Mallawindy, p.28

Mallawindy, page 28



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  ‘Tell me, my love. Let it out.’

  ‘I’ve let it out. Now I’m going to bed.’

  ‘What about Crow? Why didn’t he come forward if – ?’

  ‘Maybe he took the body away, buried it. He must have done something to make me think of free, and why do I remember his name, but nothing else of that bloody Thursday? May blames him for taking Liza, but I think of him as . . . as clouds, and I think of . . . of, Push me Johnny, push me high, I’m a bird and I can fly, high up to the clear blue sky. I made Liza Burton die.’

  ‘What woman in her right mind would leave two small girls in the care of a gardener? The paper said he’d only been working there for a few weeks.’

  ‘Sam was in Queensland and she ran out of bread.’

  ‘They said Sam found you.’

  ‘He hired a car and drove home. It’s about twenty hours down the Newell Highway.’

  ‘Why didn’t he fly back?’

  ‘Why? Why? Why? Who knows why? Maybe there was a plane strike. Who knows anything? Why was I locked in the cellar? Who locked me in, David? Old Ted Crow? If he kidnapped Liza, or killed her, why didn’t he kill me, kidnap me too, to cover up his crime? And if he locked me in, then why do I think of him as freedom? Stop asking me why. I’ve gone over this a million times, and there are no answers. It’s mad, David, and it’s been in my head since I was a kid. Night and day, day and night. Ask me to describe Ted Crow.’

  He shrugged. ‘Describe him, Ann.’

  ‘Sandy hair, about forty, he spoke with an English accent. How could a six-year-old child remember that, but not the man? Ask me if he had a long nose? A bald head, and I don’t know. Was he fat, skinny, tall, short? I don’t know. Did he speak with a broad accent, or did he sound like Prince Charles? I don’t know.’

  There was nothing he could say. He sat there, staring at her, shaking his head. He’d asked for this, but it wasn’t what he’d expected.

  ‘Say something. Don’t you look at me with your pity. I want your love, not your pity.’

  ‘I’m . . . I’m trying to take it in, understand. That’s obviously why you don’t like lifts, the underground trains.’

  ‘I dare say it might be. Glad we managed to sort something out tonight.’

  ‘You should have come to me that night, told me then.’

  ‘I’ve told you now, and you hate me.’

  ‘I love you. Keep talking. More might come to you.’

  ‘There is no more. You’ve read what came later, so you know more about it than I. They think I climbed on the wardrobe, built a staircase of crates up to the window. I don’t remember doing it. I spent weeks in hospital. That part is like a nightmare. White beds. Strangers’ hands always touching me and I couldn’t get away. Dad. Sam. Crow. The core of my brain is like a ball of crumpled facts that the air has been sucked from. It’s shrivelled into a hard lump of black that I can’t unravel. All I remember clearly of the hospital is a boy. He read me stories – like Johnny did. Fairytales. He gave me a magic place where I could get away from the black, and he somehow moved me from behind that lump of black, to a place beyond it. But the black is still in my head, David. It writes the poems. Not me.’ She sat watching him shake his head. ‘Interesting isn’t it? Good bedtime story? Feeling sleepy yet? Want to sleep in my bed tonight, or have you got some hang-up about sleeping with a murderer?’

  ‘Stop it, Ann. You’ve probably imagined pushing Liza, but even if it were true, you were only a baby. Do you remember pushing her?’

  ‘I remember wanting to. I remember when I was four, wanting to smash her head open and see if her blue eyes worked the same as my doll’s.’

  ‘I love you, whatever you’ve done, or think you’ve done, that can never change. Would you speak to a professional about this?’

  ‘What do you think?’

  ‘It would be better for you to get it all out in the open.’

  ‘Better for my well-being, or yours? You could always put a padlock on your door.’

  ‘Shut up, Ann.’

  ‘You started this, David, so hear me out, and believe me. If I were to learn for a fact that I had murdered my own sister, I wouldn’t be able to live with it. I wouldn’t want to live with it – or want you to live with me. Stop your digging. Please. Stop watching me, and let me forget it again. You’re making me feel trapped, and I’m a wild screaming animal when I’m trapped. I have to get away, and at the time I don’t care if I leave half my life in that trap. I ran from it once, and I can do it again. If you value what we have here, then work at helping me to forget that day, because there won’t be much left of your wife if she ever remembers. She did something so bloody terrible that day, that for seven years, little Annie Burton stopped speaking, hid from it.’

