Tag Archives: dreams

To What End

Stupid Death, stupid Death,

Hope it doesn’t find you

I started blogging a year ago to clear my head of recurring themes in my life. I wanted to use it like a journal, making sketches of things that take my fancy, to salve recurring fears, to beat a pathway out of the clusterhump of grief that has surrounded my existence in the last few years and stroll back into the arms of fiction.

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I’m loathe to list it all that has happened, it’s all been referred to in various blogs over the year, and I have always intended to (and managed to) write about other things.

But it’s been a funny 10 days or so and some things can’t be avoided.

On Sunday morning, as I lay in the darkness, scrolling through news sites I saw an article about a woman I briefly met about 8 years ago. She’s a very distinctive ex-pat Brazilian model who has just attained a degree in psychology (something she was doing part-time when I met her at a party of Brazilian ex-pats in Auckland, all those years ago).

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Grace on the job

When I met her, I was working in television, doing a programme on Brazilian food. It’s was a great week and I ate many things I had never tried before. But that is not this story, and she wasn’t on Stuff because she had finished a degree. The point was she was familiar to people, and was dedicating her degree to her husband, who died 2 years ago.

Reading that, many parts of my life converged and I immediately wanted to leap out of bed and start writing it out of my head. I knew I would not be able to rest until I did it. But it was 6am on a cold winter morning and my 6 year-old would soon be clambering in to join me.

So I waited and she joined me within minutes, complaining of a nightmare where giants wanted to eat her. I cuddled, listened, diverted by saying it was just a bad dream and could she remember any good dreams? She smiled and said, yeah, she had one where her princess castle had turned into a rocket ship. With a TV! It was AWESOME!!!

But my self-congratulation at diversion was short-lived as she immediately changed back to her sad tone and said her snuggles had bad dreams, too. Gorilla Lilli had dreamed she/he was a baby and …and…a hyena was trying to eat him/her (Gorilla Lilli is a boy AND a girl). While Bucky (a giraffe/something hybrid) had dreamed of being chased by tigers. I kept quiet, a little shocked, letting the story continue, while she danced the two soft toys on the bed singing the song at the top of this blog.

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Bucky and Gorilla Lilli

Stunned, I said I had to get up to go to the toilet and wrote down the musical refrain.

The thing is, 10 days before that I had one of those dreams that affects your whole day. Someone I didn’t recognize had come to me, claiming to be someone I knew who had died in the Christchurch earthquake. She was so sincere, I didn’t want to contradict her. But, even in the dream, I was unsettled.

That day, I worked in a venue that was, likewise, unsettling. The weekend before an adventurous university student had stepped onto a skylight, falling through onto the hard floor 10m below. While he had not died immediately there was still a pall over the place from the stupid, accidental death. The skylight he went through had not yet been replaced, with only a bit of loose plastic keeping the rain and hail from our heads.

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The skylights

Throughout the day, workmates and members of the public quietly looked up to the flapping plastic and down to the floor at a gaffer tape X.

I so wanted to pull it off.

The next day I was working at a different venue, one where the roof, co-incidentally, had just been fixed to remedy persistent leaks. There is no other connection to the previous day. But something happened, linking the narrative in my head.

I had just put the needle in a donor’s arm and gone to the next donor (it was a busy day and we were short-staffed due to illness). When I turned to look at the donor I had just left I saw he had fainted, eyes rolled back, tongue pushed forward, looking like death. I called for help and as soon as I got to him he stared to fit, arms flapping; body flexing. I threw myself on his arm to prevent the needle from doing damage. As my colleagues put themselves on his other limbs I pulled out the needle, doing everything not to be stabbed (or stab him). He has big and there weren’t enough of us, so his arm became loose, spraying blood all around.

Of course, we exuded calm and control, not wanting to distress the other donors, and he soon came round with a smile. However, it was one of the worst faints I have seen in my 5 years as a phlebotomist, and I was wrecked for the rest of the shift.

