By Maureen Oliver
Key Themes: short stories, poetry, schizo-affective disorder, depression, activism, spirituality, humour
Prolific artist and author Maureen Oliver brings us this wonderfully eclectic and inspirational book of short stories and poetry drawing from her experiences of love, life and madness. Maureen is an accomplished story teller and here she recounts some of her fascinating personal story and the emotional rollercoaster she has experienced as a sufferer of schizo-affective disorder. This is a heart-warming, up-lifting and witty collection of works.
About the Author
Maureen Oliver is a lesbian artist and poet, a mother and grandmother, and a psychiatric survivor with a current diagnosis of Schizoaffective Disorder.
Just One of the Family
My formative years were, perhaps, somewhat bizarre. I was a difficult child. I remember myself snarling and lurking in corners, snapping and growling at any approach. Then, of course, there were my sisters… one wore great, heavy metal studded boots and would lash out without warning to land a savage kick on shins, ankles – and, when she grew a little, any other protrusion it took her fancy to adorn with a colourful bruise. Kicker’s approach would cause me to retreat further into my corner and show my teeth. Once I caught hold of her leg and ripped it, tasting blood with satisfaction and watching her great shoes make tracks for the kitchen as she let out fearful howls.
Not to forget the other dear sister, the quiet one – Sinister – who slipped noiselessly from room to room – a thin shade of a girl. Her long, pale moon face would slide out of the darkness and into my corner, the slash that served for a mouth would move and a soft hiss of barely audible expletives would drip from it. She, with her quiet evil, held me rigid with fear, for against her there could be no defence; no violence on my part could stop up that flow of malice. Long after her face had disappeared back into the darkness, a faint buzz of hatred would palpitate in the empty space. So, my youth was not jolly or carefree, and oh, then there were my parents…
My dear Mother, always doing something in the kitchen, always doing it in the kitchen while wearing Father’s overcoat and a pair of carpet slippers with holes in them – yes, she was always doing it in the kitchen, although what it was she was doing exactly was a mystery, since nothing ever actually got done. She hummed cheerfully as she did it, she hummed ‘bizzy, bizzy, bizzy’ – she was always very busy, she was so busy she never had time to take out the combs and curlers knotted in her great pile of tangled, dusty grey hair – she was so busy she could not stop to clean her face of the smuts that flew upon her from every corner of the smut stained room. Her fingers delved and twisted in this pile of indescribable something and then in that heap of decaying mire – whether those were the boiling socks or the evening meal I could never be quite sure.
Oh Mother, was she content back then? Was she happy in the crumbling kitchen among the dearly remembered heaps of whatever it was that littered the room lovingly? If you scratched at the grimy flooring with a little wooden stick, you might see tiny red flowers and hearts that had been covered up and hidden for many, many years. Dearest Mother, perhaps if I had scraped away the dust I would have found beautiful patterns in her too. But I would never have dared to move too close, for a swift movement of the hand, too sudden to anticipate, and I could find myself flying to a crash landing against the wall.
And Father, I remembered Father by the slam of the door and a low rumbling sound, though whether this was actually his voice or some digestive problem I cannot be sure. Father, like my younger sister, was very ready with his feet and it was advisable to steer well clear of those heavy, brown shoes. Father was not exactly unkind – often he’d risk being scarred by snapping jaws while gently tapping my head with his fist as he passed my corner, it was Father who would slide the tray of grey meat across the floor towards me – as I preferred to dine alone. Though the rumbling, and those shoes, altogether I did not trust Father. Why did I go back there?
Well, after a few years I started to think that it couldn’t have been quite that bad – or could it? So, I got the idea to go back just to check up. I think I had started to doubt that the Family really existed… After all, the friends I had acquired since were all gentle smiling people, beautiful people, who glided about the city as quiet as cats in great purring automobiles. The life I now lived cast doubt on the reality of my past and, after all, I had been so young when I made the break – a mere cub… Perhaps my memory was playing tricks and the shadows in my mind were just that, shadows without foundation or substance. If that were so I must know the truth, besides I needed a family, my story of being the disinherited son of a Cornish Lord was wearing a little thin. I might want to write an autobiography or something…
As I said, as a mere pup I had escaped the family home and run wild and free until I was apprehended and found myself in a corrective institution for young offenders. Here my education began, I learned the crafts of lying, of how to destroy an opponent with a smile, how to stamp on the toes of adversaries and convert them to sickening obeisance. Here I forged the ladder that would lead me on to ‘make it’ in the great, wonderful world of opportunity in the outside world. I was intelligent enough to make sure that my particular form of corruption would not take such a simple form as to have me imprisoned again. My manoeuvres were devious and my assaults were made with blithely smiling expressions of innocence. I knew how to destroy with gentleness, to cheat in a way that made me loved and respected by all who knew me… Three years after leaving the institution I was a success. The future seemed rosy – so why did I go back?
