Mallawindy, p.27

Mallawindy, page 27

 

Mallawindy
 



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  ‘Dad stayed down there for over a month. When he brought Annie home she wasn’t the same. She couldn’t speak . . . didn’t seem to hear. Screamed. Huddled in comers and screamed. Mum was scared of her, so Johnny took her over.

  ‘She hadn’t started school. It was a long walk, and Liza wouldn’t go to school, but Annie was sort of born reading. Read anything she could. Read my readers when she was five. I started school late too. She could write a bit before it happened, and when she came home, Johnny got through to her with writing stuff down, then he sent away for sign language books.

  ‘She took to it like a duck to water. I remember the day she made the sign for dog.’ He patted his knee. ‘She loved the dog – old Mickey. Johnny would show her a sign once and she’d remember it. This went on for ages, over a year. Johnny took off when Annie was almost eight.’

  ‘No idea why he went?’

  ‘No. That’s what I could never work out. He saved her life when she was a baby, you know. She was born dead and Johnny got her breathing. He sort of adored her, I mean, who wouldn’t. She was such a relief after Liza. Anyhow, where was I?’

  ‘Johnny – ’

  ‘Yeah. Dad never believed that Annie was deaf. He’d hit her, try to make her talk. He’d creep up behind her, make noises. She’d have her head in a book, or anything else she could pick up. Anyhow, he’d come into the room and bash two tins together, just to see if Annie reacted. She never did. But he could make her react by showing her pictures from Narrawee, letters from Narrawee. He’d get her screaming. “If you can scream, you can talk,” he’d say, and he’d keep it up for hours – and so would she.

  ‘Johnny started fighting with Dad. He always got beaten, but he’d get in a good punch or two. He tried to keep Annie away from the house when Dad was in it. She was with him the day he and Old Fletch’s son were poking around out at the old burial ground, down Dead Man’s Lane. They found some bones that weren’t Aboriginal.’

  ‘It was in the papers. I was about the same age as the kids who found them. One of them died, didn’t he?’

  ‘Yeah. John Fletcher. Within a week, he was dead. Encephalitis. His mother, old Fletch’s wife, was a bit mad. She hated Australia, and she came down to our place after the funeral, carried on like a nut, blaming Johnny for taking her boy near taboo land. Reckoned the blacks had pointed a bone at her boy for disturbing the graves of their ancestors. All the kids used to go out there in those days. Back in the sixties, nobody worried much about sacred ground. Anyway, she committed suicide that night. Jumped off the bridge with three flat irons tied to her belt. Poor old Fletch. He didn’t drink before that. Hasn’t come out of his bottle since.

  ‘It wasn’t long after. Dad was getting stuck into Annie, and Johnny just sort of quietly picked up the fire poker, and he swung it like a golf club, hit Dad over the head. We thought he was going to kill him. Mum pulled him off, but you know, that was the first and only time I ever saw Mum put anybody before Dad. Dad’s on the floor, out to it, bleeding like a stuck pig, and Mum is packing up Johnny’s stuff in his school bag. She gave him the money out of her egg-money jar and told him to run and not to stop running until he’d put a thousand miles between him and Mallawindy. And he did, eventually, with Annie screaming behind him.

  ‘Ever noticed how Annie doesn’t cry? From that day to this, I’ve never seen her cry, David. Not once. He’d belt her until she was bleeding, and she’d laugh at him.’

  trust

  Ann drove for hours that night, her mind travelling in circles that kept bringing her back to Uncle Sam. She’d seen him that one time at the open day, had met him and liked him, but when she and David married, it was in Sydney, with a celebrant and stranger witnesses. No church, no guests, and no Sam to give her away. No Malcolm either. David couldn’t stand him.

  She hadn’t been back to Narrawee. May still wrote, still telephoned – if not so wearied by the tumbling thing within her, she might have driven down to see May tonight, but the thought of her own bed drew her back to Warran, to her own Narrawee.

  David had owned the block in Mahoneys Lane since he was twenty-one. It was a twenty minute walk from the town centre, but only five from the river. Nob Hill, the locals called it. Her house sat well with its older neighbours.

