Woman of the Islands
The morning sun found her waking amid the debris of the night’s teacups. Bewildered by the growing light she sat straighter, her dreams deserting her, abandoning her within the large unwieldy body that had become her prison. In retreat, her dreams fought the presence of the day.
She was young, running along the white beach between palms and the crystal water of the lagoon. Walter is chasing her, catching her, tumbling on to the warm sands in a laughing sprawl, kissing her avidly. She holds him tightly, seeking in the warmth of his embrace, in the depth of his eyes, a reflection of her love. She tightens her arms around his neck holding on against the sadness and terror of his leaving.
“Don’t worry, Angel, I’ll be back before you know I’ve gone,” he whispers reassuringly. “Six months, no more and then we’ll have money for a fine wedding and a house. Time will fly, you’ll see.’’
She clung to him, knowing only the misery of his leaving.
Sunlight warms the kitchen. It’s going to be a day of mid-summer heat. Sighing, she prises her bulk from the chair and opens the door onto the lemon-scented garden. The handkerchief of concrete yard reflects heat from the white wall at the rear of the house. A child’s tricycle lies on its side near the door. Further into the garden is a pedal-car, red and black, its nose dipped into the sandpit, rear wheels motionless in the air. On the soft ground, in dappled franjapani shade, a ragged, one-eyed doll sprawls in desolation. The swing hangs still in the songbird morning, a monument in tattered metal to the absent children. One end of a seesaw, poised above the unkempt grass, is condemned to be outweighed forever.
A mynah hops confidently around the deserted garden as she lowers herself onto a cane chair beside the door. She picks up a discarded paper fan and moves it gently, stirring air across her throat. From the fence a second mynah declares harshly before entering the garden in a blur of wings. She misses the children.
She missed Walter’s presence as soon as he walked up the gangway onto the tall-masted ship. He waved from the deck, smiling, handsome in new white shirt and black trousers.
“Don’t worry, Angel. I’ll be back before you know it. Write every week.’’
The quay was crowded with people. She struggled to keep her place, blowing kisses, waving and smiling. Too quickly the ship grew small in the distance. Diminished by his leaving, she remained until the wharf was deserted, the ship a blur of smoke on the horizon. Slowly she walked back, lost in memory, all too consciously afraid of the future.
Going about her chores in the household, she performed her work as diligently as ever but now there was a difference in her manner. She was composed, walking and talking as a grown woman. She felt removed from the giggling secrets of her younger sisters, occasionally chiding herself for impatience with their girlish jokes. Her mother noted her isolation from the rest of the family and was moved to ask her whether everything was all right. She answered with measured patience, speaking from a reserve that made her seem even more a stranger.
Only the arrival of the packet ship every Thursday disturbed her composure. Happy and laughing, she then imbued the house with her excited anticipation. She walked from the general store post office with the precious package, controlling her urge to run, through the fragrant palm groves. Finally in a remote enclave in the woods she looked closely at the letter, studying her hand-written name, the postmark, examining the stamp, turning the envelope, before slowly opening and unfolding the pages.
The city was strange and exciting, high buildings, cars and factories, all new and stimulating. He was working in a brewery, controlling the filling of bottles, important work and very responsible. The money was good, he had saved one hundred dollars, then two hundred. There were other boys from the islands working with him, they were his friends. He wrote of where they went, how they lived.
Her eyes raced through the pages, devouring the sentences, not missing a line but impatient for his love.
He thought of her always and missed her sorely. Life in the city, although exciting and new was empty without her, He counted the days until he was home and they could be married. He loved her as deeply and as truly as a man could.
The letters were her treasures, reread a dozen times, until the lines became the thoughts that filled her days. She could almost recite them by heart after the first day. Her own letters were out-pourings of love and devotion, pages of closely written fidelity, filled with declarations of the pain of absence, of how the days were dragging, the wearisome antics of the people around her. The island seemed cramped and colourless without him.
After some months, slowly, almost imperceptibly, a different voice began to sound in his letters. The work had become hard and ill paid, the island boys were passed over for the good jobs. He would find something better by moving to another city. There was no letter on the packet the next week, nor the next. She understood. There were difficulties in moving, in changing jobs. Somehow she managed to live through the void. Later there were other weeks when letters went astray, weeks of storms and big seas when the island was isolated behind moats of towering surf.
