Vegemite is Black
Chris Johnston (Deakin University, Australia)
Memory Vegemite is black. It burns, salty on my tongue. The sweetness of butter, silky smooth.
Soft, stretchy white bread. The smell of milk boiling, burning.
The round table I sit at is yellow, Laminex, with neat, black-stained chairs that tuck right
into its curve. The afternoon sunlight, the table, just being here. My after-school place.
I can hear my grandma at the stove.
Album Was my first camera a present for Christmas or birthday? A Brownie Starlite, a baby
brother to the Box Brownie that lived in our hall cupboard. I was thrilled. Camera in hand
I took photos of all the local dogs and horses. And Grandma.
I reach deep into my bookshelves. Here it is, my
first album. ‘Photographs’ in copperplate, with
embossed gold stars across a padded burgundy
cover, and those sticky cardboard pages.
I turn the pages, looking for that one image of
Grandma with her Pekingese, Kim.
But there is a gap on the page, a torn out square.
Now Time is all around me, slippery and deceiving. Memory entices me into that place we call
the past. The memories are all there, inside, finding their way out, like sneaky thieves,
stealing my days and terrifying my nights.
Place Grandma lived next door. After her second husband died, she bought a brick duplex in
Omama Road, Murrumbeena. We moved into one side and she the other. Taking care of
her son – my father – again. And looking after me.
Our houses sat conjoined. One close to the ground, the other perched high above the
sloping ground. Mirror images.
Archive Dad tells it like this: ‘My wife worked full-time. When we first went to live in Omama
Road, my daughter went to my mother’s at 42 Omama Road, leaving Murrumbeena State
School at 3 p.m. – the school was 10 min away – until my wife arrived home.’
At five I am walking home from school alone.
Dad’s divorce testimony is a great document, full of useful facts, while presenting himself
as the ever-generous husband. ‘No fault’ divorce was still full of fault lines. My mother
was rarely home before dark.
Sound In Grandma’s house the radio was always on. Perhaps the radio was comfort, a voice in
the house, for a woman whose husband was gone. My after-school afternoons at her
yellow table rang to the soundtrack of Norman Banks on 3AW. His voice boomed out
across the kitchen. She was a little deaf.
Banks was a mellifluous conservative, a used car salesman turned broadcaster, a pioneer
of talk-back radio, who filled Melbourne’s airwaves morning and afternoon.
My radio stayed tuned to 3AW and Banks for years after she had gone. His voice familiar,
a comfort, filling an unnamed emptiness. But one day, slapped by his racist rhetoric I spat
him out. He was gone from the air by 1978.
Memory In my grandma’s house there were always books. Books that came in big brown-paper
wrapped bundles from the State Library. Bundles that I would collect from the local
railway station and carry home in my bike basket. We would sit reading together, but
apart. Grandma reading through cataracts, magnifying glass in hand, the words moving
into focus and then slipping sideways into blur. She was persistence.
She told me stories: a white frog on the edge of a flooded creek, the water rushing by, as
she reaches out to rescue it. Did it need rescuing? Did she succeed? And there was the
cave story: as she reached out to touch the wall, the surface came alive. Tarantulas she
said, a wall of spiders moving away from her hand. Whiteness, darkness. Does it matter if
these stories are true?
In my bedroom was a locked glass-fronted bookcase with Readers Digests and an old set
of encyclopaedias. I saved pocket money to buy my very own first book.
That word: conjoined: being, coming, or brought together so as to meet, touch, overlap,
or unite. That was us.
Album Boadicea isn’t in the album of black and whites. She, the courageous cat that littered in
the incinerator in Grandma’s garden, had a camera-shy wildness. Spat and ran, leaving
her kittens for me to snuggle, until I retreated, and she returned.
Memory It was the milk of course, or perhaps the fat in the frypan or each day’s burnt saucepan. It
was too dangerous for her to stay at home, alone. I picture my mother at Grandma’s sink,
scrubbing out burnt saucepans. It is the story I was told.
When did she go? I know it happened. Then there was a family next door, in her house.
The mother worked in a chocolate factory, and I had a friend to play with.
Dad’s divorce testimony says: ‘Several years later my mother, now getting enfeebled
following a drinking problem, decided to go into a private hospital in Montrose’. I
remember the gin bottles, all empty, hidden throughout her house. That sweet smell was
everything of her. Seeing her in that nursing home, it was clearly never her choice.
Place One year the walls of my childhood bedroom turned from blue to a golden yellow. But
the colour has soured and only marks my loss.
Night after night in my yellow room, my sleep is painful and fraught. My square metal
clock hurtles from my bedside table through the kitchen door onto the floor. I wake at the
crash. My parents grow tired. The clock is moved into the kitchen; the alarm set to wake
me. The dread of the day. The terrors of the night.
