Feature | Dovetails

My mother and father missed it all. Bunnykins to bomber jackets, dummies to cigarettes. I was raised somewhere else. Given another mum. A different dad. Handed around until I stuck like a stickle brick to my brand-new brother, who was also riding the magic carousel of secret adoption circa 1970.

Our shared reality was a fantasy land. All the colours cried themselves to a blur as our first families moved on without us.

I spent my childhood learning to speak like other people. Imprinting a way of dressing and eating and living like entirely other people. I was told to call them ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’. And I did.

Compliance was everything in the suburban household of Mum and Dad. I did whatever I was told until the tightly wound rubber band that bound me to my fictional family began to stretch and perish. At high school, it completely snapped.

At sixteen, all the other girls were playing records and watching Home and Away. Not me. I turned the TV off and followed the silvery streets and flashing lights all the way to the city to meet my mother.

Yes, that’s right my mother. There, I’ve said it. My mother.

My other mother.

My real mother, my biological mother, or whatever it’s fashionable to call her now. I was only ever born once, though the way I’ve lived I’ve had my doubts about how many times it’s been. The whole routine has been confusing—for me, and for anyone else who’s tried to follow along.

For most people, Mum and Mother are the same person.

For me they are as different as blood and air.

Mum raised me. But my mother birthed me.

Stuff that’s usually bound up in the one package was split into two.

Bifurcated. Branched. Chaotic.

The whole idea of adoption is a mindfuck, really—especially secret adoption, or forced adoption as it’s officially known—because it requires all the characters to pretend that a made-up story is real.

In the summer of the year that I turned 16, I put down the script. I went to Woollahra to meet my mother, and could not resist the force of her magnetism. I was drawn into a whole new life framed by iron-laced balconies and tessellated porches, beers after midnight and poodles pissing on every street corner on the eastern fringe of Sydney.

I made excuses to Mum and Dad. Told them I was going to town with friends, but there were no friends. My mother simply wanted me. She wanted to see me over and over and over, and I went.

She rang, she spoke, she hinted, and I went.

Walking. Waiting.

Catching buses and trains, I went, dragging my bags up the narrow lanes of painted terrace houses that lined the inner-city streets in messy rows.

It took two-and-a-half hours to get to my mother’s house in the city.

A yo-yo unwinding.

Then two-and-a-half hours back to Mum’s.

A yo-yo rewinding.

All that messy, looping string. A tangle of knots getting jammed in between.

At weekends the trip could take four hours, sometimes five, but that didn’t stop me. A flick of the wrist and I was spinning, unspooling. Legs marching, arms swaying until I no longer knew which town I was in. I practiced my hand–eye coordination until I could perform the whole trick and whirl from one existence to the other.

The train and bus routine kept my two worlds separate. It allowed both matriarchs to go on believing the other woman didn’t exist. I had merely slipped into another room when I was out of sight, not another woman’s house on the other side of town.

So little acknowledgement of the truth.

Swallowing the guilt made me sick. It was toxic. Poison. A vile medicine and I swallowed it down as a justified punishment for the crime of seeing my mother. I swallowed and swallowed, stepping out the recurring pilgrimage.

The buses from suburbia only ran now and then. Sometimes I had to start back almost as soon as I arrived in the city, but my mother never wanted me to leave.

Eventually I stopped going back to the suburbs at all. I was tainted by this extra life, this city life. I made my choices, and no longer felt so welcome in suburbia.

I took my shameful body with its shameful knowledge of this other life away on these shameful feet that led me to this shameful door of this other woman, and I made a plan never to step foot in suburbia again.

My mother seemed to think time could be caught in a paper cup, and she could drink in all the moments we’d missed. I skipped half a term of school while she told me all about her life, about the men who picked her up from her terrace house in chauffeur-driven limousines; about the lions she’d seen on safari in Africa; about the flights she’d chartered to the Snowies for weekend ski trips. She was not like the mothers of other kids at school.

