Authors: Jackie French
This book is dedicated to the many people who are (almost) in it: to my parents, Val French and Barrie Ffrench, and to my son Edward, who all, in very differnt ways, work for what they believe in; to Bryan Sullivan (always); to Geoff Pryor and Val Plumwood, and everyone else who makes a stand…
…and, of course, to Gully Jack.
The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of the Literature Board of the Australia Council.
It was hot. The crowd smelt of bitumen, excitement, apprehension. A policeman out the front shouted. Barbara tried to hear, but the policeman’s voice was lost in the sway of chants and swing of feet.
She’d been hungry earlier, a tight knot in her belly; but hunger was forgotten now. She’d been confused, but that was gone as well. It was as though all her life until now had disappeared. All that was left was loneliness and fear.
The policeman shouted again. He had a megaphone. Barbara could just glimpse it through the shoulders and the placards up ahead. Was he telling the demonstrators to go away?
The police were moving forward into the crowd, solid-shouldered and purposeful. Someone screamed, then the sound was broken off. The noise of the demonstration changed abruptly. The chants and
chatter were gone. It was as though the crowd had one voice now, a high-pitched desperate chatter; one smell, the smell of panic.
Barbara turned frantically. Where were the others? They’d brought her here. They’d tell her what to do. Somehow, somewhere, there must be a corner of the world where she’d be safe. But they were gone, part of the shifting feet, the nameless faces all around.
‘Are you all right?’
The old man wore a suit, drab among the tattered clothes around him. He was tall, but leant heavily on a walking stick. He put the other hand on her shoulder. His wrinkles were like the rays of the sun. Barbara stared up at him.
‘Me too. Times like this are always frightening. But you’ve got to make a stand sometimes. You’ve got to stand up for what you believe in, even if you’re frightened. You’ve got to believe that you can make things better…’ He broke off with a smile. ‘I’m making a speech again. Who are you with? You’re not here by yourself?’
‘My friends.’ She’d only met them yesterday. Like her, they had no place to stay. They had said that she could stick with them, they’d show her how to
manage. Was that enough to call them friends? Barbara looked around, desperate.
‘They were here a minute ago, but they went over to see someone they knew and—’
‘Hey, you’ll be right, love. They’ll be back.’
‘But what do you do,’ she broke in, ‘when the police come?’
What if they arrested her? Would they put her in gaol, or in a children’s home? Would they send her back…
She couldn’t go back. She couldn’t.
The man’s eyes were old and blue and friendly. ‘I’ll tell you a secret. A real secret. A girl told it to me years ago. A nice girl, one of the best I’ve ever known. She was a bit like you. She told me she’d been scared, just the way you are. She said that when you’re scared you just go around the corner.’
Someone screamed again. A man shouted, then broke off. The crowd was milling around, confused; some people leaving, some prepared to make a stand. Barbara tried to speak. A shoulder jostled her. She almost fell, but the old man’s arm kept her steady. He winced, as though the shock hurt him. ‘Around the corner?’
‘That’s it. You’ve got to be scared enough to make it happen. I reckon that’s why it’s never worked for me.’
‘But how does it work?’ She had to shout to be heard.
‘You just imagine.’ The old voice was comforting in her ear, as though he was remembering happier times, people that he loved. ‘Just shut your eyes and picture yourself walking around a corner. That’s what she told me. Somewhere around the corner the world is better. Somewhere around the corner you’ll be safe.’
Safety, that’s what she wanted. Safety and a home. But how…
‘I don’t understand. That girl you knew. Did she walk around the corner? How?’
The old man was staring at her now, properly, as though he’d come back from somewhere far away. He was looking at her hair—she knew it needed washing—and her grubby T-shirt, the jeans stained at the knee, the sweat-shirt she’d grabbed and tied around her waist as she left what had been home. He was going to ask questions. His eyes were kind, but she couldn’t cope with questions.
The crowd was shifting, ebbing, flowing. The police were forging through the sea of bodies. A voice screamed high above the crowd, too piercing to tell if it was male or female. It sounded as if the world was screaming. The legs, the arms, the bodies moved. The old man’s arm was torn from her shoulder. Suddenly,
he was gone. Bodies buffeted her from every side. She couldn’t see what was happening. There were people running, but there was no room to run; stumbling, but there was no ground free of feet; crying, but who would hear in all this noise.
The bodies parted suddenly. She could see a policeman hauling a girl off by her hair. The girl was shrieking. Her face was a mouth and frightened eyes. There were more police, and more. The blue of their uniforms filled the world. One was coming towards her. Everyone was gone but her; they’d all moved back. He was looking straight at her. She had to run as well, but her legs were frozen in place—unable to move.
The policeman lifted up his arm.
But there was no sound, her terror made no noise. Her legs were thick, her arms were weak…she couldn’t speak, she couldn’t move…everything safe and happy was so far away; untouchable, unreachable. There was nowhere in the world to go…
‘Just walk around the corner.’ Suddenly, the old man’s voice was clear in her mind. Around the corner would be different. Around the corner would be safe. Away from bodies, screams and terror, away from the despair that had been home…
Her thoughts went blank. Suddenly she could almost see it, a corner somewhere in the distance, clear and solid like it had always been there; it had simply needed terror to clear a pathway in her mind.
