Authors: Andrea Goldsmith
So the institution fixed the child to her, by an unnatural bond that had nothing to do with love and everything to do with duty. If Elizabeth had not seen those children managing to survive an environment intent on wearing them away she might have given Ginnie up. But she had seen, and a remnant of justice, worn thin and ragged by the months with the baby, pulled the child tight
to her chest and held her there while she spooned and washed and wiped her own young life away.
The baby gurgled and gulped and gagged. The tiny body, usually limp like a stick of tired celery, stiffened, and for a moment Elizabeth felt the touch of a normal infant, a small quick joy before the body slackened once more. Even when you know how it is, hope is embarrassingly tenacious. Bloody lurking hope.
She tipped the baby further back, too defeated to think about its choking, besides if it should happen, which was unlikely, the speech therapist had shown her what to do. So many helpful hints these smiling therapists handed out, but there were times when Elizabeth wished she did not know, times when she acknowledged the iniquity of it all, that while the child had never really lived, her own life had finished at the age of twenty-three. The baby was a murderer, the flaccid lump of flesh had killed as surely as any assassin; all that remained were a few memories of how it was before and how it should have been now. But as the days rolled on, even the memories, now so shrivelled with guilt, became as fragile as the summer grass. Elizabeth had expected to jostle for happiness in her turn at life, but what she had received was really too mean: trampled, bruised and sinking, she no longer aspired to happiness.
The bottle slipped as Elizabeth raised a hand to her forehead. The skin was cold as clay. She jammed the teat more tightly into the child’s mouth and idly turned the pages of the newspaper. ‘Read the paper,’ Adrian would say, ‘take your mind off things. No sense in becoming morbid, that never changed anything. Besides, you’re letting yourself go. You can’t give in to this, you’ve got to fight Elizabeth.’ And with that, he would peck her pallid cheek and leave the house.
Elizabeth turned the pages, looking but not seeing. It was not even the daily newspaper – too large to handle while she fed the child – only the local tabloid, full of council news, baby contests, the benefits of a proposed freeway, an article by concerned citizens for a freeway-free suburb, local shopping bargains, lawns mowed, handymen for whom no job was too small. The child’s gulping was only occasional now. She removed the bottle and rolled the
baby on to its stomach and started patting, hoping it might sleep. Elizabeth arched her aching back and turned another page.
She was not reading but saw the small box advertisement anyway. In the same way one always sees one’s name on a crowded page, so this advertisement, no different in style to all the others, stood out.
? it asked in shameless capitals.
? it continued on the next line.
, it stated bluntly on the third,
and I cannot believe I’m the only one in the entire southern suburbs. If I’m not please contact me on
. . . A post office box was given and the name Penelope Roscoe.
Elizabeth stood up and walked to the nursery. She put the child stinking of cabbage and dirty pants into the cot. The child awoke and the screaming began. Elizabeth left the room and closed the door; she walked down the hall and shut the door; she entered Adrian’s office and shut that door too. She stood near the desk and listened. The wail was still audible. She turned on the radio, sat at the desk, wrote briefly, sealed the letter, added a stamp. At the front door she called out to Mrs Cox that she wouldn’t be long, walked to the comer and posted the letter.
When she returned, Ginnie was still screaming. ‘She seems a trifle upset,’ old Mrs Cox said from the door of the nursery. Elizabeth took up the soft screaming mass, held it to her and quietened it. ‘I don’t expect to love you, I only want to tolerate you.’ She rocked the baby quieter and quieter. Pacing and rocking and thinking. She wanted peace, clouds of heavy still peace. The baby slept and Elizabeth walked gently up and down, back and forward, her marble face determined to be calm, her body cushioned by a cloud of peaceful avoidance. Rocking and walking at twenty-three.
