Family affairs

December 8, 2007 at 11:08 pm (Fiction, Short Story) (, , , , , , )

“Keep your hands off my daughter”, Mary Collins said to her brother-in-law, Klas Olsen, one Sunday morning in his house in suburban Sydney in the early 1990s. This sparked an unholy row, leading to the disintegration of extended family relations with a litany of lies, denials and abuse.

You may wonder if this was a spur of the moment outburst or a considered decision to make a stand against a pattern of behaviour that no one in the family had directly confronted Klas with. There had been rumours for years about Klas’s endeavours at family social gatherings to get female members alone and make sexual advances to them. Most of the older women just laughed about this but when he turned his intentions to teenage nieces, the family seemed at a loss to know what to do. Mary could see how her daughter had been affected by Klas’s behaviour and, as it appeared nothing was being done about it, she was determined to make a stand.

Klas, a Danish seaman, had arrived in Australia in the early 1950s after jumping ship in Sydney. He was a strong and fit man and had no trouble finding employment of a physical nature around the city. His English at first was practically non-existent but in time he became quite fluent, speaking with an Aussie working class accent.

The Sydney of the fifties offered Klas a life that he thoroughly enjoyed. His Scandinavian good looks and his capacity for alcohol facilitated his access to women and fun around town. His chance for social and financial stability came when he met a beautiful young woman in a night club and was smitten by her. She was equally taken by him.

Angelica Collins was the nineteen-year-old daughter of George and Rebecca Collins. George was a successful solicitor from Wagga, in country New South Wales. Angelica and Klas had a whirlwind romance and 10 months after meeting were married in the chapel of her old school, Rose Bay Convent. Klas had converted to Catholicism and had been well accepted by Angelica’s family. George, Angelica’s father, was a little concerned about Klas’s drinking but he felt that he was a hard-working New Australian and should do well. Rebecca, her mother, was taken with Klas, particularly with his European good looks. She even said: “I like him, he likes a beer.”

Early in the marriage, one of Klas’s old girl friends got in touch with him through her lawyer and threatened to proceed against him for breach of promise. She must have heard that he had done relatively well by marrying into a family with money. Angelica’s father bought her off with a payment of £1,500 which left a sour taste in his mouth.

After this, the couple settled down and Angelica gave birth to three daughters. Angelica’s father helped Klas buy into a small clothes and blanket manufacturing factory in the inner city. The business was virtually run by his partner and Klas did general labouring and driving tasks for the firm. His involvement in the business did a lot for his self-image and he liked to describe himself as a small businessman. He became more and more conservative in his political views and was a great supporter of the Liberal Party.

Over the years, Angelica and Klas’s house became a meeting place for Angelica’s brothers and sisters and their families. Klas was a wonderful host and on weekends food and drink were always on offer for visiting relatives. Angelica was a woman with an engaging personality and she became a significant person within family circles. Her status within the family increased when her mother, Rebecca, moved in with Angelica and Klas after the death of her husband, George. Rebecca contributed a lot financially to the household.

At family gatherings, Klas was the life of the party, holding forth, while consuming copious amounts of alcohol and chain smoking, on a variety of topics from religion to small business. Some of his more notable remarks included: “The woman is made for the man.” “Life is like this box of matches, the product is only produced after much effort and work.” “The big clothing manufacturers would offer hundreds of thousands of dollars for our firm.” A folksy red-blooded approach to life exemplified the philosophical drift of his conversation.

From time to time, Angelica’s nieces would stay with her. They all loved her and looked up to her. Some talk surfaced among the fathers and mothers of these girls that Klas’s approach to their daughters was perhaps a little inappropriate but it was generally felt not to be too serious. So for a long time nothing much was said.

Early in the marriage Angelica realised that Klas would never be able to provide her with an upper-middle-class life style and if she was to send her daughters to private schools, she would have to do something about it herself. Her mother was a great help but Angelica knew she needed more help than her mother could afford to give her. This she partly solved by striking up a friendship with a wealthy Melbourne businessman. At first their friendship had to be conducted discreetly as Klas was intensely jealous, but in time Steve, Angelica’s admirer, became part of the family and regularly visited from Melbourne. Steve discreetly supported the family by giving cheques to Rebecca, Angelica’s mother, for school fees and mortgage repayments.

