Mallawindy, p.20

Mallawindy, page 20



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  ‘Go away. Get out of my head, David Taylor. You only waited six months. What if I’d gone back? All I thought about that first year was going back to you. Have ring, will wed,’ she said. ‘And to a penny-farthing.’ Not that she was surprised that he’d married, but to Melissa. Maybe he’d got her pregnant. They probably had kids. I should have slept with him that night. Stayed out all night. Mum would have had her baby. Everything would have been different.

  David had been back in her mind since Sydney. They were all back in her mind again. Benjie and his ute. Every time she drove her car now, she thought of Ben’s ute. Malcolm Fletcher was back too – because of Roger. They were two of a kind. Questions, always questions.

  How old would Malcolm be now? Was he still alive? How had she been able to leave them all behind? Easy. Good enough for Johnny to run, then it was good enough for her. She wasn’t fit to stay with them, wasn’t fit for David to love.

  But she’d changed. She’d grown up.

  ‘I should be driving up to Mallawindy. I’ve got one precious week off and I’m tossing it away, pursuing nightmares.’ She braked, looked for a place to turn around. The car was crawling when she broached the last hill of brown before the green, and the gods in their heavens turned off the rain and cleared a pathway between the clouds. Bright sun shafted through. Her eyes, slitted against the instant glare, the assault of green. Too green. It shocked the senses, it woke little Annie.

  No prickles grow in happy ever after land. I can run bare foot anywhere I want to go, Aunty May.

  Goosebumps grew thick on her arms; she rubbed them, shivered. ‘Turn me ’round Annie Burton, with danger I’m flirtin,’ she screamed to the trees and the land. It eased the tension building in her throat but didn’t slow her breathing.

  Her head felt light. Ice crystals crawled on her scalp. She drew in a deep breath, held it long as her foot touched the brake. A stream of traffic was crawling behind her – excuse enough to stop, but no safe place to do it. The road curved down, narrowing as it approached the tunnel of green. Then too suddenly she was lost in a camouflage net of dappled light, caught in a crossfire of hollow words and moving pictures.

  I hate her Aunty May. She’s bad and I hate her.

  She halted the car on the edge of the bitumen, allowing the traffic to pass, irate drivers beeped their horns. She didn’t hear them. Scents, sounds from another lifetime flooded her. Lavender pillows in the tidy drawers. Soap bubbles. Blowing bubbles through cupped hands.

  Look Aunty May, I made one with a rainbow. It’s full up with colours like a rainbow. It’s got purple in it and green and – .

  Petite woman on her knees beside a big white bath, a bath large enough for two little girls, but only one could make a rainbow in her hands. Not Liza. Only Ann Elizabeth. Ann Elizabeth, Aunty May’s little girl. Blue dress, white lace collar, long sausage curls, tied up with a big blue ribbon.

  The old black cat had her kittens in the cellar.

  Odour of apples. Earth and apples.

  ‘Stupid. Stupid. I don’t need this.’ And she started the motor and turned the car towards Melbourne.

  ‘But I do need it. I came here for answers and I’m not going back until I get the answers.’ Carelessly, she swung the steering wheel again, making a screaming U-turn, and heading again into the valley.

  The old black cat had her kittens in the cellar.

  ‘Repeat, Annie,’ she taunted the companion of her mind. ‘Repeat. Been there, done that.’ The car entered the tunnel of green, and she increased her speed. ‘Hang on, because I’m going through.’

  Someone with great foresight had planted the Avenue of Honour. The twin wall of trees made an interesting entrance into the place of twisted dreams. Her foot heavy on the accelerator, her hands gripping the wheel, she fled through the trees, bursting out into sunlight and a brand new motel, advertising ‘Vacancy’.

  It looked so normal, no different to a hundred other motels. She booked bed and breakfast for two nights, knowing that at least she would have a sanctuary to escape to if things went bad.

  The room was stuffy. Even with the door open, there was little breeze to stir the air. It lay heavy, like time long spent, used up. There was an odour of newness too, of fresh paint and unworn carpet. The smell was cloying, like a place somewhere before. Her hand went to her temple in an attempt to massage away the feeling of displacement.

  ‘You’re the girl on those machine ads, dear,’ the motel owner said, presenting her with fresh milk.

