There are moments which mark your life. Moments when you know nothing will ever be the same again and time is divided into two parts: before this and after this. Sometimes you can see these moments coming but sometimes not, and as with me, they hit you when you least expect them.
My moment was February 27th, 1997.
At forty-one, I was a single mum holding down a full-time job and raising two teenage boys, a big enough job on its own, while maintaining a house and the chores that go with it. It was only days until autumn arrived and it was unseasonably hot so I’d taken advantage of Thursday’s ‘late night shopping’ where I could at least be in air-conditioning. The shops were packed with customers and the aisles were jammed with trolleys. I pushed mine around impatiently, dodging the slower shoppers like a racing car driver, eager to get home.
My whole day had been a rush from 5am when I’d risen for work through to my brief arrival home at 4.30 pm. I hurriedly put dirty clothes in the washing machine and prepared dinner for myself and my two boys before rushing out to do the grocery shopping.
With the boot of my car full of food, I pulled into the driveway, stepped out and ran my fingers through my shoulder-length blonde hair as I glanced at the long grass and the garden full of weeds.
Autumn was a sad time of year for my garden. The gardenias, wattle and agapanthus had already bloomed and the dead flowers hung forlornly on the end of straggly stalks. I enjoyed the solitude of gardening but there just never seemed to be enough time to get around to it, what with school meetings, basketball games and personal crises for each of my two boys. Something always came up that was more important, and all too often it became difficult juggling my work-free time between the both of them, without even thinking about how much time I needed to put the garden into some semblance of order.
When I look back on the day my life changed forever, it still surprises me the things I remember. I remember thousands of tiny sand flies hovering around the outside light like a grey cloud. I remember a few tiny drops of rain falling onto the leaves of the Leopard tree that I kept promising myself to trim back before it took over the yard. I heard the leaves rustling. The sorrowful barking of a dog. A baby crying in the distance. The buzzing of mosquitoes. The memories are all so clear.
That year, it seemed that Queensland let go of its grip on summer reluctantly. What never ceased to amaze me were the magnificent blue skies and the endless starry nights. This day, however, had been only a series of sun breaks. Now, under the heavy sky, the afternoon had moved into night and I saw lightning flicker through the neighbour’s fig tree. I could see a patch of pansies I’d planted glowing like droplets of fire in the night as a gust of wind rippled across the grass, rolling through it like the muscles of an animal might ripple. It’s as if everything is engraved in my memory. I remember it all.
I opened the boot of my car and took out two bags of groceries, leaving the rest for the boys to bring in, before walking towards the front door. Asleep on the mat, as usual, was my seal-point Persian cat, Oscar. I manoeuvred both bags into one hand as I unlocked the front door with the other hand and stepped over him, muttering, “Don’t get up, Oscar. I know you must be exhausted. Please don’t disturb yourself.”
He recognised my voice and twitched an ear but still lay comatose on the doorstep.
I stepped into the foyer, grateful for the soft illumination of a corner lamp the boys had turned on for me and tossed my keys into a ceramic bowl on the sideboard to my left. Resting on top was an opened Valentine’s Day card and clearly visible were the words, ‘With all my love forever, David.’ I smiled and blew a kiss to the card, then placed a shopping bag in each hand before continuing on to the kitchen.
Lazing in the lounge room, one on each couch, were my two teenage boys. Their eyes and their smiles gave me a moment’s attention, but I knew their brains were still absorbed by the sit-com on the television.
They were good friends despite the differences in age, although there were certainly times when both of them fought like a couple of stray cats. Mark, the eldest, was seventeen and Tony was fourteen and even though they had the inevitable squabbles, they remained loyal and protective of each other.
Through my tiredness, a feeling of pride surfaced as I watched them. The unselfconscious happiness I was witnessing was what I’d been working for during the past ten years. It had been a long struggle after my divorce, but I had been determined that I would make our new life work for us.