A week later, Elizabeth Dadswell stood in front of Penelope Roscoe’s house, a small but stylish Victorian cottage in a row of five. Two of the others were garnished with the latest fashions, a third was littered with builders’ rubble and the last, still in its original state, was strangling in lavish tangles of rose and ivy and wisteria. Elizabeth knew the area well. It was in the throes of being
gentrified. Young couples, the honeymoon still fresh and the university degree newly framed, had filled the dilapidated houses with modern touches and youthful verve. Their eagerness, like fresh pungent varnish, adorned the little homes, gently, lovingly, glossing all visible surfaces. The hawthorn brick was painted cream or white, the window frames and Victorian lacework were in contrasting chocolate brown or dark blue; toilets were brought inside and placed in brightly tiled bathrooms, while in the kitchens, old Kookas were replaced with modern stoves and bench space appeared as if by divine inspiration. In other parts of the house windows were widened to propel light into the tawny Victorian interiors and creaking floorboards were muffled by deep carpet pile. Outside, in the front sliver of garden, was an Australian native, a blue gum or a wattle, and, a foot or two further on, a high front fence crawling with a vicious ivy. The little gardens were planted for now, for this year or the next; the new owner-renovators expected to move to larger premises before the gums towered over the houses and clogged the guttering. In this suburb, the people and the trees were on the move. Upwards.
The Roscoes appeared to be typical inhabitants. The house had been painted cream with chocolate trim, the fence was high and swarming green, and the blue gum, already at guttering height, suggested an occupancy of three to four years. Prevailing taste would judge it an attractive house, one that, in the words of the realtors, combined modern convenience with old-world charm. And yet who could know whether current fashion and eager realtors were right? Who has the vision to see their own times? Not Penelope and Andrew Roscoe, and certainly not the younger Elizabeth Dadswell. Elizabeth liked the house, liked it very much: the blue gum, the high fence, the cream and chocolate paint all met with her approval. She and Adrian had looked at many such houses prior to their marriage, but in the end her parents, who were paying for the property after all, had the final say, and Elizabeth had been forced to forfeit the picturesque and atmospheric for pragmatics: a large, Edwardian-style family home a brisk ten-minute walk from the Bainbridges. Adrian was delighted: the house was an excellent pulley for his ambitions.
Ginnie stirred in the carry-cot. Elizabeth pleaded with her not to wake and moved smoothly down the path to the front door. ‘I ask nothing of you,’ she murmured to the child in a lullaby voice, ‘only sleep, just this once, for a few hours. Let me have this time.’
It was not that she believed her life would be changed by the meeting, rather she longed for the solace of knowing others like her. She wanted to feel less alone and less guilty. She wanted, too, to feel less of a failure, but the experts said that would only occur if she were to have another child. And she wanted to talk, talk once, twice, a hundred times and ask a thousand questions about the child and the future and getting through each day. Even the brief phone call with Penelope Roscoe had made her feel better. Penelope had telephoned three days ago, Monday, and suggested morning tea for the Thursday. ‘I think there’ll be four of us,’ she had said, ‘a good number. Any more and I think we’d drown in a flood of words.’
Since Monday, as if she knew Elizabeth could take no more, the child had withdrawn her claws. Meals had been eaten in less than an hour, the crying was less shrill and less frequent, the pretty smiles were more numerous and she seemed to be holding her head up a little better. For the first time since the diagnosis Elizabeth was able to leave her with Mrs Cox for an entire afternoon while she shopped for a new outfit to wear at the morning tea. She had needed new clothes for some time but, apart from the family and close friends like Lydia, she saw no one. Not that she had stopped her small dinner parties, but she tended to restrict the guest list to those who knew about Ginnie. As for invitations from others, they were increasingly rare. People telephoned but never visited. Fear of intruding, Susie Warby explained, everyone realised how very busy Elizabeth must be. No one ever articulated why she was so busy, no one wanted to utter the awful truth. But Elizabeth knew that intrusion had nothing to do with it, only fear and distaste.
The baby was sleeping when Elizabeth left to go shopping. She stepped outside and stood for a moment in the sun, face to the sky, eyes closed. She experienced a novel assuagement, intensely physical. So this is liberation, she thought. But behind the joy was
a black boiling pain, and she decided as she walked to the car that it was temporary relief with its seams of desperation that she was feeling, nothing as permanent as freedom. There was no disappointment. You learn to take what you can.
