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Authors: Andrea Goldsmith

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BOOK: Gracious Living
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‘You’d know Vivienne Sweet then,’ Ginnie said.

The woman looked impressed. ‘I certainly do. How do you know her?’

Ginnie explained she had known Vivienne all her life.

‘You’re fortunate. She’s my supervisor, a marvellous teacher.’

Ginnie was about to ask more when her attention was caught by Scott. There, in the main entrance, a few metres away, with another guy and two girls, all of them making a lot of noise in the nearly deserted library.

The woman frowned. ‘I hope they’re not indicative of this year’s crop of freshers. There are days when this place already sounds like a football ground, if it gets any worse it’ll be unbearable.’

Ginnie ignored the comment and watched. She did not know these people with Scott, but they all seemed to know him, know him well. Particularly the girls. So much squealing and shouting and prodding and patting, so much standing too close, bodies touching. The girls were attractive, but not startling; Ginnie touched her own cheek, no more attractive than she, and she was certain they were not as clever – although she would readily trade a little cleverness for her disability. Less clever and less disabled – a fair deal. She watched the group disappear up the stairs, listened to their fading voices, felt her body pounding in the silence left behind.

‘If they spent as much time on their interior lives as they do in playing with each other we could all look with a little more hope towards the future.’

She sounded like Vivienne and Ginnie had heard it all before. For now, she needed to think, needed to decide what to do about Scott, who might reappear any moment. She turned her attention to the terminal. ‘I have work to do,’ she said.

‘Of course. I expect I’ll see you around. Good luck.’

Ginnie pressed random keys, the menus came and went, she had no interest in the material, no need to practise, and, she realised, no desire to leave. She wanted to see Scott, but she wanted him alone. Would he leave these people for her? Would he tell them he had just seen a friend and excuse himself? She stretched her neck and looked over the terminal to the stairs, no sign of them. Why shouldn’t he leave them for her? – these people
were probably only casual friends, perhaps met only that morning while he was enrolling; Ginnie was different, he cared for her, of course he would join her. Had he not talked to her just a couple of hours ago, had he not said he would ring? And what about last year? Was that not a relationship? Had they not slept together, studied together, been treated as a couple by their friends? Of course he cared for her, the doubts were ridiculous, dragging doubts, doubts dragged in by the disability. How numerous were the times when she had removed the scrim of her disability and daydreamed of a life with a normal body. She would picture herself, a popular girl with lots of boyfriends, athletic, brilliant at the cello, leading a perfect life. She had imagined herself on the ski slopes in winter, yachting in summer, always at the centre of a crowd. So many perfect dreams to nourish her while she struggled with stairs and doors, pretending the disability did not bother her, pretending it was not there at all. She had joined a bush-walking club last year, the tramping through nature nearly killed her. She had learned how to ride a trailbike, even though she was terrified. She wore clothes to hide her disability and crafted a lively personality to clothe her soul. Scott had helped bridge the gap between the dreams and the daily reality; more than that, he had made her feel desirable.

From the beginning Scott had appeared untroubled by her disability, almost as if he did not notice it, not even when she was struggling to keep pace as they walked down the street together, not even at the end-of-school party when she caught him watching her fight with fork and plate and sticks, and not a chair in sight. But you cannot expect everything from a boyfriend, she had told herself as she dumped her plate on a sideboard, you cannot have it both ways. So what if he had watched her struggle with a plate of food, wasn’t that preferable to a pitying arm wherever they went or, worst of all, his not being around at all? Well, wasn’t it?

She heard his voice, he was returning, he was at the bottom of the stairs, the others were right behind, they were coming this way. Ginnie stood, her chair fell, she called to him over the top of the terminal. He looked in her direction, he must
have seen her, must have heard her, but seconds later he and his friends were gone and the library was quiet once more.

She picked up her sticks, left the chair lying on its side. There was pain with each step but it was only the adrenalin pumping fear into her and dragging her energy away. She walked to the women’s toilets, went into one of the cubicles, sat down and cried. And the thought that wrung the tears from her was that he would have noticed her if she were not disabled, he would have.

On the way home, after asking Elizabeth a few questions about her meeting with the curator, Ginnie slumped into silence. She was tired, she explained, it had been a long day, and when they arrived home she went straight to her room. An hour later she joined Elizabeth in the lounge.

