Mallawindy, p.9

Mallawindy, page 9

 

Mallawindy
 



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  No time to catch her breath, to consider the stitch in her side, she sprinted down the road. There was no thought of what she’d do when she got there, but just to get there. Then she was in the dark of the school yard, sprinting across the playing field and in through the headmaster’s side gate.

  Only one light showed in the weatherboard house. She ran to the window, great gasps of air replenishing muscles as she cupped her hands to her eyes and peered through.

  And he was there. He was on his knees convulsed in pain.

  Get someone. Have to get help. Only now she thought of the ‘what’, but within the thought came another.

  Can’t run any more. No time now.

  What can we do?

  Something.

  She ran to the back door, pushed it wide, entered the strange kitchen and looked down at her teacher.

  ‘Ahhh,’ she yelled, her hands flying. He heard her. One hand signalled her away. She turned to the table, where a small brown bottle stood beside a taller relative. Empty. Ann recognised the small bottle. Her mother used weedkiller. She reached for it, held it beneath the light, looking for she knew not what.

  And she saw it.

  Induce vomiting. Then the hand holding the small bottle flung it at the wall where it smashed, spraying its glass to the sink, to the floor, and to her one God, the old God of knowledge, now grovelling on the floor like a grey slug.

  Salt. Soap. Have to prop him. First have to prop him. Can’t let him get on his back. He’ll choke like Linda Alice choked on vomit.

  Still sucking air, Ann up-ended the kitchen table as professionally as her father. Dragging it behind the convulsing hulk, she propped it on its side, its four legs jammed against a kitchen bench. Perhaps it would hold him. She knew she’d never move him should he roll onto his back. The salt shaker, fallen to the floor, was snatched up, emptied into the milk jug, then half filled with water, a finger used to stir it.

  He wouldn’t take it. His hand tried to wipe her presence away. His mouth gaped open, his face contorted as his stomach attempted to refuse its last supper.

  Ann stamped her bare foot, her eyes wide, angry. ‘Mmmm,’ she demanded. ‘Mmmm.’ Again she stamped her foot.

  ‘Go,’ he signed.

  She pushed the jug at him. His hand hit it, spilled the saline water, and she jumped away.

  Have to hold his head still. Have to grab his hair. Have to pour it down his throat.

  She couldn’t touch him. An internal scream of desperation seized her throat as she stood back from the dying man. Her heart was racing, her mind numb with fear and too much air. Have to leave him. Run for Constable Johnson.

  Too late.

  I can’t do anything.

  He gave us everything. Him. Only him. He wouldn’t give up. You are the strong one, Annie Blue Dress. Remember. Aunty May said only diamonds can cut a looking-glass. Remember. Do what must be done, Annie Blue Dress.

  She screamed then. Her hand grasped at his thick grey hair. She dragged his head pack, poured the salt water over his nose, his mouth. Wasted it, but she found more salt beside the stove, mixed more.

  There was so much body and too little space. She had to lean on his body. Again she dragged his head back, forcing him to see her. His lips parted and she poured liquid into his mouth. He spat it back at her, clamped his jaws, wept.

  And she hit him. She punched his shoulder, slapped his fat face, pounded his heaving flabby chest, refusing to admit to failure. Her lips were mouthing one word, over and over. ‘Drink. Drink. Drink. Drink.’

  He saw no word. His eyes had closed, as she had closed her eyes to his words so many years ago. His body heaved and his heavy legs pounded the floor.

  She moved to the side, knowing there was only one way. There had only ever been one way. Perhaps it was too late. ‘Du wa,’ she whispered, the word tested and found wanting. ‘Dur-igh.’

  She coughed and tried again. ‘Dur-wingk,’ she said. It was deep. It rasped against vocal cords unused for too many years, but the word sounded near enough in her ears. ‘Der-wingk,’ she scolded. Loud. Loud enough.

  And his eyes opened. He looked at her.

  ‘Du-wink, darm-oo,’ she demanded, emphasising her word with the stamp of her foot.

  His eyes misted. The child, who held his life in her hands, blurred, faded as he felt the jug again pressed to his lips. And his hand reached out for life, and to the slim hand that held it, and he drank the salty brew down like nectar.

