THERE are many things you learn at your mother’s knee. Simple skills like tying your shoe laces, for which you are always grateful, or less helpful pointers like turn the other cheek. But far and away the most profound and lasting lesson my mother taught me was the value of time.
Time for my mother was not just an empty vessel that you filled up by doing and thinking things. Time was a daily opportunity to rise above the ordinary. To add purpose.
My mother knew that running somewhere gave the act of arriving an importance and urgency that walking entirely lacked. She understood that fitting more into five minutes than is generally accepted to be natural is not just a handy skill. It’s evidence of the power to expand time, to add intensity and colour. Under my mother’s tutelage a kaleidoscope of tumultuous feelings became available to me - breathlessness, hope, pride, shame, exhilaration. All in five minutes.
Each morning In the last decade of her working life, my mother caught the 7.15am bus to work. Invariably, just in time, with a flying leap. These were moments of magnificence.
My serious schooling in the art began years before when I was 11 or 12: a very thin, long child without grace but eager for exercise. My parents were the proprietors of the town dairy. Evelyn, my mother, contributed secretarial work and created mail that bore the insignia Heal’s Quality Dairy.
In Swan Hill, letters for Melbourne were collected after 4.30 pm at post boxes across the town and delivered without fanfare to the train the next morning. My mother scorned this plodding practice. She preferred her mail to be hand delivered, fresh with urgency. Together we refined the practice.
The train departed at 8.10am. We lived six minutes away from the station by bike. Six minutes, from a mounted position at the front gate to the door of the guard’s van meant an 8.04 start. “Gi-i-i-ll” my mother would sing from the office at 8.02. Two minutes to dress, collect the mail, execute a running start on our ancient Malvern Star and be crossing the starting line by 8.04 on the knocker.
The rest was straight forward. Turn right into Curlewis Street, across McCallum, across McCrae. “Surge” I tell myself when it feels too easy. “Surge!” Veer left through the station car park, through the back gate, skid to a stop at the guard’s van and hand in the mail as the whistle blows. Watch the train pull away and, sated, turn for home.
How could I not become addicted? Who could not take pleasure in this exquisite timing, this giving over of a body for a higher purpose? This was life on a different plane. No matter that these feats were not always appreciated by others or that our achievements sometimes went unremarked, unrecorded. We never talked about it but Evelyn and I knew that what we did mattered.
There were days that were less than glorious. A three-cornered Jack in the tyre, a late call to the office. Fate cannot abide perfection. Even today there are few things more chilling than the sound of the train whistle before you reach the car park.
But there were also the unforgettable days. Starting badly – a lost shoe perhaps – it’s just past 8.06 when I flash past the front gate. Four minutes! Undaunted. Into Curlewis, over McCallum, bent over the handle bars, legs flailing. “Surge!” I cry. Ignore the pain. Across McCrae. “Faster! Stronger! Higher!” And as I turn into the car park, I hear it. The train whistle. “Surge!” I silently scream as I hurtle though the gate, overhaul the departing train and - oh joy! - slap the letters onto the guard’s outstretched palm as the engine gathers speed.
It’s a triumph, whichever way you look at it. Those people who pointedly check their watches when I’m late, they understand nothing. I’ve been to the mountain top. I’ve breathed the air of Mount Olympus.