Location: Churchill, Manitoba.
Date: September 10, 2003. Week 1.
Observations: Everyone is staring and pointing. Another media chopper has arrived. Mum? Unusually stuck for words. Stupid cow. Oh, and there goes another tour buggy, full of selfish Americans.
Temperature: About 3 degrees Celsius outside. A steady 23 degrees inside, according to the mini-thermometer on my backpack key ring.
Feelings: Mortified. Sick to my stomach. I hate Canada. I hate the relentless cold. I despise journalists. I miss Dad and Pushkins. I miss Nimena. Why is Mum determined to ruin my life?
Write, they say. Put down your innermost thoughts and feelings. Stop bottling up your emotions, they say. Realign your wayward chakras. Unite your Yin with your Yang. Oh, really?
How spud is that? Okay, I'll write. I'll write 'til the cows come home. I'll write 'til my fingers bleed. In the end, it'll be just like all the other tactics they've tried to mould me into their vision of a well-balanced daughter. In other words – a failure. A chronic waste of my youth. A time-wasting obsession to eat away the dwindling days left between now and my inevitable death. A device to control me.
I'll give them words. I'll give them my whole life-story to choke on.
Where to begin? Do I start with my traumatic birth in 1987 and the indignity of being delivered with a suction cup stuck to my head and a 4 gazillion watt spotlight shining in my eyes?
“Well done, Mrs Porter. You have a beautiful, healthy baby daughter … shame about the whopping great egg on her head. Never mind. There shouldn't be any long-lasting effects. What? You want more pethidine? There, there. You can stop strangling your husband now Mrs Porter.”
Well, that's Dad's version of events after he's had a couple of beers.
“It's hard to believe your father grew up on a farm," Nanna Dell says, whenever we get onto the subject.
"He conveniently omits the unpalatable bit about himself chundering into a garbage bin just as you slithered out in a primitive coating of placental muck," she says, one eyebrow arching towards Dad.
"Lucky I was there to comfort your poor mother," she continues before Dad can defend himself.
"I'm not disputing the fact your mother's banshee screams and mince meat appearance weren't a little confronting. It's fair to say we were all a bit shell-shocked, not least your father.
“But I do think it was extraordinarily naïve of him to expect your mother to give birth in some sort of cherubic state of elegance. Perhaps he was expecting ladylike beads of perspiration and some gentle panting accompanied by wafting orchestral music, soft lighting and the delicate fragrance of blossoming gardenias."
There's no doubt my messy arrival into the world caused considerable family upheaval. The fact they still argue about it reinforces my theory that my whole life has been tainted by that day.
Maybe I shouldn't dwell on the past, though. How about I begin at the end? The bit where the crumblies finally succeed in turning me into a conformist. A sucky yes-girl.
Picture a feisty teenager determined to challenge all the hypocrites and lying adults who control every part of this pathetic society. Picture her youthful energy, (not to mention her moon sense of fashion excellence), as she questions, probes, debates and contradicts everything. Sometimes she does it just to be annoying, but mostly because she’s sick of all the spin. She is an unashamed idealist in a world of uninspiring, cargo pants-wearing, therapy-obsessed, coffee-addicted potatoes.
That's the old Deirdre Dell.
Now picture a violated version of this once proud specimen of teenage-hood. See how she is being diluted as she is swilled around life's Petri dish. Watch what happens when a large dose of parental control is syringed into the dish. Watch how this substance reacts with the product of embarrassing genes. Hear how her life spirit dissipates in an agonising, gaseous hiss.
And witness with dismay how the residue of this once fine specimen is left submerged in a bitter soup of despair. Watch how rapidly she is eaten away, leaving not even a trace of pathetic humanity.
I will obey. I will conform. Baaaaaaa.
That's the new Deirdre Dell.
Right now, the nouveau, wishy-washy me is sitting cross-legged on my bed upstairs in Mrs Duffy's guesthouse in sunny Churchill, Manitoba.
Gag and hurl.
It's September 2003 - well into the new millennium, but you'd hardly know it from the décor.
Unmemorable blue floral doona.
Floral box of pale, pink tissues on bedside table.
Mmmmm. Yummy beige carpet.
Everything is modern, neat, dust-free, and fatly uninspiring. Welcome to the 21st century. My fourth cup of tea has gone cold. I've lost all sense of time and I'm numb. Completely numb. For all I know, I could have been sitting here for hours. Perhaps even days. I've lost all feeling in the right cheek of my bum where it is crushing my left foot.
“Help me, help me, help me. I'm just a harmless, five-toed body part at the terminal end of a leg. What crime did I commit to deserve this smothering indignity? No, I'm not saying you're fat. Maybe you're just big boned. Maybe you're just genetically predisposed to having a chunky arse. Oh my God, not the pins and needles. I retract that statement. I'll confess to anything you want. Just stop the pins and needles!”
I suppose I could move. But I'm tired and just couldn't be bothered mustering up the energy needed to change position. Maybe my dad’s right when he says I’m bone idle.
More likely I’m iron deficient. Anyway, I may not have a choice about moving because now my knees have seized up. No, how about I forget about the lower half of my body and resume torturing my brain instead? How about some more cerebral anguish to take my mind off these trivial physical discomforts.
“That's it; take another look out the window, Cheddar Chops. Subject yourself to repulsive reality again. You can take it. You have to take it. You have no choice. You come from a long line of martyrs shackled to suffering and torment. Take the pain, loser.”
So, here I sit in glamour sleeping Tee; sexy, black undies; and my favourite mulberry, nail varnish, nursing my bruises and staring out the window. Here I sit, documenting the comings and goings of this barren north Canadian outpost and wondering why I’m still alive. So far today I've counted two television helicopters, four police officers, five journalists, eight photographers, three camera operators, 42 sticky-beaks, 12 dogs, two giant-wheeled tundra trucks full of tourists, and two rangers in a patrol vehicle. All this for me?
No, really, you shouldn't have. I'm such a shy, humble sort of person. There's no need to make such a fuss. Oh, you want to make a fuss? You want to goggle at the nod-ball Aussie chick with the deranged mother. Oh, alright then. Go ahead. Be my guest. Who am I to stand in the way of a bit of free entertainment? I'd probably do the same myself if I was half as brain-deficient as you lot. You're nothing but a pack of MONGREL BLUDGING RUBBERNECKERS.
I'm partly hidden behind floral, lace curtains, but that hasn't stopped the staring and pointing. They know I'm in here. They know I'm listening.
"That's her," I hear them say as they peer up at my window.
I can tell they're mostly locals, standing there so casually without jackets, gloves or fur-lined hats.
“What can you see? Is her face bandaged?” one woman says, standing on tippy-toes as she grabs onto a shorter woman's shoulders for balance.
"Can't tell. But she's in there all right," the other says through an attractive mouthful of potato chips.
"One thing's for sure, she's lucky to be alive."
