MAD BLUE SMOKE
arrives home to find his mother in a state of madness and his father plotting to
put her away. Bullied by his sisters and abandoned by his friends he retreats to
the solace of the Australian bush to confront
his demons. With the guidance of his timeless Grandmother, Oliver comes to terms
with his familys madness and rescues his mother from the clutches of the
A thoughtful and honest account
A remarkable read
A fine novel
In Store Price: $22.00
Online Price: $21.00
Format: A5 Paperback
Number of pages:
cover: Portrait of a man by Pat Mendoza
Publisher: Poseidon Books
Date Published: 2006
Introducing the 41
year old man is starring blankly out the window, yet his lips are thin and
slightly open as he is thinking.
I trot along the
narrow path with my shovel and some toilet paper in hand keeping an eye to the
ground for snakes and bull ants. The sound of my footsteps causes swamp
wallabies to hop clumsily through the bush to a safe distance. I step down into
a shallow mine hole and disappear out of sight as I pull my pants down and squat
over a little pre-dug hole to evacuate my bowel. A blowfly turns up with a buzz
so I swish it away like a horse with its tail. I shovel over the human manure
with earth, creating a new little hole in the process. An earthworm wiggles its
pink tail in the air. I walk back along the path and see blue mountain range
through a gap in the trees. I smell morning eucalyptus air in my nostrils and
feel the joy of nature in my being. I go back inside and boil some water in a
little pot for a cup of tea.
I wish I could be
light and breezy and chat about this-and-that but a dark spectre haunts my
family: The truth that dare not speak its name and now I say it out loud so it
can be heard.
My first memory is a
little boy and dad is beating mum up. My psyche is premised on the assumption
that dad beat mum up to make her better. Dad knew everything, and he
showed me and my sisters that hitting is the way to solve problems.
Mum was organising us
kids around something or other. Dad didnt like the way she was being in
charge, independently, and without deferring to him. He reaches over grabbing
her by the arm, pulling her out of the kitchen, taking her up the hallway to
their bedroom. I was only around four years of age at the time but I knew
something was wrong. We were with mum and dad had taken her away.
I stand under the kitchen table and watch. Oldest sister is standing in
the doorway, and she peers down the hall to the bedroom door. Second oldest
sister has a puzzled look on her face and looks to oldest sister but she looks
away. I look between the chairs to second oldest sister but she looks away. We
cant be joined together at this moment. We know what is happening but act in
front of each other like it is not happening: starring into space pretending to
be thinking about something else; preoccupied. Daddy beats mummy in the bedroom
and it breaks us apart as brother and sisters. The act of being silently
complicit in his crime makes it our crime. We are alone and isolated from each
other like in separate glass spheres. He slapped her about the face again and
again until he slapped it out of her. Mum didnt cry out, she took it
like a man. It is our original trauma, yet we didnt imagine it was
happening we imagined it wasnt happening.
When mum returns to
the kitchen she moves bodily slowly with head bowed and ashen face. She stands
silently by the bench as if about to start chopping vegies on the wooden
chopping board. I walk around against the cupboard doors to see her. I look up
at her and she shows me her face. Seared onto my mind is a dark image I am still
too young to understand: the beaten woman; the death of femininity.
Youngest sister was
too young to be swept up in this scene and she lived with this lingering feeling
that she wasnt really part of us somehow. Just because Im adopted,
she would say, dramatically.
And dad would say,
bearing down on me like I was prone to making things up, Youve got a very
The violence, there has been so much violence. The wind blows so hard the
trees thrash around like there is going to be an explosion. The wind whips up
out on the plane, gathering into a huge mass over the cleared land because there
are no trees left standing to disperse it, and comes crashing into the forest
like a wave of wall. Tall skinny gum trees bent over and tree tops upside down.
The clay walls shudder from the blast.
Now that Im 41 I feel like my life is just beginning and everything
before was like existing outside myself. I could never really be me because I
didnt know who I was. As I edge into middle-age I can have the adolescence I
wasnt able to have and I can start talking about my childhood that is so full
of pain and haunting memories.
