Mallawindy, p.10

Mallawindy, page 10



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  Ann learned a lot about life on the school bus, and the God voice sounded too familiar. She had nightmares about it for weeks, and panic ate her mind each time she heard the voice. Maybe she was stark raving mad too, just like the lady who tried to explain the voice in her head as God’s. There were weeks, months, when it didn’t happen, months when Ann could convince herself the voice was imagination. Then it would come back. And the words were strange. They were not her words, nor were they spoken the way she might speak, and when it happened, the words seemed to separate her from wherever she was, place her behind the glass mirror where her own words bounced back at her. Some months ago, she had identified the voice tossing instructions against her inner ear. It belonged to the little Annie she used to be before Narrawee.

  For six weeks after that night with Mr Fletcher, Ann had hidden her new ability, but there was no way Malcolm would allow her to be sent away to the deaf school. He said she had to speak to her mother, or to Ben. It was too embarrassing – like she’d been shamming all along, just as her father had always said.

  In the end Mr Fletcher worked out a plan, and it was the first time she’d ever heard him laugh, the first time she ever saw a glimpse of the devious mind he hid from the world.

  He said that in Mallawindy it was a well known fact that she had been struck dumb by some stroke of heavenly vengeance, so who better than the interfering Father Fogarty to take credit for the cure. It was in church that Ann spoke her first public words, and only the week before she was due to pack her bags for the deaf school.

  Poor old Father Fogarty, ever since that day he’d preached about God’s hand reaching out through him to make the miracle. But though he tried reaching out to others in the community, arthritis didn’t disappear like magic for more than a week or two, and Jenny West, almost blind, still couldn’t see.

  The mud-brick farmhouse, built by Ann’s great grandfather Vevers, was on the edge of town. From its fence, part of the Burton’s tin roof was visible. So near and yet so far.

  Ann turned her head to glance at her mother’s childhood home as she walked by. She always looked at it with her head to one side, attempting to set it straight on its foundations; its chimney had a definite lean towards the setting sun. The bricks had been up so long, they now appeared to have grown out of the earth. Jasmine and ivy, honeysuckle and ornamental vines covered the walls, and probably held them together, Ann thought. If the plants ever died, the house would tumble down in a heap of dust.

  She hadn’t seen inside the house, hadn’t walked its hallowed floors, or wandered its sprawling garden. Although Ben remembered it as Grandpa’s place, Ann only knew it as Mr Mack’s; thus it was his prerogative what he did or didn’t do to it, even if Bessy and Ellie looked on him as a caretaker not taking proper care. They never passed it by without a halt to see if the fig tree had enough fruit on it to warrant pinching for jam, or if the scented lilies had survived Mr Mack’s latest attack.

  Ann came on the sisters outside the butcher’s shop. They were talking to two women from the church. ‘I won’t be late, Annie, but if I am, get some vegies on for Dad’s dinner, and heat up the stew,’ Ellie said.

  Ann nodded, her concentration on her mother’s waist – or lack of it. Each day now the baby was more obvious. Baby brother, baby sister. To Father Fogarty, it was proof of love. Babies were created out of married love, but as much love had gone into this one’s conception as the making of a pumpkin. Petals had opened and been accidentally pollinated by a wandering bee.

  The world moved in cycles. The land, the seasons, dancing to some master’s plan. When her mother’s cycles stopped four months ago, Ann’s began, as if the big computer in the sky had been waiting for that exact time to hit a switch.

  Lunar cycles. Women and the moon must have been the old timekeepers, Ann thought. Each month now, when the blood began, it reminded her of something, somewhere. The voice in her head was bad at those times, and the picture memories kept piling, one on top of the other, until her head crawled with them.

  Her father had his cycles too, but she couldn’t blame the moon for that. His bouts of drinking, his trips away, his wild returns. And any wonder, leaving that mansion to return to this place. He had arrived home from Narrawee in a new car two weeks back, and he hadn’t been sober since. Every night he screamed and kicked and cursed his brother’s name.

  His car was parked in front of the hotel again today. Poor old Sam would be in for it tonight.

