he managed to sound belligerent. Michelle crossed her legs and bounced her foot in agitation. Normally a calm person, this unexpected announcement had her perturbed.
'Haven't we been through enough?' she wailed. She rifled through her bag for a tissue. Finding one, she blew her nose loudly.

What's enough? wondered Valerie. She looked from Michelle, checking her eyes in her mirror, to Nigel, pacing, to Grant, gawping and quietly whistling through his back teeth. Nigel had their dad's mass of wavy hair, white now and dark bags under his eyes. Grant clearly dyed his wavy locks but would never admit it. So did Valerie. She had a neat wavy style, parted at the side, cut just below her shoulders. Michelle, eschewing anything she perceived as unnatural, had salt and pepper short, hair, spiky on top; a practical style.

Another ping from the lift interrupted Valerie's thoughts. The door opened and two middle-aged women stepped into the waiting room. Greta Banks but without the style, thought Valerie immediately, standing and turning towards the two women. The older woman of the two extended her hand as she approached and Valerie automatically held out her own.

'Look,' said the woman gently, 'sorry,' she said, still holding Valerie's hand between both of her own, 'I don't expect you to remember me but we used to live next door to each other.' The older woman wore a long navy cardigan, over a summer dress. Her feet looked swollen in their black sandals. She spoke with a cultured northern English accent. She leaned into Valerie, seeming to focus on just one of the siblings to manage what was clearly a difficult situation, like, intruding on a grieving family who're about to get the shock of their lives.

'I remember you. Diana Banks,' said Valerie, gently extricating her hand and stepping back to introduce the others, who seemed stunned, except for Grant, who said, redundantly, 'Didn't you used to live next door in Eccles Road?'
'I'm amazed that you remember me.' Diana smiled at Valerie. Diana's whole face softened in that smile, her eyes creasing into half moons and dimples appearing in her cheeks. Valerie remembered they'd been of an age and were playmates for a few long childhood years. You and I could have been lifelong friends, thought Valerie in an instant, returning the smile.
'I've got a good memory for faces, ' Valerie said, deciding not to mention that Diana looked exactly like her mother, Greta, whom Valerie had mysteriously had occasion so see at Ronnie's bedside not that long ago.
'This is my sister, Veronica.' Diana turned to the taller woman who'd been a step back. Diana nodded her encouragement  to her sister as if she was coaxing a nervous toddler into a pool. Veronica, a svelte woman who looked to be anywhere between forty and fifty, raised a hand. 'Hiyee,' she said, looking at each of them.

It seemed like time had paused in the small waiting room as Nigel, Grant, staring, his mouth open until he remembered to shut it, Michelle and Valerie studied Veronica, with her black wavy shoulder length hair, dark eyes, and slightly protruding teeth, exactly like their own.
'Ronnie. People call me Ronnie,' said the familiar stranger.
'Hmm. Yeah, no. Yeah,' said Nigel.
Grant sniggered. 'You're a dead ringer for the old man,' he said.
'And Val,' said Michelle, almost collapsing back into her chair.

'If you'd like to come this way,' said the receptionist, walking around from behind the bench, 'I'll bring some water through.'

Copyright. Judith Middlemarch.


Thursday, February 8, 2018

Getting a fix

Several rows of handbags are arranged according to colour along a wall. Some are blingy with weighty chains, studs and clasps or magnetised fasteners. Others are fringed or quilted. There's one in straw with embroidered flowers. Browns, blacks, taupes, faux animal skins, occasional leather amidst more common 'pleather'. Unknown 'designers' tag bags. 

Amidst all this a tomatoey-red leather satchel catches her eye. 

Our shopper's heart rate increases, just a tad. She's wary of another customer, over whom she's just tripped. A potential rival, another woman of a certain age. At first she hadn't seen her sitting at the end of a rack of Plus Size Women's After Five on a little stool. The 'competition' is preoccupied by a lemon sling-back with six inch heels. Still, our shopper turns slightly to conceal her 'find'. She's conscious of a frisson, reminiscent of adolescence and smiles inwardly. Her face remains nonchalant as she pops the strap over her shoulder to see how her red leather friend feels. 

