This final chapter of The Archer’s Game takes us back, full circle to the first chapter and, with it, the end of the work. Although these chapters do not represent the entire work, they are representative enough.

 

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I am special. Mum tells me so, even before I can understand words. As an infant, gazing aloft, eyes still unfocused, I concentrate on that voice, the lilting tones from a red mouth smiling down at me. She dispenses love with every bottle, and her soft hands and strong arms encircle my whimpers. I nestle in the warm blanket of reassurance, enfolded in cuddles, drifting on words, sleeping.

Mum unfurls my story each evening: ‘I always wanted a beautiful baby daughter just like you,’ she says, and tells me, again, how she went to a hospital. There were so many newborns and, from all of them, she chose me. Her words weave tendrils of belonging that hang like gossamer in the silence of nightfall. I am too young to understand where babies and beautiful girls come from, and yet shadowy doubts settle into the pockets of my journeying.

A helpless and trusting infant demands much, and mum no longer benefits from the vigour of youth. Later, she will tell me how much she loves children and that, while teaching, she ached to hold her own child. She will tell me of the cancer that robbed her of motherhood. How she married late, and adopted us: a boy then a girl.

Now, two children and the demands of a family are sometimes too much for her to manage. Fortunately dad is steadfast, an understanding and patient man. Although he is uneasy handling little babies and a fragile wife, he supports us all and keeps the farm thriving.

Like my older brother Nick, I sleep in a bassinette in our parent’s bedroom. The window beside me opens onto the veranda, and there are voices and sounds from the garden: a blackbird’s song; my grandad whistling as he pushes the hand mower; rain falling on the corrugated roof. Breezes pipe through tulle curtains, carrying the fragrance of freshly cut grass and summer storms. Dawn, daylight and dusk mark my time and the seasons.

By the second summer I sleep in a tall bright room with clattering blinds and moonlit shadows. Mum’s footsteps develop a brisk impatience. She sighs, more from fatigue than contentment. And there is an edge to distance conversations, angry words rising in clutches, drowned by phrases from the radio beyond the hallway. Drifts of lavender and classical music nourish my sleep. Where there is music, dad is nearby.

As a restless toddler, my bedtime story is a liturgy of comfort, drowsing sleeplessness and flushing my cheeks with delight. Yet I begin to wonder. I know I am chosen, but what happened to all the other babies waiting at the hospital for someone to choose them?

* * *

The sickness makes me afraid. I remember it clearly, although only four years old. Later, when I have words, I understand these things have names, and that such cruelty is described and bound in books of law. But, as a child, a mother’s summons is obeyed. Not even dad dares defy her.

One morning, soon after breakfast, with the dishes standing tall like soldiers in the rack and the broom resting idly in the corner, my mother’s feet come briskly along the passageway and into the bathroom. There I sit on the potty, waiting, so afraid I cannot think let alone perform bodily functions. Mum says I am constipated, but no matter how I strain or she coaxes, I cannot relieve myself. Her words are impatient, now, and questions press.
‘Have you really tried? You will be sick if you stay this way.’

But this is not enough.
‘Stay here!’ she orders, marching back to the kitchen. I kneel on the bathroom bench in order reach the basin. As I wash my little hands a knot of fear tightens in my stomach. I hear the cupboard door open under the kitchen sink and then slam shut. The wooden chopping board clatters on the table. A knife is drawn from the cutlery draw. The sound of slicing follows. I dry my hands and sit back on the bench, waiting. Such fear should turn my bowels to water yet they remain clenched in one huge spasm of dread, like the rest of me. I clasp my knees and listen as preparations continue. Soon the feet return, back over the linoleum and into the bathroom. The door closes with the finality of a prison gate.

I stand up, alert, afraid. Mum sits down on the bench, placing something beside her. She reaches, pulling me closer, tugs down my pants and lifts me on to her lap. I howl in protest sensing her anger and something else. She lies me face-down, where my little chin rests on frightened hands, inches away from a wedge of yellow soap. I wave my legs helplessly and sob, begging her to stop whatever it is she plans to do. I promise to try harder in the afternoon. I reason as best I can, but my words are no match for her ferocity and bruising grip. I plead between gulps, eyes streaming tears, but no, this must be done.

Cool fingers part my buttocks. There is pressure as the wedge of soap slips into my tender flesh. It stings more than anything I have known, worse than soap in my eyes, lemon juice on a cut finger. Unbearable. It burns and smarts, all the more as mum pushes it deeper, and draws it back out again. My tears and cries fill the room and spill out beneath the door. I beg her to stop.
‘Just a little more,’ she says. The soap continues to probe and sting. I wriggle and squirm to be rid of it, but she holds me firmly on her lap.
Again, through tears I protest: ‘Why can’t I go to the doctor … and get some medicine?’
‘Just a bit more,’ she snaps and continues until the soap is all but dissolved.

Surely the others have heard my tears and screaming. Where is dad? Why doesn’t he stop this? My brother, Nick, knows. He comes to the door and asks what’s wrong.
‘It’s alright,’ mum reassures him. And, after a pause, he wanders away.
Finally, with my bottom burning and throbbing, I am cleaned and released.
‘You’ve been a very good and brave little girl,’ the red mouth says.
It is over for now.
Mum instructs: ‘Now, as soon as you want to use the potty again, you must!’

Yet day after day I cannot; not because of the constipation, now. I am just too frightened. Mum continues the treatment, sometimes twice: again in the afternoon, and I begin to hate her with all the anger and rage my little soul can gather.
Where’s dad? Why is he afraid to speak up for me? Why doesn’t Nick tell someone? It seems that mum does as she wishes, without interference.

