MEMOIR: THE CONDENSED MILK INCIDENT (TOTAL REWRITE)
Nestlé Condensed Milk is a sweet, sticky, gloopy sort of “milk” that came in these tins, and the great thing about it was that until you opened the tin you did not have to keep it refrigerated. If you lived, for example, in a tiny, flimsy caravan only ten feet long in a red-dust mining camp in the middle of fly-blown nowhere, and your job involved working all night in temperatures cold enough to break your spirit, to freeze your heart, to burn your membranes as you breathed, and to cripple your hands, and it was just you and your demons, fixing giant yellow industrial machines—you might well feel entitled, when you got home to the caravan, to a reviving cup of tea. And when you made the cup of tea, you’d want to have a bit of milk in it.
Unless I’d beaten you to it.
I was three years old. Mum says I was a wilful, naughty boy. She says I was difficult. I know from my own recollection that I was weird, moody, mischievous and shy to the point of pathology.
My dad was a young man struggling in his role as a family man and breadwinner, good with his hands, who had landed a mechanic job on the nation-building Standard Gauge Project, in which the government of the day installed uniform rail gauge across the country. My dad’s part in the whole thing was to repair graders, bulldozers, etc, during the night when they were idle. But at night it was unimaginably cold, just as during the day it was unthinkably hot. My dad suffered with bipolar, same as me, but was never treated properly for it until he was forty-five. Working helped a little, but working alone, all night, when it was so cold, did not.
My mum, who is legally blind, learned how to drive, so she could take hot meals to my dad in the middle of the night, and to give him some company. She used to take me along, the blind lady and the little boy, out driving in the middle of the night.
I loved Nestlé Condensed Milk. I ate it up. I couldn’t leave it alone. It was the best stuff ever.
But it was hard to replace. This work camp we lived in was in a place in the bush called Koolyanobbing. Some distance away was a small town called Southern Cross. If you needed groceries, that’s where you needed to go. It was a hard problem. It wasn’t like popping down to the local shops. It meant an expedition. It meant logistics, planning, and talking to people.
Things, because they were transported over land by truck from faraway big cities, were also expensive, and nervous men who worked all night on their own on gigantic yellow machines in freezing cold conditions so cold that their hands hardly worked found that their meagre pay did not go very far.
We could not afford to keep buying tins of Nestlé Condensed Milk because I had just devoured the latest tin.
Dad was always angry and frustrated and fed up.
Mum was always telling me off. Always, always telling me off.
The caravan was ten feet long. Imagine the three of us squeezed into that tiny space. Imagine the crushing, squeezing, unbearable heat. The pressure. We had to eat, we had to live and exist. We needed money. Dad had to go to work at the job that was driving him mad. Mum had to take her life in her hands getting behind the wheel of a car each night to take Dad a meal, even though she could barely see beyond the end of the car’s bonnet. Mum has albinism. Her eyes wobble uncontrollably. She can’t make them stay still or focus.
And I couldn’t leave the condensed milk alone. Three-year-old me loved it. Thought all the fuss over it was hilarious.
But then, one day, one fateful day, I ate a whole tin of Nestlé Condensed Milk while Mum was outside sweeping red dust. She came into the caravan unexpectedly, still carrying the broom, and she caught me in flagrante delecto. I may have laughed.
Mum went for me, and I ran. Mum came hurtling after me, broom and all. She chased me up and down the red dirt of the caravan park, yelling after me that she was going to kill me when she caught me, and I laughed and laughed, because this was the funniest thing ever! I felt like I could run forever, and maybe I could have, at the time.
Mum, though, a young woman in her twenties, a little overweight, not very fit, not used to running, was at a disadvantage. But she knew she had to catch me. If she failed to catch me and punish me properly, she knew (and we still, to this day, talk about this story), it would poison our relationship. She knew I would never respect her authority if I got away with this condensed milk thing. I would always see her as a joke. I think she’s right.
This moment, this chase through the caravan park, forged our entire future relationship, and to a large extent our characters as well. We do indeed still talk about this incident. It is seminal. Mum had to get me, and show me who was boss. Everything, our whole future, depended on it. It rose to the level of myth. I was a naughty boy, but the thing about being naughty is that it’s all about the moment of being naughty. There’s no future in it. What do you do later when you’re hungry again?
Mum did catch me. I forget how she caught me, but she did. I imagine I got cocky. I might have stopped to laugh, or tripped and fallen, or one of our neighbours might have apprehended me for Mum. Anything like that could have happened, or something else again. It hardly matters. The salient point is that Mum got me. And I was given the hiding of my brief life. I don’t remember it. I don’t even remember if they spanked me or if they just yelled at me or sent me to bed without dinner, or what. It was 1966, so I imagine Dad’s Belt might have seen some action.
What I do remember is that I lost my taste for Nestlé Condensed Milk. Not right away, not that night, but I lost the madness over it. Lost the need for it. Now I can’t stand the stuff. It’s too sweet. It’s too sticky. I react with horror if I touch anything sticky like that.
I still, sometimes, see my Mum, in the rear-view mirror of my imagination, charging after me, armed with her broom (red dirt, white caravans, Ektachrome blue skies), and it still makes me laugh. But it also reminds me that my mum is formidable and determined.
I love my mum.