The first article I ever had published in a national newspaper was back in 2002. I had just completed an evening course on Creative Writing (funnily enough, at the school my son will be attending next year) and it was a piece that developed from a writing exercise – one of those where you had to write a piece starting with a set sentence. That sentence no longer exists in the piece I had published and I wish I could remember what the sentence was that triggered the memory that lead to this. I can only recall that once I had the whiff of the memory, the writing of it came in a rush. Reading it now, 9 years down the track I see many flaws, but it still brings all the senses of those memories back to me.
If you’re interested the Condensed Milk Mayonnaise recipe mentioned is here.
THE WEEKEND AUSTRALIAN, DECEMBER 7 – 8, 2002
THIS (WOMEN’S) LIFE
When I was a child on summer holidays, peeling prawns was women’s work. After Pop consulted his lunar calendar, his bible for fishing, prawning and other water sports, he would announce the night’s arrangements to Nan. She would call the girls to organise them to peel the prawns the next day. Then my Nan, Mum and various aunties, not necessarily related, would sit around the re Formica-topped table. Newspaper was put down and three bowls placed on its pages, one heaped with prawns freshly cooked and two empty. The women’s fingers would fly ripping heads, legs and tails off the prawns and delicately tugging out the gritty dark vein from the back.
At six I had yearned to be with the men: my Dad, Pop and the corresponding uncles. Their work entailed going out near midnight to catch the prawns, and recovering in the lounge-room in front of the huge black and white telly the next day.
I detested the strong salty prawns with their black beady eyes and the sharp whiskers that alwasy managed to jam under a fingernail. I was bored in the kitchen sitting in the sunlight at the table, squashed next to the grubby old fridge that hummed and ticked and moved imperceptibly closer to the door. The drone of the women’s lowered voices and the crackle of prawn shells made me sleepy. Back then I thought being with the women was dull.
At 10, I wondered why these women laughed so hard about nothing. The prawns still pricked my fingers but the familiar and comforting warmth of their voices and the kitchen made up for it.
At 12, I had learned to be quiet, not to twitch – to be invisible. This way I learned all the secrets. That in her youth, short broad Edna had movie-star looks that enthralled men all over the district; that in her laundry Edna’s sister had helped women in trouble; and that Nan had KO’d Mr Kenney once when he had a skinful and was railing on his wife. Peeling prawns came to be an event looked forward to with great anticipation.
With the prawns peeled and the shells in a bucket to be buried near the lemon tree, Mum would pass around lemon halves to soften the smell on our briny hands and which Edna would place on the elbows to my great amusement, “to keep them soft and white, Love”. Nan would make prawn sandwiches with fresh Bakers bread and her condensed-milk mayonannaise, pepper and salt. I could eat gallons of that mayonnaise on soft fresh bread but I still didn’t care much for the prawns.
The first sandwiches were made and eaten quickly and this would end the women’s time alone, as men emerged from the lounge room or from under cars.
Twenty years later and with so many of those people gone, my sister and I sit on my back deck in beautiful summer evening light. Our children tumble on the lawn. We peel prawns, our fingers flying nimbly. I have to remove the back vein from all the prawns; my sister is younger and she can’t remember learning the trick. Or so she says.
We are inland; these prawns are from Woolies. The cackle of many voices isn’t here but it is pleasant all the same. We miss those women from way back then but as we talk about our seperate memories, we feel their warmth and the pleasure they took in their time with each other.
Time passes quickly. The baby opens her mouth wide. She loves prawns as much as her Great-Grandmother did. As much as I do, too. But only after being ploughed through my Condensed-Milk Mayonnaise.