  ‘I’m also a – ’ What did it matter? Five years of writing ads and no-one knew her. Thirty seconds on the box, and strangers spoke to her in the street. She attempted to close the door, but the woman was determined to stay.

  ‘My husband saw your name. He said to ask you if you were related to Sam Burton.’

  ‘Niece,’ Ann said.

  ‘Then you’d have to be his brother’s girl. Jack’s daughter.’

  The name startled Ann. Jarred her back to the moment. She frowned at the motel owner. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Do you ... do you know him?’

  ‘Oh, my word yes. I grew up with both boys. I saw your father just days ago. We gave him a lift home, from Mallawindy.’

  Ann looked at her case. This woman was talking herself out of a customer. If her father was in town, then that would be a good enough reason to run, and she wanted a reason. She’d come back next week with Roger – or not come back at all.

  ‘You’d be the little one who was here that time before. With your sister – ’

  Ann walked to her case. Reached for it. She didn’t need this. Then she looked out to the town. Just a town like any other town. She filled the jug, set it to boil, while Edna spoke on. Ten minutes passed before the raucous ringing of a phone called her interrogator away.

  ‘Have a nice visit. There’s a lot to see in town, dear.’ Edna left the door open.

  The town was breathing. Birds in the trees, breathing. Cars on the road, breathing. Strange, hollow silence. Narrawee was closing in on her, ready to gobble her up. She and Liza had probably placed it on the map. Everyone here would know her, or know of her. They’d stare as she walked by, whisper about her behind hands. She shivered, shook her head, scratched at her crawling scalp.

  ‘Shouldn’t have come. Shouldn’t have come.’ She turned away from the door, poured water over a tea-bag. The smell of new carpet was in her nostrils, she could taste it in her throat.

  Slippers, Liza. We don’t wear shoes inside, do we?

  ‘Shut up. I don’t need this today. Get out of my head, Annie.’

  Come with Uncle Sam, and we’ll get your slippers, Darling.

  Leave her be, Sam. She knows where she hid them. Get your own slippers Liza. No television until you do.

  ‘Shut up. Shut up.’

  She saw a moving light on the edge of vision, and as she turned towards it, the world closed down to black.

  Curled in the foetal position on the floor, the motel’s Gideon Bible held in her hand, she woke when the day was gone. Someone had closed the door, turned on the light, pulled the curtains. Someone had made the cup of tea, drunk it. Someone had moved the coffee table, taken a bite from a motel biscuit, discarded it. As Ann lifted her face from the carpet, her eyes saw these things and she grew cold. Colder. Deathly cold.

  She held her wrist before her eyes, straining to see the hands on her watch face. Almost seven. Not four when she booked in. Three hours had disappeared. Gone. Gone where?

  Her heartbeat frantic, she uncoiled, attempted to gain her feet. She swayed, crouched there on hands and knees, waiting for strength to return. The Bible was still in her hand, her thumb holding it open.

  Cold sweating fear was in her. What had happened? Where had she been in those three hours? What had she been doing?

  She didn’t know. Maybe someone had been in the room, hit her. She felt her head for bump or bruise, but no-one had been hiding there. No-one.

  ‘Oh Christ,’ she whispered, rocking backwards and forwa
rds, clinging to the Bible, as if it were an amulet against some hidden foe. ‘Please God, please God, help me. Someone help me,’ she moaned, licking her dry lips, attempting to raise sufficient saliva to swallow. Minutes passed as she knelt there, looking at the Bible, looking at the words, then her eye was drawn to a passage underlined by a pen.

  I will not leave you comfortless; I will come with you

  Yet a little while, and the world seeth me no more; but ye see me: because I live.

  ‘Mad,’ she said. ‘I’m stark raving bloody mad.’ She tossed the Bible from her, tossed it across the room. She stood, stumbled to the bathroom, stripping as she went. ‘Mad. Nuts, raving lunatic, nuts.’

  For half an hour she stood beneath the shower, allowing the hot water to wash over her, afraid to turn the tap off, to still the noise of the rushing water. Safe. Safe within tiled walls. Safe in the fog behind the glass screen. Safe. Her eyes darting, watching for shadows, she began soaping herself. She washed her hair with soap. No conditioner to tame it. Just wash, wash, wash fear away, wash her away.

