Monday, 9 October 2017


Julie McGregor hid under the house for three days. There was nowhere else to go. Where does one escape to when living in the wilds of Tasmania? Escape and live that is – not become another lost skeleton hidden in a sodden valley only moments from drinking water. Bleached bones claimed by the severity of the subtropical rainforest where its sheer vibrancy overwhelmed a person and caused despair to ruin any hope of survival. Bones picked clean, never to be found though the town might be only three miles distant. Julie wanted to escape the house and its occupants although she had no idea where she wanted to escape to.
She fled the house via the wire door at the back, letting the door bang behind her for the first time in her life. The men always let it slam shut, never once bothering to put out a hand to halt it before it banged. Even as children, her boys had failed to heed her screams and always let the wire door bang behind them as they raced outside to play.
Outside, the sunshine blinded her. She felt caught, like a rabbit trapped by the bright lights of a Ute filled with hunters, shotguns, alcohol and bloody laughter. Julie wanted to find somewhere dark: Dark, moist and cool. She felt hot and flustered, a simmering anger sapping her energy. She was tired of the house, of its loudness and the harsh demands its residents placed upon her.
She fled the house and headed for the wire gate that led onto the footpath. At the gate she stopped. She could not go out into the street. Where could she go? Who did she know? She knew their names and they knew hers but she did not know them. Had never really wanted to. Julie was originally from Hobart, ‘the city’, the antithesis of their existence. Besides, did she want to run down the street, shouting? For what? What could they do? The women all shared her look in their eyes when they were certain no men were watching. The men would not do anything, unless one of them shot her like a wild dog that had strayed too near the town.
She wandered back up the path and stood in the backyard beside the three cement steps that led down to the small footpath. The old weathered footpath led to the clothesline. How many times had she trod that path? How many baskets of washing carried back and forth like a flower opening and closing? As she stood frozen beside the house not knowing what to do she heard the sheets flapping on the Hill’s hoist, snickering at her like a self-satisfied mother-in law offering judgment on her apple pie.
She turned and looked back at her house. She hated it. Then her eyes saw the dark between the runners that hid the space between the earth and the floorboards. She was drawn to the large space with its deep shadows and heavy, earthen silence. Julie moved close. The shadows that lived under the weatherboard house whispered to her. Her right hand reached out and touched the gap between two of the wooden boards. She felt the cool air lurking beneath and sensed the immobility, the absence of expectation.
It was an easy thing for her to slide open the latch, push the small door ajar and then slip under the house. She slid herself deep into its underbelly, the dry, earth and moist air comforting her, raising up the ghosts of her composed, self-sufficient childhood. She bent low and slipped into the darkness, heading deeper and deeper under the house. The further she moved the lower to the ground she had to push herself until she was slithering like a snake, heedless of the dirt that smudged across her dress and discoloured her face and hair. Finally she reached as far as she could go and curled herself up in the small gap at the front of the house. Curled herself up into a tight ball, her hands gripping her knees as if she needed to hold something in. She closed her eyes and wrestled with the shakes that made her whole body quiver like a wet, lost pup.
Fighting her battle with her rebellious body, Julie was unaware when the weather turned; turned like a black cat and spat at the small town until everything was drenched by the cold, hard rain that fell just scant weeks after it would have done the most good. Fell just in time to ensure everyone stayed on the land and tried for another year. Stayed and dug out new ruts in the belief that surely this year must produce enough surplus to lift their heads clear. Perhaps the weather changed in sympathy. Maybe the fluffy, dry, white clouds sensed her need and gathered to themselves turning dark and grey and full of tears. The rain fell hard and angry like a father’s unforgiving words. It was a biblical rain. It lasted almost three days and nights without a pause for breath.
Jammed under the house, Julie kept her eyes closed as the rain released a thousand and one scents. She smelt the conifers she had planted because she liked their soft colours and easy order. She smelt the wet grass of her lawn that for twenty years had fought a rearguard action against the weeds bought across on shoes careless as they scattered the seeds across the hot dry mainland. Seeds that guffawed when they touched upon Van Diemen’s Land with its cool, wet climate and dark, fertile soil. She smelt the rotting dog smell from where Hector, her husband’s Great Dane, lay buried in a shallow grave beside the fence.
