Kangaroos: a memoir piece

 

Childhood, Australia. Left to right: younger sister Camille, brother Louis-Xavier, little sister Gabrielle, and myself holding baby brother Bertrand! Older sisters Dominique and Beatrice were in France.

And to follow up on the previous memoir piece I republished earlier this week, here’s another. Titled Kangaroos, it’s about the experience of being a schoolchild suspended between two school cultures, in Australia and France.

Kangaroos

In Sydney, school plodded on, seemingly never-ending. Every day, walking down the hissing shore of the Pacific Highway, we followed the same path, exclaimed over the same landmarks. Down the highway, plod, plod, till you came to our street, then down its eerily quiet and shady length to our house. On the way was a house, covered with creepers and with a magical garden full of beautiful old-fashioned flowers, presided over by two old sisters in cardigans, twinkling spectacles and blue-rinsed hair, whom I thought looked just like the good fairies in my favourite Disney movie, Sleeping Beauty. And there was a creepy bit past which you had to run, before the mythologised figure of evil that might be lurking in it, caught you.

There was the block of flats, next door, filled with rich old people who mostly tried hard to ignore us noisy woggy interlopers in their hushed retirement. (Once, amusingly,  Dad got an anonymous letter, which had been shoved through our letterbox, and which asked ”the Frenchman with the loud voice” to ”kindly desist” from shouting too early in the morning at the kids! He didn’t obey…) There was one notable exception, though, a lively old lady whose late husband had once been an important diplomat. She owned a huge, ancient Rolls Royce that she once took us out in for a ‘spin’–actually a sedate procession– down the street, magnificent as a ship, with her tiny figure behind the wheel. She liked us so we were also invited back to her flat to exclaim over all the quaint souvenirs she’d collected in her long life, over all the continents. I remember particularly a flotilla of beautiful little ivory elephants of different sizes. She’d give us a piece of cake and say to Maman, “Well, you people really have been places, too, haven’t you?” And I’d think, well, but just to Empeaux, really, and Biarritz, and Toulouse–places mostly familiar, a little mysterious, sometimes. But mostly familiar. Not like her, with her exotic list of postings!

Whenever it came time for us to go away on our French holidays, other kids at school would be envious. “It’s not fair!” they’d chorus. It was one of the few times that I was pleased to be different, to have a chaotic, unusual family scattered every which way.”You lucky things!” the kids would moan. “Missing out on school!”

And I’d say, “Yes, but we have to go to school there,” but nobody really believed that. France was a mythical country. There could be no real school there, with teachers and chalk and homework. My friends merely indulged my repeated assurances that indeed there was a school in the village, and that we had to go there, at least some of the time.

But school there was, set just across the road from the driveway at the back of our house. The school consisted of a rendered brick building of two storeys, the first storey being the schoolroom, the top storey being the teacher’s house. There was a courtyard, fenced in with wire and cement, and discreetly to one side, a couple of ghastly, smelly squat toilets. In the schoolroom, there were rows of desks, pegs to hang up your coats and hats, maps, and a large blackboard.

At the beginning of our time there, each desk came equipped with ink bottles. As a small child, you first had to write on slates, with chalk, then progress to the ink. You had to write with pens dipped in the ink. We never used slates in Australia, or ink pens–those had gone out before our time–just pencils and later biros, and I struggled, especially when it came to the ink pens, for my writing wasn’t of the tidiest–eager, yes, but not tidy. In France, you had pieces of pink or blue blotter to work with, as you formed the unfamiliar curly letters in the exercise books whose pages reminded me of check aprons. Even the exercise books were different, with their thick glossy covers and their checked-apron pages. And if you smudged, oh heck! Madame Lafforgue would be behind you, sharp words at the ready, maybe if you were persistently hopeless, a clip around the ear, too.

One of the things that made our friends in Australia suspicious about the existence of the Empeaux school was the fact that no-one wore uniforms. Instead, you had to wear a nylon overall over your ordinary clothes. How I hated those things, which seemed to me the height of dagginess, worse even than school uniforms!

To the other children in the school at Empeaux, we were known as ‘les kangorous’. Barely believable, rather comic figures who suddenly bounced into sight, and just as inexplicably, bounced away again.

In Australia, I was sometimes singled out for cringe-making praise by the teachers(‘See, English is not even her native language, and yet see how well she speaks and writes it!’)In France, Madame Lafforgue often singled us out for special mention, too, so that in both places, we had the sense of being there, and yet not quite there. We could not be the same as the others, here or there. To the children of Empeaux, the very notion of school in Australia was as ridiculous as French school had been to our Australian friends. Those who knew where Australia was–and there were very few of them–imagined something that we couldn’t even begin to picture in our minds, let alone recognise.

