Buried alive

The squish of jelly fish on crumbling sand under my feet bothered me more than sharks, until I saw the film Jaws. Then for years I found myself scanning the horizon for signs of a triangular fin menacing the water’s surface. 

Years earlier, in summer we took the blue Ventura bus along Warrigal Road and jumped off before it turned towards Mentone shopping centre to walk the last stretch before our first sight of blue water curving its way towards the peninsula.

It wasn’t a popular beach as beaches go, but good enough for us, even on weekends in summer when you could barely find a spot to sit among the towels, umbrellas, and bodies.

Father Walsh drove us during the holidays when my sister was home from college. He parked his grey valiant in the side street alongside St Bede’s College, as if the sight of that venerable institution reminded him of his calling. 

I did not know this then, only that a trip to the beach in a car, in anyone’s car other than my father’s, was an exquisite pleasure to be savoured even as the seats were sticky hot and there was scarcely room on the back seat to breathe, jammed against two sisters and one brother or whichever of the kids made the trip with us. 

The water sparkled and the breeze whipped up eddies that frothed white like a row of marching girls in formation. 

At thirteen that awkward age between childhood and adolescence when your body is pushing itself out of shape from the thin angularity of your child self into some hideous shape I did not recognise, with fleshy bits here and there on my hips and bum and breasts pushing against my nipples. My bathing suit tight against my back was ready to burst at the seams. 

‘You’ll need a new one,’ my sister said, ever the one to notice, as if she was keeping an eye on me while I kept a closer eye on her. The way she moved beyond that awkward age into something I did not recognise. She was still short, not much taller than me, but she was rounded and wore bras. She wore a girdle like our mother, waist to thigh, with an add on suspender belt that kept her stockings in place. 

Dreadful things. I never wanted to wear one and as soon as panty hose hit the shelves I wanted no more of the dreaded strip of fabric you tied around your waist with bits dangling from front and back of your thighs to clasp onto stockings. When those bobbles broke off, as they invariably did in winter, when fawn coloured stockings were essential against the cold. Long brown socks were okay, but the older girls laughed at them by the time you were my age. 

On this day, no one was thinking about stockings or pantyhose. On this bright blue day with white clouds chasing one another in little tufts across the sky, the sun high and brightest yellow, it hurt my eyes. We thought only of reaching the water, sharks, and all. 

We swam. We splashed one another and the last one in shuddered at the indignity of an involuntary splashing. You did well to take control by leaping under the water without hesitation, while my sister and Father Walsh sprawled side by side on towels deep in conversation.

I wanted to be with them as much as I wanted to be in the water with the others. As if on cue the two oldies on the sand, my seventeen years old sister and the priest, no longer recognisable as a priest, in his navy-blue swimming trunks, nudged their way into the water. They could have been any other couple. He older, judging by the creases in his skin, but equally matched for vigour and a certain pleasure in each other’s company that I longed to share.

Home was a disappointment after Father Walsh took his leave. My sister retreated to her room alone and the rest of us propped in front of the television until the click of the front door and a shadow falling across the lounge room signalled my father. His shadow visible through the half open venetian blinds.

We switched off the TV as if by remote, in the days before remote controls, and scattered first to the kitchen, to the back yard, the two boys, and me and my sister, once our father was clear of the hall way, into our bedroom for safety.

My mother hummed in the kitchen as she boiled rice on the stove in readiness for nasi goreng, a recipe she brought from Holland. A recipe her family borrowed from the Indonesians whose land they had conquered.

In the late 1940s my father fought in Indonesia when the people there decided they wanted no more of colonial control. And the experience added to the pain of his participation in the war against German invasion. 

He brought those wars home and sat sullen in the front room grunting orders at my mother as if she was his inferior by rank while the rest of us knew to stay clear.

We were not guerrillas but needed the stealth of undercover fighters to protect us from his fury. It bubbled under the surface of his tired white shirts, brown around the cuffs and collar from wear. He ripped off his tie and let it fall to the ground beside his black shoes, which he had already kicked off. 

It was always the same. My father drank to a pattern. He kept the bottle in its brown paper bag even as he used a glass for its contents, as if he was tearing open a chocolate bar and breaking off bits to keep the rest for later.

