Book extract: The day mum moved the furniture back

By Adam Dudding

Robin Dudding was the leading literary editor of his generation, but then a darkness fell across his professional and personal life. His son, Adam Dudding, recalls the decade his parents’ marriage became a cold war.
Robin and Lois Dudding in the late 1990s, by which time the cold war had defrosted somewhat.
Robin and Lois Dudding in the late 1990s, by which time the cold war had defrosted somewhat.

It would have been about 1983. My mother served dinner and called me, my sister Anna and Dad to the table. I don't remember what it was, perhaps it was brown rice with a bit of onion and garlic and some rubbery strips of pan-fried steak, or maybe it was watery mashed potatoes with boiled mince and overcooked cabbage.

It wasn't that Mum was a bad cook. When we had weekend visitors she'd get an apron on and cover the table with a spread of salads from the garden, homemade bread, boiled eggs, sliced cheese, fried rice, vegetable soup, bowls of peanuts and sultanas. But on weeknights her heart wasn't in it, and who could blame her? There was never anything fancy in the fridge, the stove usually had several broken elements and her own healthy-eating puritanism meant cans, packets and frozen foods were out of the question - as were, for the most part, salt, butter, sugar, white flour, MSG-laden stock cubes and other wicked shortcuts to palatability.

More importantly, though, Mum would rather be reading a book or sitting in the garden, so she'd wander off mid-preparation. On a bad day she'd put the lentils or kidney beans on to boil and remember them only when smoke was curling under the door into the sitting room. The incinerated bottom layer would be scraped into the compost bin but the smoky remainder would be salvaged and served.

Whatever it might have been that evening, we ate it. Then Anna or I cleared the table and Mum reappeared with the next course, which might have been apple crumble, or bread-and-butter pudding.

"Here you go," she said cheerily, handing round the served plates. "Dessert!"

Dad glanced at the bowl then back up at Mum. His face twisted. He scraped his chair back and stood, cheeks suddenly bright red, eyes narrowed.

"It's not f***ing dessert," he roared. "It's pudding."

He took the bowl and smashed it to the floor. Then he vanished through the double-doors leading to the garden and his office.

Robin and Lois, mid 1950s.
Robin and Lois, mid 1950s.

Mum widened her eyes. She bent down and gathered up the pieces of smashed plate and scattered globs of dessert, pudding, what-f***ing-ever, and carried them to the kitchen bin. Anna and I soldiered on with our spoons. The food suddenly didn't taste of much.

Actual plate-smashing was a rare excitement, so extreme and absurd that Anna and I - the last two kids still at home - could giggle about it after Dad had stalked from the room. (The objection to "dessert" was probably that it was a snobby word when Mum should have been sticking to the more proletarian "pudding".)

Far more common, though, was for Dad to sit through a meal in stony-faced silence, seething in anger over God only knows what, filling the room with a sour, buzzing tension, a possibility of violence that never actually arrived.

Sometimes he literally wouldn't talk to Mum for months on end, apart from brief pretences for the benefit of visitors. For someone who loved conversation as much as Mum did, the silent treatment was especially cruel. To me at the time, it looked like he hated her - found her very existence intolerable. I couldn't understand why, and I still don't, exactly.

Certainly she had a handful of irritating qualities. She would tell terminally digressive anecdotes, so exquisitely boring that we'd either beg her to stop or just glaze over, totally forgetting she was even talking. She was near-incapable of giving a direct yes/no answer to such tricky questions as "Would you like another biscuit?" She was always, always late leaving the house, so Dad would just leave when he was ready and wait in the car.

Yet none of these was a capital crime. Also, she'd always been like that and Dad had only started getting nasty recently.

Their marriage had never been equal, but the tacit contract had functioned for years.

Robin brought home the bacon and Lois cooked it. Robin brought fascinating people into our orbit by virtue of being editor of the country's best literary journal, Islands, and Lois made them lunch and took part in the clever conversations. Robin dreamed up fun things to do - camping holidays in Coromandel, a party for the entire street - and Lois made the logistics work.

Robin made the decisions, drove the only vehicle, controlled the money. Lois went with the flow, let her driving licence lapse and seemed to accept the only money she'd ever handle was the cash Dad gave her each week for groceries.

He liked her hair long, and when she cut it short once he flew into a small rage before apologising with a bunch of flowers. He didn't like her wearing makeup, though she'd still venture a dab of lipstick for fancy occasions.

Mum knew she'd ceded too much territory to her husband somewhere along the line, but didn't quite know how to claim it back.

She sometimes told a story about the time, before they'd had their first child, when Dad had gone off to his job as a reporter at the Auckland Star and she'd decided to make something of the day and rearrange the furniture in their one-room Herne Bay flat. When Dad got home he wasn't angry exactly, but he told her she'd made a mistake and the couch and the armchair and the little table must be returned to where they were when he left for work.

Robin Dudding in the mid-1980s.
Robin Dudding in the mid-1980s.

That was the moment, Mum would say 30 or so years after the event, when she should have told him to get stuffed. But she didn't. Instead she put everything back like he said.