At the end of a week my body releases its wastes in a gush of pain and I am more relieved than mum can ever imagine. Still I wonder: How can she do this? What kind of person would recommend such treatment? Each grain of hurt has etched a mark on the wall of my memory: the terror of it, the vivid fear, the clash of pain and reason, an utter helplessness that has set me adrift – sacred trust between mother and child – lost forever.

Later, mum explains why she hurt me. She pulls down a book from the shelves in the sitting room. She opens the volume and shows pictures of the method she used. I loathe and fear that book with its grotesque images. Surely no book could ever sanction such cruelty.

A grey, gaunt loneliness fills the hollows my anger has made. Buds of hatred swell and I vow never to let mum hurt me again. I will be vigilant, never alone with her without a plan of escape.

Distance grows between us. Mum sets me aside, no longer doting upon me. She withholds cuddles and reassurance. I withdraw into a bleak place inside me, and seek safety away from the house, playing in lofts and the forks of trees. Below, fear prowls, hungry like a hungry storybook wolf. I learn to climb swiftly, run and ride tirelessly, stalk fearlessly, exploring darkness, heat, cold, pain and exhaustion. By the age of seven I am ready to bear anything a grown-up might ever try do to me.

I sleep lightly. The sounds of night awakening me. I listen for mum’s slippered footsteps, watch for her torchlight crazing the walls, and when she comes in I feign sleep, while beneath the blankets I am taut and ready to flee.

My strongest allies are the spirits in paddocks. They dwell in trees and hedgerows, beneath rocks and in shadows. I don’t really have a name for them but, much later, I learn about the aboriginal people who lived here, thousands of years before us, and I wonder if it is they who guide and teach me. I have never seen them: they speak inside my ears, offering kind and caring instruction, a bit like grandad.

And there are others who inspire courage when I am afraid: heroes from storybooks, the glowing angels in tall church windows, and plant spirits in the garden and orchard. They teach me to be strong, remain wary, avoiding strangers and grown ups who come too close.

Even on bright summer days the loneliness lingers, tightening into a dry ball in my throat. I begin to suspect I am not like other children, that I see things they do not know. Wisdom and patience teach me, and I wait, a woman-child, watching. Time is on my side. The flow of years will bind my mother in loveless arms. Her power over me will fade.

* * *

Over a decade later, I lie awake in my bungalow, bruised and drowsy, the memory of a new betrayal still fresh.
The stick of incense has smouldered to a puff of ash and a candle-flame nearby wobbles perilously close to wick’s end. Pulling the blanket over me, I close my eyes again, and reach for a place of warmth and reassurance.

* * *

My toes are buried in tender grass and a tide of crimson flowers. I walk below the radiant coral tree. It is a warm summer morning and grandad finishes trimming the edges of a semi-circle of lawn adjacent to the veranda. Then he sets aside his walking stick and takes up the hand-mower, leaning heavily on the worn, wooden handles. His three-note whistle accompanies the rattle and snip of the implement and the fragrance of cut grass reaches my nose, surpassing even the promise of perfumed pickatees and the delicious aromas of daphne and lemon blossom. I move to the driveway, bare feet squirming in the gravel. I feel animated by the flurry of activity.

Behind me dad clips the privet hedge to precise corners and curves. He has already finished the south side and approaches a single archway that leads from a formal garden to the orchard beyond. Beside me, mum rakes the coral tree blossoms. Until yesterday our paddling pool rested beneath the shade of that tree. Now disassembled, it is packed away, leaving a square of flattened grass. Mum straightens this up before bustling over to collect leaves and windfalls from under the lemon tree. I have never seen her work with such energy and purpose.

I am too young to use cutting tools and there is little for me to do, yet I buzz with excitement and want to help. As Nick weeds the driveway with a small gardening fork, I move around the lawn-edge, finger-raking grandad’s grass clippings into little piles. I collect these in my toy bucket and wait patiently at the wheel barrow for grandad to empty his grass catcher. Then I add my contribution. He makes such a fuss that I scuttle back for more.

I am unfamiliar with summer gardening and have failed to recognise preparations over the past few weeks. Dad has painted the old gig, and oiled its leather harness. He has mown, bailed and stacked hay from the house paddock, leaving tidy, yellow stubble. I have helped him gather bark from beneath the towering manna gum for kindling, and we’ve feed orchard windfalls to the cattle and pony. Shrubs are pruned, garden beds weeded, paths swept, gates painted and verandas oiled.

Now the lawn is a carpet of cool green for me to play on and the driveway is raked and crunchy under my feet. Emptying my bucket again, I gather fallen blossoms from the gravel, clutching the last one for closer study. It reminds me of a picture I’ve seen of a circus man shot from a cannon, dressed in a red helmet and cape, and with a blue jump suit. The flower has a helmet, too. I ease it off and poke my finger into the hollow, then peel off the crimson cape from the lean body. It feels firm and waxy on my lips and fingers and has a thick fold down its centre. After reassembling the flower, I drop it in the bucket and head for grandad’s wheelbarrow, peering over its rim as I scatter the blossoms reverently.

Following afternoon tea, I sit at the kitchen table watching grandad read the newspaper. His spectacles are half way down the length of his nose. I like the way he holds the large pages, twitching them so they won’t flop over. As he reads he chomps his teeth together, making a clacking sound. I finish my glass of milk and dab at moist cake crumbs on my plate, using bits of icing to glue them to my finger, before licking them off.