I’ve often thought that by now I’d have my life in good shape. I’d be a wife, a mother and a businesswoman. I’d serve my customers in my coffee shop by day, help my children to study at night, find time for the basketball games and snuggle up to a loving husband at the end of each day. I’d have plenty time for all the fun things in life as well as the not-so-fun things, like gardening and housework. In fact, the only part of my life I was happy with was the children. That,I assured myself, was a huge success story. There was no way I would let their lives be affected by the break-up of my marriage the way mine had been affected when my own parent’s relationship had disintegrated. Their break-up, when I was seven years old, had been the beginning of an uncertain, insecure life full of pain that I would never allow my children to endure.
As I walked into the kitchen, I called out a bright hello to the boys and asked them to bring in the rest of the shopping for me from the car. Ten minutes later I was placing the last of the grocery items haphazardly in the pantry, thanking God the day was nearly over.
Tiredness washed over me again as I walked to the bathroom to splash cool water on my face. As I glanced in the mirror, I noticed that dark circles were etched in the soft skin under the muddy green eyes that gazed back at me and my hair could do with a trim and a freshening of colour. I tucked the loose strands behind my ears and made a mental note to call the hairdressers in the morning.
I had always tried to take care of myself. I exercised regularly, never smoked, rarely drank and I watched what I ate. Now I couldn’t remember ever feeling more tired.
In my weariness, having started thinking of my history, I didn’t have the resistance to stop my mind from conjuring up the images of the past. When my mind remembers those events, it’s like I’m teetering on the lip of a chasm, breathless and struggling to steady myself, so as not to tip over the edge.
The memories of those early days are disjointed, but in the end horrifying to me.
Happiness for me at five years old was skipping the three kilometres to the local swimming pool on a hot summer’s day with a towel around my neck and one shilling in my pocket. I was alone and oblivious to any peril as I skipped happily back again at dusk, more often than not to an empty flat.
When I look back on my childhood, it amazes me that I didn’t become a statistic, a small child abducted, raped or worse still, left for dead by the side of a quiet road. There certainly were a few characters that looked capable of doing such a thing.
We lived in Spring Hill, Fortitude Valley, which is in the heart of Brisbane yet on the fringe of the central business district. In those days, people came to live there with little or no income. They could exist on a pension, pay affordable rent and survive on a shoestring budget. What was typical of these low-income areas was the large number of bars and pubs dotted around where everyone gravitated as their only means of entertainment and escape. Even though money was inevitably in short supply, spare cash could always be found for a round or two of drinks with friends at the pub. It was a place where both men and women retreated to keep warm in winter and to cool down in the summer.
In Brisbane, winter brought clear blue skies and bitterly cold westerly winds that howled relentlessly through the cracks of walls and cut through every layer of clothing like a knife while summer brought beautiful hot, humid days and the inevitable afternoon thunderstorm. This rainy season seemed to shorten the days, making the early evenings just plain murky, with the flickering streetlights doing very little to brighten the dismal streets.
Although Fortitude Valley had its occasional beauty, it also had a forlorn feeling about it, and a hint of hopelessness. It never occurred to me to be astonished that so many riches could exist in the city centre only three streets from the abject poverty of this neighbourhood I loved so much.
It’s said that the most important years of a person’s life are the ones before the age of five because these early experiences build character and shape personality. For me, they made me self-reliant and independent far beyond my years, although I sometimes wonder what other people would have made of me at that age and what possible future they would have predicted.
My mother, Merle Rose Mooney, carried inside her all the legends and superstitions of the Irish, a part of her that I have inherited, much to the consternation and amusement of my friends. She was a pretty dark-haired woman whose ancestors were born in Cookstown, Ireland, before immigrating to New York in the early 1800’s like many other Irish. Times were very hard and again like so many, they came to Australia, ‘the land of opportunity’, where jobs were supposed to be plentiful and the streets were said to be paved in gold. They all had a sad shock coming when they realised they had moved from one impossible situation to yet another one.
Memories of my mother from this time are very fragmented due to the fact she was absent a lot of the time. When I try to picture her, I see her at the hairdressing salon, obviously a big occasion for her, while I sit on the doorstep with a Matchbox car in my hand. Other times, I see us walking hand in hand on our way to and from my school, with cars zipping past us along busy St Pauls Terrace, or every Sunday, walking to St Stephens Cathedral to Mass. You couldn’t call us devout Catholics, but I guess you could say we tried. When I was young, I didn’t appreciate all the pomp and ceremony. I just liked the bobbing up and down.
