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Authors: Peggy Frew

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Hope Farm (9 page)

BOOK: Hope Farm
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Pat was right the nurses were mean. They left me alone mostly, on a high bed in a hard white room glaring with lights. Every now and then they came in and looked under the sheet told me to open my knees like the doctor had all that time ago and it hurt when they touched me. It went on and on, it got worse than I could have ever imagined. I made noise I couldnt help it and they came and told me Shh now pull yourself together. Right at the end a doctor came, he was nicer than the nurses. Come on he said, Be a good girl youre nearly there. Then she was born and I heard her cry. The nurses tried to stop me seeing, they took my arms and tried to make me lie back again but I pushed them away and sat up and for a moment I saw her at the end of the bed under the doctors big hand with its white glove. I saw her dark hair all wet and her little pink ear and her skinny arms out wide. I saw she was a girl. And then she turned her head and I saw her face and it was funny because I heard one of the church ladys say once that all newborns look like there fathers but she didnt, I looked at her and all I saw was myself. The doctor cut the cord and then a nurse wrapped her in a cloth and took her away.

Something went wrong with the plumbing in the bathroom. The bath wouldn't drain, and had to be bucketed out every time someone had a shower. The room became wetter and mouldier, with puddles collecting on the slippery lino, and the floorboards swelled with damp in the places where the lino had already worn away. Then one day an elongated hole appeared near the base of the bath, from which freezing air blasted upwards, smelling of dirt and rodents.

There was a meeting of sorts, in the kitchen. It was a weekend morning, Miller not yet up.

‘Three letters, I've written,' said Gav, in a tone that managed to be all at once incredulous, aggrieved, and triumphant.

‘They promised to send a plumber,' said someone else. ‘Straight away. That was last week.'

‘And Val's rung them on the phone, and even gone in to the office.'

Val's rattling laugh. ‘The woman said, “Oh, so yer use the bath, then, do yer?”'

No one joined in the laughter — instead there was a round of tongue-clicks.



Heavy sighs.

‘Ah, well …'

Arms folded, away they slouched.

People began washing in a small tin tub in the laundry. It was only knee deep, and not wide enough to sit down in. I didn't use it — there was no door. At any time, a figure might be glimpsed from the kitchen, bending and sloshing, luminously naked in the gloom.

‘We're not paying the rent,' said Val grimly, setting the envelope of cash on the kitchen windowsill, ‘till something's done. That's the only language they understand, the bastards — the language of money. They'll get off their arses soon enough.'

I came back from the creek late one afternoon to find Miller out at the wood-splitting stump with a chainsaw, in a storm of noise and spraying woodchips. On the back steps, Jindi jumped up and down, her mouth moving, her voice a tiny peep under the frenzied revving of the machine. Two men also stood by: Jez, who was the guitar-playing man from that earlier night; and Gav, with the glasses and ratty ponytail. Gav also sometimes wore a sarong that showed his hairy white legs above socks and sandals.

Miller held the chainsaw with braced arms, angled it this way and that, applying it to a chunk of wood. A shape emerged — a wide, shallow, scooped-out grin. The wood inside was a lighter colour, rough from the teeth of the saw.

At last the noise stopped, and he laid the machine down. ‘Right,' he said, and Gav and Jez moved forward.

There were two sections of a large tree trunk turned sideways, the bottom edges trimmed to form a flat base, the tops cut away into half-moons. Gav and Jez took one between them, Miller the other. Away they moved, bodies bent with the strain, past the chicken coop and the compost heap to a level bit of relatively clear ground that lay at the bottom of the hill. There they arranged the logs either side of a small, freshly dug pit.

The bath they laid on top was the old cast-iron one I'd seen down the side of the farmhouse, rust-streaked and belly-up in the weeds. It had already been flipped and washed out — and with help from Val and Ishtar, Miller and the others got it off the ground to waist height and shuffled with it to the waiting log cradles. With yells and much grunting, it was settled into place.

Jez, Gav, and Val wandered off. Miller, sweating, retired to the kitchen steps with a glass of beer, and Ishtar took over. Before the sun — indistinct behind an even sheet of cloud — crept away completely, she had the bath filled from the hose and a fire built beneath, banked and settling into coals. A black mark merged with the rust where the flames touched the underside of the bath, but when I looked down through the water the inside was unblemished. When steam began to rise, Ishtar took a shovel and put out the fire. There was the smell of wood smoke and a faint metal tang. Darkness had gathered in the bush and along the fence lines; the light was on in the kitchen, casting a warped, yellow rectangle onto the ground. Someone brought a candle.