He drank the lot in one sitting, slowly at first. You could gauge his mood as he spoke lightly to our mother at first sip as though she mattered. Only she knew as we knew, in no time, the gaiety of that first drink would shift to an irritation, as if something was scratching at his skin. Then into fury as if someone was kicking his shins. Finally to the vitriol that left my mother silent in her chair. Wary of any provocations, as he could not abide anyone’s existence, including his own.

Father Walsh was long gone by then. My sister bunkered down in her bedroom. I in my bed hidden behind an Edgar Allan Poe mystery as if I was looking for something that might scare me more than the tension in the house. 

A man buried alive.

I cannot think today that I should ever want to read such stories but in those days they offered a respite from life. As if they became my entry into a crazy state, when we knew only horror. 

Auto-fiction: A dingo took my baby

For her daughter’s second birthday, Laura visited her local toyshop. It was 1984 and the city was pockmarked with similar stores loaded to the rafters with every child’s dream.

A barn of a place, toys were arranged in rows and ranked according to age. Babies’ gear to the right, with each additional age grouping lumped together and gendered along the various rows.

Toys that moved for boys and all things pink and stationary for girls. 

Even in 1984 the pressure placed on children to identify with the bodies into which they were born annoyed Laura, but the pull of her own childhood memories was too great.

Had her daughter been born a son, Laura was determined she would never buy combat toys or superheroes like those displayed loudly in rows for boys aged five and upwards.

But the lure of the nearby doll section was impossible to ignore.

There she sat. The biggest baby doll Laura had ever seen. A doll, the size of an actual baby, only this doll-baby must have been a healthy six-month-old with oversized head, fake brown hair clamped over its scalp, rubber arms and legs attached to a flexible torso made of cloth.

The doll came dressed in a green outfit, shorts and press stud top that could be removed for washing.

Laura would have preferred a more lifelike representation of the human form, but in 1984 manufacturers had not yet learned to make plastic pliable enough so it felt like the real thing. Even as they curved the baby’s fingers just so and the toes likewise tilted inwards as if moulded from the image of a real baby caught in sleep. 

Laura knew it was a mistake to buy this baby for her daughter. The doll was almost as tall as her two-year-old but memories from her own childhood filtered through. The joy she felt – admittedly as an older child – when she and her sister opened their Christmas presents one year to discover they shared identical Rothmans dolls. One in a pink nappy, the other in blue. These dolls all made of plastic, although not quite the size of the doll baby now in her arms, were large enough to give Laura the illusion as a seven-year-old she was nursing her own baby. She loved poking the mock bottle with its pointed teat into her baby’s mouth. Loved pulling off the layers of clothing she arranged on its unforgiving body. Loved to lie it down to sleep and then pull the doll into a possessive embrace whenever Laura decided her baby had slept long enough. 

The price was almost as big as the baby doll, but Laura knew this chance would not come again. Her chance to give her daughter something she’d have loved herself. Something as magnificent as the biggest baby in the doll kingdom and she looked forward to the birthday morning when Pippa would open the doll to screams of delight.

This did not happen. On the day, Pippa ripped off the colourful paper and looked at the monster baby with an expression of utter bemusement. What do I do with this

‘We’ll call it Azaria,’ Pippa’s dad said looking askance at the doll. He had told Laura, soon after she brought the creature home and pulled it from its paper bag, it was over the top. 

Pippa flung Azaria to one side as she pulled at the wrapping of her other presents, more interested in the small tokens her mother had bought to add to the sense of celebration.

Not that Laura thought anything else was necessary, but she believed small children should not have to settle for only one present on their birthday. And although there would be many more gifts later that day, as Laura and Tom had invited twenty of their adult friends, most of whom had small children like Pippa to her first ever proper birthday party, she needed more than one gift from her parents to underscore the celebration.

At least Laura needed to buy more than one for her. 

In 1984 people still argued over Lindy Chamberlain’s innocence or guilt. She had claimed a dingo stole her baby from a camp tent in Alice Springs, and sometime later, a jump suit was found in bushes nearby. There were also hints of what was thought to be blood stains in the boot of the Chamberlain family car. 

Azaria, the actual baby, was only nine weeks old when she disappeared, and after much scrutiny and prejudice against a mother who was foolhardy enough to take her new baby camping in the desert, the courts looked severely upon her demeanour as a woman who showed no proper grief. 

Laura knew about the mixed feelings mothers might have towards their babies. She had felt them too, especially when Pippa first came into the world. How her cries unsettled Laura to the point she went to the chemist to buy Merbentyl, a red syrup that was intended to help baby’s deal with their colic. And sleep better.

