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Point of no return

Only two things were clear to me that day, as the sun passed the meridian and the too-short winter afternoon sank into decline. Firstly, I wanted to finish the South Sea Island dress (a muu-muu) I was sewing for my sister to wear to a party for student nurses that evening. And secondly, I didn’t want to be admitted to the hospital, where I’d been told to report for observation. Whilever I kept sewing, I stood a chance of attaining the first objective, and in the process postponing the hour of reckoning, for as the remaining hours of daylight counted down, I felt a mounting sense of misgiving at what might be in store for me.

The doctor I’d seen at his surgery that morning had expressed surprise at how high my blood pressure was, but this didn’t really mean anything to me, as he didn’t explain why it was cause for concern. I’d been experiencing a state of mental miasma on and off for several weeks, but the need to finish the dress and my fear of the hospital seemed to have had the effect of sharpening my wits, or perhaps I was just imagining my head was clearer.

I alternated between this sense of heightened clarity and lapses into moments from years past, when I’d been a child on this farm. To which circumstances had recently returned me, in need of refuge and protection. I remembered going with my father to check the windmill beside the creek, that drove a pump to supply us with bore water for the house and yards. Although we had rainwater tanks, they could never store enough water to see us through the dry seasons.

When I was very small, I used to like hanging upside down from the water pipe resting on struts above the ground at the height of my head, channelling water from the bore to the house and dairy. I’d somehow scramble up, hook my knees over the pipe and swing backwards, so that I could view the world upside down: the paddock with its grass parted into irregular-shaped sections by meandering cattle-pads; the clump of lilly-pilly trees by the creek; the windmill wheeling against the sky; the white clouds shunting across the blue like a mob of unshorn sheep, nose to tail, nudging each other along. 

And, even more terrifying when seen upside down, the monstrous, many-armed ringbarked tree that stood on the slope above the windmill: a spectral giant animated by the movement of the clouds, creating the illusion that it was the tree-skeleton moving, tilting, toppling sideways in sickening slow motion. It came back to me now, that feeling of dizziness, nausea, fear that made me cling to the pipeline for dear life, hoping my father would notice and unhook me, so that I wouldn’t have to let go and fall onto the grass.

I was jolted back to the present by the arrival of my three youngest siblings, dropped off at the front gate by the rural school bus. That meant it was getting late, and I could see the quality of the light changing outside the louvres, which were filmed in dust anyway, and shadowed by the canopies of poinciana trees as tall as the roof. Spokes of slanting sunlight pierced the ferny foliage from the west, where the sun was about to slip behind the mountain.

I’d attached the yoke to the loosely-gathered body of my sister’s dress. The shoulder seams and side seams were done, which left only the hem to neaten with scissors before machine-stitching the raw edge. I was tired, my eyes were blurring in the fading light, my back ached from tension, but less than half an hour later the garment was finished. The regular rhythm of my feet on the treadle of my mother’s Singer sewing-machine; the hum of the wheels and the clicking of cogs that drove the needle up and down, in and out of the fabric, all ceased. I could hear my mother banging pots about in the kitchen, the thud of a knife chopping vegetables on the wooden board, as I snipped the last threads connecting the fabric to the machine and held up the dress. The smell of new, unlaundered fabric was like the smell of a new book when you opened it: a distinctive, familiar, non-organic but pleasant smell.

Rising from my chair and arching my back to relieve the stiffness after hours of sitting, bent over sewing, I felt a flicker of movement in my belly. It was just a flutter, weak as the wing of a newly-hatched nestling. “Butterflies in the stomach”, I thought, wincing at my attempt at humour.

I heard the popping, pinging sound as my mother lit the spirit-lamp. I was not yet accustomed to being back in the farmhouse after eighteen months of living in the city, where electricity was taken for granted.

I could tell my mother’s patience was wearing thin when she called from the kitchen doorway: “Well, I’m waiting to drive you to the hospital. Dinner won’t be ready here for another hour, but if we leave now, you should be in time for the evening meal there.”

