My mother. My father (deceased). My husband, son, daughter, grandson, granddaughters, daughter-in-law, son-in-law, stepson, step daughter-in-law, step- grandchildren. I could go on, imposing this hierarchy. My sisters. Their children and grandchildren. My other relatives. My friends. Friends who aren’t relatives but who are closer than my relatives. My acquaintances. My colleagues.
In what sense are they mine?
Born in 1921, my mother is now in her late nineties. She’s slowing down, softening around the edges. When she’s sick – with a cold, which is as sick as she ever gets – she seems to be even softer, hazy even, as if her whole body is starting to fluctuate in and out of our world. She is still engaged in the world, but her analytical powers are waning. She has lost her eyesight to macular degeneration but she has taught herself to use a whole range of new machines. She can listen to audio books and then discuss them at her book club. She remembers that I had chickenpox when I was a baby, that dad was away and that it was at the same time as my sister’s birthday party so she had to run between the dining room with the fairy bread and me in my cot, bawling.
Despite her age, and the inevitably similar ages of her friends, she still has friends that she met in her 20s, 30s and 40s. One particular friend, and her friend’s sister, live in a retirement village. We visited them there last year. My mother is ready to move into supported accommodation and we’ve been doing our research. The place she really wants to move into isn’t taking people at the moment, so we’ve been visiting other places. I don’t know why. She insists she’s going to that one place, which is not the place where her friend lives. Nevertheless, we visit her friend, and her friend’s sister.
My mother’s friend had moved to the retirement village recently, into a little flat that had been newly painted and carpeted. It was as spare and elegant as she is, bearing the death of her husband earlier that year with the composure that comes between bouts of inconsolable grief. I want to say something to comfort her. She sits in a chair near a large window and tells us how she sits there in the afternoon sun, sewing. I admire the rooms and the positioning of the flats and the community areas. I want my mother to like it, but she won’t. I exclaim about its position and the nearby public transport and its convenience to our place, but my mother puts on a particular closed-down look that I haven’t seen for a very long time.
My mother’s friend’s sister has lived there longer, and shows us her flat with its build up of books and projects. Her window overlooks a children’s playground in a park that used to house two broken swings and a splintery seesaw when I lived around the corner with my baby boy, all those years ago. Now it’s a pleasant collection of play equipment on rubber matting, peopled by fathers with babies in slings and mothers with well-dressed toddlers.
Stopped today in my car at the traffic lights outside the mall, I saw a slight figure waiting for the ‘walk’ sign. The lights changed, the signal beeped, and the woman stepped off the footpath onto the road, her quick light steps, her upright stance, her quirky, stylish clothes – a grey smocked top, darker grey fisherman’s pants – at odds with the white sunhat plonked on her head. As she reached the other footpath I realised who she was. My mother’s friend’s sister who once was a bunnygirl.
My mother doesn’t just have one friend. She has many friends. There was a stage when all the friends who had been family friends, whose children I had played with willingly and unwillingly, started dying. My mother refused to go to any more funerals after a while. After my father’s funeral she started to make a whole new set of friends. Even some of those friends have died now.
My mother’s friend is a woman who she has known for well over 60 years, through a complex connection of acquaintances and relatives that go back further – at least another 10 years to her arrival in Melbourne, fresh from Brisbane, Toowoomba and the one-teacher schools where the children parked their horses in the horseyard for the day and my mother boarded with families that had hallways lined with homemade pickles and preserves. Not in a ‘look at my pickles and preserves made at a workshop in Marrickville’ way, but in a ‘this is the only place to store what we produced in spring and summer and will live on through winter’ way.
