No rays of light sneaking long fingers across the pale skin of morning. Not at this time. Beyond the window glass the stars shone precision silver, dew casting a silvery skeen across thirsty grass. I’d lie awake in the darkness waiting to hear the cough of the Toyota bring the catch home and him with it. I’d learnt to wait for the fluorescent light to cast diamante warmth through the white double doors windowed by an earlier deco-age of artistic privacy. When opened, conversations drifted like song, bounced by high ceilings and slick laminate floors. But closed, sound muffled and could just be waves brought on the breeze from the beach to the east. Shoulders alert, chin lifted, I’d listen for the soft clang of tin pots and the fwooosh of running water, the throw of the salt, the patient silence of the boil, the frenzied clicking of the first batch thrown to fat bubbles.
That was the time to creep with exaggerated slowness from my bed, through the darkened womb of the house where shadows lurked in corners deep. I’d keep my eyes on the kitchen light, focused on the lift of fear that came as I stepped into its brilliance, where I could watch him work from the last chair, the one that skirted kitchen light and living womb. There was no talking in this time—or not that I can remember. If the night was especially brisk he would pause in his work to throw me a blanket. I’d wrap it around myself, a little bird with wings tucked tight for warmth.
He would cook in colours of sand and sea foam, shorts ubiquitous; singlet always white. The boil from the stove would send puffs of steam, clouding over the kitchen window from where we catch our first glimpse of dawn. At her first crest, she would paint chrome and sill and cupboards in a tangerine blush before settling into hues of ripe peach. The scent of the sea was everywhere, filling the pores of the house and landing on my skin. Then the stove would rest. Knee-high tubs of cooked prawns, too heavy for me to lift, would be pushed out of the way. The kettle would whistle in the start of breakfast. These are the memories of which I am certain. In sunshine he would hang his nets out to dry. In sunshine the full of night seems so far away. These next memories are not mine, and certainty here can be slippery but truth is a net that catches much in its wake. There was a gun, an axe. There was my grandma, who kept her own uneasy watch on the night and slept behind a door that locked the rest of the household away.
When Shannon Burns wrote his memoir ‘In defence of the bad, white working class’ for Meanjin (no. 2, 2017) he captured the visceral masculinity of working-class survival. It was a confronting piece where racists have the capacity for heroism, the most battered can keep their pride, and the men, behind their bloodied fists and grizzled class anger, are all top blokes in the end. It’s a piece that reflects the cheery larrikinism of Friday nights at the pub underscored by the wet crack when skull meets concrete in an interlude between rounds. Burns wrote of his experiences, ending on a tacit acceptance of violence as an interwoven trait of a white male class war, a justifiable anger against inequality and the shifts of culture in contemporary Australia.
Playwright Patricia Cornelius provides a parallel tale to Burns’ piece in her corrosive exploration of the hard women of the working class in her play SHIT. Cornelius’s women are victims of the selfsame misogyny that marinades the more gouging moments of Burns’ reminiscence. There is a reality in these depictions but there is nothing worth romanticising in these violent lives. Burns’ depiction of a world of masculine working-class violence is a slap to all of us who have lived and breathed and flinched in that space. And in the absence of the still, the quiet, the patient, Burns’ piece misses what women have known—have always known—that violence is about power and domination. What plays out in the hurly-burly of politics, the pub and the worksite ricochets in the private sphere of the home, a place of feminine acquiescence to this country of top blokes and anti-heroes whose furious impotence requires constant surreptitious placation.
It is a full breath of relief that violence has remained in my peripheral vision, just enough to have taken on a strategic meekness when required. Violence can flare up at those most loved and cared for when life becomes too much. It is enough to know what a shithouse is, and why you don’t want to be told to fucking go there, ya useless bitch; to know that words have a violence of their own; that those mad with rage will bludgeon anyone and will wrap those same arms in a gentle cuddle on a night where every exhalation is a dragon’s breath of frost. Burns’ piece pulled at me, tugged at my own memories of working-class life. The muscles remember even as the details fade.
I step back into a kitchen, feel the blessed chill of linoleum against my bare feet, concrete scorched by summer heat. The grainy scent of McKenzie blue peas twitches my nose and the pot lid clatters a dance against the simmering heat. My grandma has left the stove, she’ll return when needed for another stir. The room is empty. From the kitchen I can catch a deep glimpse of the yard, a long parched stretch to where the chicken coop used to be. Rain, when it falls, is caught in buckets, turned over to the patches of silverbeet, green beans and rhubarb. The grass must fend for itself; the bindi-eye won a major sally too long ago really to give the grass much hope. Then the glimpse is gone as I tread carefully down from the kitchen into the sunroom. From early morning to late afternoon this room is the most glorious. The white curtains pulled back when bones need warmth are a thin gauze against a sunburn when slumbering under a February sun.