I had no appetite anyway, and in fact was trying to suppress a sensation of nausea.

“It’s okay, I’m not hungry.”

“We should have been there hours ago, not after dark! Get your bag, you won’t be needing much, they’ll probably send you home soon enough.”

She didn’t sound particularly worried. She hadn’t been with me at the doctor’s surgery, so she was probably wondering what all the fuss was about. She had, after all, given birth to six children without much in the way of support or understanding, so she had little tolerance for women who made a song and dance about it.

Nevertheless, in a voice between a croak and a whisper I heard myself saying: “I don’t want to go!”

At this she rounded on me: “Don’t want to go? You should have thought of that sooner, before you got yourself into this…condition!”

To this I had no comeback. How could my parents and siblings be expected to comprehend the reality of my situation, when I myself found it so unreal? Caught off-guard by someone I thought I knew well. Overcome by force and fear. At the mercy of a family who’d stop at nothing to protect their son and their honour. No witnesses. Mine was an old story: country girl goes to the city. Blunders into traps for the unwary, including some that could not be foreseen. Mine was an old story, with a few bizarre twists. Why inflict it on my blameless family? There was also my dread of being disbelieved. Blamed, shamed… their suspicion, even unspoken, that I’d brought it upon myself. I didn’t want to become the object of their censure, much less their pity, so I’d kept my own counsel, but the aftershocks were taking their toll.

My mother was waiting for me to say something. Maybe something defensive, an excuse.

Instead, I heard myself blurting, in the same hoarse voice: “But I’m afraid!”

“Afraid? Afraid of what? Millions of women give birth every day and live to tell the tale. How do you think you got here?”

She still didn’t get it, not really. How could she be expected to? The fear that had stalked me here from the city. She couldn’t grasp the fact that only as long as I was surrounded by my own kin could I feel safe.

“I’m afraid I’ll never come out of that place alive…” I said feebly, the words dripping from my lips like a trickle of bile.

“Come on, girl, pull yourself together, there’s no going back now,” she said  in a gruff attempt to retrieve the situation. 

With a sense of foreboding, almost of panic, I followed her to the car. The weak headlights of her small, second-hand sedan sent the shadows under the mango tree skittering in weird, demonic choreographies as she reversed the vehicle and turned it to face the driveway.

Amid the gloom in the car and the darkness outside on the unlit, deserted country road, I was dimly aware that the new life I harboured was readying itself for the next stage of its journey; whereas my own life, strange and precarious as it had lately become, was approaching some blind intersection, after which everything would be different. What lay ahead was unpredictable, hazardous.  

I felt my mother’s work-roughened left hand grip my limp right one and give it a squeeze. “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you – both,” she added, in a low, feline voice somewhere between a growl and a purr. “Like I always have,” she muttered, as if to herself, changing gear as we crested a hill on the outskirts of the township.

In the moments before we descended to where rows of streetlamps marked out the settlement, the lights of the hospital, a cluster of outlying buildings down by the sea, hove into view.

Jena Woodhouse is a Queensland-based poet and fiction writer/ translator/ compiler/ of twelve book and chapbook publications across several genres, including seven poetry titles. She spent more than a decade living and working in Greece, lured by her amateur interest in, and subsequent passion for, archaeology and mythology, reflected in many of her poems. Her most recent publications are News from the Village: Travels in Rural Greece (Picaro Poets, 2021), and a re-publication of her story collection, Dreams of Flight (Ginninderra, 2020). A new poetry collection has been accepted for publication. In recent years, she has been awarded creative residencies in Scotland (a Hawthornden Fellowship); France (CAMAC Centre d’Art); Ireland (the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Annaghmakerrig) and Greece (The Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens). Her work, which has received awards for poetry, adult fiction and children’s fiction, appears in many literary journals and has been shortlisted for the Montreal International Poetry Prize three times (2020; 2015; 2013), and five times for the ACU Poetry Prize, among other distinctions

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