The following day was a day off. And despite the continually foul stormy weather, I headed to the pool to aqua-jog away the stress. As I waited for the bus, a good friend called who needed to talk. She/he was distressed, facing an awfully mortal health scare, unable to talk to anyone else. I listened to their distress, knowing there was little I could say. Awaiting results from tests, I was sworn to secrecy.

The next day I crashed hard. Exhausted, tonsils swollen, black rings under my eyes, I was certain I was coming down with one of the myriad of ailments that has taken out all my colleagues over the previous month. But with rest, and the news that my friend’s results were clear (plus a bottle of beautifully medicinal cider each day of the weekend) my body rallied and I was not taken by any lurgy.

Nevertheless, on the Monday night after work I fell asleep as soon as my daughter was in bed, waking to the noise of a strange sit-com featuring Sarah Michelle Geller and Robin Williams. It was set in an ad agency and they were trying to re-brand Australia to some densely comic Australians. It was pretty funny. I hadn’t heard of the show and was surprised to see Robin Williams doing TV.

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The Crazy Ones

The next day, as I aqua-jogged in the pool, rehabbing the ankle and Achilles I had surgery on over summer I thought about the challenging 3 days of the previous week. How each illustrated how close we are to not being here. How my friend’s scare was by far the worst. How 2 years ago, as I watched my parents struggle for life (and the release of death) over a few short months, a mix of 6 old colleagues/friends/acquaintances from various past lives had all chosen suicide. How could such a cluster happen? And why…

Though they seemed randomly connected (all male, all around my age), I know that we are built to inject meaning into seemingly-related events.

The next-to-last was the closest, a former bandmate from my formative years. The day before his funeral a colleague had picked up a guitar pick from the floor of the hall where we were working, saying to me, ‘you’re a musician, you must have a use for this.’ I took it with me to Auckland, and when my (then) 4 year-old daughter insisted on viewing Stephen in his coffin, I gave her the guitar pick to place with him.

Later, at his wake, while my daughter played and ate food, I uncovered the final stanza of this inexplicable group. A friend’s partner had lost her fashion-shoot photographer to suicide in the months before. As he said his name I knew that I would know him. What I didn’t know was that Craig had married the Brazilian model I had met at that party in Auckland. Small world. Strange life.

When I got out of the pool last Tuesday after thinking about that strange year, I checked my phone, succumbing to dumb addiction. That’s when I saw that Robin Williams had died.

I felt sad, yet unsurprised. Not because of the co-incidences. More because I had been thinking of that year of loss of those I had known. How it sat in such a strange cluster. Which thankfully ended. Why? Why?!

When I came back to bed and my daughter on Sunday morning, I asked about the Stupid Death song… had she made it up? No, she said, it’s from Horrible Histories! I was so relieved.

Craig was a wild-card, a crack-up, full of life. Stephen was clever and caring; sharing so much beauty with the world.

There’s a Chinese saying I am fond of, ‘no co-incidence, no story’.

I don’t believe that gaffer tape X was marking where the student fell. It was for something else, surely.

People chose death for different reasons. Everyone who expressed pain and loss (or anger) when the beloved Mork left us looked to different, personal explanations.

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Rocket-ship Castle (TV not included)

When, later on Sunday, my daughter went to stay with her mother for the next 2 weeks, I knew what I had to write. As soon as she went I started bashing it out but it was too bleak, I was exhausted. I didn’t want to show this face to the world, it would serve no good. But why did I feel this need, to what end?

Instead I went to the couch and dozed to the bland noise of silence. I awoke feeling awful. The only thing I could do was write or exercise, and as I still could not face this topic, I marched off to the beach to stretch-out my slowly recovering Achilles.

At the top of the path down to the sand, full of anxiety and impotent distress, I found this new piece of graffito.

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At Bay

I think I laughed.

I had something difficult to write. It’s taken a bit. But some things can’t be avoided.