Nanna says my name. Each vowel is rounded with a smile of delight. She slips the front of an old Christmas card into the book she is holding.
‘How’s the book?’
‘Oh, marvellous. There’s this girl, and she’s done her best you know, but she’s been a bit of an idiot. She’s fallen in love with … and then he’s gone and …’
Maeve Binchy was a particular favourite. All those Irish lasses in trouble. But she would read pretty much anything from popular fiction. The house was full of Courtenay, Robbins, Cussler, Wilbur Smith, Steel and Binchy as well as others I’d never remember. Nanna would swap books in and out with family and friends so you had to be quick if you wanted one after her.
‘How’s that boyfriend of yours, Kel? Is he good?’
Good. Good like rock cakes with the right mix of artificial cherry and salt. Good like chocolate peppermints. Good like a man who’ll take a girl to the movies, buy her a box of her favourites, release that first nervous shiver of delight and fear. Good like a man who’ll live far too long but whose attentions seemed valuable so very long ago.
Good hangs there, a strawberry red-ripe with heat and moisture, rotting from the inside. She slips into sleep and I step away, gently closing the door as I leave.
Working-class life can be built on brutalities. The blue collars don’t own it alone; blood in the foundations has a habit of seeping through the floorboards, and this country turned blood and bone deep in the soil. My class wears that guilt as do all who descend from the boat people of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The boats brought behaviours from the old country to the new. Even as the first generations of Australian-born challenged the patrician conventions of England, they infused a patriarchal violence that we have yet to shake. The violence of masculine supremacy plays out in this country still. It is a violence that crosses social classes when we write or talk or share experiences with the repeated refrain of ‘Why didn’t she leave?’
It is a question that echoes across generations and that has no empathy with the plight of women trapped by structural and systemic barriers. It is the violence embedded in the foundations from which all structures draw their strength; where a man earns $1 to every woman’s 83 cents; where he owns as much space as he can claim, be it a seat on a train or a seat in parliament and we name it ‘meritocracy’; where he can take an axe to a door, threatening to chop his way in, if his wife doesn’t step out and come home with him right now. It is the violence of memory making and memorialisation, and the conundrum of how a grandfather can be a top bloke to his granddaughter and an utter bastard to his wife. Violence has been the struggle but it doesn’t have to be the fruit nor the scattering of seeds for the next generation. Violence is neither the inheritance nor the birthright of a single class.
Sometimes the violence of class warfare seems understandable. It’s hard to ignore the increasing disenfranchisement of a people who are cut off from financial certainty and economic power, the only power with political capital, at such a speed and in such ways that most don’t even know it’s happening or why. Detached from a social contract that promised security and delivered ‘efficiencies’, the cuts must sting more than salt in a wound at the end of a hard day’s work. Not everyone has the capacity to absorb the pain. Some share their fear and anger around, trying to pass it on and out of their lives. But this passing on of pain is a sign of raw trauma. It is a wound infected by generations of neglect and a ‘toughen up’ attitude. It is inconceivable that in modern Australia a call to violence, whether against those of another class, race, or gender, could be heard as a reasonable response to shifting times and culture. This Australia, where a former prime minister chairs the mental health organisation BeyondBlue, where Men’s Sheds pepper suburban locales and where Destroy the Joint counts dead women still. Don’t we know by now that toughness is not in catching the blow of a fist to the face or wearing the boot that kicks another in the ribs.
Another night, far from my coastal home, I’m in the city. The cobblestone streets, the upward arc of hill roads, the clink of glass and the surprise of bar carpet that isn’t soggy or laden with the smell of stale hops. There’s a group of us, and I’m a plus one. Anecdotes are swapped and I know none of them. I smile, well trained in conversational genuflects even though I struggle to speak with anyone beyond my partner. A lift of the wine glass, a minute sip repeated works as a gesture—or at least I hope it does—and then finally chairs are pushed back, coats are shrugged on.
