helen hayward

life writing

Month: May, 2013

Mahogany table


My Scottish father-in-law used to deal in antiques. He had a good eye and he knew it. Unfortunately he was a better aesthetic than financial judge and the business ended in tears. But not before he’d picked up a number of lovely pieces, some of which he brought down to my husband’s and my flat in London.

Each week I give our mahogany table – one of these pieces – a rub down with a cloth heavy with orange oil. For a day or two the table glistens. It needs more work – light sanding and staining – to bring it back to its former glory. But a quick rub down is all I have time for before flying out the door for school pick-up.

A generation ago a mahogany table in the kitchen would have been extravagant and/or out of place. My parents’ mahogany table had pride of place in their dining room, along with silver salt and pepper shakers and a mustard bowl with a tiny spoon. In the kitchen they had a pine table covered with a sensible oil cloth.

When I was growing up I didn’t like antiques, let alone mahogany tables – which seemed sombre, dark and hard to maintain. Sitting round a mahogany table for family dinners was what I left home to escape.

And escape I did. For fifteen years I lived in a world devoid of mahogany tables. In my studio flat in London, on the other side of the world, a pine kitchen table stuck out like a jetty in the bay window. But slowly things changed. When the man who is now my husband moved into my studio flat I had to make room for him. Not physical room – he was skinny at the time. But imaginative room. I had to make room for the person he was, with his particular history and aesthetic loves.

Did I fall in love with my husband because I knew, unconsciously, that he’d lead me back to a world in which mahogany tables had a place? That together we’d create a home with a mahogany table in the kitchen? Perhaps.

‘Why don’t you have a separate dining room?’ my mother asked, almost crossly, when she visited us on our return to Melbourne. ‘Because John and I both wanted a study’, I explained patiently. ‘And besides’, I added, ‘now that we have children we spent more time in the kitchen than in any other room’. By this time my mother was well into her seventies, and I could almost hear her bite her lip.

These days we live in Hobart. My mother, in the high end of her eighties, still lives in Adelaide. During a phone call last Tuesday she told me that she’d looked at an ‘apartment’ in a residential home – two rooms and a bathroom with a 24-hour nurse on call. Would I, she asked, come over to choose what I might like from her house? The dining room chairs? Her coffee cups? ‘Oh Mum’, I said, ‘I know every room of your house. Besides I’d like my sisters to choose first. And I’ll be there in September anyway.’ I felt a bit mean, putting her off – but really it was because I didn’t want there to be a hurry.

‘What you have inherited, make it yours’ (Sigmund Freud). Have I, I wonder, done this? Have I created a life that is truly mine? Am I handing on to my children a life that they’ll be able to transform and make theirs in years to come? Will they want our mahogany table one day? Or will they, like me, need to distance themselves from all things mahogany for a while?

The night sky


‘Aren’t you going to indicate?’ asked Alex, in a knowing tone of voice. ‘I’m not such a bad driver’, I replied, leaving it at that. I’d just picked up Alex and Emma who together had spent three days with my cousin and his family at Coles Bay, and we were still getting used to each other on the drive home. ‘He didn’t play with Luke and me one bit’, Emma piped up from the back seat. ‘He just did his own thing the whole time’.

‘That’s a wonderful sky,’ said Alex, in a tone that made me feel he meant it. Then he reached back and gave Emma his IPod. ‘Do you want to play the turtle game again? See if you can beat my score. I’m rotten at it.’ ‘Thanks’, returned Emma.

Dusk fell and the road grew dark in a few minutes. Now there was just a far away outline of hills. ‘I’m never going to learn to drive’, said Alex, a propos of nothing. ‘Is that because of the driving awareness course at school?’ I asked, not wanting to probe. ‘Maybe’, said Alex. ‘The statistics aren’t good, are they?’ I returned. ‘What are they?’ asked Emma, tired of her turtle game already. ‘Shut up’, said Alex. I paused. ‘Half the deaths of young people between 17 and 23 are road deaths’. ‘Yeh’, said Emma, not missing a beat. ‘But that’s because not many young people die in the first place’. ‘Of course’, I replied, ‘trust you to see that’.

‘You know’, said Emma, changing the subject, ‘Luke lost his pocket knife three times on the first day, and burst into tears every time’, said Emma. ‘WomBAT!’ yelled Alex, a split second before I saw a large wombat in the headlights. ‘Shit shit shit shit!’ I burst out, breaking while holding the steering wheel firm. It seemed to take forever for my small car to run over the large wombat. It was no mere animal, to be knocked sideways off the bumper bar. It was a small giant, curled in fierce apprehension in the middle of my side of the road, every bit as solid as the car that so clumsily ran over it. Emma started to cry. ‘I’m so sorry’, I said, ‘I’m so sorry’. And then, ‘That poor wombat’. Alex was quiet for a moment. ‘We’d better pull over’, he said.

The night was cold. I fumbled for the hood lever and Alex raised it up. The engine was steaming. ‘Whoa!’, exclaimed Alex. ‘There are bits of wombat all through the engine’.  I peered in, not wanting to look but knowing that I had to. There was a strong smell of singed fur, though as far as I dared look, no bits of wombat. Alex had a scout round the engine, checking the oil and water – which was dripping. The radiator was bent concave, but not broken.

‘I reckon if we drive slowly we’ll be okay’, Alex said. Feeling dazed – or just cold, I couldn’t tell – I agreed. Besides, the option of being stuck on that particular country road wasn’t an option. ‘Perhaps we should go back and move the wombat’, I said to Alex, who had assumed the status of an adult in my mind. ‘No let’s just keep going’, he replied. And so we did, the water light flashing red on steep inclines and then back to orange on the straights – and off altogether as we rolled down hills in neutral.

‘Have we got a snack?’ asked Emma. ‘Yes, it’s in the blue lunchbox in the boot – oatcakes and cheese and some apples’. Hunger sated Emma and Alex went into Top Gear mode, making jokes and singing. I kept my eyes trained on the road, willing the engine to keep going. The kilometres rolled by. Finally the red light went on and wouldn’t go off. A hill I’d normally sail up, without taking in that it was a hill, refused to end. I pulled over and the engine died – with only a two-hour drive home ahead of us.

Within minutes of putting up the hood, and peering wishfully into the engine, a man in a big white car stopped. ‘Need some help?’ ‘Yes, thank you. We do’. First Malcolm offered me his mobile. Then, realising that I was too cold and shaken to speak properly, he explained to the girl in Melbourne that there were no street numbers on the Midlands Highway, and told her our position on Google maps. Then he offered to wait until the tow truck arrived before dropping us off on his home. ‘No, you really can’t do that’, I said. ‘It’s late, and you’ve already been so kind’. ‘We’re not all bad, you know’, he replied. ‘Why don’t you wait in my car – you’ll be much warmer there’.

And so we did. He called his wife and said he’d be late. I called my husband and explained what had happened. Then Malcolm and I chatted. He told me about his children, now grown up, his work as a manager, and his politics – liberal. An hour and a half later the tow-truck driver arrived, as promised. I handed over the keys, and Malcolm drove us home. When we pulled up at our gate, six hours after leaving Coles Bay, I gave him my card and asked him to email so that I could thank him properly. He said that he’d enjoyed our company, and we waved him goodnight.

The insurance company arranged a cheap hire car and we got on with the school holidays. But, in the end, the wombat got his own back. My car insurance didn’t cover the repairs. I shouldn’t, the assessor told me squarely, have driven the car after the accident. The little black car that had been so much a part of our life in Australia, and so much a part of Emma and Alex’s childhood, is now scrapped. Just Like That.