Making the final cut

A spiteful portrait from my forthcoming book, "The Disaffected"

· people,humour

On paper, I had two stepparents, since my father had also remarried when I was 16. My stepmother was Zelda, a women who would strive to meet the full suite of the archetypical characteristics that that role demands.

Zelda was not just physically lame: she also possessed an emotional acuity I presumed had been hopelessly stunted by her shocking experiences as a Jewish child in German-occupied Ukraine during WWII. There, not far from Kiev, most of her family had been slaughtered in the giant pits at the ravine of Babi Yar by the German einsatzsgruppen police squads whilst, in a forest nearby, her mother covered her body with her own, permanently tweaking Zelda's leg with the weight of her adult heft into the crooked limb that became increasingly malformed as the child aged.

With this painful disability written across her body, a childhood aborted by war, and a spirit soured by a disfigured emotional response to misfortune, mother and daughter achieved refuge to Australia. Taking work as a French teacher, the chrysalis of this bright but bitter refugee remained cocooned in a crusty, decades-long spinsterism. That lonely journey was further exasperated by a permanently frightened and possessive mother who continued to smother her child and warp her entrance into an adult world. Each morning the old woman prepared her child's meals (beginning with kasha) until the day, middle-aged, Zelda hobbled into my father's law practice and discovered marriage.

Burdened by his own Holocaust-spawned prejudices, my father proved fertile ground for Zelda's. Rather than the milk of human kindness flowing from her ghastly entanglements with Fascism, and now safe in liberal and open Australia, she spewed forth a constant professed horror for schwarztes (black people), socialists and liberal Judaism, gays, pets that defecate, the lesbian Labor Senator Penny Wong, all things Arabic, cappuccinos without sufficient chocolate sprinklings, homeless people and her husband's children (the latter two apparently linked in her confused unworldliness), as well as other developmental concepts that clearly spooked this child marooned in an almost adult body. Her war on his children was immediate.

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                                                                                                                           "Led to the Slaughter - Babi Yar" by Joseph Kuzkovsky

To our teenaged dismay, our father's idea of nurturing paternal concern was to underscore the fact that her public scorn for, and metronomically repetitive denouncement of his children was natural. "She's a stepmother," he would opine, "and as such she is meant to exterminate the progeny of any prior seeding. She hates you, naturally."

Curiously, but instructively, this cool appraisal of the warped psyche of his hoary bride, delivered in the factual scientific tone of a quizzical David Attenborough documentary narration, appeared to mirror the distorted Darwinian jabberings of the Fascistic maw from which both these Holocaust foundlings had escaped. Go figure.

We knew that it was a twisted and bleak view of life but, anxious for acceptance and love from our father, we children learned to justify his failure to protect us from her increasingly malignant spirit as a harmless eccentricity. Surely goodwill, ordinary decency, civil cooperativeness, and common sense would trump the lurid paranoia? Surely, with time and steady persistence, she would see that we merely sought a commonplace relationship with our father and that we were in fact grateful that his own incipient decrepitude would not be walked alone? We continued to search for the positive, while swimming against the tide of an unnatural resentment that simmered unabated in his curdled bride.

One of Zelda's more redeeming qualities, an artless pastime that reflected the cultural schizophrenia of a Soviet upbringing, was a compulsion for naive craftmaking, a fixation around which she built a considerable library of How To books. As the years passed my father, once accustomed to the company of striking and attractive women, would ask me with a pleading look if I thought his drab wife was pretty as she bent over her latest decorative tissue-box or primitive wooden tray, squinting as she pasted-on whatever image of gimcrack glamour had seized her imagination from Women's Weekly. I could only parry his plaintive inquiries with feigned (and feint) praise for her village lace doilies, printed tea towels, and oven-baked decorative plates.

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Zelda's talents

Yet, her maligning of her husband's children and cut-out craftwork aside, her true creative interests lay elsewhere. Like a small girl repetitively playing out fantasies of revenge with her dolls and hat pins, and the righting of worldly wrongs, this sprig of the war who had been so ravaged and buffeted by the 20th century's terrible totalitarianisms, would find a type of freedom from the strictures of her moral and physical limitations in the very grown-up game of Probate. Without offspring, the woman-child Zelda set about slaking her parched fertility spirit in a differently-abled abundant way that only unquenchable psychological privation can inspire.