Mum calls from next door in the sewing room. I slide off my chair and pad to the door. She has a brown gingham dress draped on her lap.
‘Come here, dear.’
I hesitate.
‘Come on. I have your new dress ready.’ Her red mouth smiles warmly as she holds a dress by the shoulders for me to admire. It is different to my other clothes, with lace along the hem, neck and sleeves. As she turns it around, I notice three brown buttons at the neck. The bodice is plain brown with a gingham skirt.
‘Let’s try it on,’ she suggests. ‘Do you like it?’
‘Yes. Sort of. What’s it for?’ Usually new clothes are for an occasion.
‘It’s part of your costume for the garden party.’
I study her face. ‘What’s a garden party?’
‘When lots of people visit a big garden. They set up stalls to sell things they’ve made and serve Devonshire tea.’ Mum unbuttons my blouse. I slip it off and she hangs it over the back of her chair. ‘And they have mini golf, croquet and darts,’ she adds, gathering the frock over my head.
‘When’s it happening?’ I ask as my head disappears beneath the dress.
‘Tomorrow afternoon.’ She turns me around and fastens the buttons.
I pull at the lace. It’s scratchy against my neck. ‘Where is the garden party, then?’ I begin to anticipate something unpleasant.
‘Here, in our garden. There’ll be billy carts rides too, and rides on the trailer and grandad’s gig.’
I feel a tide of fear spill over my toes and creep up my legs, and I am frightened. ‘But who will come here?’

Mum helps me up onto the chair. ‘Blow!’ She tugs at the hem. ‘People from around here. From Terang and Noorat, our neighbours and friends. It’s an open invitation to the public.’
I’m horrified. ‘That means lots of people! How will they all fit in?’
Mum laughs. ‘There’s plenty of room dear. We’ll have tables and chairs on the veranda for afternoon tea, and rows of chairs on the lawn. And there’ll be stalls under the coral tree. You’ll like that: lamingtons and bikkies, toffee, coconut ice, melting moments and cream cakes. Even ice cream.’

I’m silent, digesting this barrage of information.
Mum takes my arm. ‘Turn around dear so I can pin the back.’

I peer out the sewing room window. From where I stand I can see passed the water tanks by the house wall to the vegetable garden, sheds and haystack. Below the window, between the tanks, dense nasturtiums are a wash of brilliant green and orange. Try as I may I cannot imagine crowds of people in our garden, sitting on our veranda, or milling about on the lawn in their grown-up shoes. I have no idea what mini golf is and don’t understand how the old, broken-down gig in the shed can be used again. And as for our pony being ridden by strangers, it all feels terrible.

My throat tightens. ‘Is that what this dress is for, then?’ my voice croaks, betraying suspicion.
‘Yes, dear.’ Mum turns me round again. ‘This is part of your costume. It’s the same as daughters of the first settlers used to wear.’ She reaches into the top cupboard and produces a floppy bonnet made of the same brown gingham, with velvet ribbon laced through eyelets round the crown. ‘Isn’t this bonnet lovely?’
I try to look pleased.
‘I’ve done up your dolly and pram, too,’ she adds.
‘Why?’
‘As part of your costume. You’ll see.’ Her red mouth smiles to reassure me.
‘Hop down, dear and I’ll sew up that hem.’ She helps me climb down and undoes the buttons.
‘But why are the people coming, mum?’
‘To enjoy themselves, dear. To spend their Sunday afternoon having fun.’

This isn’t the answer I want. I raise my arms overhead as mum peels off my dress, and I reach for my blouse. ‘Where’s my pram now?’
‘In the workshop. Dad’s just finishing it off.’
She leans over to the chest of drawers and lifts down my doll. Her dress is similar to my own, with a matching bonnet.
‘Can I have her now?’ I ask, reaching out, determined to prevent more meddling with my toys.
‘Oh,’ mum smiles. ‘I think you’d better leave her till tomorrow. It’s only one day and you’ve still got Roast Dinner and Dardines.’ They are my favourite soft toys, a lamb and a teddy bear. I don’t really like dolls – I only pretend for mum’s sake.

My hands collapse at my sides and I feel lost and powerless. My heart is racing and I can’t think clearly. Everything is changing at breakneck speed and I don’t understand any of it. I need to get outside.

Tucking in my blouse, I slip away. Grandad has gone, having cleared away the afternoon tea things. I stand in the kitchen, searching beyond its walls for where tomorrow lies. I don’t like brown, the dress, or my doll’s new clothes, or that my pram’s being altered, especially by dad. The back door slams as I slip through the gate and storm barefoot to the workshop.

With fists clenched angrily, I stand at the doorway glaring in.
‘Hello, dear.’ Dad is at the workbench attaching thick pieces of pine bark to my pram with wire.
‘Why are you changing my pram?’ I demand, emotion snagging my voice.
‘It’s all right, dear, it’s only for tomorrow, for the competition. Then we can take this stuff off and it’ll be the same as always.’
‘What competition?’ My chin quivers and my eyes well with tears. I feel so betrayed.
‘The fancy dress competition. We’ve invited all the children to wear costumes and one of the ladies from the church auxiliary will judge the winner.’
‘But I don’t want to be in a competition!’

As I regard my ruined pram my lip begins to curl. ‘How can it ever be the same after you’ve done that to it?’ I sob accusingly.
Dad puts down his pliers and kneels in front of me. I bury my face in his shirt, sobbing. ‘Mum didn’t tell me there was a competition and you didn’t ask about my pram.’ My fists scrub tears away. ‘I don’t want it like that. And why do I have to wear that silly, scratchy brown dress? And why are there so many people coming to our house?’

Dad pats my back gently with a gnarled, farmer’s hand, and chooses his words thoughtfully.
‘There….there,’ he says and I feel him sigh. ‘There, there.’ His rough shaven cheek scratches my forehead. ‘It’s only for tomorrow, dear,’ he assures me, sitting back on his heels and peering into my face. He hasn’t seen me so upset before. I know live a sheltered life on the farm.
‘It’s just for one afternoon,’ he promises, taking my hands in his. ‘Then it will be over and the people will go again, and everything will be like it was before.’

