Thursday, January 14, 2010

Highs and lows

Yesterday was a good day. Vietta came wandering up the driveway through heavy rain. On her head she had a laundry basket lid draped with a pink towel. She took it off and put it carefully under the carport. It was past 5 o’clock, and usually I’d say ‘too late’ when she knocked at the door, but she looked so forlorn I let her in while I talked to Lisa on the phone.

She didn’t ask me for one white paper, like she usually does. Instead, she chose a picture book from the box I keep their play stuff in, and settled on a chair. Later I saw she must have gone outside to get her towel and lid, because it was draped over her legs as she read.

The kids rarely come in alone – Vietta is the only one who has, and only a couple of times – but this time she looked like she wanted time by herself. I won’t ever know why – I don’t ask those kinds of questions, though I’d love to, and she never volunteers any information about her life. None of these kids do. By now her brother and sisters were running up and down our driveway, arms spread out dancing in the rain. Little Jordie ran naked, her pale pink soles flashing in the water.

When the rain stopped, Vietta came outside with me as I threw fertiliser on the garden. She didn’t speak, but I explained what I was doing and she followed me back and forth. I don’t know how much she gets out of my explanations. I’ve learnt at TAFE that though some people give the distinct impression that they speak and understand Standard English, when you have time to ask follow-up questions they often haven’t got even the main point of the communication. It’s definitely ESL territory here. I’m working at simplifying my sentence structure and vocab, but it doesn’t come that easily, even after all my remedial work. It feels patronising to speak in simple sentences to someone who gives every indication they are a native English speaker.

Later I saw Tyrell and Jordie were inside too, reading books. Little Jordie had had the back of her head shaved, with a long fringe of dark curls left to dangle over her eyes. She always looks cute and now even more so, from the front. From behind I could see a couple of big scabs on her scalp – maybe she’s got some kind of infection. Nits are a given. It’s a normal social interaction to comb someone else’s hair for nits, and after you’ve finished to pick a couple out of your hair and put them back in the hair of the one you’ve just de-nitted. So it wouldn’t be for nits. I hope it’s not scabies.

Vietta asked for six white papers and sat at the table to draw while the other two got out the dominoes and started to play houses with them. I was going to wait for a while before I brought out my surprise, but I couldn’t. A few days ago I bought a big box of Thomas the Tank Engine train set for $5 from the opshop, so I put the box on the floor next to Tyrell. He immediately got excited and started to lay the tracks out while Jordie ran around with carriages dangling and crashing on the back of an engine. I know she’ll break it - she’s only two – and as usual I have to decide how much destruction I can bear. Things don’t last long with this mob – they play roughly with whatever they have, it breaks almost immediately, then it’s left where it falls. I usually pick it up in here, and their mother must pick it up at home, because their yard is tidy – at other houses rubbish collects in piles all around.

I usually accept that whatever they play with will be broken very quickly. Sometimes I think it’s good that they’re not materialistic, other times I think they’re careless little monsters. But I like this train set – it’s well made – and I want to keep it for other kids to enjoy another time.

For now I just let Jordie play. She screams blue murder if anyone says ‘no’ to her. I say it all the time, because she climbs on the furniture and plays with the light switch and pokes the dogs, and if she cries too much I make her go home. But if I do, Kyra, the oldest girl and chief babysitter, has to go home with her, so I try not to confront Jordie too often.

After a while Vietta stopped drawing and asked for a train, so Tyrell gave her two carriages and kept the engine. The three of them played for a long while, setting up tracks and running the train around it. I love being able to give them experiences they don’t get at home or school, because they never attend: unlimited paper, sticky tape, glue, stickers, books, train sets. Anywhere we’ve lived we’ve had kids come in and play, starting when we were first married in Armidale, before we had Lian.

Eventually I reminded them that their mum liked them home when it got dark. None of them have ever said so, I just think it’s true. They packed up quickly and ran home in the drizzle.

