'Why Do We Stay, When We Stay Alive?' by student A. E. Serfton was workshopped in Writing Non-fiction in 2020.
Sunday evening, the wrong end of a day, a week. This whole place is a mess. The bedroom is a mess; where the hell did all this stuff come from? I get a rag and O-Cedar the dusty furniture. I have not been very efficient today and have in fact spend about seven hours not completing tasks, but now I am steaming through the laundry-folding and the jumpers-archiving.
Only I come to a dead stop when I pick up the forgotten trinket box. This is the totem of the spirit animal named Misery. This is the talisman that demands I sit down and cry. So I do.
This little box, with its nickel-silver lid all tarnished, and the thick glass base chipped and dull. This holds the last coins I had in my pocket when we left Australia in April 1992, me and my English-born husband and our three-year-old Australian-born son. I dropped these coins in this jumble-sale trophy in a musty English guest room in a damp seaside town, thinking I’d use them again in a few months. Just after we’d hugged my parents at the Arrivals gate in Tullamarine. For a drink. Or for a newspaper. Or a tram fare. A sandwich in the Botanical Gardens. A stamp on my first job application. These dingy coins, glorious with echidna and platypus and lyrebird.
I held onto these coins for 25 fucking years.
Our boy never grew up in a warm country with cricket all week and surfing all weekend. I never got to see my other kids grow up, those beautiful people from my early-safe, later-bitter marriage. I never said hello again to my hard-to-love, hard-to-hate, much-missed mother; nor said goodbye as her frenetic life slipped quietly, accidentally, out of my father’s cradling arms on the bloodied bathroom floor after she fell over in the night.
I did say goodbye to my easy-to-love father – frantic calls for the next available seat out of London delivered a magical flight across the Arctic to his institutional bedside, his failing body and sharp memory and patient eyes. Seven days later I struggled back through another 30 seat-belted hours of vac-packed food and rolling non-stop Lord of the Rings. That’s five full cycles over two breakfasts and one dinner, in that order. Are numbers important?
I missed two funerals, two weddings and seven births within my immediate family. When I finally got home my youngest daughter said ‘You left me!’ as she turned away. I left her. That is what she knows. It’s a complete mystery to everyone that I removed my older kids to a place of safety – back to their father – but could not remove myself from the same danger.
So here are some old coins. Very tarnished and oddly greasy as if last time I held them I was also doing a lube and oil change. I just look at them; it hurts.
My head was a tangle: the strangeness of the place All-my-life had told me was the motherland; the vast grey homesickness made worse by the history-book beauty of castellated Kent; the lop-sidedness of not having all my children near, that showed me to be a freakish mother who left three of my kids on the other side of the world. Meeting those strangers as his old friends, who were nice; who said I was too nice for him. Drinking in pubs; drinking in the house; spending money we didn’t have. Finding a place to stay. Finding work. Asking ‘When are we going home?’ Cashing-in the return-flight tickets. Keeping secrets.
Keeping secret to myself, that I had agreed to visit his England because I hoped it would take away the beatings and we could come back to Melbourne better; healed. That I ran away from his craziness every Friday night that first year, because sleeping rough and dangerous seemed safer than staying home. That I would accept anything, including imminent accidental death on two occasions, rather than go through a second marriage break-up – for it wasn’t meant to be like this, and I’m a coward. That I wanted to kill him – for I’m not that sort of person. That I might be that sort of person, as I calculated the mess a frying pan could leave on a kitchen floor.
Keeping secrets from our son, who learnt most and guessed the rest in the end.
Keeping secret that my husband tangled me into knots of shame and hate and need (for the love was well dead) and shame again. But I’m great at secrets – because my mother.
My mother drank sherry and threw knives at my dad. She drank wine and said five-year-old me wasn’t lovely enough to be loved. She couldn’t wait for 11-year-old me to be dead and gone so she could go out and have fun.
The biggest secret adult-me kept was, I couldn’t fix my mum but if I stayed and didn’t die maybe I could fix my husband because he had said he loved me when he didn’t hate me. Only that was the wrong secret. For the real secret was a secret even to me: it was his crime, but I helped. I kept his secrets. I maintained an aesthete’s home and an above-average job and a decent status and I could not fix one single thing and I was too off-balance to know that.
And it was awful. But it was also awfully familiar. My mother had said she loved me when she didn’t hate me. Yeah, ok, but really: how familiar? Try this:
My mother had a childhood like mine, at the hands of her father; my grandmother had a marriage like mine, her husband learning abuse from his father, who beat his wife and children: secrets of at least four generations. Familiar right through the distaff family.
And there was the same public fun. Both mother and husband were wonderful, in that cusp between the first glass and the last guest leaving. Emotionally both still children, they provoked play and wildness, for play and wildness kept their frightened, damaged souls at peace. And for my kind of crazy, play and wildness became air and water; an immersion to keep me alive. I was pre-loaded to tolerate and withstand an abusive relationship, from the moment I was born; I played mind-tennis with the aces and fouls of their game-playing, to Wimbledon standard. Snared by an incorrect sense of fairness and need, I could no more escape his assaults and gaslighting as an adult, than I could escape Mum’s shoving my bed at my father while I was in it, aged three.
And this state, this condition, this mental currency flattens us all, makes us one-dimensional: victim, dipsomaniac, psychopath. The talkative one, the generous one, the lazy one; a clockmaker, a champion, a writer; someone’s sister, someone’s friend, someone’s brother; have all receded to a flat, close horizon. The lost one, the wounded one, the fake.
The list of people I ran away from was going to get longer, and I hated that. I kept saying, secretly, I must go. I should have gone when that; I will go when this; but I can’t go right now, because right now is too complicated. What actually happened was I ran out of the energy needed to keep my secrets, and one day I just fell apart. It was brilliant; it was like I tore down curtains, and the sun was shining even though the rain was tipping down.
So, anyway, that’s what it’s like, wasting half your life with someone who’s a shit. Just as you’re making tidy, getting things in order, a turd from the Misery spirit falls into your cup of tea. And you have to look at the turd, and remember, and analyse, and explain yourself to yourself and you hope you are being honest with yourself because honest is the one thing they never were to you, the people you wanted to love, not one of them. Not one. And you doubt, and you regret, and the ache starts again in your solar plexus. And it hurts, you know?
Because you can’t cry enough, but you want to cry. But also you can’t stop crying quickly enough because you’re all done with fucking crying so fucking much.
These old coins. I imagine dropping each one of these tarnished metal disks into my ex-husband’s ever-outstretched hand, only first the coins pass through a thing that heats them to melting point before they hit his soft flesh. Ah fuck, just let it go.
I wonder if I should keep the coins to burn my own fingers whenever I stumble across them again. Or, can I see them in the hands of a puzzled relative sifting through dishevelled old-person’s relics after my funeral.
My children may make different mistakes, or none at all; they’re pretty much all over this stuff. Whatever secrets my children have, I know they won’t be about cruelty. The kids would have thrown my old coins away, along with the shit.