Cue non-stop inner monologue. See, she must have a little conversation with herself before proceeding. Capacious, she thinks, good given the load she carries everywhere. Fifteen dollars though? Bit steep for donated goods. Some of these places are getting a bit above themselves, she reckons. Hardly a bargain, is it? Seems new though. And leather. Yeah, but you could get a brand new one at Vic Market for a few bucks more. Oh go on. Splurge. What else do you spend money on? It is for charity, after all. 

Still with bag over shoulder, she heads for bric-a-brac. Almost wets herself over a 1960s Arcopal of France baking dish. Picks it up. Only $6.25! Salivates. Turns dish over in her hands; hugs it to chest having been unable to conceal excitement.  You don't need this, she tells herself sternly. Remember clearing out your mother's house, she warns. You don't want to do that to your own children,  do you? Do you? Well, why not? They'll inherit the whole lot. Why shouldn't they clear out a bit of stuff? They can sell it on Gumtree. Nah, replaces item carefully on shelf.

Meanwhile, she keeps her face impassive as she dawdles amongst shelves groaning under glassware, china, silverware, all of which tells stories of exuberant hopeful homemaking, unwanted wedding gifts, downsizing; relentless consumerism and the inevitable passing of time. So much exquisite pottery, handcrafted, delicately painted, skilfully turned. She went mad over that stuff some time between the late 70s and early 80s, she remembers. Now it's a ticking clock breeding on op shop shelves. 

Her $15 bag sits comfortably on her shoulder. Looks okay, she thinks, checking her reflection in a series of old mirrors in the furniture section. She wends her way through to - heart skips a beat - second hand books. Is there any better value? she considers happily. Well, the public library of course. But then you have to return or renew books by a certain date. Irritating. Unless of course one borrows from one's school library. Now there's something she misses about her previous life: the freedom of the library, albeit a little heavy on the Young Adult fiction. Fair enough, she supposes. It was, after all, a secondary school library. She kept some of those books out for nigh on seventeen years, finally returning them when she quit her job. Smiles to herself; scans the titles. Eyes off the 'light' fiction section; selects an as new old Marian Keyes' page turner. Good for a laugh and a think at the same time. Thrilled with herself, imagining several hours of reading pleasure for $3.95, she strides back to the bag section and frugally replaces the satchel amongst its red fellows. 

Reduce, reuse, recycle? Reduce wins. Hands two two-dollar coins to the man on the cash register. Keep the change, she says, magnanimously.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

What the actual #@&, 2017?

Been doing a bit of an inventory of you, 2017. But it's not really you. You're just a year, one of those 365 day cycles during which life happens. But in the absence of anyone else to sound off to, 2017, you'll do. (I'll give husband, Al a rest. He's been living the dream anyway.)

2017, you began well and had me feeling euphoric. I had to remind myself that this was perhaps 'tourist excitement' before the inevitable 'culture shock'. You know that theory? Change can feel good at first, until the rot sets in? Given I'd quit my day job, I was wary of my initial elation, keeping an eye out for signs of ennui.

But, dear January 2017, I allowed myself myself to experience the joy, soaring along the Otago Rail Trail on my rented bike on the south island of New Zealand or remarking, with awe, the snow-capped mountains in Queenstown, the wineries of the Marlborough region. Ah, that trip augured well for more to come. Western Europe in May for a few weeks sounded enticing. Would have to organise someone else to do for mum, of course, but we'd managed in the past.

I aimed for a little structure in my work-free life, just in case. In early February I joined an elementary German class at Melbourne's CAE and a community choir.

I was feeling ecstatic, back then, 2017. Even that night after choir when my car wouldn't start. Remember? I had music in my heart and lungs under a velvety clear star-studded sky. Who cared that I was waiting by the road side for a bit of assistance from the RACV? I was home an hour or so later anyway, bursting with passion for life, amazed that I'd been out alone in the night, managing an inconvenience without swearing once. You know, by 2016, so drained was I from teaching that I rarely ventured out in the evenings except to compulsory school affairs.  Yet there I was on a Thursday night, February 2017, having shrugged off the mental load, soaring.

