Memoir

Some clubs I have known

THE PLEASURE OF the club is a guilty pleasure, a pleasure of satisfaction sitting at the edge of arrogance, the accomplishment of acceptance, the brio of belonging. How can I reject it? Could I possibly join a club that would have me as a member? Only if I'm wooed.

ACCIDENT, ANCESTORS: AT the end of Woody Allen's film, Deconstructing Harry, all of Harry Block's fictional characters gather in his living room to encourage and thank him for creating them and this inspires him to create a new character who muses: "All people know the same truth; our lives consist of how we choose to distort it." Or how about: our lives consist of the clubs we belong to and how we and they distort the truth. The first distortion is the accident of birth and our instant and accidental belonging to a club called a family.

My family is a very large distortion of individuals who couldn't wait to run away from each other. They didn't seem to care what they did or where they went. Some of them joined the army – during wartime – to escape. Some of them moved to Melbourne. Others – there were a lot of desperate girls in my extended family – married entirely unsuitable people – deserters, drunks, gamblers, philanderers, smokers – in the hope of belonging to some other, better family.

But you can't escape the irrevocable distortion of birth. Those who knew this had two bob each way and stayed in the same places for most of their lives: the home town, or towns within double-digit miles of the home town – still desperate, mind you, girls and boys, always desperate – you can tell by the slight sheen of perspiration (not sweat) ever-present above the upper lip and desperation, as you know, prefers no particular gender or age or geography. They stayed in these same places – stony ground for the most part, sulphurous fumes in the home town's air; it was a mining town, after all, Mount Morgan – wearing their very own ley lines into the ethers, back and forth around their streets: home to work, home to the pub, home to the SP bookie, home to the grocer, home to the cemetery where the ancestors dwelt, caressing their memories, preparing the soil, worshipping the particular distortions of the foregone, the dust-and-ash versions of themselves. It's an extreme sport, ancestor worship, but the thing is, in the end, it's safe. It's a kind of pleasure itself, safety, if it doesn't bore you to death. No one, not a soul, can throw you out of the ancestor club.

To betray, you must first belong. I never belonged.

– Kim Philby, 1967

 

BELIEF, BELONGING, BINARY  opposition: You don't always realise you were part of a group, a club, until you're excluded from it. Children find out about this very early on.  There's nowhere to go but out if you're not in. Do you reckon the eventual spiny pleasure is in continuing to identify with the place from which you were thrown, or in beginning to identify with the spot where you landed?

If you exclude yourself from a group, a crowd, a crew, a mob, do you automatically become part of another bunch, and does that other bunch exist in opposition to the original?

I've never been thrown out of any formal club for disobedience of the rules – how dull – but I had occasion not long ago to officially resign from one of those no-choice, member-from-birth clubs, one I have more than a key-ring badge for to designate membership – the Catholic Club. I had all of the requisite qualifications – I still have them, in one of those archival places in the mind – though I no longer need them, except as the firm but comforting push of opposition. I'm enjoying that spiny pleasure of the spot where I landed.

I was baptised, confessed, communioned and confirmed. I had a scapular, I was a Child of Mary with a large collection of holy pictures (the more violent the better – have you ever seen one of St Stephen being stoned to death? – there's something wrong with a kid who likes their holy pictures graphic, don't you think? – apart from Steve, the best ones depicted the scared-not-sacred heart of Jesus, poor bastard, that pumping red muscle dripping with blood – no wonder nine out of 10 ex-Micks prefer Buffy to Compass). Mass, benediction, vigil, advent, epiphany, Lent, requiem. Tall hats, flat hats, embroidery, velvet, vino.