Reclaiming the elusive primary memory has loosened its deep hold on me.
It was as if every moment of my unease and irritability and anger and irrational
behaviour stemmed from a darkness that lurked in my soul, undermining me,
poisoning my personality. It lived out of sight as if behind an old door from my
childhood in a dank dungeon of my psyche where no light got in so nothing could
grow and flourish except fungus and cockroaches. Every creative impulse that
naturally sprouted with my youthful enthusiasm, and the seedling rotted in the
cold dead ground. I will never succeed, I will never be free, I will always be
my fathers prisoner.
I must go to my past to free my future by remembering like a warrior, a
great warrior, for my cause with truth as my guide. I try to open the old door
but its covered with cobwebs and crinkly leaves after all these years and is
like joined to the frame; so yank it open with courage and noble eyes and let
the demons come screaming, flying out with weird form and contorted face
dissolving in the light of life.
The original trauma: I call it my not-so-repressed memory, now and I feel
unashamedly playful and self confidant like a New Yorker. Life begins at
40, dont-they-say. Now that Im 41, hooray!
I stand on top of the 3 foot high earth wall. It was carved out of the
land by heavy machinery when the house site was made. Smooth red river stones
are scattered about. I knock the earth down with the crowbar. I pull the heavy 5
foot long rusty old crowbar up with my left arm and drive it down with my right
arm onto the edge of the wall until the clay and sandy loam breaks away and
falls to the ground below. Then I get down from the wall and hit the blocks of
sandy-grey coloured loam with the back of my shovel until they shatter into
soil. I hit the clumps of clay and they break into little pieces. I think to
myself, breaking rocks is prisoners work, so I sing in full voice in the
quiet of the endless bush that looks ragged and rangy, Yo-oh Heave-ho Yo-oh
Heave-ho Yo-Oh-Oh-Oh Yo-oh Heave-ho. A little bird whistles out loud. A
breath of wind gently sways the treetops like a whisper.
I shovel the sandy loam and clay, in roughly equal parts, into the
wheelbarrow, and then push the full barrow load to the pit of water and tip it
in. When Ive tipped 2 barrows in the pit I get in and walk it through in my
gumboots. I repeat this until the pit is full (about 7 and a bit barrows). Then
I gather a big pile of dry gum leaves and twigs and little sticks, and sprinkle
them in and walk it all through. Birds add leaves to their mud nests to make
them strong. I walk and walk through the pit until there are no thick clumps of
earth and clay left and the mud doesnt suck and pull on my boots letting me
All up, a pit takes about two and a half hours to make. I am physically
tired; my body is weary and I stretch out on the banana lounge and sip a cup of
coffee. The afternoon sun shines under the veranda warming my legs. The sound of
the wind in the trees pulling on the leaves, wwhhh. A canopy of leaves
shimmers in the breeze. Reality surrounds me like a mystical vibration. Finches
appear through the haze, playing around the woodpile, making darting movements
with their delicate little bodies. Their tails, which are as long as their
bodies, stick straight up in the air and are brown with a purple tint. A Superb
Blue Wren, with striking cobalt blue around his head, stands forth on the log
and sings out to them in a commanding trill.
I let the mud in the pit puddle for 24 hours before scooping out
the sloppy mix in a bucket and tipping it into the wheelbarrow. I push the heavy
barrow of mud over to the walls with bits trying to slop out the side as I turn
the corner. I lay the mud on with the shovel and then smooth it into shape with
my hands. I have enough mud in the pit to make a layer right around the 4 walls.
I put as much mud on as I can without it sagging, and each layer works out at
about 18 inches wide and about 3 inches high. And it sets as hard as a rock. I
like to say that I built my house 3 inches at a time! With the sweat of my brow
and the strain of my muscles and the determination of my will I have earned the
right to be here.