A Curious Thing

Last night I dreamed of my father. We were sitting together on the couch, talking. He was sharp, warm, funny: it lasted for several minutes before a part of me observed how wonderful it was to hear his voice, and that awareness triggered the realisation that I was dreaming as Dad has been dead for over two years.

Maybe I’ve been listening to Kate Bush a bit too much lately. Wiley, windy moors and a dead loved one at the window. Loved you, hated you. Bad dreams in the night.

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It’s been two weeks, every day. The mind is a curious thing.

I so looked forward to today. So much to do, so much time to do it without the distraction of work (or my wonderful child) but I am distracted beyond any possible focus: anxious/unsettled, unable to complete the simplest of tasks.

I have just joined a gym and love the exercise which is aiding the recovery from my Achilles surgery. I have a challenging musical poem to write for the online course I am doing. Also a piece of original speculative fiction that has been percolating for an age until last week, while aqua-jogging in the pool, I found the change of voice and perspective that has sent it forward to where it needs to be, waiting with great promise. And, most pressingly of all, my computer continues to splutter and freeze, threatening to give up the ghost so I really need to go and replace it ASAP.

But I can’t get the words from my dream out of my head.

dreams2To top it off I am also being plagued by an earworm, waking the last two mornings to Joan Baez’s version of the Band’s ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’. I heard it the other day on the awful radio station they constantly play at work, the music so tired it reminds me of being locked in a rest home waiting for the inevitable. It’s a format beloved by decaying Baby Boomers; ‘the Breeze’, songs you’ve heard at least a million times played in a never-changing purgatory of ‘60s/’70s smaltz. Yes, there’s good stuff and ‘classics’ amongst it but every Monday they play ‘Monday, Monday’…stopped into a church, alooong the wayyyyy…sigh. There’s always Elton John, Simon and Garfunkel, Abba, Paul Simon etc et al. Resigned sigh. No escape from the tired familiarity.

Yes, all fine music but it’s the lack of surprise that saps my will.

That said, I’m obsessed with my earworm today as it’s the only way to escape the uneasiness of last night’s dream. I’ve never had any interest in the Baez version; too much syrup for a song which plays to racist sentiment (as I saw it). I have heard the Band do the original and it seemed to be more honest and nuanced/less of a celebration of a society founded on exploitation, oppression and hate.

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But like all great music, it has a surface reading and an unfathomable depth. The lines about choppin’ wood that finishes with “but they should never have taken the best” is what has won me over. I’m playing the song again and again just to revel in the poetry of the image.

About six weeks ago I met a man who could have been my father’s twin. Not as he was, confined with all the others to a secure facility waiting for the Alzheimer’s to end. Nor as he was in the ten or so years before that as he was consumed from inside, forced to avoid direct questions to conceal the growing confusion. But as he was twenty years ago when he was sharp and funny, engaged, playful. This doppelganger had my father’s eyes, face, hair, skin, manner of speaking…a distinctive mix echoed nowhere in the family or anyone I have met. We struck up a marvellous conversation as waves of (hidden) emotion surged through me. I hoped I wasn’t being creepy but grief is often an unexpected ride, and not having had a good chat with my Dad in many, many years I clung on for as long as I could.

I wouldn’t have thought too much of this encounter if not less than an hour later I had met someone whose address was on a street bearing my father’s name: Christian and surname, spelt just the same as Dad’s. At the time, it was hard not to laugh, to feel a little touched. I wished Dad had been alive to tell him there was street named after him.

Later, when work had finished, I googled the address just to make sure I wasn’t being totally wishful. Dad’s street was a cul-de-sac, around the corner from where I was working, attached to a street with, er… my name. Yip.

I was very amused: a playful joke worthy of my father.

Today we are experiencing mad, extreme winds. I can see the white horses galloping across the Bay from my salt-caked windows.

It is time to walk down to the water, listening to the ghost of Cathy and the death of Dixie, and make good my escape.

