Mallawindy, p.21

Mallawindy, page 21

 

Mallawindy
 



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  Her tongue, a rasping thing will sear, will burr,

  As you cower down before my enemy,

  You’ll hear her purr.

  Annie E. Burton

  Two o’clock and alone in the one room she’d never wished to enter, Ann’s light still burned bright. The novel May had loaned her hadn’t been able to claim her mind. When she finally placed it down, she saw Annie’s message on the inside flyleaf.

  Annoyed, she removed the page, folded it, tucked it into her briefcase. Her obligation to keep these messages, that turned up in odd places, was never questioned. She made no attempt now to analyse them, but she cherished each one. Past experience had proved them to be the name calling of a coward as little Annie ran for cover.

  To her knowledge, she had not fainted before – and certainly not since she was nine. Prior to nine, she had little recall. Maybe she’d blacked out often back then. That part of her life was like a permanent black-out. Something strange had happened the night Mickey died, but it had been a ... a non black-out ... a walking from black-out into light. An awakening.

  She lay on her back, thinking, while her eyes searched the walls, the ceiling of this room, once called the girls’ room. It was the room she and Liza shared. The walls were old, cracked. She followed a crack down to a wardrobe, and remembered it. Her small frocks once hung there. Small shoes had been placed neatly side by side on its floor. Were they still there? The urge to look grew strong. On tiptoe she crept from her bed, opening the squeaking door. The wardrobe was bare, containing only the scent of age.

  Back between the sheets, she pulled up a blanket and slid low in the bed. Dawn was near with its accompanying chill. ‘Sleep,’ she said. ‘Sleep and please God, no dreams, no screaming,’ and she reached for the light switch, plunging the room into darkness that closed in like a black void.

  She lay stiffly there, waiting for Annie or the demons to pounce. She searched corners for them, knowing they would come, and that her screams would send May’s ghosts scuttling for cover.

  ‘Uncle Sam,’ she whispered. A horse rider. Slim shadow, with her father’s shadowy features. Her memory of the younger May was clearer. She’d probably spent more time with May. Sam, like everyone else, would have preferred Liza. Pretty golden Liza. Ann attempted to conjure up the face of her sister. She couldn’t. All that came to mind was the chocolate box photograph on the kitchen wall.

  Her muscles tensed in this bed. For a moment, she felt the heat of Liza beside her. They had shared this same bed. She sat, pulled up the second blanket, wondering if her father had slept in this bed. Almost incestuous. A smile became a yawn. She snuggled down, allowing her mind to map the layout of the rooms.

  The total darkness was a blanket. Heavy. Inviting. The total silence after the noise of St Kilda, too complete. She rolled to her side, hearing the crisp rustle of sheets.

  ‘Ann dear. Ann Elizabeth. Are you awake?’

  Springing upright, her eyes only closed for a second, Ann was near blinded by white light. She caught a glimpse of movement against the white light from the window.

  ‘It’s nine-thirty, you old sleepy-head.’ May, already dressed for town, kissed Ann’s brow. ‘ I ’ m off to do some shopping this morning. I thought you might like to come with me, otherwise I’m afraid it’s a morning with the painters. I’m having the external woodwork done today. It’s been some time.’

  ‘I slept like a log. I didn’t even dream. Ten minutes for a quick shower and I’ll be with you, Aunty May.’

  She shopped with May, all the while remembering, and in the afternoon, she wandered alone through musty rooms. Few were furnished for use. Each hour was like the page of a book opening readily, then closing with the knowledge that the book was here to be reopened at will.

  May asked no questions, and Ann preferred it that way. She wasn’t ready yet. Again she spent the night in the comfortable bed. No Annie. No dreams. Roger had been right. Perhaps she should marry him, go to America, let his will send all the demons away.

  The following morning, May found her in the rose garden, her nose buried in lost perfumes. She was tasting dewdrops, and she laughed, caught out being a child.

  ‘Uncle Sam used to know all the names of these roses,’ she said. ‘I used to know some of them, Aunty May. This big one is the Peace rose, isn’t it?’

  ‘It is, dear.’ May named a few more beauties. They touched the blooms, smelled buds and wandered.

  The painters were back. Their scaffolding on the west side. May spoke to them for a few minutes then came to stand with Ann at the overgrown lily pond.