  She’d planned it on the old Narrawee house, built it in white brick. She’d copied the windows, the white steps to the front door, but instead of a cellar beneath the house, they had a two-car garage, with a large patio for a roof, and circular metal stairs leading up from the garden. They had five bedrooms, three up and two down, a large lounge upstairs and a kitchen/family room below. It was sparsely furnished. There had not been time yet to hunt for the items she wanted, so she did without. In her mind, it was always for after the baby. If there was a baby.

  Time, with Ann’s watch, had been missing for hours. As she drove down the deserted main street, and past the town clock, she noticed its hands drawn down in a scowl. Tonight the whole world was scowling at her. David would be scowling too. He didn’t like it when she took off into the night, but there were times when the house became claustrophobic and she had to run.

  Roger had been on her mind tonight for the first time in months. He’d bought her the watch, and it was too expensive to lose. She’d given back his ring, but he had her name engraved on the watch. He wouldn’t take it back.

  ‘Some you win, and some you lose, pretty lady,’ he’d said, and slid the ring onto his smallest finger. He asked for no explanation, and she gave none, but for days after, that gold ring on the small finger brought back memories of Johnny, and she didn’t know why.

  She’d left Melbourne two weeks later. Packed up her flat and moved to Albury. It was closer to Warran, and David. It was in Albury that she picked up a line on Johnny.

  ‘It’s been driving me mad for days. Every time you come in here you remind me of someone,’ the woman who worked in the milkbar said, then she took out a photograph of Johnny, a box on his shoulder. ‘I dug it out, last night, and remembered his name. John Burton. I worked with him at the Shepparton cannery for a few months, back in the sixty-nine peach season.’

  Ann had taken the photograph. Photograph of a boy. She always thought he was a man. ‘Where did he go? Do you know – ?’

  ‘He kept to himself. A bit of a loner, then when the peaches ended, all the casuals were put off. He said he’d be going home.’

  But he didn’t go home. Ann had the photograph copied and framed. It wasn’t a good shot. Out of focus, indistinct, faded like her memory of him. David was taking his place, using up his space. Too tolerant David. She’d have to go home, take his baby home to bed. She patted her stomach, let her hand linger on the movement of a small foot as she yawned.

  ‘Getting crowded in there, eh? Don’t knock it, kid. It’s safe.’ Her position altered, she rubbed at her lower back. One more month. Just one more.

  Dee Williams, her doctor’s wife and neighbour, said she enjoyed being pregnant. Ann loathed it, loathed its restrictions; it stole her running, her freedom. Pregnant women only ever reminded her of her mother, and of the baby boy born dead on the floor. Her fault. If she hadn’t gone out that night, there would have been another brother. She didn’t want to breed, but the one within her didn’t care. Since the fifth month, it had been doing well, but like its host tonight, it was tired of driving, its own small feet running, attempting to get out.

  She parked her old Holden beside David’s, and crept around the back of the house, too weary to search for her missing watch. It would be in her car, somewhere.

  Ted Crow. Ted Crow. Annie’s voice was always louder at night.

  ‘Shut up,’ she said. Light-headed with weariness, she boiled the jug and made a cup of tea, then she pulled a chair up to the table and sat.

  Dark bird, guarding secrets.

  ‘You in my head, and aerobics in my belly. What is left of me?’ she asked, and she sipped her tea and craved a chocolate biscuit, but didn’t have the energy to get up and get it
.

  Red fish lost mid dappled shadow . . .

  ‘Shut up.’ The words meant nothing to her, but she’d have to write them down. Get them out of her head and on paper before she slept. Too often little Annie’s voice startled her from sleep, words spoken, or not, she didn’t know.

  She found a chocolate biscuit and a writing pad, she took a pen from the shelf and sat again, biscuit in her left hand, pen in her right, left elbow on the table, supporting her chin while the words spilled to paper. Then the pad was pushed away. She slumped in her chair, head on her hands, too weary to shower and go to bed. Maybe she’d crawl into the spare bed and let David sleep.

  ‘Where have you been to this hour, Ann?’ He was at the passage door.

  She sprang upright, snatched at the pad. ‘My keeper has come for me.’ He stepped forward, placing his hands on her shoulder. Her back to him, she lifted her arms, held them wide. ‘Got the old straight jacket ready?’