Worked on Al then. Why should I have all the pleasure? So incredulous was he to witness my transformation, he also packed in his job.

But February 23, before Al had a chance to savour his freedom, you were there in the diary all along, waiting. The end of peace; the start of an agonising story that's not mine to tell. Will just say that Al was not the first of my loved ones to be diagnosed with cancer this year. Quickly found a heavy door in my mind, wrenched it open, shoved my fear inside and with all my strength forced the door shut. There's no lock though. Have to guard that door and keep it secure.

So, 2017, you presented the opportunity to discover how resilient we all are; how brave. We've been up close and personal with the random nature of our lives, two old mums languishing with dementia in nursing homes, well, until my mum died in September;  our daughter's young, vital man battling cancer, Al getting prostate cancer - the 'good' one.

Suppose the rest is chicken shit, Reggie. (Note to absent sister.)

So long and thanks for the memories, 2017. By the way, despite everything I've had a worthwhile year. It turns out both learning a language and choral singing, especially in French, are really mindful pursuits. Hard to think about anything else when you're focused on acquiring a third language; practically impossible to sing in a choir without feeling gleeful when that harmony is produced. As a bonus, they both came with a phalanx of new like-minded friends.


See you tomorrow, 2018  Let's hope we can do better.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Clench. Hold, 2, 3, 4. Release. Repeat.

Here's an update. Al and I no longer work. We quit our day jobs - me at the end of last year; him in March this year - to explore what would happen next. I'd convinced Al to retire as I was having such a good time not slaving away at work. Well, it hasn't quite turned out as expected. 

I've written the following with husband, Al's permission. Hard to have any privacy when you're married to a blogger.

The other day, I was cutting out a paper pattern for a dress for my daughter. Sepia tissue paper off-cuts fell in a loose pile on the floor on my left, Dust motes shone through the afternoon light in my gemütlich kitchen - gemütlich - German word meaning cosy, warm, welcoming and more, according to my German teacher  Do we have an English word that conveys so much? Ed Sheeran's heart-breaking yet uplifting music was playing on Spotify, reminding me of how I felt listening to a young James Taylor back in the early seventies. Seems to me that as young singer-songwriters, both have/had wisdom beyond their years. Ah, makes me wish I was young again. I popped back to about 1972 in my head. When I was a nascent seamstress  I spent many a weekend cutting out paper patterns and making my own clothes while listening to music. It's still a lovely, easy and productive occupation.

Amidst all this, Al came in to stand, as he often does behind the kitchen bench:  cook, thinker, observer. I didn't take much notice of him. Just registered that he was there; hoped Ed with the sound up wasn't bothering him.. I sang a bit of a chorus with Ed, lowered the volume a tad, then offered Al a random thought from my mind-bin.

''You know one thing I regret?'' I asked as I continued my cutting. No response from Al. I looked up at him. He was a soldier behind the bench, standing very still. He's used to me prattling; sharing my inner monologue. Facing me, he had the light behind him, handy at our age. I couldn't see what his face was doing. I noticed the outline of his bald pate, his ears, then resumed my cutting.

''I no longer have a waist,'' I lamented, cutting carefully around a sleeve. Something about making a dress had prompted the thought. ''I know my lips disappeared in the early 1990s; in the Kennett era,'' I said. ''Simply couldn't go out without lipstick from then on in. My waist disappeared more gradually though. In my late forties maybe? Early fifties?''

Thought he'd acknowledge that one, perhaps a brief humph; a little chuckle. Silence, well, apart from the music. I pressed on then, pushing for a reaction. ''I used to look good back in the day, Yeah?" Nothing. "Could have been a model if only I hadn't decided to devote my life to education.'' No comment. ''I didn't have the teeth. Hate my teeth. But I sure had the boobs,'' I was really plastering it on, in case you hadn't realised. Well, maybe not about the teeth and the tits.

Not even a tiny guffaw? What the...? I looked at him again. He hadn't moved. He remained at attention behind the cutting board; stock still. I put my scissors down. Was he all right? I stood and walked slowly around to his left so I could see his face. Sheesh. Was he having some sort of transient ischaemic attack? Do symptoms include apparent paralysis?