  ‘Do you remember the day Liza fell in the pond, Ann?’ she said.

  Ann shook her head. ‘I can’t get a picture of Liza being here. For some reason, I have blocked her out of my mind.’

  ‘Do you remember the big bushfire up in the hills?’

  Again Ann shook her head, then she turned to the hills. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Yes. I can. Yes. The big wind. The wall of flame and the smoke ... and the fire leaves all blowing down here, and –’

  ‘Yes, dear. And all the cleaning up the next day. Ash and leaves everywhere. The house smelt of smoke for weeks.’

  ‘That wasn’t long after we came, was it?’

  ‘Only days. Remember the blue dress I made you to wear to church that first week? I made it from one of my own frocks.’

  ‘I remember that dress. I’ve always remembered it. And the mirror. The long oval mirror. Do you remember the day we came, Aunty May, and you sat at the sewing-machine and made twelve pair of bloomers out of a sheet?’

  ‘I certainly do. The shops were closed and Liza kept wetting her pants.’

  ‘I thought you were magic. I thought you were the magic lady. Mum couldn’t sew. I’d never seen anyone just cutting into material and turning it into something. It was magic. Aunty Bessy gave me her old machine when I was about eleven. I wanted to be magic too, so I did it. Just cut and sewed.’

  ‘Liza loved my dress-making scissors. Can you remember the day she cut up a frock I was sewing for you?’

  ‘Purple. I remember the dress. Purple with white smocking.’ Ann’s hands moved to her breast. ‘White smocking down the front, and on the tops of the pockets. I loved pockets. Did she set fire to the sewing-room curtains one day? Did I empty a vase of flowers over them?’

  ‘Oh, my word, yes.’ They walked and they laughed and they remembered. It was easy, so easy. May was the magic lady again and she held the secret key. She was unlocking all the doors as they walked and talked an hour away.

  ‘And the doll I bought Liza. Remember the day she threw it in the incinerator because she wanted yours?’

  ‘I remember my doll. She had real hair I could comb. You bought me a tiny comb with blue birds on the handle.’

  ‘Did I, dear?’

  ‘Yes, you did. I’ve still got it. The doll was Emma. Emma’s comb. I’ve always kept it.’

  ‘I still have Emma. She slept on the bed in the girls’ room for many years before I finally packed her in a box with your books. She’s in the cellar.’

  ‘Cellar?’ Ann turned away from May’s eyes, her own half closed, searching a garden suddenly grown cold.

  May stepped back. She’d allowed herself to be carried away by remember games, but the cellar was forbidden territory. She looked at her watch, looked at the house. ‘The painters will be expecting morning tea soon, and I have nothing in the house. Come inside and we’ll mix up a batch of scones.’

  Ann turned towards the cellar as her aunt walked away. ‘Did I ... did I push Liza down some stairs one day, Aunty May?’

  ‘Quite the contrary, darling. She was the bully.’

  ‘Did we go to school down here?’

  ‘For a few weeks, dear.’

  ‘I sort of remember it. A book. It smelt ... shiny. Is the school close?’

  ‘A block east of the church, Ann.’ May led the way to the kitchen and busied herself with flour and eggs. ‘You used to read to me from your reader every
night. You loved the little poems, and you learned them so quickly.’

  ‘And Liza?’

  ‘Oh, she wasn’t ... wasn’t interested. She liked the television. Do you remember the teacher? Miss Simons? She’s still here.’

  ‘I can’t even remember Liza, Aunty May. It’s like she’s been cut out of all the pictures of my years, and placed in a photograph frame on the wall. I can’t remember what she looked like down here, what she wore. I know we slept together in that bedroom, but all I can bring back is the heat of her beside me in the bed. Maybe I don’t want to remember her?’

  ‘She was a little minx, hopelessly spoiled. A head of golden curls, and sweet small features. All pink and plump and gold was Liza, but she bit, she scratched, she screamed. Everything you owned, she wanted. It is no wonder you don’t like to remember her. When you first arrived here, you shrank from her, gave her your toys, even your slippers when she screamed for them. I attempted to alter that and Liza wasn’t pleased. She wouldn’t have a bar of me. She preferred Sam. He ... he pandered to her every want. She was a greedy little girl – ’

  ‘Dad used to take her away with him in the car. I know that, and she’d come home with beautiful shoes, and dresses. They all fitted me, even the shoes.’