For three days Bill, her husband, and her three boys, Stan, Johnny and Peter the youngest, searched for her. There was no danger that she would be discovered. Searching, for Bill and the boys, consisted of bellowing out across the yard from the back door or telephoning around town to see if anyone had seen her. Once or twice they set off together to do the rounds of the town and even a little venturing into the neighbouring forest. They never thought to actually conduct an organised search. The boys assumed she would return while Bill feared she had finally done a runner on him. Something he had half expected since early on in their marriage. He had always been surprised that she had agreed to marry him in the first place.
Even if they had searched for her, Julie knew there was still no danger of being found. They were all very hefty men with large bellies that shook when they hollered a greeting to another big-bellied male who hollered just as loudly back. She could not imagine them actually getting down on their hands and knees and peering between the boards to see her let alone actually crawl under the house. ‘Not that they would fit,’ she thought, ‘more likely one of them would become jammed and then I’d have to rescue him.’
Julie wondered why it was that a man could not sense the end of his stomach. She often found herself pushed out of the way by a stomach as it passed by her in the house. She’d be bent over a stove or reaching up to clasp a bottle when suddenly she’d be thrown forward by a stomach, like a landlubber on a lurching ship. So many years with their stomachs and still she had not gained her sea legs. The stomachs gave her no heed and the men gave their stomachs no thought. She dreaded a meeting with one of her men in the house’s hallways and doorways. She carried with her a fear of being squashed under their fleshy fat.
She was a small woman: Five foot five in the old measure. Five foot five and seven stone. ‘Get some fat on yer luv,’ her husband often snorted at her from the end of the table where he sat sucking the marrow out of bones left over from the roast. ‘Get some fat on yer or one day you’ll vanish and no one’d be the wiser,’ he’d say. Her boys would all nod their big, blunt heads and agree, each feeling the spot in their stomachs where her meals usually resided quake in fear.
It puzzled her that all three of her boys were large like their father. ‘Not one of ‘em small and quiet. Not one of ‘em a babe or child to hold in your arms and hug for comfort. All big and brash and eager to be off doing the manly things leaving me alone in the house while they grew and spread and filled the neighbourhood with their comings and goings.’
She sometimes woke in a sweat, dreaming the memory of their births. Their large heads pushing adamantly, the small of her back attacked by a jackhammer; her whole being stretched and threatening to spilt apart like an old cotton dress.
She’d lie there in the dark listening to her heart until her husband’s hand flopped like a dead fish across her chest and she’d be forced to move or scream for fear of suffocation.
It had been hard to birth them in the wilds. In the Tasmanian wilderness there were only degrees of dirt poor all with their own stories of hard luck. The bog Irish had settled the town and surrounding countryside. Their shared descent seemed to snare everyone into a perpetual war between needs, the land’s unconcern and the warbling of radio and television that showed lives so different as to be unreal.
There was no means for her to get to a hospital. There was no local doctor on call only the local midwife and they were hardly on talking terms since a misunderstanding that happened when she first arrived to the town as a red cheeked, small bosomed newlywed. No drugs to ease the agony. And he was no help of course. While she screamed he sat in a corner of the room drinking gin tonics and smoking camel no tips: Two bottles of gin and three packets of cigarettes per child. Then as she lay in the stench of her sweat and blood, gathering her strength for the babe’s onslaught, he’d sit, slumped in his chair, snoring in time to the cries of the hungry babe. They were all born hungry, their fat lips sucking hard for the ensuing months, never a thought for her cracked nipples or aching bones as they clutched and tugged and demanded with their loud voices and clasping hands to be fed. ‘Its seems,’ she sometimes thought at night when she sat staring into the darkness through the window, ‘that they’ve done nothing but eat since I birthed them.’
It was not one particular thing that led her under the house. Rather it was a culmination, a stoking up of pressure. What could you expect living with four giants who had little regard for her petite frame, her tender ears, and her delicate hands. It was a fear that had been building for years, beginning with a tiny tick in her left hand, moving into a habit of stretching her neck whenever they called for her, merging into a tension displayed in the severity with which she stretched the bed sheets, a savagery in the way she wiped down the table and benches after mealtimes.
A fear that forced her to flee the house because it had finally grown so large she could no longer contain it (A fear that made her seek refuge in the dirt and shadow beneath the floorboards, floorboards she swept to cleanse the house of the dirt and dust dragged in by the men’s’ work boots). A fear that took hold and kept her mouth shut while their booming voices cried out her name. She ignored their calls, ignored the panic in their voices as they hours and then days drifted by without a sign of her. Ignored the various neighbours who came to see if they could unravel the puzzle, and then leave scratching their heads.