"Stupid Arse-trayleean tourists," a man agrees, burrowing a hand into the offered chip packet and keeping the other firmly planted in his trouser pocket.
Don't they know it's rude to point? Don't they know all tourists are stupid? It's an international law of travel that all tourists must take a gazillion out-of-focus photographs, ignore warning signs, stare like morons at upside-down maps in busy city streets and always uphold the Honourable Traveller's Charter of Perpetual Stupidity. Don’t they know that's why I'm here? Don't they know what it's like to be a stupid Australian tourist plagued by dramatic incidents?
I don't need this scrutiny. What I need is some privacy to recover from the latest incident to wreck my life. Let it officially be known as ‘Dramatic Incident No. 3’, or ‘The Churchill Incident’, as splashed across the front page of today's edition of the Canadian Star. To be honest, I haven't even come to terms with ‘Dramatic Incident No. 2’, let alone have to bear the burden of another major humiliation. Nothing's been the same since ‘Dramatic Incident No. 1’, but at least I adapted quite bravely to the notoriety it brought to my life. If you're confronted with one life-changing dramatic incident, you can generally brace yourself to cope with the fallout, whereas by the time you get to your third dramatic incident in just over a year, the novelty of coping heroically has well and truly worn off. I reckon I've been overwhelmed by too many dramatic incidents and too much public exposure and not enough extra truffley chocolate.
Consequently, I don't want to go outside. Ever. How can I face the world again? How much humiliation can one girl take?
Dad says all the fuss will blow over in a couple of days. He rang this morning to comfort Mum and me and let us know that every major Australian media outlet had run the story. It was still being broadcast on the hour, every hour, as the lead item on most radio stations, even ahead of the prime minister being spotted picking her nose in public at some very important dinner.
"Pull yourself together," Dad said, as I sobbed uncontrollably, adding in a few heart-wrenching hiccups.
"I want to come home, Dad. I hate Canada," I snivelled, tears and droplets from my nose splattering on Mrs Duffy's phone.
I sniffed and watched my emotion spread into a soggy patch on Mrs Duffy's floral, fabric-covered telephone and address book.
"Are you still there, D?" Dad asked.
I was too choked up to reply, but sniffed again so he'd know I was still on the line.
"You'll be right, Love," Dad said a little less sternly, no doubt moved by an especially distressing hiccup.
"Once you leave Churchill, it'll all be forgotten, you poor old chook. People really do have short memories," he chuckled.
“I’ve saved all the articles for your shame file. Can’t wait for your 21st birthday.”
“Ha-ha,” was all I could muster.
The old man has offered to jump on a plane and join us in Canada, bless his woolly socks, but Mum insists we can cope. She is less susceptible to my outbursts, cruelly labelling them ‘Academy Award-winning histrionics’. She is also determined not to let ‘Dramatic Incident No. 3’ destroy our trip. Perhaps I'll be okay if I hibernate here until our flight to Whitehorse tomorrow.
Perhaps if I sit for long enough, the numbness in my bum will spread and paralyse my whole body. I might miraculously become petrified. Like a piece of wood. Then I woodn’t care about all the scrutiny. I woodn’t have to put up with public commentary about my life.
Perhaps not. What if I just wander out across the lonely, brown tundra and let nature take its course? At least I’d be doing a service to comedy. And solving all Mum’s parenting problems.
The old handbag’s downstairs giving her explanation of events to the police who are warding off journalists and film crews until a “formal media briefing” this afternoon. Mum's excused me from fronting the cameras this time, although I'm pretty sure there's already been some sly, telephoto lenses taking shots of me. I hope they got my finger. This is Mum's fault, so she can take the heat. She can be patronised by insensitive reporters and answer all their demeaning questions. Then she can watch herself get torn apart on the nightly news and see how she likes it.
Thank goodness for Mrs Duffy's son Derek. Watching him is an excellent distraction. If Nimena was here, she’d be having a full-on snorkelpop.
What can I say about Derek Duffy? For a start, he’s pretty immature. His 24-year-old bum isn't big enough to fill his skinny-leg jeans. He’s spent the entire morning directing traffic and trying to keep the front yard clear for police vehicles. A big strand of his sandy hair keeps flopping into his eyes as he lurches pointlessly from street to front yard and back again, hitching up his daks as he goes. He could really use some advice from a decent hair stylist, but I don't suppose Churchill is Canadian for “class”. What a tragic crater. Maybe he has a fast metabolism. I wish I did. One thing’s obvious – Derek Duffy’s never been involved in a dramatic incident before.
"Mom, how many times have I told you? Stop letting the gawkers in," he yells from the driveway as he shoves two boys out onto the street.
Mrs Duffy is oblivious.
Talk about being a few roosters short of a feather duster.
She keeps appearing on the path outside with a camera in one hand and a wad of business cards in the other. She's been handing them out to anyone – locals, tourists, neighbours, police, journalists and even a priest. At least we're good for business.
"Come in deary," I can hear Mrs Duffy's greeting every few minutes.
"Lovely to see you. Come in and have a nice cup of cawfee and we'll tells you all about it.
“Smile for the camera. Yes, it is one of those fabulous new digitals. I’m a bit of a technical late-comer, but I thought it was about time I caught up with the young ’uns."
There's a constant murmur of voices, but above it all, I can hear Mrs Duffy, sounding like she’s won the lottery.
"It was all a dreadful, dreadful mistake. If I'd known they'd broken the curfew, I would have warned them," she tut-tuts.
"That's what I told them, did I, but by thens it was too late of course. Too late, indeedy. 'I should have stopped you', said I, but they were very kind and said it wasn't my fault at all. 'Don't worry about it, Mrs Duffy', said they. 'How can we blame you? It wasn't your fault, Mrs Duffy', they kept telling me. And I don't suppose it was. I can't be responsible for every tourist who comes to Churchill, now can I? I'm a guesthouse proprietor, not a tour guide. Did I give you my card?
"Milk? Sugar? Would you like a piece of cake too?"
Murmur, murmur, murmur.
"Get your goddam vehicle out of my driveway or I'll shoot you," Derek Duffy's nervy voice floats up to my window.
"There'll be no shooting here young Derek," says a policeman leaning on the fence and puffing clouds of chilly air.
"Why don't you go back inside with your mother and leave the crowd control to me," he says, winking at several bystanders.
Derek flicks his hair uncertainly and retreats somewhere down the side of the house, hitching his trousers as he goes. I strain to hear the rest of the downstairs' conversation.
"That's D-U-double-F-Y, and my first name is Edna. Would you likes me to write it down for you?"
Write it down.
Yes, writing it down is supposed to get it off my chest. If you can’t verbalise your problems and emotions, put it down on paper, they say. Don't pretend everything's okay. I’m a sceptic, of course, but I’ll do as they wish. Is it possible to relive such horror and humiliation and unburden myself at the same time, I ask? Is it possible to resurrect the old me out of the pathetic dregs left smeared and abandoned under the world's unforgiving microscope? I doubt it, but here goes anyway. What else can I do?
