About the Author
May Stone, born Dulcie May White in
prolific writer, Dulcie has previously published the following works:
in the International Year of the Disabled selection, Bologna Book Fair, 1981
Me about Saturdays
SMARTBOARD Internet Publisher
The Australian Institute on Intellectual Disability,
Tools of War
Mildura and District Educations Council Pub
Community Service, Victoria. Publication
the New Dream
Volunteering & What’s Not?
Stone & Associates Pub
As well as a full professional life, Dulcie enjoys a busy family life with her four children, twelve grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
hat is she looking at, the old woman in the wheelchair? Does she see the purple mountains, the scented silver gums, the emerald ferns, the sad willows in the park across the road?
What does she hear? The carolling magpies, the cackling kookaburras, the chirruping sparrows, the occasional passing car, the hollow ring of the woodsman’s axe, the gossip of her fellows?
What does she see? What does she hear?
Perhaps nothing captures her fleeting
interest. Perhaps she simply sleeps out here on this freezing winter verandah.
She’s been here, in this mountain shelter, for many years. She cannot tell you how many. Or is it that she knows, but won’t tell? Anything’s possible with this old one who talks to almost no one, and admits few visitors.
Peculiar in the head. That’s what this withered old cripple is. Peculiar.
Was she ever young? Impossible.
Surely the thin white hair, the lined parchment skin, the beaked nose, the twisted body and the arthritic hands could never have known youth or vitality. Yet the most casual observance cannot fail to remark the life in those keenly darting eyes. Old she may be, young she may long ago have been. But could that predatory glance be a true reflection of who she once was?
The nurse, on her mid-morning rounds, stops. “Gail! You’ll freeze.” She tucks a fallen blanket around the scrawny shoulders.
The sly old eyes wait; they watch the nurse retreat to the warm indoors. The gnarled old hands peel off the blanket. It falls, again, to the floor. The chill mountain air caresses the scrawny shoulders. The old woman shivers, and the withered lips smile a secret smile.
I step forward. For the first time, at least so far as I know, she sees me. The smile freezes, as chill as the mountain air.
“You’ll catch your death, Gail.” I attempt to readjust the blanket. This time she makes no pretence, just slaps the blanket from my hands.
Not so far removed from reality!
I try a ruse. “Do you remember
The name hangs in the air.
The old woman shrinks and the knowing smile disappears.
assignment for the Belleville News. As a kind of good-will bonus, the new young
editor has sent me off to the mountains to follow up a mystery Old Belleville is
still interested in. Years ago, this social butterfly just disappeared. No one
knew why. Or where to. Or even if she was still alive. Or, to be honest – if
Whatever the truth, Gail went missing
half a lifetime ago; around the time I got my job. There one day, gone the next.
Just like that. Not usual. Even for
Then, out of a clear sky, the editor
sends me off. “She’s been found,” he says. “Go check it out.” Which is
why, after two days driving, I arrived at the country branch of the Calthorpe
Clinic. Hidden away in the
So what about Gail? Opinions differ. Gail is different. For one thing, she has a regular visitor who’s turned up once a year for years. Which leads to a couple of conclusions. Gail has been here a damned sight longer than the expected average; therefore, unless she suffered from early onset Alzheimer’s she’d been no doddering geriatric way back then. There’s another thing. As far as I can detect, Gail has never been clinically diagnosed as insane. Yet she sure is crazy now. Crazy as a loon, some say. Crazy as a fox, say others.
By the end of the week, I’m adding two and two and getting around to four. Because this is adding up to more than my assignment intended – verify this person at the clinic is who we believe she is, and that she’s alive. This is all the slick young editor wants to know. Details not relevant, he’s ordained. Understandable.
So let’s face this too. It’s
understandable if you’re employed by the
In all my years as their women’s affairs reporter, covering carefully frivolous social gossip and carefully censored fashion (no in-your-face boobs and bottoms), I’ve never had to worry like the newsmen do. One thing for sure I have worked out – you get a big story, you check it out. Which big shot does it advantage and which does it hurt? Who stands to gain, who to lose? Like you walk into our room, the reporter’s room that is, there’s these notes pinned around. They read, ‘No mention of xxxxx (Name deleted because I’m still vulnerable to the power brokers) to be made in this newspaper.’ It goes for the other two branches of the media as well. No mention of (name deleted) on air or TV. For the record, ‘name deleted’ is almost always connected to the current political climate.
Which means that when I eventually decide to look into the mystery of Gail, I begin to smell foul play. Why? Initially because a telephone call from the editor orders me to confirm the bare facts and get the hell out of the place. Not me. I want to know why she’s here, why she was sent here. Why the decades of silence? Why the loyal visitor to this obnoxious woman? Who is he? It’s going to take months, maybe longer, to get to the truth. The years have taught me that the truth is not what Belleville News is interested in. Not often, and certainly not this time.