At first she ignored the nonchalant inquiries of the other young women, the thinly veiled barbs in the expressions of sympathy. They had suffered from her reserve and composure and were now quick to offer consolation. He sent her a gold cross, fragile, exquisite, with apologies for not writing. She wore it proudly the next morning, a talisman against cruel smiles and knowing looks. Later she wore it at her younger sister’s wedding, aware of her family’s unease at her ill-defined presence.
Afterwards there came a postcard and then nothing. The emptiness became palpable, the void in herself immense. She only allowed her tears to fall in solitude.
The mid-morning heat makes the backyard uncomfortable. She rises slowly and goes back inside, passing through the kitchen into the dim coolness of the house. Decayed slippers bear her shuffling bulk without sound along the wooden floor. A caged canary calls tentatively in the still unfamiliar silence. The woman replenishes his drinking water, making small sounds of encouragement to the bright heartbeat of colour.
She no longer feels angry, not now it is over. Lawyers had been her hope, taking her money in exchange for their encouragement. Eventually they too had let her down.
“New regulations have been promulgated,” said the men with soft hands and eyes that never stayed still.
“The house is too small, without proper facilities,” they intoned, without really answering her questions.
“Minimum child-carer supervision ratio,” their eyes flickered over her big, unwieldy form.
“Inadequate drainage,” their parting salvo from retreating backs, clipboards filled with mysterious notes.
Gradually, with rising anger she realised their intent. She plunged into the fray with crusading zeal, consulting her lawyers, drawing up a petition of parents, contacting her local politician. Indignation gave strength to carry her slow-moving body and her cause into the air-conditioned local government offices. She protested their official facts and figures, undeterred by studied evasions.
There was a meeting of parents and lawyers in the front room. They sat around the polished table and listened to her. She spoke of defiance, of protecting the children who were her first concern, of faceless men playing God, of her plan of campaign to foil their threats. They all agreed with her, parents fearing for their employment, lawyers agreeing that principles should be upheld. Later there were furtive movements.
“A petition, of course, but supposing they do close the kindergarten, how much notice will we get?’’
She felt a twinge of fear then, the first breath of losing. Her world began to shrink.
The island too had shrunk before she left, reduced by the stare of her father’s angry eyes at her refusal of the young men. Her mother said nothing but scuffed her heels with the broom as she passed. When her newly married sister visited, the older girl waited on her and sat nearest the door.
Towards the end of the third typhoon season since Walter left she told her father she was leaving the island. He looked at her with silent eyes and made arrangements for her passage. Only her younger sister accompanied her to the quayside and held her tightly before she boarded. When she turned to wave from the deck there was no one.
The steamer became the cockpit for her sense of loss. The tremulous sea, soon deserted by the smudge of island, engulfed her bravery. She unpinned an orchid from her hair and returned it in the abalone-white wake to her island of birth.
The first days in the city were unreal and bewildering. The streets and crowded pavements terrified her. Waterfront bustle and the sound of many different voices sapped her determination. Swirls of strangers intent on alien occupations buffeted her inquiries with indifferent hostility.
On her first day she sought out and was received with impatient readiness by the proprietor who had grown affluent by making her boarding house the first destination for people from the islands. Making a tentative descent after her first night in the unfamiliar room, she engaged the bustling woman with questions about Walter. Saddened by her familiarity with the tale, the woman, who had hardened her heart against continuous tragedies of separation and betrayal, appealed to the desultory group of men who lounged in the room. The name was repeated without much interest and they shook their heads. Walter was not of their acquaintance.
She became more aware of the difficulty of her task, betrayed by her earlier confidence. Obeying the organising influence of the woman who ran the boarding house, she took employment in a nearby waterfront cafe.
“To get you on your feet,” the woman advised and the girl spent long and harried hours doing just that between the serving hatch and the tables. Hopeful, as if it were only a matter of time until the thread was found, she plied the customers with questions. Many promised to “keep an eye out” and left generous tips. Others grew nervous at the scent of pursuit and hurriedly escaped her searching eye. On her free day she mustered courage and spoke to the mariners around the waterfront. She quickly grew afraid of their knowing smiles.
