Why do we need to write words? Is it to entertain ourselves or others? Is it to display or to conceal? Why spend so much time presenting an acceptable image, while hiding in plain sight? These are the questions I ask myself as an infrequent diarist living in a time of constant over-sharing.
The gap between our public and private thoughts is made clear when the top three words women use on Facebook to describe their husbands are compared to those used in Google searches (on FB my husband is “loyal” “amazing” “best-friend” vs. “annoying” “mean” “gay” on Google).
I was thinking about this the other night while scribbling mundane descriptions in my diary. Why bother? Lists of routine events. Dinners made for the family, housework done, writing projects chipped away at. My words lacked insight or reflection. I would never want to read them. I sought distraction, remembering my mother’s travel journal, My Trip Book. My sister had been looking through it when she visited recently, discovering it held more than I had seen.
I glanced at it when Mum died several years ago, reading the first few pages of her boat trip out to Britain with Dad in 1957. But the death of a parent is a fraught time; deciding what to keep hold of, and what to let go. I was disappointed by all the blank pages. Why had she stopped after the first few days? Had she got seasick, lost the thrill of the journey?
But my sister, Sonya, saw more. The journal takes an unusual format. You note departures at the front, the journey later on, places visited and people met at the back.
Mum’s beautiful, flowing script written in fountain pen by her 24 year-old hand, describes her journey with her husband of four years out from Christchurch to his English homeland, and to that of her Scottish parents.
She visits places I have seen and those I have not. Pitcairn Island, Panama, Curacao. London, Edinburgh, the Isle of Wight. Enjoys Harry Secombe and Terry Thomas at the Palladium. Gets a job sewing electric-blankets. Suffers the disappointment of photos not coming out, and has such fun on the Underground.
It is a treasure, but I want more. Descriptions, not lists. Reflections as opposed to generalities. What were the people like? What did she feel? But she was 24, and there are reasons most journals are like this.
I am a deliberately boring diarist. I have been burnt more than once. My ill-formed words snatched in secret and thrown against me. It’s a betrayal I struggle to forgive. Words written in private cannot match the expectations of the world.
The other night, reading Mum’s words, I found the unsaid I craved. Amongst many blank pages, there was a random list written in red pen; cuts of meat and prices paid. More blank pages, then March 1964 Leaving for Sydney to-night at 7:30. I remember Mum telling me that she went with her younger sister, Lynette. There is a photo from the trip, somewhere in Mum’s box of old photos. But how long were they away? Days, weeks? Nothing is noted, even though she clearly took the journal with her. Maybe it was too much fun to find time to write. After many more blank pages there is a list of gifts to get. Cousin Lesley got a koala.
Over the page is a more detailed list. Money spent: drinks on the plane 1s 9d, hotels in Sydney ₤3 2s 10d, Surfers’ Paradise ₤5 15 s, grapes 2s, drinks in Bondi 4s 6d, magazines 1s, drinks 6s, coat ₤ 12 12s, drinks & sandwich 2s 9d, excess baggage of ₤1. There is a note to keep ₤22 for hotels, leaving ₤104.
But what of the ₤6 5s Val, ₤62 10s Joe. Val is my aunty. Was it a gift or to get something? And who was Joe? 62 quid? In 1964 the average wage for the job Mum was doing was ₤9 a week. ‘Joe’ had given her seven weeks’ wages. For what? I sat wishing Mum had written more detail. Searched every page, going through the contacts at the back of the journal, most of them crossed out as people shifted or moved on.
I found Val ₤6 5s fawn twinset, 34” size 14. If no fawn, then pale blue. NZ was a heavily controlled economy back then. Everything was cheaper overseas. And there was more choice.
And then, Joe ₤61 10s (₤61 with Traveller’s Cheques) 25yds Wenzell, Batty & McGrath, 865 York St, Sydney. Mum noted the exact cost and change, deducting the taxi fare. Twenty-five yards of cloth is a lot of fabric. That explains the ₤1 excess baggage.
Because Mum left gaps, I can fit a story around the words. Maybe they were smuggling expensive fabrics into NZ’s controlled economy, drinking their way through the hotels of Bondi and Surfers’ as part of the plan. I can think this because she doesn’t say any different.
For the first time in decades, I remember a possible Joe. A cutter who worked for her boss at Zenith tailoring. I recall her talking to a man called something like that. I was about four years old, playing hide and seek with my wee sisters amongst the endless rows of jackets and coats. He was friendly, funny, had a big black moustache and was leaving to join the police force. Mum didn’t work there anymore, but did out-work from home, sewing up menswear while looking after us. Mum told me that when Joe was at Police school he was instructed, along with all the new recruits, to tell everyone that Arthur Allan Thomas was guilty. Mum repeated this over the years as the fabrication, and Thomas’s innocence, was revealed.
Maybe that man was Joe. It doesn’t really matter. I have pictures in my head. Words that lead to more. I have searched out the photo of Mum and Aunty Lynette in Australia in 1964. Holding ice-creams, wearing jandals at night, they look tanned and happy. Mum said they took a train up to Queensland and that some locals refused to share a cabin with them, because they looked Italian.
I have also found the passenger lists of the trip to England in 1957, a photo and a menu from the fancy dress ball on board. Mum and Dad dressed up in their finest on the deck. Like married women of the time, Mum is listed simply as Mrs. Taylor (no initial). All the men, mothers, unmarried women and children have initials.
That omission says something, does it not?
What we say, and what we do not, matters. The unsaid can speak more clearly than any strongly voiced comment. This is why I write. To be read and to be ignored. It is a process of discovery; remarkable, mundane. It is an identity, cut from a pattern, worn to cover any naked shame.
The Story of a Notebook