The Girl under the Umbrella

 

I once lived in a brick Victorian house with a plaster bow ornamenting the second storey window. It was a former railway managers house but all its former glory had been stripped bare. It was now a basic 2 storey house with 4 bedrooms and pink painted skirting boards in the living room. There was no carpet on the floor so when the local pub stripped out its carpet we took it to cover the bare living room floor. However the carpet continued to smell of beer. A big black spider lived in the bathroom which we tolerated along with the cracked shower screen which never was fixed in our residency.

A mixture of flatmates moved through the house but it was my name and Benjamin’s on the lease.

There was the girl with translucent skin who because of her allergies could only eat a limited number of foods. Another girl moved in after her who did aerobics but then would come home and eat cake. Our most notorious flatmate was Raymond. Before he moved in an assortment of objects came before him, a TV among other electronic gear, a heater, a clock which then disappeared when he moved in. They most likely were stolen goods. Raymond had tattoos, in a time before it was cool, and a sign of being a criminal. His most striking feature was the anarchy sign tattooed on his third eye. When he moved in he was followed by his pregnant boxer dog dripping milk and then the landlady materialised at that inopportune moment, which led to his eviction 2 weeks later.

He brought with him a set of drums which upset the neighbours. He borrowed my Echo and the Bunnymen record and would thrash to Blue Moon. If he liked that band he was ok in my books but as soon as he came, he had to leave, followed by letters from the police. I wonder how long he survived with his habit for alcohol and pills. Every so often I would run into him in my social circles and I had respect for the fact that he was not all bad as his appearance belied.

But then three times later we were burgled for our kitty money, a black goth dress I had with a white cross sprayed across it, and once in the middle of the night when we all were home. I was the only one to wake when my door was opened but could not see clearly without my contact lenses in. I felt something was wrong and got up half an hour later to find the back door open and gardening shears laid on the kitchen table like a weapon. It was scary but we could never prove it was our former criminal resident.

The house also survived a potential fire. It was a lazy Sunday morning. Benjamin was reading the Sunday newspaper and me feeling bored watching him read the paper all the way through decided to do something drastic. I grabbed the lighter by the gas cooker, sat back down and proceeded to light the edge of the paper. It went up so quickly he ran to the next room where our rubbish was stored and I imagined that getting set alight too but Benjamin had run outside and put out the fire.

One time we decided to get creative and make artworks for the stairwell. Benjamin had a man with an umbrella sheltering a girl (me) which made me feel secure with him. I took a photograph of him arms and legs outstretched in a large pipe in silhouette. To me, he was the circle of my whole world. I believed I loved him and he was the only one. But I was warned against this state of affairs by an older woman flatmate who was 27. She said I’ve watched you, and you can’t just have Benjamin as the centre of your world, you need other friends. She was divorced and knew a thing or two but I couldn’t change my behaviour even when he started flirting and having other female friends. I wanted him.

He could be cruel and self centred those last six months. So one drunken night after being stuck at a work party and being teased by his female compatriots after he had flirted with them, I lashed out by sticking my fist through the glass surrounding our front door. I had walked home by myself. My actions scared our current flatmates, an accountant and engineer Lee and Warren. But everyone was too scared to say anything to me. It was the precursor to the mental illness that hit me after our break up.

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Bucking the trend

All the way she has bucked the trend

Without a family or children of her own,

she was not suited to be a 24 hour mama,

to hear the baby cry for hours on end, or

to feed the child’s constant need for attention. 

 

it would have crushed her spirit

with her need for space, time alone.

 

She breaks the lineage, she breaks the line

choosing to follow her own road

whether it was for temperamental

reasons or psychological ones.

 

She was the first in her family to hold a university degree

which she began at 25.

All the way she has bucked the trend.

 

Looking like a student

in her op shop clothes from the 50’s and early 60’s.

 

Wanting to know the language of the student

only to reject the practice of analysis 

a year after finishing. 

 

Choosing to read

with her heart not her head.

 

Choices made in her thirties affect her life now,

Alone and not working due to psychological reasons.

Needing space out to do nothing, or to create and make.

 

Time out from work needed

whether from crisis or depression 

following the dark road through to wellness.

 

She was the first in her family to hold a university degree

It has taken to her fifties to choose the creative life.