Perhaps this happy family circle with the matriarch, Rebecca, installed and Angelica obtaining financial help through her friend was more complicated than it first appeared. What did Klas think about Angelica’s association with Steve? Why was he willing to accept it? Perhaps he liked the material benefits that indirectly flowed to him. He may have felt put down by Rebecca and Angelica’s class values. Maybe he considered that he could not live up to their expectations and the help that Steve gave to the family in some way compensated for this and figuratively speaking got him off the hook in relation to their expectations.

Mary Collins had given birth to a beautiful daughter, Helen. By the time she was 16 years old and attending boarding school in Sydney, she had ripened into a beautiful young woman though still emotionally very young. Angelica was only too happy to have her niece, Helen, stay on weekends and holidays from school.

Helen’s proximity to Klas proved too much for him to maintain appropriate behaviour in an uncle- niece relationship. Helen told her parents that she was uncomfortable in Uncle Klas’s presence. There were reports of French kissing and of visits to Helen’s bedroom at inappropriate times. At first, Geoff, her father and Mary, her mother, didn’t think things were too serious, though Mary was more concerned than Geoff. Helen went on telling them how ill at ease she felt and Mary said to Geoff: “Something should be done. You must talk to Angelica.” However, nothing was said. There seemed to be a general feeling among some family members that any revelations would do more harm than good. Maybe there was the expectation that with the truth coming out their relationship with Angelica would be finished. Subsequent events proved this assumption to be correct. In exasperation because no one had said anything, one Sunday morning Mary said to Klas: “Keep your hands off my daughter.”

When Angelica heard what Mary had said to Klas, she proposed a family meeting. Angelica told another of her brothers, Kevin, that Mary was saying terrible things about Klas. When Kevin indicated to Angelica that he was not inclined to support Klas, Angelica cancelled the proposed family meeting.

With no admission of guilt by Klas, numerous other incidents of his inappropriate behaviour came to the surface. Older female family members told of how Klas had put the hard word on them. One recalled that when she was sixteen years old, Klas had placed her hand on his erect penis.

The extraordinary thing in the whole affair was how wholeheartedly Klas’s immediate family supported him. His daughters abused Helen for supposedly lying about their father. Rebecca, the matriarch of the family, seemed to forget that she was a mother and grandmother to others and not just to Angelica’s immediate family. Whatever she really felt, she gave every appearance of fully supporting Klas. However, this may have been support primarily for Angelica, her favourite daughter. Angelica said:”I believe Klas.”

Geoff and Mary Collins and other relatives felt that the evidence against Klas was just too strong to be ignored.

Angelica rallied her supporters and virtually established a fortified unit against those in the family who did not support Klas.

The family was broken apart because of pride, self-respect, class values and whatever else motivates and drives the human condition. Perhaps Angelica could not face the terrible truth within her family. She made a great point of saying; “Klas has brought up three daughters and nothing untoward has been said of his relationship to them.”

Family secrets have to be lived with and for Angelica and Rebecca the prospect of the truth setting them free seemed to offer few attractions.

The advice of Jennifer Frances in Secrets may be relevant to this family drama:
“If only we could have spoken the unspeakable. If only we had understood that our darkest secrets can never be laid to rest until they have been extracted from their emotional wrapping and shared.”

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3 Comments

  1. Gus Wall said,

    Dramas, alliances, pride and love move chaotically through relationships, families and friends, taking up a significant part of our human condition. This story offers a glimpse into what could break long lasting family ties. Intiated perhaps by a mix of love, pride, sacrifice, habit or even misunderstanding.

  2. Dee said,

    Hello David
    Good plot. Too wordy however for a short story – more of a scenario for the final piece. As the theme is about silence the piece needs to be ‘quieter’, more implied rather than stated. The word ‘inappropriate’ is used too often. For instance: Klas’s approach to their daughters was perhaps a little inappropriate but it was generally felt not to be too serious; and of visits to Helen’s bedroom at inappropriate times; numerous other incidents of his inappropriate behaviour came to the surface. The 2nd & 3rd ‘inappropriate’ need increasingly stronger adjectives to indicate escalation – this would build up tension in the piece. I think “our darkest secrets can never be laid to rest until they have been extracted” is a simplistic approach to the problem, maybe something like writing them in chalk on a blackboard and then rubbing them away is an alternative that can add a dimension of understanding this family’s trauma. I think you should keep working on it because the scenario is good. On Monday night I saw a preview of a film called “Atonement” soon to be on general release in Australia. The complexity of the family in your story reminded me of the film’s plot. Happy blogging and have a merry Christmas. Dee

  3. Family and friends gather for a matriarch’s 80th birthday celebration | Stories by David Wall said,

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