Deep breath in.
I've decided to begin at the end, from where the darkness makes it impossible to see into the future, but from where one insignificant human being's tainted past has been illuminated for the whole world to see. Here goes nothing.
I BLAME IT ALL ON THE NORTHERN LIGHTS AND MY DERANGED MOTHER.
That’s it, in a nutshell. The whole kit and caboodle. The complete box and dice. What more can I say?
“Too brief,” she complains. “A little light on,” he agrees. “Completely lacking in detail and imagination,” he continues. “Not good enough,” everyone shouts in unison.
I can't do this after all. Farewell, Journal. I'm sorry for spoiling your nice, white pages. Thanks anyway for listening.
The woman melts into black. She is shapeless. An elusive possibility that melts and reforms. Melts and reforms. The shifting shape deceives the girl’s aching eyes. But still she follows, blindfolded by the night. Each boot tests the surface of the stony road, before committing a step. A leaden pulse thuds at the back of her head and her reluctant knees spasm with each footfall. Clattering stones and panted breaths keep them connected.
Shoulder-to-shoulder in bulky, fleece jackets, mother and daughter pause occasionally and stare up, waiting to be mesmerised. Minutes pass slowly, as though time is adrift in the endless, bottomless ocean of darkness. Chill air numbs the girl's face and seeps into her eye sockets, but she cannot stop searching. Her cheeks and jaw ache with concentration. Finally, she remembers to blink.
"Muuuuummmm," the girl's whisper pounds like an unexpected wave onto the shores of the inky silence.
"Mum, I think my eyeballs have frozen."
"Nonsense, blink," the mother says, trying to ignore the menace curling along the nape of her neck.
She resumes her skyward search.
"I'm trying … this is so weird. Can you believe it's so cold, I can't blink? What if my eyes really are frozen?"
The daughter is torn between panic and wonder. She wants to laugh, but only a small, audible grimace whimpers out of her tightening throat.
"They won't freeze, I'm telling you. Just try harder." The mother closes her eyes to make sure she can still blink and then quickly scans the skies in case she has missed anything.
"Why are we whispering, by the way?"
"I don't know. It's spooky out here." The daughter shakes her head and finally manages to blink, blink, blink.
The air encasing her eyeballs spreads and coats the inside of her eyelids. The girl fears the cold might now be coming from inside her skull, unfurling its thin tendrils to colonise all the cavities in her head - eye sockets, nasal passages, ears and mouth. Even her gums feel cold where skin and teeth meet.
The pair continues with eyes skyward and boots onward until the end of the road. Again they pause, a little discouraged, but still determined to search. Ahead is icy Hudson Bay. Somewhere behind is a cozy guesthouse. And all around is the great Arctic unknown.
Location: Still at Lake Kathleen, Yukon Territory.
Date: September 20, 2003. Week 3.
Observations: Not an axe-wielding maniac in sight. Come to think of it, not another human in sight, unless I count the sergeant-major. Sun's out, lake's gorgeous. Sparkling and deep blue. Cheeky, fat birds stealing brekkie remnants from picnic table. Mum fishing from shore, ever the optimist.
Temperature: A dazzling 14 degrees. Where's my bikini?
Feelings: Yippee! I survived the night. Black mood has lifted, but I'm nervous about grizzlies. I know they're out there. I've seen their paw prints.
Useless they may be, Janelle, but I should tell you a bit more about my passion for words. Having an extensive vocabulary certainly impresses the Size 16 pants off my English teacher, Ms Chutney. Her name is actually Ms Chudneigh, but we always call her Ms Chutney, even to her face. It's rumoured the other teachers call her 'Pickles' and the tuck-shop ladies say she always asks for relish on her cheese and ham sandwiches. They're such a bunch of gorgeous gossips. Mum, who's always trying to ‘connect’ with me, makes sure she says ‘Mzzzz Chutney’ in a noddy voice when we’re talking about my English assignments.
Massive eye roll.
It's also embarrassing when she tries to impress my friends. She stops using her superior dictionary words and starts saying time-warp things like ‘hip’, ‘funky’, and ‘groovy’.
"Mother, only real dipsters talk like that," I complained when she once told my best friend Nimena she loved her 'groovy' new shoes.
"That whole retro speak is soooooo last century. Get with the times, Mammy."
I've never been lame enough to use 'hip' or ‘funky’. But I confess I am guilty of using the occasional 'groovy'. One day not long after I started high school a couple of years ago, I became caught up in a nasty ‘groovy’ incident.
"Love your Moon Chick pencil case, Nimmy," I babbled that awful day in Year Seven.
I remember that day well Janelle, because it is seared on my brain in big letters that spell L-O-S-E-R, surrounded by flashing lights.
"Oh, cool bananas. You've got the matching set. That's so groovy," I said, spotting Nimena's Moon Chick book covers and glitter pen in her schoolbag.
As luck would have it, a senior boy was walking past at that moment. He stopped, turned to look me up and down, and then laughed in my face.
"That's so groovy," he mimicked.
The baboon then called his grey-uniformed, monkey mates over to have a screech as well.
I was 'mortified' and 'humiliated' as Mum had put it to Mr Berger, the principal, when she stormed into his office the next day. Her response was nothing unusual for an over-achieving parent with unrealistic expectations about their only child. But it might also have had something to do with me coming home in a state of anxiety.
"I hate school," I had sobbed, flinging down my new highlighter purple Sezz Hoo backpack and putting my head in my hands.
"A whole group of seniors surrounded me and they were yelling at me and threatening me. I was terrified, Mum. They've got no right to treat me like that."
If I'm honest, J, and it's taken me nearly three years to admit it, the encounter actually lasted only a few seconds and the abuse was more like a bit of sniggering as three boys walked past. For all I know, they could have been laughing about the weekend cricket score. Don't get me wrong, J; I really thought I heard them repeat the word 'groovy'. And they did look me up and down like I was wearing last season's disastrous Frankie Pellamour flared hipsters.
"You're imagining things, D," Nimena had said to reassure me.
"Stop being so paranoid."
Even so, I was fatly upset. Once in a while I have been known to exaggerate my school misery to make my parents feel sorry for me. They're always raving on about how boys hassle girls at school and how they won't stand for their little Diddi suffering any sort of sexist persecution. I wouldn't be performing my teenagerly duty unless I made some attempt to fulfill their paranoid delusions.
"I will have no hesitation, Mr Berger, in suing you, the education department, Applegrove High School, and every male in it if this chauvinistic bullying in any way damages Deirdre's self-esteem or hampers her academic development," Mum had said in her poshest voice without drawing breath.
