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Authors: Wendy Orr

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Peeling the Onion

BOOK: Peeling the Onion

Praise for
Peeling the Onion

'Orr mixes the spicy ingredients of authentic characters and relationships with a compelling plot to produce a novel full of power and honesty, touched with humour.'
Australian Bookseller and Publisher

'Healing, honest, provocative...a story of personal growth.'
Reading Time

'The author displays yet again her precise observation of family relationships and her flair for creating original and richly individual characters of all ages.'

'Superbly crafted.'


Wendy Orr

This edition published in 2006

First published in 1996, reprinted 15 times

Copyright © text, Wendy Orr 1996

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproducedor transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. The
Australian Copyright Act 1968
(the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or ten per cent of this book, whichever is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has given a remuneration notice to Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) under the Act.

Allen & Unwin
83 Alexander Street
Crows Nest NSW 2065
Phone:   (61 2) 8425 0100
Fax:       (61 2) 9906 2218
Email:    [email protected]

Cataloguing-in-Publication details are available
from the National Library of Australia

ISBN 978 1 74114 933 3

Cover design by Sandra Nobes
Typeset by Docupro, Sydney

This book was printed in January 2010 at
McPherson's Printing Group
76 Nelson Street, Maryborough, Victoria 3465, Australia

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3

For my family
and all my friends -
the ones who stuck by me
and the ones I met along the way


















've won. I'm tingling with energy and excitement; bowing to the judges, accepting—it's the first tournament on the way to the Nationals, and I've just fought last year's champion . . . and the golden figure on its black marble stand is mine.

A two-fingered whistle splits the silence; Hayden is waving his fists in the air and shouting my name. I step back into the crowd and his arms go around me . . . the kiss is long and fantastic and I don't think we can say we're just friends any more.

'Save it for the bedroom, you two!' Sensai growls, but I'm too happy to be embarrassed.

A star of shattered glass, cold against my temple.


Sinking in the woolly blackness, choking, drowning, suffocating.

I want to claw my way out but can't move, want to scream but don't know how. The blackness is swallowing me and 1 know that if I can't fight it the me will be gone and the blackness will go on without end.

Strapped on a bed; hard, jolting; pain jabbing, throbbing, screaming.

A woman looming over me . . . smiling . . . blue uniform—
an ambulance?

'How's the pain?'

Past pain into a new dimension of horror; neck shredded, strangled; spasms from hell.

Something over my face; I can't talk. Have to tell her, make her understand, make her fix it! Squeeze my fist in the air, tightly and rhythmically; desperately. J
can't take much more,
my fist screams.

The woman smiles. 'Not too bad?'

A nightmare. It has to be a nightmare.

But even in a nightmare I'd never make an ambulance so uncomfortable.
This must be real.

The ambulance stops. A mask is pulled off my face. My bed bumps out into fresh air; rolls through swinging plastic doors and past my parents. They're huddled together, cold and shrunken.

I fade out again; open my eyes to a busy, clattering room with white ceilings; an invisible child crying. Faces hover; white coats and nurses. Deft strokes and sharp knives skin me from T-shirt and jeans—new jeans; I'd have worn old ones if I'd known. My tulip T-shirt, Aunt Lieke sent it from Holland.
Did I say that out loud?

'We'll save the motif if you want—you could soak out the blood and stitch it onto something else.'

Must have.
'It doesn't matter.'

I remember now—Lieke's dead. Maybe it wasn't a lucky T-shirt.

A sheet draped over me; a doctor dabbing something on my cheek. 'You were lucky—a little higher and you could have lost an eye.'

Three stitches. They'll dissolve in a few days.

'Now—how do you feel about cleft chins?'

????? Don't let him see the panic.
'Just what I always wanted.'

'That's the spirit . . . this will taste funny'—bitter liquid straight into my mouth from a hole in my chin.
Hole through my chin! Sounds yuck. Don't care.

Mum and Dad again. Dad sniffs; blows his nose.
A huge terrible knowledge lurks under the pain, under this babble of words flowing through my brain or out of my mouth.

'Is this real?' I ask. Nobody answers. The young doctor wants to know who and where I am, what day it is. The same questions they ask when you're hit in the head at karate—can't trick me, I'll answer their questions, I'll be polite—they won't let you fight if you don't. Now a torch, bright as a laser beam into my eyes. Makes me squeal—
smash it away!
Stop myself just in time.

'X-rays,' he orders.