Therefore, because my retirement is due soon anyway, I again contact my cautious young editor. By mutual consent, plus mutually agreed financial arrangements, we cut the ties. Following, gathered from sources both reliable and unreliable, is this reporter’s interpretation of Gail’s intriguing life journey.
The City of
It provokes the question – Is it only the ruthless who can survive the desert? This in turn invites more profound questions – Does the desert attract only its like? Are the ruthless desert dwellers inherently ruthless? Or is the desert a peerless teacher? Is it that its people live by the cruel lessons of survival the desert has taught them? Or could it be that the desert experience is an examiner? Does the desert confront each desert dweller with a personal moment of truth? The moment of truth which asks – which will you choose? Good – or Evil?
There is another question, a critical one. Does the desert experience also examine those who live in its soft green heart? Seated in her mindless wheelchair in her icy mountain retreat, the old woman might tell us. But if even she could, she’s not going to.
The Great Southern Desert is grey sand, blistered grass, stunted shrub, shrivelled bush and flat from burnt horizon to burnt horizon. The pitiless desert sun fires each white-hot day, the tantalising desert stars freeze each blue-cold night. Desert sun. Desert stars. Fire – and ice. Life – and death.
The Great Southern covers nearly a
thousand miles from south to north, four hundred and fifty miles from west to
east. Its life is the desert creatures; its animals, its birds, and its people
who are unique to
Its settlers have become distinctively Australian. They came from around the world, from many places for many reasons, and they became ‘Australians’. They vanquished the indigenous people and their rich legacy. They decimated them, ignored them, abhorred them, denigrated them, expelled and degraded them.
Disdaining guilt or social
responsibility, they melded their own desert character – an admixture of
Irish, Scot, Brit, Italian, Greek, German, Slav, Dane. Always white, never
coloured. Not then. The Continent on the edge of
Free from all taint of ‘colour’,
they channelled life-giving water from the rivers, irrigated the unproductive
desert and imported their cherished European way of life. They cultivated the
land as they’d done in old
But time is revealing the desert’s revenge. Immense salt pans encircle the irrigated farmlands. Man is catastrophically vulnerable to imperfectly controlled pesticides. Graphic examples of the desert’s revenge invite enquiry into the as yet unproven, but anecdotally sound, high incidence of carcinogenic related illnesses. What are the as yet unproven consequences of wholesale chemical spraying of the crops? Should the conquerors of the desert be asking questions about the reputedly high incidence of the Big C? Should they go further? Should they not be wondering about the ‘reputedly’ high incidences of Parkinson’s disease, suicide, mental breakdown, alcoholism? And God alone knows what else?
Could it be that these are related to man’s meddling intrusion into the jealous rhythms of the desert? Or are they evidence of man’s inability to survive it? Or, perhaps, they are a complex interweaving of both?
It’s no mystery. The reason is
So that the soulless ethos of the raw
and arrogant American pragmatist underpins, and over-rides, all else in the
resolutely atypical City of
The admixture becomes more complex,
self-interest intensifies, disunity thrives. And, for those interested in trends
To get to
ail Mitchell, a
recuperating invalid, first travelled to
Those practised enough to enjoy sleep in the crowded overnight carriages woke to the stark reality of the desert; to windows too hot to touch, to the stench of sweating bodies, to burning horizons, intolerable boredom and the abhorrent knowledge that there were still many miles of the desert to suffer. At five in the morning.
Gail, who hadn’t slept, checked her watch. At least two hours to go!
The overweight woman who’d snored against her all through the exhausting night, stirred. “You okay, love?”
Last evening she and her sister,
Barbara, had been at Spencer Street Station. Following their widowed mother’s
death, they were the sole survivors of their small family. Their father, a
Their distraught mother had reared them in a sick atmosphere of prolonged mourning. Even the smallest and most insignificant decision could not be taken until she’d consulted his ghost. “What would your father have wanted?” was a daily, almost hourly, question. Though they’d loved him, they’d scarcely known him as their mother remembered him, much less known what he would have wanted. It made no difference. For Carol Mitchell her husband had lived on. Until she too had died. The death certificate, signed by family doctor Frank Petersen, declared cause of death to be tuberculosis. Barbara, a trained nurse, knew better. Their mother had died of a broken heart.
Devastated by her mother’s premature death, twenty-two-year-old Gail had suffered persistent chest infections. Darkly predicting serious complications, Doctor Petersen had prescribed total bed rest and unspecified time off from her office job in an inner-suburban factory. Barbara had again taken night shift work to take daytime care of family. Poor Barbara.
Until the doctor had finally ordered, “Find her a place in the sun.”
It had not been easy. Post-war
Australiana-conscious tourists were happily following the Australian sun, a few
interstate, the majority intra-state.