His words reassure me and the knot in my throat loosens a little. I reach forward and he hugs me again before seating me on his old wooden toolbox. He pulls a handkerchief from his overalls and dabs my cheeks, eyes and nose. Holding me again we rock gently and he rubs my back to soothe the sniffs and gulps.

Now in his fifties, dad has had little to do with children. Even me. Farm work keeps him so busy.
‘I know this is all strange for you, dear. And I know you love your home the way it is. Yet sometimes we have to share our things with other people for a little while.’
I dry my eyes on the back of my hand as he continues.
‘The people coming here tomorrow will pay for the rides, the food and games, and their money will help other children who don’t have a nice home to live in like we do.’

I consider this. It hasn’t occurred to me, really, that other children should live differently.
‘You know, some children don’t have mums and dads to love and care for them. They live in an orphanage where grownups look after them until homes are found with new families.’
As he explains this, I relax. My gulping ceases.
‘By inviting people to our home tomorrow, we can raise money to help those children, to buy them story books and toys for their birthdays, and Easter eggs and special things just as you have.’

I am quiet now and my eyes widen as I imagine the children seeing the gifts and delights that dad describes. Although the thought of crowds of people is still frightening, at least I understand. The changes are temporary and we will help children. For if there are children who don’t have homes like mine, they must be very sad and perhaps even more frightened than me. I’ve seen pictures of frightened children in one of mum’s magazines.

Dad releases my hands and rises stiffly. He invites me to look at what he’s done and, although it seems horrible, I smile approvingly, knowing he means well.
My voice is husky. ‘Okay.’ I look up at him. ‘Mum has made a new dress for dolly, just like mine.’
He beams down at me, knowing I am trying to be brave. ‘You’ll look lovely, dear. And did you know that Nick has a costume, too?’
I shake my head. ‘What’s his like?’
‘He’ll dress up like Ernie Old, a swagman, with a flannel shirt, old trousers and straw hat. And he’ll have that rusty penny-farthing bicycle of Granny Clarkes’s to ride.’
I beam at him. While I’m not sure who Ernie Old is, or Granny Clarke, but I’ve seen pictures of a swagman in books.

Pondering all this, I return to the house. But instead of going indoors, I walk around the side, along the driveway, and gaze at the manicured hedges and lawns. I have deep affection for my home. The archway beckons and I wander through it to the orchard. It has been spruced up, too. The grass has been mown around the raspberry canes and asparagus beds, and all the fallen leaves raked away. Even the unruly clump of cane is tidy. Beside it the old mulberry tree looks inviting. I climb onto my favourite branch and lie back to gaze at clouds through gaps in the leaves. The mulberries are still greenish and small.

Far away, the town of Terang rests like a patched blanket on the hill. People are coming here from there, tomorrow. The lump returns but I swallow it down and close my eyes. Sunlight makes patterns through my eyelids.

***

Next morning I wake with a start, alarmed but not sure why. Something happened and I listen carefully. Blackbird song rings from the orchard. Must have been a dream, I conclude, trying to recall the echo of my waking. Nothing. I lie back, my head sinking into the feather pillow. A blackbird calls again, its warble like the chatter and tinkle of running water.

Suddenly I remember. It’s Sunday. The garden party. Recollection drives a wave of dread through me. I shudder and curl up, burying my face to shut out the inevitable. The truth of it leaves me trembling. But then I remember the children. All I have to do is remember them, I decide. Whatever happens, it’s only for one day and it’s for the children.

There are stirrings in the house, now. It is time to face this day. I will be brave and chirpy, friendly but separate, so whatever frightens me won’t reach inside.

Everyone follows the same routine until after breakfast. Then several vehicles pull up in the back yard and I run to the door. It’s not often people park their cars here. Most visitors come in down the drive way that curves through the garden beside the house. Only those on farm business park in the yard.

Men climb out and begin unloading wooden boards, trestles and stacks of chairs. Others carry boxes through the driveway gate into the garden. I follow them shyly, watching as they set things up all over the lawn. There is a game with balls and loops, and another with bigger, black balls. Dartboards are hung either side of the archway on the hedge. Tables appear beneath the coral tree, just as mum said. Women arrive, fussing as they spread starched linen cloths on the tables, and unpack boxes and baskets of jars and clothes. Folding chairs appear from somewhere, placed in rows at the side of the garden, as if for an audience. Fold-up tables line the veranda, and chairs exactly like the ones from Sunday school. Ah! That’s why I recognise some of the men carrying a framework for a marquee. While the progress is frightening, none of my family is anywhere to be seen. The garden is taken over by strangers.

I scuttle for the sanctuary of my bedroom but, upon entering, there are two strange women there with mum. They have dragged in the hallstand and placed it against the chimney, and are setting up a rack with coat hangers beside my dressing table: a cloakroom for guests, for strangers. Speechless, I flee to the bathroom. Here I can be safe and alone. Slamming the door, I turn the key, and sit down heavily on the bench, my heart pounding and lungs heaving. I feel dizzy and sick and can’t stop shaking, and this frightens me all the more.

It is then I realise all the family towels are gone, replaced by rows of linen ones. All mum’s things are missing from the shelf and there is a new cake of green soap on the hand-basin.
‘Jo?’ Mum calls from the other side of the door. There is a pause. ‘It’s time to get ready for church, dear. Your clothes are in the spare room on grandad’s bed.’
I swallow the lump in my throat and I try to sound calm and sensible. ‘Thanks mum.’ Her steps fade to the kitchen.

I stand at the hand basin, trying to calm down. I turn on the tap and grimace. The basin is spotless, the surface polished with kerosene, its odour still lingers. And now I have splashed it with water. I grab some toilet paper to dry it, flushing away my guilt and evidence. This cleanliness is disturbing. Mum never cleans like this. I daren’t touch the dainty hand towels so I dry my face on my sleeve. An inspection of the bath and shower reveal further cleaning. Back upon the bench, I bury my face in my hands, squeezing away the muddle of thoughts, breathing through my fingers. Slowly the world comes back into focus. I stand at last, take a deep breath and turn the key.