Most people were back from work now and a small crowd applauded as Jindi, her bare skin starkly white in the near-dark, rings of dirt at her neck and wrists, was lifted, shrieking with glee, into the water. The bath was so deep she had to hold onto the edge; grubby trails dripped from her fingers down the newly cleaned rim.

‘How is it, Jindi?'

Jindi wallowed and grinned, her double chin bulging. ‘Nice!' she declared. ‘Very nice!'

The kitchen door banged open and out came Val, naked and whooping, arms flung upward, the loose flesh of her belly and thighs quivering. To renewed cheering from the crowd and the engine-like chug of her own laugh, she skipped across the grass, breasts bobbling. The orange-red of her hennaed hair flared in the candlelight as she hooked one leg over the edge and clambered in with a splash.

‘Who's next?' yelled someone.

Gav began to unbutton his shirt. ‘Shove up, girls,' he called. ‘There's room for one more.'

I went inside, which meant passing Miller where he still sat on the step, now with Ishtar on his lap. I approached with my head lowered, and at the edge of my vision they appeared to be one merged being with two heads and a sprawling, many-limbed body. Miller's drawing rose, unbidden, into my mind and I took the steps quickly, gut shrinking with distaste. I imagined the two of them were waiting, with a kind of benevolent tolerance, for everyone else to finish with the bath — Val and Willow and Gav; lesser beings, who belonged in the overcrowded middle plane of Miller's picture — so that they, who were special and belonged up high in clear space, contorting themselves joyously at the end of each pointing ray of sun, could have it all to themselves.

‘Where're you off to?' Ishtar's voice was a half-hearted murmur, and I felt her hand pat briefly at the leg of my jeans as I passed — an absent, dismissive pat.

In the kitchen I made myself a slice of bread with honey. By the sink lay some potatoes, half of them peeled. A frying pan was on the stove and starting to send up black smoke. I turned off the hotplate and went into my room.

Lying in bed I could hear them, singing, yelling. Eventually there were the sounds of someone moving around inside the house, followed by the smell of pot and then, after a bit longer, the smell of cooking. My stomach twitched with hunger but I didn't get up. I thought about Jindi descending naked into the water, the uncomplicated joy in her face, the way she kicked and wriggled, free in her child's body. I curled on my side under the blanket, pushed with my forearms at the hateful tender places where my breasts were starting to grow.

The outside bath was popular for a while, until a man came and fixed the bathroom, and everyone started using that again.

‘It is glorious, out in the clean air,' said Val. ‘Just glorious. But it's also fucken freezing!'

They put me in a different room. Go to sleep they said, You need to rest. I want to see my baby I said. You cant keep her from me. Not now they said, The babys sleeping now. You need to rest. They went round the bed straightening things. They took my temperature and looked under the sheet again, they were always looking without asking first or saying what they were doing. Please I said. Its best if you dont they said. A new woman came in, a woman in plain clothes. Hello she said and smiled. She had a singsong, false kind of voice. She said Im an almoner thats a funny word isnt it? I almost laughed it was such a joke her talking to me like I was a child, me who had just had a baby. My job is to help girls like you she said. I saw the papers in her hand, I knew what she was doing. Now you just need to sign these she said. No I said. She smiled. Youre tired she said, I will come back later. A nurse gave me an injection. I was so sore and worn out I couldnt help it I fell asleep. When I woke up I didnt know how long Id slept, the lights were off the blind was down and I couldnt tell if it was day or night. A nurse came and I asked again about the baby and she said Later. They brought me food and I was so hungry I ate it all and then I fell asleep again. Next time I woke up the blind was open and it was day. Can I see my baby please I said and the nurse said Not now. Then I thought of some thing. Dont I have to feed her? I said. No no she said, Dont worry about that, shes being taken care of. I dont know how much time passed, I slept again and when I woke up the almoner was back sitting beside the bed in a chair. Well youre looking much better now she said in her put on voice and set the papers down over my knee and held out a pen. I didnt take it, I didnt look at the papers. Please can I see my baby I said, I dont want to give her up. She tried to hold my hand but I pulled away so she put her hand on my arm. We already have a couple she said, Waiting. Theyre a lovely couple and they cant have any children themselves. Now dont be selfish. What kind of a life do you think you can offer her? She deserves a good life in a comfortable home and a good education. You cant give her any of that now can you? Mm? I tried to think, my mind wasnt clear. The papers nearly fell off my knee and she put them back again. She slipped the pen between my fingers. I just want to see her I said. Well she said, How about you sign these and then maybe … I felt so foggy and tired I nearly did it, it would have been so easy and maybe she was right maybe I was being selfish. But under the fog I felt hate, I hated her I hated all of them the nurses the nuns my mother, I didnt want to be a good girl I didnt want to do what they said to enter the tunnel like Evie to shut my life down. Id seen that babys face and it was like a reflection of myself. I let the pen go and it fell on the floor. She bent to pick it up and I tipped my knees and the papers slid off and just missed her head. She straightened up all flushed and her voice wasnt singsong any more. Youre a silly girl she said, Why wont you cooperate? Think about your baby, dont be so selfish. Then I saw some thing in the doorway and it was her, Mira, except she didnt have the plaits she had her hair pinned up and she wasnt wearing her silk clothes, she had on a skirt and a blouse very old fashioned. The almoner got to her feet. Who are you? she said, There are no visitors allowed in here. Help me I called. I pulled back the covers and sat up. What are you doing? said the almoner, Lie down now please. She went over to Mira. No visitors in here she said, Youll have to leave. Help me I called, They wont let me see my baby theyre going to make me give her up. The almoner pushed Mira out the door then went out herself.

