Exits & Entrances

It did not seem fair, it was him who was unscathed, not her.

He was the one to get our mother pregnant. Our father seemed out for himself, while she was concerned to look after and protect us. She could no longer manage that, once sent to some Wellington hospital we didn’t know, though she had taken us to the city years before, to stay with her school friend and see an elephant.

My two brothers, either side of me in age, were ten and thirteen when she told us there would be another baby.

I did not want to hear.

And my older brother did not speak. It was only the youngest who sounded excited. Somehow a baby appealed to him, or maybe he just wished to please our mother and was often quick to chatter.

But there was no new life.

A malignancy developed instead. That was the expression our father used but it was not explained. All we were told was that the local doctor picked it up too late, so our mother must be moved from town to a big hospital.

We were left suspended.

Our father drove five hours to see her occasionally but we did not go. We sent a card.

People were kind and I did not like them for it.

It made me squirm to thank someone, even if they brought us a special cake.

I was reminded of Miss Brown and that was easier than thinking about my mother.

We were the ones being kind after she became poor Miss Brown in need of soup.

She had been the authority on the right amount of material for each pattern, so there would be no wastage.

She might suggest where you could fit in the sleeves, to save half a yard.

All my life she ran the fabric counter of the only decent haberdashery in town.

Then, when she lost her place, I was sent with chicken broth and to stay outside, and not eat biscuits, but even knocking on a door for her was uncomfortable. It was not where Miss Brown belonged, away from rolls of material, where she served for decades, making no complaint against the shop owner or rude customers.

She must have worked well past retirement age, until she sank from visibility, and was no longer the Miss Brown kept busy and engaged by our preferences and self-importance. It was expected she would show an interest in choices and lengthy deciding. She also made sure there was not too much of any new cloth. No one wanted to make themselves a dress only to see several others the same.

Miss Brown probably knew most customers and made many feel special – might our mother, who had gone in for a button or cotton reel, like to get a first look at something just in that morning?

Then she slipped away from the counter.

I suppose she died.

I, of course, would not get old or be alone like her, of that I was certain at ten, as I took soup and then ran home.

But when our mother left us to cook and clean and see if the washing was dry, we were the ones being given food.

Our now poor mother reduced us too.

Ben, or Mr Davis to you young lady, as my father said, was not trying to be kind. We just talked over the fence.

“Your father is suffering, you know,” he told me.

Our father no longer hit any of us. Perhaps he promised our mother he would not do so.

But his tension filled the house and overflowed him so quickly. It seemed a wish to obliterate and not just beat his children.

If Ben overheard explosions it was never mentioned.

He had been at the house regularly for his ancient father, then moved in completely when the old man died and I was seven. Ben and his friend Derek, were our town’s two wonderful pantomime dames. That annual performance was probably the only space to celebrate their difference from other men, none of whom wished to swirl a wide skirt in public.

Sport was the token of social exchange, not what the dames did with themselves the rest of the year. And was it an effort for them to sound less camp off stage?

They certainly did not play rugby or even badminton but, at a certain age, just acceptable, Ben and Derek signed up for bowls.

They joined where they could and were careful not to stir alarm.

When Ben finally moved in next door our mother was very pleased. She helped him choose pretty colours to paint the shabby house and delighted in all the bright flowers he planted.

Though our father was not very hostile he muttered and told us, especially my brothers, not ever to go inside Ben’s home.

But he gave us no words for his distrust.  Being gay was not yet a fact of life to be named near children. Though somehow I knew that Ben understood humiliation and powerlessness.

I knew something, too, of his good care for his grim, crusty and disapproving  father. Ben was more than dutiful, if not loving.

I told him once how I hated my father and he was not shocked.

He listened.

He made no attempt to hush me but, when I finished, he said that maybe it was better to hate my father than turn on myself, as he had done, but getting locked in any hatred was a dead end.

I heard his words and remembered them – more or less. But they were just words, like all sermons. They did not come up through my belly.

I couldn’t really know what he meant yet did hope to inhabit those words of his and better understand them.

At the time Ben asked if it was anything specific I hated.

But it was impossible to say, even to him, that stuck inside me was the humiliation of my big brother, who, back then, I easily admired.

Though it was part of something bigger, one solid memory would not dissolve.

I could overhear our father’s firm, stony tone, certain of authority and our obedience.

He told his son to bend over and lower his pants.

He used a bamboo stick on both my brothers.

For me he took off his belt and I was to hold out my hand.

All three of us had to submit but the different ways sexualised this power of his and made it more disgusting.

