‘Work in progress from the memoir, In Side Out’ by Mitzi Swan
‘In Side Out’ by student Mitzi Swan was developed in Writing Workshop (nonfiction) in 2022.
A fig is not a figment. It is fine. It is fine indeed. A fig holds all that is fine about dreams and desire. A fig is a feeling, tender and true. A fig is a fairy tale. A fig is a poem. A fig is all the best in one, and better than the rest. A fig is a fine dream, and a fig is real.
Out west when I was growing up meat didn’t come from a butcher’s shop. It came from the paddock. Dad would bring in a killer, a sheep or cow chosen for the table. ‘I’m killing a beast this afternoon,’ he’d say. When I was about eight or nine, I begged him to let me watch him kill a sheep. I was curious to see more of the way of things. Life out there was all about doings with animals. Running sheep for wool and cattle for beef, shooting kangaroos and wild pigs, trapping dingoes, training working dogs, riding horses, feeding chooks and pigs for eggs and meat.
I remember the blood leaving the sheep’s white throat and the life leaving its eyes.
After the sheep was killed, it was hung until the blood drained, then taken to the butchers’ hut, a small square building with gauze windows all around to keep out the flies. Benches. Knives. Steel hooks. A stained concrete floor.
We ate meat three times a day. Bacon for breakfast, cold meat for lunch, roast or boiled or stewed or fried beef or lamb or chook for dinner.
I’ve been a ‘vegetarian except for some fish’ since I was twenty-one. I thought I’d feel alright catching and killing a fish. I thought they were different to animals with legs, animals that are soft and warm. But lately I’ve been thinking about difference. Thinking about David Bowie and ‘turn and face the strange’ and that strange is not so different after all. I don’t think I’ll eat fish again. I know death when I see it now.
Corned beef in white sauce
Mrs Long is our cook. Dad calls her Longie and everyone else calls her Mrs Long. Letters come in the mail for Mrs. V. Long and once for Mrs. Violet Long. She gave me a doll called Cindy for Christmas, and she gave my sister one called Barbie. I wish I got Barbie. Cindy has an old-fashioned hairdo like my mum’s.
Tonight, Mrs Long has made corned beef in white sauce and cabbage. She put the cabbage on the boil after lunch. I’ve been smelling it boiling for ages. The corned beef on my plate is very grey. The white sauce looks grey too. The cabbage is also grey. I pick up my knife and fork and put them down again. ‘I feel sick,’ I say.
Sometimes Dad lets me roll sugar in a lettuce leaf and eat it. Sometimes Mum lets me have a teaspoon of vegemite. When I was sick once, she gave me a cup of warm vegemite water. After lunch, we have a piece of fruit. I like to dip green apple slices in salt. Once I ate jam on cheese. At Christmas time we got a box of plums. My sister ate so many she vomited. Mum thought she was vomiting blood and got really worried. The plums got put in the old fridge near where we eat lunch. That’s the room called The Cement because it has a cement floor. It’s like a veranda but it’s on the ground. It has gauze windows and it’s cool there. Anyway, I put my tongue on the inside of the fridge door one day, to lick the ice. Mrs. Long had to pour water on my tongue to get it unstuck. I can still feel my tongue burning. Ice is more hotness than coldness. Mum says, when I was very little, she had to put my finger on the side of the wood stove. ‘Careful, hot,’ she said. I don’t remember but when she tells that story my finger feels burnt. She says she felt awful. Also, once we had a dust storm and there was red dust all over the cement because you can’t shut gauze windows. It was on the table and chairs too. It was soft and thick like I think snow must be, but if snow was red not white. I loved the dust and the way it blew in, the sky all red and dark, but the adults didn’t like it. They never like exciting things like floods and bushfires and when we get bogged in the car. Dust has a taste, too. Red dust tastes different to the ordinary grey dust that the horses kick up down at the yards, and that the vehicles kick up when people drive off. The soil round the house is black soil. Some of our far paddocks have red soil. But the dust in the dust storm came from