As part of my Masters this year I am doing a course called Creative Non-Fiction. This week we looked at the genre of ‘memoir’. From our notes: “What marks (memoir) from fiction is the claim to truth – what the author believes to be the truth or the emotional truth.”
One of our workshop exercises was to write about a house we lived in as a child.
My first draft was complete and utter crap. And after missing the first week’s class (through no *real* fault of my own) I was determined to redeem myself in the eyes of my teacher.
But it wasn’t going to happen with the nonsense issuing from my pen.
I went to see Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland. The film aside, Lewis Caroll’s book is one of my top five all time favourites. When it comes to the emotional truth about the absolute trippiness of childhood it’s perfect – and it’s not even a memoir.
Maybe it resonates with me because my own childhood was not a pastel-coloured one. It was considerably darker hued than anything Walt Disney may have conjured up. Dark shadows. Deep holes. Monsters.
Until now I haven’t shared a lot of my childhood in my writing. But, if I want to be a fair dinkum writer, I think I have to try to find some of that emotional truth. To occasionally reveal the wound, raw and weeping, before I put it away again.
So (with thanks to both Lewis and Tim) I wrote this.
The farmhouse has an outside toilet. A long tunnel, boring straight down into the earth. Its smell is rancid, septic, the rotten part of being alive: the undertone of pine disinfectant does nothing to disguise its filth. If you dare to look down you see a liquid mass, buzzing with flies, writhing with maggots, ready to swallow you if your tiny bottom slips through the seat. I dread the long walk to the outhouse, but fear even more the longer return with grotesque shadow-beasts unseen at my back. My five-year-old footsteps break with fleeting hysteria and propel me helter-skelter to the relative safety of the house’s threshold.
But the house itself is no dreamy sanctuary. There are no aromas of hearty soup, or dense teacakes baking in the oven, waiting to be slathered with butter. There is no roaring fire in the hearth. There are no cows for milk or crops for food, and the few malnourished chickens have been killed by the underfed dog. It is but an echo of a farm: run-down, possibly condemned, a charitable hand-out for the family with too many kids, a ne’er-do-well father and nowhere to go.
It is a house of dark disappointments. The barely hidden, yet unintelligible disappointments of the grown-up world: whispered behind doors, screamed in plain view, shamefully aired in public.
And the childhood ones.
The Easter bonnets (cheap cardboard, glitter, cotton wool) are abandoned on this, the last day of term. The car won’t start. Again.
I picture my classmates parading with their own creations, proud, before smiling parents. Parents with cars that go and toilets that flush. In this, my kindergarten year, they are not yet ‘friends’. Never to be friends actually, because I have the wrong lunchbox, the wrong uniform, the wrong family.
Not that it mattered. We left soon after for another school, another house, a new life.
But here, now, I hold my disappointment, keen and burning, close to my chest. My mother does not need more angst today. Impotent and raging, my father has already thundered out the door for the long walk to town. There, he will try to find someone to fix the car.
My big sister – a ferocious eight-year-old veteran of disappointment – is equally devastated. Her Easter bonnet was even better than mine. School prizes of chocolate – chocolate! – retreat back into our dreams, never meant for kids like us anyway.
And so we sit on her bed – a covetous bed built high into the wall. A place to hide, above and away from the sadness, the trouble, the hopelessness. I know I’m lucky to be allowed up there and so I keep quiet, cowed by her older, fiercer anger, her own dramatic and frightening powerlessness. She can’t save us either.
Mum, at the door now, beckons us.
We’re on her bed now – nay, her bedroom suite: the one good thing she owns, a wedding gift from her parents, with matching wardrobes and dressing table. The top quarter doors of the wardrobes are sliders. Places of grown-up secrets: hurriedly wrapped Christmas presents, abandoned wedding rings, books I shouldn’t read, pictures I shouldn’t see.
But today its secret is sweet. Mum reaches up and brings down two foil-wrapped chocolate rabbits – slated, I realise now, to be delivered in a few days time by the Easter Bunny.
Under the covers with chocolate – disproportionally sweet, melting, lavish, indulgent, special-occasion chocolate – we, all three, sigh out our sadness and despair. And the recipe for momentary happiness (cocoa, milk, butter, sugar) works its delicious magic.