Elizabeth had gone straight to Liliana’s and there had chosen a casual ensemble – a cotton shirt-dress in a blue stripe with a blue linen jacket. She looked in the mirror and saw her old self: well-groomed, stylish, tasteful. Elizabeth had always been described as a fine-looking girl, cultivated without affectation, but then, as her mother often said, good breeding always shows. She had finely-textured skin of middling shade, greyish eyes of the correct size and shape, and auburn hair cut to the shoulders with a nice bit of curl. She was quite short, just five feet two, with a roundish figure that was never described as fat. As Elizabeth admired the effect of the ensemble, Liliana put her head around the dressing room door to say hello.
‘Lovely to see you,’ she said, in her carefully crafted Italian accent. ‘You’re looking more like your mother every day. She was in last week, for a pretty little grey silk suit.’ Liliana nodded at Elizabeth’s outfit and adjusted the collar of the jacket. ‘I know she’d like that. Mm, very nice.’ Elizabeth smiled at the compliment and decided to take it.
She strolled up the street towards her car, swinging her bag and looking at the window displays. She smiled at familiar faces and they smiled back, everyone so friendly – she really should try to get out more. Suddenly, at the end of the row of shops, Elizabeth stopped, a new boutique had opened. The window was draped in startling clothes of blowsy cloudy Indian prints that would reveal the outline of the body; and there was denim too, several pairs of jeans decorated with brightly coloured embroidery. Elizabeth did not wear jeans, they were not ladylike, Mrs Bainbridge said, and only very loose girls would be seen in them.
These were years when denim was an issue, when denim represented much more than durability, years when on black and white television respectable people watched the denim-clad youth of San Francisco, flowers and beads adorning their thin bodies. ‘Thin with drugs,’ Diana Bainbridge said, ‘drugs not
dieting, and certainly not happiness. Besides, truly happy people don’t need to advertise it. These people protest too much with their peace and happiness.’ And while denim was not entirely to blame for the declining moral standards of youth it had made a significant contribution – so Mrs Bainbridge said.
Elizabeth stood on the footpath staring in at the darkness of the tiny boutique with its outlandish fashions. She ran her hands over her sensible beige gaberdine skirt, her button-through olive-green check blouse, and stared at the window. She raised a hand to her face to brush aside a stray strand of hair and the putrefying smell of stale, boiled vegetables seeped into her nostrils.
Not at all ladylike.
She wiped her hands on the beige gaberdine and entered the shop. The smell of incense was strong, stronger even than boiled cabbage. Elizabeth breathed deeply. The shop assistant inquired if she needed any help, and then left her alone to browse. At Liliana’s they assisted you, assisted you constantly, with a shirt to match the skirt you were trying, a sweet little jumper to complement your navy trousers, gossip about who had bought what for which occasion and whether you would be wise to wear the blue or the black for the Nethercott cocktail party. At Liliana’s browsing was known to be unprofitable. When Elizabeth was still without a selection several minutes later, the woman offered some help.
‘Let me have a look at you,’ she said, turning Elizabeth to face a mirror. And then she touched her. Touched Elizabeth’s shoulders, her arms, her hips, murmuring as she went. ‘Ah-hah,’ she said, ‘mm.’ Touching and murmuring.
No one had touched her for months. In the long period after Ginnie was born when entire days were spent in feeding the child, Elizabeth would turn to Adrian for comfort – a gentle cuddle, not much – and Adrian would offer sex which she most certainly did not want. More recently, when she would not have minded sex, any physical contact would do, Adrian had not been interested. Occasionally her mother put an arm around her shoulders and gave her a ‘come-on-and-bear-up-darling’ squeeze, but this is insufficient for a young woman trying to stay alive. As the stranger
patted and stroked, Elizabeth felt the tears start and turned away, but the shop assistant had finished: she had just the thing, she said.
Moments later, Elizabeth was alone in the dressing room with three pairs of jeans and three of the Indian print shirts. She stood beneath a frosted lamp, the strange clothes clasped against her gaberdine skirt, stood there wondering how she could leave without giving offence, without making a purchase. At Liliana’s, at Roma, at La Femme you came in order to buy – try and buy, never try and leave. And although you might leave with a garment for which you had little use, the procedure was clear: you never left disappointed, which is to say, empty-handed. Now her hands were full, but things had gone awry. She dropped the clothes to the floor and glared at the bundle. The shop was quiet, incense burned and Elizabeth dawdled for want of knowing what to do. And soon Ginnie would wake and want to be fed and Mrs Cox had made it quite clear what her duties were.