Bigger than heaven

by Shannon Burns

1

I RECALL VERY little about myself before the age of six. I possess no photographs to jolt the hidden memories, and those few relatives I see at birthday and Christmas celebrations have only the faintest sense of what I was like as a boy. No baby mementos; nothing of the toddler; no kindergarten tokens or pre-school art works; no school portraits or athletics day medals; no locks of hair, first teeth, first boots; no record of first words or cherished toys; and few revealing anecdotes. As I sit to write these first lines, my inner archive is almost blank as well. There are only a handful of images left over: small, discontinuous fragments, which may or may not be authentic residual traces of an otherwise forgotten landscape. 

I had trouble breathing as a toddler. I recall waiting in the steamy bathroom for what seemed like an eternity – probably twenty minutes or so – until the coughing fits were over, and my throat and chest were clear. I sat on the floor with my back against the bathtub, half asleep, immersed in an alien atmosphere, before it was time, at last, to dry the steam and sweat from my body and return to bed, and what dreams may come. At some stage in those early years I convinced myself that fire engines were screaming vehicles that roamed the streets in the dead of night, driven by flaming firemen who routinely set houses ablaze. If I could hear a siren growing louder and louder – which often seemed to happen – I would tuck my head beneath the covers, slow my breath, and beg to be spared.

MY PARENTS WERE born poor and, as far as I know, remain so. One was the daughter of Greek immigrant labourers, who migrated from small villages in the north and south of Greece in the late 1940s; the other was one of seven children who were abandoned by their father, an English sailor, and forced to live in state care when their mother couldn’t pay the bills. This in a time when Greeks were derided and orphanages were more punitive than caregiving. 

My father rarely spoke of his childhood, but one day, as we were travelling alone in the car together, he mentioned the orphanage, and spoke of how he and his siblings were treated there. It was a kind of apology for his own failings, I suspect, but too subtle for me to grasp at the time. His descriptions conjured images of inmates lined up naked in a prison yard on a freezing night, jointly enduring punishment for obscure misdeeds, their wardens waiting for someone in the line to break, to either confess their misdemeanour or to inform on another child. This is the image I recall, but I doubt that I properly understood the circumstances my father described to me, since whenever I found myself alone with him – which was rare – I experienced a paralysing nervousness that distorted all of my senses, so that I could barely make sense of what he was saying. 

I RECALL WAKING on a cold cement floor with blood dripping from my nose. I’m four or five years of age. My memory has always been that my mother beat me and left me in the laundry, and that a little later, when I woke, I could hear voices talking merrily in the adjoining kitchen. I was forgotten, perhaps, or she expected me to emerge from the laundry eventually, pretending that nothing had happened. Yet it seems possible that two different memories have merged in my mind: those of being beaten; and those of blood noses, which I was prone to, and their remedy, which required me to lie on my back on a cool floor, pinching my nose with a wet flannel. Perhaps I fell asleep doing this, and the puddle of blood around my face was the result of turning over while asleep, instead of a beating. Perhaps my mother saw me unconscious on the floor and decided that a rest would do me good, before shutting the door to seal out the light, so that I might sleep longer. Or perhaps she’d only beaten me in an ordinary way – a slap or two across the face, a knuckle over the head – and at that moment, under that mild duress, my nose began to bleed, without direct injury. She wouldn’t have felt responsible for the blood. Maybe she was upset that the punishment had been stalled by the bloody nose, before her rage had been satisfied, and sent me off to do the usual thing – lie down on the floor, wet towel, dark room, a calming atmosphere – with more than usual indifference.

Nothing is certain.

Mum was violent and vain, but affectionate. Her love manifested in firm lipstick kisses on my face, followed by spit-wet tissues smeared against my cheeks to wipe her markers away. Her cuddles were an immersion into perfume – strong, obscene odours – and she liked to keep an orderly, spotless household. I loved nothing more than waking to the sound of her tidying the house, vacuuming the floors, dusting the picture frames. It strikes me only now that her cleaning frenzies often followed long night-time absences. The vacuum cleaner signalled her return during the early hours of the morning, as much as maternal care. It was a sign of her presence, and her presence was a token of her love. 