A few months before he died, as I visited my father in his apartment, I noted that the juriprudentially dense F.Chutley's Will Precedents had appeared in Zelda's always limited reading stack, next to her chair between issues of Knitter's Paradise and The Home Puzzle-Maker. Sadly, in a classic evocation of the cut-out comic book cacklingly wicked stepmother that our father had parodied, Zelda's most profound legacy, in our eyes at least, was to convince her dying husband to dispossess his children and grandchildren. And what better time to campaign?

But what kind of man responds to such unscrupulously bald plotting, one might ask? Apparently, the kind who is mercilessly hen-pecked as he drags his cancer-withered, opioid-addled incontinent frame from couch to wheelchair, groaning avowals of love for "the woman who is wiping his arse," for fear that, like his father who disappeared into the Nazi conflagration, he might be abandoned at the last minute, hemmed in by the icy coarse timbers of the piss-filled cattle car and the corpses of fellow sufferers, and left to fend for himself. He needn't have worried. Zelda remained with him through to the end, his nurse, his bane, his frigid Succubus, and the kapo of the sun-drenched infirmary Panopticon redoubt his skyrise apartment had become.

[My father once, in guileless effusion, had remarked that Zelda's homemade curtains had made their 3-bedroom 1970's apartment "look like the Vienna staatsoper," and it was true: the lumpen crass fantasy of the stolen dollhouse now formed an embroidered frame of the Sydney suburban skyline, perfectly complimenting the homemakers' choice of razzle-dazzle tinsel chandeliers, and a bathroom dripping in foil-thin golden taps to offset the plastic shower stall and the – you guessed it – pink and blue towels embroidered with his and hers monograms.]

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The hen-pecked husband

Once, towards the end, as my father tried to pee in hospital and I was there in the interstices as Zelda scooted home from a six-hour bedside shift to change from one gaolers grey knit outfit to the next, my father released an enormous sigh, his hand wearily pressed to the wall of the toilet. As the pee disgorged from his bladder, releasing his pain, my father looked at me with a distinctively new kind of agony etched across his usually milky and untroubled brow.

"She's sooo tedious," he groaned, his words a kind of lancing of the abscess his captive life had become, and his usual good humour now laced with sorrow at the fateful sterility of his coupling. He might have been Tolstoy at the railway station at Astapovo, trying during his final earthly hours to avoid the spectre of his leaden wife who could only remind him of persistent intellectual and spiritual stagnation, hammering with furious obsession at the station door, even as death pecked at the old man's yellowing frame.

Faced with the eternal chasm, here was a man, energetic enough to have resisted the Fascisms of the Nazis and the Communists, bold enough to have fled his homeland and crossed the seas, yet too lazy to have corrected his domestic fate, now trapped like an insect pinned to a board with a dreary wife dripping carping protestations into his inert ear that she shouldn't be left to die in poverty. So, one day, just two months before his last breath, he lamely collected his quill and changed his last Will and Testament to strike his children from the record, thus reflecting the wishes of his harping wife, and fulfilling the most primitive aspects of their conjoint Eastern European nativist, tree-worshipping, pagan selves in the archetypical triumph of the wicked stepmother.

Most interesting is the question of why those exposed to the inferno of evil, go on to commit such plodding pieces of petty malevolence themselves? In the final crippling settlement with my father's widow, her own quill was dipped in an ink of spite that can only be manufactured with a preponderance of carefully husbanded malice. Of five worthless oil paintings of my father's birthplace, she specified that they should be cut from their frames, which she would retain, and that she reserved the right to copy the worthless scraps for re-insertion into the original frames. Ever hollow of substance herself, with this last shallow substitution she unwittingly fashioned her own epitaph, always the ersatz craftmaker to the end.

But there is a final irony. My father's legacy had been built on a foundation quite separate from his own hardscrabble immigrant labouring. When newly married to my mother, she had been bequeathed a huge legacy from her French grandmother, which the young married couple used to acquire a suite of valuable houses and beachside properties. Whatever the rather small sum that my father had acquired, then lost, then acquired again in life, had been built on a much greater fortune. Nothing that Zelda took from my father was his to give. And thus the cogs turn.