Authors: Peggy Frew
Tags: #FIC000000, #FIC044000, #FIC019000
One night I waited till it was realy late then I got up and went along three doors to Pats room. I knocked quietly. Yeah? she said and I opened the door. I could just see her lying in the bed. Can I ask you some thing? I said. Yeah. We were both whispering. If you did have some where to go, if you did have someone to look after you, would you do it? What, keep it? Yes keep it, if someone could help you take care of it. Yeah she said, I reckon. Especially after giving up the first one. He was a boy. I never saw him but they told me he was a boy. So you going to keep yours then? I think so I said. Have you got some where to go? After? Yeah I said, I think I do. Well she said, When my boy was born I suddenly thought Oh no I cant give him up I have to keep him, but I had nowhere to go you see. I did put up a bit of a fight but it was pretty weak, I knew I couldnt keep him realy. You might be all right if youve got some where. Youll have to be strong though, they have that many tricks you wouldnt believe it. They want those babies. Someones making money in all this you know and its not us. Someones making money? I said. Course they are she said. There are these agencies where people go who cant have kids and they pay good money to get a nice little baby. Yoursll be beautiful I bet if its any thing like you. Whos the father? I didnt answer. I felt my face go red, I was glad it was dark. She laughed. You dont have to say she said, But I bet he was good looking. Yeah I said, He was. Well listen she said, Youll need to be that strong theyll stop at nothing to get there mitts on your baby. But just remember if you dont sign the papers they cant take it, doesnt matter what they say. Theyll tell you if you wont sign theyll take the baby any way and make it a ward of the state but if youve got some where to go where youll be safe and looked after Im sure they cant do that so dont believe them.
I sent a letter to The Path, I had the brochure with the address hidden in the lining of my suitcase. I didnt know who to put so I just wrote To the lady I met in the park, then I wrote that I needed there help please I didnt have anywhere else to go. I wrote down what Pat had said about the agencies and someone making money, that although it sounded crazy in some cases they were making girls give up babies who didnt want to. It was embarassing because I knew I probably made a lot of spelling mistakes and my writing always looked like a stupid persons but I had to swallow my pride, this was important I had to contact them they were my only hope.
Ishtar got a job, at the milk factory. On the powder line, whatever that meant. Most weekday mornings she went off in one of the cars, and came back after I'd returned from school, fine grains of yellowy stuff sometimes caught in the hairs at her temples.
âDecided to join the rat race, have yer?' said Val, banging the wooden spoon on the edge of the porridge pot.
Ishtar didn't answer, just took her bowl and began to eat, standing up. The chairs around the table were all full. The morning meals were quieter than the evening ones, and more people ate in the kitchen. Miller was rarely there. I hardly ever saw him on school mornings, and on weekends he usually didn't emerge from the mud-brick building until breakfast was long over.
âPity.' Val leaned against the fridge and took out a tobacco pouch and some papers. âIt was nice seeing the two of you out there, slaving away, side by side.' She dug in the pouch. âCute.'
The word sliced above the spoon-scraping and chomping. A couple of heads lifted, and I also watched for Ishtar's reaction. It was always hard to tell whether Val was teasing or not. She was a large woman with coarse hair dyed a brassy henna-red, growing out grey at the roots. Her gravelly voice could be heard ordering Jindi out of the kitchen from the other end of the house.
Ishtar kept eating, taking her time.
Val rolled her cigarette, lit it, and began to smoke, one arm folded across her wide middle. There was a half-smile on her lips, but she didn't say anything more.
Ishtar finished her bowl and put it in the sink just as one of the men â Gav, they called him â weedy, glasses, bald on top and with a thin ponytail behind, rose from his chair with a gust of patchouli and stretched his arms above his head.
âBetter get going,' he said. Two women also got up and they all left the room, Ishtar in tow. There were the sounds of banging doors from the front of the house, and then a car starting and driving away. The three or four adults who remained went on eating.
From another room came Jindi's voice: âVa-al! Val!'
âJust a minute, love,' called Val. She went to the window above the sink and let out a blurt of smoke. Through the glass, the mess of Miller's handiwork was visible: the vegetable patch dark and bare, stripped of weeds but also of its fence. Miller had obliterated it in an afternoon, but rebuilding had apparently stalled. A couple of posts stuck up out of the ground, snarls of wire at their ankles, but nothing more had been done, and I realised now that things had been like this for some time â perhaps even weeks. At one end of the patch sprawled an out-of-season pumpkin plant, which had seeded itself.
âSee?' Miller had said, âwe don't even need to lift a finger. Nature is eager to provide,' and as if in response the vine had spread quickly, its hollow creepers licking across the raggedy grass towards the shed. Jindi had waded into it, searching for fruit, but found nothing â it seemed to be putting all of its energy into growing more leaves.
Val tapped ash into the sink and sniffed. âGood thing he's got her,' she said, casting a look at the shuttered entrance to the mud-brick building.
I got a letter back from the woman although it didnt say The Path on it anywhere and it was in a plain envelope. I could tell she had written it very clearly so she must have known from my letter to her how bad I was at writing and reading, that made me feel ashamed like always but still at least I could read it. Thank you for your letter it said, Yes of course you would be welcome to stay with us for as long as you need to. You are doing a brave thing and it wont be easy but we will help. Let us know when the time comes. With love from Mira.
