The decisions made after leaving home.
She was early forties then, her husband dead for about two years, a little less. A country girl from the depression, she had a world view very different from today. Not her fault and it didn’t make her wrong. We are products of our environment and grieving is hard. Personal. She had told me how she felt and how even her own friends had deserted her after dad died. Her sense was that a widow was a threat who may steal their man. So she was deserted.
So now there is his widow and how often to call – he was my friend long before he met her. Indeed I was the marriage celebrant. I like her, we all do. But the true connection was him, and how does she feel? What is appropriate?
Mum felt very alone and I think now – desperate. Afraid she’d be too old soon to find a man. But as I said that man faded away almost as soon as she mentioned him in serious tones.
Then came Jim. He was keen and totally wrong. But she needed keen. Desperate and so afraid. By halfway through my final year of school they were very serious.
Strangely now my memories are vague. The time line is jumbled. I think it started before the marriage. It is true that I opposed the marriage while trying to be nice to Jim for mum’s shake. But I did ask her to wait, at least let me finish my all-important exams. Worse, he seemed wrong.
My brother certainly didn’t approve.
Jim moved into the apartment that is behind me now as I watch the school girls. Mum started staying there a lot and constantly after the marriage. But I never went in. I remember it was a bit of a secret. An open secret. But my memory is so vague of the sequence – maybe repressed. Too difficult to – apportion the blame perhaps?
From her corner windows she could watch the station, the ramp, the crossing and off to the side the bus stop. Of course most of the times I had been sitting there she would not have been in.
The problem was the hill. There are East Lindfield shops close to where the bus dropped me on the way home. A milk bar, others, including a little grocery store but it shut very early. It’s very different there today too. All young mom’s doing café lattes after dropping kids, and afternoon cappuccinos before collecting kids and… So many cafes, so little time. But it was still the wrong direction from the bus and then a hike home if I shopped there after school.
So I got to know the fish ‘n’ chip shop pretty well at Lindfield Station. There was Chinese too, but again further away. With school bags and sporting kit distances matter. They shouldn’t. I was young and supposedly fit. But I wasn’t. I especially didn’t like running.
I ran in cricket but only reluctantly. My coach said I was slower than a turtle. Even if a run out loomed I’d wander between wickets, too arrogant to show I was concerned and daring the fielder to actually hit. They mostly didn’t. And I mostly judged runs very carefully. As they got older, they hit more. I stopped playing cricket.
So if I was coming back after sport the fish ‘n’ chips was quickest as I was reliant on the last bus. I’d walk home eating the chips. Efficient you see, I got home ready to study.
It was often just the dog and myself, which is just as well because Jim was a little paranoid, a drinker and a dreamer. He wanted to help, but everything went wrong continuously which caused me several embarrassments when I was required to rely on him. I remember the dread of the inevitable let down, especially the public ones. Those things you still remember, still make you flush. They scar you for some reason.
So it was just as well it was the dog and I.
But I think it was more that mum was embarrassed a little by him, a little by the whole sex thing. Mostly I think that in her desperation she grabbed the first thing around and then – well, the morning after syndrome, except that in mum’s world she believed she needed to stand by her man. Urge him to quit the drink etc. It didn’t work. As I am standing on the corner I have recently cleaned out her house and I found the liquor bottles, filled with water to hide his drinking. He hadn’t been around for twenty-five years and in the pantry the bottles were still sitting. Why hadn’t she thrown them out years before? Because she never really came to terms with what happened? Who knows?
Now as I look at the apartment I wonder what I wondered then. It would have been better I moved into the apartment. With or without the dog. Mum and Jim had cars, I had a bus and a train – they were right there. Right outside the little apartment. Feet away. It would have been a better solution surely.
I wander under it, hidden by the metal awning to what used to be a little bakery – now it’s a café too. Next to it is a home décor shop, nick knack stuff and fancy – fancy everything. They are totally mandatory these days at just about every train station shopping area. This particular one I knew was run by my old school friend David’s CEO bosses’ wife. A dalliance for rich, ignored wives. I doubt they sell anything. And since when could people afford such frilly, pretty things? Since China.
Everything is a café in Australia. Now school girls are sitting around all drinking café lattes no doubt with special orders and certainly with a hefty price tag. We may have gotten a can of soda on a hot day, not this. We’d get the first bus along, well, not the troubled type as discussed already. They may hang for the second bus. And maybe a few times one would wait for the second bus to see if some particular girl showed up. Or just to avoid the shrewy two, the pair who had defeated my brilliant revenge plan.