Not that I went to school anymore, after all the lying, the pretending, the duplicitous fabrications concocted to prise myself away from the ’burbs.

Rushing back became a drug with a short half-life. An opioid, a wild ride, at once enticing and necessary. Our brains were doped on neurotransmitters that flooded our bodies with feel-good fillers and endorphins. Our reunion-honeymoon created more drama, as if being uplifted into another world when I was a baby wasn’t enough. I’d already endured being draped in cotton nappies and flown away in the beak of a stork. According to the legend, that is. The legend of adoption that says you were chosen for this mission because you’re special.

Very, very. Very, very special.

My mother lived in a distinctive Victorian terrace on a narrow street in Woollahra, where the cars all parked so close to her front door she could barely open the window. The people were heading off to Paddington Markets to buy small pieces of handmade furniture and flower-pressed paper cards and watch the bubble-man. They took their lunch to Centennial Park and we went there too, squeezing her wolfhound pup, Sesame, past the cars parked on the footpath.

I loved watching the bubble man make purple-green tinged creations. So round, so soft. How soon they wobbled away and burst, leaving no trace that they were ever there.




My mother would evaporate too, someday. She would drift off again into the sky like a sudsy bubble. But I had met her now. I had seen her. I knew her name.

Never again would I stare at every face on the train, my mind running a data-match as I wondered, are you my mother?, like a little lost bird from a kids picture book.

My mother had just turned thirty when we met. It was hot on her tessellated doorstep that summer. But as the days began to cool, we paid the price for indulging in the giddy newness of each other.

I sat on the kilim in her lounge room, playing with my shoelaces so I didn’t have to look her in the face. Though the months flew by, I always felt like a shy stranger in her house.

On Easter Saturday, she opened the heavy drapes that screened out the cars. She had something important to show me. She pushed the velvet out of the way to let the light come all the way in. The air danced in the smoke rising from the ashtray, while she explained the special way her bookshelf was made.

‘The strength is all in the clever angles, see,’ she said.

Where one curved out, the other curved in. They were mutually beneficial. Their shapes fit together. A suitable match, like a mother and new-born baby in the first few weeks of life.

‘It’s a dovetail joint,’ she said.

No glue. No nails.

Just a simple design.

That’s what made the pieces ‘dovetail’.

Snug. Pieces of the same puzzle.

My mother, my father and I didn’t dovetail into a beautiful thing. We didn’t dovetail at all. Once the cord was cut, we were pulled apart.

For the first part of my life, I didn’t know where they lived, what they looked like, or their names. I never heard their voices. Everyone pretended they didn’t exist, while I took on the shape of elsewhere.

My mother barely knew what to do with me when I came back. She showed me things she thought I should appreciate—her lace cotton sheets, her crystal flutes for drinking Moët champagne, and her dovetail bookshelf.

The shelf was made by an artisan at the markets. His stall was between the woman with the recycled paper cards and another woman peddling books on matters of the mystic, including the ancient book of I-Ching, which now sat on the bookshelf, on the kilim, where I left my pink sneakers lying around with the laces untied.

My clothes were mismatched plasticky things in varying shades of pink, chosen for me by a woman who had never seen inside this house with the cars parked on the footpath right outside the lounge-room window.

That woman, from the ’burbs, had a shaded garden where kids could play cricket, and the kids there could ride their bikes in the street. She was the woman the State of New South Wales decided was superior in every way because, unlike my real mother, she was in her twenties when I was born, not her teens. She also had that other distinguishing characteristic that placed her above other kinds of women. She had a husband, and that was fundamental to the institution of Australian society when I was born.

I could see the flaws in the State’s thinking from the moment I stepped into my mother’s world. She was not the pauper everyone said she would be. By the time we met, she was wealthier than my adopted family. I was supposed to feel guilty about the money they’d spent raising me, while she transformed herself into some kind of superwoman, getting rich on business enterprises, financed by her own ingenuity.

