Memoir

A kind of forgetting

SEVERAL YEARS AFTER she lost her first child, Peter – abducted by his father in early 1950, lost without trace – my mother met the man she would spend the rest of her life with, the man who would be my father. He too is scarred by loss. It's easy, in retrospect, to be unsurprised by this: both are looking for renewal, something to startle the disappointment and sadness from their bodies, and leave them altered. But when they find their trust again, these two, their ability to love – who could imagine this – they each offer it to someone who has lost as much: a son.

The geography, perhaps, is inevitable. It plays out in this particular place, the inner city jumble and asphalt shimmer of New Farm, in this city of Brisbane, still making itself. They both know these streets, the rough geometry of rooflines, the curve of the Story Bridge like a faded rainbow through windows, between houses. For them these vistas, these streets, redolent with basil and garlic and hops, already represent a recovery in both senses of the word – a recovery from pain, and the recovery of something, of the notion of the world as solid rather than weightless, of their own selves. Perhaps it is no surprise to them, either, that they find each other here, in this place of new beginnings.

The New Farm my father comes to in 1951 is an exotic mix of immigrant and local working-class cottages, wooden houses honeycombed with cheap flats, affluent hill and riverside mansions, wharves, cafés, industry. Brisbane is, he sees, the least European of Australia's eastern cities, all wood and tin and windows left open to the smells of the subtropics: warm wet foliage and the lingering odour of rot. To a Swedish ship's engineer used to stone and brick and cold, it might look temporary, marginal. A flimsy, slow-talking town still finding its true form. Still, he likes it enough to risk arguing with his captain after they berth at Hamilton in October that year and to resign his post. In high dudgeon, he picks up a copy of the Telegraph, looks up 'rooms to let', and hitches a ride to New Farm and into his new life with a duffel bag of tools and clothes, a photograph of a small boy, and five pounds in his pocket.

 

HE IS TWENTY-SEVEN. In the previous four years he has, like so many of his forebears, sailed the seven seas, but without any real destination or plan except forgetting. So far forgetting hasn't been possible; remembrance throngs in his veins, stronger than the need to let go. This is what he remembers: standing at the waterfront, staring out across the narrow stretch of sea that separates Sweden from Denmark. The sea grey that day, whipped by the winds he's grown up with. Still, he imagines he can see the low blurred outlines of Copenhagen, its wharves and seafront, an artist's impression. Behind him, the squat towers of the cement factory, the only shapes to break the horizon from here to Malmo– . And the flat fields of Skånerolling away under a milky sun, their deep history undisturbed but for the tractors sewing corn and wheat, and the red wood and stone of farmhouses.

On the day he leaves, early in 1948, these things press themselves into memory. The fields, the cobbled streets of his village, the smell of fish and salt. A sea that is sometimes grey and sometimes the metallic blue of his son's eyes. These things will never leave him. In less than ten years he will have grown another skin under a different sun, there will be another home and new streets and he will once again be a father. Mine. But on this day, he has no notion of that or any future not shadowed by loss. On this day, his whole history at his back, all his youthful dreams, he knows only that he is leaving. A country, his parents, a shattered marriage, a son.

 

HE IS A quietly spoken provincial Swede and already drawn to the occupations of his life: to engineering and to electricity, to circuits and currents and conduction, to the wonder of electric fields. These interested him even as a child, manifesting then in mischief with batteries and sparks, with fireworks and detonations. His father's cigarettes fizz suddenly and explode; he destroys neighbours' mailboxes with thumbs of dynamite. This mix of serious and quiet with an impulse to mischief will come to define him through adulthood and into old age: as a child I will get used to loud fireworks erupting in the outside toilets on New Year's Eve; birthday presents wrapped bizarrely in sugarbags and hessian to disguise them, my father disappearing during a wedding party to booby-trap the newlyweds' car.

