We sit in Cuppa Cottage looking at a photograph from twenty eight years ago. We both had kept a copy. Cuppa Cottage is in Sandringham and has porcelain tea cups hanging from a wooden ladder over the cash register. We sit at a corner table under a large red paper umbrella. I have a plastic bag full of photos to go through together.
We lean in to each other over the photo. The horizon is yellowing with age; I wear a sarong over bikinis, my arms loosely around his neck. We both look out at the camera, our eyes in shadow.
‘I think it’s Byron Bay’, I say.
Women sit with their mothers or in groups of three friends. The waitress comes in a floral apron with rockabilly hair. Everyone else in Cuppa Cottage has a slight variation on the style you get in one of the six hairdressers in Sandringham.
‘You can order a trifle in a tea cup,’ I smile. We order two pots of English breakfast tea.
‘By the way’, Kevin says, ‘I am sorry about what happened’.
We are one third of the photo standing to the right of the frame, two thirds is sky and sea.
The moment is blue.
‘I was confused’, he says.
We are standing on a cliff. There is no sign of what is to come. What is a photo but the refusal of the future?
‘I could have dealt with it better’, he says.
There was no space between us. We wore thongs on our feet. I wore thongs, he wore thongs. In the coming months I would learn the power in a pronoun.
I was nineteen. It was 1984. I had worked at Myers as a lift driver to save enough money to go around Australia. Was there something about being between that I liked? I liked bridges and verandahs. Travelling up and down between floors. Travelling up the east coast of Australia. Many times in my life I have walked the streets at night looking at the warmth of lit windows with longing. But not wanting to be inside. Why is my favourite fairy tale The Little Match Girl? Is it the freedom exclusion brings? Is it because something considered of no substance can enter where there is no space? My university place was deferred. Every day numerous people said, ‘This job must have its ups and downs.’ I would try to smile. When it wasn’t busy it was solitary confinement. Sometimes the young men from refrigeration would ride with me.
I would sometimes turn around to a lift full of people and say, ‘Hello.’ They would be shocked at the breaking of the third wall between us. Executives would travel with me and ask me out before we got to the floor with the panelled walls. The veins started breaking in my legs.
There is a photograph of my youthful looking mother with her sleeves rolled up helping pack the boot of the car with our sleeping bags and backpacks. My father was standing on the porch. Annemarie, my brother-in-law’s sister, was my friend and we had planned this together. She wore big sunglasses and very wide belts around white dresses or shirts her mother had made. She had no sexual experience. I had left my boyfriend of three years because Annemarie had said that I was just going to marry him like all my four sisters had married their first boyfriends.
We had gotten as far as Sydney when I met Kevin. Annemarie and I were lying on the grass at the hostel sun baking. I was unself-conscious in my lycra green bikini. I can’t remember whether I asked him to put oil on my back or he offered. It was before the time of sunscreen. The oils made you fry. It smelt like sweet coconut, the cocktail Malibu. He wore shiny blue speedos. He had very black eyelashes. He spoke very fast. He smiled winningly. He rubbed oil on my back like he did everything with intensity and intent. He had only been doing it for a couple of moments when he said, ‘I think I’ll stop there’. It was a joke. Annemarie smiled knowingly.
I don’t remember but he tells me I said I wanted to show him something in my room. He remembers what shirt I was wearing and undoing the buttons of it. I don’t remember that but I do remember that we had sex within hours of meeting. I remember his profile against the setting sun as he drove while I had my feet up on the dash board of his green 1974 HQ Holden. I called him petrol head. I remember the smell of sweat and the sheep skin car seats. I remember asking him how many times he had had sex in one day and determining to beat it. It was over a 24 hour period in a caravan with poor Annemarie at the other end in the annex passed out with a fever. I still don’t remember writing the letter in 1985 he has given back to me this year.
As Annemarie and I travelled up the east coast in hostels we kept running into the same people, so we ended up travelling in a group of six. A very small woman from London, Amanda, who had a severe scoliosis, and a big blonde Texan, Jo, who told us he had a terminal illness and rode his disposable motorbikes in a way that made you believe it. There was Graeme, a mild mannered man from Perth, who died of cancer years later and Kevin, Annemarie and me. Between us we had three cars and a motorbike. Two of us would walk into a hotel and book a double room and then the rest of us would pile in. We climbed fences to swim in the swimming pools of luxury hotels. We drank and partied. We got ran out of at least one caravan park and town by wiry old boxers with rakes and brooms.
Annemarie left us at some point and caught a bus back to Melbourne. The others dropped off as well. Kevin and I kept moving, we had Christmas at my sister’s in Far North Queensland then travelled across through the gulf and down through the centre of the country. It was before the roads were made, it was corrugated. The locals travelled fast over the top of the corrugation as bits fell off their cars. We were more tentative.
We had barely enough money to get out of the desert before the predicted rains. Legend has it that people get caught on hills by floods with scorpions. We had a fruit cake from my sister in an esky that I felt would be our main sustenance.
