A Dusty Memory


When I was seven I saw my mother save a young boy’s life.

We were at a Guy Fawkes night celebration at the school my sister and I attended. There was a huge bonfire and fireworks and many, many people, all sitting and talking in the darkness, waiting for the big fireworks show.

It was the first time I had ever seen a Catherine Wheel and I remember being mesmerised by its fiery beauty and the knowledge it was named after an instrument of torture. My growing grey matter tried to understand how something so incandescent could be named after something so punishing.

As I moved through the crowd larger fireworks went off and scared a few of the younger children. Not me though. I was fascinated by the bonfire and the legend of Guy Fawkes that my teacher had told us that afternoon.

I danced by the fire, desperate to throw some sort of fuel on the burning heap, and wondering where I could source some gunpowder, when from the corner of my eye, I saw my mother moving from her blanket on the grass. Aware she might be coming to tell me off,  perhaps to step back from the fire and come and sit with her, I thought it best to head her off at the path.

As I moved towards her, I saw her turn at a sharp right angle and kneel down on the grass of the oval.

I watched as a circle of people moved around her and I heard her call for a doctor. I remember the frantic look on her face that somehow didn’t match her confident movements.

She leaned over a child, he was very young, and she was asking someone for something; a pen, a pencil? Anything.

And then I saw her put her hand into a small boys mouth and retch at something and then he sat up and started to cough.

I think a doctor in the crowd came over but by then the act was finished.

The child had swallowed his tongue and she had pulled it out again.

I heard her mumbling about how useless doctors were, not only in the hospital where she worked as a nurse but also when the shit goes down at an event.

I remember feeling cross on her behalf. Why was she the only one who helped? And I stared at the crowd accusingly.

Lucky she was there, I thought as I went back to admiring the Catherine Wheel and their shady history.

A week later I was riding my bike home, still trying to understand how you could swallow your tongue, when I saw a woman in our driveway, getting out of the car.

She went to the door and handed something to my mother. My mother was kind but dismissive, the way most medical professionals are when they are applauded and thanked for doing their job.

I watched this interchange as I wheeled my bike slowly up the driveway, and then the woman left after hugging my mother, and wiping away a tear.

I asked my mother who she was and what did she give her.

My mother pointed to two square, handmade lace doilies.

They were made from linen and didn’t look like the other doilies we had in the house.

‘They’re from Belgium,’ my mother answered brusquely and went back to her cup of tea.

Later she put them on the small cabinets in the ‘good room’, with the miniature Limoges plates displayed on top.

She never told me what she did for that boy that night. I never told her I saw what happened, but every Saturday when I dusted the house, I would shake those doilies out carefully and polish the wood they rested on. Then I would carefully lay them back on the cabinets, adjusting the plates so you could see the careful handiwork of the lace.

It was my small way of acknowledging what my mother did for that child.

These were the prizes my mother had won for saving a life and I wanted them to live a long and beautiful life.

She still has them in her house, but now the silver tea service rests on them.

They have survived.

Just like that boy.

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