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On a Sandy Shore

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This morning I woke at 4 am. Not unusual, especially on a full moon. It was so bright and my mind was active, writing narratives that will never see the light of day. It’s been a couple of long, challenging days at work with overtime and 4 hours travel each day, a situation exacerbated by the short-staffing that the health service routinely endures, further compounded by the panic that occurs when sickness and injury removes any meat from a workplace already shaved clean to the bone.

And while I tend to thrive on the adrenaline of panic (it’s how my shy character once found a comforting home on the stage), I am still only 8 months into a 2 year recovery from surgery on my ankle, and I tire easily. Yes, it’s a long recovery. If I knew it would take so long, I’m not sure I would have done it. Especially given that it’s only in the last few weeks that I could say there has been an improvement in my condition. That said, my general fitness is a lot worse than it ever was. I try not to think about it. I do exercises and stretches every day, and go for short walks, training my heel, ankle and knees to walk again. Who would have thought that shaving a 9mm spur off the ankle would have such an impact?

Given that situation, you may think I would be glad of a lie-in. But there is too much to do, and I have a mind that never rests. Often when I sleep I dream of running (something I have done all my life until Haglund’s Deformity knocked me on my arse and on to crutches). Last night I had an incredibly vivid dream where I was about to play a match with the Warriors (the only sports team I love). It felt great to be moving, running, passing the ball but I soon realised that I was about to take the field in the hardest professional Rugby League competition in the world and the Australian opposition was bound to target me. I got very, very anxious, afraid for my bones and life, waking suddenly at 1am, relieved (and a little disappointed).

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Ouchie!

None of this is what got me out of bed at 4am on a day when I have no work or child to tend to. I got up because I wanted to write about my grandfather.

It is his birthday tomorrow, and, were he alive, he would be 111 years old. Crikey, that’s quite a number. Apparently, when the New Zealand cricket team is on 111 runs, the players in the shed all lift their feet off the floor to avoid losing a wicket. (I had a girlfriend once who was a great cricket fan and she always insisted we did the same. I can’t recall if it worked).

On a more personal level, my mother, my grandfather’s first daughter (who he always called ‘hen’), died on 11.11.11: Remembrance Day (as if I could forget). Once, during those impossibly short, endless months as we waited for the unthinkable, I told her she had to make it to that date. But, then, many things are said as you wait, wait, wait.

My grandfather, Sandy (the Scots shortening of Alexander), was born in 1903, and though he left Scotland in the 1920s, he never lost his sing-song Scots accent. I have, by chance, a quick snippet of it recorded 4 days before he died in 1985. I treasure those few seconds of audio.

He was a lovely, gentle man who, like most of his generation had a hard life. He married my grandmother, Flo’, in Forth in 1926 and they had my uncle, Alex (my mother’s big brother who passed in January), in the historic ironworks town of Wilsontown.

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An imagining of Wisontown in its heyday

A significant player in the Industrial Revolution (the first use of coke instead of charcoal, the first hot blast form of the blast furnace) it was in decline by the mid 1800s.

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Long demolished housing, Wilsontown, Scotland

My wider family worked the coal mines that remained and my grandparents and wee Alex escaped the soon-to-be demolished insanitary slum in the late 1920s, on a boat that took them to the coal mines at Dobson, on the West Coast of New Zealand, where my mother was born on the kitchen table, to the sound of my granddad’s squeaking boots. (“Will ye no stop that dreedful pacing, Sandy?!)

When I visited Wilsontown (now a Scheduled Ancient Monument) in 2000 it was beautiful, a wild field of flowers and forest with a few ruins. Annie, the elderly cousin of my mother, her husband Bill, and their daughter, Rae walked me around the ruins and I picked up a piece of slate from the place where my grandparents lived.

