(C) Sherryl Clark, 2012
When my mother laughs, her laughter is like smooth round pebbles falling through clear water. She sits in the dark passageway of our ancient house, bakelite telephone to her ear and listens to careful secrets spilling from its heart. We cannot hear what she is talking about, but the secrets swirl down the passageway like smoke, patterning the cool air and sliding into the tattered books crammed onto the shelves near the bathroom.
She has been baking cakes today and they cool on the wooden table, stacked on wire racks, waiting to be stowed in round tins that fit under the cupboards. One tin is Wedgewood blue with a white lace trim, another holds a faded photograph of a slim queen in blue on a horse that strolls across a cobbled courtyard. The tins echo when they’re empty; they clang together as if demanding sustenance, like children who clamour for cake, more cake.
Usually there is a tray of apple or apricot slice dusted with white, cloudy sugar, sometimes a chocolate cake, plain because icing is a luxury, and always a mountainous pile of biscuits – golden crisp Anzacs, gingernuts as hard as toffee that have to be dunked, cinnamon crisps that crumble and melt. She fills the echoing tins and closes their lids with a firm and satisfied hand, and the smell of glistened sugar and golden syrup lingers in the air all afternoon.
The cakes are for my father, who wakes before dawn to herd sleepy cows into the concrete yards where they’re milked by machines that slurp and suck creamy streams through shining steel pipes. My mother also milks cows, bending to tie leg ropes and ducking sly kicks from cows still grumpy from being woken. Later she fills buckets with warm milk and feeds the calves in the paddock, soothing their loneliness with mother’s food and allowing them to avidly suck her fingers as they search for the answer to un-nameable need. Once a calf sucked her wedding ring off her finger and swallowed it, gulping and drinking and wandering away to play with the others. For days we walked around the paddock with long sticks, sifting through brown calf dung, hoping to see a flash of gold, but to no avail. Her hands remain bare – her square diamond-chip engagement ring has long since worn through, its slim encirclement thinning to nothingness.
My mother has a vegetable garden in the corner of the house paddock, near the pigsties. It is a garden that needs a strong fence, for every animal that roams unheeding of human rules and desires would eat its way through this garden like a ravenous beast turned lunatic at the full moon. Rows of sweet corn stand tall and leafy, cobs thickening against the stalks, sun-yellow silk flopping from green folders. Beans climb towards the light, twining their soft tendrils around stakes and reaching with delicate fingers towards each other. Tiny beans, like fragile penises, thicken with the urge to grow seeds and hang ponderously in convivial bunches. Carrots and radishes burrow into the earth, stretching out their single roots for food to fatten and expand.
My mother chooses in each season what she will grow, thinking of pure jars in the store room filled with red and green and yellow stars. She will slice beetroot and beans, and crush tomatoes to make her own spaghetti. The preserving pan will bubble with heated salt and vinegar and the pungent aroma will sting the ceiling.
Fruit has its own pattern, being on trees that blossom and pollinate and bloat each year without any planning. In the orchard apples with rough brown skins and green spicy juice make perfect pies. My grandmother grows peaches and swaps them for apples; her huge Golden Queens must be peeled and sliced into yellow grins. The stones cling to their flesh and the preserving jars include meaty pips, for nothing can be wasted. And there are always plums, small and sweet or largely purple and tart; they all end up as jam, so that we dread jam turnover or jam tarts or jam scones or, worst of all, jam sandwiches.
The only fruit we do not grow is apricots. They are foreign and my mother never says whether she has tasted a fresh apricot or wants a tree. Instead she buys dried apricots in crunchy cellophane packets, and soaks the tough round halves in water until they bulge. They make wonderful jam, with hunks of fruit, but this is special jam and four jars must last a year.
My mother cooks on a stove which is so old it has little iron legs, solid elements that glow like giant circular coals, and a tiny temperature gauge with a red section that creeps around as the oven heats. We eat solid food, meat from the butcher and sometimes meat from a butchered animal shared with other families. No-one owns a deep freeze where bags of carefully labelled steaks and chops and roasts sit neatly side by side.
We can tell which day of the week it is by what is served for the evening meal. Sunday is a hot roast with baked vegetables and gravy, Monday is cold roast, Tuesday sausages, Wednesday mince and so on. It rarely varies and we all have things we hate, such as home-made boiled salad dressing, with its acid tang and slightly curdled, yellow texture. Once a neighbour, visiting for dinner, poured it on his steamed pudding accidentally, thinking it was cream but we knew and stayed quiet. My mother cooks these same meals of meat and vegetables, week after week, and those who refuse to eat are kept at the table until they finish, no matter what time of night it is. Sometimes starving children in Africa are mentioned but mostly it is the silent sitting, an attempt to outwait the un-outwaitable.
My mother shops at the local general store but she prefers to send a list of exactly what she wants so that it will be packed for her and sent home with my father. This is not a store for browsing – it is small and dark, and stretches back a long way into shadowy corners and deep shelves full of items mixed up and falling against each other like drunk sailors. Only the storekeeper knows where everything is, and when something is not in the store, she must venture into the icy cellar out the back and ferret through boxes and crates, blowing on her fingers to keep them warm.