  ‘Your father brought her here. He loved showing off his treasure. With no children of my own, I envied your parents.’

  ‘Mum put one of the dresses on me one day, and the shiny red shoes. Dad, he ... he – ’

  ‘Would you like to look at the photographs? I have some delightful ones of you.’

  ‘I have to know it all, Aunty May. That’s why I came back here. I’ve got to know what went before, or I ... I can’t move forward. I feel as if I’m only half of me.’

  ‘It will come. Don’t try to force it, sweetheart.’

  ‘The doll. Emma. Could you – ’

  ‘I’ll pop down and find her for you. Would you like to give the painters a call for me? Tea in the kitchen in fifteen minutes.’

  The doll was as Ann had left it, a little faded, a little dusty. She straightened a small white sock, wiped dust from the shiny black shoe. ‘Ted Crow,’ she said, when the painters had climbed back to their scaffolding. ‘That name has been inside my head forever, Aunty May. Why do I know it? Who was Ted Crow?’

  May shook her head.

  ‘Who was he, Aunty May?’

  ‘He ... he helped out in the garden. He ... he disappeared on the same afternoon as Liza. How much do you remember of that last day?’ She waited long for the reply. Ann was staring out the window at the cellar door.

  ‘Nothing. Just his name and the smell of apples.’

  May took the doll. Studied it long, then she said, ‘Ted Crow arrived at our back door one morning, looking for a free meal. We ... needed help at the time, dear. What do you remember about him?’

  ‘It’s weird. It’s like Liza. He’s been cut out of the picture too. Just a blank white shape, but I can describe him to you. English. About forty. Sandy hair.’

  ‘Good Lord. You remember that?’

  ‘It’s mad. How do I know what he looked like, but not remember the man?’ Her face was pale, her eyes had grown darker. ‘Was he English, around forty?’ May nodded. ‘Tell me why I know him? Why I’ve remembered him. What did he have to do with that day? What happened to me, Aunty May? I have to know.’

  ‘It is a day I have tried to forget, to put behind me. ’ May stopped.

  ‘Please.’

  When further words came from May, they were cold, emotionless. ‘Three children in town had been struck down by meningitis. My dearest friend’s son was left deaf by the disease. He was only two. You and Liza were in my care. I became paranoid, darling. That last week I didn’t send you to school, I was afraid to take you into town. Foolish, foolish woman. Then something so much worse happened.

  ‘Sam had to go to Queensland, you see. He was considering buying a property in Queensland. The flight was booked. He had to go. He left late on the Wednesday. The next day ... The next day, I ran out of bread. I ... I left you and Liza watching a movie on television. I told you not to move. “Don’t leave this room,” I said.’

  ‘The gardener was here?’

  ‘Yes. He was here ... in the rose garden. He was fond of Liza. He let her follow him around. A man of many strange moods, but he loved beautiful things, loved the garden, and how he made it bloom. I had no reason to distrust him with you and Liza, and I was gone for less than half an hour.’ May shook her head. ‘He ... he wasted no time that day.’ She stood before the window, breathing deeply. ‘No time at all. I ... I was told later, by a reliable source, that he had previously shown an unhealthy interest in ... in small children. I ... I should have known. I should have known, but I didn’t know.

  ‘I was frantic, out of my mind. Out of my mind when I couldn’t find you. I called the police, then contacted your father. We called Sam’s hotel a dozen times or more, but he’d driven out to look at some properties. To this day, darling, I honestly don’t know what happened in those hours before Sam returned.’ She covered her mouth and wept.

  ‘Don’t cry. It’s all right, Aunty May. Shush. Someone told me that Sam found me.’

  ‘He found you. He got here on the Friday, in the late afternoon. He had hired a car when he arrived in Brisbane and he drove night and day to get here. He ripped that cellar apart with his bare hands until he found you.’

  ‘The police hadn’t looked in the cellar?’

  ‘They were looking for an adult and two little girls. Ted Crow had a motorbike, with a side-car. The search was concentrated on the roads and up in the hills.’ May looked to the hills, then she shook her head. ‘I’d already looked in the cellar. I’d called for you in there. There was no sign of you ... or Liza. It was a junk filled storeroom in those days, and the door was still locked.’

