I’d been thinking about my grandmother recently, and decided to write about her early life for a non-fiction piece. This could be a lot longer, but I was working to a word limit and a little constrained. I might revisit it one day and write a longer version – I think she deserves it.
Outside of Bundaberg, Queensland, Mary sat and waited for the train. The wind swept across the baked fields, whipping up clouds of dust from the remnants of failed crops. Drought and the depression had taken its toll, and now the country was at war, yet life struggled on in rural Queensland. Mary enjoyed watching the trains. Perhaps she saw them as reminders that there was another world beyond the bare plains, a place where life was not struggling, tenuously clutching on at the edges of parched dirt and economic ruin. She would watch the people in the carriages as they rattled past, their possessions and hopes stacked high as they headed south, and although she was only eight years old and couldn’t yet join these people in their search for a better life, dreams of places far away filled her head.
This day, however, she was waiting for a particular train. Every week, a train hauling its load of sugar cane would depart Bundaberg and head south across the dry plains, to be unloaded for processing and distribution to the southern states. The driver, an older man with a kind face, would stop the train and give her some sugar cane, pleased by the young child’s happiness to see him. Then, he would climb back into the cabin, and set off once again. Mary greatly looked forward to this weekly ritual, the sweet juice of the sugar cane a rare treat in a world where such things were rare. As she waited, her sister Elizabeth approached from the opposite side of the track. Elizabeth was older by four years and hardened to the world, her young face containing a weariness beyond her years. They both possessed their mother’s features, an angular face with pale, quick eyes, but few recognised them as sisters.
‘Mary!’ she called as she clambered over a fence. ‘You know Father wants us back at the house at 4 o’clock.’
‘I know,’ Mary said. ‘I was waiting for the sugar cane man. He’s usually here by now.’
Elizabeth knelt next to her sister.
‘That will just have to wait. You don’t want to make Father angry. Come along now.’ She took Mary’s hand, and pulled her to her feet. ‘And look at you, your clothes are filthy.’
Mary looked down at her dress, and scraped at some dirt with her fingernail.
‘I’m sorry, don’t tell father or grandma.’ Mary said. ‘I’ll clean it myself before dinner.’
Their grandmother, an austere woman, did not look upon the soiling of clothes kindly. She had lived in Ireland for most of her life, and moved to Australia to support her son as he struggled to transition to civilian life after discharging from the army. Her anger was terrible when roused, and both wished to avoid it.
‘Alright,’ Elizabeth said. ‘But use the washboard around the back of the house, the old one. No one can see you there.’
Mary nodded in agreement, trusting in her sister’s judgement. Elizabeth understood the realities of the world much more than her, and had paid a price for it, the carefree nature of a child worn down into an adult pragmatism that seemed odd coming from a girl of her age. She was always looking out for her younger sister, and protected her as best she could.
‘Come on,’ Elizabeth said, as she grasped Mary’s hand. ‘Let’s not keep Father waiting.’
The two then set off down the tracks, towards their home.
John O’Shaughnessy was a cold, taciturn man. He had spent ten years in the army, serving as an enlisted soldier in the Royal Engineers, before discharging and moving with his wife to Australia. The transition to civilian life had not been an easy one. Despite the birth of his children, he had spiralled into alcoholism, before the death of his wife during a botched clandestine abortion snuffed out any embers of warmth that had remained inside him. This loss had driven him to the point of breakdown, and he refused to speak about it. Perhaps it was shame that caused him to never speak of his deceased wife, but whatever the reason, he attempted to remedy whatever pain he felt by sinking further into bottles of scotch, and as such, a bottle was never far from his hand. Mary and Elizabeth only had vague memories of their mother, the only female presence in their life was provided by their grandmother, who lived with them in a vain attempt to prevent her son from completely falling apart. As he sat at the head of the table, he ran his eyes over his daughters.
‘You two,’ he began, his words silencing the table. ‘When I say I want you home at four, I mean it.’
‘Yes Father.’ Elizabeth said, quietly.
‘And I want your chores done properly. If I come home tomorrow to find what I did today, there will be hell to pay.’ He banged his hand upon the table, making the plates jump.
The two girls knew to remain quiet and obedient, as it was the safest response. Their grandmother entered, and put plates of food in front of them without a word. They began to eat in silence.
Suddenly, their father spoke.
‘Mary, take that bracelet off. I don’t want to see you wearing it at this table. Give it to me.’
‘But it belonged to mother …’ Mary began, as she covered the bracelet with her hand.
‘Don’t ever mention her.’ their father growled.
‘But she used to wear it!’ Mary protested, the fear of her father briefly forgotten.
Elizabeth tugged at Mary’s arm in warning.
‘I told you never to mention her!’ he roared.
The table fell into silence. Their father rose, and stomped into the kitchen. Knowing that his anger would only grow, Mary quietly got up from the table, and headed towards her bedroom. The bedroom was a sanctuary, and was where she read every night. Her books were treasured items that transported her away to places that seemed so real she felt she could nearly reach out and touch them. After she had read that night, as she lay in the darkness, she heard her father yelling from the next room in a drunken rage. She could hear the voice of her grandmother, attempting to calm her son down. It was not an unusual occurrence. There was a crash as her father overturned a table, before the front door slammed, and quiet returned to the house. Mary lay silently, clutching a book to her chest, desperately trying not to cry.