The Berger was speechless and I don't blame him. I get like that too when Mum's on a mission for justice. It's not just her words that inspire fear. It's the whole Porter Parental Package. Like I’ve said before, Mum's a tall, power-dressing woman and she's quite formidable in a strangely attractive way, with high cheekbones and a haughty, catwalk kind of pout. When she's angry, her dark eyebrows go into a fierce, plunging vee, making her look like a ravenous hawk about to rip out the intestines of a newborn kitten.
"As the principal of this establishment, responsible for the tutelage of 1,200 students, it is incumbent upon you to institute an annual gender awareness program for all members of the school population," Mum instructed Mr Berger, who was fiddling with the telephone cord and sending a few fake sympathetic looks my way.
"Perhaps you also need to reacquaint yourself with the education department's latest curriculum guidelines which quite clearly spell out the imperative for our state schools to incorporate gender equity in all areas of the educative process."
At least that part of the whole drama was satisfying, seeing The Berger squirm like a worm on the end of hook. Mr Berger deserved it, though, Janelle. You should have seen the way he ignored me when we barged into his office, only inviting Mum to sit down. She, in turn, ignored him, steering me towards the offered seat with her hands on my shoulders and plonking me down so suddenly I knocked a cup of pencils off the desk. Mr Berger dived under the table to retrieve them while Mum stood; her chin thrust forward, her hands on her hips, and glared fabulously. It was a scowl more rogue than any face I could pull in drama class, although it was wasted on Mr Berger who continued grovelling at our feet as he stalled for time.
When he finally emerged on the other side of the desk, we sat looking at each other, but avoiding eye contact. We waited for Mum to finish accusing the school's entire male population and some mad woman of a most wicked conspiracy against all girls.
"If you let this insidious Ms Hodgenny take control, then how will any of our female students be able to focus their energies on academic excellence?" Mum demanded, her mouth scrunched into a red pout.
"This Ms Hodgenny will rob my daughter and her peers of their right to an education unhindered by bigotry and hostility."
I'm not aware of any Ms Hodgenny at the school and there certainly wasn't anyone by that name in the vicinity when the senior boys bullied me. Whoever she is though, she must be a real woman hater and I hope I never encounter her, Janelle. I already have enough problems.
I managed to survive the ordeal by switching my gaze from The Berger to a weird Elvis Presley pencil sharpener perched on the side of his desk. Whoever designed the gadget had a sick sense of humour because they had put the pencil hole in the bum of his hip-hugging, white flares. No wonder he had such a startled look on his plastic face. Just like Mr Berger, who has huge, hairy black sideburns and tinted glasses that double as sunnies. How spud is that, J? Looking at the sharpener and back at Mr Berger, it occurred to me he might be one of those sad adults who go to fancy dress karaoke parties as dead rock stars who no-one's ever heard of. Perhaps he and the mysterious Ms Hodgenny were into role playing.
“Ooooooooh, Mr Berger, you saucy devil. You're going to make this jailhouse rock in that outfit. Come hither and show me how you gyrate that pelvis. Let's get that tummy blubber wobbling. Ooooooooh, yes. Do it again and I'll shake my great big bazoomies. Better still, love me tender you old hound dog or I'll step on your blue suede shoes.”
This reminded me of a joke, even though I was in a completely tense situation.
Question: What's green and sings?
Answer: Elvis Parsley.
I told the same joke when I was seven in primary school, but I was wasting my breath, J. No-one laughed except the teacher because hardly anyone knew who I was talking about. I think that's called irony because like Elvis, half the kids in my class were growing up on a diet of American pop culture and greasy junk food and probably didn't even know what parsley was.
Thank you very much.
Maybe it's even a double irony, if there is such a thing, because if you consider the nutritional value of parsley, it's full of Vitamin C and iron. Okay, okay, so I need to work on the content and the delivery.
Oooopppps. Aspiring standup comedienne ruins perfectly good gag by briefly channelling maternal health fanatic. Chokes on herbs as unforgiving audience pelts stage with vitamin-rich tomatoes.
I only knew about Elvis because the crumblies tortured me from a young age with their ancient vinyl collection. It includes some real old manure. And I quite like parsley. Like I said before, I'm thinly in favour of good nutrition, even if I am slightly chocolate-obsessed. Speaking of which, I'd kill for a hot chocolate. Back in a mo, Janelle.
Bummer. We've run out chocolate sachets again. I'll see if I can sweet talk Mum into making us a cup of tea. Wouldn't it be nice to have your own personal slave? Now where was I?
Ah yes, February 2000 in Bryan Berger's office. I was busy thinking about my tragic Elvis joke-telling moment as I tried to forget what a noddy I'd been for making such a big deal out of my encounter with the senior boys. Mr Berger’s fat, freckled fingers were busy fiddling with pencils as insincere words spilled out of his thin, rubbery lips. He was saying things like ‘I understand’ and ‘You know my door's always open. Of course Deirdre's a valued member of this school, Mrs Dell.’
"My name is Mzzzz Porter," Mum said with a withering sigh, tucking her shiny, dark brown hair neatly behind her ear.
"Mzzzz Dymphia Porter."
Mum is a feminist and kept her family name when she married. I reckon she probably also thought someone with a spud name like Dymphia Dell would not be taken seriously on the motivational seminar circuit. Why then, the crumblies named me Deirdre Dell is a sick mystery. My initials match of those of Daffy Duck, Dirty Dog and Deadly Dull. I'm reluctant to record in writing an even more shocking, parental blunder which has scarred me for life. I'll put it in brackets in case I decide to remove it from your pages at some later stage.
(My parents, quite innocently they claim, named me Deirdre Eleanor Amanda Dell. Deirdre because of Dad's Irish roots on Nanna's side; Eleanor, the name of Mum’s mother; Amanda after a singer at a seedy nightclub where the crumblies used to hang out; and Dell because my Dad stuck up for his paternal naming rights despite my mother's feminist objections. Dad had the final say because he lodged the application for my birth certificate while Mum was still recovering in hospital, conveniently ‘hostage to her hormones’. In his haste to make sure the surname was correct, and possibly drunk on cheap bubbly, my dad buggered up the order of my other names. Mum says I was supposed to be Deirdre Amanda Eleanor, not Deirdre Eleanor Amanda.)
It's bad enough Mum and Dad still call me by my baby name Diddi. I'm not an envious sort of person, but I can't help thinking Nimena was dealt all the lucky cards when she was born. Her surname is Singh and she has really moon initials. N.S. can also stand for Nifty Shoes, Nubile Sexpot, Nobody's Skivvy, Natural Skin, and No Surrender … which is certainly the tactic Mum adopted when she took on the principal that day in Year Seven.
Mr Berger kept apologising and wrote and underlined Ms Porter on his notepad. He promised he'd have a word to the senior boys. I could tell he was just sucking up to get rid of Mum, so I was sort of pleased she was making such a fuss. It wasn't much comfort though.