On the therapy couch, I imagine standing outside our conjoined houses. One side is filled
with light, colour, warmth, the other is empty, dark, desolate. Where does my heart live?
Not in that dark place. But it sucks me in, drops me on the floor in front of the black and
white t.v. It’s cold. The new ‘Fler’ couch and chairs still wear the branded plastic
antimacassars. The matching coffee table will one-day be ruined by my carelessness with
nail polish remover. But for now, it’s all perfect. I’m the only mess. Crumpled on the floor.
Memory After she went, there was no vegemite. A latch-key child: so often there was no key
hanging on the hook in the laundry. Nothing to do but sit on the back steps and wait.
Or remembering my key, my emptiness turned into gorging. Accused as a food thief,
shamed into fatness.
Eventually, I learnt some other comforts. I’d walk with friends, heading in their homeward
direction, until finally I had to split off, get on my bike and ride home. It was a game I
played. How far out of my way could I walk before it became too obvious that I didn’t
want to go home. Did my friends know? Or did I hide my longing too well?
Memory It’s 1972. Grief strikes; a monster under my bed. I lock and relock the doors, circling my
space. I sleep with the light on, but it’s not enough. I know it’s there: a rotting corpse,
dead but alive, under my bed. I am going crazy. The madness seeps in, despite my locking.
A doctor treats my terror, and a friend shares his Valium. Sometimes, I sleep on the floor
of his room. His silhouette after turning out the light is enough to terrify me, even here, in
this safe place. Finally, the madness recedes: but then she dies and I know the grief will
never truly be gone.
Decades pass, and the monster returns. I am caught in a cycle I don’t understand. Asleep
awake. I am trapped in another yellow bedroom. The door won’t open. Madness seeps
through the walls. Asleep awake. And yet another night, the door is open and in the
hallway is a child, opening the doors of a small cupboard, pulling my things out onto the
floor. I sit up, calling to the child to stop. Asleep awake. Night after night. Alone.
Now Just last month, madness comes again. Asleep awake. In my childhood house, at the back
door, the kitchen door, she is outside and will kill me if she gets in. I push the door hard,
trying to turn the key. But she is already inside, clawing and biting at my back. The pain is
intense. She will eat me alive. Who is she? Does it matter? She is the wolf. She is the
abusive lover with her hands tightening around my neck. She is the mother who didn’t
mother. I wake, shaking.
Album The images in the photograph album feel faded. Here is the baby me, tucked into the
crook of Dad’s arm, against a jumper I remember so well. Me in all sorts of places, blond,
grinning and so knock-kneed. By school, my gaze seems to retreat.
My dad smiles for the camera. My mother adopts a carefully crafted glamourous pose.
She likes the camera’s gaze.
I am still searching for that photograph of my grandma: anxiously digging in that box of
family papers, heart pounding. I fear its loss, this moment of together gone.
She is sitting on the grass in her back garden, with her Pekingese Kim at her side. She
looks too old to be sitting on the grass. Her head is bowed, she is wearing her favourite
trousers made from a soft, checked blanket. A crocheted snood on her thinning hair.
She was old when I knew her. There are no photos of us together. No baby me in her
She is my courage. I hold onto her to stand.
Archive Her death is an emptiness: when did she die? Where was I? Did I go to her funeral?
My box of family papers is a scant archive. Ancestry online connects her to me, her
sisters, her parents, and backwards into past time. But so much is missing. I pay to get her
death certificate. It tells me she died on 8 August 1973 in a nursing home not far from
Omama Road. My parents were living elsewhere by then, and divorce was looming. I was
at university, caught up in a world of politics, feminism, and gay liberation.
I see her leaping to save the white frog, and I dive after her again and again.
She whom I loved so much. She who gave me books, stories and nurtured me at her
gloriously yellow kitchen table. I had missed her for perhaps a decade when she died;
now, five decades later, I miss her still.
Memory Returning home for a visit after a year at university, my bike was already gone. I had left,
my bike was redundant, in the way. It followed me into nothingness. The house reeked
with tension. I didn’t stay long. Neither did they. The split came quickly, the new house
sold. My dad returned to the duplex in Omama Road, occupying Grandma’s side.
My parents were stitched together in grief: the death of a brother, a mother. Not enough
to hold them once I was gone.
A garage sale disposed of Grandma’s things without my knowing. Nothing is valued.
Chris Johnston is a writer of place and people. After decades working in cultural heritage and documenting the loved places of communities across Australia, Chris is now a Master’s student at Deakin University, exploring ideas of place, memory, loss and journeys in her own writing. Her feature ‘Gone or Gone for Good?’ was published in 2020 in The Junction.