I do remember one day towards the end of my first year of school, when I wore a party hat home that I had just won in a game of ‘Simon Says’. I practically slept in it, until eventually it broke causing torrents of tears. This must have pulled at my mother’s heartstrings because I remember her desperately trying to fix it, even though by then, it was destined for the bin.
I spent most afternoons after school playing outdoors for hours, only running inside at sunset and coming to a startled halt at the sight of my mother, hands on hips, legs slightly apart, looking down at me. Inevitably, her heart-shaped face would be creased in a frown, her lips pressed tightly together and her eyes luminous and flashing with annoyance.
I remember looking up at her and noticing her dark hair always permed and set in place, her dress always clean. She had a full figure, green eyes and a fair complexion; sometimes sallow from too many hours spent indoors. I remember her once saying to me, “Just look at yourself!” At five years old, I took this statement literally and I glanced over to the full-length mirror on the wardrobe door. I saw myself, a tiny child, still with that little-girl chubbiness, no front teeth and my fine hair hanging untidily in my eyes. My overlarge dress was filthy from hours spent on the dusty footpaths while cars drove past belching smoke from their exhausts and dust from their tyres. I looked down at my shoeless feet and saw tiny toes that resembled black jellybeans. I must have scraped my shin at some time during the day because a small trail of blood had run down one of my bandy legs and dried in the shape of a dead worm. At the time, I had no idea what she was talking about. I looked no different than I did most days
Another memory that stands out in my mind is my mother’s warning, “Beware of strangers. Some of them are devils in disguise.” Up until then, I’d had no fear of strangers as I wandered the streets, but from that point on, before I spoke to a person, I always looked for a tail sticking out behind them first.
Although memories of my mother are few, I do know that I didn’t choose to forget things about her – she just wasn’t around enough for me to remember much about her.
My father, Ernest Joseph Gourgaud, on the other hand, is forever turning up in so many memories and was the one constant in my life. He was a handsome Frenchman with almost black hair and large deep-set cornflower-blue eyes that seemed to shine when he smiled. He appeared very tall to me as I looked up at him. A giant almost. His voice was a quiet rumble that could have been the result of too many cigarettes and his nicotine stained fingers always seemed to have a cigarette lodged in them.
He could trace his ancestors back to General Gaspar Gourgaud, Napoleon Bonaparte’s private physician and one of the people with Napoleon on the island of St Helena at the time of his death. General Gourgaud was subsequently the prime suspect in the poisoning since he was the doctor. Obviously, the fall of France led to a slight decline in fortunes for the Gourgaud family as well.
My father was an uneducated man and this, without doubt, led to a tough life, which eventually saw him enlisting to fight in the Second World War at the age of twenty-two in the famous 9th Division of the Australian Army. He served as one of the ‘Rats of Tobruk’ in the trenches of North Africa and later helped repel the Japanese advance in New Guinea.
To some, the 9th Division heralded fame in battle, but to others it spelt death or disablement. Dad saw it all as an orderly with the medical corps, collecting the dead and injured near the front lines and bringing them back for care, or identification and burial. It was during his time in the military that he contracted Tuberculosis (TB) and was shipped back home where he subsequently had his left lung removed. The loss of his lung gave him a slightly lop-sided appearance, with the concave area of his back quite obvious through the jacket of his suit. His condition saw him in and out of hospital regularly, as the remaining lung had been damaged considerably as well. His heavy smoking couldn’t have helped.
Many times I would accompany him, patiently waiting in the X-Ray Department of Greenslopes Repatriation Hospital (at that time a repatriation hospital for ex-service men and women and their families) for our names to be called. Even though I never felt unwell, it was always both of us who had our chests X-rayed, standing in long green gowns with our chests pressed firmly against the cold metal plate, tickling me into giggles, while the technician told us to “Breath in. Hold it. Okay. Breath out.” This seemed to happen every few months for no reason whatsoever and Dad always made a game of it, treating it like an adventurous outing.