For an apartment I never saw in, it is a symbol of so much. After school I moved away to another city to study. That isn’t that strange in America, at least not among my friends and this generation. But it seemed quite rare in Australia. I doubt many of my class went interstate. It was the system, it was that they did things that were available…. But I went away. I never went home except to visit, and rarely. It didn’t seem to matter that much.
There’s no blame. Life gets in the way. Decisions had been made. And not by me, although I guess that is wrong. I just didn’t know I was making any. It was mum making the decisions. And that is true; then. But maybe it affected my decisions later. There was no bad blood. Well, never spoken, never conscious. But I never went home. I went to LA.
Stepping away from home seemed only natural. The tears shed were for the dog. How to explain to him that I wasn’t coming back soon? He knew luggage, he understood, but often he’d be in the car too. Or it’d be a day or two. He knew something was wrong. He sulked in his bed. So I cried, as I am now. Suddenly, at that simple memory. I just walked out of his life and he would never have known why.
I came home for holidays. Mostly. Then after college I stayed away. It seemed to make sense, I did get a job away. It was best. There seemed nothing pressing to take me back.
During college I think, or just after, the messy divorce happened. He had taken mum twice over. Many say he was always just a con man. I think better. I want to for her shake. He had a good idea he was working on, just, didn’t quite get it there. I know that feeling. It was frustrating but I couldn’t blame her. She did her best in the storm. Still decisions had been made.
Somewhere along the road I just stepped away. Sometime that final year. I can rationalize it now, explain it was best to let her have her new life as well. But it was no conscious thing. I simply stepped away. I want to believe there was still a great bond, but decisions had been made.
What if he came back, or who would be next? I don’t remember thinking such things but it would be natural too. Jim’s time had been colorful at best.
My big brother stayed. He tried to “protect her” I guess. He had been entrusted by dad before his death he says. A 16th birthday talk. I went away so he stayed. My memory is vague. Maybe that is how I want it to be. Stories came out years later that you can understand would be scaring to him. Dividing. But they were nothing unexpected given the first year, well, six months of them being married.
It is for another story how I fell in love in my final year of college with a lovely, lovely call girl who OD’d just before my graduation. Just before my 21st. Just before mum was going to come and see my graduation film. Was the OD connected? My love wasn’t keen on meeting my friends. Uncomfortable among them. She wasn’t one of them. Not like us. Of course not, we were broke; she had money! We were in college, and she had barely finished high school. She was uncomfortable.
Dad, mum, her. I think I wasn’t looking for connections. People leave one way or the other. I had also.
Eventually I came to LA. I stayed many years without returning. I spoke to mum on the phone. If she wanted to come over I’d have arranged something. I just felt I had to be here. LA is like that. You’re always convinced you’ll miss the call. You do anyway half the time. I also thought I needed to prove myself but each step, once taken, was behind me, so there was again more to prove. I couldn’t go home without proof. Proof I was right and made the right decision. I went to LA.
Maybe I never actually invited her. I didn’t have a place for her, maybe I did invite. I don’t recall. Mum said she didn’t come and visit because she wanted me to come back to visit instead. That way I’d stay connected a little to friends etc. if I should ever move back permanently. I heard it but I didn’t take it in. I took in what she said about not wanting to be a clingy parent. I should follow my own path. Besides, she was busy teaching for those first years.
LA was fine. I did no better than anywhere else. There’s nothing to boast of, but I was here. Younger siblings are always compared to the older ones. I got some award at school, the headmaster announced my brother’s name instead. He had probably deserved it more. If they take a successful road then there’s this shadow for the younger. But not in LA, the sun shone and there I was.
As years went by in LA some family members would say I should come home: Mum was lonely. The thought was I owed it to her. What was I achieving there? Both were fair. Part of me always wanted to come home, but in triumph that never came. Another LA wannabe, and Australia doesn’t take kindly to those, especially if you weren’t “in” to start with.
When mum got sick I went home to look after her. Back to the same old house, which never seemed the same. I think the guilt of the dog haunted it a little. Yet I remember a detachment when mum had called to say he had passed: Peacefully. A guilt too late to right? Someone who has buried emotions? Maybe from all that distance it just didn’t seem to matter. But in the house there were still reminders of him.
As the time passed I seemed more aware of all the little things between us. I guess that is natural. A trip before mum had found an old picture of dad in a group and wanted to know if it could be blown up just of dad. A few years before I’d have been on it, but the technology was changing, I wasn’t focused, or was I too focused on other things? I never got it done and now that is a guilt I carry. It would have been so easy in the greater picture. She never reminded me, or fussed. She asked and I failed.