He is born of generations of workers and farmers, all drawn from the lush, lake-strewn southern counties of Skåne and Småland. Of a stoic people known to be dour but with whom he shares an ironic sense of the ridiculous that helps them through the long months of cold and snow. His parents, Axel and Kristina, have both emerged from solid working-class stock: he a mechanic and she a seamstress. Kjell-Arne is born to them in 1924, seven years after his brother, Bertil; his name is duly recorded in the parish book of the local Lutheran church, the keeper of all records of Swedish births, deaths and marriages.

They grow up in Limhamn, a coastal village near Malmo– on the south-west tip of Sweden, where limestone is quarried and cement is made and fish are caught. Axel is chauffeur to the wealthy directors of the cement factory, and the family lives in a small cottage within the factory compound. This gives both boys a certain prestige with their school mates – after hours the compound is an adventure playground of chimneys and rail tracks and machines, all forbidden, out of bounds, and therefore irresistible to Kjell.

After hours he rides the empty rail carts, makes tunnels to hide in after he and his friends have hurled rotten eggs at the women working in the factory yard. He climbs the chimneys, reckless. And he is punished for these regular transgressions with a carpet-beater wielded by his mother; several resounding whacks that don't hurt as much as being locked in a cupboard or sent to lie on his bed all day without a book or even a pencil. He will feel the carpet-beater's sting even on days when there is no evidence he has done anything wrong at all. These smacks, Kristina says, are for the crimes she doesn't know he's committed. He is very good-humoured about this when he recalls it. I would have deserved it, he says, and shrugs.

And there is no sign of bitterness or pique in early photographs. His face is round and sweet, his blonde hair cut in the Prince Valiant style of the times. But even a stranger could see the devil in that face; the swagger in the smile exaggerated for the camera. His eyes are lit with irony – this is me, good, obedient! – and a barely contained exuberance. He is trying to convince us of his innocence, but making no promises. We know it can't last.

But life gets serious, and his face does change. In teenage photos and later, the roundness is gone; his face, finer now with the ledge of cheekbone I will inherit, is unmistakeably the face of my father. The round glasses have become a fixture, as well as a lankiness of frame, the bony shoulders and knees he will always have. He grows into his mother's shape. It amused us all as children that his long, thin body seemed almost without contour – we'd accuse him of being bum-less, and our mother would agree. The carpet-beater! she'd laugh and shake her head. He must have been a terrible child.

After his years at sea – every continent, every ocean twice, three times – my father finally chooses his landfall: Brisbane, Australia. Often, when I have been in Sweden, I've gone looking for the reasons he made this choice. I pursue him across the flat fields, through poppies slashed red on rare hills, past stone fences and docile cows. I want to know: why Australia, why this town in this country? Surely the answer is in the place where he was born and grew, as much as in the one he fled to. And soon I see it's true, the clues are in both places. And that they might settle on something as prosaic as the sun. Warmth in his bones instead of cold. Warmth as refuge, as embrace.

Perhaps he was already seeking it, as the ocean slipped and rolled beneath him, pushing him towards the Antipodes. A place as far from home as possible, in appearance and temperament: though it is an ancient land the cities, even Melbourne and Sydney, look provisional, and in Brisbane there is the shimmer of heat through streets still being made. The light hard in his eyes.

But what he soon comes to see is what else is being offered here. A life in which a kind of forgetting is possible after all. Not amnesia, not quite. But a layering over. He understands this, coming from a place where whole ships lie beneath the soil, and the shape of memory can be gauged by the imprint of a hull in summer grass.

 

HERE HE IS in the place where he is happiest: the workshop in the backyard. His landlady – her once wide-verandahed house now turned to flats – had surprised him by agreeing to the construction of this flimsy structure, this hodgepodge of discarded timber and glass he has assembled, and where he sits or stands at a workbench, frowning or pursing his lips as he makes and mends things. Mostly it is marine paraphernalia –he is ship's chandler to some of the vessels that dock at Kangaroo Point and Hamilton – or small motors, or it might be household appliances, the toasters and jugs and irons that people still mend in 1954, rather than replace.