In my first sixteen years I lived much like everyone else at my suburban school. I cleaned my teeth with Macleans fresh mint and washed my hair with Decoré. My city mother cleaned her teeth with fluoride-free toothpaste and washed her hair with herbal shampoo that prevented frizz, though it made my hair curl up at the sides in a Wella Balsam wave. She picked it up from the salon up on Queen Street when she went in for a half-leg wax.

I didn’t shave. I didn’t wax. I was a bit of a hippy in mohair-stockings, but in some ways, so was she, with her weird toothpaste and fluoride-phobia. I was the flowerchild with a love–hate relationship to the pink plastic things I’d been made to wear. She was a spiritual enchantress with a corporate gleam, wearing understated earth-powder rouge to hollow her cheekbones. It doubled as a subtle eye shadow.

She sometimes let me wear her silky clothes, but her city chic couldn’t camouflage my suburban defences. I could climb into her clothes, but I couldn’t be who she wanted me to be.

Entering a room, she cried here-I-am, chest out, chin up. Her narrowing eyes said don’t-fuck-with-me and no-one ever did. When I entered a room I shrank away, hoping no-one would look. I let my curls fall over my face so I could pretend I wasn’t there.

Even in her clothes, I looked out of place. No-one wore pink joggers in the city, or watched the sands falling through the hourglass on afternoon TV. There were no square plastic earrings, like those in the pages of the magazines the mum who raised me read as a road map for life.

In suburbia I had worn what I was asked to. Mostly. I tried to blend into my surroundings. Mainly. On the trendy fringes of the city, everyone smoked expensive cigarettes and wore designer clothes. Everyone except for me, that was.

That year, my mother and I had one endless tea party. We listened to Vivaldi and danced to the Gipsy Kings. Her CD library filled half the bookshelf, which also held the mix tapes my father made for her. I wondered whether he sometimes thought of me when he chose her songs. Or if he would ever make a mix tape for me.

I didn’t know if there was space for him—or even me—inside her tiny house. Space was at such a premium so close the city, not like the open spaces I was used to where I spent all afternoon down by the creek watching goannas and eels. There were so, so many people in the city.

At my mother’s house, the walls were so thin we heard the Italian family with their children on the other side. The single woman on the high side was so old she had retired, but so had my mother, well before she turned thirty.

My mother worked at some lucrative enterprise. Bought herself several houses and a boat on Sydney harbour before she decided wealth wasn’t really her thing. After that she lived on brown rice and lemon juice for a year and rarely went outside. She was presently leaning over my shoes with her nose all curled, pushing them aside, as she selected something for me to read.

‘This will help you morph into the real-you,’ she said, as she handed me her book of I-Ching.

I fiddled with my spaghetti-loop laces. All the small reminders of ‘me’ were fast disappearing, which was a good thing, but also sad. I hadn’t seen Mum and Dad for weeks. Or my brother. My friends were still in school. Though I was with my mother all the time, I didn’t feel ready for all the transformations she had in mind.

She said we should get a house down on the harbour. We could sail her boat, stay up all night drinking whisky. Playing card games. 500. Backgammon. Go shopping at Birkenhead Point and cruise back across the harbour just for kicks. I went along with it all, including the supernatural mysteries found inside her books.

‘It’s called the Book of Change,’ she said, leafing through the pages. ‘You need to ask it a question.’

‘What should I ask?’

‘Anything you like,’ she said.

This would require some recasting of what I learned watching Simon Townsend’s Wonderworld with his bloodhound Woodrow. Simon Townsend never talked about forecasting the future. Ossie Ostrich, the life-sized puppet we watched on Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday never talked at all. Nothing I learned on TV prepared me to ask a question of a mystical book, especially not one that carried a warning.

‘Pay it respect or it will jinx you,’ she said, as she showed me how to throw.

The I-Ching reminded me of pick-up-sticks, a game from primary school, where the leader would drop a bundle and everyone else had to pick them up. The player with the master stick had different rules, like a free pass to cheat. But I was never the lucky one.