I had numerous babysitters, and mum assured them that, to relieve my unhappiness, they had only to prepare hot vanilla custard after dinner. But they were rarely as capable as her in the art of blending custard powder with milk, and their concoctions were always lumpy and tasteless. What was intended to serve as a comfort in her absence instead reminded me of it all the more. Then, in the mornings, she’d either sleep in very late, and I would have the run of the house, or she’d wake before me, or decide against sleep altogether, and clean frantically. 

But is this the real sequence of events? Did she clean the house after going out regularly at night, or did she only clean when she stopped going out? Another way of posing this question is: did my mother concern herself more with housecleaning while she was working as a prostitute, or when she was unemployed? Was she driven to purify the house after those long nights – and therefore, in a sense, cleanse her entire domain – or did that phase of her life inspire an indifference to cleaning altogether?

When I was four or five, I came to believe that mum had AIDS. So said the neighbouring children, who heard it from their parents. The house next door was dark and grotty, and the twins who lived there were always filthy. Jill’s hair was permanently knotted and Jack’s face was covered in food. Their parents rarely spoke to my mother and the kids were instructed not to come into our yard. While we were always, on the surface, ‘cleaner’ than most people in the neighbourhood – my hair was neatly kept, my clothes freshly washed and ironed, our house immaculate – we were also the most despised, the untouchables of the street. Kids were instructed to avoid mum, and by extension, to avoid me. After all, I was the child of a woman who ‘had AIDS’. I was the one with the mother who went out at night and slept in late, and who welcomed dangerous men into her home. I was the tainted child who had to be kept at a distance.

FOR MY FIRST five years I lived in an attached, single-level, red-bricked government house on Whiteparish Road, Elizabeth North, in the northern suburbs of Adelaide. But when I think of the fire engines that populated my childhood nightmares I see myself standing at the window, watching the firemen and their flaming hoses as they point their nozzles up to me. I am above them. When I try to recall that first bedroom at night this synoptic view comes to mind, which must be the viewpoint from my earliest dreams. But the bedroom is a changeable place, and my memories of daytime are at street-level. 

Awake at first light, I watch the streetlights dim outside my window. I look across the road, through high, leafy branches and up to the brightening sky. It must be summer because I’m not cold. There is some chance that the bedroom door is locked, so I can’t leave the room, or – more likely – I’m too small to reach the high doorknob. When the sun comes fully into view I’m permitted to call out to mum, who may or may not be home. Until then, I fade again into blankness.

2

ELIZABETH NORTH AND its surrounding suburbs were developed in the mid-1950s, on farming land north of Adelaide, as part of a careful postwar plan to industrialise South Australia and grow its economy. Wedged between Salisbury on its southern boundary and Smithfield to the north (both established more than a century earlier), these newer suburbs have been home to waves of working-class migration; largely British at first, then other Europeans, before greater diversity took hold in the latter part of the century. Some pockets of the northern suburbs are broadly working class, with high employment in various manufacturing and related industries – at least until recently. Others house a significant number of unemployed people. In 2015, Smithfield-Elizabeth North had an unemployment rate of 23.6 per cent, and the general trend for that area has been something in the order of 20 per cent over the last few decades. It holds a large proportion of South Australia’s public housing, and, according to census figures, around three-quarters of its current adult population failed to graduate from high school. 

It’s now thirty years since I left Elizabeth North, as a small child, but my lasting impressions of the place bear out these figures. The only person I knew who had a job at the time was a young uncle, a security guard. My maternal grandparents worked in factories before I was born, then accepted a pensioner’s version of early retirement. Most of my extended family were on a parental pension or unemployment benefits and lived in public housing, and none of them finished secondary school. My father was forced to seek employment in my teenage years, and worked in a factory, briefly – resenting every minute it – before injuring his back, claiming worker’s compensation, and settling down on a disability pension. 