Choosing to study, to learn and keep on learning the art

and craft of writing.

 

All the way she has bucked the trend

needing space out to do nothing, or to create and make.

All the way she has bucked the trend.

Rakino Island

Where grass buries the seedling trees,
Where seagulls flap against the breeze,
sitting on a hill one hill back from the ocean
as the sea birds flap two feet above us
trying to catch the currents of air to set them into flight.
Where the air currents blow fiercely up the hill
rocking the pole house on stormy nights
as the cows mooed, gathering together
encircling the house wind-maddened.
It was a time to stay in
with candles the only light.
There was no electricity on this island of grass.
The trees long since lopped.
Sleeping when it got dark or trekking the hills
in the moonlight,
drinking Old Stoney ginger beer to keep us warm
as we gazed upon the waters with the moonlight on it.
One New Year a gateway of light drew near
coming off the sea right up to me
bathing my head with moonlight. What future
would light upon me I wondered?

We wandered like gypsies, it took a day to encircle
the island. I was clad in a white silk slip embroidered
with dragons, wearing jewel toned earrings, our faces
painted white, playing at being players.

Scooping the sea smoothed glass from the shallows,
red, yellow, green, blue
while “S” younger brother found old bottles in the low tide
near the run down house, once a mansion
now scribbled inside with psychedelia.
“S” collected the bones of a goat and a cow,
masculine trophys.
The island brought offerings and took away others
melting and deepening the shadows that stalked us
at seventeen and nineteen.

 

 

“S” was two years older than me. He lived in a haunted house with a staircase so narrow you had to walk sideways down the steps. He had a skinny punk rock cat, and a smokers compulsions, once swapping a calculator for his beloved camel cigarettes. The calculator lasted twenty years, our relationship eighteen months.

We lived through a seesaw of depression, first one, then the other, then saving the other, both lost, both fighting our pasts. I could not touch his physical heart, he would cry out in pain from his mother’s rejection. He was brought up by her sister in a foreign land down under, but he kept his Irish charm.

He would hide from the sun preferring to stay indoors, and I who had lived near the beach and had a healthy tan spent from a lifetime outside, went from tanned to as pale as him in one summer.

He loved eating bacon and eggs and would go to a place I knew later as ‘greasy spoons’.
On his table at home he always kept a bottle of worcestshire sauce to douse his fried food in.

After breakfast we would scour the shops for second hand finds. He collected secondhand penguin books with their classic orange covers searching for first editions.
His treasures were an old art deco radiogram and a picture of Medusa cutting off a man’s head.

I would search the shops for second hand dresses and coats. He took photographs of me wearing a 1940’s burgundy coat with my red roman sandals crossing a road, and in a diamond green dress which made me feel dreamy. We never thought to wash them first before wearing them, perhaps we absorbed something of their owner in them. I tried to imagine their owners and what they were like and often gave names to my dresses personalising them.

Our relationship ended in the grey twilight on the bleached boards of a small wharf. The boards looking rotten and broken so I was scared to step upon them. “It is over” he said. He did not have to say it twice. I did not try to stop him fading into the twilight of a winters day. What I had taken as love was mere convenience to him.

 

Rakino 2

Penny was a small sandy haired girl who studied to be a lawyer but was more suited to being a seamstress where her skill lay. I could not imagine how she would have the strength to be heard in court with her quiet little girl voice and small stature.

She and her sister shared a plot of land on Rakino Island. Their father built them a small hut with a deck. So once again in my twenties I could take the long journey in a small boat to this island of grass with Penny. We would pack Paul Newmans sauce to go with the pasta we would cook. All supplies had to be carried in.

She told me the ferryman wanted to marry me one night after he had knocked on the door inviting us to a party of crayfish and wine, but we were already snug in our sleeping bags. It was nighttime so we declined.

I imagined being a writer and queen of this domain. The beaches called me with their clear waters. The many walks I could take exploring this hilly island. But the ferryman was short and round with curly dark hair who dressed in blue overalls and did not appeal to me.

We visited a man who had a dream to have a house and olive groves and so it grew. He showed us the tin kennel overlooking a bay he had slept in before his dream materialised. He offered us cheese and olives. Here was a man I could imagine myself with but it was not to be. He was an advertising man with many dreams.
He opened a cafe in the city called Rakino’s which had island shaped tables and his hand picked olives.