  She took the page, smoothed, folded it. ‘My hand wrote this. I know it. I watched it write. But my head doesn’t write it, David. It pours straight from the tip of my pen. It’s like it comes down a direct line from that black core of facts. I don’t know what I’ve written half the time. I only know that it cleanses a place inside me, gives me breathing space.’ She swallowed, held his eyes. ‘But . . . but the words, the words, “my husband, my husband, David,” they’re like a shield around me. They fill me up with blinding white light, and the dark place that has been inside my head for ever hasn’t got a chance against it. My life here with you is a sanctuary like none I’ve ever known. Please God, David, please don’t make me run from you again. I’ve got nothing without you. I am nothing without you.’ She reached out to him, and he opened his arms, and he took her, held her, rocked her.

  ‘Shush, my love. It’s all right. Shush. I’ll be your shield, your sanctuary. I’ll be whatever you need me to be. I’m on your side. Always. Always.’

  ‘Only you,’ she said, her face buried against his chest. ‘Only you and Johnny ever made me safe.’

  the mouse-wheel

  December 1988

  Amanda Elise Taylor brought May running from Narrawee. She brought Ellie out of Mallawindy. She tempted Malcolm from his typewriter, and Ben from his shop. She twisted Bronwyn around her tiny finger, while a year seemed to melt into a brief cluster of days, and Christmas of 1988 arrived.

  Ben came with a teddy bear almost as tall as he. He handed it to Ann. ‘Never can think what to buy you, Annie. Happy birthday for yesterday.’ He laughed as she took the soft toy. ‘You can give it to Mandy if you don’t like it.’

  ‘No-one ever gave me a teddy bear. I love it,’ she said and she kissed its nose, and wished she knew how to kiss Ben.

  His youth, like his hair, had been stolen in the past years. He was ageing, moving directly from freckle-faced youth to middle-aged man. Ann hadn’t seen it happening. Too content in her own baby-scented world, she no longer looked outside. They were still good friends. Occasionally a hand sign from their childhood was utilised to explain a thought not easily put into words – but not today.

  ‘Where’s everyone? I thought they’d all be here.’

  ‘Bronny and Nick are always late, and David’s gone off to pick up the chickens. My heart isn’t into cooking poor old chooks.’ She sat the bear at the table, then walked to the stove and prodded her baked potatoes, checked her pudding, not yet at home with kitchen skills. She sat, took up her needle, and settled to sprinkle a bridal veil with seed pearls.

  Ben watched her needle flying, making invisible knots. ‘I don’t know where you get the patience to do that sort of stuff, Annie.’

  She turned to him, her hands still a moment. ‘It’s therapy, and a lucrative hobby, Ben. Something for my hands to do. They still want to talk – never took kindly to staying still, so I keep them busy,’ she said. ‘Anyway, who are you to speak of patience? You, with the patience to plant trees and watch them grow for twenty odd years? Any patience I have, you and your trees taught me.’

  ‘They reckon my bridge will never work. That engineer bloke from Daree says it’ll sag in the middle, could end up damming the river. He’s a decent bloke though
. He gave me a bit of a design – said not to tell anyone it came from him. He reckons the only way it’s got a hope of working is if I fix a pole right through the centre of each tree, then put in stays angled up to the pole from each end. I’ll have to reinforce the top end of the trunks on Bessy’s side, and trim off a bit on our side – ’ His face grew younger as he spoke, and his freckled hands drew pictures in the air. ‘He reckons the stays will act as a sort of cantilever to hold the trees up in the middle, stop their sag. I’ve bought a heap of bolts and stuff, and some massive angle iron. We’ll dig out a bit of clay on both banks so I can bed them in. It’s just a case of finding the nerve to fell them, and getting it started. But I keep chickening out.’

  ‘Do it, Ben. Anyway, what if it sags or falls into the river? It might flood Mum off her land.’

  ‘Yeah.’ He smiled, a gentle Ben smile that the years could never alter. ‘More ways of killing a cat than choking it with cream, eh? I’ll have to give it a go soon. Can you remember the day we planted those trees, Annie?’ Ann nodded, and stitched on. ‘You look happy lately. Happier than I’ve seen you looking for twenty years.’