Suddenly, I realised what was happening and I was instantly hysterical and perhaps you had to be there, but I was. Bent double - I won't say at the waist - I steadied myself with one hand on the bench under the microwave, tears streaming, and relished the belly laugh. I'll avail myself of any opportunity for healing mirth.

'Glad you're amused,' he muttered quickly like a six foot ventriloquist's dummy, still frozen, trying not to lose count. Clearly he can't move his mouth and count at the same time. 

You see, he was doing his pelvic floor exercises. It's a clench, hold, release thing and he needs to count out a few reps a couple of times a day. 

About five months ago he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and had a prostatectomy. Didn't see that one coming. Turns out we're a cliche; the couple who retire and discover that one of them has a potentially life threatening illness. Well, it was found in time, and, just three months after his major surgery he's made a remarkable recovery and is even back on his bike. For a few weeks after surgery he was frail, but since he's been able to he's religiously done his pelvic floor exercises, albeit without an easily entertained audience. 

Glad we quit work when we did. We had a lucky break. Turns out that had he not retired, had he not felt a bit light-headed after riding up a hill in top gear on our first big post retirement cycle, I wouldn't have forced him to see a doctor to check his haemoglobin. (It's not enough for me to be paranoid about my own health.) He went along with it, pretty much to shut me up. That's when the elevated PSA - Prostate Specific Antigen - was discovered. It all happened really quickly. Cancer diagnosis, major surgery, and happily a bit later, an all clear. Wouldn't mind a dollar for every time someone told me it was a good cancer to get. Didn't feel like it, but in our case they were right, given it was found in time.

So that's what happened when we retired; a bit of bedlam that neither of us imagined. 

What's more, in an awful coincidence, Al had his op two days after my beloved 86 year old mum collapsed, broke her arm and femur and sadly, subsequently, died two weeks later.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Cleaning the cupboard. Netheredge, Sheffield, 1956

This is my mother's memory, not mine. Its appeal, for me, is in that little family of three, with me waiting to happen. My father paid for that house and told mum that's where they would be living. She trusted his judgment. Love the whole romance of my young parents, mum 25 and dad 27, taking horse-drawn transport from Ripon, North Yorkshire, to Netheredge, Sheffield, albeit in a blizzard.  Mum would never have called herself a writer. She wrote loads of letters home - back to England - but didn't embrace 'creative' writing until she was in her early sixties and joined a writing group. This is something she wrote:

We'd changed horses at the inn where we had stayed overnight, but after the long ride over the Yorkshire moors this last long incline had almost beaten the willingness from these once fresh beasts as they stamped and sweated, snorting at the entrance to the drive.

We arrived by carrier, together with bits of furniture, at dusk, in a snowstorm in February 1956. The driver, Miles, was so eager to seek out a friendly place to stay overnight he barely paused for a drink after delivering his load, so pressing was his need to depart.

My need, too, was desperate: to investigate inside this huge stone terrace house I had never seen. I was somewhat dismayed at the size of the bare, unwashed windows blinking a reflected firelight of welcome in the gloom.

It was a route march from the brass-kerbed step inside the front porch down the bare wooden floors to the distant kitchen and my first acquaintance with 'the cupboard'. When in haste I opened the door, thinking it was another room, I bumped into smelly shelves. Later we realised how fortunate it was that I had tried the cupboard door first as an almost identical door led to the cellar.

It is another story entirely, that first year in our first home, that mausoleum of a place we never quite converted into a comfort zone. The task was daunting, but we were too young to know that and we were in heaven.

The kitchen cupboard, however, haunted me. Its cleaning was just too big to tackle. But after we discovered that the slightly sulphurous smell, which occasionally permeated all the rooms, emanated from within its depths, I recognised the time had come. No two ways about it.

Meanwhile I had established nodding terms with the woman next door. Her back door faced ours, and I ventured to discuss the job in hand and she offered, on loan, a step ladder to ease the task. On noticing my advanced pregnancy she sent her son round with the ladder and possibly to get him to suss us out.

The ladder was a help. We literally moved mountains.

