Tag Archives: Helen Garner

The capacity for darkness

What people find really hard to bear, I’ve noticed, is the suggestion that they themselves might contain their share of human darkness, hidden inside their souls.

 . . .

Sometimes it seems to me that, in the end, the only thing that people have got going for them is imagination. At times of great darkness, everything around us becomes symbolic, poetic, archetypal. Perhaps this is what dreaming, and art, are for.

Helen Garner, The darkness in every one of us, The Monthly, July 2015 (from here) 

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The Red Stitch

Pink Servo

Pink Servo West Foostcray

                 (440 x 310) Copyright © 2014 Jessie Deane    (image from here)  

The Red Stitch, Clara Brack

I am reading Helen Garner’s book ‘The House of Grief’ which tells the story of the trial of a man who drove his three young boys into a dam on the way home to their mother on Father’s day in 2005. The father escaped. The three boys drowned. Helen not only endured the necessary tedium of the trial, but found the courage and perseverance to sit alone in a room writing, carrying within her psyche the horrendous nature of the deed. The book has been described as ‘a love song to the law.’ It is a labour of love, a quest for meaning and explanation.

At the end of the trial the jury leaves the courtroom. They must decide whether the accused was overcome with a coughing fit or whether he deliberately drove his car into the dam to punish his former wife. The members of the public sitting in the courtroom have been sent outside, not knowing how long they will be required to wait. Helen reports that she   ‘. . .   took to the courtyard some unfinished knitting, an old green scarf, and tried to get it moving again. My hands were sweating and my tension was uneven, but it helped to have something to do.’

Those following the trial in the courtroom are called to return. The verdict is announced guilty guilty guilty, three times guilty, one for each of the three children drowned. ‘That night, at bedtime,’ Helen continues, ‘I found the unfinished green wool scarf on the floor where I had dropped my bag. I picked it up and saw that, when the call for the verdict had come, I had stopped halfway along a row. It occurred to me to preserve in some way the moment of decision. I marked it with one red stitch. Then I knitted to the end of the row and cast off.’

I remembered my own moment, not of decision, but of significance. This too was a moment that warranted preserving. It was 1977. In the euphoria after giving birth to my first child, I found myself in limbo. The baby had been placed in a humi-crib. The doctor and nurses had departed. My husband had gone home. I reached for the novel I had been reading in the calm before the induction of the birth, intending to pick up where I had left off. It felt disrespectful to resume. A baby had been born. The thought of marking the page with a single red line did not occur to me.

Writing this has made me receptive to the red stitch. I attended a play, Eurydice performed by the Red Stitch Actors Theatre. A red stitch leapt out at me in an exhibition of needlepoint tapestries, not the traditional floral patterns but, subversively, industrial landscapes in the Western suburbs. The red stitch in the corner bottom right represented the artist’s signature, Jessie Dean.

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what life has taught me

‘You wear us out, when you keep on being stoical,’ I said. ‘It’s like a horrible mask. We want to smash it. We want to find you.

’‘We can’t bear the smile, darling,’ said Iris gently.

‘You don’t have to smile.’

Nicola wept on, in her niece’s embrace. Gab came to the door, looked in, and crept away. But Iris held my gaze without a flicker, her sober face tilted up towards the bench behind which I stood wringing the dry dish cloth in both hands.

In a little while Nicola stopped crying. She took a few quivering breaths, and freed herself from Iris’s arms. Iris reached for a clean tea towel and handed it to her; she dabbed at her eyes, folded it, and laid it on the bench.

Then, in a hoarse voice, she said, ‘But see all my life I’ve never wanted to bore people with the way I feel.’

We were silent.

‘No one wants to know about it, if I’m sad or frightened.’

Again we said nothing.

‘I’ve learnt,’ she went on, ‘to shut up. And present an optimistic face.’

She got off the couch arm and stood in her cotton nightie in the middle of the room. Light from the high window blurred her white hair. The shawl hung like two red curtains from her bony shoulder.

“Anyway’, she said, ‘that’s what life has taught me.’             Helen Garner The Spare Room p141-2

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