The school was full of farmers’ children–Gisele, with her bright red cheeks, her voice which was an uncanny younger imitation of the way the older people spoke, as if they had a mouthful of the rich cake called fougasse in their mouths; Raymond and Alain, two strapping boys who marked time in the last grades of primary school–no way did they want to have to go to the town high school; Veronique, who was really friendly until the day I discovered she was copying all my work. I’d stared at her, rather embarassed, but Madame Lafforgue had noticed. Her withering tongue made poor Veronique cry, so that I felt cold with reflected humiliation, myself. I tried to show her that I didn’t care if she had copied my work, but she wouldn’t look at me, wouldn’t talk to me, after that.

And then there were the others. Children as foreign as we were, and yet less. Their parents had come to the village, attracted by the work in the ceramics factory. There were two Portuguese families–Antonio and his two brothers; and Maria and Manuel. And then there were the Algerian boy, Mohammed, and his little sister, Aisha. Antonio and his brothers were as rough as the crewcut hair on their heads, dressed in tattered blue clothes, voices grating and harsh.

Maman, whose father was from Portugal, smiled and said they were from the ‘fin fond du Portugal”, the depths of Portugal, the harsh, distant, backward countryside. They lived in a dilapidated old barn on the outskirts of the village, without electricity or running water. Some of the villagers turned up their noses at them, even though it was barely 20 years since they’d got these self-same conveniences.

But it was no good feeling sorry for Antonio or his brothers. They would hit out wildly in all directions, and were much feared. Antonio protected his little brothers through thick and thin, and his attitude to us was of aggression mixed with fear. Just when he’d sorted out the French, thought he understood, along we came, of the place yet not of it, smelling of privilege and a life he could not even imagine.

So I came home one day with a tooth smashed in by Antonio, violence I hadn’t courted or understood. He’d been in the playground and had brought out his snack, a vanilla pod carefully wrapped in brown paper. I’d said, “What’s that?” And then he’d hit me. I didn’t understand, and the shock and pain of it was almost as frightening as the blood running down my chin.

Papa had waited for Antonio, the next day, after school. “Come here, boy,” he’d called out, in Portuguese, and after one horrified glance at him, Antonio fled. It wasn’t just the threat of retribution that had frightened him, though; he gave the impression of someone well-used to kicks and blows. It was the fact that my father, that stranger, the senior kangaroo, spoke Portuguese! Antonio never bothered me again.

The other Portuguese children, Maria and Manuel, lived in the village, in Monsieur Martin’s old house, when the latter died. They were from Northern Portugal, Maria never tired of explaining to us, waving a deprecating hand towards Antonio and his brothers from the ‘fin fond’. In her descriptions of her life there, their old home was a marvel, a place of marble floors and stone courtyards and fountains. “We were so rich!” she’d sigh, stroking our dolls’ hair. Because she and her brother were quiet and well-behaved, they were allowed to come to our place to play, and Maria would tell us stories of the wonderful places they used to live in. I half-believed her, but wondered why she and her family had come to live in Empeaux. One day, though, she was in full flow, telling us these stories, glancing around her as she spoke, so that her Portuguese palaces took on the atmosphere of our house. Then Maman came in, and said something to her, in Portuguese. Maria flushed scarlet, and stammered something.

I thought then that Maman had made a tart comment; but no, it had merely been to ask her what time their mother was expecting them. Like Antonio, she hadn’t expected my parents to speak Portuguese, and this sudden discovery withered her tall tale-telling. I was sorry; I’d liked her stories, and even though I hadn’t really believed in them, I missed the perfumed gardens and the almonds always in blossom, and the marvellous kinds of sweetmeats done up in silver or gold foil, that she’d told us about…

The Algerian children clung to each other, stepping carefully in the minefield of village society. They were the first of a new wave of settlers, and even the Portuguese children knew, in the instinctive, cruelly defensive way that all children soon learn, that they were at the bottom of the pecking order. Most of the children ignored them, but one or two, like Antonio, were actively vicious.

Mohammed was small and thin, his sister with a great shock of black hair, frightened eyes, and a nose that seemed to be always running. Of course, the children seized on this as a visible sign of difference, a reason as to why it was alright to persecute them, with Antonio as the ringleader. They were careful, of course, not to do it within earshot of Madame Lafforgue, who couldn’t abide bullying, but in the playground away from her eagle eye, it was a different matter.

You couldn’t help seeing it, hearing it, and I wished often that I  could be brave enough to stop it. And then, one day, quite suddenly, it did. I still don’t know what happened, but one morning, there were Mohammed and Antonio in the playground, throwing a ball at each other. At recess, they joined up again, and Mohammed’s little sister followed them. I said to Gisele, “I wonder how they managed to patch it up,” and Gisele, incuriously following my glance, shrugged her shoulders. She never wondered about other people. She couldn’t understand why anyone might do so.

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