  Ann sat willing memory of those last days to return. What she was hearing had no reality. ‘Did you store apples down there?’

  ‘Everything. Wine, old furniture, old carpets.’ May stared at the hills and her eyes filled again. ‘The police were down here when Sam arrived. He found you, you poor wee mite. You must have climbed up to the window, climbed on the apple crates. An old oak wardrobe had somehow fallen over you. How you were not crushed, I don’t know. It was your hair he saw first. You were unconscious. I thought you were dead. I thought ... I thought I’d – .

  ‘One of the wardrobe doors was missing. Had the other side hit you. Oh God.’ She wiped at her tears, then her handkerchief balled in her hand, she took a deep breath. ‘But your little heartbeat was strong. May God forgive me, Ann Elizabeth. May he one day forgive me for what I did. I will never forgive myself, I promise you. I shouldn’t have left you with him. I should have found you sooner.’ She was sobbing now, and her face looked old, eye make-up washed away by tears.

  ‘It’s over. I’m alive. You’ll make me stop asking questions if you cry, and I have to ask them.’

  ‘Forgive me.’

  ‘There is nothing to forgive. I was so happy here with you. I know that. I was special here. I was at Daddy’s Narrawee and I was so special. I got first pick of the dolls. You didn’t give me leftovers.’

  ‘I always wanted a little girl. God, how I envied your mother. She had it all, Ann, while I had ... I had only Sam.’ She sighed deeply, and lifted her chin. ‘And Narrawee,’ she said. ‘I had Narrawee.’

  Ann stared again at the cellar door. It was open, hooked back on the stone wall. Maybe she should walk from this room now, go to the cellar, look inside. The door wouldn’t, couldn’t shut.

  May dried her eyes, blew her nose. ‘Do you want to ... to go down there, dear?’

  ‘You used to have a kerosene lantern down there, didn’t you?’

  ‘In those days, yes.’

  ‘I ate apples in there one day. It must have been that day. In the dark. I ate apples, feeling out the biggest ones with my hands.’ She looked at her hands, half expecting to see an apple there. ‘Nothin
g. Just a black nothing. Apples and then nothing. Until the boy. The boy at the hospital. He picked up the dark and put it back on top of the sky but he didn’t get the core. It’s still in there.’ She tapped her forehead. ‘It’s still in my head.’

  May took her hand. ‘Perhaps we’ve spoken enough today?’

  ‘Did I ... kill Liza?’

  ‘Don’t you ever think that. Whatever happened was no fault of yours. Don’t, don’t you ever blame yourself for that day. I am the one at fault. I left you here with him.’

  ‘They didn’t find him.’

  ‘There was a country-wide search. The newspaper cuttings are all here. I kept them. God alone knows why. If you’d like to read – .’

  ‘Maybe later.’ Ann turned her back to the cellar door.

  ‘Your father came down the day you were found. He stayed in Toorak. We visited you daily in that hospital. Your terrified eyes stared at us, but you didn’t see us. There was a young lad in the ward next to you. His legs had been crushed in a riding accident. He used to scoot around the corridors in his wheelchair. To keep him out of mischief, the sisters gave him a stethoscope and a white coat. They told him he was an apprentice doctor, that his job was to talk to you. And he took it so seriously. He read you stories, drew pictures, spent hours with you. He was showing you a colouring book one afternoon ... a picture of a small child on a swing.’

  ‘Push me, Johnny, push me high. That’s the boy,’ Ann said. ‘He gave me a red crayon.’

  ‘Terrible weeks. We were backwards and forwards to the hospital. Narrawee was never to be out of the news, it seemed. “NO RANSOM NOTE,” the newspapers reported. “CHILD STILL IN COMA.” Oh Ann, those headlines are still imprinted in my mind. Jack spoke to the reporters at the hospital, and didn’t they have a field day. “FATHER TELLS REPORTER. I TRUSTED MY MOST PRECIOUS POSSESSION TO A PROTECTOR OF PERVERTS.”

  ‘Oh, God, darling. I should never have left you with him.’ She was weeping again.

  Ann took her hand. ‘Shush. I’m sorry. Shush. I didn’t come up here to upset you. I’m sorry. We’ll give it a rest now.’

  ‘I wish I didn’t have to leave tomorrow. I’ll cancel the tour.’

 

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