She is a large white sow—a Landrace— a hundred kilos of quivering flesh standing still in a cage so tight she can’t turn around. She stares forlornly ahead at the green grass. The dust bath out of reach. The blue sky a blur above her head. Her long ears lie against her pink face and her little curly tail is oddly sinister. Like a smiley on a gravestone. She is heavy bodied on her delicate legs, as bacon trees often are. I know she’s trapped. I know she’s sad.
I know . . .
Snotty-nosed, raggedy bunch of Catholic kids, still waiting for parents an hour after the bell had rung. Under-dressed in the cold. Long time since that peanut butter sandwich. Then the cry goes out: ‘Bullrush!’ and we swarm on to the basketball court. “Go!”, someone yells and we run from one end of the court to the other through the players in the middle who tackle us on the concrete and bring us down hard. Smack! When you are caught you dust yourself off and join the growing band of predators in the middle and set your sights on some nervous player on the edge. Aged 10 in 1967, I knew the power of the lion and the fear of the gazelle. I was tough from farm work; small and very fast. My knees were scabs healing on scars that would hurt on the wooden kneelers in the church. It felt like a martyr might feel. Bloodied, bruised, torn clothes but it was exhilarating to duck and weave and slip out of the grasp of a much bigger boy who came at you red-faced, eyes popping and looming like an angry bull. It’s banned now. Gone the way of cracker night, .22s, sherbets, and the cane.
One day our teacher, Miss Beaumont, surveys the class of about thirty-five Standard Four kids. She asks about our interests: ‘Who goes to cubs or brownies or guides or any other club? Who plays sport or music? Who collects stamps or has some other hobby?’
‘Who does nothing?’
There are four of us who do nothing. Tony, Brenda, John and me. The other 31 kids look us over, not really surprised we do nothing. Odds are we’ll amount to nothing too. Even the girl in callipers gets out more than us losers.
About a month later, out of the blue, we get taken by car to Miss Beaumont’s home on a Sunday afternoon.
I’m a wild child. I can’t tell you what I looked like because I never looked in a mirror. I know I don’t clean my teeth because a tall, well-groomed Standard Six girl, a sleek redhead from a rich trucking family, stops me on the stairwell with the word ‘Yuck!’. ‘Your teeth are green’. She laughs and moves off with her friends. I don’t speak for the rest of the day.
At home I scrubbed them till they bled with one of our four worn down toothbrushes. Shame is a stain you can’t remove with Macleans.
I had no self-pity then; no self-awareness but a shyness that would wash over me like a hot red tide. My face would burn and redden with flushes far worse than those of my menopause years.
Tony was a Dutchie. He was slim and brown skinned with golden hair. He would grow into a handsome man – his insides would be a lot less pretty. His father was a hard man, with big roving hands. John was a kind little boy, elfin and dark skinned too with velvety moles. Brenda was whey-faced, plump and freckly with a hump back – the only fat girl in the whole school. We were a thin, dirty, wiry lot on the whole. She bit her nails worse than me and had washed out blue eyes. Girls like Brenda gave blowjobs at 13. Had babies at 15. Life was over before it started.
I had dimples which seem to invite adults to pinch my cheeks hard. I was a Bantam, not a hen. They called me Little Bo Peep.
I worked hard, my hands callused by age seven. I was born with old hands and am only now catching up with them. Our Parish Priest Fr Connelly, caught up my hands in his one day and tears came into his eyes, ‘God Bless you little one’, he said. I hoped God heard him. There were 10 of us at home and Father Connelly would come round in his VW—the preferred vehicle of priests in the 1960s—eat like Friar Tuck and show us movies on a sheet strung up in the lounge room. I’d thread the projector, change the three reels and keep his glass filled with Drambuie and his pipe filled with sweet smelling tobacco. We saw ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ and ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’. His hand across the ptrojector was quick to censor: ‘Only the kiss,’ he’d say.
Round at Miss Beaumont’s that painful Sunday afternoon we four sat with dirty hands holding glasses of Fanta. We weren’t friends at school but we all played Bullrush together. Us poor kids were the best at Bullrush. We rolled with the punches and I learned on that cold hard concrete the life lesson that hurt people hurt people. The teacher’s house was quiet and carpeted. A clock ticked loudly. We sat around a board game I couldn’t play. Tony was wearing his grey school uniform, hair oiled and parted. He farted. No one laughed. Miss Beaumont turned on the radio to break the silence of the lambs and Donovan was singing ‘Mellow Yellow’. I wished my name was Saffron. Sister Afra told me my namesake was ‘the last great virgin martyr’.