The cupboard, on investigation, was stacked with all the things the old man, the previous owner who had lived alone, didn't want or couldn't sell. Jars were leaking or smashed and stuck. Packets were opened and moving! The wretched smell was everywhere. The top shelf was stacked with blocks of white Windsor soap, hard as rock, and rusted tins of mustard and pepper powder. There were four shelves, four feet wide and three deep in the top cupboard, and one shelf separated the darkened abyss below.

The cleaning and subsequent sterilization of the cupboard became our project; our raison d'etre. Remember there was no radio or television. What was a threat to our existence in the beginning became a challenge. We worked on it together, my husband and I, in the early evenings when Reggie was in bed. It became our leisure time when we plotted and schemed and made plans for the future after the baby was born. Sometimes we were cross and raised our voices in frustration, angry that anyone could have left all this filth, not just in the cupboard but the whole house, for someone else to move. More importantly, could it be done before the baby was due to be born at home in September?

One time when we were both in the cupboard we heard a voice. We were more than shocked, but stayed close and silent, keeping even the noise of breathing to a minimum. It was a strange sound but definitely a voice; a tinny voice. What was it saying in that Punch and Judy animated fashion? Was it really saying, through clenched teeth 'Doyouwantacupoftealove?' How disappointing, we thought and laughed fit to burst.

We heard the same question over and over. During the day, on my hands and knees, wedged inside the cavern, I took comfort in the closeness of the unexplained voice. As I discarded ancient shoes and smelly slippers of pre-war vintage, some with socks still in situ - I never looked for feet - I never felt alone. The mud, muck and grime of years came forth and was vanquished. Afterwards when the scraping and sanding was over, of course we surmised that our inside cupboard wall was one and the same as the cupboard wall in our neighbours' home, now with visible cracks as we had scraped the paint and mortar away.

We did eventually finish the cupboard cleaning. Of course we did. It was beautiful, painted flat white inside and out, and sterile, oh so sterile. What a boon it proved to be in our less-than-furnished kitchen and dining room. We were left with a dilemma though. Should we make it known we would love a cup of tea?

The happy ending came after Judith was born at home in September. I was out in the back yard when a face appeared over the wall; a smiling face with clenched teeth. I introduced ourselves, the new neighbours from way back. Straight away she invited us to visit, and then and there, in her kitchen, I came face to face with the voice from the cupboard.

Mrs Baker had a budgie in a cage hanging adjacent to her kitchen cupboard door. Much to Reggie's surprise and delight and my almost suppressed mirth, the budgie said with no prompting, in perfect mimicry of Mrs Baker's speech, 'Do you want a cup of tea love?'


We could hardly wait.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Life long impressions: 1962 to 1964

Child years are like dog years. Seems to me that one year in a child's life equals seven, or perhaps more, in an adult's. Brief episodes in my childhood informed the person I became. They have lasted for ages in my memory. Yet my own children's lives, seemed to flash by. 

It's a few days before Christmas, 1962. I am six. Mum has a surprise for us for. It's cold outside and the three of us are in the sitting room in our new house. I'm in the armchair by the pretend fire - an electric heater with black plastic coal and an orange glow from a concealed light. The electric bars at the front of the fire are bright orange and warm the room. A television is angled into the space across the carpet beyond the heater but there's nothing on. Reggie is sitting on the long settee facing the heater. Mum is tempting us with a surprise. 'But if I give it to you now,' she warns, 'you won't have it for Christmas. Are you absolutely sure you want it now?' I'm a little scared of spoiling a Christmas surprise. What if we make the wrong choice? But our excitement wins out; we can't resist temptation. Mum relents as though it wasn't her idea in the first place. We're left in delicious fearful anticipation as she leaves the room before returning with our surprises. There will be no going back. It will be our fault if we've spoiled Christmas Day.

