Sunday, 16 January 2011

A Hand-Carved Aston


Could it be that we have children, utterly selfishly you might say, out of a subconscious longing for our own lost childhood? When, as adults, we cautiously essay parenthood, clumsy, sly, awkward and ad hoc, do we not reference all we do, our few mild successes and many guilty, shame-faced defeats, against all our stored up memories, happy and sad? Watching my own three steadily grow, my thoughts have been bending this way of late. Our youngest is at an age where she picks her way balletically on the joins in the pavement on jaunty, happy treks back home from school with her mother, races against the door closer to the top of our creaky, narrow wood stairs, and then on long, lazy, empty, holiday afternoons, careless of her older siblings, in perfect self-sufficiency, occupies herself in a frenzy of “making.” A current fad is “woolly dollies,” dear, delicate little creatures of brightly coloured wool making shocks of green, orange and yellow hair atop heads of finely painted beads, bodies of pipe cleaners wound round tight with more wool, outstretched arms, and finished with pretty skirts like gossamer overlapping pansy petals. Wooden spoons have pert little faces and scraggly wool hair. Acrylic paints are squeezed out of tubes on makeshift palettes, then thickly brushed on miniature canvases. Painted figures, a black cat with egg carton ears and an emerald green crocodile, are fashioned with cloth dipped in white plaster, like the plaster which once set my forearm as an overly energetic little boy, it having been bent most emphatically, outwards in a right angle, after a fall from my grandmother’s back steps. A greenstick break, the doctors called it. I can feel even now the prickly blue tartan mohair rug my mother covered it with in the back of our big old Ford on the way to the hospital, just to save me the sight of it, tears stinging my cheeks all the long way there, scratchy like the bath towel bigger than me she padded our skinny nut-brown limbs dry with at the end of each Summer day, before tucking us up under smooth and luxuriant pink lambswool blankets on our ply-sided beds, three in a row, over white cotton sheets, or pastel-striped flannelette in winter.

On rainy days our mother, who frugally made all our clothes, as a hundred worn family photo snaps faithfully attest, three lots of everything cut out from the same inexpensive fabric roll-ends, then a pretty, slim-waisted, puffy-sleeved dress for baby sis, got us productively working on balsa wood airplanes and Meccano and fleets of plastic American warships and crystal radio sets and clay modelling and “Knitting Nancy” projects (placemats, I remember) with wooden cotton reels nailed at one end, for when the elegant, painted, long skirted turned original was finally lost or broken. We craved this attentiveness from her, drank it in, and how unstintingly she gave of it! It was her artistic side, not inconsiderable, which expressed itself thus, so abundantly in this fashion with her diligently practical parenting. She painted in watercolours, landscapes of raw bushland like the dry scrubby places she conjured for us in stories of growing up on farms out West. Rudimentary cottages with rusty tin roofs and rainwater tanks were set among rough open farm buildings and scraps of trees. This might have been my grandfather’s rundown chicken farm, made actual for me by the many rusty old hand-wrought tools still bundled in my grandmother’s dark, carless garage. Mother told us how, late at night on Christmas Eve, he startled them in their beds by rolling bricks down the corrugated iron roof, in mimicry of Santa’s fallen toy sack. (Like eagerly-awaited trunks of books, presents of doll’s house toys for Mum and Ena and Auntie May came all the way out West from Sydney by slow train, but seldom arrived whole and undamaged.) Flat, open, washed-out painterly horizons were the vast fenceless spaces where as a little girl she brought home the cows at the end of each day, so far she didn’t know which way, except that running at them turned the sullen cows for home, and she followed. She made us feel that little bit special, and there was the pressure of it always at our back, this sense of being different and apart. I once modelled in Plaster of Paris for a school project, with generous input from my (it must be) highly competitive mother. A 3D map of Australia on a wooden stand was complete with raised Kimberleys and Great Dividing Range and separately coloured states and capital territories. It was beautiful and intricate. They hardly knew what hit them in the Second Class at sleepy suburban Lane Cove West Primary.

Steps to school some mornings get mentally toted up: 504 to the pedestrian crossing on Houndsditch ( bottles in a palette... a famous French automobile...); 585 the final score at Bevis Marks, our point of fleetingly sad, daily separation. We are together with our two very unruly small dogs, on short leads. They flick about on the grey pavement, tugging and straining this way and that on their short leather leads, ungovernable, like two kites on a blustery day. They scatter headscarved undersized Muslim women and their timid children like flocks of startled pigeons. My daughter gathers up school pals along our route, all girls of course, plucky and proud in their final year, veterans each of half a dozen years of a little local primary school a lot like my own. She calls out from across the street, each name in turn: “Rachel,” “Sophie,” “Tyana,” “Norhan.” They call back in turn. There is laughter, and wordplay, and for me the intense pleasure of being the disinterested observer of such precious, boundless high spirits. Sometimes she encircles my waist with her arms and gives me a hug. Such unselfconscious public display of affection we both know has all too short a date. I watch her take the crossing and briskly walk to the school gate. She has my Mum’s straight, flat back, and slightly awkward, tin soldier way of walking. I wait for a little wave before turning back for home with the dogs. Her trust and love for each of us is unqualified, unbounded. She smiles her accustomed farewell from across the street. She has poured every fibre of her tender young life into each of us, and it seems sometimes we hardly even know. Everything just now is opening, unfurling, and she can barely contain her excitement at the endless possibilities before her. May I count myself worthy of such gifts of love? Who can say?