In the spare room a blue and white Sunday dress, white cardigan, matching bag, shoes and socks await me. Once changed, I stand before one of the tall wardrobe mirrors, peering at my reflection. Returning my inspection is a little girl with grey, inquiring eyes. Her skin is tanned; her mouth and nose doll-like in a round face, framed by a bob of smooth brown hair. The child stares back confidently, ready to spring. The disparity between my reflection and me is uncomfortable. Is this how I look to other people? I wonder, or do I only look like this to myself?

Mum’s heavy steps startle me.
‘Ready dear?’ she calls, popping her head round the door. She pauses, then comes right in. ‘Are you ready?’
‘Hmm. S’pose.’
She takes a comb from the dresser and tidies my hair. ‘There,’ she croons, ‘you look lovely.’ She means it, too. I can tell by her thick voice, and watery eyes. She tugs at my cardigan, straightening it at the shoulder. ‘Come on, dear. We don’t want to be late for church, do we? And don’t forget your bag,’ she calls, already halfway down the hall.

‘Okay.’ I return to the mirror for another look. The same jaunty kid stares back at me, calm, confident and mischievous. Yet I feel tizzy and freakish. I peer down at myself. My shoes are too narrow, already pinching my toes, and my socks are no longer white. My dress looks frumpish, the cardigan is still crooked and I don’t know what to do with my bag. When I hurry out to the car, I notice all the other vehicles have gone.

After church I help mum prepare a light lunch of sliced corned beef and salad. I have removed my white cardigan for fear of staining it. Beetroot seems purpose-driven in marking clean clothes. Grandad sits at his usual place buttering a slice of bread, oblivious to the bustle around him. He has cut the slice into little squares. I wish I could be calm like that, just taking life one square at a time, but unpleasant prospects crowd in and I eat little. He glances up, as if reading my mind.
‘Aren’t you hungry, mischief?’
I splotch mayonnaise over my salad. ‘Not today, grandad.’ I don’t want to say I am frightened. ‘Everyone is so busy. It makes me giddy.’
He gives a little laugh. ‘Today will be a big adventure.’

I barely nod. From a dollop of raspberry jam on his plate he smears one square of bread and pops the morsel into his mouth. He smiles again and I grin back. He prepares a second square and places it on the blade of his knife,, before reaching across the table with it, an offering for me. I accept, and take a bite. No one seems to notice the breach of etiquette. Grandad looks over at me, grinning. He knows.

Lunch is almost finished when a vehicle pulls up outside. While I dread the imminent sea of faces, Nick seems quite excited. Or is he only pretending?
‘Nicky, are you really going to ride around on that old bike?’ I ask, trying to hold time at bay.
He glares at me. ‘Who told you? It’s s’posed to be a surprise.’ He looks appealingly at mum.
‘I told her,’ dad interrupts, pushing his serviette into its ring.
‘It’s supposed to be a secret!’
‘Well it was only a secret from Jo. The rest of us knew, so why can’t she?’

Nick falls silent, recognising the challenge in dad’s voice. But he glares at me again and I stare back, exuding triumph. The imminent squabble vanishes with a loud rap on the back door. Dad rises and I know he won’t be back. Soon Nick excuses himself, too, and mum clears the table.
‘Not yet,’ I beg softly.
‘What dear?’ mum asks.
‘Just wondering what I should do now,’ I lie.
‘Well, let’s get these dishes done and then you can change into your new dress.’ Her tone suggests something delicious but, for me, it is grimly anticipated and manifestly unwelcome. I slip off my chair and carry the jams and condiments to the cupboard, licking raspberry conserve from its spoon.

Another truck arrives, swallowed in a cloud of dust and I hear voices from the other end of the house. Grandad says he’ll attend to it. Grateful, I help mum.

Several women enter the kitchen with plates of scones and baskets. They place them on the table. Attired in their Sunday best, perfumed and powdered, they speak loudly. Others follow leaving me to wipe the sink while mum organises the kitchen. The boisterous women are too much and I flee to grandad’s room where my costume awaits on the bed.

Mum arrives, helping me dress. She ties the laces on an old pair of Nick’s shoes, and fusses with my bonnet, adjusting the ribbon.
‘Now, off you go and help where you can. But don’t get your dress dirty, will you?’ she instructs.
I answer with a blank look.
‘Come on dear. Cheer up. There are children in the garden already, some you know from Sunday school. Pop out and see,’ she urges, steering me into the hallway.
I wander hesitantly to the front door, the shoes already slipping on my heels.

A confusion of noise drifts from the veranda, interrupted by a loud crackling and a screech through the garden. I peer out through the screen door, terrified, as a man’s voice booms from a speaker affixed to the corner of the veranda. It’s so loud it hurts. I scamper down the steps and out the driveway to the cattle grid. Beyond the garden gates stand rows of cars, parked in the front paddock, and with more coming down the drive. I never imagined this many people. Whole families are trooping along the outside of the hedge and spilling in through the side gate, onto the lawn. An announcement barks over the speaker. Though distorted, I know that voice, a neighbour and friend of dad’s. I look about for him but there are so many people, no faces I recognise.

The west side of the house is quieter. No one has discovered this part yet. I linger under the apricot tree and watch groups of people walking from their cars. Beneath the span of our proud manna gum their chatter seems disrespectful. The garden is a place of reverence for me, certainly no place for such a commotion. I creep toward the back yard. Over the fence dad parks our tractor and trailer by the back gate. The trailer is lined with bales of hay forming rows of seats. From beyond the sheds our chestnut farm pony appears, wearing a bulky harness and pulling grandad’s gig, its two ironclad wheels grind over the gravel. It is driven by a man I recognise from church. Poor Mitzi. My heart aches for the pony. She must be every bit as scared as me.