So there he is, deep inside the wiring or connections of something, and she, the woman he doesn't yet know he will marry and make a life with, is sitting now on the steps that lead up not just to her friend Olga's flat, but also to his own. She might have left before he even sees her, but for the insistent ring of the telephone he's had installed so he can be in contact with the ships. He isn't expecting anyone, not a woman, certainly not a beautiful one. But the fact of her there on the steps, blocking his path, isn't as important as the telephone at this moment, so he nods at her and steps around the skirt she hurries to gather beneath her.

Back in his workshop he is instantly immersed, once more, in his wires and motors, so he is surprised by her a second time when he wanders down to make coffee. Once more he sees her beauty but it isn't until she turns down his offer of a cup that he notices something else: her gravity. Something about her eyes and mouth, a seriousness. He leaves her sitting there and as he brews his coffee he tries to guess her age and finds he cannot. Then his mind is taken over, as usual, by the problems of the machine on his workbench, and when he leaves the flat again he only briefly notes she is gone.

Years later, she will tell him she was first attracted by his nonchalance, by the sting she feels at being barely noticed. She was, she will say, not used to being ignored.

 

IT IS A Saturday afternoon, some weeks later. He is bent once more over his workbench, where waves of female talk and indistinct chatter reach him from Olga's flat. The noise is a pleasant backdrop. When a soft knock breaks his concentration, he looks up, a soft hope in his eyes. But the face at the door is not the one he remembers. The young woman introduces herself as Shirley, hands him the coffee, smiles winningly. He thanks her and goes back to his bench. That evening, as he eats alone at the table that doubles as his office desk, he will wonder at the way the world works, at the luck that saw him locking up the shed in the afternoon when the dark-haired one emerged with Olga, and Olga announced that Yvonne had missed her tram, and then – extraordinary – the sound of his own voice, offering to drive her home. His very, very good luck.

Yvonne had looked at Olga. Frowning. Then back at him. The eyes were dark too, watchful. She'd said, finally, all right. And, thank you.

 

A FRIEND TELLS me that, in a new relationship, everything is said in the first fifteen minutes. All that is needed to establish something; that vital first impression we come to rely on, later – hours, days, weeks –when we're trying to work out how we came to fall in love with this person or that. So it was with my parents. In the time it took to drive from New Farm to Cannon Hill – more like thirty minutes, in those days before freeways – certain things were said and certain things revealed. Nothing about lost sons, not then. Things that mattered nonetheless: nuances of temperament, of personal qualities – loyalty, honour, responsibility – and traces of the hope they both carried with them like a secret. They couldn't know what they were doing, not then, not consciously. Later, looking back, they could only follow the breadcrumb trail of their hearts: various words, phrases, looks, the rise and fall of a voice, the answers given to questions so casual they couldn't guess their lives depended on them.

 

THEIR FIRST DATE is a movie. We don't know its name. Only this: that he arrived to collect her bearing chocolates – Cadbury Roses – and still wearing his work clothes: long khaki trousers and shirt, chest pocket bulging with small screwdrivers, pencils, his sleeves rolled up. This will become the uniform of his long working life: he will be known by these plain, dun-coloured clothes, in the family, in the neighbourhood. (Fifty years later, when I am researching this story and asking people if they remember the Swedish electrician in New Farm, one man is stumped until – did he wear a kind of khaki colour, with the shirt pockets always stuffed with biros and testers and things? he asked me.) All through their marriage she will have to coax him out of these clothes and into others for a family outing or a meeting with a child's teacher; for more than forty years she will wash them and iron them so they will indeed look like a uniform some mornings, apart from the pocketful of gadgets. She will often purse her lips at his utter lack of sartorial grace, will frown at the brown monochrome of his wardrobe.

