Stand-up comic, Denise Scott is back – sharing the stories of being on tour in regional Australia… with a bunch of young male comics on a tiny bus.
“It was mid journey on those long, long stretches of empty road that Denise confronts her own issues of ageing, motherhood, sex, intimacy, regret and wearing your bathers in public.”
I grew up in an outer Melbourne suburb called Greensborough, so named because it was green. And that’s about all you need to know. Put it this way: Greens- borough in the late 1950s was hardly known for its wow factor. And that suited my mother down to the ground, because Margaret Scott loved the ordinary.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if there were a Goddess of Ordinariness my mother would have lain prostrate and worshipped at her feet, were it not for the fact that it would have drawn unwanted attention. She was a quiet, devoted, no-non- sense, no-fuss sort of woman whose favourite sayings were ‘Neat as a pin,’ ‘Not a hair out of place’ and ‘She was a real little lady.’ She was also often heard to say, ‘When in Rome …’ She never finished the sentence; she didn’t have to. All she had to do was purse her lips and raise her eyebrows ever so slightly and you just knew Rome was our war service home and the Romans were in fact one woman and her name was Marg Scott.
Mum set the rules, and my sister and I obeyed them. We never disobeyed her. We never argued with her. Ever. And the only time my father and mother argued was of a Saturday evening when Dad would roll home from Dawson’s Hotel hav¬ing drunk too much in a futile attempt to ease the pain of his beloved Heidelberg West football team being thrashed yet again. My mother didn’t like to argue. She didn’t like the boat to be rocked. She liked things to be calm and ordered and uneventful.
My mother’s house was a spick-and-span humble home with no clutter, and there was never anything out of place. One of her favourite stories was about the time a neighbour had called in. ‘It wasn’t even half past eight in the morning, and would you believe, as luck would have it, I was dressed, the dishes were done, the beds were made. I’d even polished the kitchen floors. I felt tremendous.’
Every evening at 7pm my sister, Julie, and I set the table, and every evening we ate a tasty home-cooked meal such as stew and mash followed by custard and tinned fruit. There was never any need for Jenny Craig in our house, because portions were always moderate—not because my mother was ungener¬ous but because she did not believe in excess.
Thanks to the fact that pubs closed at 6 pm (oh, what a sad and dreary life it must have been) my father was usually home for ‘tea’, unless of course he had footy training or a footy meeting or footy crisis talks to attend at the Heidelberg West footy ground. There was always a clean and ironed tablecloth, and we always sat in the same place, my father and sister on one side, my mother and I on the other. No fuss. No bother. No surprises.
Dinner conversation was subtle, as in very subtle, as in we didn’t say much. And we were all comfortable with that. I guess we had to be: there was no alternative. Politics was never mentioned. Nor were world events. And as for religion, forget it. Sport? Dad would have loved a discussion, but the rest of us weren’t in the least interested. Hopes, dreams, ambitions? Get over yourself. And we never asked questions. I believe it was my mother who taught us this art, stemming from her firm belief in the saying ‘What you don’t know won’t hurt you.’
Thus, in our house, conversations were more like strings of statements, often completely unrelated. For instance, as we sat at the kitchen table eating our tea, my mother might say some¬thing along the lines of ‘Mr Sawyer died today.’
And then a minute or so later my father would say, ‘Beautiful dinner, Marg.’
And then after another pause my sister would say, ‘A girl in my class fainted this morning.’
And then Mum would say, ‘Trust him to die on my shift.’
And Dad would say, ‘What’s for dessert, Marg?’, which admittedly was a question but they really were rare.
And I would say, ‘Gee, I wish I could get a horse.’
And my mother would say, ‘Tinned fruit and custard.’
You get the drift.
Every two weeks my mother had her hair set and every six months had her hair permed at Anne Barnes Beauty Salon. In between appointments she would maintain her ‘do’ by wearing hair curlers and hairnet to bed.
I had no problem with my mother having a Queen Elizabeth–inspired perm, but I did have a problem when she decided I should have one as well. She performed the deed her¬self, having purchased a Toni Home Perm kit from the local chemist that she enthusiastically applied to my thick, straight blonde hair.
To this day I recall the moment when I first saw my reflec¬tion in the mirror. You never really do get over a shock like that. There I was, a seven-year-old girl with the hairdo of an eighty-year-old woman. I wanted to cry out in horror but dared not for fear of upsetting my mother. I sensed she was equally horrified but couldn’t show it, because after all there was noth¬ing to be done. ‘So snap out of it, Denise, and come out from behind that bush and get to school immediately.’
My mother was not without passion. She loved gardening and she loved sewing. She made my sister and me all our clothes; hence, we wore identical outfits, which was cute though a little embarrassing come adolescence. When I went to hospital to have my tonsils out she made me and my doll matching nighties.
Without doubt her greatest triumphs on the sewing front were the suits she made for Julie and me when we were eleven and nine years old respectively. Mine was blue. My sister’s was pink. They were waisted dresses with matching jackets that were covered in lace.
My mother had first seen them in the newspaper. They were featured in an advertisement for Georges, an upmarket department store in the city. She was so taken with them that she determined to replicate them for her girls. She became quite feverish and obsessed about it, her machine whirring at all hours of the day and night, and when she wasn’t sewing she was on the phone, organising to have the skirts sent away to be perma-pleated, or tracking down the tools needed to make the hand-covered buttons and belts.