  She glanced up quickly, surprised by his words. ‘I am, I think. I’m in a permanent state of high. I can almost see a future with Mandy.’ They were silent for minutes. She broke the silence. ‘I never wanted to have kids. I was scared Mandy would be born dead like Mum’s last one. Now I can’t remember a life without her. We want another one, or two, or three.’

  ‘Ever think about Johnny these days?’

  ‘Only always. I still dream about him. The weirdest dreams –.’

  ‘You know I can remember the night you were born . . . just like it was yesterday. I remember the gunshot and swimming the river in the dark. Johnny made me do it. He was an eight-year-old kid, and I was five. I thought he was so old, because Grandpa said he was big enough to carry a pocketknife. All I wanted was to be as big as him so I could carry a pocketknife. I wonder if he’s married, if he’s got kids, Annie?’

  ‘I always dream of him as alone, wandering the sand dunes.’

  ‘He could have died. Ever consider that?’

  ‘No. No. He’s not dead. I’ve contacted the registrar a couple of times. Anyhow, I’d know if he were dead. I’d feel the space in here.’ She placed a hand on her breast. ‘We’ll see him again one day, Ben.’

  ‘I used to think so once, but I’ve sort of gone past it. I used to think a lot of stuff once. Reckoned that I’d probably get married, have kids of my own. My future sort of doesn’t go beyond felling my trees these days. It’s like I’ve got to build it. I’ve got to.’

  ‘Then get them down and get on with your future. You’ve got plenty of time for kids. You’re younger than David.’

  ‘I feel about ninety some days.’ He shook his head and looked away to the sound of a car approaching. ‘I don’t think I’d ever try to raise a kid in Mallawindy.’

  ‘Leave the hole.’

  ‘I can’t. I swore once that I’d never let him drive me out. Can’t break a promise, Annie.’

  ‘Bloody promises,’ she said. ‘We hog tie ourselves with promises. Who but we ever keep them? It’s Johnny’s fault. Remember, Ben. If he promised something, he’d do it. Remember when we thought all the wild red poppies that used to grow in the top paddock had died?’

  Ben nodded. ‘He searched until he found one for you. He built a chicken wire fence over it and covered the seed pods with a lolly bag. He made you a little garden full of poppies the next year.’

  ‘Yeah. He promised me he’d come back, Ben. He promised that if I – .’ Her hands signed tears, and Ben smiled.

  ‘You weren’t meant to take him literally, Annie. He made a lot of promises that day. He told Mum that if he ever set eyes on the old man again, he’d kill him. Do you remember that one?’ The room had gone quiet. Only the potatoes sizzled in the oven. Only the clock ticked on the wall. ‘That’s why he’s never come back. He can’t, Annie. I think he’s waiting for him to die.’

  Ann stood, folded the tulle and placed it in a pillow slip. ‘Get out of Mallawindy, Ben. Don’t waste any more of your life.’

  ‘It’s my mouse hole, Annie. Dad built me a mouse-wheel in there. He taught my little feet to scuttle around in circles, and I’ve been scuttling the same circles so long, I’m worn in too deep to ever get out now.’

  Malcolm Fletcher, also invited to dinner, arrived, preventing further talk of scuttling feet.

  A second Christmas slipped by before Mandy’s bald head sprouted its crop of curls. They were gold, as Liza’s curls had been gold. Her Nanna’s hair, Ann said. Never Liza’s. Never.

  Malcolm was captivated by the infant. He came each Friday, frequently bringing Ellie along for the afternoon. Age had brought peace to Malcolm, now he watched that same peace seep into the eyes of the one he’d long ago claimed as his own.

  ‘You’ve done well with her. Burton, but explain to me why you insist on using the common Mandy? Amanda has a regal ring to it. This one warrants a regal title. You’ll agree of course, Mrs Burton.’ His tone brooked no denial, and Ellie nodded, nodded, pleased at last to have another baby to hold.

  ‘What’s in a name, sir? A rose by any other name would smell as bad. I think she needs a new nappy,’ Ann laughed.

  Still sir. Always sir.

  ‘I’ll do it, love,’ Ellie said. ‘You should be toilet training her, Annie. All of you children were trained by two.’ Ellie took the little girl’s hand and walked with her to the bedroom. Ann was finally receiving Ellie’s love, if by proxy. Mandy got many kisses and cuddles from Nanna.

