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Vol. 3:  Saudade


Karen Lethlean

Karen Lethlean is a retired English teacher. She has won a few writing awards through Australian and UK competitions. Including Best of Times, with Bum Joke. In her other life Karen is a triathlete who has done Hawaii Ironman championships twice.

𝐏𝐞𝐫𝐭𝐡 𝟏𝟗𝟔𝟕

You have to understand something about my childhood before I begin to tell you about Hilda. My father was the sort of man who hit first and asked questions later. Difficult to explain to people who did not have similar experiences. I might want to wish away his two personalities: to his friends; a charismatic, man’s man. At home he was a nightmare. He was mean, cruel, but at least girls in my family were not sexually abused.

I’m not trying to make excuses, but my relationship with males was heavily influenced by duck-for-cover self-protection instincts. Little wonder I grew to not like men.

Why didn’t mum do something? She probably didn’t have much choice. No women’s shelters then, minimal and lowly paid jobs; where else would she go? She just stayed. I know this all sounds like a feeble justification. I can’t remember where I heard it, or if I’d made up the story of her sole attempt to leave him. More than once I ran over the tale in my head; narrated her walking through Perth’s summer heat, tugging at least one kid’s reluctant arm, pushing a laden pram, fleeing with her young family to her mother's. Just to be sent away with, ‘you’ve made your bed now you have to lay in it!’

It’s not meant to be cathartic to share all this now, just explaining my box of existence. Trying to establish that nary tenderness existed for me, before Hilda.

In High School, Italian boys with tight pants, macho effervescence and way too much confidence patrolled playing fields and corridors. I cringed inside at these embodiments of my father. Even though I was head and shoulders taller, they still intimidated. My limbs were not yet resembling their Sophia Loren image therefore I was a target. Let’s face it, long skinny legs, knobbly kneed, pigeon toed, wearing glasses, braces on my buck teeth; interested in books and science — I did not fit their box of desire.

To make matters worse, I had a penchant for strong females. Blame it on my father’s one sister – Sylvia. She used to say, ‘I don’t want equality, women have always been superior to men’. I longed for alternative female role models and became obsessed with the Avenger’s TV show. Not the Disney movie franchise, but swashbuckling English spies with femme fatal assistants. Watching Emma and Diana, accompany Bowler hat wearing John Steed became an indulgence. For a weekly fix, I could tolerate possible punishment.

In some ways, Hilda was a teenage version of these women — she certainly came to my rescue, although not because of the school-yard name calling. She just embodied a friend through those sad, lonely years.

The daughter of Dutch immigrants who gave her what was an ordinary name by their standards, yet wonderfully exotic to my ears, they were comfortably well-off compared to my box of squalor. Hilda’s sister Doreen kept a horse stabled amongst market gardens in Osborne Park. Horse crazy, only took a whiff of baled hay and sunlight through stable air to send me in euphoria. Yet another example of their affluence and an adolescent dream I dare not even ask about. Once a well-meaning councillor said, ‘why didn’t you ask for a pony…?’ Keep your mouth shut, don’t request anything, and stay out of the way of hands, fists and bruise inflicting implements — my survival strategies.

During my time with Hilda, I fell in love with Dutch salted liquorice, iced ginger biscuits, blue and white china depicting windmills.

Both of us were tall and skinny. Hilda possessed straight strawberry blond hair (which today’s colour technicians would labour long and hard to achieve, but she despised), cut blunt just below her ears, accentuating an elegant neck. Compared with my mousey brown, razor cut and sticking up in multiple directions locks, Hilda’s was a crowning glory. Boys taunted her as 'carrot top', 'fire head', or mistook her Netherland heritage as German which was a real insult. It felt amazing to bond over mutual torment.

Even now I can recall meeting her in a grassy patch halfway between the two houses and laying watching clouds float past while we talked about books, horses and television. Shared secrets like, ‘those Italian boys in their jeans....’

‘Yes, how do they get them so tight?’

‘You know they put socks down them.’

Smells of wild oat weeds drying to blonde in summer even now evoke a tang of nostalgia for those innocent days. A time when I touched her ginger tinged skin which made me feel like I was floating outside my imprisoning box.

For a teenager who was horse mad, all Hilda had to offer was the tiniest equine snippet to seduce me further. Bring Solitaire in from paddocks, and we'd groom her. I’d head home up the hill, heady with scents of stable dust, saddle grease and hay. Closeness of our fingers, her patient instructions as we plaited mane and tail, or polished leather, all filled with dizzying solidarity.

Up close to roof rafters are pieces of tack, saddles mostly. Covered with a fine layer of grit. Even though impossible to feel inside, wind filters through those weathered timbers enough to make fragments of chaff, specks of spider webs and hoof dust form a film across any surface. My horse experiences were anything but flat.

Light angles in, strokes of illumination appear to chase objects until a horse moves to break beams. Air heavy with smells of hay, feed, manure. Noises of tails swishing, teeth clicking, snorts, push of flesh against stall walls.

Any sleep-over nights were alive with all sorts of new sensations. Their house built on a smaller block with Pine trees along the western edge, to wake in a fold out bed with scents of needles, heaven! This is another of those triggers that creates a throat lump.

‘Get in here and we’ll keep each other warm.’

I felt a slither of flesh, smooth skin, picturing tiny ginger hairs under my fingertips beyond excitement. I touched her, she let her fingers trace across my belly. ‘Turn over, face the wall.’

Her arm encircled from behind, I could feel her hips against my pyjama pants, and there was radiating warmth. Her breath tingled the back of my neck. Her small breasts pushed behind my shoulder blades.
‘It feels better if you take your pants off.’ I could feel her pubis against bare skin. I didn’t know what happened, but it wasn’t long before my body shuddered out of control.

Following such loveliness, I did a stupid thing. Wrote a note to a girl in a senior class. With a picture of the actress from The Avengers and informed her of resemblance. Added to school room and passageway taunts of four eyes, giraffe legs, bean pole, I was now called a ‘Leso’. Hilda’s response was, ‘why on earth did you do that?’ As if I needed to be told that I’d done something wrong. I remained trapped again in familiar “useless article” boxes. Hilda absented herself from my vicinity at school and opportunities to spend time either at the stables or her place suddenly became scarcer than a wet day in Perth during January.

Saw her again in the early 80s, hair colour my first hint Hilda even existed. Seated at Max Kay’s Scottish Theatre Restaurant, she wore a simple black dress which embraced her slim form, I wondered if possible to get as close as this fabric. My attire: wait-staff uniform (white shirt, bow-tie and black trousers). At first, I thought she wouldn’t recognize me. I must have changed over the years, and would no longer fit in her pigeon hole.

‘You work here?’

Yet she turned away to some table top anecdote, laughing way too loudly. So, in my waitress role I did what all good serving staff should - made myself invisible. But from my elevated perspective I could see her thin hand grasp a man’s thigh in a possessive manner. A moment which shouted loud about my status as a half explored boxed toy to Hilda. She merely toyed with my future, unaware that I would discover my sisterhood independent of her influence.

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