‘Better?’ Elizabeth asked, looking up from the newspaper.

‘Much.’

‘Good, because you still haven’t told me everything.’

Ginnie raised her eyebrows, to her mind she had left nothing out.

‘The library, how did it go at the library?’

‘Perfectly.’ Ginnie flopped on to the couch. ‘Perfectly,’ she said again.

‘And you can manage everything?’

‘Everything – except the card catalogue.’ Anticipating Elizabeth’s next question, she continued, ‘There are plenty of people to help, in fact, I met one of them today – she’s one of the librarians and a graduate student of Vivienne’s.’

‘And so everything was all right?’

‘Absolutely. Will you please stop worrying, I’ll be fine. Perfectly fine.’

Ginnie looked at her watch and stood up. ‘I feel like a walk, I’ll wander down to Kate’s and tell her about my day.’

‘I don’t think she’s home.’

‘Doesn’t matter, I’m happy for the walk. Won’t be long.’

Elizabeth made herself a drink and went outside to the verandah. She sat down and gazed across the garden. Ginnie was
walking near the tennis court and Elizabeth watched her. She saw her daughter from a distance, saw her as a stranger, as if the space had somehow erased her familiarity. She saw a young woman for whom every step was toil, she saw the sticks and the stooped posture, she saw the disability before anything else. She saw her daughter in a way she had not for a long time and it caused a peculiar ache as if she were once again back in the wrenching, grinding days of the baby years. Then, Elizabeth had wondered whether her daughter would ever achieve anything. In those years as a young mother manacled to a handicapped baby in an empty kitchen at an empty table, with time and its passing the only movement in her young life, the child had been her bondage. She had spent a lifetime in that place with the baby who would not eat.

At the kitchen table Elizabeth Dadswell watched the ant glide over the laminex to the bowl. Up the side it went, right to the rim. It paused, head raised, front limbs waving, sniffing. The creature smelled boiled vegetables, it smelled stale boiled water. The creature was not tempted, it slid down the bowl, across the table and out of sight.

Intelligent little thing, Elizabeth thought as she entered the second hour of Ginnie’s lunchtime feed. She stared at the patch of table where the ant had disappeared, willing its return, but it was gone and the child slithered into view. The child and its clumsy mouth far too close. Elizabeth tried to escape, extricate herself, set her hands to automatic, spooning the slops and catching the mess, while she, a person after all, slipped away to a grassy knoll deep in the country, or to her old studio where a lump of fresh clay beckoned from the bench. But it was too late to save herself, her imagination was spoiled by the rusted smell of boiled cabbage: the grass would yellow and the clay would dry and Elizabeth and the child would remain together day after day and year after year from 1971 to the end of time.

So this is how people go mad, she said aloud.

The baby, startled by the noise, gagged, and a bolus of pureed
vegetables doused in dark, dank stomach juices toppled over the tiny chin. Elizabeth began to cry, cold tears for the loss of the largest mouthful of the meal, resentful tears over boiled vegetables trapped forever in her nostrils, and all the while the spoon scoops more of the slops and carries them through the loose lips to the tongue snaking within. How Elizabeth hated the tongue, that writhing bunch of muscles with its taunts and tricks and jousts. The spoon must sneak around it, neatly, stealthily, the slightest hesitation and the tongue would thrust at the metal, heaving food out of the mouth heavy and ominous as a mud slide. Hump and roll and the food spewed over the slack lips and slithered down the chin. Elizabeth left the green muck clinging to the infant skin, even though the only person she punished was herself.

Time passed, dragging its minutes. Elizabeth glanced at the clock. After one and a half hours only half the vegetables were gone, and most of this was caught rubbery and wet in the weave of the nappy she used as a bib.

‘Damn this,’ she said, flat and quiet, ‘and damn you,’ she said to the child. The child looked back at its mother, the eyes large and dark and pretty above a face slick with green slime. In the long empty pause that followed, the baby’s head dropped back and the mouth gathered into a scream; an exquisite piercing scream. The noise continued, punctured only by deep breaths, mere splinters of silence when Elizabeth felt the child watching her. Elizabeth preferred to avoid those eyes, they saw too much. Elizabeth could stand before the world without shame, a patient, suffering, ill-fated mother, but before the eyes of the infant she was condemned.