 

With Penny we often talked about relationships and marriage, as we were in our twenties. She talked about Sidney who she had a crush on who lived in Sydney. And the man she was with who was well off but a pall hung over his house, his alcoholic mother. Would Penny ever be satisfied? And is that what I shared with her was this sense of dissatisfaction with our lives.

Rakino still calls me. This island haunts me as it was a part of my teenage years and twenties. I have lost touch with “S” and Penny by moving to a bigger island Australia.
It is a part of my first struggles with relationships, which I continue to struggle with today.

I painted a small water-colour painting of Rakino Island today and this is where these words come from.

Waiting at Hastings, England, 1856

I have waited for my true love to come to me on this grey morning,
The tide grows thin, the seagulls caw but still there is no sign of him.
In my small room of willow paper and wattle chair I cry his name
softly as to draw him in, but my hands do shake
and I feel weak as I do softly call him.
The draught that eases my disease is sitting on the dresser,
I grasp it quick just three small drops, dulls the pain.
Has he flown, he called me his grey dove,
to others charms, overflowing with charity and cheer
that amuse, and tickle his muse,
whereas I feign could be dying of heart sickness
and fear he will not be returning.

Blue Cardigan

Blue Cardigan

That day I chose to wear a blue cardigan borrowed from my mother.
Depth of it’s hue – a hymn to the heavy, late summer sky
waiting to fall.

I was running downhill, the hillside grassy and steep,
I was running in my pointy shoes,
A musical, alternative teenager
caught up in “The Dunedin Sound”
jangling guitars, leather jackets and hand knitted jerseys,
“The Chills”, “The Bats”, “The Verlaines”, “Sneaky Feelings”.
Absorbed by the sounds,
the strum of electric guitars and acoustic strings,
filling my heart, filling my eyes with tears,
blue doldrums, all in blue.

Falling like rain, all in blue, falling on the tin rooftops.
Rain pattering, searching for the comfort inside, containment
and warmth.

Seeking shelter from the black rain.
My mother’s words scar me still,
“You can’t”, “You should have”, “Why don’t you?”.
Her words made me feel she does not know me
or what I need.
Inside the small shed the storm bellows and drums, I shiver
like a scared dog. With dogs they say you do the opposite to humans
you don’t reward the fear you ignore it. But scared and alone
I try not to give into the fear that sent me running from my family.
Could I live a life like this, a life without fear”.

Leaving a world of silences
reading between the lines of my parent’s sentences,
Silent, withdrawn, shy
no place to speak my own words
except the journals I filled with so much emotion
swelling like a rolling sea, just beneath the surface of my mind.
Running away,
Running to shelter.

When I was 24 my boyfriend made a collage where I was sheltered
under his large umbrella.
I took a photo of him, through a pipe, the pipe contained his outline
arms and legs outspread
he was the circle and container of my world.
Until, he broke it.

A fancy dinner, A French restaurant, a waitress in on the game
she kept on filling up my glass of wine,
till drunk and sick inside/ he told me,
“It is over” as we got into his car.
Everything went red.
I imploded smashing and kicking at the windscreen, the doors
again and again.
Broken once again, no longer his passenger.

Moving once a year every year since I was born.
Where do I find my shelter, my sanctuary,
my green writing space,

my certainty in a world,
certain only of change.