  They must have pitied him in Narrawee to put up with him. They always sent him home with new things. New television, new cap on a front tooth, broken in a fight at the hotel with some woman’s husband. Although in pain for days, he didn’t go to Daree to have it fixed. The Daree dentist might be good enough for Ben and her mother, but he wasn’t good enough for Jack Burton. He drove to Melbourne, hours away, had his tooth fixed by a Collins Street dentist.

  Grey Melbourne, where Ann had been taken once. Place of tall buildings and small white beds and a boy, and – . ‘Don’t think,’ she said, and hurried on.

  Mallawindy’s shopping centre was busy today. Farm trucks and utes lined the street. It would be a good day for business. There was a crowd in front of the Shire Hall, where a draper from Daree set up shop once a month. With no competition closer than Daree, he had the monopoly before Ann started frequenting his stall. Each month now, she ransacked his rolls of fabric for bargains, which she transformed into blatant copies of his children’s wear. She sold them at Bert Norris’s shop.

  Ben suggested it. He had a good head for making and saving money. Twelve months ago, Ann had made up six small dresses. Ben sold two on that first day. Now she had a small rack of children’s and babies’ wear in the far corner of the shop. When her business began to expand into orders, Bert had offered the use of his barber room for fittings. ‘Half a dozen for you, young Annie, and six for me,’ Bert said.

  She hadn’t understood what he’d meant, not until she’d noticed her customers browsing in his giftware section, where his signs, LAY-BY NOW FOR CHRISTMAS, hung all year round. Even her rack of clothing was drawing young mothers into his store. Few left without buying a magazine or a packet of gum.

  Deadeye Dooley was Ben’s age. He worked in the hardware side of Bert’s shop. She saw his head pop up from behind a stack of paint tins.

  ‘How are ya, Annie?’ he said, his good eye looking directly at her, his grey blob looking at the ceiling. He was in church for a brother’s baptism on the day of the miracle, when Father Fogarty announced Ann’s re-baptism. ‘I don’t want to,’ she said. Four little words that created a stir that took months to settle. It would never settle for Deadeye. Each time she spoke, he expected bolts of lightning to strike his bad eye and make it whole.

  Ann waved a hand to him as she turned to her rack. No lightning bolts, but since yesterday, two frocks and a baby’s dress had sold, and a lay-by note was pinned to the shepherd suit. She searched her stock for a mini skirt she’d flung together in ten minutes flat. It was gone too, and the little girl’s frilly blouse. Mentally she tallied her week’s takings, adding this morning’s sales and the ten percent lay-by deposit. Money. Money. Lovely money for her bank account. Money for her escape. One day. One fine day she’d take her bankbook and go to Melbourne and Sydney and everywhere until she found Johnny.

  ‘A good week, ah, young Annie,’ Bert Norris’s voice cut into her thoughts.

  She smiled, nodded, walked to the counter waiting for Norris to pay her, eager for the feel of notes in her hand, notes made by her hand, money gleaned from women’s desire for pretty things that would buy her a future.

  ‘Benny’s cutting old Fraser.’ Bert pointed a thumb towards his back room. ‘Mrs Fraser was talking about a wedding dress for young Janey, and in a hell of a hurry too. Wants to know if you can do it by Saturday week, and how much.’

  ‘About fifteen dollars,’ Ann said. Eager to win work, she kept her quotes too low. But this would be her first wedding dress and she wanted it.
She knew Janey, had been through school with her. All the kids on the school bus knew of the pregnancy, long before her parents. Janey had mentioned the dress to Ann a week back.

  With a finger to his lips and his head close to hers, Bert said, ‘Thirty, more like it, young Annie. Dick Fraser’s worth thousands and you’ve got him over a barrel. Ya gotta learn when to twist the knife if ya gunna do any good in business. Fraser’ll be willing to pay a fortune for a dress in a hurry. Don’t sell ya merchandise too cheap or they’ll reckon it’s no good.’ He laughed while Ann stood nodding, allowing his advice to stick. Finally his till sprung open and he counted the notes into her hand. ‘Where ya going to now?’

  ‘The Post Office, then the Shire Hall.’