I once owned a bottle of holy water from Lourdes, so the bottle said, but my mother, Maisie, wouldn't let me sprinkle it on my pillow for luck, or whatever the religious word for luck might be. She was a germophobe and suspicious of the water's freshness, not to mention its provenance. I kept it until it turned greenish. In a similar vein, neither my brother nor I were allowed to drink from the communal chalice when skolling the consecrated wine was all the rage at Mass for a time – perhaps it still is somewhere. I always had the impression that those who slurped from the golden grail, risking any number of communicable and potentially fatal diseases, were more included, more holy if you will, more worthily chosen ones, more privileged members' stand racegoers, than the rest of us poor pishers down on the rails whose mothers held sway. Anyway, Maisie said, why bother with cheap altar wine when you have a pub full of it on tap. I don't think she ever got the notion of the ritual, of preferential games, the pleasure of the mortal indulgence of such a pious club.

The nun who taught me in grade three sent laundry home once for Maisie to do. Apparently, all the "good" mothers did laundry for the convent. Maisie sent it back with the message that the nuns could do their own laundry in their prayer down time, or words to that effect, only more forceful.

I went to Catholic schools exclusively; fortunately for me, I was never molested by a priest, brother or nun. I played netball with the kids from the local orphanage who, it turned out decades later, had been sexually assaulted by their priest. He went to the metal motel for a couple of years and was released, on compassionate grounds I believe, once he allegedly developed symptoms of dementia.

It's a far greater pleasure to leave a club for which you have all of the accoutrements, decades of holy-picture-carrying membership, memories – photographic and personal – of the sweep of history in the florid, obsessive rituals, the men in tall hats and frocks swinging their infernal censers, terrifying small children with a spiky monstrance and a line or two of alarming devilry. It's the pleasure of the T-shirt that proclaims, "Apostate and proud of it". Unlike Philby, I used to belong.


I rose politely in the clubAnd said, "I feel a little bored;Will someone take me to a pub?"
– GK Chesterton, A Ballade of an Anti-Puritan

CLUB: A HEAVY stick which increases in thickness and weight towards one end, used as a weapon, etc. An association of people united by some common interest; especially an association meeting periodically for a shared activity or for social purposes. (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1993).

The 13-month club was accidental in more than one way. There was a certain type of fellow who frequented my parents' pub and who fulfilled all the requirements of the club's rules. He was the sort of bloke you knew had his life mapped out for him according to his stool at the bar, the number of hours he spent attached to that stool each day, his trips to the poker game at the card table in the corner and his shuffles down the block to the betting shop. He was thin, bordering on having malnutrition from lack of anything but liquid breakfasts, lunches and dinners. He was one of the reasons Maisie introduced food to the bar a couple of evenings a week – plates of crackers, cheese and sausage, large bowls of chilli con carne in the winter months. There were burst veins in his face, bruises on his arms from collisions with doors and walls inconsiderate enough to place themselves in his path. He had osteoporosis – alcohol leeches calcium. Very occasionally, he'd be found sleeping out the back in the beer garden the morning after an especially heavy night, all dewy and malodorous, a face like a cat's arse. He could have been an electrician, a builder, a meatworker, a solicitor. He managed to work regularly. Let's call him Roy. The thing about this sort of chap, about Roy, was his staying power, and therein lay his downfall. Towards closing time, around 9.30 or 10, Roy would leave the safety of the pub for the darkness and home. He really did prefer to observe the nicety of sleeping in his own bed at night rather than Maisie's gerbera and gladioli beds. The problem was that my father, Jim, couldn't look out for him once he walked out beneath the licensed victualler transom window and disappeared up the street beyond the buzzing red neon of our "OTEL" sign – the "H" had been buggered for years.

