"You're mumbling!" the voice cuts and silences. It is frightening to speak and I can't get my words out properly even about simple things.
It's not just that words can never truly say or describe something actually as it is, but that any semblance of connection between what could be said and myself seems to be taken away from me. I cannot find myself in the words spoken for me and about me and the words I thought I could use for myself are too often not allowed to be spoken. My mother had censored her own stories so rigidly that all other stories become strictly controlled.
When I try to say certain things she becomes angry, furious! I think she wants to kill me so I must say only what is safe but I'm not sure what that is.
No words want to come out now. There is a closure in my throat. What remains unsaid, even unthought, builds up sometimes into an abominable rage inside. Others seem to dwell outside in another world where I cannot speak or hear.
"What did you say?" she demands, eyes burning. I stop still.
"Doesn't matter." We become quiet. My younger sister, Jenny, and brother, David, are making playful noises, chitter-chattery, a magic fantasy game unfolding between them. "You're too noisy!" I hiss at them, bewildering them, on my way out of the house.
Every few years, since I was five and our father left, he comes back to visit. This year I am fifteen, my sister twelve and my brother ten and he has decided to take each of us out individually rather than all together. We watch out for the messages between our mother's words, seeing the tightness across her shoulders get fiercer as we all wait for this figment to reappear. Who is he really? What is he?
"Dad is a writer," Jenny says.
"He only wrote one book," I tell her, "He's really a school teacher."
"But he doesn't teach in a school."
"Not now, but he can and he used to. He's got a bald head."
"He is clever," David puts in, "And he's a bushwalker."
"He believes in gurus!" I add disbelievingly, "He's alternative."
"She gets to go out with him first, just because she's the oldest." David yells to Jenny.
"It's not fair!" Jenny shouts at me.
"Not fair! Not fair!"
I keep looking for him in case I don't recognise him. I am waiting outside the Sydney Town Hall: a monumental and unmistakable place to meet. I have sat on the trains for nearly an hour, then at Town Hall station I walked from under the ground up the steps into the early evening light. Sitting in the Town Hall with my class from school I have studied the pipes of the organ and the ornate ceiling while the Sydney Symphony Orchestra's tympani thumped and strings hallelujahed. They would have us roused to a sense of importance and purpose but I don't believe them. I can't help falling asleep every time we go.
James, my father, looks so much taller than the six foot he is because his head is disconnected from his feet and in between I glimpse a wafting ghost-like body. His head stretches upwards, eyes peering over and beyond the unvisited space of his degutted, thighless body below.
"Well, look at you Sharon!" he smiles and stares from his great height, "Haven't you grown up! It's been nearly three years, hasn't it?"
"Well, it's wonderful to see you!" I follow him past the shops, toward Hyde Park where we sit on a bench. People and birds move among the trees and pathways. Grandma, James' mother, told us often about James' school, a college for boys, where he has his name up in silver letters for being dux of his final year. I think of this now because that wall with its silver letters is a place where my father has always concretely existed for me, even though I've never been there. I picture it; "James Humbug" . . . "James Handel-Bach" . . . no really, "James Henley": my father is a silver name on a wall. This man sitting beside me is nobody; he is a stranger and, what's more, he has no body. What were silver letters have become a talking head with two booted feet way below and nothing in between.
I have shoulder-length wavy brown hair and brown eyes. My face is alright and I look better at playing sport than I am. I have a body but not much voice. James is talking about his job producing an alternative magazine with his wife. They don't earn much but he didn't have to tell me. Mum and Grandma have already told me that he can't earn much money and he never sent the maintenance he should have. With his second wife he has two more children. Good for them!
Grandma talks for ages sometimes without stopping, but this is fine because I am part of her stories. I know and belong to all her relatives that I haven't met. Grandma says I am like Dorothy who was pretty and like Mavis too. I have not real relations on my mother's side of the family because I never see them and my mother hardly ever talks about them. Perhaps they have secrets. Mum has said that she doesn't get on with her sister but I don't know why. Anyway, her relatives are nobodies unlike my Grandma's, who are somebodies even if they are mostly dead or living overseas.
The pink-tinged sky stirs James. "It's time we made a move." As we set off he tells me his plan is for us to walk leisurely toward the domain, past the Art Gallery, through the Botanical Gardens and then across the Quay to look for a nice restaurant. After dinner James will accompany me home on the train because it will be too late for me to travel alone.
James has talked mostly so far.
"Do you still see a lot of Mum?" he asks me now.
"Yes, we spend some week-ends at her place." From our place it is an hour on the train into the town then another hour out the other side to get to Grandma's.
"And school Sharon, how are you doing?"
"I"m getting good marks," I pause, "I like English, especially composition writing."
"I'd like to read some of your writing."
"We came to the Art Gallery with the school." The Art Gallery's pillars and frescos are overlooking us. We go on like this. The Gardens, of course, are pretty at sunset, and the harbour.