My mother’s friend and her husband had three daughters, just like my mother and her husband, but our ages didn’t mesh properly. I, the youngest, was almost the same age as their eldest, so my sisters had little interest in these little girls. Visiting them led to mixed emotions. On the one hand I liked them. I liked everything about them – their house, their clothes, their rooms, their things. I liked them. I liked their elegant mother and their slightly gruff father. On the other hand, I would come away from our visits so disgruntled that I stopped enjoying going there. They were all so much more lively, interesting, engaging, beautiful, capable than me. They lived in an exciting modern house full of colour, loud voices and action. Going home, our house felt like a morgue, its all-blue furnishings and murky green carpet absorbing every whispered word.
I say, ‘My mother has a friend whose sister was a bunnygirl’ rather than ‘My mother has a friend who was a bunnygirl’ because my mother wasn’t as close to the sister as she was to her friend. Possibly because the sister was away in London being a bunnygirl when my mother and her friend were living in Sydney raising children, discussing politics, running families, jobs, houses, husbands. There is something about the bunnygirl that precludes the notion of struggling home with bags of shopping for a family to consume, of vacuuming on a Saturday morning, of the endless dullness of Sunday afternoons where the sun moves slowly from window to window, fading each curtain in turn.
These two sisters are very different. They look very different, and the feel of them is also very different. One is closed off in her mourning, her natural generosity – propelling her to ply us, her visitors, with interested questions, coffee and biscuits – interrupted by sudden quiet moments. The other one is overflowing. Words and ideas bubble out of her. She takes us to look at her flat where bookshelves overflow – like her – and boxes pile up. These sisters are people who’ve come to terms with each other, lovingly. There are a lot of sisters in this story. My mother’s friend and her sister. My mother’s friend’s three daughters, all sisters. My mother’s three daughters, all sisters, scattered across the world.
There was nothing to think about when we were children, squashed in the back of the car, always with me in the middle, littlest and not realising that I was getting the bum deal sitting on the hard middle section of the bench seat. It didn’t occur to me to resent it. It was my seat, and from time to time I could climb through to the front seat and sit on my mother’s knee, where the view of the unfolding road, the droughty brown paddocks and the wide overhanging trees was close and unobstructed. My sisters so completely excluded me from their much older, sophisticated lives that I eventually believed them – believed that I was less important, and that it was only right that I shouldn’t be allowed into the club, the cubby, the game of Monopoly. Crying and banging on the locked door didn’t work. By the time I was seven or eight their sporadic attempts at rapprochement were only baffling. By the time I was in my 40s and they started telling me how they cared for me when I was little, the conflict between their reality and mine was enough to send me spinning into realms of dark depression.
My mother’s friend’s sister is no longer a bunnygirl. She doesn’t even own it as part of her current identity. When someone refers to it (my mother? my mother’s friend?) she is flustered for the one and only time during our visit, and brushes it aside. ‘Oh, that. Yes yes.’ She would rather talk about more recent accomplishments, like walking up Mount Kilimanjaro. And yet. She was a bunnygirl in the ‘60s (swinging ‘60s, swinging London), over 50 years ago. She has a right to remake herself, be proud of things other than that, put it behind her, leave it out of her history, no pictures on the wall of pretty young women in brief costumes with cute bunny tails on their pert bottoms. And yet. The way she carries herself, the way she dresses. It’s different. Carefully casual. Effortlessly elegant. Like someone who is still aware of being inspected, admired, chosen. Upright, proud. Strong enough to throw herself into the jaws of the wolf and extract herself, unscathed. Is it that quality that made her bunnygirl material, or did she learn it on the floor of the nightclub and carry it with her to this day?
Obviously, my mother’s friend’s sister was only ever one bunnygirl. But she can be other things. A walker, an activist, a reader, a sister, an aunt. A talker, a friend. A gardener. As we walk through the retirement complex she shows us the little pockets of garden. Each one is tended by a different person, so some are geraniums and begonias, some are grevilleas and gently weeping wattles. Some are encrusted with cute signs and ceramic frogs. Some are running wild, groundcovers spilling over onto the path. As she walks she talks to everyone she meets, asking how they are, reminding them about a meeting on Tuesday night, arranging to come and see them later that day. Everyone opens up to her. The most bowed person, huddled over a walking frame, lifts her head and talks to her, finds a smile, walks on a little taller.