It is surely a disagreeable thought yet if the truth be known I dont
see my old friends anymore because weve got nothing nice left to say to each
other. In the beginning we became friends when we met on an adventure. We told
each other our ideas and shared our fears and spoke of our dreams for the
future, and so became fine friends. But then, when the adventure was nearing its
end, we started finding fault with the ideas and the fears now seemed irrational
and the dreams increasingly petty. The very things that once enchanted now make
To be sure it is immediately reassuring to see old friends but to hear
them telling me the same things theyve already told me as if theyre
telling me for the first time shatters the illusion. If only I didnt know
what he was going to say before he said it. Say something new, I groan to
myself. I cant take it when he leans across the kitchen table and earnestly
tells me what he told me last time because its still on his mind:
Its too expensive to travel. And Im supposed to say, Yeah. But
its not; you can get a cheap ticket and go to places youve only ever
dreamed of. But if I say that he starts rebutting me as if Im the one who
brought it up in the first place and am trying to talk him into doing something
he doesnt want to do. I couldnt leave the house empty for 12 months,
he says, pre-empting my line about the cheap tickets.
No, you couldnt, could you, I think nearly out loud but he doesnt
see my contempt. My role in the friendship was to sit around the great wooden
table being an accomplice to his unwillingness to do things; to get him through
another lost opportunity; to justify him not having a life.
When I feel lonely, I think about those endless senile conversations and
it makes me feel right about being on my own. I heard about a western woman who
lived alone in a cave on the side of a mountain in
for 8 years and when she returned she was enlightened. Or, she at least knew
what she thought and could articulate herself to a gathering and inspire with
I couldnt bear to look back on my life and see a blur of television
programs that I couldnt remember until I saw a repeat; work mates I never
really knew; friends who didnt even really like me; surrounded by products
that sit there taking up space that I only really bought because I was bored;
and all the time never once saying what I really thought. Why are you alive? I
I want to have the time Ive never had. I want to do something so wild
and scary and exciting like leaving everyone behind and living in the Australian
bush on my own so nothing I say or think is tempered to fit in. If you are what
you think then what pops into your mind when no-one else is around, because
no-one else is around, is who you really are. So, with daring abandon Im
going to let my thoughts loose in the wild mind of nature. Then, like an
inquiring philosopher, I will use myself to study the human condition, and
report on my findings, and see what emerges that brings me ever closer to
knowing what a human being really needs.
Id like to point out to you, the reader, that I am now writing about
an event that happened recently. This is not a recollection from the quite
distant past retold through the perspective of time. This is a fresh account of
what happened as best I know.
My Grandmother, who I call nana, rang me up and told me that mum was in a
bad way; that she had had a nervous breakdown and kind of lost her mind and was
going to have to go into a home. Thats what second oldest sister told
her anyway. I was stunned and then angry, and at 3 oclock in the morning
found myself prowling around the shadowy house with my fists clenched tight and
my face red in a snarl as I was mad with a rage that had been simmering all my
life and now it was boiling over. I knew what had happened: dad had got stuck
into mum again; one last time and she couldnt take it anymore, so she jumped.
I see a dark blurry image of mum hanging by the neck, swaying in her nightie. Go
mum, be free at last, I cry. Then the thought occurs to me to get in the car,
drive 2 hours to their house, kick the front door in and kill dad on the spot
with a handgun like an executioner. De dum de dum, de dum de dum, de dum de
dum, de dum de dum, goes the grinding of my mind. And a cool wind blew.
The next day I started feeling overwhelmed. Roosters crowed crows aahed
cockatoos screeched freedom with the sounds of murder and the sky hung low. I
was hot and numb and went outside and took my shirt off to feel the cold against
my skin. I walked on my hands and knees because it felt right and touched the
steady grass-dirt ground with my fingers. My big white chook was walking towards
me but then was past me without me seeing it pass. I was shivering with cold and
went inside to warm myself by the combustion stove. I held my arms over the
stove and they began to tingle and my forearms started cramping up like I was
having a seizure. I jumped up and down and shook my body lest paralysis take a
I went down to nanas house. She was upset because she is mums mum
and she knew what had happened too. We were both upset and didnt know what to
do when nana started walking around in a circle taking tiny little steps and
making little ne ne ne ne ne ne noises, so I did too. It took ages to make
a circle as we sang ourselves around but the activity made us feel like
everything outside ourselves came back in and that we were centred again and
able to cope. We resolved to go over to mums in the morning and see how she
We arrived in nanas 1969 faded white Kingswood Holden sedan feeling a
bit apprehensive but duty carried us onward: mum was not well and her mother and
son had come to see her. We got as far as the front porch when, through the open
section of flywire screen door, I see dads head duck down out of view, and so
suddenly that his hair flew up madly behind him. Unbeknown to us, he was
expecting someone else: the people from the mental hospital, who were coming to
take mum away. So, apparently, at a time like this, when dark deeds were being
carried out, he didnt want to be seen by us. How guilty, I thought, to hide
from his son and mother-in-law.