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Annie & Bill attacked by midgies, Wilsontown 2000

Bill, in his 90s, recalled living there, pointing out the spot where, as a child, he had gone to see silent movies (!?!) They also took me to the place where my grandfather had taken my grandmother by motorbike when they were courting, impressing her not with the red Panther, but with his skill on the cornet.

When I lay in bed at 4am this morning, eyes closed, willing myself to rest, I started to grasp for a verse Bill had recited when we went to see my grandfather’s old school. They asked if I wanted to get out the car to take a photo. I didn’t. This was the pre-digital era and, unlike now, photos were rationed (more space in the backpack, more expense).

But I have the picture in my head because Bill pointed to a hill; a Marilyn (a hill of 150m) named Tinto, and recited a verse. It seemed to me that whenever a subject came up Bill would burst into a relevant song or verse. I only heard it once, but it is a much stronger image than any photo.

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Tinto in Lanark (the verse is at the end of the blog)

My grandfather, ‘Sandy’ Alexander, died 4 days after my father’s 60th birthday, his lungs drowned in fluid caused by all those years down the mines (helped on by the fags). Long-widowed he was living with us at the time, that’s why I have a (brief) recording of his wonderful voice (“like a set of bloody bagpipes”, my Uncle Alex would say). In his last week he would call out in the night, “I’m coming mother, I’m coming”. We weren’t sure if was calling to his actual mother, or to Flo’, who he missed dearly and called ‘mother’ (or ‘hen’).

Sandy had escaped the rapid decay of Scotland with his young family for the promise of New Zealand, but ended up smack-bang in the Great Depression, and WW2 Christchurch.

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Sandy, ever-present rollie in mouth, Christchurch c.1930s

He worked for the railways and helped build the causeway to Sumner to provide for the ever-increasing brood of my uncles and aunties. Flo’, with my mother’s help, fed the kids and whoever else needed a feed (like a lot of the now-despised poor, they were always generous with what they had).

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Sandy, Mum, Flo’, Alex and new baby Anne, Lyttleton c1930s

As a child, my mother used to sit on his knee as he taught her the old songs.

He died in my bed in the dark of night in my mother’s arms, struggling for breath as she sang him the old lullabies, one of which, Sandman Grey, I sang to my daughter when she was a restless baby.

We sang the same song with my dying mother, the last time I saw her. It was agonising saying goodbye. With Mum in one arm, my infant daughter in the other, my sisters beside me, it was the hardest day of my life. I will hear the pain in her tears forever.

But what can you do?

Life is hard. Death is harder. But amongst both, there is immeasurable beauty.

It’s a long time till I will walk with ease again, let alone run. At the moment I head to the beach whenever I can to march up and down the loose sand, working on unstable movement, gentling increasing impact and stress to my withered muscles, tendons and ligaments, helping them to get stronger.

I cannot believe my grandfather was born 111 years ago tomorrow, 2 years after the death of Queen bloody Victoria. I sometimes wonder if my relatively long roots (Antipodean pun intended) have fed my hunger for history and memoir.

I shall sing the songs and stories that made me, each verse and chorus of love, lust and loss for as long as I breathe.

But now it is light, the full moon outshone by day.

I need to head to the beach in search of loose sand to test me.

 

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‘On Tintock tap, there is a mist,

And in that mist, there is a kist,

And in that kist, there is a cup,

And in that cup, there is a drap.

Tak’ up that cup, and drink that drap, that’s in yon kist, on Tintock tap!’

Thwarted Action

I woke early this morning with the intention of writing a new short story. It was going to be a fast first-draft 1000 -1500 word ANZAC Day-themed piece of speculative fiction for a competition on a New Zealand SpecFic website for ANZAC Day (the day when Australians and New Zealanders commemorate the loss and sacrifice of war).

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Dawn Service at Gallipoli Cove

Although I have had soul-draining week at work due to cock-ups and short-staffing, and will be working this afternoon and evening on this sacred holiday, (it’s sport, mate, Aussie Rules, so the usual restrictive laws don’t apply here, digger) I wanted to bash out a piece of fiction using the skills I’ve been trying to develop through blogging.