As I march towards the back gate the outside toilet flushes, startling me. I dart behind a squat water tank. The toilet is screened by a passionfruit trellis and I can’t see who is there. He walks away along the path and takes the hand of a little girl the same age as me. I feel so lost. I don’t know where to go or what to do. Beside me, Auntie Aileen’s doll-house offers refuge. From the outside it resembles a low weatherboard garden shed, with a tin roof. I peep in through a gap in the child-sized door. It looks spidery, dark and full of junk. However, the thought of sharing that gloom with spiders is quite tempting right now. Only mum’s admonishment to keep my dress clean bars the way. Yet if I remain here much longer, she or Nick will come looking for me. I’ll make my way via the orchard. There I can climb a tree and spot mum from a safe distance.

Leaving no time for nerves to tingle, I scuttle along the path, ducking low passed the steps and weave through the milling crowd on the driveway. As I pass the sandpit, I spot children playing there. I skirt the rockery and head straight into the orchard. There I choose the trunk of a large, leafy tree and tuck up the hem of my skirt. Clambering into its canopy I am left gasping for breath. My shoes have worn leather soles and don’t grip well, and my knees are grazed by the climb.

No one seems to notice me there. From such a vantage point I can see over the hedge into the main garden. A group of men play darts nearby. Beyond them someone has marked out chalk laneways on the lawn and an egg and spoon race is in progress. This is the reason for a barrage of noise over the loud speaker. A crowd has gathered along the far side, cheering the contestants. Near the finish line, elderly folk sit on the rows of chairs. The golden ash offers generous shade for them. Beyond, along the south lawn, several games of quoits are in progress. I spy grandad in his favourite chair, his coat draped over the back. He leans forward in his shirt and vest, scoring a game.

Straight ahead, a row of cake and farm produce stalls are busy beneath the coral tree, but the most popular table attracts a crowd of children. I strain to see what is there. I spy mum in a black and white dress and matching hat. She is serving something from a dairy bucket.  There is no sign of Nick and I know dad is giving hayrides out the back. On the semi-circle of lawn a marquee provides shade for an overflow of tables and chairs from the Devonshire Tea stall. The waitresses are women from church.

‘Hoy!’ calls a man below me.
I look down, searching through the tangle of branches but see no one.
‘Hello.’ The same voice again, only closer. Over the hedge a dart official looks straight at me.
‘Yes?’ I reply.
‘You can’t stay up there, love. It isn’t safe. One of these darts might hit you.’
‘Oh.’ I tremble at his discovery. ‘Okay, I’ll come down.’
I descend nimbly, untucking my skirt as he walks through the archway.
‘Come on, dear,’ he beckons. Let’s find your mum.’ He offers his hand and I take it shyly. It’s much softer and smaller than dad’s.
‘You shouldn’t be up there, dear. You could have fallen.’
‘Never have before.’
‘Oh, you’ve been up there before, have you?’
‘Lots of times. I live here.’ I am determined to set him straight.
‘Ah. So you must be Joanne?’
‘Joanna,’ I correct him.

By now we approach mum, still obscured by a throng of children. They give way to us, some licking green ice cream from square cones. I feel so swamped by their stares.
‘Lola,’ the man calls over the din. Look who I found up a tree spying on us! You can call off the search party now.’
‘There you are, dear. I sent Nick to look for you. Thanks, Doug,’ she calls after the man but he’s disappeared in a sea of faces.
‘Come on, dear. Have some ice-cream.’ She scoops from the bucket, pressing ice cream into a cone.
‘But I don’t have any money.’
‘Don’t worry, I’ll pay for you.’
Over the buzz of the crowd, announcements rattle from the loudspeaker.
Mum hands me my ice cream. ‘Now don’t go running off again, dear. Stay nearby because the fancy dress competition will start soon.’
‘Thanks, mum. Don’t forget to pay for it,’ I yell above the din. But she doesn’t. She just goes on serving. I continue to hover. Catching my eyes, again, she instructs, ‘Stay over there near the coral tree. Sit down in the shade where it’s clean.’

I wade through the press of children and grownups toward the corky-barked tree, still troubled by eating free ice cream and depriving children. But it’s a warm day and soon the ice cream demands my full attention as it flows green and sticky down my hand. There is nothing else to do but lick it. Squeezing between two trestle tables I sink gratefully to the lawn with my back against the tree. It is an old friend in strange times.

The ice cream is delicious, tangy with mint, but I can’t keep up with the drips. Several find their way onto my new dress. I rub at the spots but my hands are grubby and the stains smudge. Munching the last of the cone I remember the garden tap beside me and turn to squat by it. A drizzle of water is all I need. The dress will just have to stay dirty. I’ve done my best.

Now in a calmer state, I take more interest in my surroundings. Nearby a lady attends a handcraft stall. Customers examine homemade children’s clothes, all knitted, crocheted or sewn, much the same as mum makes. It is poorly attended. The most popular tables offer food. Two younger children stand across from me, on the driveway. The little boy is being cleaned up after his ice cream. His mum licks the corner of her hanky and wipes around his mouth and chin. All the time he stares at me. His sister turns to see what he’s looking at.

