Spilled blood

A story comes onto the radio, a young woman with a high
pitched but gravely voice.  The
rising inflexion, the voice of anxiety perhaps, until she tells us, the
listeners –  me sitting in my car
driving on auto-pilot – she has problems with her trachea.
 
‘If I get to know someone, after a few meetings, I might
tell them,’ she says. ‘And the best way to tell them, the only way to tell
them, is the straightforward one: My mother cut my throat.’
Different voices cut in.  The girl’s father tells of the days before the cutting, how
he had not noticed that his wife had been praying more than usual.
The voice over then tells the story:  The day of the event, an October day in
Queensland in the late 1980s when the mother of two-year-old Susannah had been
hearing voices.
 
She was inspired by a quote from the bible, when God
ordered Isaac to make a sacrifice of his son.
 
And so this mother laid out her two year old daughter on a
sheep skin rug on the bench.  
She put on the oven.  She
sterilized knives and when the voices took over she went to her daughter, who
had put up her hands to fend off the blade, and proceeded to cut her  throat.
My mind reels to take in this information, to imagine the
scene.
 
The mother held her daughter for some forty minutes until
her daughter had turned blue.  The
voices told the mother then to put her child into the oven, but part of this
mother’s reason must have prevailed, the voice over tells us.
The mother struggled against the command to put her
daughter in the oven.  Then she rang
the police station nearby.
‘I’ve done something bad,’ she said.  ‘I’ve cut my daughter’s throat.’
 
The police came right away.
 
Next we cut to the surgeon, a country surgeon, who managed
to operate on and save Susannah.    He had her transferred to the main Brisbane
hospital.
 
‘People tell me that I am strong and brave, that I am a
marvel,’ the girl tells us.  ‘It’s
only now as an adult that I can look back on it.  
‘I can see myself there on the bench, on the lambswool
rug.  As if I can look at myself.  I can still see the blue stitches in my fingers where the
knife cut when I tried to fend it off. 
But I have most trouble with my mother today, not so much that she did
this thing, but that she will not talk about it.  She never talks about it and she has not said she was
sorry.’
The story jags its way into my consciousness.  I take it over.  All these questions I want to ask.
The girl goes on to tell us the listeners, how she does
not see herself as particularly strong, but she has a belief that given she has
survived then she must be here for a reason.  there must be some purpose.
And my hackles go up.  This stuff of being here for a reason.
The family were Seventh Day Adventists, firm believers,
but something else must have happened in that mother’s mind to cause her to
want to make this ultimate sacrifice.
The father breaks down on the radio when he describes the
sight of his daughter in the hospital, a two year old in a nappy with tubes
coming out of her neck. 
 
He tells us how it was when he went back home, that a
friend had come along to help him to clean up. 
The friend broke down and the father had to comfort him.
‘Who’d have thought there could be so much blood,’ the
father says.  And my imagination
kicks in all over again.  

A yellow towel

I sit beside my mother on the blue Ventura bus. It snakes its way through the back streets of Box Hill. We have been travelling for nearly an hour. Already the trip is long, from Mentone beach into Surrey Hills. We did not have time to think or to decide on the clothes we might wear, or the books we might bring to read on this long journey. We could not stay a minute longer.

It happens like this. On Friday nights my father drinks himself into a stupor. Most times he falls asleep on his chair in front of the television. He leaves us in peace, but sometimes the drinking starts earlier before Friday. It might begin on a Wednesday. On days like these, my father does not go to work. Instead he drinks and sleeps, sleeps and drinks, and in between times he looks to us for company and for fights.

He looks especially to my mother, but she pretends she does not notice him and the more she pretends the more angry he becomes until in an explosion of rage he throws a radiator at her, as he did this morning, or he rips off her dress, as he did last week, or he tears out her hair.

Last week we left to stay with my big brother and his new wife in Hawthorn but we have overstayed our welcome there. This week we visit a friend of my mother’s who has said that my mother and the two little ones can stay the night with her, but we older ones will need to fend for ourselves.

And so it was decided. We older ones will catch the blue bus back to our home, but we will not go inside. We will sleep in the garage if we are brave enough to sneak into the backyard and otherwise we will fend for ourselves in the outside world.

The bus drops us off two stops before our house. We do not want our father to see us from his front seat in the lounge room. We walk around the block and approach our house from behind. Even from behind, our house does not feel safe. There is a vacant block behind the grey paling fence that divides the back of our house off from the next as yet unbuilt property. We will spend the night there.

My brothers climb the fence and sneak into the back yard to collect three towels off the washing line. We left them there the day before, after we had been swimming. We will use the towels as blankets.

Mine is a yellow towel. It is summertime. A hot night. I do not need a blanket. I use the towel as a mattress, a thin mattress that cannot cushion me from the rocks and rough bits that stick into my body every time I try to turn over in my sleep, but it is a comfort nevertheless. The two boys offer the towels to us three girls as an act of gallantry. They are strong boys. They can do without.

I look at the stars and imagine myself far away even as I marvel at the idea of my twelve-year-old self as this homeless person. How they would marvel at my school. How shocked they would be. Families from my school do not sleep out of doors at night because their father is drunk.

The next morning we go to Mass. The priest in white and gold vestments raises the host to the altar in the Hosanna chorus and I look down at my dirty fingernails, dirtier than usual for all the grit of my stony dirt bed the night before and I marvel at the way life can seem so very different from the outside.