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Authors: Rachel Hennessy

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The Heaven I Swallowed

BOOK: The Heaven I Swallowed
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Wakefield Press

The Heaven I Swallowed

Rachel Hennessy was born in Canberra, and has lived in Newcastle, Sydney, Brisbane, London and Adelaide. She resides now in Melbourne with her partner and two young daughters. In writing
The Heaven I Swallowed
, Rachel drew on the stories of her maternal grandmother, who was given up for adoption at a young age due to her Aboriginal ancestry, as well as the story of her paternal great-aunt, whose husband fought in World War II. She was motivated also by former Prime Minister John Howard's statement that Aboriginal children were taken away from their families ‘for their own good'.

Rachel Hennessy's first novel
The Quakers
won the Adelaide Festival Award for an Unpublished Manuscript and was launched at Writers' Week in February 2008. The manu­script was also short-listed for the Varuna Writers' Centre Manuscript Development program and won the ArtsSA prize for Creative Writing.
The Heaven I Swallowed
, Rachel Hennessy's second novel, was runner-up in the
Australian
/Vogel Award.

Wakefield Press

1 The Parade West

Kent Town

South Australia 5067

www.wakefieldpress.com.au

First published 2013

This edition published 2013

Copyright © Rachel Hennessy 2013

All rights reserved. This book is copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purposes of private study, research, criticism or review, as permitted under the Copyright Act, no part may be reproduced without written permission. Enquiries should be addressed to the publisher.

Edited by Julia Beaven, Wakefield Press

Cover designed by Stacey Zass

National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry

Author:    Hennessy, Rachel.

Title:    The heaven I swallowed [electronic resource]: a novel / Rachel Hennessy.

ISBN:    978 1 74305 197 9 (ebook: epub).

Dewey Number:    A823.4

For my father, Lance

PART I

‘… you must e'en take it as a gift of God, though it's as dark almost as if it came from the devil.'

Emily Brontë,
Wuthering Heights

1

When I was twelve the Virgin Mary visited me. In the ­convent's small bed I lay between sleep and wakefulness ­creating visions of joy, of rescue. Too young to recognise the line between dream desire and the feelings awakening in my body, I conjured a boy to take my hand and lead me from the institution, into the darkness. It was then the Virgin appeared. She was not like the statues in the chapel, all pure of cheek and sweet-lipped; no painted beauty, but rather a shimmering, disturbing essence. And I was terrified.

The Loreto Sisters who gave me my home and education loved the Virgin Mary but I did not tell them about it. There were only two possible reactions to such a story: they would whip me for telling sacrilegious lies, or they would embrace me, turning Mary's appearance into a sign of my calling to the nun-hood. This, I felt, was as frightening as any lashing.

So I kept the visitation to myself. As time went on, I realised the Virgin had not come to scare me but to remind me of the need to ignore certain pleasures. How much closer to God I would be if I resisted those half-dreams of longing and escape, and remembered, instead, the ethereal Virgin. He would be watching and He would approve of my restraint, of all that I would hold back now and in the years to come.

My brush with the Virgin was the reason I gave such importance to the name Mary. I took it as my Confirmation name, running it alongside the Grace and Teresa my dead mother had given me.
Holy Mary, mother of God, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou amongst women.
Grace Teresa Mary Johnston. I liked the thought of Mary being part of me, as much as I enjoyed Mass and the taste of the holy Eucharist slipping down my throat. These were signs of the goodness inside me, the heaven I swallowed.

I did not see the Virgin again throughout my childhood, although I did try. I would flicker open my eyes in the darkness of the dormitory and wish Her back. But She never came. Even if I thought I had caught a glimpse of Mary I knew, in my heart, it was only my own weak will, creating phantoms for company.

†

On the day the real Mary was to arrive, twenty-eight years after the Virgin's visitation, I thought again of that night, of all I had given up. I was tightly wrapped, you might say, my strong hair, thinned by forty years of life, pulled back in a severe bun at the base of my neck. How proud the Loreto Sisters would have been to see the adept way I could now manipulate bobby pins to ensure not a stray wisp fell loose, nothing to ruin the composure of my face.

At the mirror of my dressing table I applied a thin layer of lipstick and dusted my cheeks with the faintest hint of pink, additions the nuns never would have approved of. But I enjoyed the moisture on my lips, liked to use the round, cream porcelain rouge-holder, painted with lilac bunches of grapes pouring down towards a bright-blue Kingfisher. Fred had sent this to me from Japan. It was part of a set—with a matching ring box—and hearing the gentle clink as the lid fitted back reminded me of perfect proportions, everything in its proper place.

The bevelled edges of the mirror doubled my shoulders and arms back at me, the navy cotton sleeves of my dress short enough for the heat, long enough for decency. This was not a dress I was fond of, bought more for its sombre colour than its style, and I tried to imagine how I would appear to the young girl travelling toward me.