By the time I left home, I was so ashamed of my parents’ idleness and reliance on welfare that I found it challenging to ask for any kind of support for myself. My request for Austudy was refused because, as the counsellor tilted her head toward me expectantly, pen poised over the page, I found that I was more comfortable with rejection than representing myself as a victim, even if it meant that I had to drop out of school. 

My way of coping throughout childhood was to pretend, as best as I could, that my family life was of the typical, working-class variety, and I held myself apart from everyone I knew in order to sustain the illusion. I never invited friends to my house, and I broke up with girlfriends – sometimes cruelly – whenever further intimacy threatened to reveal my true circumstances. I hid the parent–teacher interview forms and was unfailingly evasive if teachers or counsellors expressed concern or curiosity. I found that I could ‘pass’ as normal simply by seeming aloof and independent, and that false image was more important to me than anything. 

I refused to tell the Centrelink lady what she needed to hear because the mask I’d been wearing was all I possessed. I preferred to seem wilful and stubborn – and suffer for it – than be openly vulnerable. But instead of starving or becoming homeless for any length of time, I found that I was capable of something that hadn’t been modelled for me: work, to a higher standard than expected, over a sustained duration. The unskilled labouring jobs that I found left me filthy and exhausted six days per week, but I could accept the daily misery more often than not, since it provided a semblance of independence. 

3

SOMETIME IN 1985, my mother sent me for a holiday visit with my father, and I haven’t revisited Elizabeth North since. I was taken away at night, still half asleep, in a stranger’s car, clinging tightly to a thin black garbage bag, which held all of my clothes and, as I imagine, a few toys. I remember the unfamiliar black roads lit by faint headlights as we drove. I had to strain my neck to see above the dashboard of an early model Ford or Holden, and was amazed that the driver simply trusted the road to keep extending beyond the darkness. 

It was a week before my father and stepmother broke the news that I was now in their permanent care. Feeling homesick, I’d asked when mum was coming to get me. My stepmother said that she wasn’t, then gave me a strange look and went to speak with my father, who had assumed that I already knew. For a while I was convinced that they were keeping me against my mother’s will, or that they’d tricked her into giving me up. I felt sure that she was desperately searching for me, all over town. But after a month or so my mother called to say that she was in hospital, or had been in hospital, and was too sick to care for me. She promised to come and get me when she felt better, though, and said she loved her little man and thought of him always. When she asked how much I loved her I replied as I always did, because I knew it pleased her: ‘Bigger than heaven.’

4

THIS IS WHAT I know: Terrance Burns met Theodora ‘Roula’ Bageas while he was dating her sister. Their love was figured on betrayal, both hostile and libidinous. Roula was in her late teens. Terry was twenty and travelled everywhere barefoot. Neither had finished high school and both were decorated with amateur tattoos. Things may have been good for a while, but it didn’t last: they argued fiercely and Terry left. Weeks later, Roula tracked him down and said she was pregnant. So he moved back in, and they prepared themselves for parenthood. 

Eleven months later I was born. By the time my father discovered the deception, it was too late.

There is something chastening about this mode of conception, about knowing that, by most ordinary standards, your conception was aberrant. And for the comparatively ‘respectable’ Greek side of my family, which my mother belonged to, my beginnings carried a shame that couldn’t be easily remedied. It was shocking enough for an unmarried Greek girl to mix with boys who were not from her tribe, but to fall pregnant to one was irredeemable. The restrictions imposed on young women like my mother, by their families and Orthodox communities, were unduly onerous, and she either had little regard for them or found them unendurable.

For years I wondered why my desire to learn Greek and to call myself Greek were rebutted by relatives (to my uncles I was a dogga, or a feral Ozzie, and not even remotely Greek) but I now know that my birth, and my mother’s behaviour in general, triggered her family’s ostracism from their community. They were no longer invited to regular events and celebrations, and my grandparents stopped attending their church, out of embarrassment. My uncles, who were still teenagers, chose to reject their ancestry altogether in favour of a resolutely Australian identity, which they still carry. 

