All through this project I’ve struggled with the leftover toast crumbs of memory, and done my best to bring them to life without embroidering or otherwise writing actual fiction. But now that the project is winding down I thought it might be interesting to compare the things about a story that I remember with what was really going on. And since this story is about my mum, I asked her to provide the explanatory details.
WHAT I REMEMBER
Mum, furious, chasing after me, yelling, armed with a broom. Red country dust everywhere. Caravans. I was running for my life, but laughing. I had just been extremely naughty, eating an entire tin of Nestlé Condensed Milk despite being expressly told not to touch it. I ate the whole thing and it was yummy, and I went and found Mum and told her I did it, laughing. Then the chase, all through the caravans parked everywhere. I was very little, and could really run. Mum, only in her 20s, could run, too, and she was coming for me, and it was hilarious to see her run like that and I was laughing.
THE REAL STORY
It was 1966, I was three years old, and I was an evil, wilful swine. Mum often talks, even these days, about how I would get a “look” in my eyes, and I would do these awful things, apparently for sport and enjoyment–the enjoyment of seeing my parents and especially my mum upset and angry. And on this occasion she was more angry, and more determined than at almost any other point in our relationship since. She talks about the Condensed Milk Incident the way you might talk about a creation myth. This is where our relationship became what it became, and where our characters were forged.
We were staying in a work camp near a spot in the middle of nowhere called Koolyanobbing, a place that wasn’t really a town so much as a place to park mining equipment. It had a general store, of sorts, where you might, possibly, on a good day, obtain some of the things you needed. For proper shopping you needed to drive forty miles over gravel roads to the town of Southern Cross, which had the nearest pub. I remember this camp for its red dirt, Ektachrome blue skies that went on forever, tiny white caravans, and giant yellow machines.
The government was installing one of the great infrastructure projects, the Standard Gauge Railway. Up this point each state had its own crazy ideas about rail gauge. To send something across the country you would have to unload and reload onto new rolling stock every time you crossed a state line. Fortunately, we don’t have many of those.
It was a huge job, and they needed people to do all kinds of work. My dad was employed as a mechanic, whose job was to look after, repair and maintain the giant yellow machines during the freezing cold nights so they’d always be ready to go during daylight hours.
We all lived in the makeshift caravan park nearby, in a caravan Mum says was only ten feet long. Imagine two and a bit people squeezed into such a tiny space, where the weather was either screaming hot without a breath of breeze, or freezing cold. And my mum and dad had me, a chubby little brown-haired bundle of chaos, living with them.
Living there was extraordinarily difficult. One of the main difficulties was getting supplies to live on, which meant somehow getting to either Koolyanobbing and hoping the sketchy shops there had what you needed, or making the arduous dusty gravelly journey to Southern Cross, where they probably had what you needed. Then you just needed to get it all back to the caravan, and hope the power stayed on.
One of most essential items to get was milk. I am assuming the fridge in a ten-foot caravan would be frustratingly small, and that would be why Mum and Dad relied on tinned condensed milk that you could keep at room temperature on a shelf in a cupboard.
Now my dad was working his guts out all night long, in the bitterest cold, on these immense machines, trying to keep them running. Mum would often take him a big hot meal in the middle of his night-shift, to make sure he ate well, and to give him some company. And when he got home to the tiny caravan, a place to live so small it was less like stepping inside, and more like pulling it on, like a jumper–he would want a cup of tea, and he would want milk in that tea.
But Nestlé Condensed Milk was wonderful. It was so thick, and so sweet. It was perfect. It was made for me. I could not keep my hands off it, which had to trouble in the past. Dad would come staggering in after a brutal night on the machines (and I have heard stories of how it was unbearable work, both because of the cold but also the isolation and loneliness, which must have done Dad’s illness no end of harm), and he’d want a cuppa. But what’s this? There’s no milk? Adrian ate all the milk–again? Despite all the Talks we’ve had about not doing that?
I felt terrible. I felt as if I were full of stolen stuff. It made me feel sick, as I could throw it all back up. Three years old and hating myself, for doing this to Dad. I didn’t understand what he did at his job, bit I understood that he needed to do it, for all of us. And when Mum was patiently explaining about our life out here in the dust, telling me to be careful to watch out for the huge machines and trucks that would come rumbling along the roads, she’d also explain that we were a very long way away from help, should we need it. And a very long way from shops. Eating the condensed milk was bad, but the prospect of having to find someone in the camp who had a car who might provide a lift to Koolyanobbing or even Southern Cross, was terrible. Everyone was doing it hard in near-impossible conditions.
But I kept doing it. I knew it was wrong, but it was so delicious, so sweet, so thick and gooey, and I was just having a little bit, and maybe a little bit more, and oh look, there’s plenty still left, so I’ll have a bit more. I don’t say this is exactly what I thought, but I certainly thought something like this. I was not to do it, for good reasons, but I did it anyway.
And one day, Mum had been sweeping outside, came into the caravan unexpectedly, and caught me red-handed. In flagrante delecto.
I ran, and Mum came hurtling after me, broom and all. To me, as soon as I got a look back over my shoulder at my mum on the rampage (my mum: not quite five feet tall, a bit overweight, bright, pale blonde hair and ghostly pale skin), coming after me, yelling that she was going to get me, it was the best fun of my brief life. It was hilarious! We should do this every day! Mum looked so funny running after me!
Other people in the camp watched the drama unfold, and offered “helpful” and funny comments as Mum pelted past, though sadly none of these comments have survived contact with history. But the image of the naughty little boy and the furious avenging mum in hot pursuit, with broom (“you’ll have to run faster that to take on your broom, luv” was, I think, one droll comment) no less, is immortal.
The stakes were the highest imaginable, as far as Mum was concerned. Every day she saw gigantic trucks, graders, dozers, haulpaks, rolling and rumbling all around here. Machines often bigger than houses. What they and their giant dusty wheels would do to a tiny wee boy she didn’t want to think about, but she was a worrier.
More viscerally personal there was the issue of parental authority. She says she knew she had to get me, despite how unlikely it seemed that she would or even could, given my condensed milk-fuelled naughty energy and sheer evil glee in running away. Of the two of us Mum was always going to tire first. She knew there was an excellent chance I would get away with it, and she was damned if she was going to let that happen.
So she ran and ran. Because if she didn’t catch me, and I got away, I would never again have reason to take her seriously as an authority figure. It would, she believed, poison our whole future relationship, and potentially my whole future life. We still talk about it, more than fifty years later. It’s one of the most seminal moments in our entire lives. Our relationship was forged here on this day. This is why, even now, as a man in my fifties, I pay attention when Mum tells me off about things I’ve done wrong (too many to list, believe me). This day is when I first realised that my mum was not to be messed with. She had spent her life up to this point dealing with the consequences of having been born with albinism. She was always very visibly different, and always underestimated, not taken too seriously.
But make no mistake. Even though if you asked her if she felt she was in any way courageous she’d say no, not at all, and tell you she’s a bundle of anxiety and nerves, and there is truth to that–the fact is, on the evidence, she was and remains a formidable presence in my life.
She bloody well caught me that day, and I got the spanking and telling off of my life. It was so spectacular it became, at least within the walls of our family, mythic, like a constellation of stars in the sky. You could look up at night, see Orion, the Pleiades, and, oh, look, there’s the Condensed Milk–look, you can even see that it’s empty!