The days sickened into long weeks. Her sense of mission weakened under continuous failure and she withdrew in confused silence. Unable to ease her hurt, the everyday world became ever more ugly and stupid.
The tall, black, man lived a solitary life. Daily he saw the slow wilting of the girl who brought him his dinner. Although never involved in her questioning he was aware of her quest. An interest, unforced yet compelling, made him touch her arm as she attended his table.
“You will not find him if he does not want you to,” he said.
His words outlined and reinforced her fears. She snatched her arm away and withdrew, putting cold distance between them. In unavoidable reflection she was annoyed at the bond that had been established between them. It was as if he shared a secret she was unaware she held.
When he next arrived to sit alone and eat she confronted him.
“There is no need for him to hide, no one pursues him,” she lied.
She was angry at him. His name was Mako and she too was privy to the cafe gossip. He ignored her deception, absorbed in the food before him, devoured by the tattooed dragons on his face, their reptilian forms emerging from his woollen collar.
The following night he remained late at the table, his ebony face taut with the ravages of self-mastery.
“I have a boat, The Harpoon. I use it for fishing on the Sound. There are no ghosts aboard.’’
A short bark of laughter, like the call of a seal, sounded from his chest. His eyes took shelter beneath lowered brows. He was breaking a vigil that had protected him from the memory of another woman, pale-skinned, easily lured away. The girl knew a sacrifice was prepared and though quick to suspect the offering, she was unable to resist the ceremony.
His house stood in inviolable desolation on a cruel rock beyond the barren sandbars. Crouched among cold lava-flows, it contained large glass bottles of model ships, nets drooping from the ceiling of the room smelling of tar and salt. Sunset through leaden windows filtered a distant headland, enriching old brass with dormant gold.
He watched her catalogue his life with casual avarice, rejoicing in the sharp waking pain of her unthinking callousness. Transferring ownership with her trailing fingers, she circled the room, rejecting its defensive simplicity. She felt vulnerable in the face of such austerity, awed by the forlornness that had mastered these dissolved spaces.
A workbench, strewn with carved bone and remnants of sealskin, offered some hope, but it was quickly dissipated by the contemptuous clearing of his hands. He offered her brandy in a crystal glass and sipped from a metal cup.
She traded her presence for reluctant information.
“I live as a man will when he is alone,” he confessed and sensed the blood seeping from ancient wounds. “I also do not seek anyone,” knowing it was less true now even as he tried to exorcise her power. Later, helping her on board the boat, his fingers stayed on her arm. They understood the other’s need, even as they concealed their own desires.
When Mako next entered the cafe she was engaged in deep conversation with a big-haired island boy. She was exited, leaning forward to catch the talk. Despite her smile and the wave of a greeting hand, he felt foreboding and grew cagey within. She brought the boy over to meet him.
“Walter is in Sydney. This boy knows where he lives. He was speaking to him less than three weeks ago.’’
Mako’s eyes flickered over the pleased countenance of the messenger and an ancient challenge passed between them. The boy’s eyes wavered under the fierce stare until he looked away. The black man’s world, collapsing into shapelessness, was poorer by one more victory.
There never was any alternative for her. Nursing a futile hope that this time he would feel no pain, he kept his own thoughts. He spoke only once before retreating into the silence from which she had almost rescued him.
“You do not know what cities do to people. When you find Walter he may not be as you remember.” It was as near as he could come to treachery. Harbour-side neon gleamed on wet streets the night he carried her suitcase to the ship through a curtain of misty rain.
“You’re giving away all that you have,” he said, his voice muffled from deep within his collar. “Sydney is a long way. You should stay here and this Walter, when he learns you have left the island, will come back and get you.’’
She felt for the solitary man and clung to his arm as if to absorb his strength and control. She was trembling, her face against the rough canvas of his coat. Carved from stone he stared at the dark, rain-swept night, and felt time unwind their lives. Betrayed by a web of silence, they waited until it was time to go, each sunk in their own misery. Reluctantly he prised her hold from his arm.
He felt himself dissolve in the softness of her misted eyes. She waited, feeling the gulf widening between them until, in the void, she recognised the necessity of her leaving.
Flustered with misery, she raised herself to brush the dragon’s flame with quick, dry lips, their lives sundered by this butterfly touch.
