Saturday, July 28, 2012

Visions of torture

The cat is still missing.  Every morning and in the evenings I go outside into the back garden and call for him.  I hold fast to the hope that soon he will appear over the top of the back fence where I have seen him so many times before but so far there is no sign. 

And people tell me stories of cats who have gone missing and returned unchanged after a number of days, and then there are others, like my neighbour, who tells me about two of her cats, one who came back with all his claws missing.  She reckons he must have been trapped somewhere and had wrenched off his nails trying to escape.  

I have visions of torture, the ripping off of nails.  The other cat, my neighbour never saw again, but she was convinced that he had been stolen.
‘Your cat is just a huge ball of grey fur and so beautiful.  It’d be easy to keep him.’  

And so I have visions of the grey cat locked inside someone else’s house, learning fast to become an indoor cat and happy enough there.  If this is so, then it is preferable to the idea of him locked inside some lonely garage or pit or other place of torture, or worse still dead on the side of the road, to be collected as road kill by council workers and heaved onto a tip or burned in some mass incinerator.  

It is the not knowing that is hardest of all and then the giving up; the thought that one day I might stop calling the cat, that I might stop expecting him to return home.  Then there's the thought that he will fade from our memories but never quite go away, not like the cats who have died in our care, even the one who was killed on the road or the one whom my husband took to the vet who after a long life at seventeen years needed to be put down.

Who cares?  a voice inside me says.  It’s only a cat, not a child, not a person.  Cats matter but how much in the scheme of things?  

I do not want to exaggerate this loss.  It is more the sense that it piggybacks on other losses that until now had remained more hidden from view.

I find myself remembering the time when I was eight and my oldest brother left home.  He ran away as the expression goes, though he was eighteen at the time, and went missing.  He had brawled with my father over dinner.   It was Easter time, I remember, the time of the crucifixion and of Easter eggs.  These two strangely jarring symbols etched in my memory, the sweet and the bitter of it all.  My father had picked on him and my brother threw down his knife and fork and stormed out of the room.  

I did not see him again for three years. For three years I wondered where he had gone.  And I wondered that my mother could go about the business of her normal life not knowing the whereabouts of her first born son.  

Years later I found that after sometime my brother had contacted her.  He had become a lay missionary in New Guinea.  He was out in the world and doing good.  My mother must have been relieved.  As I would be relieved were I to hear that our cat is alive and well out there and maybe even ‘doing good’.  

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Be concerned but not alarmed

One of our cats has gone missing, the grey one, the boy.  The one who is most persistent in his hunger and calls for attention.  My husband tells me this morning, in that combined serious but also light hearted way of his that says ‘be concerned but not alarmed’, 'the cat has not been around for two days'. 

We both know that our cats have a tendency, each one of them to stray from time to time, for days on end.  And usually they reappear.  But I have no memory of the boy disappearing.  Besides, I’ve been away myself for the past four days at a conference and I wonder if the two are connected.

I am not the chief carer of the cats.  I share responsibility with my husband and with whichever of our daughters are around, but the cat might have resented the disruption to our house hold routine and taken himself off somewhere.

Forgive me for anthropomorphising.  At this conference among other things a few people talked about the notion of ‘post human lives’.  I won’t go all theoretical on you other than to say, the notion of post human lives has something to do with the idea that human beings and animals, and machines, as well as cyber creatures, all organisms, have more in common than we like to think.  We tend to create artificial divides here.  That’s a crude rendering of this idea of the post human which I continually have the impulse to call ‘subhuman’.

I relish these conferences, the ones on autobiography and biography, and on what is roughly called life writing studies, because there are all these people – in Canberra three hundred of them – who come together from all over the world to talk about the way people think, paint, photograph, sing and write about their own lives and the lives of others.  And increasingly, there are people like me who write and theorise more explicitly about their own lives. 

At the conference in a paper on digital lives, I talked about my blog.  The hazards, the pitfalls the exquisite joys of blogging, all dressed up in a skimpy frock of what gets called 'blogging theory'. 

And now after all the pleasures of meeting new people, and of crawling around in my head with new ideas and notions, I find myself fretting for the cat. 

You might recognise him if you saw him, a grey cat, a large cat, a boy cat, who has been neutered and who perhaps resents this because sometimes he looks as though he’s scowling.  But he is a loyal cat.  A gift to one of our daughters from one of her boyfriends several years ago. 

That daughter has since left home.  That relationship between boyfriend and girlfriend  is over but the cat remains in our care, as many animals do after children leave home.  They might even be considered to take the place of the children who leave home. 

And there are other dramas and sadness afoot - too complex, too personal, to on-the-boil to mention here now, but the cat's absence stands as a reminder of the temporality of life, and it frightens me.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The stink of summer

A woman fell over in Ikea yesterday, a Moslem woman in a scarf with a long skirt and wide coat. She had been pushing one of those stub Ikea trolleys and must have lost her grip on it because there she was on the floor below the first flight of stairs on the mezzanine crying out in pain.  She had hurt her leg.  I offered to help, my son in law offered to lift her but no, she had hurt her ankle and did not want to move. 

An Ikea attendant dressed from top to toe in butter yellow came to her rescue and we moved on. ‘These stairs are a health hazard,’ I said.  ‘It’s a wonder people don’t fall all the time.  The banisters are too short.’  

Last night at dinner with a small group of old friends we talked about installing a banister along the walkway into the garden of one of our friends, who is ill, seriously ill, soon to die.   

But the banister was not so much for him, he said, as for other friends who visit, some elderly, some unwell, but all of whom are vulnerable to falling when they walk onto the uneven footpath that gives access to his house.