Would her heart be pounding as mine was? Or would the insipidity of her race enable her to glide without concern to her destination, to my waiting, anxious arms?

I picked up my navy cotton gloves, cross-stitches running along the fingers, and walked down the entrance hallway. I wondered about wearing these gloves on the girl's arrival, it would be nice to look a little more casual, to embrace the whiff of freedom that had begun to take over the country since the end of the war. But I knew it was not appropriate. Who else would be accompanying the girl, aside from Father Benjamin? He, surely, had known me long enough for such formality to be unnecessary, but there was bound to be a stranger too, someone from the Home who would scrutinise and examine me, and it was necessary to pass that test.

Ten minutes after they were due to arrive I stood waiting on the driveway, clutching my gloves. My legs in their stockings were damp with sweat and I continued to ignore the man at number 22 clipping his box hedges into rectangles, his way of protecting himself from the eyes of the street. He, no doubt, was curious about my reason for being there, but I was in no mood to indulge him.

From my vantage point I could see the memorial park at the end of the road, the statue on the corner of a young soldier with a bandaged head and a recently damaged bayonet. The local paper reported a storm had broken the bayonet, but I had my doubts. Two streets back from the harbour, Wayville Street—my street since marriage had delivered me here—was seemingly quiet, its residents getting on with life after war. It was rarely touched by the growing number of cars. Quiet and unassuming, my neighbours were unwilling to leave their own four walls to comfort one another; I had learnt that the hard way. Occasionally, though, the veneer would crack, and one night, I felt sure, someone had snapped the thin piece of metal off the bronze statue and stolen it away. I had never liked the statue, too realistic by half, and had secretly hoped its mutilation might result in it being taken down altogether.

Twenty minutes passed before a large black Ford pulled into the driveway. I stepped back onto the grass, pulled my gloves on, and folded my arms in an attempt to hold myself together, although it probably made me look stern and ­uninviting.

Father Benjamin turned off the engine of the car and pushed open his door. His thin face with ridiculous saucer-shaped ears, appeared, in contrast to my agitation, serene. I couldn't see the girl. A red-haired woman barked, ‘Hurry up, get out of the car.'

Father Benjamin greeted me and I replied civilly, although my whole being was centred on the child as she pushed open her door and walked around the black metal to stand next to the front wheel.

Mary.

She looked to be about eight years of age, though I knew her to be twelve. Her hair was long and black and she held her arms in front of her, fingers knotted together. She wore scuffed brown leather Mary Janes much too big for her, and a frilled blue dress, pinching and stained, several sizes too small. It was a hand-me-down, used by one ward after another, sent out into the world and returned again when the inevitable happened. I knew such dresses.

The smallness of the dress showed off most of Mary's skin and I was shocked to see how dark it truly was. When I asked—and I had asked—Father Benjamin had assured me the only ones deemed suitable were those who could pass for a white. What kind of white? Their white obviously was not the same as mine. My white was the white of sheets in sunlight or crisp blank pieces of paper not yet marked with the scribbles of my students. My white brought light into a room, not the sullen expression this girl wore. Her eyes were lowered, her head turned slightly to the side, as if checking for someone standing behind her.

I had imagined someone completely different. As a widow I could not be fussy—the adoption of a white child would have been almost impossible—and here was Father Benjamin handing me what I had longed for, with barely a piece of paper signed. Yet how could this be fulfilment?

‘She shouldn't be a problem,' Father Benjamin said, as if reading my hesitation. ‘It is wonderful to have someone like you involved in this.'

Ah, flattery. Father Benjamin knew where to catch at me. I tried to smile modestly but I was gratified. The red-haired woman now stood with her hands on her hips between Father Benjamin and the girl, turning the three of them into a ­grotesque family, and smiled back as if allowing me into a secret club. A little spark ran through me.

‘Shoulders back,' the woman hissed into the girl's ear and I saw Mary attempt to roll back her hunched self.

She was a mess. Stirrings of pity came to me, feelings I knew I would need to suppress. Soft mothering did no one any good. I had seen my fellow teachers taken down by girls who suspected weakness, and I could hear Sister Clare:
Little vipers children are, they nip at your soul until you bleed.

‘Hello, Mary,' I said, and unfolded my arms. ‘I'm Mrs Smith.'

She drew her head up.

‘Hello.'

It was the first time I saw her eyes. They seemed enormous, honey-brown rimmed with black, taking over her face. I had dreamt of those kinds of eyes, looking up at me from my arms, staring out from a bundle of soft, lamb's wool blankets. Mary's eyes made me forget the rest of her—the broad nose, the thin legs, the skin—and any thoughts of sending her back disappeared for the moment.