Exaggerating my misery on this occasion had got completely out of hand. Back in those early days of high school, Mum was usually too preoccupied with her career to bother reacting like a major maniac. Otherwise I wouldn't even have attempted to stretch the truth. On the rare occasions Mum did react, I generally enjoyed the way she and Dad would get all serious about any injustice against their little Diddi, lavishing me with attention. It was about the only time I saw a glimmer of maternal compassion. I loved those tragic moments when they pitied me, feeling like they'd failed as parents and letting me have an extra helping of ice-cream for dessert. When they were really guilt-ridden, they would relax the TV limits or give me extra pocket-money even if I hadn’t done all my chores.
How times have changed, Janelle.
These days, any sort of tender consideration for my feelings has been replaced by a more vigilante approach to life's little crises. Mum now has to ‘workshop’ everything that goes wrong in my life. She's always spouting on about personal accountability, self-awareness and individual growth.
"What you need to realise Deirdre, is that unless we take responsibility for ourselves, as individuals, then society has to pick up the pieces when there is the inevitable deficit of law, order and common decency," Mum lectured me as justification for one of these workshops.
Tell that to her supermarket victims.
And so, Janelle, I find myself here in remote north-west Canada, sitting on a giant piece of driftwood by Lake Kathleen, engrossed in my own personalised version of workshopping.
I've reluctantly agreed to write down my thoughts on life, the universe and especially my relationship with Mum, as we journey through this icy land. The deal is, I don't have to show anyone what I've written, but I do have to keep writing and searching for ways to be positive about life. It's either submit to Mummy's will, or be sent quick smart to a shrink. Don't you think it's interesting, J, how my parents have resorted to blackmail to get my cooperation?
"The thing is Deirdre, you're skating on extremely thin ice," Dad had warned me the day Mum and I flew out of Sydney, two weeks earlier.
"If you don't do something about your attitude, your mother will have no hesitation about putting you into long term therapy."
Dad's stern, but gentle words amounted to your typical fatherly pep-talk, delivered with a cringeworthy pat on my thigh. I felt like we were characters out of some sort of shonky sit-com. Naturally, I responded by groaning melodramatically and giving Dad one of my 'I'm-not-convinced-so-stop-hassling-me' looks.
Papa not impressed.
"Don't come the raw prawn with me, young lady," he snapped, all tenderness erased from his voice.
"If you think for a bloody minute I'll be defending you, then you're sadly mistaken. Perhaps you should stop badmouthing this trip and start realising you have a marvellous opportunity, not only to see a stunning part of the world, but also to heal some pretty awful emotional wounds."
I stared at my shoes and fiddled with the sea-shell buttons on my Marie-Danielle nautical-look shorts.
"For Chrissake, look at me when I'm talking to you," Dad seethed and I realised he'd reached the end of his tether.
"Let me give you a friendly piece of advice. Do what your mother asks and be grateful you've got parents who give a tinker's cuss."
The water is so blue today, Janelle. What a difference a day can make. Yesterday, black and angry. Today, postcard perfect. Look at those ripples. Look at the way the water catches the light. Look at Mum fishing, bless her sweaty socks. Reminds me of a timeless day on some distant, carefree day in my childhood.
I can feel a poem coming on. I will call it ‘Fishing and Rippling’. May its calm vibes soothe my angry soul.
Fishing and Rippling. By D. E. A. Dell.
Fish for dinner
Fish on my plate
Sweet taste evoking memories
Of a timeless day in a boat.
No mud in water.
Reflections in water
More precise than reality
Hard, defined reflections
Of clouds and rocks and trees.
Perfect calm-before-the-storm water
And us in our little boat
Grey and midnight-blue water
Images rippled apart
By gliding metal boat
Mechanically made ripples
Of perfect symmetry.
Mercury ripples venetianed
Into fragmented pictures.
Loaves of rock
Breading into rippled water
And us in our little boat
Fish staring at baited hooks.
Fish for dinner
Fish on my plate
Sweet taste evoking memory
Of a timeless day in a boat.
Dad's right, of course. I should be grateful and to be honest, writing isn't like a total punishment. I love writing and experimenting with words. I'm also finding it therapeutic being able to criticise my parents without retribution but dis-engorging all this built-up hostility is making me feel even more resentful towards my mother. Why should I have to put up with her tedious obsession with workshops and soul-searching? Why should I be the guinea pig for her behaviour modification experiments? I've discovered that for every one of Mum's workshops, there is a sadistic solution and for every sadistic solution there is pain or humiliation. It's hardly surprising then that Mum's worst-ever workshop led to our current danger-filled journey.
Perhaps I could tolerate my mother's insistence that I embark on a vain search for the inner me, if personal discovery and a bit of bad poetry were the only results of a workshop. What I can't condone J, is that Mum’s workshopping led to my recent, terrifying encounter with one of Planet Earth's least compassionate killing machines. They may look harmless, but I'm pretty damn sure these cold-eyed assassins don't give a flying fig about humankind's supposed domination over all other life on Earth.
Just ask my mate, Neville. Better still; get him to tell you the story, Janelle. I've changed my mind. I'm signing off from this charade.
“I don’t know what to think, Roger,” the woman talks through a piece of half-chewed Vegemite toast, taps at her phone keypad and glances at her watch.
“I know she gets carried away, but I really think we should believe her. She needs our support. Year Seven is such a tough year and I’m concerned about Applegrove’s male-dominated culture. I don’t ever want our daughter treated as second rate because of her gender.”
The man drains his tea with a gulp and puts the cup in the dishwasher.
“I don’t know either sweetheart,” he says, grabbing his jacket off the back of the chair.
“You know I’m hopeless with this sort of stuff. I know how you feel about these things, but maybe our girl just needs to toughen up a bit. Then again, why don’t you go and see that excuse for a principal and see if you can find out what’s going on. What’s his name again? Birder, Birker? Gotta go.”
The man grabs his wife around the waist, pulls her towards him and kisses her lips loudly. He looks into her eyes briefly and catches her lingering anxiety.
“We’ll talk about it tonight Love. Just try not to worry,” he calls out as he dashes for the door.
The woman sighs and picks up her briefcase. She has three meetings with clients, a lunchtime staff meeting and a planning session with the financial controller. The cat needs to be dropped off at the vet for her annual vaccine and meetings with the school principal can only be made between 11am and 12.30pm. The trip from the office in the city to the high school takes on average 16 minutes, if there are no traffic incidents.
“Berger,” she whispers.
“Berger, my darling Roger, not Birker.”
Location: Lake Kathleen, Kluane National Park, Yukon Territory.
Date: September 19, 2003. Week 3.
Observations: 50kmh winds with 90kmh gusts. Everything cold, lonely, grey. Wild, choppy lake looks like the sea having a seriously bad hair day.
Temperature: About 5 degrees outside, not counting nasty wind chill factor. About 15 degrees inside, or 27 degrees next to the wood stove. (Go you radical mini-thermometer.)
