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From Issue 54
‘You’ve got someone who wants you,’ said Sister Ann. ‘You’ve got work.’ She pointed to the camera-box. ‘He’ll get the picture with your papers.’
Pearl was six years old when the cops took her to a missionary home in Alice Springs. She was told that the Holy Spirit and Jesus and God were all three mixed up together, so not really separate, but Pearl prayed to God. It was clear to her that God was the boss. In between the praying she was trained for domestic work: how to do it properly, the way whitefellas liked it. Pearl also learned to do other things. She could work out answers to number problems and quote from the bible, but cleaning was what she did best. Cleaning didn’t ask you to be clever; it just needed to get done.
Some kids from the camp were taken before Pearl. She knew something was up when the big black car arrived. Even the scrawny dogs sniffing around camp with tails clutched between their back legs knew that. You would think the cops had come for them, the way they stopped yipping and skittered off into the bush. The birds also got wind and clamped their pointy beaks shut until the car flew off back down the track. Then it would be the people’s turn to go quiet, while the birds returned to wittering.
Pearl saw the ghosts of these kids sliding over their mothers’ faces, in the spaces they left behind at her skirt or on the old car tyres they had played with. Those spaces told the mothers that their kids had lived there, and now they were gone, to a place called ‘somewhere safe’. No one could fill the gap, not even new babies. Some mothers just stared at nothing, perhaps thinking that if they looked long enough their kid would start rebuilding itself right in front of them, till it was looking right back at them. Of course that never happened, and over time those mothers hardened, not mentioning the kid’s name, not letting the kid find space around her, saying it was the kid’s fault for going and not coming back, hissing madness under their breath.
They had always told the kids to run. When the big car was heard coming, the mums slapped their kids’ legs and shouted run, run that fast way, run. The small ones took off, hearing fear in their mums’ voices. Tiny wiry legs running fast, kicking up dust behind them, weaving in and out the spiky heads of grass. Some crying, thinking they’ve done something wrong, and some keeping those legs working while they’re struggling to breathe. A couple of times all that running took them away long enough for the cops to get tired, hungry; annoyed they couldn’t catch them. When the cops ignored their grumbling bellies and gaping yawns, they got lucky: a small one would come back too early.
That small one came trotting out from the bush, asking to come home. The mum stood and looked, wanting to shout at baby for getting it wrong, for not doing as she’s told and staying away. Anger got mixed up with all that fear, so she put her head in her hands and made a lot of noise, big crying yelping sounds as though she was being beaten over the head. The cops got a bit happier because their journey wasn’t wasted. When they picked up the small one the mum was confused. They gave her a lolly that made her stop thinking for a time. But he got put in the car and the engine started and the mum began a worse kind of moaning for her baby, who’s in the back seat, getting a fright. Those cops took off quick and the mum started running after them. The baby cried hard at the back window, two hands pressed against glass; he started being sick down himself. Later, when other kids came back, the camp was silent. It wasn’t right when they came home and one of them had been taken.
The cops kept coming back for more. Even when those mums jumped up and snatched babies, leaping across the land, the cops got clever and chased them in the car, zooming and crashing around like some wild beast. Lots of folks said it wasn’t right, some whitefellas, ones who let their kids play with them; they shook their heads saying: it shouldn’t be done. Pearl’s mum didn’t want her running all the time, out of sight. So she stuck her in a flour bag, told her not to move. Pearl was one of the fastest kids and there she was, watching and breathing out a cloudy peep hole. But the day came when her mum was busying herself elsewhere, didn’t lift Pearl into the flour sack quick enough, and that was how she remembered the last time she saw her mum, lying on the ground, pulling at her hair and reaching out as though she was drowning.
Pearl had never really figured out what she was doing in the missionary home, even when they told her it was for her own good and she would be taught the right ways of doing things. Nuns never explained why this place was better than living with her mum, why them bashing her was better than her mum doing it, why the holy place was better than camp living. They never explained why separating them from brothers and sisters was better than living with your own kin. And they never bothered explaining why they wanted them to be like whitefellas, when whitefellas didn’t seem that nice in the first place.
It took over two days to get to the new home on the outskirts of Darwin and the rains had come in the middle of it. Just before the rains everything sweats out of you. No matter how little you wear, your clothes clamp to your skin. All around gets heavy as the air overheats. When the rains arrive, the pot cracks open and water gushes over you, sometimes hammering the top of your head, as though trying to get in. That was exactly what happened to Pearl on her way to the new place. And that was how she appeared at the door, as though she had been swimming in a billabong with her one good dress on. It was shameful, standing in front of a whitefella, dripping on his polished floor; but there was nothing else for it until the boss-man told her otherwise.
