Mum climbed up the stairs to the plane, followed by Jennifer holding the baby, then me and Ronnie together. I was holding Ronnie’s hand. “My name is Elizabeth Tinsdale and I am five years old.” I had the words in my head because that was what I was to say if I was ever lost. I thought I might get lost on the plane. The door to the plane wasn’t like a door at home, but curved, and inside the plane, the floor was metal. The seats were all stuck together and the windows were like portholes on a ship, which I had seen in Ronnie’s book of “Great Ships of the World”. Jennifer and I fought about the window seat so Mum let Ronnie have it.
“You’re behaving as if you’ve never been on a plane before,” said Mum.
We hadn’t ever been on a plane before.
Mum was excited about going to Sydney. While we were saying goodbye to Nanna and Pappa she was hardly paying any attention. Nanna was crying, but Mum wasn’t.
We flew up above the clouds, so close that I could see they were made of cotton wool. A woman in a blue uniform brought us each a paper plate with a biscuit and a piece of cheese. The edges of the cheese were cut in a small wavy pattern. It was so beautiful that I didn’t want to eat it.
When we arrived at our new house in Sydney, there was exactly the same wavy pattern round the ceiling of the bedroom which was for Jennifer and me, although the baby was going to sleep with us till they had a bed for him. I wanted my coloured pencils to draw the clouds we had seen from the aeroplane and the cheese pattern and the pattern on the ceiling, but I didn’t know where they were.
Dad arrived in the car. He’d driven all the way from Melbourne with our mattresses tied on the top of the car. In the back seat he had his filing cabinet and his office chair and the big frying pan and the saucepans. The china was packed in boxes on the seat next to him and the boot had all the sheets and eiderdowns and towels and blankets.
Mum told him where all the mattresses were supposed to go and said the baby needed to sleep because he’d been grizzling on her hip all day and why the hell didn’t Dad hurry up?
“Christ, if…if …I…I…I…”
“The war’s…sss…ended you know. But you’re still like a bloody sergeant major,.”
I worried Mum might start yelling but she didn’t and Dad got out his camping stove and the billy because the kettle hadn’t come. He boiled the billy right there in the garden of the new house and made tea with condensed milk out of a tin.
“It’s disgusting,” said Mum, but when she dipped her finger in and gave it to the baby he stopped grizzling.
“Reminds me of the army,” said Dad.
Jennifer looked at the house. “I thought there was an upstairs. I wanted to sleep in a tower.”
“There is…is…isn’t any tower,” said Dad.
Dad put the mattresses in our bedrooms, but the house still echoed. We ran through the rooms calling out “coo-ee, coo-ee”. Mum stopped us because the baby was crying again.
“Calm down Elsie,” said Dad.
“How can I with this bloody baby?”
“I’m unpacking as fast as I c…c…c…c…can. And you bloody keep changing your mind about where you want these bloody mattresses. And my back isn’t so good after d…d…driving all night.”
“Can I have the coloured pencils now?” I said. I hated it when they fought.
“You’re impossible Lizzie. Go away.” But I didn’t because I was worried Mum and Dad were going to have a fight.
“Can I have my coloured pencils?”
“Go away!” They said it together and laughed at the same time and it felt safe again.
Ronnie and I ran round and round the house, then up the back where we found a chook shed, but no chooks, only stinky eggs which we smashed, holding our nose at the smell. Then we ran round the front lawn which had soft grass and was shaded by six big gum trees. We ran down the driveway and out onto the road. Looking back on the house, I saw it was bigger and grander than our house in Melbourne. It was a long way from the front fence, across the lawn, around the gum trees to the front steps.
Across the road, we saw two boys in the garden of another house. One had brown hair, the other had red hair. We stared at them for a while and they stared at us, but we did not speak.
The road was dirt and there was a big puddle in the middle. We ran through it, kicking the water up in great muddy sprays. Back at the house, we found a sandstone path that led up the dark, narrow side of the house, where it was overgrown with ferns and a prickly fir tree. There was a little door that went under the house, too small to walk through. I squatted down and knocked on the little door. Ronnie said it was no use knocking because it was part of our house and everybody was unpacking the car. I thought goblins lived in there, but Ronnie said goblins didn’t exist. He said there were definitely spiders, but I knew spiders wouldn’t need a door. He was spooked by the spiders and I was spooked by the goblins, so we ran round the front and dared each other to jump off the high front steps.
“You’ll…you’ll break a leg do…do…doing a damn fool thing like that,” said Dad.
That night, we were put to bed on mattresses because our beds hadn’t come.
“They still smell like Melbourne,” I said.