I thought it was all over then, I thought theyd won. It was lucky the almoner didnt come back because I probably wouldve signed the papers. Nobody came in for hours. I got up but the door wouldnt open it must have been locked from the out side. Then at last it opened and I thought it would just be another nurse come to poke around and jab me with needles but I couldnt believe it, it was Mira again in her strange clothes. There was a man too in a suit with a briefcase and there was the almoner all huffing and puffing and red in the face. Only Mira sat down, she held my hand then she nodded at the almoner. The almoner wouldnt look at me. There has been a misunderstanding she said, We were not aware you had a safe place to go and someone to support you. Then the man said to me Now just to make sure we all understand whats happening could you please let the social worker here know what you want to do with your baby. He meant the almoner. I want to keep her I said. I dont want to give her up. The almoner looked like steam might come out her ears. Is that clear enough? said the man. Yes said the almoner and went out.

From time to time Ian would cop it especially hard at school. I'd see him at the morning break with Dean Price's sausage fingers hooked into his armpits, his toes barely touching the ground, his head slack, eyes lowered while something unintelligible and foul was bellowed into his face. With this came a corresponding increase in attention from Dean Price's cronies who caught our bus; they were kept pretty well under control by the driver but still managed to deliver menacing looks and comments as they sloped, pack-like, up or down the aisle.

When these things happened there were changes in Ian's own behaviour. He went missing — sometimes arriving at the creek bank late, and sometimes not showing up at all — and he never said where he'd been. His face looked extra thin and pinched, and he would hardly keep still, talking a hundred miles an hour, maniacally adjusting settings on the camera, sending the collection of balls hurtling into the creek, his whole body almost flying down after it.

His actual speech also changed, became even more affected. ‘Ah, manna from the
,' he would intone, when I brought some honey sandwiches. ‘Come
with me, fair maid, and let us forget our

He began branching out, too, with his acts of revenge. One afternoon he boarded the bus with a swollen lip and a graze on his chin, composed but slightly unsteady as he approached his seat. The next day at the creek, he produced with trembling hands an exercise book that had
D. Price: Maths
printed on the front cover. I stood by while Ian tore the pages out one by one and dropped them into the brown flow, the paper turning translucent so little clusters of numbers appeared to float directly on the water.

Another time, I saw him up against a wall near the boys' changing rooms with the flat of Dean Price's hand against his ear, his cheek pressed against the bricks. A couple of days later it was a single, knobbled football boot that entered the creek, laces trailing, its opening like a mouth gulping as the water went in.

These attacks and retributions were not acknowledged by Ian beyond his sharing, wordlessly, the celebration and disposal of his spoils. Afterwards — once the pages had all floated away, or the boot, glugging its last breath, had sunk below the surface — he turned as if waking from a trance, blinking his invisible lashes, and I saw that it took effort for him to rejoin me, to bring himself back.

‘Well,' he might say, dusting off his hands with exaggerated briskness. ‘What shall we do now, gypsy girl? How about a
?' His latest passion was Shakespeare, and we spent a lot of time reading scenes from the matching tattered copies of
King Lear
that he'd got from a box of discards from the school library. Ian was an excellent reader, rarely stumbling over even the most obscure language.

When he read aloud, all of the usual drama — his flamboyant emphasis on certain words — left his voice, and it grew clear and steady. His face, too, became calm, the skin softening, losing its pallor. But this only lasted while he was reading, and too soon the book was closed and his jumpiness returned, and a sad, protective feeling swelled in me as I watched the white spots reappear over his cheekbones, like the skin was stretched too far.

BOOK: Hope Farm
8.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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