When I think back now, I realise that I always associated Dad with colours. When he was around, my life was a golden colour, like a glorious sun breaking out from behind a dark cloud, but when he was in hospital, it was the dull grey of a dismal, rainy day. I remember sitting on the grassy slopes outside Ward 12/13 of Greenslopes playing with the toads that were in abundance, (the very thought sends shivers down my spine now), oblivious to the incapacity my father lived with, while my mother sat inside talking softly to him.
He was a kind and gentle man who never so much as raised his voice to me as far as I can recall, although like any child I probably deserved it at some time or other. He had other ways of chastisement that left more of an impression than any physical punishment.
There was one time when on my way to the swimming pool, the sight of a beautiful doll in a shop window caused me to forget all about my planned swim. I ran back home to ask if I could have the doll, as any five-year-old would do. A handful of wooden clothes pegs that I’d drawn smiling faces on were the closest thing I had to dolls, and this doll dressed in a flowing wedding dress, had all the physical attributes my peg family didn’t have. I instantly and desperately wanted it.
Finding no one at home, but seeing Mum’s purse in the kitchen, I searched through it to find the ten-shilling note that matched the price tag I had seen. Not even thinking about how I would pass this new addition off at home later on, I raced back to the shop only to find that someone else had bought the doll in the meantime.
Too dejected to continue on to the swimming pool, and fully intending to return the money to my mother’s purse, I arrived home only to find Dad in the kitchen fully aware of the missing money. The disappointment in his eyes sent a knife through my heart. As he knelt down to look straight at me, he asked quietly, “Why did you do it?”
This question was all the punishment I needed. I realized that I hadn’t measured up to his ideal of me and that taking the money was something he hadn’t expected of me. I knew I’d let him down and no spanking was required as I silently vowed never to do anything like that again. I realise now just how much money was involved in this act of petty larceny. It must have been divine providence that the doll had already been sold, so that I never had the opportunity to spend what must have been a large part of their week’s income on something so trivial.
I also discovered that Dad had a subtle sense of humour. One day while walking home from the Alliance Hotel, we saw a woman with flaming red hair, and I commented on how beautiful it was. In reply to my asking what colour it was, Dad told me that it was ‘strawberry blonde’.
“What’s mine?” I asked.
“Honey blonde,” was the reply.
I looked up at him as he smiled back down at me and asked what colour his hair was.
“Mine is chocolate blonde,” he said with a wink. I remember laughing so hard, I had hiccups for hours.
Later I would learn that my parent’s relationship was doomed from the start due to the fact that my father was already married with three children when he met my mother. His wife was a Catholic, so any suggestion of a divorce was out of the question, which left my parents no other alternative than to ‘live in sin’. I’m sure this would have triggered my mother’s insecurity, especially knowing that her situation would result in a certain amount of disgrace. After emotional outbursts, she would disappear for indefinite lengths of time, perhaps looking for that security she craved. But despite all the separations, she always came back to Dad.
The combination of my wonderfully French father with his carefree passion and humour, together with my fiery Gaelic mother, was the perfect recipe for a life, if not harmonious and smooth, then certainly interesting and unpredictable. Each of them had Celtic ancestors and were therefore dramatic, as well as romantic, people. Celts have often been dreamers who looked beyond the daily cycle of drudgery to a world of infinite possibilities. The outward expression of this resilient optimism is a love of beautiful things, as well as music and stories in which men were strong and brave but were enthralled by women whose passions defied convention.
I can see that with such a heritage, my parents may have been drawn to each other with passion forsaking reason and while caught up in a relationship that they couldn’t live without, they would also have found it increasingly difficult to live with. I never thought to ask myself if they loved each other. Did I even know what love was at that age? Love was simply something the nuns at school told me about.
As I write this account of my life, I remember in my later teens having a compulsion to make my parents live in front of my eyes again, to bring them out of the shadows and have them play their parts for me once more. I wanted to see where things went wrong, where the threads of our lives started to unravel. I wanted them both to be as clear to me as two photographs might be. Of course, that never happened.
I suppose my parents needed each other and that could be called a love of sorts. I can only surmise that like so many people, both then and now, in defiance of their families and finding themselves in a socially frowned-upon relationship, they gravitated to the city in search of some degree of anonymity.