Last night, I was nodding off by 19:30, rousing myself to stay awake so I could get a good night’s kip before rising early to make the most of the time when my mind is most active (I’m definitely a morning writer). Through the night I woke every hour or two from dreams that had nothing to do with the story but seemed to focus on the paradise where I used to live. I was in the house where on my first morning there I saw a pod of orcas swim past my kitchen window, a dream-like vision that actually happened.

In the dreams I was climbing around the coastal rocks of my former island home with sea lions and pups, staying well clear of their teeth. Bumping into my former partner, pretending everything was cool, taking my first run after the operation I had on my Achilles’ and heel 5 months ago, feeling naughty and dangerous.

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An active mind never sleeps

While dreams have been great food for my fiction, none of these played into the story forming in my head. Nevertheless, as I woke from these (for me) startling images, a voice and a story started forming, quickly followed by a tone and a likely plot.

By 06:30 is was up, determined to carve out a narrative of a young girl in South Canterbury setting off to find her brother fighting the Bosch somewhere over the Alps. She had crafted a death ray on her farm, and needed to give it to him before the war ended. I had 3 or 4 hours before I had to be at work. The house was cold but I went straight to the computer and made my fatal mistake.

Writing is a fascinating challenge. For the overwhelming majority of writers, fiction is more pain than reward. But acknowledging that reality is not a ‘poor me’ statement (as anyone who plods away at the craft will know). It’s simply something you just have to do.

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Is there a middle way?

I have said many times that blogging is my attempt to find a way through numerous barriers, across the no-man’s-land to fiction. But like anything involving sacrifice or reward it takes many futile attempts. The more I blog, the more I want to blog. My brain writes them every day. But at the same time, the more passionate becomes my need to explore the truths of fiction.

I wrote my last piece of fiction about a month ago and it made me feel bullet-proof for days. It was a piece of speculative erotic fiction written to order for a NZ ‘zine. I worked on it right up to the deadline, got it strong and polished then went to submit it. As always, I re-checked the publication’s requirements as every publisher has different rules. That’s when I realised that they had cut their word-length by 1000 words since I was published. Man, I felt like sacking my personal assistant on the spot (no matter how good she looked doing the filing… and if I had one). It was too late to take an axe to my story. What a wasted effort.

Of course, no matter how much a writer needs a personal assistant, or an editor, only very few have them. You do it all yourself. Which is both a strength and a weakness.

Despite being well over the word limit I submitted the story anyway. No point in laying down dead in no-man’s-land. Once I got the rejection I would extend it into the bigger story it felt it wanted to be and find a publisher, hopefully off-shore.

So this morning, with this snafu in mind, and as people gathered at Dawn Services across NZ in the cold and dark, I decided that before I carved out my rushed ANZAC tale, I would thoroughly check the competition requirements.

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Happy belated 450th Birthday, Bill!

That was my mistake. If I hadn’t, the story would have got writ. Instead, I grumpily got up, did the washing and vacuuming cursing my constant tiredness and stupidity.

While I had read the deadline as midnight tonight, the stated deadline was “Midnight 25 April NZST”. Not fatal, but questionable. I furiously googled whether that would mean the deadline was to come or had passed. I found no consensus. Like a battle, midnight could be the start or the end of the day.

This did not put me off; resilience is as essential in writing as it is in life. I would write and submit it anyway; taking the same philosophical approach I had with my story last month. After all, unlike many competitions, this one was free to enter and I would get a good wee story out of it. However, as I looked deeper I found that in order to enter you had to join the SpecLit society for a (recurring) fee of $30.

That’s what turned me from that task and towards this blog.

Writing is a battle where, even though the pen is mightier than the sword, no-one dies. Well, there are exceptions, of course. Countless people have been killed or condemned for putting pen to paper. But today, my society remembers those who took up the sword. I chose not to join them but to take up the pen instead.