Jennifer said it was rude to talk about your mattress smelling.. She was still disappointed about the house not having a tower to sleep in, but as soon as it was properly dark and the baby was asleep, she crept down the hall and got Ronnie to come to our room. We opened the French windows and climbed over the curly iron railing of the balcony, then dropped down to the ground and danced on the lawn. We danced an extravagant dance, waving our arms and kicking our legs and ran round and round the great gum trees, circling in large loops, flicking each other when we passed close. The grass was wet and there were shadows for spooks and wild creatures to hide. It was magic, dancing in and out of those shadows, with the softness of the lawn, the rustling and creaking of the trees. It was then that I fell in love with the new house.
Jennifer wanted to see what our parents were doing so we crept round the back of the house to spy on them. The wooden venetian blinds were down, so we could only see inside in stripes.
“It’s them,” Jennifer whispered, and we knew it must be, because Jennifer was the oldest. “They’ve got the lounge chairs in the kitchen.” She giggled. “And they’ve got a bottle of beer.” She lifted me up so I could have a look. Then we decided to go back to bed. Climbing back up the balcony was harder than getting down. The tap handle dug into your foot, then you had to pull yourself over the iron railing which had sharp bits sticking out. Ronnie gave me a leg up.
After we got back into bed, I crawled over to Jennifer’s mattress and got under the blanket with her. I was thinking about the spooky side with the goblins and the spiders just outside our window and the bush creatures that might be in the gum trees.
“I don’t want you here,” said Jennifer.
I knew that, I didn’t care.
“Don’t wet the bed,” she said. “That’s why the mattress smells.”
When we got to Sydney somehow I progressed from just having a mother, to having an idea of my mother. I knew about her firm opinions. I knew she was clever. I knew she was right even when I didn’t know what she was talking about. I knew she didn’t like fussy clothes and believed in dressing plainly, although I thought she always looked beautiful and somehow better than other mothers.
Even simple things, got complicated. What people wore, whether they gave their babies sweetened milk, whether children played with plain wooden blocks or coloured ones, what books they read, all these were important questions that decided who Mum would be friends with and who she wouldn’t.
She had told Mrs Brown who lived next door in Melbourne that she shouldn’t give her baby a dummy and they’d had an argument. After that we had to go down to the corner to Mrs Jamieson if we needed to borrow milk or flour or anything. Dad and Mum had a fight about it.
“It was none of your damn business,” he said.
“You don’t care that she’ll rot her baby’s teeth? You don’t care that she’s doing the wrong thing.”
“No, I don’t. It’s her business.”
“So you don’t care about what’s right and what’s wrong.”
“I don’t think you should get a medal for fighting with the neighbours.”
Ronnie thought we shouldn’t be friends with the boys over the road. The one called Eric had red hair and I thought that was why we weren’t friends, but Ronnie said it had nothing to do with his hair – We weren’t friends because he had thrown stones at us. Ronnie was right about most things, but I still thought it was Eric’s red hair.
Mum got angry about some things and she got excited about other things. Sometimes the things changed round like when she got excited about knitting a cardigan for the baby. But then she said it was a waste of time and there were better things to do. She let the cat play with the knitting which got tangled and unravelled. She got excited about a picture her friend had painted. She wanted to hang it over the mantel piece, but Dad said it was rubbish and he wouldn’t put up the hook. She told him he had no poetry in his soul. He said he didn’t have a soul anyway. Later, in the middle of the night, I heard them shouting. I got up out of bed because I was afraid she might kill him or he might kill her. Jennifer and Ronnie always stayed asleep when there were fights.
When Mum was angry, she could fill up the room with being angry and you could feel it inside you. When she got excited and happy, that filled up the room too. It filled me up too.
In Melbourne, Uncle Fred, who was very old, had always came round on Sundays and taken us to Sunday School.
“We don’t have to put up with Uncle Fred anymore,” Mum said. “Poking his nose in everywhere. You don’t have to go.”
I didn’t know Uncle Fred had been poking his nose in and we’d been putting up with him. Every child we knew went to Sunday School. It was what you did every Sunday. It felt strange that Sydney was different. Maybe it was that Uncle Fred wasn’t around any more. Or, I thought, maybe Sydney didn’t have Sunday schools.
“It’s a lovely warm day,” Mum said one Sunday. “We’ll go to the beach. Go on, get your togs on.” She had always loved the beach. “The beach here will be different here. It’ll be really exciting.”
“Hold your horses Elsie,” Dad said, “a beach is a beach.”