Hurrying with her suitcase through the rain towards the lighted entrance of the ship her footsteps echoed on the wet, oily dockside. He remained long after the shining maw of the entrance had devoured her, staring sightless at the dark bulk of the ship. He felt a shroud of isolation descend on him with the heavier rain and knew it would no longer shelter him. Turning, shoulders hunched against the wet night, hands deep-pocketed, he made towards the nirvana of the quayside bars.
The woman hugs the shade at the rear of the front verandah. Down the sunlit street, schoolchildren straggle past in noisy groups. Some of them she recognises, older now and self-assured, laughing on their way to school. She remembers their tearful plight when first abandoned on her verandah, left by harassed working mothers. Their initial outrage shook the world until she comforted them and drew them into a world of love and toys and self-possession.
Now they pass her gate without a side-glance, the memory of their first school long forgotten, unheeding of the woman in the shadows.
The metal gate hangs silent, useless for lack of entering hands. She tries to recall its noise. The stream of faces flows through her memory but there is little comfort in the past. She wonders who would next swing back the gate but realises there is no one with need or cause.
Franjipani petals carpet the lawn, their scent rising in the heavy air, the blossoms unprized and uncollected by young girls for bouquets and garlands. She moves from the shade and bends with difficulty, straining against the restrictions of her bulk, flushed and breathing heavily. She straightens and stares at the bloom in her hand. Its abandoned fragility seems all too personal. She looks around helplessly at the fallen flowers.
Defeated, she goes back inside the empty house, aware of a desolation that threatens to destroy her.
Sydney was all desolation when she first arrived, exhausted by seasickness and the struggle to escape Mako’s betrayed eyes. She took a taxi to the address given to her by the island boy. The decrepit boarding house was in imminent danger of collapse. Cracked walls hung with strips of peeling, sun-blistered paint, the front door leaned, hinges devoured by rust.
The fetid interior housed a motley collection of men who moved like wraiths, their souls consumed by despair and failure. Some of them she recognised with horror as the relics of emigrants from the island who had sailed away to make their fortune. Their burning eyes made her afraid.
Walter had left the week before; no one knew where he had gone.
She escaped their reaching hands and the despair cloaking the house. Her eyes hazed with futility, she walked blindly through the swirling city streets. She found lodgings in a beachfront hotel and locked herself in a room for seemingly endless days. Totally defeated, she was unable to regard the future without despair. She wept for her shattered dreams.
When she emerged, she carried herself with a new air of determination. She set about the business of earning a living. Refusing some lucrative but compromising offers she found work as a waitress in a beer garden. Dressed in a travesty of an island costume, she served drinks, quickly learning the knack of extracting large tips from the customers by laughing and talking with them. She made friends with another island girl at work who invited her to share a flat. She gladly accepted, moving out of the hotel to a bright airy two-room flat with a view of the harbour. She spent money on new clothes, city clothes. Stares and whistles followed her summer-clad figure on the streets. Meeting new friends and going to parties gathered her a circle of admirers.
One of these was a tall, deeply tanned man, John Metyn, newly arrived in the country and a frequent customer at the beer garden. He smiled easily and often, spoke quietly in polite tones. She became continually aware of his presence as she moved about the tables. Caught in fascination, their eyes began to meet and their smiles became knowing of the future. They met after work for coffee, talking into the morning hours, long streams of gentle words weaving the fabric of a private world.
He had come to the city, he said, from the other side of the globe to escape the memory of a girl he was going to marry. She ran away with her cousin, a policeman, a week before the wedding. Afterwards there was no reason to stay, so he came to Australia. He worked in a law office while coming to terms with the strangeness of a different country.
He was easy to talk to. He listened to her account of the search for Walter and seemed to understand. They touched across the table. She was fascinated by the strong bones and soft skin of his hands, her fingers tracing the outline of her wrists as they talked late into the night.
Afterwards he walked her home and they said goodnight with long searching kisses and touching. Soon the night came when, her clothing loose and inviting, her near-naked body moving frantically against him, they made love. His naked body loomed in the dark above her, then moved to fill her with a passion that lifted and freed.