We hit an eagle that was taking off from feeding on road kill. Its wing span covered the windscreen and darkened the cabin. Kevin jumped out and cut its head and one claw off and put it in the esky with the fruit cake. I sat stunned and wondering who I was with in the middle of the desert. I have never forgotten the smell of eagle and fruit cake fermenting.
We travelled from dole cheque to dole cheque. We fell into each other’s ease. Were we connected or co-dependent? We were travelling in the same direction. We decided how long to stay in a place and when to move on together. The only fight we had was in the middle of the desert over the fruit cake. He remembers being affected by me saying that speaking the loudest doesn’t make you right.
It was when we got back to Melbourne that we really started having trouble. Him back to his problematic relationship with his mother and me with my father. Annemarie came to visit us, said to Kevin that he shouldn’t talk to his mother the way he did.
Sitting in her car out the front she said ‘He’s just like your father, he tries to control you’. That was enough; I went to Perth to take a job at a magazine just being started up by a friend of Annemarie’s.
On my first day of the job Annemarie’s friend, the editor, had sent everyone out. It was also to be my last day.
There are many different terms for sexual violence.*
It was a Perth heat wave. I shared a tenth floor flat with two backpackers from the hostel.
Sexual trauma refers to one or multiple sexual violations that invoke significant distress.
The fit Canadian slept silently on his bed on the balcony.
The term sexual trauma is recommended and used by many clinicians and advocates in response to observations that some survivors do not label their experiences as rape or assault due to familiarity with the perpetrator.
The sad eyed English man tossed on the narrow couch in the lounge room. I had the bedroom. I knew neither man would come to my room. Their competitiveness and attraction to each other kept them away. Every hour I got up and stood under the shower. I went back to bed wet. The sound of the occasional siren from the city below seemed to be slowed by the heat. All the windows were open; the air was as still as death.
By day I alternated between lying on blinding white beaches and the pub across the road. In the evenings I blew into wine bladders tipped my head back and opened the valve. On a wet pillow away from the gaze of daylight I was able to draw imaginary curtains around myself and feel safe. I remembered doing this as a child. I could hear my father walking around the house in his sandals that made a rhythmic sound as the broken buckle swung and hit the ground with every second foot-fall.
A review of research on repeat victimization concluded that women who experienced childhood sexual abuse were at heightened risk of adulthood victimization. (Messman and Long, 1996).
There are a number of images of Kevin that have stayed with me. One is of him in his blue speedos and another is of him standing at the bus stop when I got back from Perth with a ridiculously large arrangement of red and white flowers and his face as he registered that I had not come back to him. He left to work on the prawn trawlers off the coast of Cairns not long after that.
The next time I saw him was twenty eight years later standing with the light behind him in my doorway. Glad to see you followed your dreams he had said in an email after finding me on a writers’ website. It was either sincere or smarmy, I hadn’t decided. I was curious; we would just catch up like old friends.
We had never been friends. We were in bed before the end of the day. It is twenty nine years later, a year after he apologised in the cafe and said that he knew now that my reaction was not an unusual one.
‘I didn’t go back to him’ I had said ‘I just had no resistance when he came back to me. Maybe I wanted to make him care for me.’
Something broke. I had cried among the butter dishes and cow shaped milk jugs. I went into the toilets with serviettes. He had half gotten up to follow me with that same bus-stop-look on his face. I accepted Kevin’s rejection at the time. I had no expectation of his acceptance.
What was his apology? Is his apology a gift or an opportunity for me to be re-gifted rejection wrapped up in his pronouns? His we is not him and me. He tells me his wife is crazy. I accept this rejection. He expects me to.
Before I’d left for Perth I remember him throwing a cup of coffee over his mother, and me thinking that how he treats his mother will be how he treats a wife. It wasn’t long after he had left that I was pregnant to an unmarriageable and abusive man. And four years later to another abusive man. These events had been put away for a long time, along with cause and effect.
His wife is crazy, aren’t all wives crazy? He stays for the children. He never forgot me. I am the love of his life he says. But I am not the centre of his life. His custody battle reveals he kept control of her money. How he treats a wife is how he treats a wife. He says that leaving me was the biggest mistake of his life.
I was all bare arms and legs in the photograph. He had a full head of hair. He wore his jeans neatly folded up at the ankles and a yellow singlet. My knees were not arthritic. We travelled together, my feet up on the dashboard. I’d just finished school, escaping my childhood.
*Yuan, N.P., Koss, M.P., & Stone, M. (2006, March). The Psychological Consequences of Sexual Trauma. Harrisburg, PA: VAWnet, a project of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence/Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Retrieved month/day/year, from: http://www.vawnet.org
© Claire Gaskin
Claire Gaskin has been publishing and teaching poetry since the 1980’s. Her collection, a bud, published by John Leonard Press in 2006, was shortlisted in the SA Literature Awards. She was the Victorian editor of Blue Dog from 2007 till 2010. Her most recent collection, Paperweight, was published by John Hunter Publishers in 2013.