I have opened the door and stepped into the beginnings of my old age, into the house of my youth. Surrounded by the smell of wood, not damp, musty perhaps, and the scent of my mother. Avon Unforgettable, floral, carnations with undertones of moss. The scent that witnessed me sneaking through her snap-shut, gold-latch handbag, caught me searching in the darkness of her wardrobe, searching for private things, searching for her lipstick.
Memories of my mother’s slim ankles in stiletto shoes and her auburn-bourbon-red hair lay, hidden like Easter eggs, awaiting the joy of discovery. She is here within the carved and oiled wood of the beds, the tables, chairs and the cupboards. She is in the timber ceilings and floors, even in the weatherboard exterior of the house.
My mother’s voice still lives in the small garden at the back of the house. Her words bob and rustle in the breeze — the myths, fairy tales, the nursery rhymes.
‘I had a little nut tree and nothing would it bear,’ she said as she planted a nutmeg tree seedling. ‘One step, two step and tickle under there.’
I rolled in the soil, trying to escape her gloved hands and she laughed. Then she stretched her arms up to the sky, ‘I have a new garden, a new garden is begun, such a gorgeous garden I know not under the sun!’
I held my small watering can high and sprinkling jewelled droplets onto the newly-planted tree.
‘You know what, we will plant a pear tree too and then we will graft the pear to the nutmeg. Nothing will it bear but silver nutmegs and golden, nutmeg-flavoured pears. The fruit will be so yummy that the King of Spain’s daughter will come to visit you all for the sake of this little nut tree!’
I don’t know where she got the exotic little tree from. It never did quite grow. Trapped in a small, inner-west backyard, towering brick walls of the old leather factory casting unwanted shade over its equatorial soul. It has survived, like Brecht’s Pflaumenbaum. It is a nutmeg tree, you can tell by its leaf. Stunted though it be!
My mother worked in the leather factory like many women in the neighbourhood. She was a machinist. I liked the roughness of her hands on my face. She’d brush my hair every morning before she went to work and every evening before I went to bed. I would study the small scars on her fingers, which began life as cuts, turned reddish-pink and then became thin and white. Some of the cuts healed into raised arcs, some were flat. She scrubbed her fingertips with Solvol soap as if those fingers did not belong to her body. She started working at the factory just after my father was killed, that crying-every-night time when my father became a memory. When men and women filled the house with solemn faces and whispering voices talking about the accident at the rail yard. I was four.
She had only been working at the factory a year when she won a raffle at the Christmas picnic. The prize was the handbag. The workers sewed the bags but rarely owned them. I remember her excitement when she picked me up from Mrs Kalifate’s house, walking home, smiling, holding my hand.
‘You can borrow this handbag when you are older. Get some nice little high heels and a pretty dress!’
I have looked in her wardrobe, knowing I must clean out her clothes. The bag sits on the top shelf, that gold-latched, stitched-leather, sophisticated lady of a handbag. The factory closed in 1970 and the heavy brick building fell into a long, deep sleep, broken windows streaked with pigeon poo, scurrying grey rats and chained gates. I wonder what she thought of its transformation into luxury flats. More light comes into the yard now. The residents can probably see what’s happening in the bathroom if they peer from their balconies.
It didn’t take my mother long to get a new job in a music store in Pitt Street and gradually the interior of our house changed colour. Everything became orange and yellow. She put a big window in the bathroom and invited the garden inside. The little nut tree swayed to strains of Strauss, Bob Dylan, Sonny Rollins. The amplifier’s flickering lights were like a cockpit. My breath became slow and rhythmic watching the thin arm of the turntable bounce gently round and round. On Sundays, she’d lay luxuriating hot amongst soapy bubbles in the mustard-yellow bath whistling and humming to her eclectic collection of music.
The records are so tightly stacked, alphabetical by artist, that I find it difficult to get my hands between the albums. My thumb and gnarled finger joints ache but I persist and extract a slightly, very-lightly-browned but resplendent Stars and Stripes album.
I reminisce waking in the darkness, warm under the blankets, my long legs stretched out straight, arms by my side, disoriented dreaming, music pulling me from sleep. My mother was singing. ‘It’s a family affair, it’s a family affair, it’s a family affair …’ Her voice was deep, gracefully rising from the place I thought her soul must be.
The voices of Sly Stone and my mother rolled in to the bedroom that night like a slumberous storm, engulfing me, causing me to weep within the lonely familiarity of my sibling-less existence.
I was seventeen and about to leave home.
‘Remember: eat fruit, look after yourself and embrace life with both arms!’ My mother hugged me. The crook of her neck was moist, smelling of patchouli and orange. ‘Bye, bye … bye.’