‘Get your things,' I said and immediately she lowered her eyes again. Without her gaze, I had lost something. My voice turned hard. ‘Go inside.'

‘She doesn't have any things, Mrs Smith.' The woman, who Father Benjamin had failed to introduce, said this with a sneer and I could imagine a room full of confiscated possessions, picked over when the mood took. No one, after all, has nothing.

‘Well … off you go then,' I repeated.

I watched as Mary walked up the driveway, struggling to keep her shoulders back, her feet sliding about in those ­cavernous shoes.

‘I will do my best with her,' I said to Father Benjamin and he nodded. His companion already had the passenger door open, keen to get back to her other projects, more wards to distribute, more suitcases to plunder. Father Benjamin hovered in front of me, taking a covered hand in both of his in a gesture that reminded me of a blessing.

‘You are truly a good woman,' he said, squeezing my fingers between his two palms. I could feel the hotness of his skin through the thin cotton of my glove and was relieved he was not touching my damp skin. ‘She … well, she is lucky.'

Father Benjamin dropped my hand and slipped back into the driver's seat. The sound of the engine faded as he drove away and I became aware, once again, of the clipping at number 22. Had it continued through Mary's arrival? I had lost track of other sounds. My neighbour had, presumably, eavesdropped on the arrival and would spread the news.

I stood for a moment, thinking of how Father Benjamin could have been more effusive, could have called me more than just a good woman.
You are truly a saint
, he might have said.
You are truly blessed
. This would have had a clearer sound to it, a bell ringing out into the ticking street, the hot summer sky blasted by my act of goodness.

†

Two months before, in late November, I had been reading the
Sun Herald
. The afternoon had turned grey after a week of temperatures in the nineties and I sat drinking tea in the front room (the ‘sun' room Fred used to call it though I preferred ‘front' because its position would never change, even if the weather did).

There had been no sun in the front room on that day, and the open window brought in a breeze, a south-westerly probably, although I have never been able to tell from where the wind is blowing. Fred would have declared this with assurance—‘Coming in from the east' perhaps, his voice breaking the silence.

I read the paper and there was no Fred to declare the provenance of the air, my newspaper simply rustling between my fingertips. Perhaps it was a wind from God because I happened to notice an article with the headline: ‘Homes Are Sought For These Children'. Printed below the article was a photo of a group of young girls, each dressed in a lace-collared smock. The caption read: ‘These octoroons and quadroons have been rescued from shameful circumstances and generously taken into the homes of Christian families.' The border of the photo cut off the tops of their heads and finished just below the hem of their garments so they looked incomplete. The one in the centre clutched a stuffed rabbit to her chest and the newsprint had washed out most of her blackness. She, and at least two of the other girls, looked as pale as me.

As I read on, my heart swelled with pride from the description of good work being done. My countrymen, the strong and the brave, having survived two major wars, were creating the ideal world. Here they were, far away now from European and Pacific death, helping those less fortunate to find their place in the new utopia. That such children existed, I had barely been aware. Yes, I knew of the displaced children; I heard them screeching in their foreign tongues at their impatient, foreign mothers who, I could only assume, wanted them home for supper. Thankfully not yet living in my street, they were close enough to see on my evening walk, to hear their high-pitched laughter. Once, I had encountered a swarm of them down near the bay entrance, their black-haired heads lined up along the metal fence, spitting into the harbour—not a competition to see who could reach the ­furthest, they were simply spitting their contempt into the water below.

I had no time for such children and no thought of rescue until I read the newspaper article. What was I doing, after all, to help the country move towards its enlightenment? What contribution was I making? There had been Fred. Yes, that had been a certain kind of sacrifice. But otherwise?

In the past it had been my voice making announcements over the school Tannoy, the sound of my footsteps stopping the girls giggling, my ticks and crosses on their tests leading them from ignorance to knowledge. I had taught and cajoled for nineteen years, until the unpleasantness.

I picked up a slice of lemon sponge, sitting on a plate next to my favourite teacup, delicate four-leaf clovers painted on its cream surface. I put the sponge in my mouth, a bridge of mock cream helping to counteract the crumbling of the cake. It was dry, too dry, and I suddenly felt sure the baker had chosen this inferior sponge for me because I no longer held the position of English mistress. He knew, as did the butcher and the milkman, that I was making no contribution at all to the rebuilding and, without a husband by my side, I could be fed inferior cakes, mediocre lamb shanks and past-its-prime milk, without protest. I washed the crumbs down with tea, tired from my small sips and chilled by the wind coming in from who knew where. The newspaper lay across my knees, the article offering an entrance into a place I had once been. That place where my gestures had made a difference, where young eyes watched closely the tension of my muscles, the weather of my moods.

BOOK: The Heaven I Swallowed
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