Why was I worried? Our gifts are wonderful. We each receive a small lidded cardboard box. Inside is a painted wooden cotton reel. It has six 'nails' protruding from its top. They're equally spaced. There are also a few small balls of wool and a plastic crochet hook. Mum shows us what to do. You thread a strand of wool down through the top hole until you can hold it underneath the cotton reel. You wind the wool at the top of the reel twice around the outside of the nails, hold the wool in place, then hook the lower strand of wool over the upper strand on each nail. You keep doing this and in no time at all a snake of knitting emerges and grows out of the bottom hole. You can tie on different coloured wool. Make sure the knot is in the middle of the circle of nails and you can have seamless stripes. Once your snake is long enough you can cast off. Mum shows us how to do this. You can make little dolls' hats from your snake by coiling it and sewing the coils together. It is immensely satisfying. I knit for ages and make hats for my dolls.

My dolls already have hand-sewn tops and skirts. We regularly visit my maternal grandmother in Goldthorpe, about a half-hour drive away. Big Nanna, we call her. She has a work basket full of fabric pieces and we make dolls' clothes from these. I cut and wrap oblong pieces of fabric around unyielding plastic bodies to get the fit right. My skirt creations are  pieces of material, tacked with running stitches along a single seam. I join the ends of the fabric and begin to sew with a piece of cotton knotted at the end. You moisten the end of the thread in your mouth to help it through the needle's eye. This takes a while. Then in through the top of the fabric, back up through the bottom. But sometimes I forget and go in through the top again and make a loop over the edge. It doesn't really matter. I just keep going. I finish with back-stitches as Big Nanna has shown me. I try the finished product on the doll. It slides on and fits. The doll's top is a piece of material with a split up the back and a hole cut for her neck. Big Nanna has shown us how to fold and sew the edges of the fabric to neaten them. The top is sewn under the doll's arms on both sides. Can't really sew up the back because I won't be able to get it on and off. It just gets tucked into the skirt. It looks fine. I look at what Reggie is doing. She's very neat and tidy. Her stitches are all straight and even and there aren't any loops around her seams. I don't care. I make more clothes. It is immensely satisfying. I love sitting at Big Nanna's table with my sewing. I sew for ages.

We love Big Nanna. Her kitchen has flagstones and there's a peg bag hanging on the pantry door. It's full of balls. When careless children lose them over Big Nanna's hedge, she collects them and keeps them for us to play with. She gives us fizzy drinks of Dandelion and Burdock. There's a lovely rag rug in her sitting room and on the sideboard, near the picture of my dead grandfather, George, there's a red tin filled with sweets. We're always allowed to eat a few.

When we stay with Big Nanna, Reggie and I sleep with her in her double bed. We giggle at her massive flesh coloured bra and corset as she undresses in front of the mirrored dressing table. It's all right to think she's funny. She likes to make us laugh, often reciting amusing poems and telling stories in her 'broad Yorkshire' dialect.

She lets us choose a book each to keep. They're on a shelf in a light, bare upstairs bedroom. I think it was our uncles' room. I choose The School of Poetry by Alice Meynell. Mum had pencilled her name inside the front cover when she was young.  Robert Louis Stephenson's The Sick Child resonates deeply. It also disturbs me. I love reading Going Downhill on a Bicycle When you read it aloud you have to think about the punctuation. I learn Wordsworth's To Daffodils by heart. (Later, when I'm in grade five, I write out the first verse, thinking I've made it up. I'm pleased with myself and show 'my work' to my teacher, Miss H, the dark-haired pretty but nasty opera singer, who's sitting at her front table. She glances at the piece of paper I hand her, quietly sneers and sends me back to my place. It's not that I've plagiarised. She just doesn't like me.) I treasure this old blue cloth-bound book. (I keep it in a plastic bag now. Its spine has disintegrated, as has old sticky tape that held it together. Its pages are brown. It's still a terrific anthology and I like what it says about the kind of child I was.)

Big Nanna is a frequent visitor in Sheffield. She comes 'through' on the bus. She wears a hat and keeps it on if she's not staying over. On demand, and we always ask, she dances a little jig to Knees Up Mother Brown holding her skirt up at the front. She makes the house smell of warmth, buttered tea cakes and ironing. Big Nanna is smiling, white-haired, tall, round and soft. She wears a pinafore to protect her dresses. It makes her knee slippery. When you sit on her knee you can easily slide off. But it's nice on her knee and she holds onto you. Big Nanna puts warm oil in my ear when I have an earache and strokes my head. The earache goes while I rest my head on her lap.  