A little while later it started to pour again, so I went out to stand in it: I take every opportunity to cool off. Vietta called to me from their veranda, then she came out onto the road. Jordie and Tyrell came too and we all played in the dark and wet. The game was me or Jordie throw a plastic water pistol and Jordie fetches it. The other two took turns to ride their new RipStik. The water was shining on the bitumen, and the lightning was far enough away for me not to mind. Every now and then Jordie would flatten herself face down on the road like a frog, arms and legs in Vs beside her. I guessed she was sucking up water. It was hard to see – her naked little body was as dark as the tar and my glasses were covered in rain. Kyra came out after a while and rode the RipStik too. Their older brother Cimarron stood on the veranda, then at the edge of the driveway. I wondered if he wanted to be out with us. Maybe if I hadn’t been there he would’ve. We haven’t spoken since I yelled at him to go to school when he threw a plastic bottle onto our driveway.

It was lovely out there. Twice a car came by and the call was ‘car coming Gretta’ as if I needed to be looked after a bit more – no-one told two year old Jordie a car was coming. Eventually Jordie held up two pieces of water pistol and said ‘broke!’ Tyrell saw it and said in a small voice ‘Is it broken?’ That’s all he said, but I realised I’d been caught up doing exactly what I accuse them of – playing roughly with perfectly good toy until it broke. I remember that earlier he’d said ‘Is that my shirt?’ when the other were flailing a piece of red material around in circles to make the water on the road spray up. I was sorry I’d broken his water pistol – but then, he’s broken a few things in here …

‘It was hard, now it’s ….’ – I wish I could remember the words Vietta used to tell me the rain was lessening. They were so close to English but not quite and I didn’t write them down immediately, because I was outside soaking wet on a watery road in a dark night lit only by distant lightning flashes. The words were so close to what I would say that I can only come up with my standard English words when I try to recreate them. This happens often and as a writer, it frustrates me a lot.

Probably she said something like ‘It was big and now it’s little.’ Anyway, the rain was stopping, so I said ‘time to go in’. We gathered on the footpath and I turned to see Kyra’s beautiful eyes and smile shining out of her dark face, right beside me.

‘Bye! Bye! Bye!’ Jordie repeated the word as they walked up their driveway and I walked up mine.

I have to remember these good days, because on Friday I was working at the opshop when a family came in and spent a long time looking through the racks. I helped the little boy try on baseball caps, then moved on to serve his parents. Brian was there, looking for Hawaiian shirts, and after a while he said ‘the cap’s walked out the door.’

I went outside and there was the five year old, almost around the corner, the tag already ripped off the cap. We always stay pleasant, non-confrontational, so I smiled fakely and said to his parents ‘I’d like the cap back please’.

‘Give the cap’, he was ordered, but there were no apologies from the parents, or recriminations for the boy.

‘He stole it’ said his sister brightly, not much older.

We lose a bit of stuff from the shop even though, as one girl told me that morning, ‘you the good guys, eh!’ It’s not just us. The guy from the Salvos around the corner told us he felt ransacked the day before. He was almost in tears, he’d lost so much stock.

A few months ago a huge toy dog somehow disappeared from a shelf right next to our cash register. One of the staff drove around the streets until she found a group of people with it sitting beside them. They didn’t argue, weren’t embarrassed, when she took it back. It disappeared again another day, so now it’s in the storeroom, too valuable to be displayed, but not worth paying $5 for.

As well as theft, good guys or not, our big front window was broken the Tuesday before. Some shops are targeted for vandalism and get trashed again and again, but people coming in to ours suggested it had probably happened during a fight, rather than as a deliberate act. They were sorry and shook their heads in disgust.

It was pouring rain on that day too, and while the opshop boss phoned the police, the glass people, the insurance, an old woman and a young girl sat outside, waiting for the shop to open. ‘We want dry clothes’ the woman said. She was the first of many to come into the shop soaking wet, complain about the rain, choose a new outfit, change into it, come to me to have the labels cut off and hold out a bundle of wet clothes to be put in a bag to take away. Then they walked outside, back into the pouring rain, without umbrellas or raincoats. I understood for the first time that if you don’t have a car, a house or a dryer, the wet season is a major difficulty, while for me it’s a lovely time of cool air and water.