I could tell Ben only that I hated him for his treatment of my brothers, rather than for the few times he strapped my hand.

Ben tried the familiar line that corporal punishment was the way of it and undoubtedly my father had been beaten as a boy, but he could see that did nothing to alter my fixed fight.

My small capacity to forgive or let things go could not extend to this.

And if he was simply following the herd, unthinking, why should he be respected.

Ben and Derek dared not live together but were often sharing the kitchen next door.

One Sunday, after a roast lunch served in his garden, Ben told me that, as retired bachelors, they would not agitate the town.

But he was wrong.

At the time our mother eventually died, there was a scandal in the Boy Scouts. It was no longer possible to ignore how all manner of sexuality might be happening out of sight.

Ben and Derek were in no way implicated in the Scout’s furore yet, as possible contagion, they too became a focus.

Derek and Ben wept and that was a shock.

Ben had been born in our town, where his parents were buried.

It was his soil, though he had not grown in it as his long dead mother hoped. Nevertheless she enjoyed him deeply and he her.

I said I’d take flowers to her grave but not each week as he had done for twenty three years.

Don’t you hate them now that they drive you away?

Not really, Ben could say, because he recognised the limits of those men, of the rugby scrum, who needed to be so contemptuous of him.

I could only go on clutching outrage at the side my father took over Ben, adding the further grievance that I would miss him.

Ben spoke straighter than anyone and we both knew my father would never allow me to visit him once he settled in the city.

Ben Davis left town and our mother was dead but there was still lunch and washing.

Our father had taken us down to the hospital to say goodbye, a few weeks before she died, but we barely said a word.

We hadn’t seen her during those months and she no longer looked at all like our mother. Her once loved smell was horrible.

I don’t know what either of my brothers thought; we didn’t talk about it.

Many in town assumed her dead already and were surprised to read there would be a funeral.

Our father carried on as if things still made sense to him. His views if anything became more fixed and opinionated.

My resentment of him was hardening, yet I accepted my aunt’s view that we, including both brothers, must carry on without fuss, as the biggest help we could give our father.

There was no question of open challenge or inviting further disruption.

My aunt came another time to bring a pie and a bag of pads, along with an explanation of periods. But that was quickly rebuffed, with my declaration that I knew already.

I didn’t but needed to end the conversation.

Our younger brother remained talkative through that time, though I have no memory of anything he spoke about.

The older one grew sullen and covered in spots. He had been beautiful and now he wasn’t. It felt a disappointment and one our mother was spared.

He seemed only ever to talk freely with a couple of mates and that hurt.

Although what vocabulary did the three of us have to speak of suffering?

There was no talking of death near children; adults kept to good cheer and sport, or giving plenty of phrases for expected manners.

Our mother had been barely mentioned after daily connection was severed and, when she was cut out completely, the word dead was used only twice.

People stopped the cakes and that, too, rubbed in how the huge absence for us was no longer in general view. It didn’t mean much for others.

I had taken for granted that I knew plenty, at almost thirteen, but confidence was badly shaken.

Probably I expected the horror of the funeral to fade and that we would just get on alright without a mother.

From young we had learnt not to embarrass. We knew we shouldn’t  draw attention to the men on display in houses we visited.

At least we had a name for our mother, Elisa, while those absent sons in photos were never named for us.
We often went for tea in one home where the large picture stood on the piano.

In another we visited regularly, an image of a young man in uniform was always there, filling the wall of green wallpaper as soon as you entered the drab hall.

We were to be the not quite grandchildren, replacing the proper ones who couldn’t exist. We were to be good and not speak of the palpable pain left by a war just before we were born; a war on the far side of the world.

Our mother set the stage and we understood our parts. Though I could not get sufficiently past those missing sons to be convincing in the charade of pseudo grandchild.

And then this new charade began, of coping well without a mother.

Conviction was flimsy at first.

But while the eldest slid sideways, out as much as possible, I stepped into our mother’s slippers.

They didn’t quite fit but were worn until they fell apart.

Our aunt got a cleaner to come in on Wednesdays but I took on running the house, cooking and shopping for supplies, while showing concern for my younger brother, who was only one school year behind me.

There was an incantation of gratitude from my aunt and father that I should prove such a wonderful daughter.

I could see this was to keep me in the place which suited them, but I liked finding myself capable. It seemed something to hold.

There was steel in that determination never to be seen as a poor girl, a motherless one.

We didn’t want any more cakes or soup; I soon became as good at cooking as any of them.

I was not surprised that my nugget of hatred went unrecognised.

I could lose sight of it for a whole day, then sometimes for a week.