Just then an older boy comes running up.
‘Where the blazes have you been!’ At first I didn’t recognise my own brother, his face smeared with dirt, a moustache drawn on his upper lip.
‘Oh, it’s you.’ I realise, giggling.
‘Where’ve you been?’ he demands. ‘I’ve been looking everywhere. Even down at the dairy.’
‘I went round the back of the house then up that tree,’ and indicate where with my finger.
‘Huh. That’d be right. Well, mum wants you,’ he yells over the din of the PA.
‘I know. She gave me an ice cream and told me to come and sit over here.’
‘Well, bloody well stay, then!’ he snarls, ‘And don’t disappear anymore cos I’m not gunna to look for you again.’
I ignore his remarks.
‘Where’d you get the ice cream? And where’s mum?’ he demands.
I nod towards the crowding children and he heads over and wades in.

Again the din washes over me. I follow individual sounds, a cheer from the finish line at the racetrack, a bundle of conversations behind me in the marquee and in the background, the familiar burble of dad’s tractor. Then, quite by accident, I spot the man making announcements over the loud speaker. He stands beneath the grapevine arch almost obscured by its leaves. I barely recognise our neighbour, and watch, fascinated as he stands up to the microphone with a sheet of paper in his hand. I’ve never seen him in a suit before. My ears prick up when he mentions the fancy dress competition.

Slowly the crowd converges beside the running track. Children appear from everywhere, some with the oddest-looking outfits. I recognize a few of them from Sunday school: a boy I know wearing tatty things, a straw hat, checked shirt and overalls, with bits of hay sprouting from pockets and buttonholes. Perhaps he’s the straw man from the Wizard Of Oz. Another boy has silvery stuff all over his skin, and grey clothes, with a red heart pinned to his chest and a real tomahawk over his shoulder.

Nearby there’s a little girl in a frilly skirt and lacy blouse. A toy spider hangs by a thread from the brim of her hat. There are two children dressed to look like Jack and Jill, the bucket handle they share being the big clue. Nick appears, walking alongside the penny-farthing. There is a cardboard sign hung from the back of the bike seat in mum’s writing. It reads ‘Work Wanted’

Just as I wonder what to do, mum arrives with my pram. My tizzied doll lies beneath a paper-bark blanket. Mum kneels beside me and produces a handkerchief to spruce me up.
I pull away. ‘I’ve already washed at the tap.’ But to no avail. My bonnet is refitted with more tiresome adjustments to the bow. I wait for her to be cross but she doesn’t seem to notice the stains on my frock. She hauls me to my feet and guides me towards the centre of the crowd, as I half-drag the pram behind me.

There is a space in the middle where other contestants are lined up. I stand beside Nick and stare dumbly at the pram. The wall of excitement is so intense around me I can barely breathe. I remember the children who will benefit from today, and remember to exhale. Our names and the title of our costume characters are introduced over the PA, and the crowd applauds each one. I hear Nick’s called but can’t understand what is said. Then me: I am appalled to here my name spoken so loudly. My throat is dry and I stare at the doll in my pram. I feel silly, frightened, and unable to look up. After a pause in the announcements a winner is named. It is Nick and he moves forward to receive his prize.

At last the event is over. The crowd disperses and mum appears beside me, very pleased. There are mums and whining children everywhere. Finally I am overwhelmed and erupt in tears. But, instead of the relative safety of mum’s arms, I am soothed by a stranger. I hear mum’s laughter, but cannot spot her. I cling to my pram as I’m guided back into the crowd. Voices and announcements blend into a deafening, dimming cloud.

Mum re-appears, her face glistening and ruddy from the afternoon heat. She takes my hand and leads me to a table where homemade sweets are laid out on plates and trays.
‘Try one, dear,’ she invites. ‘It’s coconut ice. You haven’t that before, have you?’
Obligingly I accept the fuzzy cube of pink and white, and nibble at the stuff. It’s covered in dry shavings and has a strange smell. The piece lingers on my tongue, cool and oily. Exhausted, I return to the foot of the coral tree, with the sweet now a sticky paste in my palm. Noise drowns my thoughts and sickness tightens my stomach. I close my eyes, and doze against the tree, waking briefly when Nick nudges me and runs off.

Suddenly it is late afternoon. The din has ceased. The garden party is being packed away, chair by table by load. I turn to the tap in relief, and wash the sticky confection from my hand. I take a long draught of cool, familiar water. My home is mine again, but for how long? That night, faces peer into my dreams, and I fall into vast empty spaces.

* * *

After the second annual garden party an older girl come to stay with us. Mum says she is a foster child and her name is Denise. To me she is old enough to be a grownup but mum says she’s a teenager. She arrives with all her worldly possessions in one tightly packed suitcase, that and a piano accordion.

Denise helps mum during the day, but is free in the evenings. I look forward to the opportunity of her company. She sits me on her lap and reaches for the piano accordion. The instrument is huge, heavy, black and silver, and decorated with swirls of mother-of-pearl. Rows of black buttons bristle down one side and keys like mum’s piano line the other. Denise slips her hands through short leather straps and draws the accordion open, revealing the ribs of its belly.

She plays a style of music I do not recognise and sings to her own accompaniment. I lie back against her, listening with my eyes closed, awed by such noise and the complex machine resting on my lap. The accordion has a warm, plasticky smell and, with its wheezing, reedy breath, feels almost alive.

***

Kindergarten is a disaster. I attend intermittently when mum has time but, at the mention of the word, I dart from the room, proving impossible to find. The few sessions are mind-numbing. I listen patiently to stories, paint pictures with children’s brushes, play chasey and dig up the weed infested sandpit. All these things I can do at home, but mum says she’s worried about me growing up without the company of other children my age. I don’t see what she means.

‘The kids are so childish,’ I whine, ‘and we do the same things I do here at home.’ I pitch my argument carefully over lunch. ‘Why bother driving me all the way to Terang when I can do all that here at home?’
‘Because you need to play with other children,’ mum replies. ‘And you need to get used to being at school before you start at Terang Primary next year.’