  ‘What have you been doing?’

  ‘Trying to pick up a few clients.’ She patted her stomach. ‘This put them off.’

  ‘It never puts me off. What have you been writing tonight?’ He reached for the writing pad.

  ‘The memoirs of a pregnant cow,’ she said, ripping the page out, crushing it in her hand.

  ‘It sounds interesting.’

  ‘It’s not.’

  ‘How can you see to write in the near dark of this room?’ He flicked on the overhead light, picked up her watch from the windowsill and offered it. And she looked at his eyes, knowing, knowing what he’d done and hating him for it.

  ‘You snooping swine,’ she said.

  ‘I didn’t consider it snooping.’ Her hand reached for Bronwyn’s cigarettes. She took one out, lit it, daring him to comment. ‘That’s not good for the baby, and it’s a stupid habit. You don’t need it.’

  ‘Habits are easy to make, and to break.’ The legs of her chair protesting, she pushed back from the table.

  He caught the hand that held the paper. ‘I’ve probably read worse tonight, Ann. Give.’

  ‘Take it. Take them all. Publish them. Tall tales and true.’ She threw the paper at his face, tossed the watch with its small key after it.

  He caught the watch, placed it again on the windowsill. ‘You are my wife, Ann. Sit with me. Start trusting me.’

  ‘Trust? You go through my personal things and then speak of trust.’

  ‘Trust,’ he replied. ‘I trust you. Why can’t you trust me?’ He smoothed out the paper and stood beneath the light, frowning over the minute script.

  You cannot see the dark bird, and yet I know him well,

  Lost in dappled shadows, guarding secrets, hiding lies.

  Scarlet swimmer, mid the black mists in the place where demons

  dwell,

  Open your eyes.

  Where came the faceless memory, disguised now by that name

  It came in from the garden, to the place of little light,

  One for sorrow, two for joy – Then the waiting time, the pain,

  of too long night.

  Annie E. Burton

  ‘Annie Burton,’ he said. ‘You don’t like me to call you Annie.’

  ‘It’s my pen-name. I’m going to bed.’

  ‘Not yet. I want to talk. We don’t communicate, Ann, not on anything other than a surface level. I’d like us to try to make a start tonight.’

  ‘What do you want to know? I write. It was my job for years. The words come, I write them down.’

  ‘I’m not particularly interested in how you do it, only why. You can start with the one written on our first night together. Don’t deny it. I read it, and I remember you writing it. Blood and prancing demons with their lances. How am I supposed to feel? How could you crawl from my bed and write a thing like that?’

  ‘A perfect night for it poor Roger might have said.’

  ‘It was the happiest day of my life. I thought you were happy too.’

  ‘I was. It’s not about . . . about you. You know I was happy, David.’

  ‘But you are not happy now?’

  ‘I am. You . . . you just want to own me, own all of me. Everything. You suffocate me.’ She picked up the scrap of paper. ‘This too. You want it all, David, and it’s too much.’ She stood, and he caught her wrist. ‘Don’t hold me. I want to go to bed.’ His grasp remained firm. She sat again, stared at the cigarette burning away in the ashtray. ‘Let me go, or I’ll scream.’

  ‘What is the poem about?’

  ‘I don’t know. Let me go.’

  ‘I don’t believe you.’

  ‘Then we’re wasting our time, because it’s the truth. The words come from a part of my subconsciousness that I can’t contact on a conscious level. Make sense?’ He shook his head. ‘No. It doesn’t make any sense to me either. It never has. I’m tired, David. I’m eight months pregnant, and I want to go to bed.’

  ‘We will go to bed later, and don’t pull the pregnant bit with me. You were not concerned about being eight months pregnant when you ran out of here, nor were you concerned that I might have been worried sick about you. Talk to me, Ann. Start back at your beginning. Tell me about Narrawee.’

  ‘Read all about it. You’ve got the cuttings.’

  ‘I did, and I spoke to Ben too.’

  ‘Ben couldn’t tell you anything.’ With her free hand she attempted to prise his fingers free.

  ‘He told me what he knew.’

  ‘Sharing my life with you is only a habit, David. It’s living with someone rather than living alone. Let me go. You’re suffocating me.’

