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  • Published: 29 January 2018
  • ISBN: 9780143786290
  • Imprint: Random House Australia
  • Format: EBook
  • Pages: 416

Child of Mine

Extract

Part 1

Chapter 1

BRISBANE, 1998

The night her mother died, Maggie Rowe drove back through the quiet streets, over the dark river where lights lay untroubled and up the steep hill to her house, and there among the shadows saw a shape squatting on her doorstep.

‘No!’ she cried out against it. Not now! She spun the wheel, reversed without looking, jolted a tyre up over the kerb and clashed through the gears. The car lunged forward. In the rear- vision mirror she saw a glowing pinpoint flare and die.

Not now. After waking to a touch on the arm.

‘She’s gone, darling,’ said the nurse, and stood stroking Maggie’s hair.

‘Oh,’ wept Maggie, undone. This was the hour she’d watched coming. And yet, though it took its own cruel time, when at last it came she was caught wrong- footed, needing another day – another hour – to ready herself. Another few small moments.

It was the touch, of course. The hand on her hair.

Her throat made a squeezed, peculiar sound. She waited until she could speak. Then, ‘Sorry,’ she said.

Her apology came back and rang in her ears as she fled, up to Highgate Hill, back over the Story Bridge, and finally down again to the nursing home, where the car drew in of its own accord to the kerb. She left it under the bauhinias blooming in the dark and went down to the river, wrapping her jacket around her against the chill and stumbling where the ground was uneven. The bollard lights glowed dully along the path. When she came to it, the river was an absence in the darkness. She stood for a long time, looking at nothing.

Sorry. She considered the versatility of that word, entertained its shades of meaning, as if this were just an ordinary night.

‘These were your mum’s,’ the nurse had said, pressing a packet into Maggie’s hand. ‘They helped her get to sleep.’ She looked at Maggie with meaning in her eyes.

In the dark of the riverbank, Maggie found the packet in her pocket. She popped a pill out of its foil bubble, swallowed it dry, and waited. Nothing. Though she was tired beyond thinking, she was not sleepy. Her eyes stayed round, staring into the great bronze darkness.

‘Skirts are much longer this year,’ she remembered Vera saying once. She was flipping through a catalogue at the time, forefinger drifting from page to tongue, eyes downcast. She tossed the catalogue aside. Through the window was a glimpse of forest blued by mill smoke.

Vi. She’d have to notify Vi. Maggie shrank from the thought. Who was she to be telling Vi such a thing? That her big sister, Vera, the one who’d plaited her hair and corrected her misconceptions, was dead now. Gone.

When Maggie was a child, there was a small cut- glass dish filled with fi ne hairpins on her mother’s dressing table. Maggie would watch in the mirror while Vera wound her thick hair around her fingers and rolled it back from her face, taking the hairpins one at a time from between her teeth to fix it there. She could have been a calendar girl, sitting on the low stool with her arms raised and slim legs splayed. Sometimes Maggie found stray hairpins lying about on the linoleum. They were material evidence that her mother existed, even when she was nowhere to be found.

Skirts are much longer this year . . .

If you lived in the city, the knowledge would be in the air you breathed. In the country you received the information in due course, passed on as if in charity via the backdoors of the big emporiums.

Maggie pressed another pill from its bubble and pushed it to the back of her tongue. Her mouth was dry; it took a couple of swallows to get it down. A memory now of smooth, wet skin and woollen togs, of bobbing in safe arms as she was gobbled by the sudsy waves of the sea. Maggie went to call her mother softly, to hear the sound abroad and not just in her head. But she knew enough to hold her tongue. It was the infant’s first and most appalling fear – to call, and be answered by silence.

Nasturtiums in the Yangarie garden, a cigarette parked on a fence post, still burning. Caterpillar in the daisy. ‘Goodnight, Irene,’ Vera muttered, and crushed it between some leaves. Then she wiped her fingers on her apron.

When the earth swung, Maggie knew she was dreaming on her feet. She crouched down and felt the grass with her hand. It was dry.

Bright light on her eyelids woke her. Quick, edgy blades of light. The sun, of course, glancing off some vessel’s wake.

Full daylight, then. The long night over.

She was cold and her bones ached. She lay twisted and clenched as if she was falling, braced against a slight but perceptible dropping away beneath her.

The vessel was a ferry. She could hear its conversational chug as it nudged in to the pontoon, the slap of wavelets against the quarry rocks, and then the small, jolly stampede of the first commuters jouncing down the pontoon gangplank. Smoke was in the air. She’d smelt it in her sleep, moving in over the city. She could smell it still, along with bauhinia flowers and diesel fumes and the oozy odours of the tide.

‘Go home,’ they’d said, ‘and get some sleep. It could be days. We’ll call you if you’re needed.’

The ground was hard and rough and she needed to pee. She sat up and pulled the jacket close around her.

Smoke- haze had made a stage set for her eyes. On the far shore, mangroves stepped with raised skirts into the river. The river had a skin, thin as parachute silk and patterned with swirls of grey and silver, which the ferry, pulling out, was stirring and setting asway. Seeming to hang between the light of the river and the light of the sky was a cabled bridge.