For three days she sat huddled in the darkness. During the day she listened to their stomping feet as they pounded her floorboards into submission. At night she listened to the insects pinging their lives against the light bulb on the back porch and the bedsprings creaking under the weight of her boy’s and husband as they tossed in their sleep (each caught in a dream of crazy solutions to her disappearance). In the dark she listened while her hands constantly brushed at her skin to flick away the creepy-crawlies, both real and imagined.
By the second night her mind had slipped into old memories of childhood. She remembered a game her brother (dead these fifteen years – drunk and driving to see an estranged lover) and she once played with sticks. The sticks were lined up close together, enough space for the feet to tippy-toe between, no more. As the game unravelled, the space between the sticks grew further and further apart. As a girl she loved the game, could almost imagine she was flying between the gaps, a comet between the planets.
She remembered a cousin called Bill who had once slid her beneath an old single bed while she was pretending to be asleep. It was a hot summer and they had decided to sleep on the floor’s cool lino. She was thirteen and very curious as to what he was up to so she kept her eyes shut and waited, her flesh tingling as his gentle hands slowly pulled her under the bed’s shadow. Then he had stopped and waited for what seemed like half the night before his hands had reached out and slid under her pyjama top. She lay still, feigning sleep, her small heart thumping furiously. He had reached up and felt her beginning breasts. She had felt a weird pulsation flowing in her body, down her spine and between her legs. Still she feigned sleep while his hand had slid down her stomach and beneath her waistband.
Then she had pretended to come awake, making sure she gave him enough warning to remove his hands. She had gotten up to go to the toilet, her face flushed, her heart beating with a wildness that recalled to her mind the time she had stood on the edge of the ocean during a thunderstorm, the wild waves crashing madly, the air filled with water though the rain had not started to fall, while all about her lightning and thunder had raged a war of wills.
For months afterwards she had wondered about the events of that hot summer’s night. She had heard rumours of ‘things’ to do with adults but she had no idea what ‘things’. She thought about Bill’s hand. About the funny feeling she felt in her stomach. Even now, after so many years Julie lay in the shadows and felt a flush spread throughout her body as she remembered Bill’s gentle hands as he slid her across the lino.
Bill,’ she whispered quietly, ‘gentle Bill.’ She wondered what his hands might have been like instead of her husband’s thick, calloused blocks that seemed to push her flesh out of the way and reach in to bend her bones and cause her a discomfort that she held back only by keeping her mouth firmly clamped shut leading to a series of tight wrinkles that ruined her smile and made her appear to be in an eternal grimace.
She pictured Bill as she had seen him several years ago when they had both attended a childhood friend’s funeral. Bill had grown into a small, slight man with large, bright eyes and white hands that looked like they could caress the ivory off a piano. They spoke together briefly about their gardens. ‘Imagine,’ she thought in the darkness, ‘a man knowing about flowers and plants and things.’ And again she thought about his hands stroking the petals of soft flowers, using the secateurs like a surgical instrument, displaying a patience that was needed to be a successful gardener.
Tears rolled down her cheeks. She remembered her magnolia tree. A tree she grew from a friend’s cutting. Nursed and nurtured and protected until it spread its roots deep into the pot and grew strong enough to plant in the yard. She dared plant it one fine spring day in the back yard only to have him stumble over it one day while playing cricket with the boys. Stumble and fall like a fool, snapping the tree at its base. ‘Don’t worry darlin’, me an’ the boy’s ‘ll get another one for yer,’ he’d promised, tears threatening to spill, a slight quiver to his hands, as he stood in the middle of the yard holding out the broken tree like a peace offering.
Of course there had never been another magnolia although he did buy her a lilac tree, ‘cos it reminds me of the way you smell luv’ after you’ve had a scrub and come to bed.’ She had grown to hate that lilac, its thick smell, its frolicsome flowers and its spring gaiety. She often wondered what it might have been like to stand at her kitchen sink and stare out at the magnolia flowers that clung to bare branches like tears to a child’s face.
On the third day, at six o’clock in the evening, just as the rain ceased to fall and the sun broke clear to shatter the horizon into a brilliant pink and the rabble of birds called the night to bring the house down, Julie rolled herself onto her back, a groan escaping past her cracked and dirtied lips. She stretched out the kinks and blinked in the light that filled the gaps between the running boards. ‘Its now or never,’ she said to herself.