The last day of Kindy is themed about Christmas. We cut coloured paper strips and then clag their ends together to make long paper chains. These decorate the room and Christmas tree. I make a card for mum and dad with wax crayons and I take my turn stirring ingredients for the Christmas pudding. The mixture is stiffer than mud and taunts my nose with its spicey, fruit smells.

* * *

Early one February morning, Denise helps me dress for my first day of school. My uniform has a crisp white collar and cuffs, and the blue gingham matches the belt with a white, plastic buckle. The starchy material scratches my neck. I am unused to bought clothing. Denise helps me wriggle my tanned feet into new white ankle socks and fastens the buckles of my new brown school sandals.

Nick has attended school for several years, but I’ve given little thought to his comings and goings. Now that it’s my turn, I feel like a wild pony, bridled for the first time. The strictures of routine and mum’s daily scramble to organise us will soon eclipse memories of drifting summer days and the delightful abandonment of childhood.

On that first morning mum leads me into the main hall, and it is there that we part. I am directed to sit with a large group of children, some much older than me. In fact it’s the biggest group of children I’ve ever seen. Their restlessness, smells, glances and giggles are all unpleasant, and boys add to the confusion. Once we have settled, a teacher instructs us.
‘When you hear me call your name, raise your hand so that I can see where you are. Then stand up and walk over to the front, here.’

I wait and wait. The crowd dwindles, those beside me departing for newly assigned classrooms. Soon only two of us remain; me and a little boy who is tearful and wants to go home. Looking up, the teacher sends an assistant to calm him. Later I learn that his name is Martin. Once soothed, attention falls upon me. Uneasiness nibbles and I fear the worst. If grown-ups don’t know where I belong, then I’m in real trouble.
‘Is this the right school?’ I ask the teacher shyly, my voice small in the high-ceilinged hall.
‘What is your name, dear? Perhaps I missed it.’
I tell her my name, all four parts of it.
‘Mmm. It seems you are not on the list.’ She looks puzzled and beckons me to come forward.
It’s really not a good sign when grownups can’t find my name.
‘Never mind, dear,’ she says. ‘That’s easily fixed.’ She adds my name below Martin’s. It’s a long list, sitting to the left side of a huge page that is filled with empty squares.
‘I don’t know how that happened.’ She looks up, smiling. ‘Don’t worry. We’ll sort it out later. Now, you and Martin are in Miss Dalrymple’s class, just over there.’ She directs us to a pair of doors with frosted glass. ‘That’s the Prep class.’

I follow her, clutching my new, blue school case. Inside the room the children sit quietly, all eyes expectantly upon the two late arrivals. I am directed to sit on a small chair near the back of the room. The class resumes, and I learn that the list of names is called a class attendance roll, and that the teacher reads and ticks it each morning before we settle for work. While the list is in alphabetical order, Martin’s and my names remain at the end for the rest of term.

Unlike all the other teachers at the school, Miss Dalrymple is an older woman, even older than mum. She has a severe manner and demands absolute co-operation and attention. In fact she frightens some children so much that they wet themselves right here at their desks. They are too afraid to ask if they may go to the toilet.

Each Monday morning there is a school assembly for junior classes in the hall, where we gathered on our first day, and after roll call we have class inspection: a clean handkerchief, clean hands and fingernails and the correct uniform. Children, who fail to meet these exacting requirements without a note from home, are ordered to leave their desks and stand in various corners of the room with their shamed faces to the wall. I forget a hanky on several occasions and my hands and nails are often stained from resin after all my tree climbing, and there are blisters and calluses from playing on the school monkey bars. Sometimes there are not enough corners for us all.

I don’t like Miss Dalrymple. A teacher who frightens young children is not worthy of respect and I tell mum as much. Finally, after a particularly bad day, I bring news that I was sent to the headmaster office, accused of stealing.
‘Did you steal, dear?’ mum asks in disbelief.
‘Well according to Miss Dalrymple I did.’ I settle in my chair, for it is a long story. ‘She left the room to take some other children to see the headmaster and a couple of us sneaked up to the board. I grabbed a stick of chalk and began to draw. The chalk snapped in half. I was pressing too hard. When she came back in the room, I hurried to my seat, slipping the broken chalk into my pocket. She asked who was drawing on the board. I sneaked a look at my classmates but no-one dared own up. We were too scared. Finally she ordered us all to sit with our hands out in front of us on the desk. She walked along my row. There was chalk dust on my fingers.’
‘“Empty your pockets!”’ She was really snarly, mum.’
‘I placed my handkerchief and the chalk in her hand. Then she stormed at me, ‘“Go and stand at the front of the class, Joanna Clarke.”’
She found two other culprits and sent us to the headmaster. He seemed nice to me. I explained what happened, how I had not meant to steal the chalk, only to play because I was curious. I told him I was too afraid to own up or put it back on the ledge.’

Mum is very upset about all this.
‘Did you hear that, Merlin?’ she demands.
‘Mmm,’ he nods, his face strained with concern.
‘This is the last straw!’ she declares.

The next morning mum comes to see the headmaster and that afternoon, when she drives us home, she announces we are to enrol at the Noorat Primary School the very next day.
‘The Head Master is spineless’, she declares. ‘He wasn’t prepared to tick Miss Dalrymple off!’
We drive in stunned silence for a few minutes.
‘She’s not fit to teach,’ mum snaps. ‘She should be struck off.’

The next day we dress in our school uniforms as usual, with bags and lunches ready, and drive to Noorat. We’ve attended church here many times and dad often drives through on his way to the rubbish tip or milk factory. As the routine of school is still new to me, the sea of curious faces is not that hard to bear. The school is much smaller with only three class rooms, and my prep class share ours with grades one and two. Nick doesn’t seem to mind either. In fact he likes the change. Mum says he’s a big fish in a small pond.

At last I am beginning to feel safe.

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