It was night when it started. I stayed lying in the bed. I knew I was probably supposed to tell the nuns but I lay there for ages. With the pain I came even more alive like at last I had realy woken up from my daze. Its a baby I whispered out loud, youre having a baby. I thought about the hippie woman with her baby tied on, her smile her kiss the freedom of her body. I tried to imagine my mother holding me when I was little but all I could see was the gloves she wore when we started going to church. When it began getting realy bad I got up and put my things in my case and checked in the lining for the pamphlet. I went down to Pats room and tapped on her door and opened it. Your time is it? she said. Yeah. A pain came and I had to hold onto the door. When it was finished I said Which hospital? What? she said. Which hospital do they take you to? She told me and then she said, Well good luck then, stick to your guns and dont sign any thing. I went downstairs. It was nearly morning, the windows showed light grey. I thought the door to the office would be locked but it wasnt, maybe they forgot to lock it. I went in. I took the pamphlet from my case and rang the number. Mira answered. I didnt cry this time, I could hear someone coming and I had to be quick. Im having the baby I said and told her the hospital. Please help me I said and hung up.
âWhat's he doing?'
Ian and I were up at the fallen tree, leaning across it to look down on Miller, who moved slowly along the fresh brown rectangle of the old veggie patch. The remains of the fence still lay in a rusty tangle at one end; shaggy circlets of weeds had drawn themselves up round the lower reaches of the abandoned new posts, obscuring the coils of wire. Miller had a spade and a sack. He would dig, then take something from the sack and squat with it a moment, then step forward and dig again.
I shrugged. âPlanting potatoes, I think.'
âThat's what I thought. Bit early, isn't it?'
âWhat do you mean? It's almost dinnertime.'
âI mean in the year.' Ian slid his camera in front of his face, pointed it down at Miller and fiddled with the focus. âWe don't do ours till spring.'
I watched Miller probe with the spade.
âAnd there's no fence. The chooks'll scratch everything up.' Ian clicked the shutter. âNot sure he knows what he's doing, your dad.'
âHe's not my
.' The words shot out, louder than I'd meant. I felt the blood rush to my face and there was a gaping, shocked feeling in my belly at the idea of somebody seeing us as a unit â me, Ishtar, and Miller, with equal connections between the three â that it was not obvious that the only thing that brought me and Miller anywhere near each other was Ishtar, in the middle.
Ian was looking down at the camera. His ears had turned red, and I felt the silence between us throb with all the things we'd never talked about, never even ventured near. School, Mr Dickerson, Dean Price, photography â all these had been gone through, taken apart, talked over from every angle. But us, ourselves, our families â what it was that made us different, that had us sitting up the front of the bus with all the other freaks â that, through some unspoken rule, had been off limits.
I swallowed. âHe's just my mum's boyfriend,' I said. Then, seized by a sudden recklessness, shoving the words out quickly: âI don't know anything about my dad.' My heart pounded. I had never told anyone this before. At school whenever we'd had to do projects about our families, I'd always made mine up. My fictitious father â and grandparents, aunts, uncles, and even, sometimes, siblings â looked just as feasible as anyone else's when drawn and labelled in coloured pencil.
âReally?' Ian was still fiddling with the camera, and his voice was soft, respectful.
âIshtar says she didn't know him. They weren't â¦ together.'
Below us, Miller put down the spade, squared his legs, and began moving his arms in a series of ponderous circles.
âMiller is her new boyfriend,' I said. âI don't know anything about him either.'
I did know some things. I looked in his room one time, when they had gone off somewhere in the car.
The room was like a burrow, right down the end of the low, dim hallway of the mud-brick building. There was one window and it was small and high, allowing just a trickle of light. The air felt thicker in there, and was full of his musk. Only a small patch of floor was clear for walking on; everywhere else stood piles of boxes, bags, and suitcases, some opened and with the contents spilling out. There was no furniture other than the mattress, the chair, and two bookshelves, side by side, both crammed full. Books formed wonky towers in every possible space between and on top of the boxes. I picked up a couple. One was on Ancient Egypt, with big colour photos of tombs and mummies, and illustrations of gods with heads of animals; another had a murky cover showing a woman with very long hair and billowy white clothes sitting by a pond, and was full of poetry.
Nearby, a briefcase, deep reddish brown like an office worker's, overflowed with pieces of paper. From these I learned his full name: Walter Ronald Miller. A few of the papers had swirly writing at the top saying either
University of Melbourne
University of Sydney
. Some of the others were from Telecom or the SEC with bold red letters saying things like
. Some of these had Miller's name, some had other names â names of women.
Next to the briefcase was a tall carton full of clothes, still in their packaging, from a shop called Henry Buck's. Five or six neatly folded shirts with pieces of white card showing at the undersides of the collars. Three soft jumpers in sleeves of tissue paper that had snagged and torn where the sticky tape was, but which still held a clean, new-wool smell. A jacket and pants of dark grey, heavy fabric â these had been badly folded and stuffed in and so were very creased, but they were brand new, too, and
was handwritten on a bit of paper pinned to the sleeve of the jacket.