My Grandparent’s House

We were kneeling together on the damp grass my mother and I. I was picking violets with my mother on this melancholy day. The dampness sucked up through my jeans making my knees cold. The damp earth reminding me my grandmother would soon be put into the earth. She had died 5 days ago in her sleep at the age of 89. It was the last time I would be here, as her house was going to be put up for sale.
It was a strange time, a time of grief. My mother was talking about how she used to pick violets on her parents farm when she was young girl. It was the first time she had offered me a glimpse of her past. She told me violets were placed by the Romans on their loved ones graves as a sign of everlasting affection, and to ensure their loved ones would rest in peace.
I wanted to capture my memories of this house which had been a safe haven for me as a child, me who had moved 17 times in 17 years with my family. This house and half acre garden was a place of security and stability we would visit every two weeks. I have wonderful childhood memories of it being summertime and playing amongst the daisies and fruit trees with my brother, gorging ourselves on strawberry guava’s staining our hands pink, and playing hide and seek with my brother.
I went into the house with my camera, it seemed darker now than how I remembered it as a child. The dark stained wood in the kitchen with the little window bringing in hardly any light. The bathroom lit only with a single bulb scared me as a child. Its big bath tub threatening to swallow me up. It was built next to the lean to, where the toilet was, so no natural light came in. The lean to, a long line of boards which to my child’s mind seemed unsteady as a ship. Could I brave that walk to the toilet.
I walked into the living room where in the late afternoon the sun would stun us turning the wooden floors and walls a warm honey gold. I loved the colour of this wood, New Zealand kauri. My father told us my grandfather had built this house in the 1930’s and bought the best kauri he could find.
I tried to take a photograph of the living room but my camera froze it would not click on to take a picture.
In the living room, winter as well as summer brought it’s own joys. I would sit as close as I was allowed by the fire, staring intently into the flames to find fire salamanders and fairies. Being offered minties and blackballs, old fashioned sweets, the minties I chewed and chewed as they got stuck in my back teeth. But I could not resist saying no to one more mintie. And sitting up like an adult playing poker with my grandfather, playing on the card table, a baize green fold up table which was only used for this purpose.
As I got older I would sit in the corner reading women’s magazines which did not really entertain me, but I was a reader so would read anything that came my way. The magazines concerned themselves with stories about the royal family and baking and crafts.
Their was a small side room full of decorative pieces in a wooden cabinet. Fans from Japan, a big circular ball of kauri gum, another slab carved and decorated to look like a bible, and a maori tiki carved from wood. There were also felt bags decorated with embroidery and a little black velvet pouch from which our grandfather would dispense money which gave us children much joy.
The middle room was the piano room with hard art deco chairs in brown and gold fabric. There was a standing upright piano made from rosewood so it gleamed a reddish colour. I would teach myself the basics of piano and also played made up tunes to be set to films and tv shows I had seen. I regretted later not having lessons and learning to play the piano properly. Sometimes my grandmother would play the piano and warble out a tune in the Victorian way.
On the other side of the hallway were the bedrooms. The formal bedroom which once had been my grandparents room now was the room we children would sleep in when we stayed overnight. It was a spooky room to us as young children, there were the oval Victorian pictures of my grandmothers parents looking over us. And a cupboard full of walking sticks we were afraid would rattle and walk off by themselves. My grandfather had lost a leg in WW1 so had a wooden leg and his bunch of walking sticks to help him walk. But it did not stop him tending his massive garden. It was a productive garden that his family was able to live off with a bit of bartering and sharing of food with his neighbours.
There was a 3 mirrored bureau also in that room on which sat bottles of scents and brushes and combs. I tried out scent no. 711 from a small green bottle but it was not to my taste, it was pungent and strong. In this room we had our chests rubbed with vasoline while we lay warm in bed if we had a cold. And once I had tumbled from the high bed in my sleep so after that chairs were set by the side of the bed to stop me falling out again.
The far bedroom facing west had been the twins room and in it were 2 single beds. My grandparents slept alone in each single bed, so as a child I could sneak in and cuddle up to my grandmother. And hear stories from my grandfather of his travels during the war. He would show us postcards of Egypt and Edinburgh, exotic sounding places.
No matter how hard I tried I could not get my camera to work that day. It felt like divine intervention, like my grandmother wanted me to keep the memories of that house inside me. And so I have been dreaming of that house over and over, many times throughout my adult life. The last time was two weeks ago.
It is one of my regrets that I have never owned my own home but I was also not made to work my full adult life, I have taken lots of breaks. So my grandparents house in a sense was the only one I owned. I have taken it into my memories and dreams. It wraps around me with a sense of security and stability I have never have found in the material world.

Andrea’s Bridal Dress

Although she was a plus size bride Andrea had her own sense of taste and style. She had her eye on the finer things, delicate touches that were normally associated with a more ethereal bride. She had looked on Etsy and found a capelet decorated in silver beads on fine floaty material covered in a swirl of flowers, to cover her broad shoulders. She was adamant she was not going to wear a sleeveless wedding dress like all the other girls her age. It had to have straps and a v-line bodice because she knew that was what suited her. Andrea was 29 and knew what did and did not flatter her figure. She wanted a chiffon skirt to fall gracefully from the bodice, it would make her feel floaty and free.