The months that followed were as deep and wide as the seas around her island home. Like a salmon in seawater for the first time, she lived in an ecstasy of freedom, moving quicksilver through the currents of city life. Her workaday hours passed in impatience for the nights and weekends filled with his presence and the round of parties and dancing. John had a sports car and they spent sun-bathed hours exploring the coast. They found secluded coves and beaches where they swam naked and made love on the hot sands. Lingering in candlelight, they sat over late night suppers, oblivious to everyone but each other. Soon she transferred her belongings to a new flat. He carried her, laughing, across the threshold. They stayed inside for two days and when they emerged there was nothing she would have added to her happiness. They held a party to celebrate their home and in the laughter and talk, the dreams of the girl from the islands became submerged in a woman’s world brimming with love.
The heat of the day penetrates the amber room. Her breathing is strained and heavy. She lies with eyes closed on a derelict cane sofa, her enormous body swathed in a faded nightgown that clings to her sweat. Apart from breathing, she lies perfectly still, one soft plump hand hanging limp and nerveless above the threadbare carpet. An essence of peppermint, her remaining passion, mingles in musty aroma with the cheap scents from the dressing table. The air is humid and stale, filled with oppressive heat. In the birdcage, overwhelmed by the omnipotent silence, the canary perches bright-eyed and quiet, a smear of brilliant yellow in the gloom.
The vacuum is complete behind the woman’s eyes, her mind as empty as her day. She feels threatened, and bewildered, battling the familiar fluttering wings of panic. The terrifying noon, containing so little, conjures so much from the empty air, visions and unfamiliar mists of forgotten feelings. She aches with the loss of her children and mourns with a constant sorrow her dependence on other women’s children. It need not have been so, once she had been fruitful, holding in her the seed of life, the life of a son or daughter.
Her grief, carved from regret throughout the years, is ancient and heavy. She struggles with it in the room where the air shimmers like liquid.
Vague, disturbing changes coincided with the arrival of her first morning sickness. John left his job under a cloud and there was money missing from the office safe. Nothing was proved against him but he had to resign. He showed no emotion at first, at least not in public. At home though, he became a different person, moody and angry. He reviled the men he had been working with, discovering a conspiracy among them that had plotted his disgrace. They were jealous of him, he said. He took to coming home late at night, drunk and surly, bad-mouthing a growing number of people for refusing him work.
The change frightened her. She accepted it as a result of the tension involved in looking for a new job, confident he would return to normal as soon as he began working again. Not to add to his worries, she kept her nausea in the mornings to herself. The sickness persisted and she tried to recall half-understood snatches of conversation she had heard from women in her village. Her time of the month passed again without visible effect. Finally at the insistence of her friend at work, she visited a doctor who confirmed she was pregnant. Filled with a foreboding she did not understand, she waited on an opportunity to tell John.
He had grown more morose as he remained unemployed, refusing positions he considered beneath him. Now he was drunk most of the time. His attitude towards her had changed, seemingly regarding her as his servant to do his bidding without question. Sometimes he accused her of being in league with others to keep him from getting a job. Bewildered, she accepted the abuse, convincing herself he would change when he learned of her condition.
Finally she could wait no longer and one morning, as she bustled about making breakfast, while he sat at the table, head in hands, she told him of the doctor’s verdict. From bloodshot eyes he stared at her, his mouth twisting into an ugly scar.
“You stupid bitch, that’s all I need now, a bloody little bastard. Bleeding perfect. How the hell did that happen? Don’t you know bloody anything?’’
His voice rose to a shout, cups and plates were sent flying.
“Haven’t I enough to worry about without having a kid?” He hit her a hard punch to the side of her head, sending her sprawling on the floor. She scrambled away from him, dazed and confused. He continued to rant, his language betraying origins he had been at pains to conceal.
“You get rid of it, make bloody sure you get rid of it. I don’t care how and I don’t want to know, just get rid of it.”
The door slammed behind him, leaving her sitting on the floor, numb with horror and shock.
When she arrived back from work that night he was waiting, drunk, halfway through a bottle of whisky. As soon as she appeared he began to abuse her, shouting and cursing, punching her about the arms and head. Finally he collapsed in a stupor, moaning, the liquor spilling from the overturned bottle.
Her life became a nightmare through which she moved like a sleepwalker. His attacks became more savage, her body was never without the ugly marks of his brutality. Alternatively beaten, then used for sadistic pleasure, she also endured his bouts of self-pity, guilt and remorse when he would weep, begging her forgiveness.