  Vileness gushed from him in unending stream. She sought a receptacle and found a bucket too late; still her face was pleased as the room filled with the stench of her victory.

  ‘Derwink,’ she said, when the gush had slowed. ‘Dewink,’ she said gently.

  And he drank again from the new cup she held to his lips, and again his abused stomach expelled its contents while she guided his head with her hands.

  Three times in the long night she thought him lost, and three times he vomited himself into awareness. At 5 a.m. he coughed, stirred, and the girl, anticipating, held a towel to his lips, protecting the floor she’d cleaned too many times. But the night was over, the roosters were signalling dawn and for Malcolm Fletcher, the worst was over.

  Helpless, weak, sick, he slumped against the table, watching her worried face, waiting for her voice again, knowing, as her father had known, that she could hear.

  ‘You m-ore derwink?’ she asked, her voice deep and husky, but her pitch was good and her consonants were clear. He closed his eyes, too weak to control the tears blinding them.

  Not deaf. Never deaf.

  ‘Too much,’ he whispered. It was all too much, the emotion, the pain, the overwhelming joy, and the nausea. He wanted to lie on his back and die, and he wanted to sit all night and listen to the words he, the drunk, the fat old failure had forced from her. For too long no-one had cared if he lived or died. But she cared. A thirteen-year-old child had cared enough to break free of her cage of silence to give him back his life.

  Feeling the warm cloth on his face again, he opened his eyes to her, wanting to pour out his words, words he knew would make her run from him. His own weakness saved him.

  ‘You sur-leep. On su-sum-mig. No on ba-ag.’

  ‘Not on back,’ he agreed. ‘On stomach.’

  She was still creating the words with her hands but her tongue was also making the words, determined words, and making its own slow corrections.

  ‘Mm-my ba-bee, oolin-da, on ba-ag. Die on ba-ack.’

  ‘Baby Linda. Yes, child. Yes, child.’

  He looked at her eyes, twin fires beneath the naked light globe, and he saw each small success imprinted there. He did as she bid him. It took him forever. His arms were heavy sacks of grain, each leg the trunk of a gum tree. It took him forever and only when she was satisfied did she cover him with a blanket.

  ‘I go,’ she said. ‘I come. B-b-ber-wing m-mil-g. You dewing milg.’

  ‘Milk,’ he whispered. ‘Yes, child. You come back to me.’

  Only when the door had closed behind her did he allow his emotions free rein. Howling aloud, his bulk convulsed with the weight of his tears. He bawled for the son he had lost, and for the girl he had found, and because she was Jack Burton’s daughter. He blubbered like a baby because she looked like Jack Burton. She had his features, his height, his hands and his colouring, but it was not Jack Burton she had spoken to.

  He tried to laugh, but bawled again into his pillow. He wanted to live, to live forever.

  Comical, bloated, blubbering mass of man, waiting for a child to come with the milk, a child whose first stumbling words in seven years had been given with trust to her teacher.

  the bankbook

  August 1976

  The river wore a dusty reptilian skin; it matched the sky and the land. The wind had started before dawn; now it howled across the paddocks, stripping them of their top soil and flinging it arrogantly to the water. Cows, heavy with calf, prowled the Burton property, lowing their discomfort, while hens wi
th ruffled feathers grouped in corners, clucking over the predicament of tomorrow’s eggs.

  Ellie Burton’s mind was on eggs and hatchlings. There would be a new baby in January.

  ‘Are you sure you want to walk to town, Annie? The boat will hold three,’ she said, stepping from land into Bessy’s rowboat. Ann shook her head. ‘Then don’t forget to bring Mrs Crocker’s cream.’

  ‘I’ve got it,’ Ann replied. Her voice was deep, as if the patina of rust had etched and burred too deep on her vocal cords. Three years of speech, or thirty, would not alter its tone. She was close to her sixteenth birthday, five foot nine and still growing. Nature had lately imposed a tracing of womanhood on her, then moved off to more satisfying tasks.

  One oar each, the sisters pulled away from the bank, while Ann stood watching, her back against one of Ben’s bridge trees. They had long outstripped their planter, their futures planned, assured. Ben tended them well. He flooded them with water, plied them with cow manure, trimmed the lower branches off, which forced the trees to reach high. He would cut them down one day, build his footbridge, and maybe give Ellie a more stable shortcut to town.

