It occurred to me, as I typed in the password to boot the laptop I’m using to write this, that one day when I’m old, I won’t be able to remember it. I will disappear out of this online world and this blog will freeze in cyberspace – and there will be people who will never know why. It’s a scary thought that the multiple passwords I use every day to manage my life are vulnerable to the vagaries of old age and a failing memory.
Thea Astley, when she wrote Coda in 1994, may not have had too many passwords to worry about but she knew about the vulnerabilities of old age. Born in 1925, she was only 69 at the time of publication, and she would go on to write two more novels before her death in 2004 (The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow in 1996, and Drylands in 1999). But she knew: she was anticipating. Coda celebrates a spiky old lady called Kathleen and her refusal to cooperate with the plots and plans of her indifferent offspring. It’s a satire to break your heart.
The four ages of women: bimbo, breeder, baby-sitter, burden. Kathleen doesn’t remember much about the first two now, but she has bitter memories of being used as the third by her daughter, ironically named Shamrock, viciously diminished to ‘Sham’. Sham wants Kathleen to baby-sit her 13-year-old for the weekend. On the phone, Kathleen watches cars terrorising an old man trying to cross the pedestrian walkway and refuses:
Kathleen envisaged Sham’s stubborn bottom lip thrust out with resentment. Already Bridgie was smoking, boy-mad, and given to sneaked swigs of alcohol. She was expensive to run. She had been expelled from two private schools and was having disciplinary problems in her third.
The line hummed with incommunication.
‘Look, Mother, this really is the last time I’ll ask you, I promise. Len wants me to go with him as a kind of personal trip.’
Kathleen remembered unremembered birthdays, her often lonely Christmases, the presents unthanked, casually treated.
‘Does he, darling?’
‘Yes, he does.’
‘Well, I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘but it’s still no.’ (p. 117)
Kathleen and her husband Len (a corrupt Minister in the Queensland government) are the villains of this story. Sham doesn’t take no for an answer, not with this request for a baby-sitter and not with the problem of sharing the care of her ageing mother. Brian a.k.a. Brain, the son, is kinder and rejoices in Kath’s eccentricity but he’s less resilient: Kathleen stays with him for a while as he and his second wife Nina try to make a go of a restaurant in a gimcrack Eden but the sojourn is not a success. And foolishly, Kathleen has signed over power of attorney to Nina and Len. When she goes back home to Brisbane, she discovers what they’ve done:
To her probing key the front door creaked open on a shocking emptiness of disturbed and resettled dust. She pressed a light switch but nothing happened, and fumbling her way down the shadowy hall she felt for other switches, each of which was snuffed.
Sunlight washed through the breakfast room windows at the back of the house. It streamed over a void. Total. Tables, chairs, buffet had left only footprints on the linoleum. In the kitchen the space where the refrigerator had stood gaped its grimy outline. The stove had been wrenched from its cupboard fittings like an old tooth. Along the skirting board a cockroach moved disconsolately.
There is, of course, a ‘wonderful place’ called Passing Downs, but Kathleen likes to choose the faces that confront her over the breakfast cereal and she is bitter about losing old Brutus, ‘put down’ by Sham because no pets are allowed at Passing Downs. Brutus was her link with her dear old friend Daisy, hard up and living ‘ferally’, but a survivor nonetheless:
‘Why all the brooches, Daisy?’ she had asked.
Daisy had poured herself another cup of tea before answering. ‘The kids. Each time the kids were born he gave me a brooch.’
‘But Daisy, you only had six kids.’
‘You’re wearing seven. What’s the seventh?’
She had given a sly smile, old Daisy, and almost forgotten pink crept over the wrinkled cheeks. Kathleen looked at the cheap collection of trinkets pinned to Daisy’s summer floral. ‘Mother’ brooches, junk blue and red bits of glass surrounded by yellowing curlicues of metal. High on her shoulder sat a single pearl on a silver bar.
‘That’s a nice one. When did he give you that?’
Daisy grinned her old cheeky smile that rejuvenated the worn face, the thinning thatch. ‘That wasn’t him, Kath. That was a lugger man from up the Gulf, down in Charco for a breather. Cost me a broken nose, that did, and a couple of blackened eyes. But I kept it, despite the old bastard. (p. 147)
Six kids, and none of them around to take care of old Daisy, no one to notify Kath about what’s happened when Daisy eventually stops visiting altogether. But for all her poverty, Daisy dies free and independent in her own shabby home.
Excerpts from newspaper reports punctuate the story: snippets about ‘granny dumping’. Kathleen reads these reports of bewildered elderly people unable to remember their identities dumped in airports, park benches, roadside picnic areas. The police are making enquiries, but of course there are no culprits to be found. She’s not going to let herself be dumped, she thinks, but she’d provoked intolerance: needing to be rescued after abandoning a bus tour because her companions were boring old farts; falling asleep on a park bench in New Farm and getting lost on her way home afterwards.
Passing Downs is no place for Kath, but what can she do? She takes a plane…
She began walking slowly along the mall a little way to the sea end and plumped herself down in the shade of the overhead gallery restaurant. Water bubbled, palms flapped despairing signals over the shoppers and the grubby glitz of shop fronts. She remembered her suitcase taken south three days ago, forgotten as she left the airport, which could still be circling endlessly on the Brisbane carousel. Someone might snatch it, she speculated uninterestedly. She didn’t really care. She hoped it would be a disappointed transvestite confronted by four sets of practical underwear, a cotton twinset and assorted cheap slacks and shirts that wore her indelible post-middle-aged shape. Me bum! she thought. He’ll hate me bum. (p. 181)
Author: Thea Astley
Publisher: William Heinemann (an imprint of Reed Books), 1994 (First edition)
Source: a gift from my dear friend Jenny, thank you!
Allen and Unwin are producing many out-of-print Aussie titles- including Thea Astley’s – using Print On Demand through their House of Books imprint.
Fishpond – on the day I looked there was a second-hand copy for under $5: Coda
There was also a copy at Brotherhood Books.