  ‘Better not to be alone. Better out of there, amongst people. Concentrate on doing. I’ll be okay. I’ll be fine. I am fine. I fainted. Okay. People faint every day.’ And the water was off.

  She dressed quickly, picked up her keys and ran, her wet hair cold on her neck.

  Unlike Mallawindy, the town of Narrawee had been planned. Built solely to service the rich pastoralists, it had gained no personality, but lived its life in rigid bluestone lines, in rigid bluestone squares – until the advent of the brazen motel.

  There was little Ann remembered of the town, until she saw the Anglican church. She’d dreamed that church.

  She pulled into its drive, turned, and drove slowly west. She made a right-hand turn after the second street, because there was a tall red brick house on the corner. Dream house. Functioning on automatic now, she drove on.

  At the second crossroad, she saw the railway line. No dream train racing her to the crossing, but the crossing was there – as she knew it would be.

  Her heart beat in her stomach, in her throat; still she continued on, playing some mystery board game she had to play out to the end. Over the crossing. A halt at an intersection. She didn’t know which way to go. There should have been a wide dirt road, stretched between green paddocks. The road was wide but a narrow black bitumen strip paved its crown, and the paddocks were not so green. She took the road, drove slowly.

  The stand of trees beside a stream. The narrow stone bridge. A fork in the road. She took the right fork because it led up a steep incline. And she knew, she knew what was around the next curve.

  And it was. It was there. White palace on the hill.

  ‘Oh God!’ she cried. ‘God!’ A prayer, a litany. ‘Oh God. There stands a dream I’ve lived. Oh, God, what have they done to me? What have you done to me? I’ve loved this place forever.’

  Memories fought for their freedom now. She let them spill. Spill over, flood her senses. Pretty pictures. Little girl in blue, trailing Sam, the snipper of perfumed rosebuds. Dew drops on petals, her tongue tasting.

  ‘Oh, God. God help me.’

  And the dolls. Emma for Ann. Louise for Liza.

  ‘Oh, God.’ She could remember. She could remember.

  ‘Oh God.’ Emma? Black shiny hair. Brown eyes.

  May, money in her purse. Leaf after leaf of money. Taking the leaves out, giving them to the man, and the man giving Ann Elizabeth the big beautiful doll. Her pick. She got first pick. Her own. All for her. All for her. Liza got the leftover doll. Got the blue-eyed doll in the pink dress.

  ‘Oh, God. Oh God, Annie. We’re in there, in that house. Something of us got lost in there. We have to find it, to stick us back together. I’ve got to get in there. I have to, Annie. But not now. Tomorrow. Tomorrow in daylight when the sun is too bright for demons. We’ll come back tomorrow, Annie.’

  She followed the road back to town. She bought chips at a take-away and returned to her motel bed late, too afraid to sleep. Daylight was filtering beneath the heavy curtain before she closed her eyes, and her subconscious tried to sort out the day’s litter in dreams.

  It took her to a room with a heavy door. It took her to a golden syrup tin filled with bloody worms. It took her to red fishes, swimming in a sea of blood, then it took her to the demons, and when she screamed, her subconscious tossed its hands in the air and said, ‘I wash my hands of this matter,’ and it left her to scream her way through a labyrinth of nightmares until Edna Harper and her rattling breakfast tray woke her at eight.

  At two that afternoon, Ann drove back to the property. If her father was there, she’d leave. If Sam and May were home, she’d play the role of successful city girl. Perhaps no-one would be home, and she’d be free to wander the grounds and peer in windows. Maybe that would be enough. Maybe it would be more than enough.

  The house was set well back from the road. Feeling for the gate latch she had known as a child, her hand reached too high. She watched her hand slide down, down, down to waist height. It was the same latch. Only the child had grown. Defiantly she drove her car through, leaving the gate swinging wide. If their demons were on her heels on the way out, she’d need no gate to slow her flight. She parked in front of the house, and sat a moment, breathing deeply. No sound. No movement. Nobody home?

  The lion-head brass knocker was still on the front door. She rattled the lion’s jaw, and snarling teeth gnashed. Then the door opened and a tiny woman stood before her.

  ‘Aunty May?’

