as people often do
‘Someone should write it down’.
She means a record.
I mean other things.
Pearl was nineteen and still not menstruating. The shortest of five short sisters. Pearl was tiny, doll-like.
They watched her.
At first they made light comments, smiled good will and wishful thinking, the post-war insistence on cheer.
She drifted in the paddocks picking caterpillars from the vines. They watched her.
Soon enough, they said, it will happen. Some relented, reluctant smirks, she should think herself lucky, the monthlies, the curse. I’d be making the most of it, some freedom.
But she wasn’t allowed to ride, a bike, a horse, or walk the road alone. That would have to wait until she was sixty five. Then she would need the exercise.
Anxious glances, the frowns became adamant, firm statements and plans were made. It was better to do something than nothing.
Great Aunt Mars. Send her over to Mars, she will sort her out said the straight old grandmother, tall enough herself but nothing like the reputed giantism of the Great Aunt in Adelaide.
Adelaide: The word spoken as a prayer delivered; at the end of the river. Plain certainty invested in the distant city. Images of heat and strange languages, other worlds where great aunts were feared as witches invoked when the children defied, threatened to develop differences that threatened the plain patriarchs who worked their fingers to the bone (attaining purity and salvation).
How long for?
For as long as it takes.
* * *
Lottie went with her on the train to Melbourne, chatting in the compartment with never-to-be-seen-again friends, all intimacy.
They had a jolly time, even Pearl, lulled euphoric by the train-sounds and train-motions. They had mixed sandwiches standing up at Seymour and then the Robur signs set up the excitement of arriving.
Lottie put the rug, pillow, knitting, ‘New Ideas’ and Pearl onto the Overland.
Pearl knitted and looked out the window. When the train pulled in aunts and cousins swarmed aboard, fussing to extricate the frozen doll, Alice Fenn’s problem daughter.
The welcoming party walked through the streets. Aunt Harry carried the terribly small suitcase. The youngest cousin, Sarah, walked beside Pearl asking girlish questions. What colours were in the shops in Melbourne? Did you visit the emporium? Did she know the Farmers’ catalogue had sent Iris a length of Unripened Apricot instead of the Lichen Green she had ordered, and paid for mind you, and well, you can imagine, orange with her freckles, well, we nearly died. But Betty said she’d take it off her hands, just the stuff for Alicia’s wedding. Did you know about that, Alicia’s wedding? It’s next week. You can come. Mother walked round last night to check and Alicia said of course the poor little thing should come. Might be just the thing.
Pearl wore a pale blue wool dress, a grey coat, white shoes made grey by a deliberate home-made process. The shoes were flat, describing her.
White skin, black hair, big blue eyes. Pretty they said, the eyes made up for the beaky nose.
In Adelaide they crimped the straight black hair so Pearl spent agonising nights on the stretcher in the back sleepout, the hair pins pulled her scalp tight, skewered her ears.
She slept alone in the back sleepout, just an army blanket. She kept all her clothes on, huddled in the creaking structure, waiting for the first sounds from the kitchen. The comforting scrape and grind of the stove being opened, stoked up.
On the third night she crept early into the kitchen, the warm hearth, Great Aunt Mars found her there.
Your senses are dulled, she said.
Wear fewer clothes. Get used to the cold. Get strong.
Though even I am woken by the frost today.
In the dark, grey, kitchen Pearl withered before the terrifying appearance wrapped in acres of wool and old velvet, grey-blue like the early winter light outside.
Mars let the blinds ups, stoked the coals. The sun rose to glare on the crisp white frost covering all things bar the cat’s whiskers.
A clear day for speaking clearly
of the murky depths. Drink this. It won’t kill you, or not for forty years yet.
Pearly drank the cup full, brown-black liquid, it smelled sweet, a bitter taste. Pearl vomited. A feeble but effective gesture of resistance.
Pearl stumbled back to the room to sleep under the blanket, exhausted now by things that stretched back over years.
* * *
Great Aunt Mars reigned from the large front room that ought to have been the lounge kept up for visitors and special occasions.
She had claimed it from childhood, causing the boys to tack on the crooked sleepout for themselves.