Desperate now, she found the name of a doctor who would terminate her pregnancy. Later, lying on bloodstained newspapers in a filthy room of a back street clinic, she screamed and suffered the mutilation of her womb at the hands of a drug-wrecked doctor. Back in her own bed she cried, numb to everything except the pain that devoured her stomach.
She woke terrified at his drunken approach, cowering from the blows her refusal and pleading earned her. He tore at her, gagging her screams with his hand, his heavy frame pressing her down. Unable to resist she endured, until mercifully his movements ceased and he rolled to one side to sink into snoring unconsciousness. In the tear-drenched darkness she lay like a wounded animal, wondering why she was not dead.
The next day she escaped but he came to where she worked and created a punching, shouting scene, which got both of them ejected and lost her the job. So began a series of flights, but wherever she fled, he followed, exercising an ownership he claimed over her life and body. She moved from job to job, room to room, always pursued and savagely beaten when caught.
Finally exhausted and unable to run any more, she resigned herself to the degradation of her existence in a dirty room with cracked windows and cockroaches. Under the torment of her days, which lengthened into months and years, her face and body coarsened under his brutality. An abject failure in the affairs of men, he wrecked his vengeance on the woman he kept in beaten submission. His drinking was unending and he took whatever money she earned to satisfy his craving.
On a night of torrid heat, he returned from the bars, staggering through the door supporting a creature like himself, a small, sharp-faced man, unshaven and filthy with viciousness about his eyes not even his drunkenness could conceal.
“S’friend o’mine, Joe, he’s come to be nice with you.”
The slurred words caused her to back away in horror. With loathing she watched the little man’s sniggering approach until, in desperation at his touch, she flung herself at him, raking her nails across his face. He swore and staggered back.
“Bitch, I’ll teach you to insult my friends.” Her tormentor pushed the little man aside and came at her fists clenched.
Screaming hysterically she ran to the sink, dragging open a drawer and whirling to strike at him with a long knife. He halted, swore at her and began to retreat as she threatened him.
“Get away from me, get out of here,” she screamed, making a lunge at him, the blade drawing a sudden startling blood from his cheek. He made for the door, stumbling, terror in his eyes.
“I’ll kill you for this, you bitch,” he swore but turned and ran as she charged at him, swinging wildly. She attacked the closed door, hacking at the panels, splintering the flimsy barrier.
Later she emptied a bottle of pills and drank the remains of a bottle of whisky.
On his cautious return he discovered her, unconscious beside the door. Unable to waken her and thinking her dead, he took what money there was in her purse and disappeared. A vestige of the man he once aspired to be made him telephone the police. They arrived in time to prevent her from escaping to the other islands she had begun to remember.
It was an indelibly fine day marking the beginning of summer when she was finally released from hospital. She felt different. All her possessions were in a shopping bag and she was dependent on the hospital social worker for a place to stay. The nightmare of brutality no longer caused her to start from bed at night screaming. The terror had been replaced by an emptiness that weighed with the finality of death.
The psychologist was beginning to lose patience. There was no resistance to her probing questions and she knew that where there is no resistance there is no contact. The woman agreed with everything asked of her, showing neither anger nor commitment. One iron remained to singe the apathy of the woman who had retreated inside her overweight body, trying to insure against involvement. Having made use of the social security files the psychologist was able to announce; “We know where Walter Rohar is living. If you want, we’ll take you to meet him.”
The woman was surprised at how small were the ripples in her mind caused by the pebble of a name. It was only a name now, without the sun-like gravity that her life had circled for so many years.
Irritated by the lack of response the psychologist flicked her lash of interrogation at the woman across the desk, immediately feeling ashamed.
“You do want to see him? After all, that’s why you came to Sydney in the first pace, isn’t it?’”
“Yes, I would like to see him,” the woman answered dutifully.
It was inevitable she would go see him, though it was more the idea than the person that attracted. There was a lingering doubt in her mind as to whether he could still exist in the real world, outside her imaginings. The doubt persisted even after she saw him.