I’m disappointed by the canopy above. The city does not hold stars well. It’s the city lights, I think. Then the black night veers and shifts. There’s confusion. I’m closer than I was and still I see no silver pinpricks. I can see my partner’s face looking up at me, his glasses framing a grey seriousness. I turn my head and see the red-flecked neck of a stranger who has swooped in from behind. On his face is a grin although his eyes are are not on me. They are laughing with his mates at a table behind. And I am a trophy—a premiership weight and isn’t it funny to hold me aloft. I’m just under five foot. The concrete of the gutter seems a long
‘Put me down or I will kick you in the face. Put me down or I will kick you in the face.’ I assess his hold on me, evaluate the proximity of my boot, the way in which I will need to shift my body against his.
He is still laughing. Although my lips move his ears are well trained. He hears only silent acquiescence. My partner steps closer but keeps his hands at his side. Our party are stunned. Camaraderie snaps against the loudness of the night.
‘Put me down right now.’
Finally, he hears me. Then he deposits me back on the pavement. ‘Jus’ a joke.’ He returns to his table for high fives. Rich boys and their tight polos and their tans.
I am thankful then and many nights over. No king hits thrown, no concrete battery of brain and blood to be hosed off by morning. In those moments held aloft I weighed up the desire to smash his face in with my boot; to use my nails to gouge at the smoothness of his caramel cheek. Then the moment is over. My safety is assured. In the stillness of my partner, whose concern was on me and for me I found something good. There was no pride, no posturing from him in those moments. And I silently take stock of what I’d found inside myself.
The part of me that once may have struck out or worse, quavered, in a moment of fear and humiliation was subsumed by a focused voice that spoke of all options but stayed relatively detached and appraised an inebriated machismo and found it infantile, a voice that did not capitulate my agency to another’s aggrandisement. Our table of not-quite-friends, not-quite-acquaintances drifts away down the dim cobblestone streets.
We scowl and shake our heads in incredulity at what has just occurred. This act of patriarchal aggression, the claiming of public space and private bodies, is seen as an embarrassment. The time of the drunk, the time of the man-boy, the time of the phallic competition is over. It’s time for men to grow up. Not just to hear women as a nag, but also to know women and our genuine fears of male action. Australian men of all classes need to listen to women; our patience for their extended adolescence has stretched thin.
Deeper than my epidermis, I’m burned by my class: the chill of winter nights spent within a rattling timber frame; the shudder of glass against July sea winds; the wrapping of silence and contempt in love; and the anger of impotence and futility in the scrabble to make do. Class, despite all attempts to conquer it, doesn’t slough away like summer skin. To be a white woman writing on class and violence in Australia is to traverse an awkward liminality. Strangely, for me at least, I’m writing from the safety of a middle-class place, in a home that has insulation and heating, where medical access is mostly assured, where my safety feels buttressed by locks and lights, and relationships of respect and love. As a woman I know none of this—class, home, economic certainty, social security—is guaranteed.1
I walk hand in hand with my children in local parks. We pass cultivated roses, parched grasses. We rest for a moment, backs pressed into a bench memorialising the dead—another woman whose walk ended not in the embrace of family but in darkness and fear. Her assailant has never been caught. I know the women around my home and neighbourhood may not be as privileged as I am right now. That one in four of us has experienced an incident of violence from an intimate partner and that as I write 39 women nationally have been killed by violence so far this year. It disturbs me that 11 of those women died between my stages of writing and I have to increase the number, while cuts to women’s refuges remain.2
Class leaves scars. Scars can be a sign of healing. Or maybe just survival. A scar isn’t a call to violence; it’s a reminder that our passage together requires gentleness, that we can do better than our parents and grandparents, who were marked by patterns of violence from those before them. The working class has a proud history of building, nurturing and raising the next generation with stoicism and pride. The violence, the misogyny, the sense of masculine entitlement—all that can go to the proverbial. The power of a feminine collective, the patience and endurance—it is our turn if this country is going to thrive and not just survive.
Kelly Cheung writes on class, inequality, women’s rights and education, (when she manages to hide from her young children and finds time to write.) Her PhD thesis is due frighteningly soon. Shhhhh. Don’t tell her kids where to find her.
- Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS), 2015, Violence against women in Australia: Additional analysis of the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Personal Safety Survey, 2012, <https://anrows.org.au/publications/horizons-0/pss>, accessed 29 March 2017
- Destroy the Joint, Counting Dead Women 2017. We count every known death due to violence against women in Australia—39 by October 11, <https://www.facebook.com/notes/destroy-the-joint/counting-dead-women-australia-2017-we-count-every-known-death-due-to-violence-ag/1618229138224824/>, accessed 11 October 2017
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