She was glad that she had not gone home.

Soon she would have to get up. Discomfort would bring her stiffly to her feet and send her up the grassy bank, the tree-lined street where the car waited, decked with fallen bauhinia blooms, and into that fug of disinfectant and recent meals. Vera would not be there now. They had their procedures. She’d be gone.

Her things would be waiting, though – toiletries, slippers, photos in frames – as if she were coming back. Her personal effects. There would still be an attar- of- roses trace around the stacked supply of pads, and spearmint around the dentures glass. On the hook, her gown still hanging. The first shift would be doing the rounds with the early- morning cups of tea, pushing back the curtains and folding down the covers with a peppy greeting.

By now the nurse’s aide would have emptied the sweet peas from their vase, where Maggie had stood them days before, trying to win a smile from Vera’s eyes. It took Maggie some time to understand why they’d sent her into a dither instead, stumbling after words and fluttering her hand in defeat. But then came the garbled, unmistakeable plea:

Come on. Out with it. Tell me what happened. Say.

Sorry.

It was commotion, not sorrow, that Maggie woke to on that January morning of 1974 – an urgent banging and rattling that at last broke through her muddled dreams.

She was still fumbling for the armhole of her dressing- gown when she reached the verandah and the light of the dawn went out. The rain came sighing over the roofs again, and settled in. Down the back, the frogs resumed their weary calling.

The doors shook and clattered. Through the lattice she could see a shadowy someone pounding on the frame.

Sorry? –’ came a girl’s voice. Fingers hooked in the lattice. A face bent close. But so loud was the rain on the roof that the cry lost all connection with its human source and expressed, instead, the tenor of that dark, uncertain dawn.

 

Chapter 2

1959 –1973

Number 43 Hill Street, one door down from Maggie’s cottage, was another in the same job lot of houses all built to a standard design. They stepped up the steep gradient of the hill in degrees of aspiration. On the hilltop were the grand houses. They had brass nameplates, wide verandahs and magisterial views. The nameless cottages below – identified (for municipal purposes) by number only – had scaled- down verandahs and incidental views from their back landings, where tea towels were hung to catch the afternoon sun.

Most of the cottages were kept neat, but Number 43 had been an eyesore for years. It was semi- derelict. The grass was never mown, mosquitoes bred in the guttering and cat’s claw creeper had claimed one whole side and half the roof. Mrs Trimmer (Number 47) knew for a certainty that the place was a fire hazard.

An old man lived there with a company of cats when Maggie first came to Hill Street to board with Great- Aunt Beatie. He was still there after Beatie died and Maggie’s parents moved down from the mountains to join her. Bent like an archer’s bow, he gave an odd impression of agility, as if poised to spring away. Her father’s heart was failing then, and he did not live to follow up his first neighbourly overtures. The old man scuttled off at the mere whiff of a woman, so Maggie and Vera never got to know him. The first indication of his going – his departure or his death – was the yowling of the cats. It continued on and off around dusk for a few days, but gradually subsided as the cats scattered and found new households to haunt. Vera and Maggie were favoured for a while by a tabby that lay on their windowsills in the winter sun.

After that there was a quick succession of tenants. None stayed long enough to become neighbours, with the leisurely consignment to habit that such a state implies. Faces were half seen. Thumps and bangs broke the quiet, and shrieks that may have been laughter. Arguments and vomiting were heard in the night.

‘It’s a disgrace,’ said Mrs Trimmer, aiming a nod at Number 43. ‘Festering there. That’s what brings all them vermin, you can bet your boots.’

From her bathroom window Maggie would look down, as she towelled her hair or gnawed a torn fingernail, and see a shabby version of her own house. A parallel habitat. But it seemed to her that the lives lived within it were socially rich in a way that hers was not, that the occupants woke and slept in the thick of things. Even misfits and loners seemed to her to have pathos and history. Against next door’s disarray, her life seemed not tedious, exactly, but humdrum. Regular.

A regularity of metronomic precision was work. Between the hours of eight- thirty and four- thirty, five days a week, Maggie was to be found on the first floor of Bowen House, teaching bored young women shorthand and typing. The Remington typewriters arrayed before her – all electric, for Ralston Secretarial College was a progressive establishment – were more than machines: they were agents of efficiency pitted against the spirit of passive mutiny in the room.

Standing in front of a class of thirty street- wise girls with languid eyes – commanding and directing them – had not come easily to Maggie. She sought reassurance in the tickety-tickety-ping-rerrk rhythm of the typewriters and cool economy of the shorthand code. In due course she was content to be Miss, with all the lack the title implied – to match her speech to the machines’ clipped acoustic and her thoughts to the squiggles on the board.

Sometimes Maggie seemed to hear the metronome keeping time. Tock . . . tock . . . tock . . . it went, wagging its gently remonstrating finger, and she was back in the echoey afternoons of Yangarie’s School of Arts hall, seated at the old upright while her nervous fingers worked a halting melody from the keys.