far away. When Dad was galloping and fell off his horse in Riders Creek Paddock grey dust flew up. I thought he might be dead but Mum said he was just winded. Maybe the dust was his wind flying out. Maybe the red dust comes because the earth wants to fly. Maybe floods are when the earth cries, but I don’t think so. More like the earth wants to have a swim. Sometimes I think rain is crying but not all the time. Sometimes the sky is sad. Sometimes rain wants to talk mmmmm like Mum does most of the time, or rrrrrbbbbb like Dad does sometimes. Or just whisper and dance around, like my sister and me. I like when I’m in my bed and it plays on the tin roof. I love when I’m in my bed and it roars and roars. It wants to tell me it’s out there and I’m safe. Maybe its keeping the lions away – the lions in my dreams that sit waiting on the fence posts all the way around the house. I wonder if the earth hurts when there are bushfires. Dirt doesn’t burn. Maybe the fire says ‘careful, hot’. I know dirt doesn’t burn because I’ve played in the ashes of old campfires. The ashes are all soft and white like Johnsons Baby Powder and probably like snow, and underneath is just normal dirt. Ash tastes like the bush, and grey dust tastes choky, and red dust tastes like far away.
I wonder if Mum will let me have lettuce and sugar for dinner.
Vanilla and brown sugar
My grandparents’ cottage smelt of vanilla and brown sugar and baking. My grandparents’ cottage smelt of Singer sewing machine oil and leather gardening gloves and warm safe soft cuddles. My grandparents’ cottage smelt of lime cordial and unsmoked pipe tobacco and old photographs and cool air conditioning from a box in the wall in the sweltering heat. My grandparents’ cottage smelt of lavender soap and Jatz biscuits from a white plastic barrel and coloured cotton wool balls and long stories. My grandparents’ cottage smelt of geraniums watered in the late afternoon and old songs hummed and sung and Blue Hills on the radio at one o’clock for fifteen uninterrupted minutes from Monday to Friday.
Breakfast was early. Weetbix, cornflakes, porridge in winter, milk from the cows, eggs from the chooks, and toast. Help sweep up the crumbs, wash up the dishes, make the beds, feed the chooks, hang out the washing.
‘Smoko time, ring the bell, dear,’ Marmee would say, and I’d go and ring the cowbell that hung on the back landing. My aunt and uncle and five cousins would come from the big house, all bubbly commotion. They lived in the big house, on the other side of the garden. My grandparents lived there once, before I was born. They moved to the cottage when my aunt and uncle married. The big house was like most of the main houses on properties out west. But the recipe that made my grandparents’ cottage was unmatched.
Morning smoko. Scones and jam and white bread sandwiches, delicate little triangles with the crusts cut off. Fillings of grated cheese mixed with tomato sauce, thinly sliced cucumber with salt and pepper, hard-boiled egg mashed with curry powder.
I got to read a lot, in between meals, when I stayed with my grandparents.
We ate plates of salad and cold meat for lunch, with red chutney or yellow pickles. I slowly but surely learnt to like pickles.
After lunch Marmee lay on her squatters’ chair on the red-tiled veranda, eyes closed, telling me stories in her dear calm voice of her long life in the bush, of snakes and madmen and bushfires and terrible accidents, while Papa snored on his matching chair beside her, and I sat unscathed beside them both.
Afternoon smoko. Slices, Anzac biscuits, date roly-poly, meringues. One of Marmee’s light-as-air sponge cakes filled with mock cream, decorated with strawberries or nasturtiums from the garden, or a best boiled fruit cake, or her special one-bowl chocolate cake with its creamy light-brown icing, or an orange cake, plain but so very good.
The cool of day’s end. Watering the garden, precious water from the hose from the tank pumped up from the creek listen out carefully for the tank to start to overflow turn the pump off fast don’t waste any precious water. The hot ground soaking up the precious water, the plants letting off scents of fresh relief. Picking small sweet loose-skinned mandarins and pulling bright baby carrots from the ground, eating them all earthy and new.