The finished outfits were quite literally a breathtaking success. Our next-door neighbour Beryl Higgins, upon seeing them, gasped and clutched the front of her cardigan as though about to have a heart attack as my mother, not normally one to blow her own trumpet, proudly declared, ‘They look just like the ones in Georges. And do you know how much those ones cost?’
‘How much, Marg?’
‘And do you know how much I made the girls’ suits for?’
‘How much, Marg?’
‘Two pound ten.’
They really were beautiful. It was such a shame we never went anywhere we could wear them.
And Mum loved smoking. She was a packet-a-day gal, Albany cigarettes were her choice of smoking pleasure. Every morning when she wasn’t doing night shift, Dad would deliver her a cup of tea and a cigarette in bed.
Mum was particularly passionate about swearing. Passionately opposed to it, that is. She loathed it, although on occasion she was heard to say ‘Bugger,’ when chopping wood and a splinter flew into her forehead, for instance. (Having grown up in the country, my mother was a mighty axe wielder, and it was her job to fuel our open fire. Dad, being a city slicker, was banned from the wood heap.)
One day when my sister and I were walking home from primary school we were stopped by the high-school bullies—a group of adolescent girls—who had spread themselves out in a line across the street, daring us to pass them.
My sister and I froze in our tracks.
The leader of the gang walked over to me. She looked down at me and hissed, ‘Do you know what “fuck” means?’
I shook my head. Of course I didn’t know what it meant. I’d only been on the planet six years and didn’t get out much. I’d never heard of the word, yet alone heard anyone say it, which in hindsight was nothing short of a miracle, given that my father was a lifetime member of the Heidelberg West Football Club.
‘You go home and ask your mother what “fuck” means.’
I nodded agreement.
‘You’d better do it; otherwise, you’ll be sorry. Well, go on, what are you waiting for?’
My sister and I walked in the back door.
Mum was vacuuming the enclosed veranda, which she had recently had covered in a brown synthetic carpet. She had her back to us. The upright hoover was extremely noisy and I had to yell. ‘MUM, DO YOU KNOW WHAT “FUCK” MEANS?’
The vacuum cleaner whirred to a meaningful sort of silence.
Slowly, my mother turned around. I could not believe my eyes. Surely her perm wasn’t literally standing on end? But that was how it seemed, such was the look of horror on my mother’s face. And then she spoke with a voice I’d never heard
before—cold, chilling and deadly serious. ‘You must never, ever, ever say that word again.
Do you hear me? It is a terrible, terrible word, and if a policeman ever hears you say it you’ll be put in jail.’
In my mother’s eyes, swear words were nothing short of criminal, especially when spoken by a lady.
My mother’s determination to avoid anything that upset the calm progression of daily life knew no bounds, her reaction to the news of a murder being a superb example of a woman resolved to keep a lid on the excitement of life. It wasn’t just any murder; it was Greensborough’s very own Desperate Housewives situation. I only knew about it because of my uncanny ability in, and absolute devotion to, the ancient art of eavesdropping. As a child I did it all the time.
One day a few women from the St Mary’s Mothers Club, all with identical perms—except for Mrs Alcock, who bucked the system with a teased French roll—rocked up to our house, each armed with a portable sewing machine. Their mission? To make young boys trousers to sell at the St Mary’s school fete. Mrs Alcock handed out pieces of fabric already cut into various shapes and gave instructions on how to assemble them. With heads bent low, right foot delicately placed just above the treadle and steady hands poised ready to guide the grey fabric under the needle, they waited for Mrs Alcock to give the word, and then away they went. I was in the lounge room at the time pretending to read, but in reality I was fully focussed on the ladies, fascinated by them. I kept sneaking a look through the servery, a hole Mum had had cut in the wall so that when she was in the kitchen, which she nearly always was, she could still see the TV in the lounge.
Eventually, all the machines came to a halt, and I heard one of the mothers, Mrs Schultze, comment, ‘Oh no. Will you look at that? My inside pocket—it’s facing the wrong way. Oh well, I guess that’ll come in handy for some little boy with a back-to-front hand.’
All the mothers roared.
And then another mother said, ‘What about Valerie Thompson killing her husband?’
Hello! What? Mrs Thompson killed her husband? My eyes widened to the size of cricket balls. Mrs Thompson was one of the sweetest mothers at the school. And one of the most reli¬gious. She was always putting flowers on the altar …
‘Apparently, he was passed out on the couch, as usual, and she just bashed him to death with a softball bat.’
My eyes were now the size of basketballs. I pictured teeny tiny Mrs Thompson swinging a softball bat, smashing her hus¬band’s skull to pieces.
‘He deserved it, though. He was a brute to her.’
‘Anyone like a cuppa?’
That was what my mother said upon hearing the news of Mr Thompson’s demise.
Even the near death of her daughter couldn’t extract any public emotional response from my mother. I was four years old at the time and having a bath with my sister while Mum was in the kitchen preparing dinner.
Suddenly, my sister started screaming.
My mother raced into the bathroom to find Julie standing in the bath staring down at me in horror. My lifeless body lay submerged under the water, my eyes, as Mum later recalled, ‘wide open, big as saucers, unblinking, just staring up at the ceiling.’
Mum heaved me out of the bath, shook the bejesus out of me and ferociously slapped life back into my face.
Half an hour later, as we sat at the table eating tea, all my mother said to my father was,
‘Well, Russ, one thing’s for sure: that’s the last time I give Denise a sleeping tablet before she has her bath.’
This is an extract from The Tour: A Memoir by Denise Scott, published by Hardie Grant Books (RRP $29.95).
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