The thing was, Roy lived across the main road, which doubled in those days as Highway One, the only route from the southside to the north and your continuing journey to Marlborough, where other spirits lurked and even the circuit judges carried shotguns. The thing was, Roy wasn't finicky about looking to the right and looking to the left, and some motorists weren't overly careful about keeping their eyes straight ahead, about concentrating late in the evening. Roy got hit. Mangled, broken, bloody, with only Jim to drape a blanket over him, whisper sweet nothings and promise a speedy ambulance. Roy spent months in the public men's ward of the base hospital, lino floors, wooden walls, high ceilings, no smoking restrictions, smuggled booze, perforated lives. He joined the 13-month club when his sojourn in ward three bed five passed the magic year. He completed the requirements of his exclusive membership when he returned to his bar stool a spruce man with a little extra weight, a limp from the tin hip and poorly re-aligned pelvis, an outpatient appointment card sitting with the trifecta and quinella slips in the top pocket of his new white terylene shirt.

Jim always used the same blanket for the accidents, folded neatly in the linen press at the end of the hallway. Grey, two red stripes, wool. Warm. Maisie washed it in Lux flakes after each event, a softening agent. Jim always called a taxi for Roy from then on, but not before. You could never anticipate precisely just who the next Roy would be, could you, and often, the Roy-boys didn't recognise their own reflections in each other's eyes.

 

The family is the cradle of the world's misinformation.
– Don DeLillo, White Noise

 

DEFIANCE, EXCLUSIVITY, FAMILY: The pleasure of the club that is the family is divine, sublime, sacred and ridiculous. I understood what a flimsy piece of work a family can be when my own began to disintegrate through debility, death and lack of interest – backroom stories.

Something happens in large families, which must also occur in smaller ones, I suppose, although perhaps not to quite the same extent. The something is evolutionary and it goes like this: a speck in the eye becomes a suspicion, becomes a superstition, becomes common sense and then, a truth. The final stage is when these "truths", because they originate within the clan, handed down through the ancestral gene pool (not enough chlorine used half the time, if you ask me), acquire the status of rules, or laws. I've tried for decades to defy and disregard our loopier club statutes. There remains a residue of suspicion, of superstition, if you will, at which I chip away while rubbing at the specks in my eye.

Most of my family's rules for living revolved around food (always cook pork to rags, even if you know where the pig came from – better yet don't eat pork at all); health care (bare feet are verboten, no matter where or when); apparel (slingbacks and nail polish are sure to have you arrested and identified as a lady of the evening – presumably this applied to both sexes) and household goods (putting your bed flush against the wall guarantees the avid attention and biting wrath of rodents and other vermin).

You can speculate about the specks that encouraged these developments.  Some of them can be traced. My grandfather and uncles, for instance, were butchers and mountain men who loathed the humble pig, regarding it askance when compared with the magnificent fillet and rump of a beefy bovine beast. Prejudice existed even in the world of meat and who am I to eat anything but completely cured bacon.

There was a penchant on television many years ago for documentaries about exotic places and I suspect that members of my family viewed some of these which, in passing, identified microscopic worms entering the body through the soles of the feet and consequently becoming hideous and lengthy worms. As they ran screaming from the TV room (the family members, not the worms) to spread the shoe-wearing word, they missed the part that located the worms living contented lives in the Amazon and Congo basins. Naturally, I am never seen without footwear of some kind upon my tootsies, though unlike Hitler, I don't wear them in bed very often.

I don't know if Great-Great Uncle Orlando had anything at all to do with the slingbacks and nail polish, but I hope so. I wear slingbacks and nail polish on special occasions in the privacy of my own home and in the company of other irresponsible adults.

My Uncle Mick had an unfortunate experience with a hair-eating rat which visited him regularly late at night as he slept. It was generally agreed that the rodent had developed an addiction to Mick's California Poppy. Although I've never clapped eyes on a four-legged rat in my entire life, all of the beds in which I have ever slept have been islands in the middle of my bedrooms.