By contrast, in my own bushy fringe of suburban Sydney, where snakes, possums and heavy lumbering lizards come up to our backyards from the dark creek valleys, paths for my young, bare, summer-toughened feet are worn and winding soil, carved from couch grass that pricks at soft skin and is everywhere snared with tiny round, bothersome bindy-eyes. Summer stretches before us like a dizzying dream, careless, schoolless, seemingly never-ending. Ramrod–straight cement paths take me away from limitless bushland and empty lots for playing in toward shops and school and church; toward damp, misty playing fields in winter or, in flipside summer, tennis courts and crowded municipal swimming pool. These are marked out with the same set of curious hand tools my father keeps on a tool-bench in a garden shed, for I recognise his bent round back, a plumper and older version of my own, leaning over little paths he has laid out so carefully in similar fashion, between rows of tomatoes and cabbages and leathery-skinned flat pumpkins. He is never so happy as when concentrating on these practical trades. He is a house builder turned chartered accountant, and in some mild confliction of the heart always slightly mourning his missed vocation. Mother leads us on “improving” excursions through narrow winding paths of archetypal Sydney bush, in hissing and crackling midsummer heat, shadowing ghosts of tribes of naked Aborigines over timeless landscapes of jutting black sandstone mounds, through groves of sinuous, wilting, loose-skinned gum trees. We carry unlined exercise books and pencils, for careful pressing, preserving and superscription of delicate wildflowers: Banksia, Wattle, Bottlebrush and a dozen varieties of Eucalyptus.

Coming to the end of my own Elysian, Sydney-suburban, primary school years, we troupe of similarly boisterous, semi-delinquent, frequently brattish boys, always together in parks and playgrounds and so many rich, hidden places, known only to ourselves, were by now grown weary of each others’ company, and its constraints, and longing for mental and physical escape. I would soon be leaving the neighbourhood altogether, and starting at a boys’ independent school, in this respect alone among all my classmates in this predominantly working class suburb. Old school photographs in black and white are occasionally prised from the drawer, one of “KIN. [for kindergarten] 1959,” ranked with adorable, plump-faced poppets with mops of sun-bleached hair and (for the girls) plentiful bows, holding up the chalkboard to the camera. I am easily identifiable in the back row, but mysterious now even to my adult self. The other is of the very same children, now a tad more worldly and knowing and self-possessed (“4th 1963”). Each picture is crowded with faces whose features and character are simply etched and wrought in my memory forever. This little Sydney suburban primary school gave me a palette of colours and personality types to serve me all my life. The girls are of course all utterly fascinating to us, and objects of feigned insouciance. Some of them are clever, always getting the best grades. One, Helen, slim and vivacious, is writing a novel. They make us boys feel dull and resentful. There are crushes, to be sure, and stirrings of pre-sexual interest, like the time I caught sight of pretty Sally’s white pants in the midst of rehearsals for the end of school play, me lying on the stage looking up, next to the curtain, she stepping right across me in her knee length pleated blue skirt. It was like a gift. When Johnny D., my best friend, who walked every day to school with me since kindergarten, takes up with Helen, and walks together with her to school in the mornings, instead of me, it is like a betrayal. I am devastated. I can hardly understand it. We take bets, on who will be married soonest, and who hold out longest. I still don’t know who won.

On the return journey from my youngest’s school one morning I round a corner and surprise M., my friend, in a moment of great discomfiture. One of his little ones has just lost a deciduous tooth. “He can’t find it in the snow,” his father explains, bravely laughing out loud. The dear little fellow is distraught, wailing uncontrollably. Amid this consternation, office workers are hastening past in thick coats. “The tooth fairy will still come, just the same,” I want to say. But before I can they hurry forward, out of range, a child caught in each of his two giant hands. After all, they are late for school. Little spots of blood stain the fresh snow at my feet. I am grateful my daughter is spared this vignette. Looking down, I can barely move from this place. I am left with the image of my friend’s long big face, visibly contorted by pain, fighting back tears as much for himself now and, being suddenly bereaved, for his cruel, unfathomable fate.