We eat what my mother calls ‘rat cheese’, hard and yellow, cut from a huge block with a long sharp knife and wrapped in crinkly greaseproof paper. It always hardens around the edges first, and slices of it sit on sandwiches like cardboard. We have a bread order three times a week. The high-top loaves come wrapped in thick white paper tied with string, our name scrawled on the front in black crayon, and my mother cuts it with a practised hand, making each slice just narrow enough to fit in the toaster. We eat butter, like farmers should, and honey from my grandfather’s hives, thick and dark brown in sugar tins, so thick it barely spreads and gouges holes in the toast.
We always sit at the square wooden table in the kitchen to eat, the smallest of us wedged in next to the cupboards, my father at the head, my mother near the stove and sink. It is a warm room with a large water heater rumbling in the corner and, above it, a clothes horse pulled up to the ceiling by ropes where damp clothes are hung like curing animal skins to dry. The red and yellow and green linoleum on the floor is scuffed and cracked, and our chairs scrape and screech and wear away its colours, shred by shred.
There has never been any carpet in our house until an aunt moves and gives my mother her red couch and rose-patterned carpet square. This causes an unforseen problem, solved by my grandmother who lends my mother a carpet sweeper. It is brown and bulky, its brushes worn and squeaky, and it does not like to pick up dust and dirt. Nevertheless, my mother pushes it back and forth, back and forth, until she is satisfied that the required effort has been made.
We know the carpet is not as she imagined. It should have been a wide expanse of Axminster, a blue-green sea of lush wool, warm and soft under her feet, with perhaps a design of elegant flowers. Instead it is already threadbare in places, and it is hard and unyielding, providing nothing of dreams or pleasure. She comes to regard it as a nuisance.
In winter she cleans the fireplace every morning, scooping piles of ash and dead embers into a bucket and relaying the fire for that night. It is a treat to be allowed to light one of my mother’s fires, for it catches impetuously every time, the flames leaping from paper to stick to wood, crackling and coursing up to the narrow oblong of sky above. Each spring when the last fire has burned, she paints the bricks and the iron bar a bright silver and replaces the metal fire guard, with its embossed brass elephants and palm trees, for the summer’s duration.
At nights, while we listen to the radio, she sews or knits, saving money by dressing us in an array of cotton dresses with waist ties, tartan trousers and thick, prickly cardigans and jumpers. She makes clothes for herself too, a shirt dress of cream wool, a green polished cotton shift and a flowered skirt. Often these do not fit properly, as if she is still unsure of the shape and size of her own body, or that somehow she is sewing for a different version of herself. These misfits frustrate her, and she talks about owning a tailor’s dummy, a solid rendition of herself to stand in the corner.
My father takes her shopping one day and she comes home with a parcel which holds so much anticipation we clamour to see her in this new garment. It is a blue dress in fine, silky material; its skirt is finely pleated and swirls around her knees. Most wonderfully, this dress fits perfectly and my mother looks like a happy woman whose dearest wish has been placed in her hands. Years ago she had many lovely dresses, with huge puffy petticoats that spread their skirts like filled parachutes. She would dance all night with my father, flinging her shawl over her shoulders when at last they emerged in the cool air. Now this one dress has the power to recreate those nights, so she remembers how it used to be.
The night of the tennis dance we are all allowed to go too, proudly driving in the car with my mother in her new dress, sure that this will be her most special night ever. My father lets us out near the door and we wait impatiently for him to return from parking the car, watching my mother carefully to make sure she doesn’t go inside without us.
At the dance, my mother is standing near the door greeting her friends when she sees another woman in exactly the same dress. We do not understand why my mother is so upset, why she runs from the hall, why she will only return when someone has lent her a plain white cardigan with which she can cover as much of her horrible dress as possible. She vows later that she will never wear it again, and she doesn’t.
She continues to play tennis into her forties, running and laughing around the court, sitting in the weatherboard pavilion with her friends when it rains and the smell of wet asphalt hangs heavy in the warm afternoon. She only gives up playing when rheumatism starts to plague her knee and elbow joints. It is another thing she is forced to relinquish, a larger joy than many of the others. She often volunteers to umpire matches, perching on the high seat, stretching her legs out to the sun and gazing across the football ground to the river and the willow trees trailing in the brown water. Finally it becomes too upsetting to watch but not play, and she decides it is easier to stay home. She continues to bake for our lunches; these are the days of the home team providing lunch for the visitors and I carry along her famous apple slice each week with its icing sugar coating and crisp pastry. She wants me to play better than I am able and I wish I felt as passionately about this game as she does, but it merely a pleasant pastime, one I often want to avoid, having other Saturday pastimes in mind.
One Saturday I try to persuade her to let me stay home. I am loath to leave the house, badly wanting to stay without knowing why, but she is adamant that I will be letting the team down, and being honourable in this way is an important lesson to learn. I take my apple slice and tennis racquet and sulk determinedly all morning, wishing all the while that I was at home, reading or lazing around. I pound around the court, not trying as hard as I should to win, and being a little more disagreeable than necessary.
At home my mother is working in the kitchen, cleaning and tidying, possibly cooking lunch or preparing food with her deft hands, when she feels faint and her heart pounds with an agonising beat. She grips the wooden bench, drops the spoon she is holding and lowers herself onto the floor, trying to catch her breath, waiting for the pain to ease a little. She leans back against the small wooden cupboard where the special cups and dishes are kept, lowers her head and dies, alone.
I continue to hit tennis balls and eat apple slice, my father fetches meat from the butchers, the cows stand outside the fenced garden and, in the store room, row upon row of coloured jars stand in silent order.
© Sherryl Clark, 2012