Later Mars had caused them to line and screen-in the right-angle of the wide verandah that hugged her room to the rest of the house.
Thereafter she had her own entrances, a wire screened bower of ferns and flowers and stalls and tables. Her bed was out there, a couch.
Her room in the house was a library-of-all-things, shelves, cupboards, trunks and benches, jars and trays, a meticulous collection, ordered, arranged.
Mars slept, and sat at dusk, on the verandah, worked and received people in the large room full of visible mysteries. Pearl had heard of this room. Family folk law held certain accuracies. Some things. Aunt Mars, did not require exaggeration.
In the dry weather, in the dry hot and cold of Adelaide on the edge of the desert, the roses seemed to bloom all year. It was a bonus Pearl supposed as she inspected the rose garden each day, sometimes twice. Only Aunt Marcia was allowed to pick them, only she could wield the secateurs with the sort of benevolent ruthlessness that made it seem like they bloomed all year.
Sarah came calling Pearl, craning her neck and squinting in the noon sunlight. Marzipan wants you, she said directly, meaning straight away, I guess you’re for it now.
Sarah had bled at twelve and as far as she could see it made no good difference, all those extra years of feeling sick and washing out the bloody rags and not being able to play footy with the boys. She was sixteen now, satisfying to the elders with her immature maturity and quiet good housework. She showed little interest in the pale or ruddy-faced boys her ever-present live-in aunt would scrutinise in church each Sunday. Mars was meticulous about going to church, to keep up with the gossip.
Mars went everywhere in the suburb and many times to the city for the day, for whole nights. She went everywhere, bizarre, imperious.
Sometimes, said Sarah, she dresses all in black and goes down for afternoon tea with Mabs and Vanessa and Kit. They’re like a secret society those, you can tell by the constancy of their niceness, they owe each other favours. Mars dyes her hair you know, she’s seventy five.
Pearl walked to the house less fearful of this ancient foe. She was not reckoning on her inability, her total lack of anything to bargain with.
Mars had made enough good deals to rule. The large old house had kept its own dry and fed and back from the war. Pearl realised her insistent youth crabbed the old woman, panicked her power based on rumours and guile, theatrics and results. Mars owed her no favours.
Pearl walked across the yard, along the verandah. Mars stretched, luxuriating in the task, the challenge to maintain the myth. Tonight or soon the girl would succumb, there were children to be born, whole lives and families to be drawn upon the years.
Mars had wound her head and neck and arms in brown, tightly, severely. A brown smock fell to the floor, shoeless she was close to six feet, her hair stuffed beneath the binding seemed to sprout stronger from the backs of her hands, a single mole, small revolts that gave Pearl no comfort.
The back door had been locked on each early morning Pearl had since tried to creep into the kitchen. Now her skin was blotched red and purple from the cold, green patches on her thighs, they ached beneath the pale blue dress now grubby and crumpled. She had slept in all her clothes.
They smelled. She was glad they smelled. Mars made her take them off. She sat wrapped in a crocheted rug. The layers of clothes sat reeking on the linoleum.
Mars examined, read aloud, explained, chanted, questioned, romanced, abused, harangued, reasoned. She clapped the books closed and ordered the shrinking shivering Pearl to sleep on the couch on the verandah piled with rugs and furs and silk.
Mars watched Pearl: drink the bitter warm milk; relenquish her hold on her will; sleep fitfull, unmoving, waking, listening to the night, the day; be masked by the ferns and flowers; listen to the wind and rain; feel the sticky blood between her thighs. Neither spoke of it.
Mars moved about the big room, creaking in a chair, turning a page, mashing a kernel, talking in an uncomfortable armchair sleep.
Pearl stayed curled on the couch, this was the last of it, tomorrow the long end of life. She slept lighter and lighter, dreaming all the time, open fields, dusty men, tall wire fences, grey buildings, hospitals for children and madness, tragedy and mourning, the surgeon’s knife. The relief of mindlessness, old age, the last weeks, soon, soon, never again. It was 1919.
This story was broadcast on the A.B.C. radio programme Books and Writing on 11 August 1982.