She was bare-armed, tropical psychedelic purples, pinks, greens swirling across her dress, leather sandals, standing on the platform waving, smiling sad. She looked like a child, getting smaller and smaller. I felt so grown up on the train going to study for a degree in Melbourne.
I was one of the lucky ones. The university education parents in our neighbourhood could only dream of for their kids was suddenly free thanks to Gough Whitlam, plus the government gave us a living allowance. I stayed with Aunty Arianna, my father’s sister, for two months. She found me a part-time job in Ziggy’s clothing boutique in Camberwell. I was supposed to be helping the bookkeeper but the second day they put me downstairs in the shop as a salesperson.
I rented a room, sharing a tiny terrace house in Fitzroy with three other students. Live bands played in all the pubs. We played pool and went to lots of parties. I met Joaquin from Chile—my first boyfriend. He recited Neruda’s poems in Spanish, hot and intense, as if he had written them himself. He learned the political manifestos by heart, repeating every word passionately over and over. We joined the marches for Land Rights, for boycotting South African sport. The anti-Apartheid movement was in full swing, Women’s Liberation was gaining momentum. The Indonesians invaded East Timor, the war in Vietnam ended. I got my degree in German and Spanish language and literature, left Melbourne and wandered overseas like a stray cat through a labyrinth of relationships, sometimes phoning my mother, sending her birthday and Mother’s Day and Christmas cards. I find them now, soft ripplings of old paper in her bedroom drawer, proudly bound by narrow, gold ribbon, nestled amongst embroidered handkerchiefs, a pair of pink lace, fingerless gloves, and a small black-and-white picture of my father, a smiling man wearing wide-leg trousers, the short sleeves of his shirt rolled up to show his biceps.
My mother’s kitchen is tired, like her bathroom, grubbily clinging to the seventies. Not that my flat in Lakemba was much better. I never got around to changing the olive-green laminate bench tops or the neon light in my kitchen. I sold the place for double the price I bought it though. Paid off my mortgage with money to spare. I’ve priced shiny, white kitchen cupboards, Caesarstone benchtops. It’ll be great. No one here to poke their nose into my business. I only see my neighbours when we park our cars on the street or they’re out walking their dogs. They don’t talk to me. They don’t give me mangos. They don’t play their music too loud.
I’ll put a skylight in too. That’ll brighten the place up. I’ve started stacking my mother’s records in cardboard boxes. Her music, the harmonies, the phrasing, the lyrics, mime her existence. Her clothes hang limp in the wardrobe. I pull them from their hangers, which clatter in protest. Grab her handbag from the top shelf and snap the latch open. The lining of the bag is smeared with what was once bright red lipstick but is now dirty-dark and greasy, brown. Strange big-bellied, spindly-legged creatures with hair, eyes, nose and mouths sprawl across the inside of the bag. I drew them! I scribbled heavy-handed with my mother’s lipstick, just me, only me. It has always been about me. I smeared lipstick all over the lining of her superb handbag. It was me who climbed through the textured fabrics, pinks, florals, golds, dresses she had sewn for herself, one foot on a shelf, stretching up to grab the bag from the top of her wardrobe.
Today I planted a pear tree in the backyard. I pressed down the earth around the roots of the tree, the soil blackens my fingernails. Maybe one day I will graft this pear tree to the nutmeg tree. The King of Spain’s daughter’s dress was made of crimson, jet black was her hair, her father, the king, broke his hip while shooting elephants in Africa. I don’t think she’ll visit me, not for the sake of this little nut tree. I lay my head in the dappled meagre shade of the young pear tree, flat on my back, stretched out on the paving stones, sunning my legs, still as a lizard in early summer. The sky, blue and cloudless, seemingly solid like a smooth mass of resin. A pigeon flutters from the little nutmeg tree, whistling bronzed wings and swishing feathers. I hear my mother’s voice singing.
I danced o’er the water,
I danced o’er the sea,
And all the birds in the air,
Couldn’t catch me.
I am warm-skinned and quiet as the breeze breathes gentle in my mother’s garden.
Gaele Sobott is a writer and a producer. Her books include, Colour Me Blue, a collection of short stories, and My Longest Round, a life story co-authored with Wally Carr, (forthcoming in 2019 with Magabala Books). Gaele is the founding director of Outlandish Arts. She facilitated the Writing Me project for Access2Arts in Adelaide and is currently leading the A2A THANK writing project. In 2018, she participated as writer-in-residence in ‘Excentrics’ at the Entredos Centre, Madrid. She is co-editor of /dɪsˈrʌpt/, an online platform for D/deaf and disabled artists, with Verity La. Gaele has a PhD in literature from the University of Hull, UK. @gaelesobott