The tent

Phillip Knowles c.1956When I was seven years old my parents bought me a tent. It was canvas and cone-shaped, on one side Indians in their warbonnets, their horses leaping, on the other cowboys, leather chapped, guns blazing. It was assembled in our big, grassy back yard at Mascot Sydney, which overlooked a broken, grey paling fence and a vacant block covered with red and golden nasturtium flowers.

I loved that tent. It was my own place, womb-quiet, free of the disturbances of the house, shouting and quarrels between my parents. Dressed as a cowboy I sat inside and dreamed of riding horses to the rescue, or of shootouts in which, like in any movie, no-one really ever got hurt. I desperately wanted to sleep there, and I did, though it was more likely at summer evening than through the night, my mother first bringing me some food. It was real cowboy stuff, independence. When I emerged, there on one side was the open door of the laundry and the wire gate that closed off access from the side passage, concrete steps leading up to the big kitchen, and on the other wild flowers grew over a fallen fence till they reached fruit trees that screened the road in the distance.

In my childhood inwards was the place to go. Under pressures I couldn’t imagine my parents fought and bickered. I knew this was common because my mother and I would sometimes visit an aunt of my mother’s: there too husband and wife were at war, sarcasm the medium of exchange, bitterness the flavour of every meeting. Aunt and niece must have helped each other. I watched and wondered.

In my family there was a big distance between every member. My brother was 10 years older than me. He was the most important person in my mother’s life, but he was always out, until he left home at 17, never to return. I never knew him. My father left my mother to join the army: he was away almost ten years, came back improvident and bitter, my parents engendered me and I grew up hearing them not get on with one another, until my father became so fascinated with gambling he left home to pursue it uninterrupted by my mother’s reproaches. My childhood may have been spent in the suburbs, but it was frontier living conditions. My tent was a symbol of that.

Sometimes traders came to our house. I remember the knife sharpener, the man who cried out “rabbit-oh”, the bottle collector, the baker who still drove a horse and cart, and the iceman who raced for our icebox with a block gripped in a huge pair of tongs. But times were changing. My mother would come to the street, eyes shaded, to look at a silver shape in the sky called a jet. Someone in the street bought a television set, and we would visit to watch programs my mother loved such as the Jack Davey quizz show which she also listened to on radio and which I thought boring.

That same year of turning seven my family left the little brick house in Mascot. More than that, it dispersed. My father disappeared, my brother travelled, and my mother and I went and lived in a room in a boarding house. All the furniture went to storage, from where it somehow never came back. Another blow for my mother, for whom it would have represented the making of a home that was always disintegrating around her.

As the truck in the front street was being packed, I roamed disconcerted through the house, getting in everyone’s way. I was pushed outside. There was my tent, still proudly erected on the Great Plains of my former back yard. Panicking, I went to my father and told him we had forgotten to take my tent. Preoccupied, bitter, or merely brutal, he told me irritably it would have to stay there.

We drove away, leaving things behind that were irreplaceable. A boy’s tent, a cat called Biddy too old to travel, and a six year old girl next door I intended to marry.

I remembered my first day at kindergarten when, busy with crayon drawing, I suddenly realised my mother was actually going to leave me there, and I cried after her through the bars of the iron gate like a criminal. I was very small, and so was my experience of life, but on both occasions what I remembered was the shock that adults would behave in such a way. It was an astonishing treachery. My two other memories of my first seven years were more severe. My parents were quarreling and shouting over dinner, and one of them stood up and threw a plate at the other. I was terrified. This I knew was wrong. Shortly after this quarrel I began to wake with nightmares, about to be eaten by Little Red Riding Hood’s wolf, or menaced by a sinister shape crouching on the bedroom door which turned out to be a dressing gown.

My only friend when I was growing up was my mother. Somehow she was able to leave her own griefs aside and help me deal with mine.

Once I’d lost my tent, my home, and for frequent periods my mother, I ceased to expect such things. If home is where the heart is then I had no heart. As a child I was dispossessed, like a Red Indian. Now I think of humans, animals and plants as fragile parts of a whole who are forever being dislocated, moved around the board by a blind chessplayer.

©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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