My conception brought exile and shame to half of my family, and was the elaboration of a harsh deception committed against my father. Even so, I’m told that Terry began drinking heavily when my mother went into labour, and that he strode proudly through the streets of Elizabeth North in the early hours of the next morning, rousing the neighbourhood with the joyous announcement of my birth. And while I can’t recall meeting any great-uncles or great-aunts or second cousins on my Greek side, or ever stepping foot inside an Orthodox church, my grandmother adored me, and my grandfather endured me without obvious distaste.

5

THE DECEITFUL WOMAN who uses sex to get her way is an intolerable – and resolutely misogynist – caricature, yet it approximates my experience of Roula. 

She was often violent. If a man did something to upset her, she would fly at him with sharp nails and ear-piercing screams. It didn’t matter where we were or what the provocation was or who was in the right or wrong, she was unstoppable when the urge to maim someone overcame her. 

I was two when she attacked Terry with his guitar, smashing it over his head. He stormed out of the house and never returned. 

Other boyfriends would handle things in their own way: some disappeared quickly; others stuck around despite the beatings; and others may have returned the violence with interest, or threatened to do so. I never saw anyone hit my mother, but I saw her inflict black eyes and lips and noses with furious abandon; I saw her tear shreds of skin off a man by punching him with the large, diamond engagement ring that he had given her; and I saw that man accept the beating with a kind of masochistic forbearance that was truly devastating. She would come for me with a similar lack of restraint, often wielding a hair brush – but I, at least, had the good sense to run for my life. 

6

BEFORE TERRY, ROULA’S first serious boyfriend was a kid called Shane who, she said, died while train surfing. She’d tried to name me after him but my father wouldn’t have it; instead they settled on Shannon, which carries the ghost of Shane but veers in a different direction. Both are Irish: Shane is a cognate of John (God’s gracious gift) while Shannon reaches back to Sionna, the Celtic goddess and ‘possessor of wisdom’. I have no Irish ancestry (that I know of) and I’ve never been wise, or liked my name, but the sense of Irishness stuck and bestowed some curious fidelities later in life. If I embraced the legacy of Homer and Socrates on the strength of my Greek blood, then I claimed Yeats and Joyce largely on the strength of my name. 

Roula also suggested, once, that I was named after a dog from a popular song in the late ’70s. Shannon goes for a swim at the beach but drowns, which prompts a sorrowful falsetto from Henry Gross: 

Shannon, is gone I heard.

She’s drifting out to sea.

She always loved to swim away.

Maybe she’ll find an island with a shaded tree,

Just like the one in our backyard.

There was an almond tree in our backyard, overlooking prickly weeds, surrounded by a cast-iron fence. It offered very little shade and hardly blossomed. At the back of the house were slatted windows, which I could remove when my mother failed to come home or if I was locked out and desperate to go to the toilet. I can see my mattress drying on the back porch too – and relive the disgrace of it – alongside a green and blue budgerigar called Pretty Boy, who died from exposure one night, after he was left outside uncovered. In the front yard there were soursobs and down the end of the street there were red shrub roses, which I’d pick for mum, making a show of wooing her, of being her handsome man and one true love. 

7

THE PAST IS a place that fades from your mind as you drive steadily into the darkness ahead. When you leave your mother, or your childhood, there is no return; instead, you find some way to forge ahead, to remake whatever has been unmade and to strip away those parts of yourself that threaten the life you’ve patched together. For me, after my teenage years, there was no use in having a past, and this made me impatient with other people’s reminiscences, the stories they told over and over, the memory anchors that seemed to stabilise their sense of self, reminding them of where and how and to whom they belong. Perhaps I was being melodramatic when I decided that I belonged nowhere to no one in no way, but that idea of myself worked well enough for a while.

I know that I was lucky. That I just scraped through. That lifelong dysfunction is only a misstep away. But the mask of normalcy has lost its appeal, and I’m beginning to think that the past is a place I can no longer renounce, that it explains parts of me that are otherwise inexplicable – to myself and everyone else.

 

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 55: State of Hope © Copyright Griffith University & the author.