I was the one hopelessly picking up the pieces trying not to forfeit my turn.

I could only hope the oracle of the I-Ching would bring me better luck.

As I became caught up in the game, only one question came to mind.

I-Ching, I asked. Will I meet my father?

The answer might be auspicious or ominous, but even while turning the pages it felt like chancing fate. And that seemed like a really big mistake.

I was living between two families now. Split into two compartments. The freezer. The fridge. An impervious white wall in between. I didn’t want to leave the front room of her house, but I missed my family and friends, my part-time job, and my piano. I missed the life I had that was three trains, two buses and a good hour’s walk away from the city.

It was no surprise when the I-Ching reflected my ominous feelings: Those who belong together have been pushed apart. A surprise meeting is now the only way. You will meet as strangers in a dark alley. But be warned. What you have lost will never return.

Since coming back, I had learned to read my mother’s withdrawals and flashes of anger. She would show me a photo of my father. Hold up brass earrings to the sides of my hair; then she was gone. I lost her while she was right in front of me.

Even now she was slipping away, triggered by something I couldn’t see or hear. I didn’t know the warning signs of post-traumatic stress disorder back then; I just accepted that she wore her scars on the outside, and did my best to listen.

I tiptoed around as everything began to spin. Like watching the pony on a merry-go-round, stuck in the track, all the colours flying around my face. I returned the book to the dovetailed shelf, placing it among the astrology charts, the herbal remedies, the books on acceptance therapy, the masterclasses on mindsets and the mix tapes my father made her over the years. We did not talk about the I-Ching again.

Over winter, we walked Sesame along the cold avenues between the lakes of Centennial Park. I tried to keep up with this woman who was taller, leaner, faster than me. Her silk jumpsuits were elegant compared to my bohemian threads and my faded cheese-cloth shirts. I was finally able to wear whatever I wanted, not clothes chosen by my suburban Mum, not a cashmere sweater borrowed from my city mother, fretting about how upset she might become if I spoiled her clothes.

If I was artistic, pouring feelings into books, my mother was cosmopolitan, though she balanced her go-getter instincts with mysticism and lotus tea. Breakfast was never more than tea and a cigarette. Her terrace had a kitchen, yet she rarely ate at home.

I fixed my hunger slumps at the corner store with slabs of Cadbury’s chocolate, unwrapping and eating them all in one go. Except on Tuesdays, when we ordered organic tofu-burgers loaded with peanut-sauce and snow-pea sprouts from a cafe. She said greens were healthy, and I guess that mattered a lot since we chain smoked Silk Cut cigarettes. We would cross over Oxford Street afterwards, walking Sesame in the park.

By late August, the yellowing magnolia blooms were shmooshed thick and wet all over the grass. We were walking a path heavily shaded by paperbarks around a lake we hadn’t yet explored, when a man appeared up ahead with a border collie.

The man picked up a branch and stripped away the leaves. I watched him arch his back, his sinewy arms balancing the branch over his upper limbs.

My mother brushed her straight hair from her shoulder. Her dry cough sounded tight as she restrained Sesame, who sniffed at the ground and ignored his command to sit.

As the light burst through the swaying trees, making spotlights on the gravel, the man speared the water, barely rippling the surface until he let his dog swim out to collect the prize.

My mind flew back to the dovetail bookshelf.

To the I-Ching.

I was back in her lounge room sipping tea, wondering if I would ever meet the man without whom I would not exist.

My mother didn’t need to say a thing—I knew who this was.

‘That man … ’ she said.

‘I know,’ I said.

‘You don’t understand,’ she said.

My mother spoke from some older place, a time from before my birth exploded her life. She had only just begun to heal with her self-help books when my return re-traumatised her. It wasn’t intentional. The whole me-ness of sixteen-year-old ‘me’ disrupted the fantasy of the baby she never saw. Her trauma rose to the throat as we walked towards the man, step by step, and she bit down hard on grief.