But the plain clothes are a kind of relief: she has no need to look beyond them to what they mean and what they might hide. She is intrigued by the strengths in him they might suggest. Still, she is carefully dressed herself – he remembers it was a dress, her dark wavy hair brushed back – and all this takes her by surprise just a little, his clothes, her own response. She will smile at him there on the cool veranda as he offers the chocolates and apologises in that engaging accent for being a few minutes late. She will keep smiling – an ironic, crooked kind of smile – as he glances down at his clothes and shrugs and tells her he meant to change, and says with the shy grin of a boy, I forgot the time.

 

AND SO IT goes. One date, another. There is that first fifteen minutes, and after-wards it doesn't take long for them to convince themselves. He picks her up in the utility that carries all his working paraphernalia –brushing the passenger seat first with his hands. Riding next to him in the car, she feels something like safety, like the ground has finally formed beneath her feet. It is like a kindness. She feels it, reads it in the air between them, this gentleness telegraphed back and forth. Well, she thinks, yes: a kind man. It is possible.

This is what my father sees: that she is a different creature to the rest. Beautiful, yes, but made solid by everything life had delivered her so far. She is unlike other girls, who seem stuck in a kind of post-war hilarity. She is, he thinks, attached to the world by some cord, earthed. Her smiles are slow and almost private. She settles herself carefully beside him in the car and brushes her skirt over her knees, once, twice, as if she is soothing a nervous child. Tells him calmly about her day's work.

He senses immediately that she would not be easily frightened, not by a man, not by anything much. Something has already taken her fear away. When she tells him, finally, about Peter, he feels he's always known; known that motherhood and suffering have not just taken from her but given her something: gravity. They have made her real, given her substance.

As for her, in these early, watchful days, what does she see? Perhaps at first it is the things he isn't: the charismatic showman, the fancy talker – all the things she'd fallen for the first time. He surely isn't those. Most obviously, she sees the boyishness of his hope, his unvanquished optimism, the compelling mix of determined and tender. All this allows her the larger view: that she might be able to trust him. This is confirmed, enlarged, on the day she asks him about the boy in the photograph on his kitchen wall.

This is what he tells her: his name is Lennart. Bertil Lennart for his uncle, the names interchangeable in the Swedish way. In the picture he is three, perhaps four, with blonde hair cut in the no-nonsense style that lingers from his father's own childhood, straight across the forehead and hanging in fine wisps to his shoulders. The photographer has done a good job, she thinks: the little boy smiles easily at something away from the camera, his eyes shine. She looks from the photo to the man and back again. It's hard to see in his still-forming face, but he might have his father's chin, perhaps his nose.

He tells her he was married, early, hastily, one Swedish mid-summer when he was just twenty-one. Too young, he shrugs. This movement of face and shoulders is meant to say the un-sayable, and she sees this and doesn't ask for more. When he adds, almost mechanically, that Lennart lives for now with Bertil and his wife she nods and smiles but can think only of parallels, the echoes of loss that bounce between them.

Yvonne stands in front of the photo, her head tilted, and understands more than she hears. What is missing from the story he tells is hidden like a prayer between his words, in the way they are spoken. There is a quiet dignity in his voice, in the neat, careful way he sets out cups for coffee, slices the cake. Watching and listening, she feels the first stirrings of a love that might be for him and might be for herself. The self she hasn't yet forgiven.

 

FLAKES OF WEEK-OLD confetti lie in drifts against the sandstone buttresses of St Paul's Presbyterian Church in Spring Hill. But inside the air is new, splendid. Love, optimism and courage are being celebrated, all the virtues that have brought them here: patience, forbearance, hope. And a certain amount of luck.

She takes her vows the way she's always wanted to, with a sense of holiness and a witness. She wants this marriage to be visible – they both do – they want the solidity of the stone walls and the insistent beauty of the organ music to stamp this as the beginning. To firmly obliterate the past. The wonderfully named Reverend Pashen blesses them in a voice that booms to the high rafters and the clerestory, and she feels as she has always felt here at services on Christmas Eve and infrequent Sundays: as if her whole body has been washed in clear, cool water. As if she is new.