Feelings: I want to go home. I'm sick of being cold. I'm really scared. Mum clueless about my torment. So what's new?
So, Journal. What is journal in French? Journale perhaps? I think that's actually a newspaper, but it sounds good. Journale. J'anelle. May I call you Janelle?
I know, I know, it's been nine days, but I came back to you, didn't I? I'm ready to bite the bullet again. To step into the line of fire. To stare down the barrel. I've got nothing better to do. This whole wilderness thing is spud-awful and Mum isn't letting up about my writing ‘obligations’. Perhaps I should start with her, since she's the source of most of the misery in my life.
What can I write about Mum, the honourable Dymphia Ellen Porter? The tall, glamorous one with blemish-free skin and about as much charm as Nanna’s false teeth in a glass beside the bed. If I'm talking proper nouns, she's mostly ‘Mum’. Occasionally, I stray from this over-used form of address to call her ‘Mummy’; ‘Maman’ (in a French accent); ‘Ma’; ‘Mammy’; or simply ‘Mother’. Mum isn't fooled by ‘Mummy’, because she knows I'm not her dear, sweet, little girl anymore. She isn't too sure how to react when I call her ‘Mother’, especially when I say it in a poncy, British royal’s sort of voice. ‘Mother’, according to the dictionary, is actually another name for revolting stringy, gummy stuff full of bacteria that forms on the surface of fermenting liquids.
Mum hates it when I call her Dymphia. And if I really want to get on her nerves, I throw a casual ‘eh, Dymph’ into our conversations. Maybe she's uncomfortable with me acting like we're equals. As if I don't already know where the power lies in this family. I once got sent to my room for addressing her as 'she-the-one-who-must-be-obeyed', even though I said it in a joking, subservient sort of way. On the other hand, maybe Mum secretly hates her frilly name. She really doesn't look like a Dymphia. Dymphias should be short and cuddly with soft eyes and bouncy curls. They should wear nondescript, pastel outfits that look like they’re made out of curtain fabric. Dymphias shouldn’t be tall, stern, straight-haired disciplinarians with a preference for bold, striking power suits. A personality like Mum’s deserves a hard bitch name like Stella, or Ruth or Claudia.
“Oooh-aaahh, you disrespectful little trollop. You nasty, negative vinyl handbag.”
If I'm honest, Janelle, the reason I'm so disrespectful towards my mum is simple. She's an embarrassment. Not a major nuclear holocaust embarrassment, but let's just say I'd rather be seen wearing a lace-trimmed, cotton nightie and granny slippers at a slumber party, than be seen in public with my mum. Fortunately, there aren't too many people this far north and Dad's right about people having short memories. A few people have recognised us lately, but it's amazing how well an ugly hat and baggy clothes can help hide your identity.
Don't get me wrong Janelle, I love my mum in a dutiful daughter sort of way. I know accidents happen and I, of all people, know that no-one's perfect. I even feel like forgiving her occasionally. I just wish Mum wasn't such a dictator.
Sometimes I feel like I don't have a real mum. I think of her as being my chief executive officer. In fact, Dymphia Porter runs my life like she runs her tightly-scheduled board meetings. She will not be contradicted. She will not be challenged. In Dymphia's world, there is no room for debate, no room for opposition and absolutely no excuses for lateness, poor results or a negative attitude.
Dymphia has clocks in every room of the house to ensure we're never late, even for leisurely weekend brunch at 10am on the dot.
Tickity, tickity, tick.
She uses colour-coded pins on the kitchen notice board. Red for bills and matters of urgent attention. Blue for upcoming events. Yellow for general information. God help anyone who breaches the colour code.
Worst of all, Dymphia limits my TV viewing to seven hours a week. I don’t get any Internet time because our connection is too slow. How spud is that? I'm not exaggerating when I say Dymphia Porter runs our family with the sort of sadistic precision normally reserved for the military.
“You there, Glamour Girl. Yes, you with the vacant gaze and the bubble brain. We will be departing our place of residence at precisely Oh Eight Hundred Hours, on the dot, exactamondo, not one second sooner, nor one second later, so you will report to me in the food preparation zone to consume your sustenance at exactly Oh Seven Forty Five, not one second sooner, nor one second later. Now synchronize your watch and prepare to fulfill all your ante meridiem obligations and duties posthaste. Fall out!”
I have a recurring nightmare of Mum bellowing ‘hup-two, three, four … hup, two, three, four’ at Dad and me when we lag behind in the supermarket. Luckily, the nightmare has a couple of redeeming features. I always appear wearing tightly-belted, Amanda Domminelli khaki fatigues with matching beret and drink flask. Without wanting to sound vain, I do look quite kissable and Dad looks pretty rogue in Addam Ganges camouflage, as he hovers in the background. But that's of little comfort when we're being forced to endure a tirade of abuse at the hands of my deranged sergeant-major of a mother. Yes, Janelle, it's just a random dream, but it's also a scenario a little too close to the truth for comfort.
I'll explain what I mean. In real life, once a fortnight, Mum barges ahead with the trolley as Dad and I loiter in Aisle 5 and Aisle 7. Biscuits in 5. Chips, chocolates and lollies in 7. We're the sort of dawdling, indecisive supermarket parasites that really get under the skin of people like Mum. People like Mum come armed with a list. And from what I've observed over many years of trudging around our local supermarket, a human with a list is a human unfulfilled until every single item on that list is hunted down and captured within a set time-frame, without any interference or delays.
List Woman propels her trolley like a tank on a battlefield, using her elbows to sweep aside any resistance. Elderly types and crumblies with toddlers are left squished against the shelves mouthing rude words as she rumbles past. Put the heavy-duty, lace-up boot on the other foot and List Woman is outraged if anyone invades her precious, personal space.
"I cannot abide ill-mannered people," she'll complain loudly if anyone dares breach her trolley’s exclusion zone.
"Whatever happened to a simple 'excuse me, please’? Manners don't cost anything," she’ll hiss, her nostrils flaring and dark eyes narrowing into mean, little slits.
Talk about a hypocrite. And fanatical. Mother's supermarket excursions always result in trolley-loads of spud-awful food.
“How spud-awful?” asks the pre-washed Pontiac. “Enorma spud-awful,” replies the Kipfler.
It's the sort of food that makes checkout operators grimace as they scan each item. GM-free chickpeas. Wholemeal Lebanese bread. Firm tofu. Frozen spinach cubes. Kibble-wheat muffins. Plain yoghurt with acidophilus. Sun-dried apple slices. Fortified vegetable juice.
Gag and Olympic hurl.
Mum always selects Australian-made organic products free from sugar, fat, salt and monosodium glutamate. Dad and I seek out the richest, fattiest treats we can find. Mum pauses for a nano-second to calculate which brand and size of wholegrain rice is the best value. We dither in Aisle 5 until it's safe to smuggle something wicked past enemy surveillance.