  ‘I’ll tell Dick to tell his missus she can meet you there, and it’ll cost her twenty-five. Hoo Roo, young Annie. Don’t work too hard; makes ya old before ya time. An’ no more flirting with Deadeye. He’s no good to me for a week after you’ve smiled at him.’ The old rascal was chuckling as she hurried out to the street and across the road to the Post Office cum Commonwealth Bank, where each week she added to her account, her own small sacrifices to the gods of tomorrow.

  Mr Ponsford, the postmaster, had been rushed to hospital at the weekend. Today a stranger stood behind the counter. He was young, average height, average build, brown hair. His suit was modern, city.

  ‘Good morning,’ he said, instead of ‘G’day, young Annie.’

  ‘Twenty dollars, thanks.’ Ann passed over her bankbook and a roll of crumpled notes, suddenly wishing she had a fine leather purse and her notes were lettuce crisp. The stranger sorted and counted, he wrote the new figure in her book, then looked up and caught her eye.

  ‘You should invest some of this,’ he said.

  ‘Where?’ She was always interested in learning more about money.

  For ten minutes he spoke of interest and short-term deposits while she watched him speak. Her habit of watching lips, watching faces, would never change, and when he was done with talking, and the book and forms were in her hand, he smiled a different smile, and she wished she had never learned to read faces, read eyes. ‘Anything to do in town, Ann?’ he said.

  She shook her head and looked quickly away. She’d have to learn to look at people’s belts when they spoke to her. They probably thought she was eyeing them. Like Jimmy Willis last week on the school bus. ‘You’ve got come-hither eyes, Annie,’ he’d said, then he’d asked her if she’d go to the pictures with him on Wednesday, and she’d almost said yes, because he looked like Robert Redford, and all the girls wanted to go out with him.

  Half the girls her age had boyfriends. Half of them were on the pill too, even some of the Catholic girls, who swore they only took it for pimples and periods. Ann wanted to be like everyone else, she tried hard to be like them, but Mallawindy was too small. People didn’t forget. Jimmy had been at school with her for years. There was no way she was going to sit with him, let him think he could tell his mates all about it the next day.

  The stranger spoke again. ‘Do you have a dance, a picture show up here?’

  ‘Not tonight,’ she said to his pen.

  ‘I’m here until Friday. I’m staying at the Central.’

  She shrugged. ‘There’s a picture show on Wednesday at the Shire Hall. A travelling picture show guy comes up here.’

  ‘Are you going?’ he asked.

  ‘Probably not.’ She never went to the pictures when her father was home.

  ‘Have you seen it?’

  Her eyes had returned to watching his mouth again, his eyes. ‘No,’ she said.

  He smiled at her, and his smile made his face look more than average. Again she looked at his pen. ‘Could I talk you into going?’

  She shook her head, and he said his name, but she didn’t hear it. Her mind was working over-time. He didn’t know her. Didn’t know anything about her. Wouldn’t it give the kids on the bus something to talk about.

  ‘What’s showing?’ he asked.

  She told him, her concentration on her book, and her basket. Then she licked her lips, and added, ‘I thought about seeing it, but it depends on how much work I’ve got to do.’

  ‘Where do you work?’

  ‘I ... I’ve got my ... my own business.’ The words spoken to her shoes.

  ‘Lucky you. Do me a favour and give yourself a night off.’

  ‘You’ve probably seen it. By the time we get the pictures up here, they’re years old.’

  ‘I don’t mind watching a good show twice, particularly if the company is good.’

  She placed the forms in her basket, nodded, backed away. ‘Thanks. I might invest a bit in that term deposit,’ and she turned, walked to the door. There were people waiting, people listening.

  ‘You can let me know what you decided on Wednesday. I might come up with some other options,’ he called after her.

  She felt her face grow hot as she walked across the street, but her mind was darting from Jack Burton’s briefcase and his investments, to the picture show, and what she might wear if she went, and why shouldn’t she go. She was almost sixteen. Bronny had sneaked out to go to a slumber party at Becky Martin’s place and had gotten away with it. If Bronny could, so could she – if she wanted to. But she didn’t want to. Why should she want to?

  Her mother liked her to go out. She pushed her to go to church socials, even wanted her to go to Marlene Dooley’s birthday party.