I had just made a film and felt trapped in Sydney, the world was now definitely in LA and it was falling to pieces in the great financial crisis of the housing bust. I’m sure mum knew my frustrations, it must have made her guilty to be getting sick at such a moment. But I couldn’t leave her and it was clear my brother for whatever reasons didn’t feel he could come. It was always assumed I was available to be there. The fate of writers.
“What are you doing today?”
“Great, can you come help me….”
Any other time and that would have been far truer than at that one.
My brother finally came for a couple of weeks and I hurried back to LA and try to save the picture’s distribution. That was the final act. To get the picture out there successfully was the defining act of triumph. I doubt mum understood that. I’m not sure what she made of the whole thing.
When she watched a DVD alone she had a prune face most of the time. At a screening when the lights came up she was nearby and her first reaction was to say I didn’t look well and she should drive home. I didn’t know what to do. No one nearby did.
A little after that she got sick the last time.
I don’t think she understood what it meant to me. If family is correct and I should have come home sooner, then there is no film, and maybe she was jealous of it. Resented it. Whatever, I don’t think she understood that of me, it being seen was the point of making it. It was hard to explain.
I understood as I flew out that we had months to go – there was time. I’d be back in triumph. I just needed a few weeks. With the taxi waiting I saw real fear in my mum’s eyes. I don’t ever remember that before. Did she know what I didn’t? I had been in the doctor’s meeting with her. But decisions had been made decades ago and now it was just playing out. It was time to leave.
In the end fate was against me. A friend collected me from the airport in LA and we were promptly rear ended. I got whiplash and was in a brace and the world kept spinning. I suddenly wasn’t focused on the career make and break decisions I should been. I was popping pain killers instead and things seemed to be going downhill with mum very quickly. I just couldn’t focus.
She lasted about ten days. I had just come out of a miserable dentist’s appointment, was sitting in LA peak hour traffic in my brace, going nowhere, due to be on the plane that night, hours away, and the text came through from my brother. She was gone. But I had left things for later, because there was meant to be a later. Nothing big, no shattering moments. Just things you leave – to be continued – make it all seem normal.
In the end he did the hard yards and maybe – so many maybes.
I don’t know in the end what family said to him. But they said I should have come home years before. Not an accusation, but not just a regret either and it was something seemingly needed to be said right then, just there at the funeral and just after. And the world spun and I tried not the wear the brace too much, and friends helped. They were great. They said my brother had said this and he had said that. Some bizarre, some believable, and some contradictory. You see, I don’t communicate with him directly really. I don’t k now why, that was his decision. He doesn’t talk to family.
There’s no reality in these things, just perception and emotion, or lack there of.
Now a couple of years later I stand at Lindfield: Detached. There is no house and the bank manager who loved mum and helped so much is retired – I missed her by two days – and so the trip down to Lindfield was a waste of time, blank faces knew nothing and wished I had gone to another branch or online even better. I was filling their day with work. I should have called ahead rather than just get on the train. Not efficient. My problem. Setting oneself up for failure.
Now I ponder coming home but what is home now? Family is dying out, especially in Sydney, there is no blood left there. I never committed in my heart to LA, so there’s no real home there either. Critics would say I’ve never committed to anything or anyone, not even a dog. I have an inflatable tiger. It keeps my friends’ toddlers happy as they punch and drag it around. It shuts people up when they bring up the dog thing. I just tell them I have a tiger. And I move on.
Standing on the corner at Lindfield station, I don’t want to look around at those windows. You see, it’s just like everyone else, decisions were made. Time marches on. I didn’t make all the decisions. A fraction of them. But, I made enough. Is there blame? There’s guilt. So, surely there is blame. But who or what to blame?
I thought I would not return to Lindfield. There would never be need. But by fate, here I am. A friends for dinner. But now, like my fragmented memories, the buildings are half gone, but not the apartment. It is still there. From the alley on down, from the pharmacy with the pay phone on is gone now. Gone. They are building apartments for Chinese investors I’m told.
My path can take me away from those shops, that building, I can skirt the issue of confronting that apartment and I do. One day it’ll all be gone, and since it can’t be changed now, why worry, why the guilt and that uncertainty of blame? Like the building we’ll all be gone.
So I do. That is the end of what was. A decision made.
(Picture Courtesy Wikipedia – c 1930s house, Lindfield)