Next thing I know second oldest sister comes flying out from behind the
flywire door, and I say to her, Its alright, its alright. To which
she responds, Excuse me; its not alright, and she has a fierce look on
her face. She backs me and nana off the porch, and at times physically pushes me
down the driveway and off the property of our family home. I lean into her
lightly as she pushes me to make her feel some resistance to what she is doing.
We dont get to see mum. Second oldest sister makes sure me and nana dont
interfere with mum being taken away. Then she instructs us to wait for her at
her house which is just around the corner from mum and dads house.
Wed only just got to second oldest sisters house when she arrives
in her later model brown
and she smiles at me through the window the way a mother smiles reassuringly to
her child just after the child has witnessed a family trauma. Next thing I know
oldest sister is there and we are all inside, and youngest sister is somewhere
else looking after some of their kids.
Second oldest sister is stirring a hot pot of food and I watch her turn
the corn and peas and chicken in the rice with the wooden spoon. She turns to me
and says knowingly about dad, He likes a hot meal. I have a scary thought.
What is it with those two? Mums kitchen is barely cold and second oldest
sister has already taken her place!
Nana is sitting on the couch with the children and their toys. The phone
rings and oldest sister speaks to dad. Oldest sister looks a bit like she is
standing to attention, and dad is getting her to agree that the mental hospital
is the best place for mum. I can tell that he is putting it across that this
phone call means that oldest sister has been involved in the decision making
process. And oldest sister agrees. But she hasnt been involved in the
decision making process. The decision has already been made and she is being
notified after the event. But I cant say anything because I know their
rules. Now is not the time to be difficult. At a time like this family
needs to pull together which means doing what dad wants. It is such a
stressful time. The feeling is indescribable because its like a swirl. I
watch my middle age sisters raw personalities acting as if a crime against
their mother has not being committed. I feel so let down by them. What does it
take for the dutiful daughters to question their fathers authority?
I was just standing there and second oldest sister says to me, Dad was
really angry with you for coming to the house, and she looks
positively evil. Then she walks up to me and says about mums breakdown, It
wasnt you. And I thought, who said it was? Second oldest sister was on the
phone to dad, and after the call shes sitting up on the kitchen bench and
announces to me and nana that we are allowed to visit mum now, if we
wanted. Humph, I scoff to myself, now that the operation is complete and they
have got her in the mental hospital.
Me and nana pull off the highway into a side lane, and turn into the
hospital and find a car park. The hospital is situated in a commercial zone
among similar looking buildings, and I notice that a Hewllet Packard building
stands next door. The hospital has a 1950s dark brown brick veneer look, and
for some reason I imagine a little model replica with little white plastic
nurses and round green plastic trees positioned representatively around the
miniature entry court.
I feel heavy and we trudge up to the entrance. The sign reads, South
Ward: These doors will be locked from 8pm to 8am. A lock-up joint, I think
numbly. We make our way through the glass doors and go past the reception desk.