Inside the house the boss-man stood there, blinking, expecting something from her; but she didn’t understand what, so she stared back. The boss-man coughed and coughed again. Why he coughed when nothing was stuck in his pipes she couldn’t work out, but she had to wait until the looking was over and she could get on with being told what to do.
She prayed hard that she didn’t mark the couches or chairs or a hiding would come her way. She had to stop herself from picking up a newspaper from the coffee table and shuffling it beneath her feet. But the boss-man started talking. This rule means you stay here, that rule means you go there, get to know the place, figure things out. Him in his half-mast shorts, each leg gathered, travelling further upwards and getting chewed in his backside. His shirt looked as though it slept in a crumpled ball all night.
When he showed her the shed, the boss-man told Pearl to settle in. There was a musty smell of chicken feed and a metal tinge of paint pots somewhere; other than that, she didn’t have an opinion on it. Compared to some blackfellas living in an old car door held together with bits of tin roof, it was fine for sleeping.
‘Make it your home,’ he said.
Pearl almost spat out her teeth. She thought the boss-man a cheeky one. It was never going to be her home. A place to put your head, a place that was for keeping tins of paint and boxes of goods, and a place to put a single bed for missionary girls; but that wasn’t the same as home, even she knew that.
The passing of time slowly changed the boss-man. After a few weeks, he nodded at her. Months later he smiled and said hello. He took to hanging about at the kitchen, watching her open tins, peel potatoes, disinfect a floor and gut chickens. He danced in and out as though ants were creeping on his toes. He got talking on a day when he brought a radio down for her. ‘Mr Bob Dylan,’ he said, as the man who sang through his nose filled the room, making her feet tap the floor, bringing out a smile from nowhere. As the boss-man hummed along, he took hold of her arm, swinging her backwards and forwards. They both laughed like best mates.
One evening he tapped on the shed door and walked in. He stood for a moment with his mouth opening and closing. He reached over, as if to fix her hair, but Pearl looked down at his hand pushing inside her dress. His fingers moved around her breast. She held her breath as he nudged her over to the bed. She landed backwards on the mattress, using her elbow to break the fall. As the boss-man pulled up her skirt she tried to tug it down. She heard a zip open. A stick jabbed at her leg and she scrambled further up the bed while thinking it best to stay still. His mouth came over her mouth and she tasted wet coffee, cigarette smoke. He shifted his weight on top of her as she concentrated on trying to get air in. She begged God to remember to give her air while He had his face turned away, not seeing the trouble she was in. The boss-man whispered in her ear as the stick poked into her. He let out a cry, like one you hear when boys score a goal. Pearl pulled in spare streams of air until he stood up in one movement. He zipped up his fly and walked out the shed.
Pearl lay on the bed staring at the thick cobwebs in the corner of the room. She sat up on one arm and felt wetness escape from her. When she stood, the wet fell to the floor in a fat drop. She gathered her skirt up and shuffled outside to the tap. The water was cold on her legs. She washed her hands and pulled her skirt down. It was quiet at the back of the shed. Ants were crawling over a dead centipede and a bird sang a song as if it was in church.
‘You can look now,’ she said to God.
She knew that a baby had taken hold that night. There was a feeling of rising panic, although she wanted to believe the boss-man would work something out. He returned to the shed several nights a week and sometimes he stayed overnight. When he nodded off Pearl moved closer, wanting the feeling of skin against hers. One time he caught hold of her hand, patted it and leaned over to kiss her forehead. But the night came, as she knew it must, when his eyes fixed on her swollen belly. He shook his head as though trying to figure out how it happened.
The next day, Pearl approached the living room, making sure furniture didn’t get in the way of her bare feet. She tapped the door and heard the call to enter. He was stretched out on a chair and reading a bunch of papers. There was a photograph of Pearl in his lap. He lowered the papers and peered over the top of them. He straightened up in the chair. Both of them stared at each other. He coughed. ‘I have decided what to do,’ he said.
Pearl nodded. This was the moment before everything happened, before she found out if what she had belonged to her.
‘I need to speak to some people,’ he said.
She nodded again. As the boss-man said no more, she edged her way back out of the room to the sound of rustling of papers.
In Pearl’s life there had been many times of not knowing, of emptiness before the world started filling itself up with people making decisions or getting worked up over something. She made her way along the hall and whispered to God: ‘best you look the other way’. Her hand lifted the wallet from the sideboard. She walked to the kitchen, out the back door and saw her legs begin to work a bit harder. Within a few minutes her legs were beating against the ground in a way they hadn’t done in years.
JANE ARCHER lives in Edinburgh and writes in rural France. She has published in New Writing Scotland, won second prize in the Scottish Writers’ Centre Short Story Competition in 2012 and was a runner up in the Orange Harper’s Bazaar Short Story Competition. She concentrates full-time on her writing, despite her addiction to reading, and is currently working on a novel about Rose Williams and Rosemary Kennedy.
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