The horror of the world around her stilled. She began to move toward the corner slowly, but the air was jelly, almost too thick to take a step. Her legs could move, or did she simply think they moved? One step, two steps. All she had to do was make it around the corner on the edges of her mind…
For a moment there was silence, then the world was ripped away. She could feel reality tearing like a scrap of paper. She could feel shapes part and merge and melt. The world was spinning on its axis, but she was standing still, caught in a whirlpool that was time and space running free. Her body tumbled with it, the corner in her mind the only thing keeping her safe. She had to walk, she had to move, she had to get around the corner…one more step, and another.
Someone was helping her. Hands were stretching out. Lots of hands. They were reaching around the corner. They were pulling her, directing her…suddenly she slid around the corner to the other side.
She tried to focus. This would be the world she’d been promised, this would be security…but even here the world was molten, a slow deliberate
whirling, there was still no firm reality that she could grab. She could feel it tearing at her, but its grasp was different now, ebbing as the whirlpool eased. Gradually the chaos slowed. She was drifting on its edges. There’d be safety here. A few more steps and she’d be free.
Suddenly, there was silence. Birds were singing somewhere, music, there was wind among the trees. The peace seeped into her skin. One more step and she’d be there, among the trees and birds and peace.
It was so hard to move. If she’d been faster perhaps she would have made it, but the peaceful place was gone. The screams were in her ears again, the smells of the crowd and the fear. But these were different. The world was opening up again. Barbara opened her eyes too.
The policeman was still towering over her. His face was hard, a face that did its duty, that shut out everything, except what it had been told to do. But it wasn’t him, it wasn’t the policeman who’d been there before. It was a different face, a different man, a different uniform.
Barbara blinked, frantic. Maybe if she shut her eyes reality would creep back to what it had been before…even the smells and voices were strange. There was pavement beneath her feet, not bitumen;
buildings, strange buildings. Someone was groaning next to her, blood across his face. The policeman’s arm rose…he held a baton…the arm…the baton…was coming down.
Someone shouted next to her left ear. Someone grabbed her by the waist and pulled. The policeman’s arm was gone. Someone, a boy, was dragging her so she lost her balance and stumbled, but he still pulled, hauling her through the crowd.
Suddenly he stopped. They had come around the corner of a building, in an alley, with garbage bins lined up on either side. It smelt of cockroaches and cats. Her rescuer was panting, clutching at his sides. He was a few years older than Barbara. His eyes were bright blue, gleaming under a ragged fringe of faded hair. A rough swag of clothes tied up with string rested by his ankles.
‘Crikey! That was close! I thought we were for the peter then for sure.’
‘The peter. You know, the nick, the watchhouse, gaol.’
Barbara shook her head. She tried to get the world into focus. ‘Where am I? What’s happened?’
‘They were trying to arrest the bally lot of us,’ exclaimed the boy indignantly, assuming she was
talking about the demonstration they’d just left. ‘Then they could kick the poor sods out. Cripes, a few blank lines in the rent book and they evict them. You a friend of theirs?’ He grinned, still panting. ‘You’re a bit young for the UWM.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘The Unemployed Workers’ Movement, chookbrain. They organised the picket.’ The boy’s voice shook with the remnants of anger. He wore long shorts, ragged as though they’d been cut out of trousers for some larger man, a shirt much too big for him and old-fashioned sandshoes without socks. A jumper was slung around his shoulders.
‘I was just passing, but cripes, you can’t walk past a thing like that. Those people had nowhere else to go. The rozzers would have put their furniture out in the street and everything. Those landlords would skin a flea for its hide…’ He caught sight of Barbara’s face, which was pale with shock and fear.
‘Hey, don’t worry. We’re out of it now.’ He patted her arm awkwardly. ‘We got away all right.’
What had happened? Where was she? The world was too different. The terror she had felt earlier was still there, set like concrete, with new terror piling on top. Her head felt light, as though filled with big balloons.
‘What’s your name, then?’ The boy looked at her.
‘Barbara.’ Was that her voice? It sounded far away.
‘Bubba what? What’s up? Cat got your tongue?’
She shook her head.
‘Hey.’ His voice was more concerned now. ‘You’re as white as a sheet. That copper didn’t hurt you, did he? I thought I grabbed you in time.’
‘No, I…’ The world was fading again, but this was different. Her lips were cold. Everything was cold.
‘Look, sit down a sec. Put your head between your knees. You’re looking crook as a chook. We’ve got to get you home.’
‘I don’t have a home.’ She forced her voice out.
‘Everyone has a home. Where are your mum and dad?’
‘No parents.’ It wasn’t quite a lie. Dad was gone, and Mum was…but she couldn’t think of that, she couldn’t.
‘Where do you live then? Where are your aunties? What about your friends? You mean you’re all alone? Cripes, that’s rough.’
‘You don’t understand.’ It was suddenly so hard to speak. ‘I shouldn’t be here. I was somewhere else, in a demonstration.’
‘’Course. I was there too, remember? Look, just take it easy for a sec.’
‘No!’ Her tongue was getting thicker. The world was getting colder. ‘It was another demonstration. Not this one.’ Barbara looked around desperately. ‘Where are we?’
‘Sydney, of course. Are you sure that copper didn’t—’
! I mean
The boy stared. ‘It’s 1932.’
‘But it can’t be!’
‘Well, what year do you bally well think it is?’ cried the boy, exasperated.
‘Yah! You’re trying to tell me you’re from the future! You’re as silly as a two-bob watch if you think I’m going to fall for that one.’
But his voice was growing even fainter. The cold was swallowing up the world. She closed her eyes and let the terror and the blackness fold around.