I glance at the receptionist. She is sitting there with a bob of golden hair,
adorned in gold: earrings, necklaces, bangles, and rings. We walk down the dim
corridor with grey carpet and come to 2 big white doors which meet in the
middle. I push against one of the doors and it swings open directly into the
dayroom of South Ward. It is a land of mental patients all preoccupied with
their worlds so they dont seem to notice me and nana. To our left is a
glassed in enclosure, and behind the glass in a position of observation is a
woman in uniform white. Its Nurse Ratched, I shudder in my stomach. And I
hope she hasnt seen me, but she has, she sees everything in South
We found mum or mum found us, and she fell into my arms and I said,
III always love you, and kissed her on the temple. And then, to my
surprise, I could see she was having a real time. As far as she was concerned
she was in a hotel with her own room and lots of new friends. I remember when I
was a kid and things got really bad at home, mum would threaten to me that she
would leave dad. III go and live in a hotel! she would say to me. So,
here she was at last, in her hotel and she introduces us to her friends. They
were older men and women who muttered away about private matters but mum could
understand them and knew their stories.
Mum took us to her room which had nothing in it except a lonely bed on
metal wheels for easy transportation. The bed was made up with stiff white
hospital linen and a pink bedspread. The walls were white bare, the floor was
hard and shiny sterile clean. Mum slowly drew the curtain to show us her
beautiful view of the mountains. I couldnt see it as clearly as her but she
traced the mountain range with her fingertip along the glass. This was mums
room of her own and she wasnt going to let anyone spoil her party.
Me, nana and mum walk slowly together into a common area. An old German
lady is muttering away. Mum introduces us but we cant understand her. She
sees our awkwardness and tells us the old lady cant speak English so it
doesnt seem to matter.
I sat on the floor before mum and she spoke out with clarity and
authority. She told me she didnt like dad wanting anal sex all the time,
however, since his prostate operation he couldnt get it up anymore so it was
no longer a problem. She told me she was going to buy me a new car with dads
precious money. What sort do you want? she asked seriously. I was
taken aback by her forthright demeanour. Mum would never have spoken
disparagingly about dads money. And I still wasnt ready to spend it so all
I could say was, Oh, it doesnt matter mum. But it did matter, and now
she knew it.
Hospital staff glanced at me as they passed by and I had no doubt they
would recognise what mum was going through. She had the look of victory about
her. She had done the impossible in leaving dad; freeing herself from the
entanglement of his total control. Her lips opened into a seductive smile as if
poised to caress life itself. I was thrilled to see her in all her glory. It was
as if mum was coming out. Her breakdown was as much a breakthrough; to a
personality which had long been suppressed for the sake of her marriage. Yes,
she was a bit flighty, as you are when finally, after a lifetime, you come out
of your shell with enormous energy and take a stand and wont be denied any
longer. It takes time to internalise a new identity; coming to terms with the
new you until its just a normal everyday part of yourself and your
We walk into the busy dayroom and mum points out a technical detail in an
oil painting hanging on the wall that has the affect of creating depth of
vision. Then she says in a surprisingly haughty tone, Im going to ring my husband.
She goes over to the dayroom payphone and makes a phone call. Shes talking
for a bit and Im near by. Then she shoves the phone in my hand like Im in
trouble, as if Ive been naughty and have to speak to dad. I go cold with the
realisation that mum is suddenly acting as if its my fault that she is here.
She shows me her madness. I say a tentative, hello. And dads voice
answers in a caring, sympathetic tone, Hi Oliver, its a bit much isnt
it. It? Is he talking about mum? All I could say in a sing-song voice was,
Thankyou then, goodbye, and I hung up the phone.
I look around the room. The place is like a scrap heap for oldies who
have broken down and cant function at home any more. A thin old woman looking
like a ghost with frizzy white hair is curled up tight in a ball on the floor;
it is the end of the road for her. A well groomed gentleman with greying hair
and moustache, and wearing a nice jumper and shirt looks like he would sit
up proudly at the table and have dinner with his wife and children, and their
children, on family occasions. Yet, he is in a state of paralysis and cant
straighten his arms, which remain bent forward in a kind of greeting posture,
and his body shakes uncontrollably which makes him look like he is trying to say
something important. One moment he had been a valued family member the next he
is in a lock up psycho-geriatric ward without a chance to explain his situation
because he cant speak. A big nurse with an impatient face tries to lead him
away but he rigidly stands his ground, so she drags him away against his will
and he takes short jerky steps to express his protest. Mad oldies dont
have rights, and they cant do anything about it because they have been
abandoned by a family who doesnt want them anymore.