She turned away. She knew what to do and immediately felt herself relax. She removed the teat from the baby’s bottle, tipped the vegetables in with the milk, replaced the teat and shook the bottle. The contents sloshed up and down in the glass, thud plop, thud plop, like a brain rattling in its skull. She watched the mixture turn a pale khaki and settle into the consistency of diluted mud. She smiled with satisfaction. She took a fork and wrenched at the teat until the hole was a gaping angry gutter. She tightened her jaw, clenching her lips as she tipped the child well back in her
lap and poured the food in. The speech therapist, the woman in charge of all oral functions – eating, screaming, and if luck prevailed, talking – would be aghast at such apostasy; but mothers were not fools and Elizabeth would not be accused of starving her child.

Ginnie swallowed in strong irregular gulps and the level of food in the bottle decreased. The glugging sound, just on the verge of choking, was oddly comforting. It was all very well for the speech therapist to forbid liquid foods and reclining postures and gaping teat holes, all very well for her to mutter that Ginnie was not nearly as handicapped as other children she knew, she only saw the child once each week, mid-afternoon, cleaned and smelling of baby powder, no longer hungry and eager to sleep. ‘Such a gorgeous little poppet,’ the therapist said, taking the child on her lap, ‘such a pretty little girl.’ And there Ginnie would sit for the entire session silent, compliant, gurgling to the speech therapist and ignoring her mother. No, the speech therapist did not have to sit for hours every day nagged by aching muscles and taunted by a future clotted with the odour of regurgitated food. She did not sit spooning in time with the passing hours, her life dribbling down the baby’s chin. Neither the speech therapist, the physiotherapist, the social worker nor the paediatrician had to live with this child.

And neither, they were quick to remind her, did she.

The bottle was emptying quickly. Elizabeth stood it on the table and watched the khaki sludge sink to the bottom. She wiped the child’s mouth a little too roughly and saw the infant skin glow. Without the dribble and the green slime, she was a pretty baby; even Elizabeth could see that. Strangers would peer under the bonnet of the pram, ‘What a pretty little thing,’ they would say, ‘and how old?’ And Elizabeth always reduced the eighteen months to ten, so that all the mothers could nod sagely: they thought as much. But what would happen when the child outgrew her pram and burst through her pusher, how could Elizabeth conceal the truth then? It was not so much that she was embarrassed by the handicap, rather, any association with this child was a reminder of her own damaged life. And it would go on forever, a life sentence – despite her innocence.

She replaced the teat in the child’s mouth. Thought of the future sickened her, not merely the sight of meals stretching to the end of the century, nor the clumsy intrusion of a wheelchair, nor even the start of Ginnie’s menstruation. The question that lingered over tortuous feeds and disturbed her early morning sleep was whether the child would be retarded, whether she would have the capacity of thought.

Elizabeth had seen what she most feared at an institution for handicapped people: children with larval bodies, children rocking, banging heads, others with scarcely any movement at all, their wizened bodies and twisted limbs knotted on the floor, their haggard faces staring at the ceiling. Ginnie’s paediatrician had advised the visit. ‘To acquaint yourself with the child’s future,’ he had said, ‘and to make sensible decisions,’ with a warning emphasis on ‘sensible’. It was difficult for Elizabeth now, he had said, but she would thank him for his uncompromising attitude when all this – he waved his hand at the infant – was behind her. He had wanted Elizabeth to see what Ginnie could become, what she might look like, he had wanted Elizabeth to look at the little creatures and find menace and disgust in their bodies. But instead of menace, she saw stark neglect in their deformities and wretched deprivation in the strangely colourless skin. She saw cruel yellow walls with neither pictures nor toys to please the eye, she saw thirty-five metal cots with hospital-issue white bedding placed in straight rows like packets of flour on a supermarket shelf. She saw two nurses chatting above the freckled contortions of a naked child as if he were a stale discarded dinner. The paediatrician had meant her to envisage a life with Ginnie; but it had been impossible for Elizabeth to glimpse her own weary future while the poor neglected creatures were crowding her vision and snorting in her ears from their vast empty cages.

BOOK: Gracious Living
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