So before she marched into the wedding department of the department store she already had envisioned what she wanted but dreaded the multiple trying on of different style dresses her mother would put her through. So she marshalled her support crew, Irene her best friend and little sister Kayla to come with her.
Irene was the first to arrive in the little cafe near the department store. Permanently dressed in a casual way, with jeans and loose shirt you would not have picked she was well off except for the glints of jewellery on her arms and around her neck. She was a foodie and often posted pictures of her meals on Facebook for her friends. She couldn’t wait to tuck into the Italian food of this well known cafe, but then Kayla came in dressed in vintage Modcloth style, a dress with birds in blue and purple and green and green boots. The dress print matched her eyes and skin. She had blue-green eyes with light brown hair.
“Mother will meet us inside in the handbag section” said Andrea and Kayla blew a sigh of relief.
“Have you found a dress yet?” asked Irene as she tucked into her gnocchi. “No but I know exactly what I want , it’s all up here” as she tapped her forehead “with a little help from Etsy”. She described the details for her friend and sister of exactly what she wanted as Andrea munched on salad, and Kayla ate spaghetti napolitana. She had inherited the skinny genes of their mother. Fortified with food the three of them made their way to the department store. It catered for all sorts of bride from size 6 to plus size.

Mother was scouring the shelves for clutch bags but got delayed by leather bags where they found her. This frazzled her getting off track so she greeted the girls with a brush off comment meant to put them on the back feet. “Where have you been?”.
Kayla replied “ you know where mama at the cafe” “But you took so long and we have so much to find, a wedding dress, shoes, a clutch bag”.
“There’s more mama I thought I might like a nice headdress like a feathery art deco one or one of those sparkly decorative flowery ones. I haven’t decided yet” Andrea said revving her mother up just that bit further.

Her mother was a woman who always did things in a hurry. “My speedy metabolism” she blamed it on and did not necessarily notice fine details, so her daughters taste in wedding paraphernalia tried her dearly, one more thing to find and discuss and debate on. She had hoped to buy everything her daughter needed in the store today, “well we had better get to the wedding dress section so we can see what will go with your outfit”.

Andrea had tried to be prepared for this moment but as soon as she started trying on dresses she was in wedding dress hell. Even though she told the shop assistant her size some would not fit over her head, others billowed out in an uncomely fashion from her tummy. All the while her mother saying beautiful darling and watching the price tag. While her daughter struggled with dresses her friend and sister ooh and aah-ed looking out for something that was the style Andrea wanted. When her mother commented on one strapless dress saying “that looks good darling” Andrea almost hit the roof. ‘It is ugly and a thousand girls are wearing this one, and it makes my chest look big, and I look bigger than I am. Oh mama how could you choose this one?’’.
Put on the defensive Mama said “but its affordable and you will look like the other girls”
Andrea was ready to scream “ but I want to look special, not just like the other girls. It’s already hard enough being bigger mama. I want to look good on my special day. I’ve had enough of dresses. I’ll buy my dress off Etsy and it will be flowing and beautiful. And I will cover my arms with a floaty capelet and wear feathers in my hair in an art deco style.

Her mother deflated slightly at this speech, bunched her fists together. “Well off to shoes then”. Here mother and daughter disagreed again. Andrea did not want high heeled white shoes. She had never learnt to walk in heels and did not want to totter down the aisle. Her sister Kayla came to her aid. Always searching for something creative she found some Spanish shoes with comfortable heels in the colour of blue. “Here is your something blue for your wedding”. Andrea felt triumphant when she tried them on and they were comfortable. She wouldn’t have picked blue for herself but Kayla persuaded her you can always hide them under the length of your dress and show them off when you kick up your heels.

To appease Mama they looked at clutch bags but nothing seemed suitable, so back to the wedding salon to look at hair accessories. Irene had fun putting them on Andrea. They tried grecian style, art deco, wreaths of flowers in metal. Hats with veils, finally a feathery spike with a bit of sparkle was found. Andrea reinforced to her mother that a tiara was not for her, she was too mature for that sort of thing. So the feathery spike was bought and mother sighed, she had not wanted to spend much money that day and so it was. And her daughter Andrea would be beautiful in her own way on her wedding day.