  ‘Liza was still wetting her pants when she was seven,’ Ann said, passing a nappy.

  ‘She was born with a weak bladder, love. It wasn’t her fault. My word this one looks like her. Getting more like her every day too, aren’t you, Nanna’s darling.’

  Without warning, Ann snatched back the nappy and finished the changing herself. She picked up her child, held her too tight. That’s who Ellie was kissing, cuddling. Not Mandy, but the memory of Liza. ‘She’s nothing like Liza. She’s a Taylor. She’s David. He was blond as a kid. She’s got his eyes, the shape of his face. She’s not a bit like Liza.’

  The subject effectively closed, the visit ended soon after, but when Ann and Mandy were alone again, Ann’s ire was still escaping.

  ‘You don’t need second-hand love, my sweetheart. You’ve got enough without her leftovers. You’re nothing like that vile, snivelling little pants-wetting bitch.’

  ‘No bile bits,’ Mandy commented.

  Ann laughed. ‘Mummy is naughty. She must learn to keep her mouth buttoned and not to let things slip in front of tiny parrots, mustn’t she? But you’re not like her, and I won’t let them say you are.’

  ‘Not bitta fings, Mummy?’

  ‘No, my lovely. But I mustn’t do that again. I mustn’t. I mustn’t. You need a Nanna, and you’ll have one. Mummy will have to learn to keep her big mouth shut.’

  two old men

  Malcolm’s snug little cottage, positioned directly across the road from the Burton house, had twin bulbous bay window eyes that followed Jack’s every move. He had wind chimes too. Bells from hell, they dangled from wide eaves, taunting Jack in the dead of night, their distant jangling gnawing at his brain.

  Thick as thieves were Ellie and Malcolm, drawn together by Jack’s own grandchild. Nobody took Jack to see it, but he’d seen its photograph on his lounge room mantelpiece. ‘Poor bloody Jack is nothing,’ he snarled, sucking hate from his bottle. ‘Take him nowhere, give him nothing,’ he muttered on while the wind chimes played.

  This was his lot in life, to be treated like shit, tormented by a world that would not give him his due. Too old to get work, or too unreliable, his annual income was eroded by inflation, and Ellie’s money cancelled any hope of a government hand-out. She bought him a slab of beer on Fridays, which he drank on Saturdays, but she wouldn’t buy him whisky.

  He needed whisky and new clothes
too, and a new car, but he needed to get to Narrawee to get them. Bloody May wouldn’t let him have his whisky in Narrawee, and he needed that more than cars or clothes. Whisky dulled memory, bought him a misty peace.

  Bloody bitch of a woman, too smart for her own good, and his. She wanted him dead. Wanted him out of her life. Poor bloody Jack Burton, backed into a comer and no way of getting out, backed into it by bloody Saint Sam. A bastard, too good to be true.

  ‘Take a dive you saintly bastard,’ he screamed. ‘Buy yourself a boat and go overboard. Go for a tour of the inland and die of bloody thirst. Disappear off the face of the earth and let poor bloody Jack have his turn. I want to go home.’

  The August winds were back, and the wind chimes raucous when Jack ran out of whisky and went prowling with a half brick. He tossed it through Malcolm’s bay window, and considered tossing a gallon of petrol and a match through with it, but he held back from petrol. Burning brought back memories of another burning. He settled for ripping the wind chimes from their hook, stamping on them, then tossing them to the road.

  The following afternoon he booked up some petrol to Ellie and drove himself to Warran and to the address he found in the telephone directory.

  The house surprised him. It looked a bit like the old place. He drove backwards and forwards, cursing his father and Sam until he saw his grandchild run into the front yard, saw her chase and pick up a kitten. He parked his car and walked to the low fence to take a closer look.

  It was Liza.

  He looked at the hair and he wanted to breathe in its scent. He looked at the soft limbs and he wanted to hold them, feel them holding him. And the silly little mouth that had planted wet kisses on his cheek. He wanted it all back. He wanted it. The world had looked different when he had her to hold. He could have been different.

  ‘Could-have-beens don’t count any more, they just lie on the floor till they all blow away,’ he said, his eyes misting as he stared at the child.


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