  Nothing to wear, so I can’t, she thought. She spent her life sewing for other people, but rarely made anything nice for herself. But she could, if she wanted to.

  ‘Why waste money?’

  Last month the draper had some blue woollen material, midnight blue. She’d looked at it, almost bought it, then changed her mind. Maybe he’d have it with him today. If he did, she’d buy it, and go to the pictures. If he didn’t have it, she’d forget about the bank man. Let fate decide. He was probably just making conversation anyway. He’d probably said the same thing to every girl in town. God help him if he had, because every girl in town would turn up and want to sit with him. He had the bluest eyes, ocean blue. They sort of picked up his smile, sort of twinkled like the sun on the ocean when Sam and May took her and Liza to –

  ‘Don’t think,’ she said. ‘Stop thinking about her.’ With a shake of her head, she walked into the Shire Hall.

  The midnight blue material was there, and it had been reduced. She bought two metres, then helped Mrs Fraser and Janey pick material and a waist-skimming pattern for the wedding dress. It was close to two before she left the town centre.

  At three-thirty, when Malcolm entered his study, Ann was seated there, typing up an assignment on his ancient Royal. ‘Burton,’ he said, watching the fingers fly.

  ‘Good afternoon, sir.’ Her rhythm broken momentarily, she turned, smiled.

  And he smiled. He had a scholarship earmarked for Ann. Had she been his own flesh and blood, he doubted that he could have cared for her more, but he censored every word, he shielded every glance, and he stayed far away from his bottle while she was in his house.

  They sat at the kitchen table and drank tea while he read her work, adding a comma here, a question mark there, then the papers pushed back, he began his questions. And she replied.

  ‘I got that old smell of apples back again last week. Everything I ate smelt of apples. And maybe a bit of a memory about Liza ... maybe going to the beach, but I couldn’t see her, just knew she was there.’

  ‘It will happen, child, but you must allow it to come.’

  ‘I remember a lot of silly things, but it’s like ... sort of like waking up from a dream and trying to bring it with you to your conscious mind. The more I try to remember, the faster it fades. I remember the house, the big gate, the green paddocks with all the horses leaning against white fences.’

  ‘Keep talking.’

  ‘Sam riding a horse. He always gives me goosebumps, sir.’

  ‘Forget your goosebumps. Concentrate on the house
, the white stone house, the garden. What do you remember of the garden?’

  ‘Uncle Sam’s roses. May was never allowed to cut them, only him. And the apples. A worm. A crazy big bloody worm – . I don’t want to do this today, sir.’

  ‘It was your past, child, and until you know your past, there can be no real future for you.’

  ‘I remember the taste of big red apples and the juice running down my chin. I think I ate about a million apples one day. It might be imagination, but sometimes I think if I could bite into one it might jog my memory. I can’t. I smell them and ... and I switch off.’ She stopped short, the point of her tongue moistened her lips.

  ‘Continue, Burton. Each segment you grasp is a gain.’

  ‘That face I told you about ages ago. I dreamed it two nights back and woke Branny up with my screaming.’

  ‘The face?’

  ‘I used to call it the demon’s face. It’s ... it’s pulsations of light, of shadow ... light shadow. It’s like a kaleidoscope, made of melting fat. It keeps changing as I turn it, then it forms a face, and just as I’m about to grasp it, suddenly it melts into two, breaks up, and sizzles away in black smoke.’

  ‘Your Aunt and I spoke at length on the telephone. Apparently they found you beneath a window that looked out on the rose garden. Try if you will to think of that window. Was it a large window? A small window? Were the roses in bloom?’

  ‘Nothing. I don’t know. Thinking about it makes me feel as if the inside of me is going to implode. Like all of the outside of me will be sucked into the inside – like a deflated balloon. When the last of the air is gone, I’ll just shrivel up and blow away.’

  They talked an hour away, both keeping one eye on the clock.

  ‘I’d better go,’ she said at four-thirty. ‘I have to sew tonight, sir. I might be going to the pictures on Wednesday.’ She walked with him back to the room he had set up as a study for her. He watched her stack her books, place them on a shelf, while he played with the old typewriter.


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