  ‘Sit with me. Talk to me.’

  ‘You went behind my back to my family. You talked about me. You’re threatening me, and I don’t like it.’

  ‘Do I look like a threat?’

  ‘Yes. Yes, and a snooping bloody swine.’

  ‘Part and parcel of being married, Ann, is the licence to let your tongue fly at times and know that your partner will understand and forgive. It’s not the well-mannered game we play, with two parallel lines drawn through certain subjects that I must dance forever around, making sure I don’t overstep a margin. I’m tired of the dance, Ann, tired of your secretive ways, tired of your desire to be free to come and go at will, and with no explanation. And that bloody briefcase. Every time I saw it, I wanted to know what was in it, but I respected your privacy. Well, tonight, to hell with privacy. I want a wife.’

  ‘Keep your voice down. You’ll wake Bronwyn.’

  His voice grew louder. ‘Then let’s wake her. Get her out here. Who knows – perhaps together we might be able to sort you out. I can’t do it alone, I know that much.’

  ‘I don’t need sorting out. I’ve handled it. For years, I’ve handled it. I just want people to leave me alone.’

  ‘Handled what?’

  ‘I don’t know. Shut up.’

  ‘Open up to me. Tell me what it is you’re handling. Give me the truth for once, Ann.’

  ‘You get the truth. You always have.’

  ‘Maybe I do, but I want more of it. Tell me what happened in Narrawee.’

  She laughed then, her eyes raised to his. ‘Now you’ve discovered who you’re married to, you want to hear all the dirt. You’re just like everyone else, aren’t you? Get your kicks from another’s misery. The newspapers make a fortune out of people like you.’

  ‘Talk to me, Ann, and stop trying to change the subject. What happened to you in Narrawee?’

  ‘Good question. Very good question.’ He waited, watching her, until slowly her eyes met his. ‘I could fake an answer for you. Is that what you want?’

  ‘Tell me the facts, as you remember them, Ann.’

  ‘The facts. Preferably starting with the disappearance of Liza. That’s what you want to hear about, isn’t it? Everyone is interested in Liza.’ Her words were bitter, and he made no reply. ‘Get your pencil and paper ready, David. Use the back of Annie’s poem. She won’t mind – just as long as you don’t destroy it. Write at the
top, exclusive interview with the surviving Burton sister. Come on, write it down, David.’

  ‘Stop your nonsense. I don’t want to write it down.’

  ‘I loathed Liza. I was jealous of her. That’s number one fact. I can’t remember what she looked like, but I know I loathed her, because Dad loved her, and because he loved her best, Mum had to. They gave Liza everything and I got her hand-me-downs. I didn’t mind her old dresses and shoes but hand-me-down love stinks. It stinks.

  ‘Number two fact. Ted Crow, the kidnapper. I know his name. I’ve always known it. I can give you a description of him, but I can’t remember him. I’d underline that, because it may be very important. You should be writing it down. You could probably sell it to the newspapers for a fortune.

  ‘Number three fact. I know I spent half my time in Narrawee, watching Liza, trying to keep her out of the cellar. The cellar had a flight of steep and narrow stairs, very old. These are all known facts, David. Number four fact – ’

  ‘It looks as if you might need your fingers to count on,’ he said releasing her wrist. ‘Stop fighting me. Just tell me what happened.’

  ‘But that’s the punchline. I don’t know what happened. I honest to God do not know – and I don’t want to know.’ She rubbed her wrist, reddened by the struggle, and he took her hand, kissed the inside of her wrist.

  ‘I’m sorry, my love. I didn’t mean – ’

  ‘Like to hear my hypothesis, David? Like to hear what I’ve believed since I was sixteen? Want to know why I ran away from you, went to Melbourne that night?’ He nodded, but remained silent. ‘I think I’m a murderer, David. I got a picture of pushing Liza down the stairs. I think I killed her.’

  Night silence. The clock ticking. The sound of breathing. His eyes watched her, worried now. ‘The newspapers blamed Ted Crow.’

  ‘When I think of Ted Crow, I think of freedom. I think of blue sky and flying free. When I think of Liza, I remember blood. I remember the stairs and the black.’

 

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