Sylvie and me

SYLVIE AND ME

It was 1972 in the suburb of Papa2toes (Papatoetoe) where me and Sylvie were practising our laughs in an open field. We tried out all different laughs but nothing too strange, and no snorting. I wanted to have a laugh that wouldn’t stand out too much from the kids at school.
The field matched Sylvie’s orange/yellow dress. I had a keen eye for that sort of thing and would often do things in two’s matching things like my clothes or two biscuits only for after school.
Sylvie had milk blonde hair which I envied knowing the boys went after the blonde girls at school. Mine was slowly fading from blonde to mousy grey but it did not stop me chasing the boys and pretending to kiss behind trees. Did you do it the other girls would ask then laugh at the thought of kissing a boy.
Talking about Sylvie with the other girls they said why do you hang out with her. She comes from a poor family but that is not what I noticed when I was invited around to her place. For me it was a place of noise and adventure. Her brothers would be racing up and down the hallway and there would be dogs yapping. They dared us to sniff the petrol in the car and it had a somewhat addictive smell. It smelt different in the 70’s.
They even had a whole bucket full of tadpoles. I plunged my hand in and felt the little tadpoles wriggling and sucking at my fingers. Such adventures we had there, it was a place that seemed alive with life. I wondered how they could have so much freedom.
Their mother was fat which was unusual for then so she seemed a big heavy presence but then she would hand out slices of homemade chocolate cake which was the best I ever had. So I tried not to be afraid of this big woman who could be so friendly to kids.
That summer was bittersweet because I knew I would be moving suburbs at the end of the summer.
Sylvie tested me, she was braver and a risk taker. She would climb the trees I was afraid of falling off. I only usually got a metre off the ground before saying “its too high for me”. She even jumped off the house roof once. I was scared she would break something but she was fine.
At night time when all the milk bottles were put out in their crates with the right coinage for the milkman she would go around stealing the coins to buy candies later. I would share in the sweets somewhat guiltily.
In contrast my parents were rather strict. I was the eldest and my mum had just had a newborn boy. I had to creep around the place because I was always being told “ Don’t disturb the baby” “ Be quiet around the baby”, “ Don’t make any noise”. So I did not feel I could ask any friends to my place. So at home I would often feel lonely and to stop the lonely feeling I would make up songs. I was caught doing this one time and I don’t know if it was me or the baby just started to cry. But I was blamed by my parents and sent to my room. Solitary confinement was the way to punish children then, that or the wooden spoon or hairbrush whacked on whatever part of the body could be found to hit.
I felt sorry for myself so hid in the wardrobe with all the swaying clothes and cried softly. I thought about running away. I thought about Sylvie and how she could draw horses and how clever and freeing that was. Whereas I felt no good I had given up on drawing because I could no longer express what I wanted to. I had tried to draw a soldiers uniform covered in blood but it just seemed to come out as a big mess of colour.I was concerned about the Vietnam war. So I decided never to draw again.
I felt sad for the big dog that was chained up next door and never went for walks. He would howl, a big lonely howl. I wished I was brave enough to go up to his owners and say I will take your dog for walks. We knew about the sad dog but no one did things in those days to help animals.
I was sad about lots of things about the world. I was sad about having no say in where I lived that I would have to leave my clever, adventurous friend behind. I was scared of the new school I would have to go to. Would I make new friends? or would I feel lonely like now hiding in the wardrobe not being seen or heard behind the white doors.
I wanted to be bold like the boy who played the drum in the school orchestra. How much I wanted to be that boy but I was put in the school choir. I wanted to beat that drum hold the rhythm to the whole sound. But I was shy and some would say withdrawn. And I had a different rhythm to find for my life. And a sensitivity which would come out in many ways. A sensitivity to light and colour and beauty and peace and I had an active imagination.
A sensitivity that could remember a fallow field, my friends Sylvie’s orange and yellow short flowery dress mixing with the gold of the tall grasses, and the laughter of one who is ten years old and not quite sure of herself, so she is practicing her laughs to find the right one the gentle one that would express her to others.
And I did make friends in the new school, we were a gang of nine girls who ruled the place. I was still in between a child and a teenager and could conjure up magical worlds in my imagination. Once I was a star child who went to the moon and it was so real for me I swore it existed. I would take my friends along for the ride.