  May’s hand rose to cover her mouth. ‘Ann Elizabeth? Oh my dear, dear child. It is you.’ Her arms reached out, drew Ann into the wide hall, and the door closed behind her.

  Cold. Ice cold, cold to death, but May’s arms were warm, and her tears were wet. For minutes she stood in the hall, holding her niece to her and weeping, repeating words, silly words. ‘It has been so long. I’m sorry, darling. I’m sorry. Forgive me.’

  Then there was a drawing back, a gathering of herself. ‘What a foolish woman I am. Come. Come through to the lounge. Whatever will you think of me, Ann Elizabeth?’

  On robot’s feet, Ann followed where she was led. She swallowed, striving for control as May urged her to sit, then sat beside her, hugged her.

  ‘I ... I – ’ It was all wrong. Long-rehearsed words died on her tongue. ‘I ... I’m ... I’m sort of – ’ Ann grasped for words now. ‘I’m here. I can’t believe I’m here. I can’t think, Aunty May.’

  ‘So pleased. I am so pleased you came back to me. So pleased you wanted to come back. So very pleased, my dear, dear girl.’ She released Ann and wiped at her eyes. ‘Let me look at you. Let me feast my eyes on you, you darling child.’ She sat back. ‘My goodness. You’re the girl in that advertisement.’

  Ann shrugged, but the words shifted her from the old reality into an easier new. ‘That’s me,’ she said. ‘And it was the biggest mistake I’ve made yet.’

  ‘Every time I see it, I feel that I know the girl, and I do. Oh, Ann Elizabeth. If you only knew how much I’ve wanted to see you. How many times in the past I’ve set out to drive to Mallawindy, then turned back. I had so many fears for you, my dear, and to think ... just to think of what a success you’ve made of your life. Forgive me. I’ll be fine in a moment.’

  It took more than a moment. Five minutes of tears and laughter followed, before she asked, ‘What has brought you back to me today?’

  ‘I should have phoned. I didn’t mean to come in. Not really. Well, maybe I didn’t think you’d be here. Is Dad down here?’

  ‘Were you expecting to see him?’

  ‘No. Just the woman at the motel said – . I haven’t seen him for years. I’m living in Melbourne now. I ... I just came to see you,’ she lied. But it was the right thing to say. May hugged her again.

  ‘Jack was here, but he’s gone now. You are lucky to catch me home. Sam and I spend little time in Narrawee. We’ve still got the Thomas’s in my old home. You’d remember the Tho
mas’s from when you were here, Ann Elizabeth. They run both properties for us now, and do a wonderful job.’ She sprang to her feet. ‘My pasties.’ She hurried through to the rear of the house and Ann followed her, her eyes roving, taking in the old rooms, barely changed in the eighteen years since she had been here, her fingers running along the wallpapered passage. Flock wallpaper. Blue and gold. Then down two steps and into the kitchen, where the odour of yesterday was strong.

  ‘I remember that smell, Aunty May. Cornish pasties. I used to help you make them. I remember folding them, fluting the edge with a little wheel.’

  ‘You loved my pasties. Do you know, dear, I was sitting here, wondering what to fix for dinner tonight, and I felt this craving for Cornish pasties. I must have known you were near to me. I made four. Will you stay tonight?’

  ‘I’ve got a room at the motel,’ Ann admitted.

  ‘Ann Elizabeth! You didn’t. You go around there at once and get your belongings. Good Lord, if it was learned that one of my relatives was staying at Bill Harper’s “Eye-sore Motel”, I’d never hold my head up here again.’

  ‘She knows who I am. She’s a talker.’

  ‘A talker is putting it mildly. That woman! I fought her and her husband tooth and nail, trying to prevent them building there. It’s an ugly hideous thing and right at the entrance to our town. You run along now, and I’ll have a shower and fix up my face, and we’ll start our visit again.’


  Your hostess sheaths her claws neath velvet glove

  While cool blue eyes conceal a thousands lies.

  Her honeyed tongue, that speaks sweet words of love

  gives no replies . . .

  She’ll twist, she’ll dodge with many an artful quip,

  she’ll parry with claw, and turn you from recall.

  So tip-toe. Take great care you do not slip,

  or down you’ll fall.

  Then eyes will fire with gleeful enmity

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