  She hadn’t withdrawn her child allowance for twelve months. It was little enough with just the two girls, but it grew if she left it alone. The farm was doing well, and with Ben and Annie bringing in their own money, she had no need to touch her account. Still, it would all come out this morning. Bessy was driving her to Daree to buy a few things for the baby.

  Annie had already made six gowns and hemmed new nappies. She’d made the most beautiful christening gown too; it would have sold for a fortune in the shop. Dressmaking was a wonderful trade for a woman and Annie was a wonder with a needle and thread, but still wasting her time at school. ‘Good dressmakers are as scarce as hens’ teeth,’ Ellie frequently said.

  Ben had been working for Bert Norris since he left school. He sold newspapers and toys, pots and pans; he was the town barber, but in his heart, still a farmer. Up at five and in bed at twelve, he worked around Jack’s presence. Ellie didn’t know how she would have coped without Ben.

  Each year Jack spent more time with Sam and May, then made up for his months of sobriety by drinking more when he came home. Perhaps the seventies were a time of more in Mallawindy. There were more cows, more pigs, there was more money, and more abuse too. God only knew how Sam and May tolerated Jack. Ellie had to. He was her husband.

  Bronwyn was becoming a worry. She had Jack’s temper, and his unforgiving nature. Ellie didn’t know what to do with Bronwyn, or Annie, for that matter. Since the night Jack shot the dog, Annie had spent her life goading her father, tossing insults, plus anything else she could get her hands on, at him. What with her and Bronwyn and Jack in the house, it was like living with three time bombs. Boys were easier to raise than girls. Ben and Johnny hadn’t ever talked back to her, hadn’t given her a minute’s trouble in their lives. She hoped the new baby would be a boy. She’d suggested to Jack that they call it Samuel Patrick, if it was a boy, but Jack refused to name it after his brother. His attitude towards Sam was difficult to understand; to hear him speak, it seemed as if he hated his brother, but he never refused his money, or his invitations.

  Ann watched the sisters until the boat was tied to the makeshift dock on the opposite bank, then she picked up the basket and walked away. She had a bike, but bikes and Mallawindy’s August wind didn’t agree. She enjoyed walking, enjoyed the neither here nor there of it. Walking gave her open space and time to be alone.

  Her eyes near closed against the stinging dust and the whiplike slap of her hair, she skirted around the potholes and dry chiselled ridges on a path that followed a cow’s morning ramble through the western paddock to the unmade road. Here the wind swept up new gritty ammunition to fling at her. As she swung into the full face of the blow, a howling gust dragged her hair back, exposing features that sat well together. Large eyes, high cheek bones, a determined jaw accentuated her wide mouth and her father’s strong even teeth. She was lucky to have inherited his teeth, Ellie often said. Like Jack, Ann hardly had a filling. Ellie wore top dentures.

  Ann hadn’t inherited her father’s eyes. They were large like Ellie’s, but dark enough to look black in some lights. There had always been an agelessness about her eyes, now age draped her core. She could have been twenty. Many thought she was older than fifteen. Perhaps her height lent her age. The town women trusted her with their fine fabrics, stripping to their corsets in the fitting room behind Bert Norris’s business, while Ann tacked and pinned. Male eyes followed her when she walked by. The boys she went to school with, who had to find a new name for her when she was no longer Dummy, had lately stopped calling her Lank-the-crank and tried to chat her up.

  She wasn’t interested in the Mallawindy boys, didn’t think about any boys – not much. She studied, and she worked the farm at Ben’s side. She drove Bessy’s tractor when they borrowed it to cut hay, and she could drive Ben’s ute. She started up the pump that sucked water from the river to fill the house tanks and flood the lower paddocks. She dug trenches with Ben, milked cows, collected and packed eggs, and she sewed. Like Ben, she worked long hours. They were mates, best mates, she and Ben. They still spoke with their hands too – Ben more than she, these days.

  When her voice had been accepted as a permanent thing, her father and Bob Johnson questioned her about her time spent in Narrawee. For weeks after, both separately and together, they asked her what she remembered about Liza’s disappearance. People from the city drove up to speak to her too. She even got her name in the Melbourne papers when they rehashed the old story. Bronny read it, but she didn’t.