When I last see my Big Nanna it's at the front of her Goldthorpe home. Mum is there. And Reggie. We say our goodbyes. Reggie wraps her arms around Big Nanna's waist and sobs hysterically. 'I won't leave you, nanna,' she weeps. Mum has to drag her away. Tears pour down Big Nanna's cheeks. I have never seen her cry. I am determined I will not cry. We drive away. I never see my Big Nanna again. I am eight.

Copyright. Judith Middlemarch, 2017

Friday, August 4, 2017

I can fly.

I'm on my haunches with my hands splayed open on my legs just behind my knees. There is a row of dark - I'm not sure of colours yet - houses behind me. I'm willing myself to take off. I'm making an inner effort; clenching my body. I'm unaware of muscles; it's just me and my determination. Then I'm in the air surveying the sloping roofs of that row of dark houses. I'm flying. Somehow I've flown - levitated vertically, I know now - above my house and it was wonderful and easy. I explain this to other people my size, perhaps my slightly older sister, Reggie, perhaps Jane, the daughter of one of mum's friends and a regular visitor, maybe everyone in Sunday school. If they follow my instructions, they too can fly. I'm not yet three, but I can fly. Surely.

When you go back more than fifty years to try to sort out your memories you wonder whether something you imagine was a real memory actually was. Well, this is a real memory. Interestingly, I was younger than three when this happened. It was wonderful to be that age. It's also wonderful to know that I've kept that same consciousness throughout the rest of my life. She was me; my essential self and she is still in my head. Nothing bad had happened to that little girl who knew she could fly, even if she hadn't sorted out the difference between dreams and reality. She was happy, carefully dressed, well-fed and loved. I can see it in a few photos.

 My first three years were lived in a double storey stone terrace house in Netheredge, Sheffield, in the north of England. In 2010, on my pilgrimage to Sheffield, a place I left because my parents sought and found another life in Australia, I returned to that house in Netheredge so I could see where I was born. In the front room. There was no one home or I would have knocked and asked to see inside. Perhaps I was lucky I didn't. I still have my memories.

This is my memory of the room I was born in. I used to think I could remember being born, but even I'm not that ridiculous. Both of my parents, especially mum,  kept the stories alive. But this is me, less than three. I'm standing in the doorway and looking into a high-ceilinged light-filled room, with a fireplace to my left and a bay window to my right. The floor is covered in livid maroon felt. I know now it was a felt underlay. We didn't go into this room much. I can't remember there being any furniture in there. Certainly there was no longer a bed. Prior to my birth, it had been brought downstairs by my very pregnant mother and my father. She was already in labour, so the story goes, and they were awaiting the arrival of the midwife. According to family legend, when my mother was groaning in agony on the floor, dad had made her screw the legs into the bed, seeing as she was already down there.

The Netheredge house was narrow with steep stairs along the left wall as you walked in the front door. In this memory, I'm upstairs in my parents' bedroom. I'm in a cot because I can see, through bars - I trust it was a cot - my parents across the room, facing me in their double bed . I can't sleep. Every time I shut my eyes a frog bites my toes. I don't like it and I want to get in with them. I don't remember being comforted. Instead they seemed amused, surprised by my complaint. 'Don't be so silly,' they say. They're sitting up a little against the bedhead, or wall, mum clutching the bedclothes up over her chest. They must have had a light on. The frog keeps nipping my feet, scaring me, waking me up. Wonder what sort of stories I'd been read.

My dad is holding me in his arms. It's morning. 'Dry daddy,' I tell him. My nappy is dry. I'm proud of this accomplishment, for I know that it is, not that I had any control over it. I am the important one, held against his chest in his arms, my face close to his chin. It is a warm time as he shares the news with mum, who praises this achievement. This story is often repeated to me by my mother. My other first words, much acclaimed in subsequent stories were 'Daddy, slip-slips.' I needed my slippers before I could be put down. So there she is, that adored kid; in those instances, the total focus of her parents' attention.