Memories return:
The banister that leads down the five or six short steps onto the concrete path that takes you to the change rooms of the swimming pool in Camberwell is made of steel, round and cold to touch. It bends to accommodate the slope of the ground as it moves down the hill beside the pool onto the entrance to the change rooms. 

The change rooms themselves are underneath the pool.  In the corners of the shower recess there are long green slimy marks from the constant dripping which I imagine is the swimming pool slowly leaking into the earth beneath.  The change rooms also stink of chlorine.  Chlorine is the smell of summer.

The water at the swimming pool is the bluest of blues.  I do not realise until adulthood that its colour arises from the colour of the tiles that line its surface.  I had thought as a child it must come from the stuff that is added to the water, the stuff that gives the water its peculiar stink, a stink that stays on my skin long after I have returned home from the pool.   The stink of summer.

Summer is also the freedom of swimming, an escape from my father.  He does not swim.  He has diabetes and must take care of his feet.  He will not go to the beach for the same reason. 

There could be strange things in the sand, broken bits of glass, the sharp edge of an abandoned tin can that could cut his feet and if his feet get cut, he bleeds and if he bleeds from his feet something happens to his circulation and he could wind up with gangrene and they might chop off his legs. 

How I wish they would chop off his legs, then he would not be able to walk.  In a wheelchair he could not visit us in the night. 

My sickly friend from the dinner party last night talked about death, the need to pay attention.  He has gone from a round corpulent fellow to a grey shadow of himself, thin and wan.  He spends eighteen hours a week on dialysis and cannot drink liquid except in the form of ice to go with his whiskey. He does not pee anymore he tells me and I wonder about this.   

Not to pee any more, not to feel the trickle pass from inside and out into the toilet or for him against the urinal wall, a strange loss, a loss greater even than the loss of blood through menopause.

In the change rooms of the swimming pool I notice my first pubic hairs sprouting there below the V bone above my legs and I fear that something terrible is happening to me.  I have not taken in the sight of my mother’s naked body if I have ever seen it or of my older sister’s and have no idea that such things might happen to me.

My childhood fantasy is that death belongs only to the elderly, those older than me, but not to me.  At the swimming pool I use the silver steel of the banister as a monkey bar and hang upside down to see the earth underneath my head.  I do this repeatedly until my hand slips and I am on the ground with a crash. 

I feel it in my shoulder, the sharp pain that signifies a broken bone or some other internal damage but I do not tell the pool people.  Not until I get home do I complain of the pain to my mother. 

This is a mistake. 

My mother tells my father.  My father goes to examine me.  We do not use doctors in our house.  Our father sees himself as the resident medical expert. The worst of it is when he bandages my chest round and round like a mummy. 

I am ten years old without breasts to speak of but I know that soon they will be here and my body feels taboo.  Yet like a parcel handler, my father bandages me up, ready for postage.  

And the woman from Ikea, how is she now?  

Saturday, July 07, 2012

You cannot trust her

A cousin of mine has died.  I did not know him well.  The last time I saw him we were children.  My mother stays in touch with his parents but we cousins have lost all contact.  He was living in Queensland but I know nothing else at this stage other than that he was dead for four days before they found him and the police said there were no suspicious circumstances, or words to that effect.  He died of natural cases. 

To me there is something horrendous about the idea of dying alone, not so much the fact of dying itself but of being left unburied or non-cremated, left unattended after death.   To be found eventually in a state of decay. 

I once wrote a short story about this, in the early days when I first began to tackle the short story form and made the mistake of giving it to my husband to read.  He was furious with me after he had read the story because to him it lacked any redeeming features and disturbed him too much.

It was a good lesson for me in that I stopped asking my husband to read my writing in early drafts.  People talk about the need to have your ‘best’ reader for early drafts of your writing, someone whom you can trust to be honest about the writing, someone able to make constructive suggestions about how to improve it, not someone who will undermine your efforts, or, almost worse still, someone who will praise your writing to the heavens without observing how and whether the piece is working.

I have a couple of friends to whom I send early drafts of my writing, one to whom I send fiction, another to whom I send my more non-fictional efforts.  Both approach the task in different ways.

First up though, I call on my upon reader self.  She is unreliable.  I cannot trust her.  As much as I cannot trust our former dog - the one we call the bronze heeler.  He offers nothing other than an image of the real thing.

Doubtless, you’ve heard the expression: ‘murder your darlings’?  It’s hard to murder your darlings without an accomplice, someone who will tell you what darlings need to be killed off.  On my own I am not good at detecting such perils in my writing.  My darlings seduce me into thinking they should stay.  I should spare them, if not for now, then for later.

 I read recently that someone has decided to promote October as the month in which you only buy what you need month.  For some reason this notion appeals to me.  The idea is that every time you go to make a purchase in October you ask yourself the question: Do I really need this?  And if you do not, then you return the item to the shelves. 

If I could apply the same principle to my writing, I might never create the darlings I would later need to kill off.  On the other hand, for a writer not to allow whatever emerges to creep onto the page might be problematic.  It's better to have darlings to kill off than to have nothing at all. 

And here again I think of my cousin, gone now.  I do not know whether he had a family of his own beyond his family of origin.  I only know that at the time of his death he was isolated and perhaps all too easily forgotten.   

Among her seventy two reasons why writers write, Margaret Atwood includes one about memorialising the past.  It’s our way of keeping on going after we are gone, in the written word.  The trouble is so many of our words will get buried under the weight of the world’s words.  

Given that the Internet never forgets, these words could be a tribute to my unnamed cousin.  I hope someone somewhere cares enough to remember him better than I can here.