The only family rule that I've managed to usurp almost completely relates to colours. Recently, we painted several walls in our house Bonsai, that's Bonsai Green. The benchtops in the kitchen are Bayou Oxide. That's a fancy name for green. The fence is Caulfield Green, ditto the house trim. The shed out the back is Mist Green; the teahouse, which used to be a cubby (it's amazing what happens when you lower the floor), received the Caulfield treatment, likewise the rejuvenated wheelbarrow.  We love green. Green is the primary colour of my favourite board game, Scrabble.  Call me slow but I've only recently realised that all these middle-of-the-rainbow choices are an illustrated protest, no, a screaming pitch against my mother's, Maisie's, law about the colour green. Green is for grief, she told me from the cradle. Green is for grief, her mother, Cate, told her from childhood. This declaration was founded in the murder of the Pyjama Girl, Linda Agostini, done away with on Maisie's eighth birthday in 1934, the case unsolved for a decade. Ms Agostini was found in her pyjamas, Chinese-style, green pyjamas, so Cate said. What else could you reasonably conclude but that green had something to do with the poor woman's misfortune? Maisie must have lived in a state of terror for the three years that I wore a bottle green uniform to my first high school. And now, if she wanted to haunt me for my sins, she wouldn't make it past the front gate. I also own two green T-shirts.

The pleasure of the club of the family is that even when you break the rules, you still look like a member, talk like one, act like one. Even if they throw you out, disown you, you still adhere atomically and neither you nor death can change that law.

 

MEMBERSHIP: I'M AN old girl of three schools and an alumna of two universities. I don't see any of the men or women I went to school with anymore. I don't attend knees-ups with my university chums. They're all there, though, milling, silent in the mist at the back of my mind. Waiting for me. There's a pleasure in standing off when you know you have proof of membership.

Fishing club, cricket club, league club, rugby club, bowls club, RSL, ethnically specific association. I don't angle, field, tackle, ruck, kiss kitty, present arms or sing in other languages, very often, and certainly never when fishing, cricketing, footballing, bowling, defending my suburb or eating boiled spuds.

I haven't joined any group, club, association, social, political, economic or other demographically distinguishable crowd for anything but the wrong reasons. Most of the wrongness relates to the rightness of the catering, the opportunity to gamble legally (the greater pleasure is in the illegal, naturally) and accessibility to university libraries.

You never know what manner of club strangers, passers-by, checkout operators, are going to allocate you to. Are you one of them, in their eyes, or not? Do you want to be? You don't want to know.

In my father's house were many rooms, although my mother wouldn't have many boarders at our pub. She was choosy – even in those carefree days you had to watch out for pedophiles among the temporarily dispossessed. Especially in those days. The only boarders she truly embraced with affection were three German engineers sent from Berlin to Rockhampton to build a flourmill. Go figure. The reason for her affection – apart from our own German ancestry – was the youngest fellow, about 23 and overseas for the first time in his life. He had a terrible case of separation anxiety and homesickness. So Maisie did what any good substitute mother would do – she scoured Rockhampton for Gerhard's favourite dish, sauerkraut. Go figure. For six months in 1969, in a pub that no longer exists, for three meals a day in the dining-room downstairs and three hours a night in the TV-room upstairs we had our very own German club: Dieter, Hans and Gerhard, Maisie with the ghost of her grandfather. And Gerhard had his sauerkraut.

The exquisite pleasure of resistance to belonging is the most important pleasure of the club. Once you belong, once acceptance is complete, something vital slackens, a piano wire somewhere slides out of tune. There is satisfaction in walking past, sailing by, thinking beyond the club, in breathing freedom. After anticipation is fulfilled, after the wooing succeeds, after all, it's downhill, until Roy and Gerhard, a few of the ancestors, reappear to distort anew, with pleasure.

 

POSTSCRIPT: I RECENTLY joined a Brisbane bowls club as a social member. (I haven't bowled since about 1967, when Nana let the kids have dead Pop's bowls set for fun and broken toes). My new club boasts riverside dining and views, cheap drinks, great food and friendly service. It smells like my parents' pub: fading furniture polish, the dying puffs of renegade smokers, seeping coldroom air, the whiff of stale beer on bar mats and in the slops trays; the roasting, baking, frying, grilling, furious kitchen. It smells like the pleasure of clubs past.

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