I flew out of my body. I fluttered up to the trees, my skin tingling as I watched from a distance. A safer place. The whole scene played out on CCTV, accompanied by that ‘Freeze Frame’ song from the radio.

The man had big hair and stovepipe pants, but there were no quick claps like the sound of 1980s rock.

With a crown of curls spilling down his back, he could have been a glam rocker. Marc Bolan. A man who didn’t observe the rule that men should be short-clipped and polish their shoes every morning.

I didn’t need another page in another book to explain. The prediction from the I-Ching was in process. I was about to meet the stranger in that dark alley. That man was my father. Not Dad from suburbia with his crisp-collared shirts.

My real father.

This was JJ.

I slung my batik bag to the side and smoothed my ringlets. What would he make of me, this stranger? A girl so awkward I could barely look at my mother. I was way too shy to look at him while he stood there throwing sticks for the dog, stopping to roll a cigarette like he belonged in that landscape, his arms a natural fit beneath the bows of the trees.

I thought he would de-materialise before we said hello. If the I-Ching was right, I might never see him again.




In the safety of her lounge room, my mother had shared stories of her family—her mother, her father, her brother ‘L’—and she told me a lot about my father, JJ, too.

JJ was a loner. A leader of lost souls who met people on his own terms. He was a night-creature who preferred to walk the streets after dark when no-one was around.

‘JJ speaks in riddles,’ she had told me one afternoon, as we changed the CD to Phoebe Snow.

‘What?’ I asked.

‘I tried to give him a glass of water once,’ she said.

‘Did he want one?


‘Why not?’

‘He said he only drinks water from a kettle.’

A kettle?

A lid, a spout, a jug with its own heating element. A whistle that sings when the water gets too hot.

As I saw the man throwing his speak into the lake, I blurted, ‘I get it.’

‘What?’ she said.

‘He drinks coffee. That’s the riddle. He drinks coffee, tea. Something hot from the kettle. Not water from the tap. Not like the water you offered him.’

The look on her face reminded me of the Box Brownie photo she had taken with her own camera before I was born. We had removed it from her photo album and placed it on the bookshelf. His face was an over-exposed white flash as he leaned into the frame in a torn pair of jeans. No shoes, no shirt.

Here in the park, Sesame pulled at the lead to get a closer look. There was no reason to think this man was someone I should know. It was late afternoon, not JJ’s favourite time, after dark.

I knew it was him.

Like looking at your own reflection in the mirror and knowing who it is you see.

That was how I knew.

‘This is E,’ she said when we reached the glade where JJ stood.

E meant nothing to him. It had only recently meant something to her.

My mother had called me J. Not E. Yet still she said it.

E, she said again.

Hearing her say my name was making me real.

But it sent me spinning into a reality check.



Tangling myself up in knots until I became someone else.

My birth certificate states my mother’s name. Not my father’s. Not mine.

My birth certificate says Unnamed.

Father, Unknown, which of course is untrue.

My birth certificate is a work of fiction. It records made-up events and make-believe names.

That was normal in Australia’s forced adoption era, when children were taken from their families without legitimate consent and given to people who couldn’t have kids.

In this fractured fairytale, virginal girls didn’t kiss and fall in love. They didn’t explore their bodies. They were chaste and unblemished and made babies all by themselves.

Australia could go on believing this fictionalised version of real life if the babies were given to the married girls who naturally made virtuous, perfect mothers.

Assigning me to a married couple required another fictional birth certificate to make the story-world fit.

End of chapter one.

In chapter two, I was rebirthed as E.

The switch was a state-sealed secret. The identity of my mother and father must never be revealed.

To anyone.

And yet.

And yet, here I was at the age of sixteen, looking at my mother, my father, them looking at me. They had spent their teenage years together, and now I was the teen, watching the man who had by now stopped throwing sticks.

‘Sit, Budoo, sit,’ JJ said.