It is a real rough house. I am swept up in the madness of the room.
Wailing and scratching and banging and pulling hair and fighting over things
just because someone else has it. It is as if the boundaries of society have
been vanquished and the right of privacy is no longer a shelter from the
screaming hordes. I brace myself against a feeling of being overrun by the
excess of the asylum. Hardened nurses get on with their job. A feisty older
woman articulates herself to this nice looking ward staff guy. Mum says we can
stay the night as there are plenty of spare beds in her hotel but we decline the
offer as we have to keep moving.
Me and nana sit on the bench seat of the
holding hands as if hanging on to each other in fright as we drive home quietly
on the evening highway.
That night after nana had gone to bed I stayed up late by the fire. I
drank a bottle of Guinness Stout, the whole bottle. Dark, paranoid thoughts seep
into my mind. I see the conspirator who, for the sake of clarity, I shall call
the dominant partner.
Subtle hatred develops over a lifetime so subtle they are not even aware
of it themselves. They increasingly, secretly yearn to separate from their dowdy
old, loyal, gentle soul partner to be free to experience new people, new
excitements. But they are tangled up in marriage vows being bound by the duty,
until death do we part. Death is such a long time to wait. To seek a
divorce or separation would be too costly and way too revealing. It is they who
want to leave so they will have to forsake the family home to gentle soul and
all the capital gain it has acquired over a lifetime. Serious personal wealth is
at stake. And to admit to their family that they no longer love gentle soul, who
is dearly loved by all, would show them up as the self serving, calculating,
manipulating liar they really are. Theres got to be another way,
thinks dominant. Of course, if they lose their mind then they will have
The plot thickens.
At about this stage of their lives dominants children find themselves
becoming trapped in tired marriages of their own. The slogan, If they lose
their mind they will have to go, starts to resonate with surprising
appeal. It is, after all, a legal way out of a tedious, sexless marriage where
you dont have to break up and face the truth of what the marriage has become.
You can even bond with each other about being on your own because your partner
has a mental illness: how hard it is on you, how sad it is for them.
The campaign to remove gentle soul is under way. Dominant withdraws love
and subtle hatred leeches into the skin of gentle soul like a toxin. Gradually,
toxic build up occurs and gentle soul struggles to maintain health and well
being. Dominant notices the deterioration and becomes secretly excited. Hatred
by hatred like cuts to the soul the gentle one bleeds silently until their self
confidence has been drained. They dont know who they are anymore. They become
a living shell in their own home, and notes are made on their increasingly
odd behaviour. Dominant prepares the ground and leeks strategic reports of
odd behaviour to trusted family members. Then, one day, when all hope seems lost
and dominant will never love again gentle souls odd behaviour becomes everyday
behaviour. Dominant seizes the moment and calls in the Psyche Police and has
gentle soul taken away. South Ward is a facility that accepts these abandoned
souls with no questions asked. If they scratched just below the surface,
however, it would reveal a clear case of insanity by betrayal.
The politics of older age is fraught with danger, I mull over, as I
stroke my chin with my finger.
There is the photo of dad on the mantelpiece. It is a black and white
publicity shot of Frank in his early twenties when he was an actor. When we were
kids we always used to hear the story about dad being such a good actor that he
had the audience eating out of his palm. As a young man he was a
great actor but somehow, inexplicably, his career ended before it had
really begun. In all my life my father was never able to explain this mystery to
me because he couldnt talk about it. From his point of view, all I needed to
know was that at one point in his life he had been a star. I hold the 1940s
picture in my hands of a beautiful, handsome young man with a slight pout. He
lives on nanas mantelpiece, a man we have never known. I felt hatred for the
man who never lived up to his stardom for his family, and I announce the end of
his career: Frank, this has been your final performance. And with that I
tossed the sacred image into the fire and the glass broke on the wood with a
tinkle and the flames burnt the photo blackly in from the edges. After a time
there was nothing left except a red hot metal frame glowing in the shimmering