The wasted, grey-haired, shadow of a man, hidden among rough blankets, was unaccustomed to receive visitors in the small room where the air stagnated behind smeared windows. He had no terror at their appearance, terror was beyond his emaciated resources, but their presence added to his confusion. The social worker and the psychologist murmured and retired to the door, their conversation fraught with possibilities.
The man and the woman struggled with the proximity of long-forgotten intentions. Unexpectedly familiar eyes flowed with the brine of regret. To both, she on a straight-backed chair, he sunk among grey pillows, the void of years was a sorrow they could lament together. Slowly, with stilted slabs of words, using the shattered images of youth, they conceived and constructed a tenuous bridge on which to meet.
Both were in receipt of pensions. The wheels of the law held promise of grinding compensation from the mills of industry for the man’s broken body. In temporary accommodation they tentatively explored the reality of each other. She found work cleaning offices and shops at night. During the day they sat together, he tiring quickly, the shattered jigsaw of his pelvis consuming his energy. Occasionally they became enmeshed in embarrassed silences, their talk too filled of the older days and the danger of recriminations.
Under the conscientiousness eye of the social worker, the fruits of compensation ripened. The judgement when handed down proved enough, with much work, for a house.
“The house you wanted, Angel,” urged Walter, rubbing her hand in encouragement. “Buy carefully,” he cautioned.
The house crested the ascending aspirations of a suburban row, overlooked by the majestic spread of a tall blue gum. She bought with the shrewd eye of island traders; her mastery of the premises of value was absolute.
When settled, their contentment was radiative, spreading through the large house and sunny garden. Walter’s room had been chosen with care. Plenty of light yet shaded from direct sun, the outlook from his bed included the glancing corner of a metropolitan racetrack. Enthroned on a bed of pillows he lay quietly and gradually made his confession to her accepting ears.
His life was a voyage of continuous shifting, squandering money and health in a world that reserved only its menial and dangerous jobs for him. Strutting with defiant insolence he filled his life with traditional mirages: women, gambling and drink. Years and dreams burned like paper candles. Older and consumed with weakness he had fallen from a girder on a construction site and fractured his pelvis. The litany was complete, the life dispersed and faint.
Now, in the euphoria of survival, he suggested children. His shattered trunk and her saddened womb were inadequate. Yet the house had so much potential for children.
“Adoption?” echoed the social worker. “Impossible,” angered at her failure to provide them with everything.
“Never mind,” Walter comforted them both. “We are still two.”
He hung suspended over a void of unfulfilled promises and years of neglect. The woman moved in the twilight, balancing him with gentle fingers.
There were children next door. Through occasional conversation with their mother, the woman lived a vicarious motherhood. Touched by epics of teething and whooping cough she strained to touch the baby whenever possible, for though the children were offered for adoration, they were withheld from possession. Finally came a day of need when the younger woman, desperate to join her husband in the city, conceded the forfeit.
“Would you mind? I’ll only be an hour.”
The woman, unfolding a bloom in her heart, stood cradling an infant. She moved gently, swaying, marvelling at the beauty of the suddenly fragile day.
It began like that, an infant pioneering the tenderness of her embrace. Quickly it grew, the phenomenon of watchfulness, as if she drew them to her, an appetite of motherhood insatiable. Other mothers sensing the care, grateful for the reliability, trusted their toddlers to her love. Soon the house and garden resounded with the sound of children playing happily.
In the splendour of her new role, deprived of the full torrent of her love, it was inevitable the man would perish. Unable to grow and with the possibility to demand burnt with yesteryear’s bridges, he closed in on himself. She was aware of the measure of sacrifice he required and watched helplessly as the ether of life evaporated from his almost transparent body.
Afterwards there were the years of children, a growing number in her house and heart, overflowing her life with their youth and laughter. She loved them all and lived the times of birthday cakes and nursery games, cutout work and finger-painting. She grew immense, a mountain of love for her countless children, revelling in the vocation for which she had been created. Before the council shut the kindergarten down.
She wakes to the empty house and the hot, silent, afternoon. A remaining ray of decaying light pierces the evening gloom and reflects through a prism of a looking glass. Seized with a premonition, she heaves her bulk from the chair and with difficulty investigates the silence.
The birdcage is empty, the door open and the canary flown. A cry of grief, of unbearable loss, fills the mute spaces of the house. Before nightfall the silence is complete.