This is what others see, her parents, brothers and sisters, their handful of friends: her dress of blue lace, ballerina length, a spray of flowers and netting that takes the place of a veil, that catches the rice and fresh confetti they're showered with as they leave the church. Daisies and orange blossom and a horseshoe for luck. The colour of her dress and the absence of a veil are her only concessions to the past.

And mostly, they see this: the softness in her face and his. And especially they notice his hands, the way they hesitate just a little before they settle on her back, on her arms, and these small things tell them she is cherished. Really, this is all they want for her, all those who have seen her face look different, clenched shut with pain. Now they see what is there in the glances she exchanges with this man – the possibility of a good and happy life – and they can forgive him anything, even his foreignness, even the voice that curls into sounds they often find hard to follow.

At the reception rooms at Coolden, on Brunswick Street, there are speeches, telegrams from Sweden and from ships in various ports, a cake with a blue plastic bride and groom and, of course, bluebirds. And everyone looks now for the ordinary moments between them, the unguarded, the un-photographed. The way she tips her head towards his when he speaks; his shy, shuffling attempts at the bridal waltz, his self-conscious smile as she leads him. His hands gripping hers. The guests all clap at the end of the dance, and when they raise their glasses to the couple it isn't to faultless waltzing but to gentleness, two people fitting their steps around each other, finding a new way.

 

PETER'S FIRST REAL memories are of absence. And of difference. At six, he is old enough to know he is different on several counts. His right leg, primarily. He wears a calliper and a built-up shoe, and even though he's taught himself to run, after a fashion, it isn't like other boys. It is the lopsided lunge of a wounded animal, desperate to survive. And there is this other thing about these boys he knows: they have mothers. Female creatures who look after them. At home he asks about his own. Did he have one? Where was she? His father's answer is simple, blunt: she is a bad person, Michael tells him. She had run off. Run away from him, and with a German. The detail of this confounds him – a German – but whatever its intended effect it doesn't work on Peter. If he has a mother, he will find her.

It is a cold day in early winter 1954, and today is the day he has resolved to do it. His father is away and he needs to find his mother. School seems an intolerable prospect, strapping on the horrible calliper, the jeers of the others. This morning he feels for the first time the weightlessness of giving up. There is no one or nothing here he cares about; nothing he feels constrained by. Certainly not the old Greek couple Michael has left him with. There is just the small matter of money. Which is easily fixed. The till in his father's shop is often unattended – the extra tomatoes and lettuce and drinks are out the back – and it takes only seconds to snatch ten shillings and be gone. If the air around the till or the front counter is somehow disturbed, if there is still faint movement in the coloured plastic strips that curtain the front doorway or bemused looks on the faces of the few early customers, he is no longer there to see them. Peter is gone, his absence unnoticed.

The small lame boy is no stranger at the station at Dungog, not to the station master, nor to the townspeople who mill around the platform, waiting for the Sydney train. He turns up here on his frequent wanders around town, dragging his shortened leg but always smiling. Watching people, the snorting engines, the movement of cases and freight. So no one is surprised by his presence here today, and when the train comes everyone is far too preoccupied with getting on and finding a seat to notice the boy hoist himself up the steps of the last carriage and disappear into one of its compartments. On the two-hour journey, everyone on board assumes a small boy who is lame in one leg will be with his parents, no one is alarmed to see him staggering up and down.

At Central Station he tumbles from the train but remains upright, somehow, and is immediately swallowed by the crowd. He careens between lines and groups of people, bumping against handbags and Gladstone bags, arching his neck to see the curved roof, the glass, the iron lacework. People move in fast-flowing currents around him. He pauses occasionally to look up at the female faces beneath hats, at dresses both puffy and straight. Handbags looped over arms. But it's all a blur of hurry and scurry and heels clicking as though they're alive; people who know who they are and where they're going. He tries not to feel overwhelmed.