Julie rolled back onto her stomach and inched her way out from under the house, crawling backwards so that her feet first appeared out from the small door, then her body and lastly her head, like an insect emerging from a cocoon. She stood up and moved her hands, as if drying them in the evening air. Peter, her youngest, discovered her when his emerging sense of pain forced him outside.
Mum! Where have you been?’ he shouted so that half the island of Tasmania knew she had been found. He strode down the sideway towards her then stopped. She saw him register the dirt on her clothes, the grime on her cheeks from shed tears. She watched his eyes flick across t0 the small door that was still open and then back to her, confusion filling his open, innocent eyes. The blood drained from his face.
Dad! Dad! I’ve found her!’ He cried so that the other half of the island now knew as well.
Julie stood before her youngest, watching the way his eyes flittered from her hair to her hands to her dress to her face to her feet and back to her hair. They all came running towards her, bumping and pushing against each other. They all couldn’t fit in the sideway at the same time.
Julie, what’s been goin’ on luv?’ asked Bill.
Shoosh dad!’ called Peter, ‘take a geezer at her, will ya.’
Julie felt herself thinning out again, becoming transparent, insubstantial: An object misplaced in their clumsiness. Not a person, not someone able to act independently.
Stop it!’ she cried out, causing them to jump back. Bill’s mouth hung open like a broken gate. ‘I’m standing right here. I’m able to hear what you say. Talk to me! To me, not each other, or there’ll be hell to pay!’
You heard yer mum, boys, talk to her. Ask her ‘ow she is.’
You okay mum?’ asked Johnny, his hand brushing the hair out of his eyes.
That lock of hair has been there since the day he was born,’ she thought to herself. ‘I’m fine Johnny, and I wish you’d get a hair cut,’ she said.
I will mum, I promise,’ he said backing away.
Mum,’ said Stan, his foot digging into the earth.
Its all right Stan, I’m not contagious or anything,’ she said, holding her hands out. ‘Or are you too big to hug your mum?’
Its not that mum,’ said Stan as he moved close, ‘its just I know you hate the size of us.’ That shocked her. She would never have guessed he was so perceptive. She moved to him and they hugged lightly. She felt Peter touch her hair and Johnny rub her back. She smiled at their timidness. ‘I must shout at them more often,’ she thought.
Later she lay, unchanged, resting on her bed, not caring about the dirt she was displacing everywhere. She heard Bill telephone Marion Flanagan, the local expert on all things feminine, and ask her to come around and ‘have a look and talking to with Julie, ‘cos she’s actin’ a bit strange.’ A pause and then, ‘Just come over, if yer can Marion, see for yourself, talk with her, see what’s up. Can you do that?’
As Julie lay in bed staring up at the ceiling her husband popped his head in and whispered ‘Everythin’ ’ll be okay now luv’ I’ve rung for Marion and she’ll be over in a jiffy.’
Bill pulled his head away and closed the door. Julie realised she must invent a story or Marion Flanagan would badger her for hours with her questions. ‘Why did you go under the house Mrs McGregor?’ or ‘Did you bang your head and fall unconscious?’ Or worst of all, ‘is there some problem between you and Bill?’ This last one asked while she pressed her hands to her breasts, as if trying to keep a deep hope in check. Then she’d leave Julie alone and run out to spread the news of the strange behaviour of Julie McGregor and how unfortunate for that man and those three boys to have such a frail minded woman.
Frail in body, frail in mind,’ Marion Flanagan would declare, ‘that’s what my mother always said, and never has there been a woman who knows more about human nature than my mother.’ And of course her listeners would argue, gently but firmly, that Marion knew perhaps even more than her mother. Marion would deny it of course, and in the denying only confirm their suspicions that she did know more than Old Judith Kearney, Marion’s mother.
In the end Julie told her husband, her sons and Marion Flanagan that she thought she had seen a small child, one of the neighbour’s sprawling brood, crawl under the house. She had simply gone under the house to check but had knocked herself unconscious. No one believed her of course, but that was not the point. She needed to give them a reason to pretend all was okay. Nothing more. Marion sighed with relief, stared at Julie’s husband wistfully for a moment then asked if she might be able to have a cup of tea. Marion sipped her tea with Bill while the boys stood around their mother’s bed wondering if she was mad or something and when dinner might be expected.