Wheeled into another room—'Lie still!'

What do they think I'm going to do, jump up and dance? I don't ever want to move again.

Back to the noisy, bright room . . . like a casualty ward on a TV soapie—
I'm not supposed to be here!
The child is still crying. So are my parents, with sniffs and angry wipes at their eyes.

Smiling faces: whiplash, not a broken neck.
Doesn't broken neck mean dead?
Pain slivers thought. Broken thumb but ankles only sprained—torn ligaments, chips of bone, not serious; one doesn't even deserve an X-ray.

Now Hayden's here with a nurse behind him and someone who must be his mum. His face is whitish-grey; he has blood in his hair, on his shirt. 'Anna, I'm so sorry,' he says, and starts to cry.

I don't want him to cry. It's all too hard. 'It's not your fault,' I tell him, and close my eyes.


wake in a bed littered with glass. It's morning . . . a hospital ward . . . I'm wearing a foam rubber collar and I'm surrounded by old ladies.

The one in the bed by the window is so old that she's only semi-conscious. I hope she doesn't die today. The others are old but awake: Mrs Hogan is beside me, and in the bed across is Ruby.

I try to sit up. I can't. I'm anchored to the bed by pain. I try again, and yelp like a trodden-on puppy.
God, this is so humiliating!

A girl appears.
her name badge says.
Student nurse.

'I'm supposed to do your neurological obs.' She studies the slip of paper in her palm. 'Are you alert and orientated?'

Alert enough to know I'm desperate for the toilet!

A torch waves like a question mark. 'I have to look at your eyes.'

You're not flashing that in my face again!
'Shine it on the ceiling and watch me look at it.'

She obeys gratefully. Pushing my luck, I ask if she can help me to the toilet. She says she doesn't know, she'll have to ask someone; disappears and doesn't come back.

Peeing must be next week's lesson.

Next is Sister in Charge of Tablets. She clanks with keys, and I think she'll be high enough to know about bladders.

Too high, she's gone right past. The trolley can't be left alone, she says.

'It's not alive,' Ruby mutters. 'It won't escape.'

Tablet Sister ignores her. Do I want something for pain?

Of course I do: arsenic, heroin, I don't care
I'll swallow a handful.

'Please,' I say. But I still need to use the toilet.

Another nurse comes but this is worse, she's got a bedpan—
she can't be serious, I can't use that, it's disgusting
please let me go to the toilet!
She says I'm not allowed out of bed; it's this or nothing.

She's sliding the pan towards my bottom; my right hand is the only part of me not injured, but somehow I have to lift my hips and hop on top, lying down. My neck shrieks. So do I. The nurse is not amused. 'If you'd just relax,' she snaps, 'it wouldn't hurt so much.' She bustles off to bully some other new inmate.

'Busy Butt,' says Ruby. 'Look at the way she flaps it! Thinks she rules the world.'
That wasn't the way I thought old ladies talked.

Suddenly the curtain between my bed and Mrs Hogan's is whipped shut, and the sheet is whisked off my legs. A short, stout grey man leading a crowd of white coats gives me an 'I'm too busy for you' glance and reaches for the clipboard at the foot of my bed.

I'm wearing a short backless nightgown designed by a pervert. I feel as naked as I am. 'Hello,' I say, but only the young doctor from Casualty gives me a quick smile before launching into a coded speech to his big boss, the small grey man.

'MVA, last night,' I pick out from the medico-babble.

'Seventeen years old. Closed head injury; soft tissue injuries to the neck.'

'X-rayed?' barks the god.

'Yes,' says the young one, as he spouts off another mind-numbing stream of gibberish. It sounds impressive. It doesn't sound like me.
Seventeen years old
is the only thing I understand, and I wish he'd stopped there.

Now it's Tablet Sister's turn; she discusses my pain and how I slept. The pain has nothing to do with
apparently; don't mind me, I'm just the body that owns it.

I lie there, legs pressed tight together and my good hand clutching my nightie, as quiet and still as the dummy they want me to be. Suddenly the sheet is whipped back up to neatness; the group turns to Mrs Hogan, and I'm invisible again.

How could this happen to me? Things like this only happen to other people. That's how I know it's not real.

Mum's here. I'm surprised by how glad I am to see her, clinging to her as fiercely and desperately as a child.

She unpacks a bag, a dressing gown, her new blue nightie, toothbrush and hairbrush, deodorant and talc. No mirror. She flusters, says she's lost her compact.

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