Kids, fun, rain – the highs. Theft, broken windows, people suffering – the lows. The balance is OK at the moment.


  1. Gretta, you haven't lost your touch. You are a fantastic writer. This is such a wonderful and heart wrenching account of life in the Kimberly. You are so good at detail and dialogue. I'm delighted you've found your way into the blogoshpere.

    In my next blog post which I probably can't manage till the weekend, I'm going to tell all my fellow bloggers, the ones who visit me at least, about yours.

  2. Thanks for your enthusiastic support, Lis. You've got a lot of people reading your work! The idea of my blog was to make me write more rather than playing on Facebook. I think if I got seriously into reading and commenting I would never write at all!

    I'll look up some of your followers on the weekend.

  3. Hey Gretta. You'll be fine.

    You only need post once a week or so and then the comments and your responses take care of themselves.

    I admit I'm not reading as much as I should vis a vis my thesis, though I've reached the stage where I've got to stop reading and in some ways I've got to stop writing. Not that I will do either entirely. I can't live without writing and reading, these days in that order.

    Still it's time for me to consolidate and as I've groaned elsewhere, I resist.

    I enjoy redrafting but redrafting for academia is a pain.

    Is this how you found it? The final drafts of your masters? Did you find it a chore or did you actually enjoy it?

  4. i don't think i'll even be posting once a week

    remember that in the end i did no theory for my MCW, so I loved re-drafting my fiction

    I did enjoy re-drafting the essays I did, though. They were only a few thousand words - different doing a long long thesis.

  5. I stopped by after Elisabeth's recommendation. You are a terrific writer. I'm a painter with zero writing skills but I certainly admire yours!!

  6. I'm glad Elisabeth posted about you. Thank you. This is a lovely description, but I hope you don't post more than once a week. I just don't have time.
    Though I have quite a simple vocabulary for someone who was teaching in a University, I keep forgetting that the non-American students couldn't possibly understand colloquilisms (oh, spelling, damn) that would come out of my mouth unbidden. How could I have told a group that included a number of Japanese students that something was a long row to hoe, a term that came from my grandmother and farming. That's a very blatant mistake, but I made many assumptions including that everyone knew right and left as English words.

  7. What a wonderful introduction into your world. I love the simplicity and implicity of your post. We come to our own impressions and conclusions without heavy-handed direction from you. There is such tenderness in the working of your words. I'm glad Elisabeth invited me over.

  8. Hi. I came in from Elizabeth's. Both of you are new to me today. It must be serendipidous how you need water, and I need heat these days. Glad to have met both of you.

  9. Love that final sentence.

  10. Hi Gretta.

    If you haven't read through the comments on my newsflash/introduction post, you might like to do so. Some people are saying lovely things about your writing, though I see most of them have commented here already. I thought I'd copy another of Melissa's comments to me this morning and I quote from it here. Melissa is also a terrific writer.

    'I did go to Gretta's post which was quite remarkable. When I was taking a shower this morning, the thought of her running in the rain with the children next door came to mind...breaking the plastic gun, not knowing what words to say about this...'

    See how the images from your writing get inside people. They stay with us and to me that's one of the biggest compliments to a writer.

  11. Thank you everyone. It's lovely to have an audience.

    I'm in a world that's very strange to me, and if you find it interesting to join me in the struggle to make sense of it, that's wonderful!

    I just started work again today, after the summer break, so I won't be posting very often. Though if I know people will read it, maybe I'll be inspired more often!

    I like some of my earlier pieces better than this one, so if I don't post for a while, and you have time, go back and read one of them.

    Thanks again, Lis.

  12. I enjoyed reading your post. Kids and rain, huh? What a combination.

    Greetings from London.

  13. ah, lovely London. I often pine for the Northern Hemisphere, especially for all the concerts I know I'm missing eg Thom Yorke accoustic at Latitude last year, which I've just found on YouTube ...