We are walking hand in hand under a big old Morton Bay Fig. I'm flushing. My hand is hot and sweaty in his large cool hand. I feel stunned. My mouth is tightly closed. I cannot remember how, minutes before, he managed to take my hand. I can't think of anything. "This is wrong! Let go! Who are you?" I suddenly rage inside while I walk beside him staring forwards. Did he say something: ask me if I minded? How did it happen? I must remember so that I can stop it before it starts! I don't know how to let go! James, who is forty-seven has somehow got to be holding my hand. I am James' fifteen year old daughter feeling awful! Is it because I am quiet that he wants to do this? Say something! Say something!
"You know I like reading a lot."
"Yes. What do you read?"
"We've got lots of books at home. I've been reading classic science fiction, you know, Huxley and Wells," sucking in breath I continue, "I'm reading "The Day of the Triffids" now. Have you read it?"
"Yes, wonderful story. I probably read it at about your age." We stop to look out at the sail boats. James puts an arm around my shoulder, squeezes it and says softly, "I wish I could come and see you more often, Sharon." As he lets go I fling my arms out, then jump and hop away.
"I'm really hungry!" I screech back to him.
"Let's go and find a restaurant then, shall we?" he laughs. My hands are stuck deep inside the pockets of my jacket.
We walk down steps into a dimly lit, aromatic room. The table James chooses has a plush red semi-circular seat with a raised plant box full of thick dark foliage behind it. A waiter in black and red approaches and lights the candle on the table. Hawaiian chicken is the most recognisable meal on the menu so I order that. I notice again that my father has no body therefore he must have no inner organs. I wonder where his food will go when he eats it. He orders wine, saying I can have just one glass, smiling.
He catches my eyes, his face looming close as he clinks glasses, saying softly,
"Here's to you." My cheeks stretch sideways like a smile. I need to be able to smile like a lovely woman and to use my eyes that way: lowering them and raising them . . . slowly. This is how he wants to see me. This is how I will be for him. So, looking at him over one shoulder, I try it out; the eyes, the mouth. Somehow it is he who is showing me how to do it. "I can't believe you are so tall and grown up now," he comments proudly, looking much more relaxed and comfortable. A charge of recklessness blurts out of me in a loud giggle that bubbles on until I take a gulp of air and drop my head into the wine glass, cradling its round belly and long stem in my far-from-manicured fingers.
James' life is full of unusual happenings at communes, meditation retreats or bodywork seminars. There is no generation gap here as he aims at breaking all traditional codes. More animated than I felt before, I laugh and smile, listening as hard as I can. Still my mind wanders away. Triffids come tapping and knocking at the windows of the house, their poisonous tendrils lashing out.
On James' special outing we must have sweets. I order the richest, sweetest one I can and then under the gaze of the waiter I suddenly blush and start to sweat, all semblance of the lovely smile dropping away. The outpouring of the gesture, of mimicry dams shut. I sit very still. If I don't breath, this night will go on without me.
"And coffee?" The words don't quite get through.
"Excuse me Miss, do you want coffee or tea?"
"Just sweets for me too, please." James finished the order and as the waiter retreats I dare to look up.
The city train stations are very familiar to me. We will get on at Circular Quay, complete the City Circle, then head north. Jenny will be asleep in the bed opposite mine by now. James looks at his watch, around the room and at me. I am getting out my train time-table. He seems upset. I feel in a hurry as if we are missing the train.
"We should get on a train soon, shouldn't we?" I ask him.
"Are you tired?"
"Yes, very." He is looking around again, and again at his watch. He jumps up.
"I'll make a few calls, Sharon. I wouldn't mind saving us the trip. I'm quite tired too." I suppose he can't stay at our house tonight so he has to train all the way back out to Grandma's place. How can he save us the trip? We really should go now though! I feel the train leaving without us.
James has organised for us to stay at a second cousin's place in Paddington. In the taxi I can't think of anything to say or do. James is going on about his bodywork stuff. He says I'd like it and it's very relaxing so I nod a few times.
The cousin is nowhere; he has gone to bed.
"I'm very tired," I tell James.
"You don't want a cup of tea then?"
"Oh, OK. Don said there is a spare room up these stairs."
Seeing a little single bed in the corner of a rather crowded study, I feel suddenly relieved and quite light. Only one can sleep here!
"You look so tired; I'd really love to give you a massage before you go to sleep. You'll sleep so much better," James offers. "Just lie down and I'll rub your head." My mind is so blank; keeping still in case it hurts. I lie on my back on top of the bed. It is a bit cold and the feel of his hands is colder. "Turn over now and I'll loosen up your shoulders."
"I'm really tired."
"Just a little rub."
"It's a bit cold."
"Alright, you hop into bed. I'll be back in a minute."
When he comes back I have tucked myself in as tight as I can. "I'll give you that shoulder rub then."
"I need to go to sleep."
"You will. You'll feel great."
"It's too cold. How about you give me an arm massage."
With the blankets firmly held over one arm and shoulder I stick the other T-shirted arm out of the bed, turn my head away from him and don't turn back. Eventually he stops and goes somewhere else I don't know of to sleep.
In the morning, alone on the train rattling north, I no longer know. Why did I smile like that in the restaurant? I was being really stupid. What was a scared of? Nothing. My father held my hand. So what? We had a nice meal. I shouldn't have laughed like that. Nothing happened anyway.
The train passes the backyards, a crossing, telegraph lines. He didn't do anything.
New: 13 December, 1996 | Now: 22 April, 2015