“North of the Ranges.” Frank Petersen, having heard of the location of the old family friend and the possibility of a solution to the problem, had refused to consider objections. “The sun. Wherever you can get it. Or face the consequences.”
Therefore, fragility and absence of
carer notwithstanding, the nightmare journey to
“You sure you’re all right?” The fat woman pressed even closer.
Again, she nodded. Barbara had warned, “Don’t to talk to strangers. Be careful of strangers.” Easily said for Barbara, who was healthy and strong-willed and capable and forthright and all the things she was not. Curse the weak lungs, curse the family’s legacy of ill health, curse the city smog. Curse her sister’s strength and her own debilitating guilt because of the debt she owed her, and would never ever be strong enough to repay.
But right this minute, this five a.m. nightmare morning, curse the sun and the desert and the fat woman who’d sprawled over her all night and the loud, crude, brutish farmers and their sloppy wives and mewling kids. Curse the burning air and the stench of sweat and baby vomit and the terror of aloneness.
Nauseous, she felt faint. Nothing had prepared her for this. Family trips, though rare, had been out of the city and into the luscious green sweet-smelling foothills or to the mountains – snow-capped and cloud-misted and storm-tossed in winter, wattle gold and eucalypt green and shimmering in a burnished heat-haze in summer, dressed in richly heart-stopping reds and golds and bronzes in autumn. Both her father and her mother had adored the mountains and the foothills. As for Barbara – who knew?
Burning head pressed against the raging heat from the train window, she let the frustrated tears fall.
“You shouldn’t do that, love.” The fat woman missed nothing. “You’ll only make it worse.”
Pretending not to hear, she surreptitiously felt for a handkerchief to dry the tears. She didn’t need it. The intense heat on the hot glass had already dried them.
“I’ll get you a drink.” The woman waddled from her seat.
The vacant space at her side was already cooler.
From across the worn leather, a farmer grunted, “You should know better, Miss. You’ll burn your face.”
Though he was right, she protested. “It’s so hot.”
“Someone should of told you last night,” he clucked disapproval. “You shouldn’t of taken your shoes off.”
She looked down at her stockinged feet. Overnight they’d ballooned to twice their normal size.
“What a shame we didn’t notice.” Opposite, the young mother who’d routinely breast fed her screaming infant into slobbering silence for most of the crowded night, gloomily warned, “Now you’ll never get your shoes on, dear.”
Blushing, she scrabbled under the seat for the high-heeled shoes she’d discarded last night.
“See what I mean.” The farmer was confirming what didn’t need confirmation. “City people ain’t got a clue on these long hauls. Not a clue.”
“We should’ve told you.” The young mother was helpful. “What about slippers? They’re in your case. The swelling won’t go down for hours.”
“Here we are.” The fat woman was back, the tumbler of water sloshing to the rattling rhythm of the train.
Squeezing back against the window, she sipped the tepid water.
The passengers exchanged knowing glances.
“You’ll be right, love.” The fat woman comforted.
Together they lifted the case from the luggage rack, located the blue satin slippers, a present from Barbara, and returned the case to the rack.
“So pretty, love.” Calloused fingers stroked the blue satin. “Somebody loves you.”
She bent to put them on. The train lurched. Falling forward, she frantically scrambled for support, and woke the sleeping baby. The wailing started up again. The mother stuffed her naked breast into its open mouth.
She’d known worse moments; too many. Her father’s death, her mother’s, the legacy of bills and mortgage and uncertainty and, finally, the fear of following her parents into early death. She didn’t want to die young. She wanted to be fit and healthy. She wanted to marry, to be healthy and have healthy children. She wanted to be happy.
Right this minute she wanted to be back home. Because this had to be just about one of the worst times ever. This time, she was really alone. This time there was to be no rescue. There would be no loving mother, no caring sister, no attentive doctor, no familiar warm bed. There was no one and nothing to ease the pain. Tears waited and these simpletons were not going to see them.
Returning to the burning window, she watched the merciless desert slide past – flat, grey, empty, dead. Lonely.
The sun climbed, the heat soared and the carriage was a seething oven.
“Pull the blind down, girlie.” The farmer begged.
“Better do it, love.” The fat woman agreed. “The baby’s feeling the heat even if you aren’t.”
About to reach for the blind, her attention was caught by a cloud of birds in flight. Pink cockatoos. Beauty on wings, they wheeled across the dust, circled, climbed, dived and climbed again and dived again and settled on a carcass – the desiccated bones of a dead kangaroo.
Sick, she jerked the blind down. There was no escape, none. She let the tears fall unchecked.
“Don’t cry, love.” Hot fat pawed her. “I know. It’s your first trip away from home. I saw you last night. When you left. Your friend. What a nice kid. She…”
“She’s not my friend.”
