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meet the winners: janey runci, “packing my mother’s case” and q & a

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Janey Runci’s story “Packing my Mother’s Case” came second in Lip‘s 2014 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction. Here is an interview with Janey, plus her award-winning story. Enjoy!

 

Q & A

Tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you?

I’m a writer and a teacher and have been working on both for a few decades.

 

Why did you enter the Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction?

A writer friend sent me the Lipmag link and I was intrigued by Rachel’s story, by her work with the magazine and her disappearance.  It was also a day when I felt very low about my writing life, about life in general and I was trying to give myself a kick in the pants and do something, send something out. This story I submitted was important to me and I’ve had some strong reactions to it. I knew it wasn’t going to ‘fit’ in most places, but I still hoped it would find a home one day, and I suppose I believed it deserved to. So when I saw the Rachel Funari I did some work on the story again and sent it off and lo and behold, it found its home.

 

What do you think it takes to write an award-winning story?

That’s what I think I’d say about an award-winning story – it’s found its home. I’ve sent out a few stories that have won a prize straightaway, but the more common thing is that a story I believe in will be rejected a few times, might be commended, and then I might let it sit for a while, or take it along to my writing group, rewrite it and send it out again.

 

What does the term “women’s stories” mean to you?

I was thrilled to see on Lip’s bookmark the quote from Gloria Steinem: ‘A feminist is anyone who recognises the equality and full humanity of women and men.’ You could also say:  ‘Good writing is writing that recognises the equality and full humanity of women and men.’

 

How do you plan to spend your prizemoney?

I’ve been working on a group of stories set in Burnie in Tasmania and wondering if I could justify the expense of a brief trip there. The air fares recently have been so low. So that’s how I’ll spend it!

 

Packing my Mother’s Case

 

I pack my mother’s case.

‘This is how you do it,’ I say and I fold the nightdresses and the blouses and the skirts in neat piles and I roll up the undies and I place a lavender bag between the jumpers and I put the shoes in plastic bags. My mother frowns and the thin skin on the backs of her hands wrinkles as she plucks at the bags. I go to the toilet and when I come back the plastic bags are on the floor, empty, and she’s rolling a blouse around something. The toe of a shoe comes through the puffed sleeve of the blouse and she pulls at the sleeve to stretch it over the shoe. Then the heel of the shoe pokes out of the neck of the blouse.

‘It’s the wrong bag,’ my mother says and hands it to me. She looks frightened.

 

Things my mother taught me:

How to fold a blouse.

How to sew a nametape on so that the beginning and the ending of the stitching were invisible.

How to darn the knees of stockings in a woven pattern like the side of a tiny soft basket, a tiny basket of silken thread.

How to hem a dress so that when it came time to lower the hem the original stitching would leave no mark.

How to lay paper between the folds of a winter tunic so that when it was time for the winter uniforms the pleats would be there in perfect shape.

I was twelve and we were packing my case to go to boarding school.

 

At the end of that day

At the end of that day, the day we packed my case to go to boarding school, my mother said she had a blinding headache. She said she’d have to go to bed and we’d just have to make sandwiches for our tea. She said it was hard to believe that this supposedly intelligent scholarship girl couldn’t learn even the simplest task. She said she hoped I wasn’t going to be as lazy and slovenly and grubby and insolent at boarding school as I was at home. She said she pitied the poor nuns who’d have to look after me and I’d better wipe that insolent look off my face right this minute or she would do it with her open hand and then my father came in from work and said to my mother, ‘You look terrible,’ and ‘You should lie down,’ and then to my sisters and me he said, ‘You lot, skedaddle. Make yourselves useful. Make a pot of tea for your poor mother and while you’re about it, a plate of sandwiches for our tea. You hear me?’

‘Yes,’ we said.

 

No cake

Because my mother is frightened of the plastic bags I make a pot of tea and I put biscuits on a plate and I get out the best cups and I carry it all on a tray to the garden setting.

‘Look at the wattle birds in the grevillea,’ I say to my mother. She doesn’t say anything.

‘They’re thirsty,’ I say. ‘They need a water bowl. Aren’t they pretty?’

My mother is nibbling at the side of an arrowroot biscuit.

‘Why isn’t there cake?’ she says.

I’m sipping at my tea and watching the wattlebirds and I’m thinking the same thing: Why isn’t there cake? And why am I packing my mother’s case and why are we sitting here sipping tea and how did it come to this?

 

Cash’s nametapes

Some time in the night my mother gets up and opens the case I’ve packed for her. She takes the shoes out of the plastic bags and hides the bags under her bed. She wraps the shoes in newspaper. She makes another parcel containing a wooden spoon, a small gardening trowel, three pieces of steel wool, my father’s old football scarf and four lemons. I hear all this from the spare bedroom where I’m sewing Cash’s nametapes on the collars and waistbands of the last of my mother’s clothes.

Take a nametape. Thread a needle and tie a knot in the thread but don’t let my mother know about the knot. Two stitches up one side, four across, two down, four across, then back, forth, back, forth and snip.

The nametapes come in packets of twelve. By the second packet I’ve got it down to two stitches, three, two, three.

Men have gone to the moon. Babies no longer wear cloth nappies with safety pins. Why am I sitting here, in the twenty-first century, sewing around the edges of Cash’s nametapes?

 

A room of your own

My mother’s sewing room was like a cupboard. I stood at the door and watched as she bent over the circle of light and the bunched material. Treadle, treadle, treadle, went the machine. The cloth slipped through and through and through.