At home I was up first thing. Already dressed when I went to bed. I made toast and porridge, cut lunches, washed dishes, scrubbed floors, vacuumed acres of carpet, made ginger beer, folded clothes, prepared mountains of vegetables and on the farm I picked crops like potatoes and maize and plunged fresh killed chickens into boiling water for plucking. We dressed pigs and for fun raced cut down prams down steep rutted hills. Sometimes I walked in my sleep.
I was the middle child, nicknamed Mid. A girl. We made our brothers’ beds, we cooked their meals, washed their clothes and their dishes. They were destined for better things. I hated white sauce, smoked fish and Pope Paul VI – but no one would have known. We were to be seen and not heard, Dad told us often enough.
One of the few non-Catholic visitors to our farm was Uncle Des. He liked go-go dancers and read Henry Miller. He had a pinky ring and wore aftershave. He was dying of emphysema in his 40s. He would reach the table gasping and slump into a chair. He would turn blue then black and gurgle for 20 minutes after he sat down. His face was lined with busted veins. He was pot bellied, barrel chested and had clubbed fingers, all from lack of oxygen. His wife would unfurl a tea towel filled with delicious sultana scones. We’d drink tea. He’d bring Mum a huge sack of MacIntosh lollies – a catering pack. He’d fire up a du Maurier and have whiskey then wheeze and cough some more.
He was bitter that life had robbed him of his only son who died in a car wreck while his sister popped out a large unruly brood of eight. All present and accounted for. He told us girls to our faces that we weren’t attractive like his sister – as if we needed telling – the beautiful, tortured creature that was our mother looking forlornly out of her cage. A bacon tree. I know she’s trapped. I know she’s sad.
I know . . .
My older brother gave me my first smoke a few years later. He dared me to take it in, suck it down hard till my head spinned. It was a cigarette filched from my mother’s packet of Cameos. She was brand loyal to the bitter end. I can see that ubiquitous pack in my mind’s eye, aqua blue (her favourite colour) with a gracious Grecian head embossed on the front. Satin-tipped. Ladylike. Her only major jewellery was in fact an exquisite cameo broach, a gift from her mother, which depicted the Angel Gabriel taking Mary up to Heaven in a tableau Catholics revere as ‘the Ascension of the Blessed Virgin’. After she died of emphysema Mum bequeathed me her cameo broach. There was another darker legacy not then unwrapped.
Mum would hide the MacIntosh lollies in various places but often as not in a cupboard jam packed with sporting trophies won by our father when he was a champion sprinter. Mum had been a cub mistress and Dad had joined the athletics club but us kids did not tie knots or run foot races on the weekends.
Like a truffle pig, I would unearth the lolly stash and steal great handfuls and hide them under my pillow just waiting for the precious half hour of my own time when I could lie on my orange candlewick bedspread and eat one after another till I was sick. I just zoned out and ate lollies – everyone a friend. I can still remember Harrowgates had yellow wrappers, egg and cream were orange, my favourites were the blue malted caramels or red toffee deluxe. The green mints were the last to be scoffed.
Sometimes I would think about the words of a new pop song I liked, turning them over in my head while I sucked on the sweet toffees:
“We skipped the light fandango
turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor
I was feeling kinda seasick
but the crowd called out for more
The room was humming harder
as the ceiling flew away
When we called out for another drink
the waiter brought a tray . . .”
That was my secret hobby aged 10 in the year 1967 when Procol Harum had a big hit. Stealing lollies, first from the stash in the trophy cupboard, then from the shops and lying in bed or in the hayshed on top of the bales near the cobwebby rafters, just thinking of nothing:
“…and her face at first just ghostly,
turned a whiter shade of pale.”
Later, when I was grown up, I would lie on my bed and think of nothing and drink glass after glass of wine.
Now I was the bacon tree, unable to turn around in my cage.
I knew I was trapped. I knew I was sad. And I knew . . . the butcher was sharpening his knives.