Not keeping time. The metronome had all along been saying something else. That wagging finger had not kept time but sent it on its way. Counted it down.

Maggie had not always been a teacher. She began as a stenographer with Vaughan & Crampton, Import/Export, typing business letters and bills of lading. They dealt with cargoes of coconut, pepper and cinnamon, combining stiff formality and dust- dry figures with evocations of the perfumed East.

Most of that life had receded beyond recall, but two episodes remained in her memory, taking on a sheen of significance with time. One was accompanying the boss to the Hamilton wharves to check on a cargo of coconut from New Guinea. It was the early sixties. The war in Indochina had recently freshened and the Americans were shipping in heavy equipment and troops. There was talk of Australia sending forces. In circumstances like these, it was said, you could never be sure what the wharfies would do. Vaughan & Crampton thought it best to clear their cargo with as little fuss and as much expedition as possible.

So Maggie was released into the steamy world where trams clanged, men sweated and the oily river flowed. The car, nosing ahead impatiently, was forced to drop back as the trams jerked around bends, blue sparks crackling, booms jibing, cables swaying. And there was the river – broadening to estuarine spaciousness, with seagulls dipping above. She in her stockings and heels and Mr Vaughan in his shirt sleeves, suit jacket slung over a shoulder, had to pick their way through cargo stacked on the massive timbers, around cursing men and clanking machines, to a flock of gawky derricks that canted and pecked at a small, rust-stained ship draped with loading nets and fragrant with coconut. Maggie stumbled when her heel caught, and with suave composure Mr Vaughan took her elbow to steady her through.

Hindsight revealed the second episode as a sequel to the first, but this time the break with routine was announced by Christmas bunting, an air of suppressed excitement and Mr Vaughan’s silver head issuing on cue from the privacy of his office, a festive bottle brandished above. The girls of the typing pool closed their typewriters and rose from their stools. ‘Holy Dooley,’ they said, holding out poppy- stemmed glasses, ‘this heat!’ Barossa Pearl fizzed. Fans stirred the Christmas bunting languidly. As more corks popped and glasses effervesced, the repartee grew loud and the diction slapdash. Maggie went to the window to clear her head. The afternoon sun still flooded the street. Not thinking, she leant on the grimy windowsill to watch the dwindling crowds below. She was woozily inspecting the smudge on her forearm when it was seized at elbow and wrist, delicately turned to expose its tender underside, and blocked from her view by a shock of white hair. There was a sensation of slug- moist pressure on her skin, and ‘What’s a pretty little filly like you doing here?’ murmured a cultivated baritone, breathing fumes. ‘Alone and palely loitering . . .’

If there had been work the next day, the consequences of Mr Vaughan’s indiscretion might not have been so far-reaching. She would probably have slipped, as usual, into her chair, avoiding the post- mortems in the tea- room. But the next day was Christmas, and after that Boxing Day, and Maggie had time to entertain the idea that the world was larger than this stifling place. That she could leave.

A hushed conference with Mrs Edgely behind a solemnly closed door, and Maggie left the employ of Vaughan & Crampton and sought a new life in the vocation of teaching.

In the spring of 1973, new tenants arrived at Number 43. Maggie wasn’t sure how many of them actually lived there. Lots of people passed in and out, some staying an hour or two, some for days. But the girl, the two boys and the baby were more or less permanent.

When they first moved in, there was a flurry of improvements – old blinds removed from the windows and bamboo chimes hung on the front verandah to catch the breeze. A compost heap was started down the back in a rusty tank, soon producing a plume of dancing midges, and an attempt was made to get a vegetable garden going along the fence. Maggie had seen the girl in the spring sunshine, dressed in a tie- dyed singlet and cut- off jeans and worrying away at the shaley earth with a garden fork; and by the time the shadow of the mango tree fell across the yard, she’d turned over a narrow strip. A day later, when Maggie looked again, there was a row of lettuce and tomato seedlings in the grey bed. But then activity ceased, and within a couple of weeks the strip had been reclaimed by weeds growing rank in the rain.

There were hints of the life within. The smell of toast would leap the gulf to Maggie’s house and make her mouth water. An old washing machine thundered in the laundry. Nappies came and went on the line. Now and then the tentative sounds of a guitar drifted up. Occasionally, in the late afternoon, a little group would gather on the back landing as the light receded from the valley, the world darkened and the sky took on the glow of the city night. Standing at the kitchen window, Maggie could smell the sweet smoke of marijuana and see the shadowy figures moving about as subtly as leaves in a night breeze.

Once, while she was unpegging the washing from the line, Maggie heard someone inside there crying. It was still going while she was folding the washing in the sewing room – real, lusty sobs and singsong wailing. Maggie wondered if she should do something. Eventually she coughed to clear her throat and lifted her voice across the chasm.

‘Are you all right?’ she called.

The crying stopped, and was followed by a profound, unbridgeable silence.


Child of Mine Janita Cunnington

Spanning three decades, Child of Mine is a deeply resonant novel about a maternal tug-of-love and the little girl caught in the middle.

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