Have you ever experienced the sense of being watched from afar, a lurking shadow catching your eye only to vanish as soon as you bring your attention to it? Or have you felt that prying ears only metres away were hanging on every word you said, such that you could almost feel the salivation of expectation moisten the air around each word you uttered before it had even rolled off your tongue? I have.
Sitting at the kitchen table with Jayne we chatted frivolously about the endless possibilities that lay ahead of us upon our graduation from school. As fourteen year old school girls, the thought of freedom from the mundane environment of a classroom and from the desexualisation enforced upon us by thick, dowdy private girl’s school uniforms…was invigorating. Jayne was a friend from a new school I started in year nine. The daughter of a well-known football coaching identity, she was also a new student to the school as her family had relocated from country Victoria to the big smoke. She was a country girl through and through, more comfortable in a chequered shirt, jeans and a cowboy hat than woollen tights, ankle length skirts and collared white school shirts. Actually, if it weren’t for the broad Aussie strine that haplessly spilled forth from her mouth, the clone like impact of the uniform may have assisted her to blend right in to her new upper middle class suburban environment. However her family’s status in the football world did nothing to rehearse her for the dance that is required to initiate oneself into private school girl culture. It was quite fitting then for the foreign girl from the country and the girl who felt like a foreigner in her world, to become friends.
So there we sat, blissfully planning a post graduation adventure. True to the great Australian tradition, we proposed a trip around our vast and exciting county in a Kombi-van. Delighted I had found a friend to sit and romanticize with about my future, the conversation truly transported me into another realm…one of hope and thrilling expectation that life could and would be different. Then something shifted in my friend’s demeanour that brought me hurtling back to a place I would rather not have returned to. I noticed her stiffen in an instant, and as she leant ever so slightly towards me across the vinyl tablecloth, her head slightly tilted to motion over her left shoulder. She uttered through barred teeth, “Colleen, is that your mother?”
My eyes darted over her shoulder towards the rumpus room behind us. There was no-one there. I knew we were alone. My mother was the only other person in the family home that afternoon and she was somewhere in the front of the house, probably in her bedroom. I glanced back at Jayne again, the quizzical look upon my face prompting her to roll her eyes back in the same direction over her left shoulder. Once more my eyes flittered back to the room, suddenly catching the slightest movement from behind a glass sliding door that lead to my brothers’ bedrooms. My eyes adjusted to focus on the outline of my mother’s form pressed up against the wall, shoulder…and ear…to the glass.
It was moments like these that made it very difficult for me to sustain friendships. How do you explain such happenings, let alone justify the motivations behind them to a wide-eyed teenage friend? Typically, the pit of my stomach would just fall through the floor whilst a swirling “here-we-go-again” motion circled in my head.
Perhaps the most excruciating example of my mother’s penchant for spying occurred the following year. For reasons still unclear to me I had moved schools again in year ten, to an all girl Catholic college in my local area. Happily, I would ride my bike to school of a morning. I enjoyed the sense of independence and the opportunity for some quiet reflection. My legs took the controls allowing me to “zone out” whilst I scanned the tree-lined streets, my thoughts wafting away with the morning breeze to merge with the clouds above.
This particular morning, I happened to be ready for school earlier than usual. The house was quiet, my father had left for work already and my older siblings who were still living at home had their own routines, quite separate from my own. As usual, my mother had not emerged from her bedroom. So off I set on my path to school, happily meandering along my way. With plenty of time to spare, I followed the curve of the asphalt road before me, navigating through different streets for a change of scenery. Soon I found myself approaching the busy suburban centre made up of shops, cafes, a train station and bus stops. My school sat ostentatiously at the crossroads, the old bell tower of what used to be the school’s chapel that now housed class rooms, rearing up to the heavens above. At this time of the morning the streets were abuzz with throngs of teenage students making their way either by foot, bike, bus, car or train to one of the four schools in the area. The footpaths were literally a sea of green, brown and blue blazers, all rippling along in the one direction.
Then, like a tidal wave, the calmness was unexpectedly rocked by a vehicle that swamped me from out of no-where. Catching me completely off guard, it appeared from behind and swerved in front of me, forcing me to steer my bike into the nature-strip that lay between the road and the footpath. Quite ungraciously I landed, legs entangled in bike, in full view of what at the time felt like and could have literally been hundreds of school children. Within an instant, a couple of girls who recognised me from school stepped forward to ask if I was hurt and if there was anything they could do. Already on my feet and re-positioning my helmet, I had somehow found a millisecond to capture a glimpse of the yellow volvo out of the corner of my eye, thus leading me to identify the driver.
Sheepishly, I found the words “No, it’s ok thanks. It’s just my mother”.
My crime that morning it appeared was to leave the house twenty minutes earlier than usual. This provoked the surveillance that lead to my road-side obstruction and public interrogation. The lighter side of me…the survivor inside…use to ponder if she had antennae micro chipped in her head. But these thoughts came to soothe me usually of a night time as I would reflect upon the maddening ludicrousness of it all. It did not help soothe or shield a sensitive teenage self-esteem from the effects of the behaviour that would act as a repellent to a peer group for whom such bizarre displays were not acceptable, let alone comprehensible.