We usually get sprung, of course. Don't get me wrong, J. I know familiarity breeds contempt and all that, but do you mind if I call you ‘J’? Don't get me wrong, J, I'm thinly in favour of good nutrition even if I do have to suffer pitying glances from checkout operators. Dymphia, however, is a woman of extremes. She is a lentil-obsessed, fat-conscious, health food zealot who likes to impose her standards on everyone else. She regards chocolate as a weakness and tries to make us feel guilty by patting Dad's podgy belly and staring at the zits on my chin.
Which is dreadful psychology when you think about it. I mean, if you already feel fat or ugly, what have you got to lose by eating chocolate? It's about the one thing that can really cheer you up. I could do with a family-size block right now. It'd help me think. It'd also help insulate me against this relentless cold.
Brrrrrr, chunky chunky.
"Of course she's your bloody mum," Dad assured me one day as we sat in his shed scoffing a packet of extra-rich, double-coated Choco Supremes.
We needed to destroy the evidence while Mum was in the kitchen unpacking the rest of the groceries into precisely the right, neatly labelled, airtight containers and positions in the pantry and fridge.
"Yeah, right. And I'm a famous Size 6 model with long legs and a fat bank account."
"I'm telling you, she's your mother," Dad said, helping himself to his fifth Choco Supreme, his green eyes glowing.
"She gave birth to you, she breast-fed you for the first year of your life and she cuddled you at all the times recommended by our excellent parenting manual, ‘Set Your Baby Free’, by Barnaby Neptune. She's a marvellous woman. A little nutty, perhaps, but marvellous all the same."
"Nutty? I'd say she's a few sandwiches short of a picnic," I shot back, liberating the last, lonely biscuit from the packet.
Dad chuckled and sucked the dregs of his tea through his biscuit. He looked a little nutty himself, chocolate smeared in the corners of his mouth and crumbs all over his favourite Midnight Oil T-shirt.
Seriously though, Dymphia even forces me to iron my own clothes and make my bed with those really, precise corners like they do in hospitals. I have friends whose stay-at-home mums make their beds every morning after they've gone to school. They also cook them scrambled eggs for brekkie, whereas I have to put up with home-made muesli sprinkled with wheat-germ and bran. In case you haven't worked it out yet, J, my mum has an obsessive concern for the health of my bowel.
"For goodness sake, I'm 16, not 50," I snap at Mum whenever she lectures me about the cancer-preventing effects of high-fibre diets.
We're not even allowed to have white bread in the house. Once in a childish fit of defiance, I ate a whole plate of fairy bread at Jenny Olive’s birthday party to make a point. Mum didn't say anything at the time, but she made her point by banning ice-cream in our house for the next month. She also conveniently forgot to bring home my party bag which was full of jelly snakes and my favourite chocolate koalas. It was probably just as well though, because I was as crook as a dog that afternoon from eating all the fairy bread.
Zero maternal sympathy.
Like I say, Dymphia Porter is a control-freak. I mean, why else would she have dragged me half-way across the world on this noddy, mother-daughter camping trip?
Perhaps I sound ungrateful. Perhaps I sound like a spoiled, self-indulgent, 21st century teenager who wouldn’t know the meaning of the word deprivation. Okay, then, Janelle. Mum isn't a dead-set embarrassment all the time. In fact, this week we are getting on quite well and I can't deny we've had a couple of warm and fuzzy bonding moments. When you both stare death in the eye, you're bound to feel some sort of affinity. Maybe it's just reliance, but I do feel closer to Mum than usual. I'm astounded by her sudden lust for adventure and her born-again, hippy attitude to life. It is out-of-character, but encouraging all the same.
Right now, for example, Mum's heating salt-reduced baked beans on our small, fuel burner while I catch up on postcards and you, my dear journal.
Mum's looking totally tribal, squatting serenely alongside her cooking pot. No sign of impatience, no agitation, no bad karma. She even looks slightly like a Dymphia. There's a gale blowing, so we've taken shelter in a dry, draughty, log cabin on the deserted shores of Lake Kathleen in Kluane National Park. I'm glad Mum is calm because I'm freaking out. The wind is howling and I just about jump out of my thermals every time a tree branch bangs up against the building. I can't help thinking about axe-wielding, homicidal maniacs – bearded, half-wild mountain men roaming the Canadian wilderness looking for vulnerable, foolhardy tourists to slaughter as they lie in their sleeping bags, praying for dawn. Now that would be a dramatic incident. There's a remote, but highly believable possibility one of them is lurking outside now, waiting for his chance to hack us to death. I picture our dismembered bodies lying amidst shredded, blue polyester and blobs of goose down mingled with blood, congealing on the floor. It's that sort of night.
The wind and my imagination aren't our only worries, J. According to my pocket-book, ‘A Survival Guide to Camping in Canada’, there are more grizzly bears per square kilometre here, than in any other part of the country. Too bad if I need to go to the dunny. I'll cross my legs and wait 'til daybreak. At least we're warm. We've got a roaring fire going and there's no way we're pitching the tent tonight, even if it is illegal to sleep in these shelters.
"Who's going to know? The squirrels?" Mum scoffed when I expressed concern about getting busted.
I really didn’t want to antagonise any more authorities.
"I dare say no ranger's going to venture out in this weather, nor are they likely to be on the lookout for campground lawbreakers when there generally are no campers at this time of year," she continued, her cheeks glowing from the heat pouring out of the well-stoked cabin stove.
"Except for one mad Australian woman with a death wish and her long-suffering daughter," I muttered, wondering if my bladder would burst in the middle of the night and whether this could cause any long-term damage to my health.
The more I think about weeing, the more I want to go.
This little wee goes to market. This little wee stays at home. This little wee has roast beef. This little wee has none. And this little wee goes pig, pig, pig, all the way home.
For once though, I think Mum is right. We're in the sparsely populated Yukon Territory and not many tourists venture this far north, especially in late September. All the official campgrounds are closed because only brain-deficient foreigners think shivering in a tent being battered by gale force winds, is a fun idea. Back home the weather's just hotting up, J. It'd be warm enough to go to the beach and show off my new Nadia Chee bikini. Instead I'm being forced to endure harsh conditions in the northern hemisphere. In this part of Canada, the daytime temperatures have been reaching about 11 degrees Celsius and at night it's been getting down to well below zero. My pocket-book says the true overnight temperature at this time of year can be much lower if you take into account the wind chill factor.
To make matters worse, our sleeping bags are completely inadequate, so we've been sleeping fully clothed in our thermals, trackie daks, socks and skivvies. I don't dare take a sniff, Janelle. At least there's no-one else around to enjoy the aroma. Camping in these conditions does seem insane, not to mention unfashionable and a touch unhygienic, but it sort of makes me feel brave and adventurous too. It's just the grizzlies, the squirrels, the occasional axe-wielding maniac, and us in our spicy underwear. What a team!