His fingers finessed fine tobacco while he looked me over, then he turned his thin chest away.

The blue lake air jammed my lungs. I couldn’t breathe. Had she known this would happen? Did he? Was I the only one who didn’t know about this meeting, this fluke foretold by the I-Ching?

I let a long curl fall from behind my ear to curtain my face as the man looked at me for the very first time.

‘This is E,’ she said again.

Leaning against the strange skin of the paperbark, my eyelashes folded so tightly I wondered how they could reopen.

Their conversation lacked the talk that might flow from the mouths of a mother and father in the presence of their child. There was no warm familiarity, no joy, no happiness, though she was proud to be showing me off.

I was their child, but they had never transitioned into parents. We were three pieces of the same puzzle looking at each other with no idea what to say, or where we fit.

One step, two steps, three.

Turning towards the lake JJ threw the spear again.

Budoo made one last grand splash as my mother and I began walking Sesame home.

Vivaldi ringing out on repeat, the phone ringing off the hook before she unlocked the door.

It was JJ calling. And he would like to explain his position. His position, on me, which, true to his nature, he offered in our first phone conversation, as a riddle.

He’d been handed a box, he said. A shoebox filled with silkworms. The best course of action was to shove it in the cupboard and go find a mulberry tree. When he came across the mulberry tree, it was owned by another man. An adopted man. And JJ had no rights over the fruit.

‘You dig?’ he said.

Do I dig?



A silkworm cocoon is made of a single thread that unravels into one long strand. My father has been unravelling the cocoon for all these years, and I have too. We still haven’t found the beginning or the end of the thread.

Thirty-five years later, as I write this, he leaves a message on my phone. Though we’ve spoken from time to time, it’s the first time I’ve ever heard him say my name.

‘E. This is JJ. That’s the message.’ [long pause].

‘It appears I’ve got a daughter, called E.’ [long pause].

I rewound the message and listened to it again.

‘You weren’t rejected by us. We didn’t have any authority,’ his voicemail said.

And then he just hung up.

In numerology, the number 35 signifies optimism, growth and joy. But I can’t say that’s how this number feels.

It is thirty-five years since my mother, my father and I breathed the same air. Three perspectives of space and time, a trilogy of life with small overlaps.

My mother did not raise her baby. She nurtured a fantasy of what I should have been. When we spoke, our voices sounded similar, but our meaning was not the same. Her syllables were wary. Mine were curious. Her story commanded the room while I remained outside the window, whispering to the ancient shadows of family history. The best we could do was eat lunch, drink tea. Teach Sesame new tricks. Watch the bubble man send his creations drifting into the sky, never flinching when the bubble inevitably burst.

Long after our moment together, we dine in other lounge rooms and lounge on different settees. A catch-up over a telephone call is the best we can do. I don’t need the I-Ching to tell me that all three of us will never occupy the same space and time again.

Separate togetherness is a bitter pill that can’t cure a complex condition. It’s not just my mother and father and I that have the malaise, but my Mum and Dad, my brother and our kids as well. All of us yearn for acceptance, for any kind of belonging that would hold us together, but the more we desire these ordinary things, the more the essentials of life mock and tease us, until we don’t even try anymore.

Pinning baby with a new name during a routine nappy change must have seemed so clever. So simple. But that baby has grown into me right here, right now.

I never found it simple to raise my kids in the gap between two unrelated families. A mum with her suburban ways, a mother still resolving the grief of losing her child. We lost each other again and again every time we tried.

Sometimes we made things work, at other times, we simply didn’t fit.

Nursery rhymes to learner plates. The non sequitur known as forced adoption continues, single-candle birthday cakes and well beyond the grave. But I still live in hope of a happier chapter three.



EJ Clarence

EJ Clarence is an emerging writer exploring the long narrative arc of Forced Adoption through Own Voices fiction, poetry, prose and personal essays which acknowledge the tenth anniversary of Julia Gillard’s National Apology.

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