I spent my childhood [or so it seemed to me] sitting in the shed at the end of the incubator room. To get into it I had to walk up rickety wooden steps, five of them, guarded by a savage cactus, waiting to insert its needle- sharp spines into any bit of flesh that forgot to sidle as I climbed.
My daily job – every day, all through my childhood, even when I had three sisters quite capable of going on a roster – waited for me in that shed. I had to wash hundreds of eggs every day. That was my contribution to Dad’s poultry farm.
When I complained, Mum said: “Your sisters have their own jobs, Marjie. Cleaning the eggs is yours.”
And so it was for 10 years, from the time I was 5 until I turned 15.
How I hated everything about it. The room was thick with dust: dusty string in hanks; dusty buckets; dusty light bulbs; dusty shelves; dusty tools. The stool I had to sit on was dusty. The floor was thick with dust. The windows were streaked with dust. The only thing that made the dust bearable was the sight of the eggs. Beside their ovaloid grime and the demands they made on me, the dust seemed to gleam and glisten, maybe even scintillate. Because the eggs had been painted, as if by some demented artist, with the hardened squish of chicken shit and a collage of feathers. I had to pick them up with a hand I thought was better suited to drawing room pursuits (I was a child of books – any books I could get my hand on) and clean the embellishments off without breaking the egg. My impulse was to hurl the eggs against the dusty walls.
My primary school sewing teacher liked to use the sewing lesson to expand our minds. She’d learnt singing in Berlin for a while when she was younger and told us a bit about abstract art. I imagined the wall as a canvas waiting for someone like Kandinsky – I think that was the name she said. I’d hurl the eggs at the wall and then I’d create slashing, splashing dramatic whiplash lines with some of the old tools lying around to express my exploding emotions – my sense of infinite boredom, infinite injustice, infinite rage. They’d all be encrypted in the yellow yolk dribbling down every vertical surface through the dust, over the string. Yellow was the right colour. It’s aggressive, blaring, trumpeting, and well suited to my daily feeling of fury.
The teacher who gave me ideas about abstract art also gave me Dickens. She used to read to us as we stitched and embroidered. He was my companion through the endless afternoons of egg washing.
“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether the station shall be held by anybody else …”
This is the beginning of David Copperfield. My chances of being the hero of my own life seemed slim, but I could dream as I read his story, propped on the other side of the box of enemy eggs. As I read, the eggs ceased to exist. When David was incarcerated in the counting house, I knew how he felt. Money. Eggs. We both had to work with stuff that was worthless to us, enslaved against our will.
I cleaned the eggs, of course I did; I was Marjie the Good. I cleaned them well enough not to be called to task. I broke few, except occasionally in the grip of a cliffhanger. But while I was cleaning them I was elsewhere, in the world of “Bleak House”, “Dombey and Son”; “A Tale of Two Cities”; “The Old Curiosity Shop”; “Pickwick Papers”.
Mum was sympathetic. She always encouraged us to read. When she went to Town, she always came back with cheap classics. Dad couldn’t understand anyone getting pleasure from reading. “Tarka the Otter” was the first and last long book he tackled. Bored witless by it, he could never see why people would want to read.
“Marjie, you’re supposed to be washing the eggs,” he’d say. “You can’t do a proper job unless you concentrate.”
But after a while he gave up. I did a good enough job, and there was no point giving me the opportunity to perform the I hate washing eggs rant.
I’m sick of eggs. Eggs everywhere. Boxes of eggs dripping with feathers and shit. Eggs packed into my mind, where they displace things I really want to think about. Eggs on the edge of my eyeline dancing jeeringly in their smooth featureless shells. Eggs invading my dreams, nudging each other with their bland uninspired surfaces. Eggs delighting in sticking feathers to my fingers. Eggs shaping my hands, that would rather hold a needle and thread, a pen, a paintbrush. Implacable, daily eggs.
Implacable daily eggs – for ten years.
Then, when I was fifteen, I left school and started work in the tax office. It became Minnie’s job to wash the eggs. I was free.
This is a story from my mother’s childhood, told in her voice. It’s cobbled together out of vague memories of her stories; my own experiences at my grandfather’s place; and liberal doses of imagination. The hard detail? A teacher who read to pupils while they sewed. A mother who brought books rather than sweets home from her rare trips to Town [Sydney]. A father who indeed developed a hatred of reading, thanks to Tarka the Otter. And of course the egg-washing chore.
I spent a bit of time tracking down the passage from the beginning of “Bleak House” that I modelled the egg rant on; and finding information about abstract art that led me to Kandinsky A lot of the language about the yolked walls is stolen pretty well directly from Kandinsky’s writings and manifesto, although the imagined actions sound more like Jackson Pollock. In other reading I came across a young woman who did indeed spend time in Berlin, and as a primary school teacher in Australia, but not at my mother’s school.
It was written in 2010 when I belonged to an online group who settled down with a glass of wine on Sunday afternoon to paint (them) and write (me). One suggestion was to change to third person, but I couldn’t make that work for me.