The door opened very slowly, and into the split of darkness slipped a pale, thin face. My heart bounced in my chest, I was poised for flight when the thin lips cracked the face in a grimace intended to be a smile. I froze in horrified fascination, and, in that moment of indecision, I was seized by those skeletal hands and pulled inside the house. The smell was choking, a kind of thick, musty cloud served as air, it was in that fetid atmosphere that I had been bred. I felt a low growl start up from my trembling guts, I could not flee, my sister held me fast. She began to call a thin, high scream. Heavy shoes banged on the stairs and Kicker lurched towards me – her intention obvious. But her kick froze in mid-air at the sight of the cruel white mask of her sister’s face. An age, and we stood confronting each other, not moving or speaking. My sisters seemed not to have grown older, but in some strange way to have, well, decayed.
Why had I come? The kitchen door opened and the full force of a blast of some stinking steam from a bubbling pot on the stove hit me. I nearly fainted but Sinister held me upright in a strong, hard grip. Mother’s voice was a gentle whine of greeting. She released me from my sister and pulled me into the kitchen. I seemed to be welcome. I sat down and a cup of hot, grey liquid was set in front of me. Kicker banged down a plate of sliced meat, blood still trickling from the swollen flesh. I almost gagged.
Father had been standing behind me, slowly I became aware of a low grumbling sound, then my neck was gripped savagely, and, as the growl in my stomach rose to a strangled howl of protest, I felt something cold grip my neck and heard the snap of a fastened clip. I was collared, I was chained, “He’s grown,” rumbled Father, “hurry, chain him to something.” Briefly, they all paused to stare around the room for a suitable object. I took my chance. I bit deep into Father’s hand, and, as he released his grip on the leash, I raced from the room and out of the house, the heavy steel chain flapping at my back: I was young and strong – I outwitted them and escaped.
For a few days I hid out in an empty warehouse by the docks, stealing food from the dustbins of nearby houses at night, slinking around walls and behind corners, fearful of being seen, conscious of the chain still about my neck that, struggle as I might, I could not unfasten. After a while, however, I reasoned that the Family knew nothing of my recent comfortable existence and, hiding the chain as best I could, I returned, under cover of darkness, to my apartment on the other side of town.
It was some little time before I could summon the courage to leave that sanctuary – but at last I returned to my business, under the pretext of having been taken suddenly ill. There I was afforded due consideration – kind words were expressed as to my having made a full recovery. Yet, was it my imagination or did I receive strange, sidelong glances? My assistants kept their distance and seemed afraid that I might inadvertently touch them or brush against them. I fancied I heard anxious whispering behind my back, and, when I came into a room, conversation would cease and an unnatural silence would ensue. Perhaps it was the chain, which, try as I might, I could not remove. My attempts to disguise it had been so feeble that I had taken to letting it swing free hoping it might be thought a fashion statement – in the past I had been seen as something of a trendsetter… I began to see, however, that I was now regarded as eccentric, and perhaps, a dangerous eccentric…
I was at a party given by someone who had once been a close friend. My associates, however, had invited me this time, since they were too afraid to deny me the pleasure. Pleasure it was not, in fact, and I stood alone drinking in a corner, brooding on my recent misfortunes and eyeing the gambolling of my former friends with a cynical eye. As I turned away to get another drink, I sensed a hush fall upon the room and heard a muffled scream. I looked around into the grinning mask-like face of Sinister. In a flash, Father had seized the chain, Kicker was doing her best to break my shin bone with her steel-capped boots and Mother held me tight in a sooty paw. I yelled to my companions for help but they stood still, making no attempt to come to my aid. Helplessly I thrashed about, snapping and tearing at my Father’s. A partygoer ran forward, I thought he was coming to help me, but he stripped off his tie and bound my jaws together. As I was dragged away, I heard a great sigh of relief go up from the assembled group, then whispering, giggling – a laughter.
After that, I ceased to struggle and allowed myself to be led through the dark streets. It was raining. I remember that the cool rain comforted me and drove the burning tears away from my eyes.
I am almost happy now. Sometimes they release me from my chains and allow me to run around the locked yard. I belong here – I am, after all, just one of the Family.