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I heart fountain pens (much better for stabbing)

Last year I took my daughter to the local Dawn Service and blogged about it in A Post-Rugby Post. It was an interesting day.

I am a committed pacifist who will never kill a stranger in a foreign land just because someone told me to.

But that’s another subject for another day. And there are other stories to tell.

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Dreams of Children

The other morning my daughter came into my room saying she had just dreamed there were crocodiles under her bed. She wasn’t distressed, more surprised and curious. I cuddled her and we talked about other things and I wondered if the dream had been real or an excuse to share time in the darkness with me. Either way I didn’t mind. It reminded me of a recurring nightmare I had as a child where a wolf’s head sat on a wood pile between me and my parents. It had teeth and angry eyes, but no stomach, so why would it eat me? Terrified and intrigued, I was often too scared to get up to the toilet and repeatedly wet the bed.

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A real monster under a bed

As I’ve grown up I tend not to have nightmares, the real life fears of being a parent hold greater sway over me. That said, lately I have been sleeping badly and some pretty bizarre images have popped into my head. The most notable involved being required to keep live pieces of human flesh in my mouth for medical purposes. They didn’t taste bad, and there was no way I wanted to chew or swallow, but the spongy texture and metallic taint of haemoglobin had me on the point of gagging. I woke hoping the foreign flesh was of a blood group compatible to mine.

As I lay with my 6 year-old listening to Bad Jelly the Witch, singing out our favourite lines (“tree, tree, 1-2-3, make it very big for me”… “steekeeble-steekeeble knickers, knickers, knickers!” et. al) my girl asked if there were crocodiles in New Zealand.

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The ‘Famous in Christchurch’ Charlie

I said, “No. Well, only in zoos,” and told her about Charlie, the famous crocodile I used to visit at the New Brighton ‘Mini’ Zoo with my sisters and mother. It was pretty sad, even to a kid in the ‘70s. Stuck on the outskirts of Christchurch with a tiny concrete pool and not enough space to turn around, he (or she, as it would turn out after ‘he’ died) never seemed to move and looked depressed (if a crocodile could have a psychological condition). As ‘he’ was always in the same position we weren’t certain that he was real, but we never bashed on the glass to get a reaction as other ‘naughty’ kids did. We were always too keen to get on to the friendly otters who stuck there tiny paws through the mesh to shake hands.

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Friendly Otters

All this I told my daughter; she’s a great lover of animals, and understands that it is not their nature to be caged for our entertainment.

What I didn’t tell her was that when I was about 7 or 8 something happened that burned into more than my memory.

We were at the zoo seeing if Charlie had budged from his miserable ledge by the puddle of water. While my sisters and mother stared at the static reptile I checked out the tiny turtles in the aquarium opposite. Suddenly, my world went very peculiar. I felt warm and heard a hum inside my body which increased to a ringing bang that threw me backwards with a scream, hitting Charlie’s glass panel hard. My mother, assuming I was being stupid, slapped me across the face as I bounced back and fell onto the wet concrete. I didn’t feel the slap; it was too much like a dream. What I did feel was the two bloody burn marks on the top of my left foot. An exposed live wire had been hanging underneath the turtle’s display and I had just suffered a strong electric shock (something which would happen again, many years later, but that time I would recognize it).

The owner came in to check out the noise, apologized and laughed it off with an “oops, must fix that”. I was in too much shock (pun intended) to cry or make a fuss. The wounds scabbed-up to the size of two 5-cent pieces. I never saw a doctor (as I said, it was the ‘70s) but instead was sent to see the electrician that lived next door who assured me I was within inches of dying. The condescension impressed my 7 (or 8) year-old mind and I wore the incident with pride.

I think slightly differently of the whole thing now and at some point will tell my daughter about the shock. But she doesn’t need to know about the slap and not seeing a doctor.

It’s only 3 years since she lost her Gran E and I lost my mother.