Merbentyl is no longer recommended for babies under six months, but Laura didn’t know this then. She was convinced Pippa’s tears erupted because of pain inside her small body from frothy mother’s milk that went down too fast. She had no sense of the workings of a small person’s digestive system. Only that it was immature and must hurt. 

Laura had looked forward to the birth and right up until it happened it did not register that a real flesh and blood baby would be different from the Rothmans dolls of her childhood.

A real baby would not cooperate and go to sleep on demand, feed on Laura’s request and stop feeding when it suited her mother. 

In the hospital after a thirty-six-hour labour, at the end of which Laura, drugged to near paralysis on Pethidine, could no longer push. Her doctor in a room filled with students and nurses, hitched Laura into stirrups and stretched her legs wide.

She had no energy left to protest or to feel shame when the doctor raised his fingers-of-steel. Forceps shaped like those a doctor 29 years earlier had used on Laura’s own unborn head as her mother lay on a hospital gurney, which Laura’s mother later described as a butcher’s table.

He, too, dragged out Laura, as the other doctor pulled Pippa, small marks left on both foreheads that stayed visible only a day or two. 

Several hours later – a worry to Laura who came from the school that recommended early bonding of mother and child, though Laura could not stay awake until the evening – she feared for her baby.

Pippa was born at lunchtime. And when Laura woke in her hospital bed with three other women feeding babies in beds nearby, she begged a nurse to produce hers. 

Not long after the baby arrived, swaddled in a seersucker wrap and whimpering, the nurse drew curtains around Laura’s bed, and proceeded to teach mother and baby the art of feeding. Not from the pointed teat of her childhood, but from her adult sized nipples.

Laura had nurtured them as her pregnancy progressed, rubbing them with lanolin to increase their flexibility. She was awed when she squeezed the first of the sticky yellow colostrum from each nipple several weeks before her baby appeared. 

Laura had not even considered this possibility before Pippa was born. She knew she wanted to breast feed. It was a given, but she had no idea how this might happen. It was not without mishap to help Pippa get the hang of latching on but latch on Pippa did and feeding became Laura’s default source of comfort. Whenever Pippa cried, hungry or not, Laura attached her to a breast and Pippa obliged, until she was nine months old. 

Laura took the art of feeding to heart. The hospital nurses advised allowing Pippa to suckle only three minutes on each side before shifting to give her nipples a rest.

Laura mistook the nipple care when one nurse told her how to prevent baby from catching an infection hygiene was essential. Laura bathed her nipples in methylated spirits after each feed.

It stung as tiny cracks erupted on her skin under Pippa’s ferocious sucking. Her nipples screamed in pain. Only when she left the hospital did Laura realise her mistake. 

The rules of hospital faded over time and mother and baby fell into an easier rhythm. Then, months later, Laura and Tom took Pippa on a picnic to Hanging Rock. Around lunch time they spread a check blanket over a flat patch of ground and Laura drew Pippa to her, in readiness for a feed. Pippa protested and screamed. She stopped only when Laura set her upright.

Laura tried several times later that day and the next to feed her daughter, but the more she tried the more Pippa refused. 

In time Laura was convinced Pippa had weaned herself. This was okay, though over the next several days Laura’s breasts grew hard and painful like gigantic Tombowlers.

Pippa was old enough then to drink from a cup and she took her cow’s milk this way and water and juice and any other liquid she needed to help to lubricate her tiny body. The months moved on.

By the time the courts refused to believe a dingo had taken Azaria, and her innocent parents were in prison, Pippa was well on her way to toddlerhood.

Although Laura baulked at the name her husband had chosen for the doll baby, she saw the funny side of it. Especially when Pippa took to introducing the doll to adult friends.

Pippa never took to playing for long with Azaria. Something of the size differential, or her mother’s desire, got in the way. 

Azaria languished in a corner cupboard through another two actual babies born to Laura and Tom. And neither of these two, like Pippa, took to playing with Azaria. They wanted the latest in Cabbage Patch dolls, the real ones not the fakes. 

One day during a quiet cull of no longer used children’s toys, Laura drove Azaria to her local Opportunity shop in the hope some other child might enjoy the company of this doll baby. A child who might give this monster baby a better name, a name not synonymous with death and dingos.