“Not your? I get it,” the fat mouth bared yellow teeth. “The way she looked out for you. Carrying your case and all. She’s got to be your sister! I’d never have guessed. What a pretty kid. I’d never have guessed. She’s not a bit like you.”
“Leave off,” the young mother chided. “That’s not nice!”
“Oh God!” The fat woman yelped. “Me and my big mouth. I’m sorry, girl. How awful! I didn’t mean it like that!”
“It’s all right.” It wasn’t all right. Even though she’d learned to live with it, she hated being the ugly sister.
Not that being the pretty one had done Barbara any good. She’d given up everything, career advancement, boy friends, social life – everything – for family. No wonder she was planning to escape, to travel overseas. She’d earned a life of her own.
“You’re pretty, too.” The woman tried to make amends. “In a different way.” The nasal voice droned on, dreary accompaniment to the metallic thunder of the train.
No one had ever told her she was pretty, not even her father. The mirror didn’t lie. The mirror reflected brown eyes, gold flecked, too intense, too sharp, too penetrating; eyes which too often discomforted others. The mirror also reflected pale lips too full-blown in an ashen face, thick straight brown hair, a strong jaw line, a high broad forehead and a body that looked thinner than it was because of its above average height.
The mirror was unable to perceive the potential for beauty, a beauty that waited. It waited in the high cheekbones and the rare symmetry of the oval face, in the tawny magnificence of the watchful eyes, and in the repressed passion of the full lips. As though awaiting the imprint of youth’s reaction to life’s influence, this face seemed to be asking – what kind of beauty will I be? The bare bones of beauty were there. How would they be fleshed out? Would they soften? Or harden?
Whatever the product of life’s imprint on that perfectly formed face, one thing was certain – Gail Mitchell would never be merely pretty.
But, on the searing morning train, the unsophisticated tongue of the country woman at her side could only manage, “You’re pretty in a different way, love. You been sick? I can tell. You need some of our sun. You get out and around up here, you’ll be a new woman. You’ll…”
“It’s after six.” A farmer interrupted. “Do you mind putting the blind up again?”
The raising of the blind re-fuelled the furnace. And still, in all directions, there was only desert to look at. She turned from it.
“Wait a while, love. There’s better things to look at soon.” Her neighbour promised. “You’ll be surprised.”
The passengers stirred. The carriage came to life. Each – farmer, housewife, child, fat lady, nursing mother – sat on the edge of their cramped scrap of leather. Every eye was on the searing window.
What were they expecting?
Nothing. Nothing but endless flat land blanketed in miles and miles and more miles of depressing dead-grey scrub. Again she turned away, and closed her eyes. Why had she let them persuade her? Barbara should not have.
Disturbed by a collective sigh, she returned to the window. The desert had disappeared! The dispiriting scrub had gone. Totally. Passing by the window was only vivid green. Clear to the horizon was only green. Turning her head, she looked back along a cloud of steam that sat thickly on the gentle curve of the retreating train track. There, was desert. Here, running alongside the hot window, was green.
The line of demarcation was as sharp and
as uncompromising as a single pen stroke on a map. Comprehending that they were
at the rim of the oasis that encircled
Millions of rich green vines in hundreds of vineyards were interrupted only by islands of tall shade trees dwarfing secret homes. Mysterious and intriguing, the almost unseen houses and the unseen people in them challenged the imagination. Who lived in those houses? What kind of people were they? How did they live? Where had they come from? Why?
Within the carriage even the locals were mesmerised. Even the fat woman was finally silent.
“You can just about see mine from here.” Eventually breaking the spell, the friendly farmer collected his bag from the over-head rack. “I get out at Barclay.”
She started up.
“Not yet, love.” He cautioned.
“Another twenty minutes to
The train stopped. A sun-leathered woman embraced Tom Jessup, a small family welcomed an elderly woman, a lone man carrying a heavy case limped to the distant exit, a yapping terrier raced unchecked along the narrow platform. Sun-scorched white sand glittered, hard-muscled men collected milk cans, uniformed postmen unloaded bulging mailbags and the frenetic station manager shouted directions above the combined clatter of metal and the rhythmic clacking of the impatient engine.
The whistle shrieked its familiar warning, the shouts peaked to their familiar hysteria and doors slammed shut with the sharp finality peculiar to train doors. Childhood memories of stations and trains and trips to the mountains, and the utterly irrational terror that the doors might slam before her parents could board the train with her, escalated panic. She would never manage so far from home – alone and sick and knowing no one.
The train, shuddering as each carriage along its long length responded to the engine, quickly picked up speed.
The fat woman located Gail’s shoes.
“Have another go at these, love.”
Prices in Australian Dollars CURRENCY
(c)2007 Poseidon Books All rights reserved.