  ‘I remember nothing before I was nine,’ she said to everyone. It was no lie, but as the months continued to pass, some memories began filtering through. Disconnected scraps of conversations, and pictures that moved before her eyes like slides in a slide viewer, rushed at her.

  She told Mr Fletcher about them, and he tried to place the memories in chronological order. There was a bond between Ann and her old teacher that Ben and Bronwyn couldn’t understand. They didn’t know about the night she spent at the schoolhouse. No-one knew about that. Mr Fletcher had been sick for months after his attempted suicide. He’d even lost weight – then made up for it double when he was well again.

  Ann had always had dreams about a white house and green lawns, now she knew they would be found at Narrawee. Mr Fletcher telephoned Sam and May, and they sent him a pile of photographs. There was a recent one of them taken at Narawee. It gave Ann goose bumps to look at her uncle.

  In the photograph, Sam’s hair was grey, and worn long. It fell to his collar. His moustache was bushy. It grew down the sides of his mouth to his chin, and he wore tinted glasses, and long shorts. He looked even taller than her father. May was small, slim, also wearing shorts. Perhaps her lack of height made the man at her side appear taller. He looked older than her father too, with his grey hair and moustache.

  The house was a palace, a double-storey, white stone mansion; it seemed to shimmer in the sunlight. It was hard to believe her father had grown up in it, but she could understand now why he loved it, and fled there each time the invitation came in the mail.

  There were old photographs of Ann and Liza, also taken at Narawee. Liza always posing, Ann’s own eyes wide, as if she’d been looking at magic. Ann could find no memory of that magic, or of her sister, or even who the photographer had been, be it May, Sam, or a stranger.

  The people, who came from the city to speak to her about Liza’s disappearance, said she had probably seen the man who they believed kidnapped her sister. Why couldn’t she remember him? She tried, tried to force memory. Only a week back, she’d taken the small portrait of Liza from the kitchen wall and stared at it, both right side up and upside down, straining to see beyond the glass, to know the older Liza. There was nothing. It was like a blank sheet of paper. Nothing.

  Her father caught her with the photograph. ‘Get your bloody hands off her,’ he said.<
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  ‘I hated her,’ Ann told him, and when she said it, she knew it was true. She hated a blank sheet of paper. That’s all Liza was to her. That old fake photograph, and blank white paper.

  He came at her, unbuckling his belt, but she dodged around the table and tossed the photograph at his head. He caught it, as she knew he would. He couldn’t let his precious treasure smash to the floor, but he screamed after Ann, and she screamed his own words back.

  It had taken eighteen months for her to regain her fluency with speech. She liked practising on her father. Once, long ago, she had felt sorry for him, even thought she’d loved him when he used to talk to her, and teach her things about the world. But what was love? She’d loved old Mickey, and Johnny. She loved Ben and Bronny, but that love was a two-way thing, and mixed in with respect. How could she respect her father?

  But still, she could, and sometimes did. Like when the city people came to talk to her, he had stayed with her, sat on the couch beside her, protected her. He’d been so sane and sober, sounded so educated, like a father she could be proud of. The city people respected him, and when he said that they were upsetting her, and that they’d asked enough questions, they left her alone and drove away.

  Ann respected Aunty Bessy, but she didn’t love her. She respected Bessy’s fluency, and her vocabulary which could match any truckie’s. Ann would have liked to add some of Bessy’s words to her vocabulary, but she couldn’t yet. One day. One fine day she would.

  For twelve months after that night of his suicide attempt, Mr Fletcher had worked with Ann, developing his own brand of tutelage and speech therapy. She trusted him, totally, yet she didn’t quite trust him enough to tell him about the voice.

  Maybe everyone had a second voice inside their heads. Maybe it was what people called conscience, she thought. She used to call the voice her conscience until Marlene Dooley started talking about her sister who worked for two weeks at a psychiatric hospital as part of her nurses training. Marlene talked for weeks about her sister’s experiences, entertaining travellers on the school bus with her stories. She spoke of little rooms with padded walls, and the straight-jackets her sister had to help put on one lady who believed she had God living in her head, talking to her, telling her to drown her babies.

 

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