Another box held a diary, bound in leather, with
embossed on the front. Listening for the sound of Miller's car, I riffled through it: it was mostly blank, the pages opening with reluctance, as if for the first time, but the early couple of months had entries, a few words on each page, marked in a close, sloping script. I struggled to make one out.
, it said,
2.15 Prelim hearing.
Underneath the diary were some spiral-bound notebooks, filled with writing in that same hand. None of it made sense to me â it was all about affidavits and pleas, and prosecutors, and had lots of names I'd never heard of, some marked
with another name I'd never heard of. There was a big fat hardcover book, too:
The Law of Torts
I glanced at Ishtar's one suitcase and duffel bag sitting in the corner. They looked their usual compact, neat selves, but even they were being encroached on by the huge, looming tide that was Miller's mess â and her bedspread, crumpled down at the foot of the mattress, appeared more worn than I remembered, and smaller. I turned slowly in the small central clearing. So much stuff. As if he conjured it with his hands, brought it bouncing and skittering into his orbit, to then fly along in his wake like iron filings following a magnet. Into my mind came the twin images of Miller lifting Ishtar and putting her into the car, and then lifting and carrying her into the room at the ashram â her yielding body, her transformed face. Then I saw him raising Jindi towards the night sky. The power in those arms, and the speed with which they snatched something up â a body, a whole person â and then just as quickly let it go again.
The feeling of dread that had lapped at me since I entered the room was becoming unbearable. I made for the door, but then stopped. Above the bed, someone had stuck a picture, hand-drawn with coloured pencil on a large piece of yellowing butcher's paper. It was better than I could do, but amateurish nonetheless â perhaps Year-Nine or -Ten level. The detail and choice of colours were impressive, but the scale was out, giving a sense of vertigo, and the figures had clumsy, too-big heads, and hands without enough fingers. I moved closer to examine it properly.
At the bottom there were layers of green and brown, with tiny things dotted here and there: networks of tunnels with rabbits and rats in them, bones both animal and human, snakes and lizards, minuscule worms and bugs that I had to get right up close to see; veins of gold with borders of dashes to show sparkling, faceted jewels with their own dashes in ruby red and emerald green; and then, massed into clots, rubbish â scrumples of paper or rag, apple cores, cans and bottles, even a toilet bowl with a crack pencilled across it and, down low in one corner, the carcass of a half-flattened car. All through this section, reaching among these objects, snaked the root system of a tree. This took up the lower third of the paper.
Then there was a middle section with a background of light blue and the trunk of the tree rising up in the centre, reaching its wide limbs to both sides, bristling with leaves all shades of green. Below this canopy, taking up every inch of space, were plants, animals, people, buildings, even a pool of water with a boat on it, all jumbled in every which way, sideways and upside down, as if packed as closely as possible. I stood for some time taking in all the different elements, because there was a lot happening: a nest of eggs; two people seated at a table, a roast chicken on a plate between them; an aeroplane crashing into a mountain in a grey, red, and yellow explosion; a silver horse twisting her neck to lick her suckling foal; a group of grinning skeletons holding the body and separated head of a naked baby aloft, blood spurting. It was all mixed in together, the lovely and the awful, all shoved in every which way in the cramped blue. My chest felt tight. I glanced at the doorway.
The last, highest, part of the paper had no background colour, so what was drawn there appeared to float in jaundiced space above the busy scene below. In the middle was a swollen sun, flecked with red and sending out a semicircle of rays. At the end of each ray were the same two figures drawn over and over again in different positions. In every one, the figures were locked together by the man's penis, which was enormous, almost as big as one of his legs â the man was meant to be Miller, clearly, with his bronze halo. Each snaking penis was sticking into some part of the woman â Ishtar, with her draped hair, her calm eyes. The places where the penis stuck into Ishtar's body had been drawn as if transparent, so the whole penis could be seen going into one of the two passages drawn like wormholes between her legs â or in some of the pictures her mouth, and throat. In every picture, a spray of droplets burst from the end of the penis, from a dark point marked there precisely in black; the liquid, all colours of the rainbow, shooting into the shaded pink of Ishtar's body.
I couldn't get those enjoined figures out of my mind. In they came, as I lay sleepless on my mattress in the Joni Mitchell room: the brutal, stabbing, oversized penis; the explosions of sperm; the awful angles of Ishtar's bent-back limbs. The strange peace in the two pencilled faces, as if disconnected from the actions of their bodies.
I tried to bring a blackness down over them, or to replace them with shimmering blobs of silvery blue by rubbing my eyes hard, but they always came back. I tried to stop the cartoon heads and clumsy hands from turning into the real Miller and Ishtar, with skin and wet tongues and other parts, but I couldn't.
I'd glimpsed those dark, adult places before, at those parties â Ishtar there in some sprawl of candlelit flesh â but this was different. And somehow worse. I didn't know why, but it seemed to have something to do with the towers of junk in Miller's room, evidence of a vast, messy past that he trailed so blithely, as if it was weightless.