But Mum didn’t care. “Look, look, look,” she said when we got to the beach. “It’s golden, the sand! It’s wonderful, magical. Smell the air.” She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. “And there’s nobody here.” She took Dad’s arm. “They’re all at church. Isn’t it wonderful Clive?”
Dad disentangled himself. “Water’s pretty rough.”
Mum sighed her fed up sigh. “It’s wonderful.”
We were only allowed to paddle in the surf, but it was wonderful. The water was alive, splashing and crashing like a monster. Mum took off up the beach with the baby toddling behind her. She went further and further and I watched as she twirled round in circles, ran ahead of the baby and then came back, scooped him up and put him down again. She ran into the sea, getting her skirt wet, her arms going like a windmill, the baby sitting on the sand watching. She danced in front of him, ran some more, then scooped him up and ran back to us, laughing.
She was as wild as the sea.
That night it was raining and there was a storm as big and wild as the surf had been. The possums were running noisily up and down inside our roof as if they were having races. We could see the lightning through the curtains and hear the crash of the thunder. Ronnie came into our room, because he was scared of the storm, although he didn’t say so. He had told me lightning could strike anyone during a storm and you should never shelter under trees. We all snuggled into Jennifer’s bed, except the baby who was too young to hear the storm.
“Does God make thunder?” I asked. “Is that him roaring at something?”
“We don’t believe in God anymore,” said Jennifer. “Mum told me.” That was how things happened . Mum told Jennifer important things and then Jennifer told us. I knew this was connected to us not going to Sunday School, but I couldn’t fathom not believing in God. God just was. God was there. We weren’t a family that prayed, but sometimes I asked God to stop Mum and Dad fighting. And at Sunday School we had to learn the Lord’s prayer. I didn’t understand it, but sometimes I’d say it in bed at night so God would think well of me.
“Is that why we went to the beach today? Is that why we don’t go to Sunday School any more?”
“That and because Uncle Fred isn’t here to bully us.”
I liked God and I liked Uncle Fred. He was old and wrinkled and kind. Both of them were.
“Mum said you don’t learn the real meaning of the Bible at Sunday school anyway,” said Jennifer. “The teacher’s don’t understand it’s poetry. But it’s still important to know about the Bible stories.” Mum’s opinions were not only firm, but complicated.
“Everybody believes in God. Nanna and Pappa and Auntie Joan. I didn’t mention Uncle Fred. All the people in our street. Why don’t we?” I felt angry, but when Mum made decisions, they stuck.
“For lots of reasons,” said Jennifer, but she sounded uncertain. Sometimes even she didn’t know what Mum meant.
“Do you believe in God?” I asked her.
“Mum said I could if I wanted, but I don’t. I didn’t even believe before.”
“Do you believe in God?” I asked Ronnie.
“God is there if he is there. And if he’s not there, then he’s not there. It doesn’t matter what you believe.”
“It does,” I said passionately. I believed in God, but I wasn’t going to say so. I’d just keep Him secret. I was a child who liked to believe things. It felt safer than not believing.
Our house had a breakfast nook. Nook was a word we’d never heard before and we were much taken with it. The nook was built under the cupboards on the wall and had a table with red laminex and a built-in seat with a lid, where you could store newspapers. On the wall of the nook was a stuck-on transfer of a sleeping Mexican wearing a blanket and a sombrero, leaning against a cactus. We loved the Mexican even though Mum said he was vulgar. He made us feel that we were in a foreign and exotic place where a person could sleep under a cactus.
The kitchen was green with red trimmings. Behind the nook was a round bench topped by a round cupboard with a round shelf underneath for the rubbish.
“It’s a round and round,” Mum had told us.
“Round and round and round,” I said.
“Round and round and round and round and round,” said Ronnie, and we all started chanting “round and round and round and round”, until Mum put down our boiled eggs in our usual egg cups with Vegemite soldiers. Our old black saucepan was on the stove and the jars of tomatoes my parents bottled were on the top of the cupboards just like back in Melbourne. The baby was in his high chair, his egg mashed in the bunny plate. The Mexican was ours, and a round and round felt a natural thing to have in a kitchen.
The morning after we’d been to the beach we were sitting in the nook having breakfast. Mum was at the stove, her hair still damp, held back with shiny, new hairpins. She was happy and excited. She turned round and kissed the baby on top of his head.
“Is there…there…there.. any breakfast?” Dad came in and we were all quiet. Dad had his stutter and we instinctively gave him time and silence when he spoke. He only made brief appearances in our lives, every day at breakfast and at dinner. Sometimes on weekends he’d build a cubby or fix a bike, but he wasn’t woven into our lives like Mum was. Because it was Monday, he had his work clothes on, his brown suit, his yellow tie, his hat.