In 2011 the Playboy Club was relaunched in London by a very aged Hugh Hefner. The UK Daily Mail interviewed a number of women who were happy to talk about being bunnygirls. They’ve all got houses and cars courtesy of that well-paid past. In the ‘60s and ‘70s when women were earning considerably less than men – even less than now – the article argues that the bunnygirl life provided a worthwhile means to an end. The article quotes from the bunnygirl recruitment brochure, where the emphasis lay on having a charming personality, intelligence and common sense. No mention of your bust size! One woman who was interviewed worked for 10 years as a bunnygirl. She earned enough money to ‘buy a lovely house’, to travel around the world ‘for a few years’, and to study for a degree in psychology and economics. She recalled how one wealthy businessman offered her two thousand pounds to spend the night with him at his hotel. ‘It was horrible when that happened,’ she said, ‘but you just had to smile and say “no thank you”’.
The Daily Mail didn’t interview the women who weren’t as successful, and the stories in the article are all positive. The surprising thing is that even the online comments on the stories are positive. We were treated well, it was a tough, demanding job, on your feet for long shifts, the camaraderie was great. It was naughty but nice. Footage shows the Salvation Army coming into the Playboy Club on a donation drive, the bunnygirls (bunnies) in their skimpy costumes standing next to the long-skirted Sallies. Close- ups show their costumes, made tough with whalebone, giving them a structured, carapace-like appearance.
But who am I to say. I learn about bunnygirls via selected zany black and white footage from British Pathé on the internet. I wasn’t there, running in a Pancake Day race in bunny ears, my buttocks covered on this occasion by a modest thigh-length white skirt. I wasn’t there in a nightclub bending and wiggling with Dave Dee Dozy Beaky Mick and Titch, watching their little fingers get as suggestive as a little finger can get.
By the time I got to London in 1979 – one more pudgy girl from the colonies – the swing had well and truly left it, replaced by sharp, punctured punks. It was grey and struggling, much like me. That first winter was decorated with plastic bags full of garbage hung on fence posts. I bought a second-hand bike with three gears that never worked properly, and rode past piles of garbage in parks and streets to my work in a bookshop in Piccadilly. Still in recovery from the war that had hit it a whole generation earlier (rationing and bombing, privation and loss), and not yet fuelled by Arab money, it was a city shrouded, living on baked beans and chips. Like me.
I slouched around London with a scowl that dared bus conductors to question me when I asked for a half fare. While bunnygirls were doing ‘bunny dips’ (delivering a drink via a twist with your back to the table so your cleavage isn’t in the customer’s face), forbidden from dating the clients, overseen by their ‘bunny mother’, earning two thousand pounds a month, I was earning thirty-five pounds a week and eating scrambled eggs every night just to get by. I lived in a series of bedsits, rooms in shabby houses in neighbourhoods where windows glared emptily onto tiny paved front yards with weeds in the cracks and broken bottles in the corners.
I deplored the bunnygirl. How could they subjugate themselves in that way, display themselves, expose themselves to men? How could they wear those costumes, emphasising their breasts, their waists, the shape of their legs and bums?
I hid my femaleness under a Fuck War t-shirt and a shapeless heavy duffel coat. It covered the nights of longing and confusion. The mornings of strange beds and doors and finding my sore, stiff, sad way back home.
One day after work, walking from the bus stop back to my bedsit, a man was leaning over his fence. A big Jamaican man with a mound of hair and a big wide sleepy grin on his face. ‘Hey girl!’ he said, in that full rich enunciated Jamaican English way. I stopped. ‘What are you doing, girl? You want to come inside?’ he asked. I didn’t know what to say. I had no whalebone to shape me, no bunny mother, no bunny rules to guide me. No-one had taught me that you just had to say, no thank you.