‘No matter how small it is,’ my mother said, ‘make sure you have a room of your own.’ She lifted the small metal prong that held the cloth in place, snipped at the thread. ‘It can be as small as a cupboard. You can call it a sewing room, but when you’re grown up and married, make sure you have a room of your own. Do you hear me?’

‘Yes,’ I said.

I was five years old.

 

Before I was born

My mother met my father in the nineteen-forties. He went to Borneo to fight in the jungles and was awarded the Military Cross for bravery, for running onto the field under fire and digging a pit to shield the body of one of his injured men.

Back in Melbourne my mother went to the Emily McPherson College of Domestic Science and won a prize for needlework. The prize-winning articles were put on display: a nightdress, a blouse and various pieces of underwear, all made of green lawn, demonstrating tucking, smocking and fine embroidery. Every piece of clothing had at least one small rosebud embroidered on it. One night someone broke into the display room and all my mother’s work was stolen. It was never recovered.

 

In the dormitory

The dormitory of the Immaculate Conception had thirty-five beds. I was in the fourth bed from the door and the second row back. This was the nineteen-sixties. Every morning by eight a.m. we made our beds and when every cover was wrinkle free, every pillow centrally placed, and every chair clear, we said a final prayer and the nun in charge lit a fresh candle in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary and then we went down the stairs to breakfast in the dining hall. It was forbidden to enter the dormitory again before bed time. It was not an expensive boarding school. There weren’t many staff. The Irish nuns were stretched to the limit.

‘I wish we had the money to send you to the French,’ my mother said, but we could only afford the Irish in the nineteen-sixties. My father was not right after the war.

‘Therese of Lisieux,’ my mother said, her lips stretching to the syllables. ‘St Therese was also called the little flower and she is my special saint because I was born on her feast day. Say it after me. Therese of Lisieux. Your accent is terrible. I knew this would happen with the Irish.’

There were other things that could happen with the Irish to do with drinking and gloominess and lack of table manners and something to do with my grandfather, my father’s father rolling up Glenferrie Road, a disgrace to his calling. Everybody knew about the doctor and his problem. That was the trouble with the Irish. And my father was showing signs of going the same way.

 

In the dormitory of St Therese of Lisieux (this was the nineteen-thirties) my mother chattered with her three roommates as they dressed in the morning. There was a tap at the door and the maid came in to make their beds. ‘Bonjour,’ the girls said. Their accents were perfect, their manners impeccable.

 

In the Tullamore Mercy Home for Aged Care my mother has a room of her own. It’s the twenty-first century.

’Is it the holidays yet?’ she says when I take her back from an outing.

‘Not yet,’ I say.

‘But it’s Christmas,’ she wails and points at the baubles strung along the passage. ‘Can’t I come home for Christmas? Can’t you ask Mother if I can come home for Christmas?’

‘Yes,’ I say and give her a handkerchief. She wipes her eyes and blows her nose and smiles bravely. An old man on a walking frame shuffles past. She leans forward and whispers to me. ‘Don’t let the other girls know. They’re all jealous. It’s because I’ve got a pony at home.’

Back in her room she sweeps the flowers I’ve brought her into the bin and smiles at me. ‘See, all tidy.’ Then she frowns. ‘But I can’t find my case. How can I pack? Where am I going? What should I do?’

‘Let’s go down to the dining room for tea,’ I say. I’m keeping an eye out for the nice nurse who will distract my mother when I leave.

At the door of the dining room the nice nurse winks at me and puts her arm around my mother’s shoulders. ‘Here’s my petal,’ she says, ‘my little flower.’

I stop and turn. Does the nurse know about St Therese of Lisieux? The nurse shakes her head and waves me away. My mother is twisting in the nurse’s arms.

‘Come on, sweetheart,’ the nurse says.

‘I can’t find my bag,’ my mother says.

‘Look!’ the nurse says, and she bends down and flicks a switch and lights come on on the plastic Christmas tree.

‘How will I pack?’ I hear my mother say as I head for the front door, but then comes the sound of Christmas carols and I am out.

 

A daughter’s job

I sit with my mother on the night she dies in the Tullamore Mercy Home for Aged Care.

The next day I take a case to pack her things. A strange nurse meets me and says, ‘Don’t go in there.’

A man comes out of the room. ‘Have you got a shaving mirror for Dad’s room?’ he says.

The nurse nods and smiles at the man and ushers me into the office. The nurse tells me that she has packed my mother’s bag already. She’s thrown out a lot of rubbish, selected a set of clothes for my mother to wear in her coffin.

‘She looked so pretty in that pink blouse with the little flowers on it,’ she says. She hands me a small overnight bag. ‘I saved you all the hassle of going through her things,’ she says.

I feel as if I’ve been punched in the stomach. I sit in the car and say what I couldn’t say to the nurse. ‘That is a daughter’s job,’ I say into the silence of my car.

I leave the Tullamore Mercy Home and I take the bag to the funeral parlour. A sweet lady asks me to fill out a label with my mother’s name on it for the clothes.

‘They’ve all got names on them,’ I say. ‘Cash’s name tapes.’

‘Lovely, dear,’ she says, ‘but we still need the label.’

 

The cold rain

We bury my mother and I wake that night and hear rain on the roof and I remember my mother’s thin arms and that that there was no cardigan in the bag for the funeral parlour.

‘Sorry,’ I whisper into the darkness of the rainy night. ‘I am sorry. I am sorry.’

The rain pours and pours and pours.

I am sorry.

 

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