Maeve: Hi, I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to Queerstories. This week Peter Polites is a novelist from Western Sydney. He has written two queer noirs, Down the Hume and The Pillars, which won the 2020 NSW Premier’s Multicultural Literary Award. He also won the 2020 Woollahra Digital Literature Prize for Fiction. In 2021 he was the ACT Writer in Residence at UNSW Canberra and working on his third novel, God Forgets About the Poor. This story was recorded in Sydney on Gadigal land.
Peter: So my mum said to me “Peter, stop writing all this gay stuff.” And she demanded that I write a book about her. She doesn’t understand that there’s nothing more fag-gier than a gay guy with mum issues. Anyways this is part of it “God Forgets About the Poor”. This part is about my mums birth, she was born on the 3rd of September 1945 in a village that didn’t have electricity or running water and I’m following the story of the midwife that birthed my mother.
Midwife Friday was flipping leavened dough off a pan when a neighbour yelled through the shutters. Word was that Torch Peasant has started crowning, her moans had become screams. Immediately she abandoned the stove, leaving it to burn the rest of its wood. The whole kitchen was left midway, there was a container of flour still opened and a lid on a tin of oil unscrewed. She put her hands through a protective smock and gestured to her two young sons to follow. Her sons could be a helpful distraction, they could play with the daughters of Torch Peasant as she gave birth. Just as they left, one of the boys stepped back into the house to pocket the talus bones of a goat so they could throw jacks.
She moved like a nightingale, inscribing her figure in the paths, running from her home to the bottom of the village. The stone houses were built angled down the mountain, running down hill was an ease. Her legs went too fast and tangled in her skirt, so she reached down and bunched the brown cloth in her hand so she could move unencumbered. She was looking for the home of Torch and going to what they called in the village the old neighbourhood. Midwife Friday emerged from a lane into the village square. It was a large open space, where they gathered for festivals but now empty. Flanking it was the cafe and the general store. Men who were too old for field work sat around the cafe. A song about thieves wailed through the radio, the tin sound from the speakers competed with the pattering feet of Midwife Friday. They looked up from their backgammon boards and saw her running with her two sons behind. The men at the kafenio yelled after her, taking their fingers off their red and black discs, they warned her she was going the wrong way down the sloping paths. She mistook their warnings for catcalls and ignored them.
Her foot slid on some mossy steps, she nearly keeled over, both hands extended out for balance and the boys grabbed her to make sure she didn’t fall. She arrived at the Loquot tree in front of Torchs house, momentarily distracted by the gold fruit. When her gaze hit the house, she realised there was something wrong. Most of the outside wall made from white rocks and mortar had fallen down. A crack in the wall grew from the ground up, tearing the house apart, it left a pile of stones near a closed door and the living space completely exposed. Inside the house parts of the wooden roof had collapsed next to the fireplace and had shattered the grain urns. Rain and damp had been coming into the house, tiny greens had taken root and plants were emerging inside amongst the weathered broken furniture. She stopped to think, the house was a reminder of her own unpropitious times, the homes she thought she knew much about, which had their own nature, her first one that was taken away from her through war, destruction and exile.
Perfume of the golden fruit filled her nose, the scent stirring her body to the present, blessed to break those thoughts, because her mind would have swum to those who stayed behind. She looked around for help and called out to the neighbourhood. From around the corner came Musk, who was considered the village dullard. She was carrying a water jug and wearing a floral dress which was more appropriate for Sundays and ceremonies. There was oil and chicken blood stains on it, ruining the fabric that indicated she came from a prosperous family. Musk clicked her mouth, her throat moved up and down as she gulped. Midwife Friday asked where the whole Peasant family lived now. Musk groaned as she put the water jug down, she put it at her feet and it involuntarily tipped slightly to the side, some water rushed out of the top. Musk mumbled a curse, the water was from the only tap in the village, which was past the outskirts just before the cemetery. It was a trek to get such a
simple thing, each spillage was a loss, it meant a trip back earlier than intended or one less pot of beans soaked and boiled. She muttered in a drawl that took years for Friday Midday to understand. There had been an earthquake. A big one. Yes. So big that ceramic tiles fell and stone walls split. Musk! Now tell me where the family is? Midwife Friday extended her palms out in front of her, she curled her fingers in rolling waves to elicit the information out of the woman. The family had moved to a rental. She repeated that since the earthquake, their house hadn’t been rebuilt and they were living near the top of the village, just to the right of where the school was.
Three thank yous from Friday Midwife and she pulled up her skirt in folds. She called the two boys to follow. They all criss-crossed through the veins and arteries of the village. Paths were made up of mortar and stones so smooth that children went barefoot without hazard. Everyone that lived there, broomed their parts and others adopted different sections to keep free of leaves and twigs. While they did their duties for the neighbourhood, they talked amongst themselves, and kept abreast of important things to monitor. Like which girl was one of the smart ones and would need extra books, which boy was too handsome and silly, which family would need extra help this winter but were too proud.
Midwife Friday passed the kafenio again. One of the oldies yelled out to her. We tried telling you! You Turks are too quick! The men pointed her in the direction of the house. Since the forced migration, running through villages created a single minded response in her. All other sounds turned off and she focused on the place in front of her and what was needed to get through it. Sound too, became just a distraction. This focus served her well at times, in the last few years the distant whistle of mortars and the crack of shotguns could be blocked out, while her eyes stuck on a woman who was crowning, listening to the tempos of her breath as it quickened. It was a useful skill for a midwife pulling out a baby while guns pop across hills. But other times, such as now, she missed important information. This power was part of her now, it helped her escape the predominantly Greek village she came from in Asia Minor when it was attacked by Ottomans. It led her to become one of the many refugees involved in the grand population exchange of the two countries. The single focus made sure that her sons were safe, in this high mountain village on an island.
Those sons kept at the tail of her dress now. She approached the top of the village and she heard the wailing sounds that indicated someone was birthing. She followed the sounds to the right house. Outside of the house, sitting on the steps were two girls, five and seven years old. They were the two heralds of the newborn. Both were holding their knees and rocking back and forth. Midwife Friday knelt down to reassure them – she knew each child and had guided them out too. She knew each child’s character too. How the elder one needed to be distracted and the younger one was scared only scared for the eldest, never herself. Before she disappeared into the house, she looked at her sons and pointed to the two girls. The eldest was named Open Sea and the youngest was called Very Foreign.
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