“Do you have to wear your hat to breakfast?” said Mum.
“I cannot see that… that …that…” he said.
She closed her eyes and drew her mouth in while he sat in the chair on the other side of the nook from us and then she plonked down his plate with the kidneys, his two fried eggs and his two pieces of toast, which was what he ate every single morning. We children drew our plates back to give him room and make him separate from us.
“There’s a cra…cra…crack…,” he began, “in that wa…wa… wall.” He looked at the Mexican. There was a little crack running through him. Dad took a bite of the kidney. I hated the smell of kidneys. I hated when he chewed them so long, and talked at the same time, and you could see the inside of his mouth.
Dad could fill a room with gloom and you felt as if it might press you into the floor. It was silent gloom, deep gloom, gloom that could not be interrupted. He sat with the gloom all through his kidney. There was gloom all through his toast and egg. Then he got up.
“I’ll be off now. I’ll look at that crack when I get home.”
“I wish you wouldn’t wear your hat to breakfast,” Mum said. “It’s a bad example to the children.”
“I…I…I… might forget it otherwise,” he said, and left.
“What sort of a person wears a hat to breakfast?” she muttered. We knew the answer was someone like our father, someone who didn’t know better, although that seemed impossible given that our mother had told him. But we didn’t say anything..
When we were finishing breakfast, Mum stood in front of us, a spoon in her hand and made an announcement. When she made an announcement she always stood very straight and talked louder than usual. Sometimes the announcements were good, sometimes bad. But were all important and we knew they would change something, like Sunday School or God.
“You won’t be wearing singlets any more,” she said. She picked up a pile of folded cloths from the bench behind her. “I cut them all up. There’s no need for singlets. They’re an extravagance in a climate like this. I don’t believe in singlets now.” We didn’t actually gasp because we still had egg or Vegemite soldiers in our mouths, but we made muffled sounds of amazement. There were our singlets, cut into pieces by our mother, who up until this day, had insisted we put a clean singlet every third day, although our Nanna liked a clean singlet every second day. A singlet, we had been told, had be worn even in summer to protect you against chills. Our Grandpapa wore a singlet with long sleeves and buttons down the front and our Nanna tucked hers into her long bloomers which went down to her knees. We had heard, when in rebellion against singlets, of other children too poor to wear singlets.
“It’ll be marvellous,” said Mum. I felt excited by her excitement. We didn’t have to wear a singlet ever again. Never, ever, ever.
“You’ll get stronger not wearing singlets,” said Mum. “And I won’t have to wash them and you won’t have to fold them. Your father’s still going to wear a singlet because he sweats.”
In the pile of cloths in her hands, we each recognised our own cut up singlets. Jennifer’s made clean white squares, Ronnie’s and mine more yellowed because they’d already been worn by one child by the time we got them and Ronnie and I were outdoor children. I saw the torn bit that I had thought I’d get into trouble for, but it was my own mother who had cut it up, along with my favourite singlet with the pink ribbon which my Nanna had given me for Christmas, which was at the bottom of the pile. Despite that, no singlets felt like something new and wonderful.
“No singlets?” said Ronnie. “Not ever?”
“Never,” said Mum. “Never ever.” She looked happy. “I’ve made them into dusters.” I wanted to protest my singlet with the pink ribbon, but I recognised the stern finality of her announcement. “Not that I’ll spend my life dusting,” said Mum. “I’ve got better things to do than that.” She tossed the pile of cut up singlets up in the air, and caught them deftly, then tossed them up again, caught some and started tossing them one by one, letting them go, like snow falling. The baby caught one, put it on his head and giggled. Ronnie and me got out of the nook and started throwing them at each other, pretending they were snowballs. We were laughing hysterically.
“Now get ready for school and off you go,” said Mum suddenly.
Jennifer and I went to our room. I started to get dressed, but I didn’t know what to do with the singlet I was wearing under my pyjamas.
“What if I get a chill?” said Jennifer. She sounded defeated, but I liked the no singlets’ rule. It was like Mum being wild at the beach.
“Will I wear mine today?” I asked Jennifer because my singlet still had a day’s wear left. “Or will I cut it up?” I liked that idea.
She thought about it. “I don’t think we should cut them up,” she said. “She wants to cut them up.”
“Will we take them off then? Or wear them?”
Jennifer thought about it. She always knew what to do. “We’ll take them off and we’ll put them with the washing behind our door, but we’ll put them on top. And we’ll fold them, so she can see they’re there.”
That was our offering to our mother, our way of agreeing that now, in Sydney, we didn’t believe in Sunday School, or singlets, or God.