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 two storey house with four bedrooms and pink 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 food allergies could only eat a limited range of foods. Another girl moved in after her who did aerobics three times a week 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 owned 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.

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.

Anna’s First Dog

Anna’s First Dog Experimental Narrative

Anna disheveled

The only thing that got Anna out of the hostel was her fortnightly visits to her psychologist. Every second week she took the tram to a tall office building glistening with glass. The tall buildings down the small avenue trapped the wind so she always arrived disheveled in winter or summer. At the office door she would be greeted by the receptionist then quietly sit down to wait her turn, eyes averted waiting to see the psychologist.

Swimming through the eddies of life, feeling the undertow

Loneliness like a broken mirror refracted through all parts of her life, leading to the deep depression Anna had now suffered for three years. How could you be lonely in a hostel with sixty women but you could. She had lived in one room in the hostel since her divorce. Fourteen women lived on her floor, some friendly, some confronting, some demanding in a energy draining way, some with their own mental health issues which threatened to break out to the surface now and then leading to yelling and confrontations.
Depression was an old pattern that had visited her regularly throughout her life. Her divorce had plunged her once more into its vortex. She swam in it’s eddies, rhythm and flow feeling the undertow pulling her further under at critical times.
She preferred to spend her days sleeping in preference to facing the world. The warmth of the bed, the silence of the daytime hours and the comfort of sleep sustained her during this time.

The detective psychologist

The psychologist was a tall, thin woman with small thin eyes that dug into you like a detective. And that was also how she saw herself, as a detective to discover what was hidden and help to resolve and find a solution to it. She came to work with her favourite poodle, a silver toy poodle who also had his own role in the office.
When Anna came and the client room door opened to release the last client the poodle would run up to Anna nuzzling her hand and bringing her his favourite yellow duck to pull against and play fetch. Then all three of them would go into her office and the dog would sit on the psychologists lap. Sometimes in the sessions Anna would cry and the dog would come up to her and gently nuzzle his nose into her hand as if to reassure her.
After getting to know her the dog would squirm and cry when Anna arrived wanting to be let out of the psychologists office to go and play with Anna. The psychologist noticed this close bond and said “you are good with dogs”. Anna however had grown up with cats so took this news with surprise.
Santa was her first cat with a ginger coat, a Christmas day present when she was young. Then came Sapphire a blue eyed Siamese that was named by her when she was 12. Her parents latest cat had big gold eyes and fluffy ginger coat, who was focused on spiders looking out for them whenever the word “spider” was said and would only drink from a slowly dripping tap.
Then the psychologist said “why don’t you get a companion dog?” They talked about this for the rest of the session. Anna felt as if a space had opened up inside her, a dog sized space that would give her the companionship she longed for.

Finding the special one

On reaching her room she turned on her computer and began researching dog breeds. She came upon the papillon: a small dog that was intelligent, alert, cheerful, gentle, and playful. They were a pretty looking dog with butterfly ears and a plumed tail, mainly white body with coloured face and ears. She knew she had found the right sort of dog which could handle living in the small space of her single room.
Next she had to get the Manager of the hostel’s permission. Fortunately she got on well with him, and was able to state her case with the help of a letter from her psychologist for a dog. At first, he looked slightly alarmed when she mentioned “dog” thinking of something large like a golden retriever which the blind have as service dogs. “No” she said “papillon’s are small, only 5kg, and the dog will be certified as a companion dog”. Anna had found an organisation that helped advocate for service dogs and companion dogs for mental health reasons that would help her with this.
For the first time in a long time she had a sense of purpose, and went about step by step achieving her goal. She decided to get an older dog as she could not afford a puppy. She came across a breeder of champion papillons interstate that had a four year old female who she was willing to let her go for the price of a cheap plane ticket.

Dog days

Ticket paid. Now was the day to pick her up. A couple of curious hostel women gathered around Hilda’s car and Kathy decided to come along for the ride. Hilda had offered to take Anna to the airport to pick up the dog called Mocha. At the airport from the cargo hanger came the dog with her own crate. Anna peeked at the little dog inside. The dog looked back too, unsure of what was going on.
The dog wondered “who am I smelling?”. “Where am I?”. “Who is holding my crate?”.“Who is here to lead me and look after me?”.
Then the farce started. Anna thought the dog might need to pee so let it out, put on a lead then said “toilet” at least twenty times but the dog was timid in this big open area of grass near the car park, and so did nothing. Then Kathy grabbed her lead and started hauling her up the hill. Anna thought “hang on the dog will think Kathy is her pack leader I had better grab her back”. So she took the lead off Kathy and carried the dog back to the car. Mocha huddled down into her cage on the journey to her new home.
In the next few days Anna got in a routine with Mocha taking her out twice a day to the park around the corner. The dog shies away from other people but slowly relaxes as she gets to know Anna. Then she was able to let her off the lead and watch the little dog run gracefully around the small park. She ran in long loops circling the upper part of the park. Mocha had already picked up a few commands like come and stop.
As they passed the smoker’s area, a claimed car garage space on the way back, the women would call out to Anna and the dog. So sometimes she would pass time with the women speaking about the hostel and the women in it, who was in trouble, who had been fighting and other gossip. But Mocha would not let anyone else touch her apart from Anna. And, the women would get frustrated with the little dogs fear and played tricks on her pretending they were going to pat her.

Claiming her inner space

So, Anna felt now was a good time to go back to her room and have her own alone time with Mocha. Time spent stroking the dogs soft, silky fur and talking to her like she was a human companion though she knew the dog did not understand; she was someone she could talk to, lie, and sleep with contentedly. With her dog snuggling beside her or sleeping on her legs, the sound of Mocha’s gentle snores comforting Anna as she lay on her bed in the stillness of night.