Some years later, Mary and Elizabeth sat in the backyard of their home, underneath a large eucalyptus tree. Mary quite often liked to read underneath this tree. They sat silently, staring upwards into the branches. Their father had left some days earlier, and not returned. Whether he ever would, they did not know. He had grown more violent over the years, frequently hitting the girls, particularly Elizabeth, with whatever he could lay his hands on. Their legs were often welted and faces bruised, but no one at the local school seemed to notice. If they did, they considered it firmly none of their business, and remained uninvolved. Their grandmother had passed away, and despite her uncaring nature, her death had stripped away any last vestiges of stability from their lives. Their father now seemed to be gradually detaching from reality, frequently spending hours drunkenly raging at people unseen, or disappearing for days at a time. Mary and Elizabeth looked after each other as best they could, with Elizabeth seeing to the general running of the house. But, it was taking an increasing toll on her. Her personality darkened, and she became withdrawn, hardly speaking.
‘When do you think he will come back?’ Mary asked.
Elizabeth remained silent for a moment.
‘I don’t know.’
‘I hope he never does.’ Mary said. She had never said this aloud, but knew her sister agreed. It was relief to finally say the words.
Elizabeth kept her head back, looking up into the tree. She enjoyed watching birds, observing their flight and attempting to identify them by song. Mary poked at the ground with a stick.
‘Elizabeth,’ Mary continued, ‘do you ever think of leaving?’.
‘Why do you ask that?’
‘Nothing good will come from staying. There is nothing for us here. Mother wouldn’t have wanted this for us.’
‘Mother is dead, Mary.’ Elizabeth said, as she got to her feet. ‘What she wanted doesn’t matter. What matters is where we are.’
‘There must be a place we can go. South, maybe, with Aunt Margret. Anywhere but here.’
Elizabeth laughed sharply.
‘We haven’t spoken to Margret in years. How would we survive?’
‘I don’t know, but I’d rather take my chances than stay here, afraid.’
Elizabeth cast her head down, and looked at the ground.
‘You’ve always had your head in the clouds, Mary. You read too many of those books.’
‘I’ve been putting money aside, from my work at the shop. Father doesn’t know about it. We can buy train tickets. Come with me tomorrow morning to the train station, and we can get away from this place forever.’
The front door crashed, and their father lurched into the house. Elizabeth looked at Mary, before finally nodding.
The next morning, the two sisters stood in the early morning mist at Bundaberg Train Station. Each had packed everything they owned. Mary’s suitcase was held together with twine, her refusal to abandon her books had left it unable to close.
‘I’ve got us tickets to Brisbane, and from there we can get to Bowral. I’ve written to Aunt Margret. She’ll let us stay with her.’
Mary held out the tickets to Elizabeth.
‘I’m not going with you.’ Elizabeth said. ‘I’m going north, to Cairns. I can get work on a farm up there. I want to get away from all this, as far as I can. I don’t need anyone to provide for me.’
Elizabeth gently closed Mary’s hand around the tickets.
‘But where will you stay?’ Mary asked, as she began to cry. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘I’m sorry, Elizabeth said, her voice shaking. ‘It’s just something that I have to do. I need to get away, and be alone for a while. I don’t know who I am, Mary. I need to find out.’
‘But what will I do?’ Mary sobbed, as tears fell to the gravel at her feet.
Elizabeth took her hand. ‘You don’t need me to protect you anymore. Please try to understand.’
The two sisters embraced. Soon after, Mary watched as the train carrying Elizabeth moved away, tears running down her face, until the train disappeared into the distance. Then, she sat down, and waited for her train, finally joining those she watched as a child as they began their journey south.
Years later, Mary stood outside of a new house in Bowral, New South Wales. One of many new homes that were being built in the area, its white weatherboards shone brightly in the sun, and was fronted by an immaculate garden. It was the 1950’s, and the country was changing. People began to settle down and enjoy luxuries that would have been unimaginable only a few decades earlier, clustering together in newly created suburbs as a testament to prosperity. Elizabeth had remained in North Queensland, and the two had not spoken for several years. Eventually, the sisters received word that their father had died due to advanced cirrhosis of the liver, and that his final years had seen him destitute and dependent on the state. Neither attended the funeral. After her move to New South Wales, Mary had worked in a library, saving money for her plans to travel the country. She chronicled her thoughts in a diary, where she wrote of Elizabeth often, and memories of her childhood surfaced frequently. These diaries were never thrown away. Soon after, she met Ian Smith, a handsome Navy man, at a local ball. Both were instantly drawn to each other. Ian was charismatic and well-spoken, a widely-travelled man who had seen many sights during his time in the Navy. It could have been this worldly nature that drew Mary to him, captivating her with his easy smile and fantastic tales of foreign cities. They were soon married, and Mary fell pregnant. As she stood in front of her new home, carrying her first child, one wonders if she saw it as the culmination of a long and tiring search, that the life she had so desperately wanted as a young girl in Queensland was now, at long last, within reach.