I thought about all this as I held my girl, closing my eyes in the long darkness, resting from her constant questions as Bad Jelly attempted to eat brave little Tim and Rose. I remembered I used to have a crocodile. It had bright white teeth and a delicious soft texture. I treasured it for years, sticking my finger in its mouth, or attaching it to my nose, pretending it was gobbling me up to amuse my sisters.

It was the only present I got when I turned 6, which sounds a bit sad, but there was a reason for it.

Some weeks before my birthday, while my mother was on the phone, I climbed onto the kitchen bench beside Mum’s shiny new electric fry pan. Somewhat obsessed with Tarzan (old movies played on the telly every Saturday) I slipped the electric cord through my belt and with a “hey, Mum, watch this!” jumped to the floor, thinking the weight of the attached pan would halt my leap, leaving me swinging like Tarzan on a vine. Not a very realistic expectation but I was, like my daughter, a rather imaginative child. Of course, the big golden fry pan came with me to the floor and my mother let out a horrified scream.

I was not hurt by the floor, or falling heavy pan, but the impact snapped it’s plastic (or Bakelite) handle. It wasn’t replaced for over a decade.

Kids often do naughty things without realising it. It only became clear to me what I had done when Mum didn’t smack me, crying instead for her new appliance (things were very expensive and hard to replace back before we joined the disposable society). She played the ‘wait till your father gets home’ card.

I was terrified. Dad never did the smacking. Like most of the parenting in my family, it was always left to Mum.

After my younger sisters went to bed there was a meeting at the kitchen table where they coolly decided that my punishment would be the cancellation of my upcoming 6th birthday party. To my fearful young mind that seemed a good deal. I hated (and continue to despise) physical violence.

Maybe they thought better of that decision later on but felt unable to back down, because closer to the day Mum told me that Dad was taking me to dinner for my birthday.

I have no recollection of where we went (there were no child-friendly restaurants in the land of ‘70s Christchurch, and I was a fussy eater) but I vividly recall him taking me up the escalators to the toys on the top floor of the wonderfully art-deco Millers department store. As was his way, he said nothing about what was happening. We walked up to a wall filled with playthings and I was invited to pick something. I did not know what to choose. There were so many toys, most of them clearly worth more than Dad could afford. How do you act in a situation where reward is mixed with punishment? I was taking too long and reached for the nearest thing, a very realistic 5-inch rubber crocodile with bright-white painted teeth.

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Not actual size

My parents weren’t ogres; they were loving, fun and caring. And like people who put animals in cages, to ‘save’ them or ‘educate’ children, they strove to do their best.

I have little doubt that in years to come my daughter will have unsettling stories to tell about my efforts at parenting. You do what you think is right, don’t do other things in case they are wrong; worry yourself to death on both counts.

There are many reasons why people sleep badly. For me, it happens when I am stressed or over-worked. And while I can tick both of those boxes at the moment I put my present fractured sleep down to it being the anniversary of those days and nights when I sat with my sisters keeping our dying father company, easing his discomfort as we could, trying to will his release from torment.

There’s so much I could write about watching a loved-one succumb to self-imposed starvation but I shall not ‘hammer the mahogany’ as JK Baxter put it.

That week in a secure dementia facility wasn’t a nightmare. It felt unreal; full of fun, beauty and humour. There were no crocodiles under the bed (well, there may have been), no strange flesh in my mouth.

Things happened I’m desperate to get out of my head but they can wait.

Was the crocodile really the only thing I got when I was 6? Having just hosted my daughter’s 6th party, I find that hard to accept.

Just as I can’t believe that in the morning it will be two years since Dad died.

I’m hoping that when tomorrow passes, and my daughter is back from her mother’s, I can sleep; free of the words that fill my head. And that in years to come my daughter will think well of my choices, good and bad, and that any nightmares that snap from below will be faced with tenderness and warmth.

 

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Like my toy croc but not as pretty