No One's Child (related book)
Google Maps showing position of Australia and Singapore
Excerpt from Chapter One:
Yes … I’m leaving. We stand on the platform, my pregnant mother, my two brothers, three sisters and I, all dressed in our best clothes, waiting for the great journey to begin. I’m wearing my almost new dress, red and white with a large white collar and shirred elastic waist.
We wait, quite still, enclosed in a cocoon of misery—surrounded by a silence as hushed as death itself. No, I do not want to leave and I watch helplessly as the black and grey shadows begin to melt with the promise of a rising sun. Another day is about to commence. As the eldest, I am responsible for my five-year old baby sister, a large brown, flecked cardboard port and two boxes. I stand stiff, trying to stop shaking, deliberately keeping a leg pressed against the cardboard port and clasping my sister’s hand tightly.
Women dressed in black are huddled in small groups, pressing their Sunday best hankies to their eyes and runny noses. They look like a flock of sympathetic sniffling black crows. Men stand resolute, their hands hidden in trouser pockets as they nod solemnly to one another.
I slyly swing my eyes to check the station clock. The train to Brisbane is supposed to be here at five thirty; it’s late—as usual.
An acrid odour floats across the dingy station. The stink of unwashed armpits and of trousers worn too many times with accumulated sweat combine in a smorgasbord of nose-wrinkling smells. A cold wind is blowing in from the west and snatches at a piece of torn newspaper, lifting it into the air, wrapping it around the ankle of a girl from my school. She lifts her right foot pushing it away.
Why is she here? I wonder. No one has spoken to me, yet there are dozens of people on the platform. I let go of my sister’s icy hand and carefully tuck my cold shaking hands into the pockets of my dress as I wait in breathtaking silence for the whistle of the late train, the whistle that is as familiar to me as breathing.
‘There there, Madge,’ comforts a rather fat railway wife. ‘It’ll be orright now, you just wait and see, heh.’
I glare at her, angry at her stupidity. How will it be all right? Mum is crying and can’t stop, and the kids are shaking with cold and fright— how will it be all right?
A clatter of wheels, and I turn with others to see what would dare to trespass into this time of dismay and thick grieving. A flat red railway trolley with a long handle and a cross bar at each end is being pulled by one boy and pushed by another, each a little older than myself, their feet moving in macabre unison. The boy in front is bent forward with the strain of pulling, his baggy trousers slightly slipping showing the top of his bum crack, the piece of twine he’s using for a belt flapping with the sway of his body. The boy pushing from the back has a cap pulled down low on his forehead, and a cigarette dangles from the corner of his mouth.
‘Firs time I had ta load a stiff on ta the train. I wonder oo the poor coot was?’ the boy with the cap calls out, laughing.
On the red flat trolley lies the body of my father, trapped forever in a black box, a coffin—a reminder of why we’re all here.
The penetrating silence stabs at the laughter and both boys stumble, the lost momentum causing the trolley to skew. In soundless slow motion the coffin begins to slip. Men rush forward, legs sliding, preventing it from falling off the trolley and smashing open; the crazy beating of my heart keeping time with the muffled screams and gasps of horror.
My mother’s face freezes as she sees her husband’s casket, ‘Paaat!’ Her scream echoes relentlessly, bounces across the grey walls, her arms flapping uselessly as other arms, fat, flabby and sympathetic, hold her fast. She looks like the chickens my father made me kill, their wings still flapping as they ran crazily in circles, their heads lying unmoving on the ground, eyes glassy, beaks opening and closing in surprise.
The trolley is hastily pushed around the corner. A soft hum begins as the clusters of mourners try to fill the awful silence of fear felt and denied. What if shadows their eyes—what if it had been my husband?
The foreman—my father’s railway boss—moves from huddled group to huddled group, a word here, a touch there, comforting the grieving. What about us?
A shadow falls across my face and I look up to see a man with a round fat face standing stiff and uneasy in front of me. His shabby black suit smells overpoweringly of mothballs.
‘Young lady, the town has collected some money for your mother, I’m giving it to you as she doesn’t seem to understand anything at the moment.’ Turning, he looks at my wretchedly weeping, helplessly confused mother. ‘Keep it safe, there won’t be any more. When your mother calms down, tell her there won’t be any more, be sure to tell her exactly that,’ he says firmly, as he thrusts the small cloth bag of money into my fourteen-year old hands that are shaking with fright.
Two whistles blast into the frail silence and uncertainty and anxiety descend like twin black clouds onto the platform. Backs straighten, igniting a sense of urgency.
‘At last,’ a voice whispers.
‘Best o’ luck!’
‘It’ll be orright, Madge!’
‘Good luck, luv!’
And as they call out their goodbyes and wave snotty hankies I see relief on their faces. I can even see some of them smiling as they begin to walk away. Will they forget us by tomorrow, or maybe even before lunchtime?
As the train begins to lurch forward I grab my baby sister’s hand and, still clutching the cloth bag of money, drag her to the open window. Our home was one of six railway houses clustered together in a neat row quite segregated from the rest of town. Slowly the steam train chugs past our home and I stare, angry and helpless at the injustice of having to leave.
‘Please, Mr Laythum,’ I had begged the day after my father had died, ‘why can’t we stay here?’
‘Because it’s a railway house, and your family is no longer part of the railway,’ he had replied, looking puzzled at my question. ‘It’s been arranged for you to go down to Brisbane to stay with your aunt.’
Our windows are empty, naked, cold. The pretty flowered curtains that I had made with my mother’s help on her pedal sewing machine are gone, and for the first time since my father’s death tears run helplessly down my face—a waterfall of fear, uncertainty and loss.
I am only fourteen.
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