Get out with you all,’ she said to her boys after Peter’s stomach had grumbled for the third time. The boys all shuffled towards the door. Johnny was last to leave, he paused as at the doorway and turned back to look at Julie.
Yes? She replied waiting for the demand.
We’re all sorry you know,’ he said quietly and then left the room and shut the door behind him.
Sorry,’ she thought as she lay in bed. ‘We’re all sorry.’ Tears threatened at the corners of her eyes. ‘Sorry, sorry for what? That they think I’m mad? That Peter’s stomach makes such a racket?’ Julie was certain they did not mean anything more than that. They couldn’t mean that they were aware how she felt and were sorry for that. ‘No, no never.’
When she heard Marion finally leave Julie rose out of bed and padded quietly into the bathroom to have a shower. As she stood drying herself after the shower Bill knocked on the door and entered.
Sorry to disturb you,’ he said and smiled as he saw her hair, shiny as the day he had first laid eyes upon her. ‘Feeling better then luv?’ he asked.
Hmm,’ replied Julie as she averted her eyes and concentrated on drying her hair.
I’m glad that Marion woman’s gone,’ said Bill.
What do you mean?’ she asked as she took up the brush and began battling three days worth of tangles.
Oh I know how she looks at me,’ he said. Something in his voice made her forget the mirror and turn to look at him. ‘She can’t hold a candle to you luv, leastways not to me. You’re the only way for me, only one there’s ever been, though what you see in an old woodchopper like meself I’ll never know.’ He finished as he rubbed his right hand against his thinning, grey hair.
Seeing his hand brush across his hair like that she remembered when the hair had been a thick, rich brown and he had stood in his pants and singlet, axe cupped under his armpit and resting on his arm, the wood chips scattered all around and he grinning at her because he’d won the Marysville final and they’d be going to Burney for the state championships.
Remember that week in Burney?’ he asked as if reading her mind.
Julie looked into his eyes and saw more there than she ever expected to see. Saw all he wanted to say but never could. She even saw the gentle spirit that lay deep within, hidden in the folds of his fat and muscle, a genie in the lamp. A potential trapped by the unexpected change of circumstances never expecting to escape.
Standing there looking at him she thought about his life, his struggle with a changing world threatening to leave him behind. ‘That’s why he’s so loud,’ she thought, ‘it’s a battle that he’s losing but refuses to give in.’ She saw the man he could have been if things had been different. She saw a straight backed , quiet man strong in his sense of belonging. ‘Its sad,’ she thought, ‘when we find ourselves in a place different from our choosing, or from what we expected when we chose.’
Can’t a lady have a bit of privacy,’ she said.
Sorry luv’,’ replied Bill, ‘thought you might need a bit of company after yer ordeal.’
Ordeal! Ordeal is that what you’re calling it now?’ Said Julie as she waved her hairbrush beneath his nose. ‘If you want to know the ordeal Bill McGregor, ‘tis the ordeal of living with you and the three boys. The four of you cramming me for space. All of you so loud I wonder the house hasn’t fallen down. That’s the real ordeal Bill and don’t you go forgetting it.’
Bill stared down at the brush waved beneath his nose. ‘Um, yes I see,’ he foolishly said.
No you don’t. Not ever. Guess you thinks its easy for me, cleaning, cooking and the like while you strut about with your axe tucked under your warm for all the world lie you was apart of the lorded gentry.’
Ah,’ mumbled Bill as he backed towards the door.
Now get out Bill and let me finish, is that too much to ask of you.’
Bill fled the bathroom. He went to fetch the three boys. ‘Come on lads’ he cried out loud enough to shake the house, ‘let’s give yer mum a treat and head in for some Chinese. I might even buy a bottle of that plonk she likes, whadya say?’
Julie finished brushing and applied some lipstick. She wondered about the Bill she had seen in that moment in the bathroom. A man she hadn’t seen for too many years to count. ‘Still there though,’ she thought. ‘Still there beneath it all, waiting, shivering, anxious that I’ll say no. Even after all these years, still fretting about my answer,’ She snorted out loud and found it difficult to keep the smile off her face as she thought about Bill and the boys. She listened to them recklessly whooping around the house getting ready to take her out.

 ‘It might not be everything,’ she thought as she clipped her bra into place, ‘but it’ll do me.’ Which, if she had only remembered, were the exact words she had used with her mother twenty-nine years ago when describing how she felt about Bill.

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