Safety and a sandpit

A cigarette was never far from her mouth and she was fastidious with the ash. Her puffy, dark hair fell over one eye and she had a habit of pulling her legs against her chest so she could disappear into her jersey.

“Is R-A-P-E a word?” I asked, as I lay the tiles down. “I wish it wasn’t,” she said. I immediately knew I’d uttered something abominable but I didn't know quite what. I removed the E. “There. R-A-P spells RAP. Your move.”

It was a game of Scrabble with a young woman at a women’s refuge house, and I had set the bar for inappropriateness very high. I was seven years old.

It was the 80s. The photos were fuzzy with rounded corners, the music was jubilant (as far as I could tell from Ready to Roll music videos), the colours were fluoro and there were excellent cartoons about robots that joined together to make bigger robots to fight other robots. It hadn’t escaped me, however, that things at home were awry.

There had been raised voices through doors between Mum and her male companion. A stainless-steel pot of hot tea had been hurled across the kitchen, spilling its insides. One time he came around with two litres of chocolate icecream for us – it was intended as a peace offering, but when he wasn’t allowed in he pelted the house with it, a handful at a time. As a parting shot, he went over to our small grove of feijoa saplings and snapped every one of them off at the base, leaving only splintery green stumps.

Having to seek shelter with women’s refuge would have been a time of extraordinary anxiety for Mum, but my concerns weren't pitched at the same level. As a child, I was focused on the moment, and on arrival, my primary concern was securing a good spot in the sandpit.

I quickly joined in with the other children, who were busy responding to their primal instinct to dig holes in the ground. We looked like beachcombers mining for trinkets, but we were actually building sand tunnels robust enough for both toy trucks to pass through safely and other children to walk over. It was considered shoddy engineering for your tunnel to collapse under someone’s weight, although it was cheating to stomp too hard.

In that sandpit the only hardship on our minds was that we had to share, and sharing is an alien concept all humans struggle with. Occupancy of the sole sandpit crane was hotly contested. You had to be staunch when kids tried to edge in on your turf – and ruthless when you saw an opportunity to acquire some of theirs. It was considered best practice to demolish your tunnel before you left, to prevent others from stealing your trade secrets.

I’m sure Mum remembers it differently. She might have felt bad that we’d ended up at a refuge house in the first place, worried about how all this might turn out for us in the long term. Parenting is terribly speculative: often you have to wait until the future to know whether the decisions you made for your kids in the past were the right ones.

She might also have wondered when I might develop a sense of empathy and show her a little concern. If we’d discussed it at the time, the seven-year-old me might have responded thusly: 1. I like it here – there are other kids, toys and board games; 2. Everyone needs support sometimes. Even He-Man from Masters of the Universe: He has his friends. And a sword with magical powers. And an armoured green battle tiger. The adult me would have added: 3. Parents hold the shield, and you’re doing a sterling job of that.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing outside the sandpit. I wasn’t necessarily aware of what kind of hardship had befallen people there, and didn’t know how to tread. I was awkward and frequently blurted out the wrong thing – a trait that has remained with me into adulthood. One evening I burst into the bathroom and a woman in the bathtub sat bolt upright; the bathwater surged over the sides and went everywhere. It wasn’t the wet socks that bothered me. It was her accusatory glare – like I’d planned it.

The communal kitchen was also a point of tension, though that wasn’t anything to do with me. There was competition for limited resources: bench space and cooking time. Names were written on food containers to signal that these were not for sharing. People did their best to respect each other, but things could get a little terse.

It helped that there was an outdoor area just off the kitchen where women could congregate for a ciggy, which seemed to take the edge off. Women went outside completely frazzled, and returned merely ruffled. So much smoking, the ashtrays overflowed. Even though I said I didn’t mind the smell, they didn’t let me linger there. Smoking was for the grown-ups.

I had my own kitchen struggle to grapple with. One cupboard contained an exotic, swirly, white and dark chocolate spread I’d seen on TV but never tasted. It drove me crazy because whoever it belonged to wasn’t eating it. I worshipped it in secret, sneaking glimpses of it whenever I could. It just sat there, pristine and unopened, the restraint its owners showed an affront to my idolatry. But I left it alone because I thought it might be someone else’s comfort food: empathy was beginning to surface. If the way you navigate a communal kitchen defines you as a person – as I learned was indeed the case when I went flatting later in life – what did this make me? Covetous. Borderline altruistic. Religious. Contradictory, at best.

We went home after a while. Things calmed down. We planted apple trees in place of the feijoas, and had icecream in the bowl, where it was meant to go.

When you look back on your childhood, it’s easy to go a little heavy on nostalgia or hysteria – to embellish the gaps. But some memories remain with you with such clarity, particularly the fond ones. What has always struck me about my memories of that refuge house is that, in spite of the circumstances, they are mostly positive. It’s a testament to Mum’s judgement and the support of the women's refuge that I have the privilege to remember it that way.

More than just positive, I consider it a formative period. I learned stuff: 1. When things are bad you retreat, consolidate and then plant new trees; 2. Appearances aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Although I never was to try the white and dark chocolate spread, we did get some peanut butter and jam swirl to try, but it wasn’t to my taste. The combination of two divine spreads was a corruption of both; 3. Harmony at home begins with the kitchen.

I did, however, go on to make a bad call based on what I’d learned. One day a few months after our stay at the refuge house, Mum had to leave the room to take a phone call. Her half-finished cigarette smouldered at the edge of the ashtray. I made a snap decision, took it between my fingers and sucked hard. It was like someone had popped a cork in my airway. I sprinted to the bathroom and hurled water at the back of my throat with cupped hands, coughing and spluttering, the tap on full, water flying everywhere. Although I tried again as an adult, I never did take to smoking. Or Scrabble, for that matter.

This was originally published in Sunday magazine on 9 August 2015.