But I mustn’t get carried away, J. Whenever I start feeling too enthusiastic about this mother-daughter journey of discovery, I remind myself about ‘Dramatic Incidents Nos. 2 and 3’. I also remind myself our holiday won’t last forever. When we return to Australia, Mother's humiliating behaviour will cast a great shadow over my life once again.
Mum's just brought me a bowl of beans and a steaming mug of low fat hot chocolate, delivered with an affectionate smile, so I feel like a bit of a traitor for focusing on her negatives. But, hey, ‘c'est la vie’. I'm obviously not the grateful daughter Mum was hoping for.
I'm not saying we don't get along in normal circumstances, J. We get along superbly when we're at home, behind locked doors, with all the curtains closed. We play board games and Chess and have amazing Scrabble tournaments in which Mum always gives me 50 points head start because she has a bigger vocabulary. She may be a tyrant, but Mum's an absolute stickler for fair play.
Besides being C.E.O. of our family, Dymphia Porter runs a successful IT company that develops 'practical software solutions for small to medium businesses' – or so the marketing spiel says. She's also in demand as a motivational speaker. I once saw her in action when I chucked a sickie from school. Her expressive hands occasionally thumped the lectern, or her fingers pointed, prodded and poked the air with deadly intensity, to help emphasise the blah-blah-blah information hammering out of her mouth. I couldn’t believe it when the roomful of suits she was lecturing gave Mum a standing ovation. They were clearly deluded.
Tragically, they seemed thrilled to have her accuse them of being a pathetic bunch of losers. Those weren't Dymphia's words exactly, but I'm pretty sure that's what she meant when she said she'd never encountered such an ‘inefficient, inarticulate and ego-driven assortment of second rate managers deficient in all facets of professionally-run business environments’. Or something like that.
Mmmmm. This hot chocolate is majorly belly-warming. A little light on flavour, but some chocolate is better than none at all. Must stop thinking about family-size block of Creamy Fudge-Filled Delite. Obsessive behaviour can be destructive, not to mention devastating for a girl's figure.
In a nutshell, my mum is super practical but I think her uncompromising, non-negotiable approach to life has stifled her emotions. She's ultra intelligent and can seem like a snob when she uses impressive words like 'erroneous' instead of 'wrong'; 'irks' instead of 'annoys'; 'secure' instead of 'get'; and 'squeamish' instead of 'sick in the guts'.
For example, she'd say: "Don't go making erroneous assumptions about the depth of your father's pockets, Deirdre. You know it irks him when you contrive to secure your weekly entitlement without performing your quota of household duties. Proceed directly to your room and do not emerge until it is sufficiently tidy to satisfy my thoroughly reasonable parental expectations. I cannot fathom how a minuscule portion of labour can induce such squeamishness."
Dad is less formal and likes to get to the point. In the same situation, he'd say: "What the hell do you think you're playing at, Deirdre? It gives me the bloody gripes when you try and wangle your pocket-money without pulling your weight. Now, go and tidy your room. I'm sick to the back teeth with your shenanigans."
Myself? I'm a bit of a word chameleon. On the one hand, I take after Dad - we’re both short and stocky, have too many freckles, adore chocolate, and we both indulge in a bit of harmless swearing. I keep my swearing to a minimum and do most of it out of earshot because my parents are hypocrites. Being crude isn’t my style, although I quite like the impact of the 'f' word in the right circumstances. I try to limit my use of it because I don’t want to sound like a try-hard. I'm also fairly versatile with slang, switching seamlessly from the Americanised language of my friends to the more traditional ocker needed when I sit down for a yack and a cuppa with Nanna. On the other hand, I think Mum's linguistic style is also having an impact on me. I quite like using sophisticated words and I'm getting pretty good at the giant crossword in the Sunday paper. Not many 16 year-olds would know a ‘mamaku’ is an edible New Zealand tree fern or ‘scurf’ is another word for dandruff.
Another one of my favourite new words is ‘noddy, that ridiculous thing TV reporters do during interviews. They generally film these nodding segments after they've finished the interview and the interviewee has already gone. They then edit the noddies into the final piece that goes to air. If it's a serious news item, they'll nod with their brows furrowed and their mouths looking suitably grim. If it's a light-hearted piece, they'll nod with a cheesy grin and maybe even let out a fake 'ha-ha-ha'. In any case, ‘noddy’ is a word that sums up the contempt I feel for TV journalists.
Words are wonderful, Janelle. In fact, I've often talked my way out of punishments like detention, attending family gatherings and boring sports lessons. I've also used dazzling displays of language to scam extra pocket-money, assignment extensions and second helpings of ice-cream. I once imagined being a wordsmith could get me out of any spot of bother.
That was before Mum dragged me halfway across the world to the Canadian wilderness. It was before she pressured me to write about my journey and the terrible events that brought us here. It was also before I came face-to-face with something completely indifferent to the English language, but entirely enthusiastic about the taste of human flesh.
Words, Janelle? Words in the wilderness are about as effective as an underwater scream.
The woman scrapes the last of the baked beans into two enamel bowls, making sure she gives a little more to her daughter. It’s a habit. Always take the smallest portion. Always make sure everyone else is satisfied. Think about others first.
“The cook eats the leftovers,” her own dear mother would often say, busying herself with pots and pans in the kitchen while the rest of the family tucked into dinner.
There were days when Dad and the boys had second helpings and there were no leftovers.
Metal on metal fills the dim cabin, momentarily masking the wind’s moaning monologue. The woman is tired; but not only because it’s been a long, cold day. She’s tired of all the conflict. Tired of being a parent. Tired of trying to share herself around. She wants to switch off her busy mind but there is always something to worry about. Diddi is never far from her thoughts. Especially out here.
The woman eats quietly, comforted by the wood fire’s gentle flames. She watches her daughter’s face for a while. My Diddi is a good looking girl, she thinks to herself, as her daughter’s pen moves rapidly across another white page. Not good looking in a pretty, girly way, but good looking in a natural, robust way. Round, intelligent eyes; passionate lips; and a delightful sprinkle of freckles across her straight nose and high cheek bones. A memorable, photogenic face. Just like my mother’s, the woman realises. She nearly smiles but stops when she sees the unflattering sneer.
The woman cannot get used to her daughter’s contempt. She hates the way it makes her feel. She hates the way Diddi wipes her attempts at affection like a dirty, wet, tea-towel wipes a greasy pan. She knows the contempt is for her and it makes her feel powerless and small. She feels no affinity with her only child. Her instinct is to move closer so she can reach out and stroke her daughter’s cheek with the back of her hand, as though this might soften the hatred. But she does not move. Reaching out is never easy. It never feels natural. And it is almost always rejected.
“Patience, my dear,” she can hear her mother’s advice.
“Change takes time, a little luck and bucket-loads of patience.”
For now, it is enough for the woman that her daughter is in the same room; that they have food in their bowls; and a safe, warm place to sleep.