Another light colourful room in that house is the kitchen. It is huge. On the far wall is a window that looks out into the back yard. There's an enamel sink below this set into benches. To the right of this bench is the back door. On the shelf below the sink is a ceramic mixing bowl, smooth white on the inside and with a woven sand coloured glaze on the outside. One day, Mum quickly fills it with hot water and pours in something that makes the water go cloudy. Reggie has just been run over by a young man on a pushbike. He'd sped into us as we got off the back of a double decker bus and knocked Reggie over. In the kitchen, Reggie is lifted onto the bench. I watch. Mum is comforting and efficient. She swabs and dresses Reggie's grazes.

Reggie found a box of matches in the sitting room around this time. Not on the same day. She wasn't that accident prone. She'd emptied the matches and gripped them in her left fist and struck them against the flinty strip of the match box. She'd probably watched dad doing this, with a single match of course, as he lit his pipe. She got burnt and that fixing bowl came out again. I don't know if I remember watching Reggie burn herself or whether I'd heard the story. It was a big deal and a huge warning to be careful with matches. Didn't stop me, in some involved match play, setting fire to a couple of back gardens some time later when we moved to our brand new house on an estate in Gleadless Valley. That new house was half of a duplex and a couple of wires separated our 'garden' from our conjoined neighbours'. Must have been a dry summer day because that fire took off so quickly it terrified me. Mum and a neighbour suddenly appeared to put it out  before any real damage, apart from blackened grass, was done. Interestingly, I didn't get into much trouble, so clearly dad wasn't there. By that stage, he was an angry man of about thirty who scared the neighbourhood kids, and sometimes Reggie and I. That fire gave me a fright. No chance of pyromania for me.

In Netheredge, there's a cellar off the kitchen, just to the right as you enter. There's a closed door and behind that steps descend. The cellar is a bare, cold, storage place. There's an uncovered electric light globe swinging down into it. I haven't been down there much. Once or twice. I see it more from the top of its stairs.  It didn't hold any horrors that I knew of but it's not a place to play.

It's tea time on another day and all four of us eat in the kitchen. I'm at my place along one edge of the square painted table. Dad is on my right, mum facing me, Reggie on my left. I look down at my food just as one of my cooked mushrooms changes into a slimy, slithering creature and starts inching towards me on my plate. 'It's coming after me,' I cry, terrified. My parents pause in their eating, cutlery stilled in their hands. They laugh. 'Don't be silly,' they chuckle, not unkindly. They are sure of their own rightness and my silliness. I'm not, but I look again at my plate and find, simply, cooked blackish mushrooms in a little heap. But I didn't trust those mushrooms and they remained uneaten.

I've seen tiny photos taken in the back yard of that terrace house. There's a black and white picture of a smiling baby, me, with light hair sitting happily in a huge black pram outside the kitchen window. The same pram feels perilous when I am tipped forward from it when Reggie is swinging on its handle at the front gate. Another snap catches a joyous me running down the backyard path towards whomever is holding the camera.

Mum and her friend are in the kitchen. Reggie, Jane and I are sitting on the backyard path deep in concentration. We have a tin of watercolour paints open on the ground, a jar of water, paper and paintbrushes. We are all three wearing white sandals with cross bars and closed toes. Our shoes have tooled cutouts and white stitching. We briefly confer about whether we'll get into trouble before deciding to do it anyway. We carefully paint our white sandals with swirls of watercolour. Jane and Reggie leave me and I continue to paint my shoes, one foot in front of me at a time because I'm still wearing them. Total absorption in a lovely creative activity. No consequences. Suppose the watercolour washed off easily enough.


Until 2010, that house was huge. It satisfied all the needs of my three year old self. The back yard was enormous. I've explored its space in my memory for years, trying to get even further into its depths. My actual visit revealed a narrow single fronted two storey row house; front door on the left, bay window on the right. I went to the front window and peered into the tiny room into which I was born. It could barely contain a chair, a couch and coffee table in front of the fireplace. The back yard was just that. There weren't any structural changes to the house but the yard had been paved and a barbecue sat just outside the kitchen window. I could have walked to the back door in four strides.

Copyright Judith Middlemarch 2017