We’d go inside for quick showers – the precious water. Sunlight Soap and rough towels.
Peanuts and pretzels and cordial. Papa had a rum. Marmee had a sherry. Meat and three veg, and then pudding. At least three kinds. We called all desserts ‘pudding’. Rice pudding, steamed pudding, chocolate pudding, lemon delicious, sago, junket, baked apples, tinned fruit, jelly scarlet or green or yellow or orange or deep red, soaked dried apricots, cream fresh from the cows.
I slept on the red-tiled gauzed-in veranda, on a stretcher bed, the hugeness of the bush all around. A faint smell of vanilla and brown sugar kept me safe.
Bicarb and jellybeans
Papa was all kind teasing and funny little stories and poems. I always asked to hold his pipe because smoking a pipe was something that people did in fairy tales.
On a shelf in the cottage was a round jar with a brown Bakelite lid, full of Papa’s jellybeans. ‘Come here, little poppet,’ he’d say, ‘have a jellybean. Don’t tell your nan.’
There was another jar, a white one, bicarbonate of soda for his tummy.
My grandfather died when I was at boarding school, of undiagnosed stomach troubles and kidney failure. Apparently, bicarbonate of soda can cause poisoning and kidney problems. When I was grown up, I told my mother how I was afraid to drive through tunnels. She said my grandfather used to have to climb down wells on the sheep station to check the pumps. He would feel sick for days before. I can feel his relief when he climbed up on out. But I wonder if the stomach troubles were the hard reality of fear, and the wells killed him in the end.
Marmee cooked. She sewed. She loved to mend things, and grow things, and look after children.
Her cottage was spotless. Her handwriting was tiny and perfect, like the stitches in the fine needlework she loved to do. She learnt to sew at the age of three. I have the last needlework she did, before her hands grew too shaky, a pair of pillowcases embroidered with roses. I’ve never used them. They’re in an old notepaper box, tied up in ribbon. Ribbon reminds me of her. She knew how to tie a perfect bow. Notepaper reminds me of her, too. She used to send me long letters at boarding school, written on pretty notepaper in her beautiful hand. She sent parcels in the mail, containers of her slices, caramel slice, chocolate slice, raspberry jam and coconut slice, carefully packed into ice-cream containers and sealed with brown tape. Later, when my children were small, she’d make tiny biscuits and fill their own little tins. Letters and biscuits and stitches and bows. Marmee was an artist. She crafted love.
Marmee never had to think about the meaning of life. When my children were babies she nursed ‘the precious little tinies’ in her arms, rocking on her rocking chair. She mended their clothes and played peek-a-boo with them.
‘I’m only any good as long as I’m useful,’ she said.
After dementia had swapped her warm words for vague frightened eyes and quiet tears, when all that was left to perhaps remind her of the cottage she loved were some curtains in a print of mauve hydrangeas adjusted to fit a nursing home window, she’d still find a smile and wave a hand for the latest ‘little tiny’, and offer them a flower or a biscuit.
Imagine a big fat sausage. A disgustingly fatty fat sausage glistening with oil. Lumps of gristle and tasteless filling in a plastic skin.
She eats eight. It’s a record for this dining room-full of boarding school students. They cheer. For a moment the emptiness she can never fill is forgotten.
When her grandmother sends her biscuits in the mail, she cries. The love is too far away.
A fig is not a figment. A fig is real. A dream is a real thing. Is a fig real in a dream? Do I know what is real when I see it?
Author bio: Mitzi Swan is an editor and writer of nonfiction, fiction and poetry. She loves photography and film and the way that words and pictures can wrap together. She is currently working on a collection of essays, poetry and images, a combination of memoir and reflection. Find her at mitzi377.wixsite.com/mitziswan or @mitzibird on Instagram.
Photo credit: (c) Mitzi Swan