And then he does what he has come here to do. He chooses arbitrary faces, limps towards them, tugs at their sleeves. Hey, he says, looking up at each one keenly, do you know my mother? Do you know where she is?

Sometimes they don't even hear him or see him and sometimes they look at him sadly and say, Oh, are you lost? He shakes his head and ducks away, as quickly as he can in a crowd. He has made it all this way and he isn't going to be thwarted easily, so when he sees an alarmed expression on a kind face he tries to hide behind pillars and doors. But he is such a clear target, and it doesn't take long before a man and a woman in police uniforms swoop. They are kind to him; he likes kindness and he likes them. They take him to an office in the train station, ask him where he lives, how he got here.

Back at home with the old people, who don't thrash him as he knows his father would, but instead send him to bed without his dinner, he lies awake and he isn't unhappy. His stomach rumbles and hurts a bit, he hasn't eaten since breakfast, but he purses his lips and remembers his day, what it delivered. Not his mother, not this time, but something else: the delicious sensation of escape. Of being alone, away from this place and all the wounding eyes and hands. It is a feeling he will seek and find again and again, as he runs towards some confused idea of freedom, some notion of a mother. There's no danger in it, none that he can see; he isn't scared of being alone, not even at six. From then on he's only scared of one thing: being caught.

 

A WEDDING, A honeymoon. Dream and reality. Who could blame her if, in these first days when happiness hovers, close as her husband's breath, she might imagine – perhaps hallucinate – other spectres of joy?

They had begun their honeymoon on the suitably named Darling Downs. It is midwinter, and in Stanthorpe he holds her all through the chilly night, waiting for her body to relax against his. He can wait a lifetime if he has to.

They wake to a new life together, and a landscape made delicate by frost and ice. The water in the car's radiator and hoses is frozen. He shudders, feeling the glance of thirty-one deep winters in his bones.

She has never been to Sydney. But thinks it an interesting idea when he suggests it. He says they can see the bridge, the harbour, the shops, and he can go down to the docks to meet the Citos, one of the ships he serves as chandler. She has no idea they are journeying so close to Peter. He might be anywhere, though she assumes Cairns, the last place she saw him, or somewhere in the north. There is nothing in the sound of the word Sydney that suggests him, any more than a thousand other words do, every hour, every day.

She pushes these words and images away as soon as they appear. This is what she tells herself: he will have a new family. He will speak a language she doesn't understand. There will be a woman he calls 'mother' watching him run about in splendid sunshine. He will not remember the eyes that saw him first, the smell of her, the way his body fitted into hers when she held him. This is knowledge she can barely concede; when it enters her head she defeats it by almost wishing it were true. If he has forgotten her he will not feel the pain she still feels every day.

She couldn't guess what he looks like now. Has no inkling of the paralysed leg, that he wears pain in his face. But this is how it goes: they are standing on the street outside Central Station waiting for a cab. She's tired but she's happy. They've walked around the Gardens and Circular Quay, the wind flicking at their coats, their hair; stopped for tea near the Rocks. The town is grubby, she thinks, and too big, but she is in love with sandstone, its historical intimations. History: at these moments she misses her schooling as if it were a friend.

From the Rocks they'd gazed over at the bridge, its poetic span. Now as they wait she peers idly inside the station, at the arched steel of its ceiling, thinking: it mirrors the bridge. A train heaves up to a platform, people spill out, filling the space with colour and movement.

And then she sees him, out of the corner of her eye, a small, dark-haired boy limping towards the entrance. She watches as he pulls on the arm of a passing woman, his eyes turned up to her, before he lurches on. Something lurches in her too, something gives, her blood quickens. His face. The possibility. It is beyond all odds, yet in her head and heart she has imagined just such a scene – how many times? – the accidental glance, the momentary glimpse. She raises her hand then, opens her mouth to say his name, it seems it's been waiting there on her lips – Peter – since the day he disappeared. But then he is swallowed up by the tide of people on the platform, and though she pulls her arm from her husband's – her hurried steps instinctive, following – he is gone.

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