And now the deal, with its balance between control and kindness, was breaking down. The housekeeping budget had become impossibly small as Dad's professional life grew more chaotic. The stream of literary visitors had become a trickle and, if Mum had the temerity to invite friends she'd made for herself, Dad would greet them with the same mix of hostile silence or muttered insults he was perfecting on her.

Traits that had been entertainingly quirky, took on a darker tone. That early control-freakery about the placement of furniture metastasised into a generalised anger at anyone's attempts to move or change anything at all in his house.

Every pile of two-month-old newspapers, every little mound of shorts and underpants discarded on the dining table en route to his evening bath, every pair of chook shit-spattered gumboots left just inside the front door, attracting flies - dare to tidy them away and he'd walk about bellowing: "Who moved my newspapers/pants/boots?!"

For a couple of decades an entire wall of the living room was ramparted by stacks of cardboard boxes containing thousands of misprinted or unsold back issues of his journal, vaguely camouflaged with draped bed-sheets. They weren't to be touched, moved, or talked about.

When I was 13 Mum started looking for paid workfor the first time in 25-odd years. After some false starts she found her niche, working at the University Bookshop in the city. She knew books. She made a few friends of her own. She had a little money - though not much, seeing Dad reduced his own contribution to the housekeeping by the exact amount she earned.

The shifting economic power balance clearly bothered him and, when a few years later Mum lifted her sights still further and took a course in teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), he began a strange campaign to f*** her up.

The ESOL syllabus was hardly a stretch for someone as sharp and literate as Mum - the real challenge was finding somewhere to study in peace. Forget a room of one's own; she just wanted a clear surface to put her books. But Dad's doctrine of total ownership made that all but impossible.

Eventually she excavated a couple of square metres in a corner next to the wall of Islands boxes and set up a tiny wooden side table. But once she was out of the house, Dad tipped her stuff - pens, papers, ESOL texts and all - on to the floor. He suddenly needed somewhere to put his tomato seedlings, so when Mum got home her former work desk was out in the garden, covered in punnets of sprouting moneymakers.

Lois and Robin with Anna (front) and Adam.
Lois and Robin with Anna (front) and Adam.

As her practical assessment drew near, Dad stepped up the psychological warfare - stomping feet, slamming doors, shouting. I don't remember the pretexts for the one-sided fights he'd pick with Mum, but I remember his roaring and his red cheeks and bulging eyes, and the tightness in my chest when I entered the house after a day at uni.

The night before Mum was required to teach a class in front of an assessor, she fled to my sister's house nearby, hoping for one final evening's peaceful prep.

Some hope. Dad rang and gave my sister a message to pass on to Lois: "Tell her if she doesn't f***ing come home now she needn't come home at all."

Mum came home. The next day she failed the assessment. She didn't have enough money to repeat the course.

I was always on Mum's side during our decade of cold war. Yet part of me also wondered, with a gut-twist of disloyalty, if the problem was also that she was a bit weak and pathetic; that she should've had the courage to stand up to him, or leave.

But endurance is strength too. Despite the humiliations, Mum didn't curl up and die. Without a teaching certificate she couldn't get a job at a language school, so she took private students at home, a string of tongue-tied Koreans who'd turn up at the front door blinking at the strangeness and clutter of Sealy Rd.

She resuscitated her maiden name in correspondence, and kept doing it even after Dad took the letters from the bank addressed to Lois Miller Dudding and threw them on the floor, saying: "This person doesn't exist."

A few years later she started taking university papers part-time. At the age of 58 she completed the arts degree she'd begun four decades earlier.

When she graduated I was overseas, but two of my sisters, and her mother, went to watch her getting capped. Dad had something else he needed to do that day.

Teenage years are when you're meant to notice parents aren't the godlike figures you'd imagined. But as I figured out the precise composition and dimensions of my father's flaws, I grew over-fond of the righteous indignation that went with it. I could barely talk to him except to criticise him, and over time we settled into twin ruts - querulous complaint on my part, mute wounded dignity on his - and we never quite climbed back out.

Lois receives her BA, aged 58.
Lois receives her BA, aged 58.

Except one time. In 1991, not long after I'd left home, we met and drank beer at the London Bar in central Auckland, the only time in my life I can recall where both of us were moderately drunk in the same place at the same time.

It was fun, and easy, and I didn't feel my usual need to harangue him. We talked about ambitions and relationships, and he said something that was so far outside our usual conversational lines that it stuck in my mind long after the rest of the night faded.

"I may have f***ed up my own," he said, "but I do still believe in marriage."

And that's it - the sum total of what my father ever said to me about the dark cloud that had settled over our family a decade earlier.

Occasionally, much later, I'd try to get him to say more, but he'd always let the questions slip away. I knew I should get him back to a bar, to see if the right number of beers might open him up just enough once more, but somehow I kept putting it off, and 17 years passed. And then, one day, it was too late.

Edited extract from My Father's Island, by Adam Dudding (VUP, $35), on sale November 10.

- Canvas

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf03 at 30 Mar 2017 06:23:43 Processing Time: 1061ms