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Authors: Joy Dettman

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‘You know I always am. Go, Mum.’

Kissed her again, then left her, left her locked into a granny flat behind tall gates, Mrs Vaughn playing watchdog at her lounge room window, and she ran up to the pipeline, through it to the school grounds and diagonally across, a shorter route to the bus. Out of breath when she got there, but she caught the bus and took a seat opposite two women who rode with her five days a week to the station. They didn’t speak.

Barbara Lane didn’t speak. All of last week she’d sat, bored, at Sarah’s elbow, and was untrained because she didn’t want to be trained. She wasn’t waiting at the station. Had been last Friday. They’d sat in the same carriage, but at different ends.

Two deaf girls boarded at Box Hill. Sarah had seen them before, but this morning they sat directly opposite. Her book was open, but watching them was more interesting. They spoke with their hands, spoke fast.

She could sign but rarely did it. She didn’t mix with the deaf, not in Melbourne. It would have been easier. Every word she spoke she fought hard for.

Easy isn’t always best, baby
, her mother used to say.
The world is full of people who can’t sign, and if you’re going to find your own place in it, you need to talk.

She’d never found her place, not in Melbourne. She may have in the deaf world. There were clubs, activities. She’d looked them up on the internet but hadn’t joined. The deaf asked too many questions.

Watched those hands asking questions.
Brisbane?
Watched the reply.
Next weekend. Cheap flight.

Sarah had gone to a school for the deaf in Brisbane, for almost eight months. Wondered if that girl had gone to the same school. She looked younger, late twenties maybe.

Uncle Bill used to have a caravan in his backyard. For those almost eight months Sarah had called it home. Then they’d moved on again.

Always moving. One of her earliest memories was of being picked up from a bed and waking in a moving car. She could remember being carried from cars into a cold tent then, come morning, watching that tent packed up and off they’d go again. Spent most of her early years between one place and the next, between town and city, between states, because Daddy had only been happy when he was chasing rainbows and it had been very important to keep him happy.

She’d turned nine in Brisbane, had been big enough, old enough, to work out for herself that when Daddy had stopped chasing rainbows he’d started bringing home bottles.

A shudder, starting in her neck, passed through her to the train floor. She moved her feet to release it down to the wheels, down to the rails and away. Always felt that shudder when she thought about those bottles.

Turned ten in Adelaide. She’d gone to a school for the deaf there. Her mother had taken her to school on a bus, taken her home on the bus, until the day they’d picked her up in the car and kept on driving. He’d driven that old car all day, all night, until it died.

Nullarbor, baby
.
Null-ar-bor. It means no trees.

No trees, and no shade, other than beside the car, until a truck driver stopped.

The kid’s deaf and dumb. We need to get her into school.

The truck driver had unloaded them and their tent and cases at a Perth caravan park, and for weeks her father had caught a bus to work to get money for another car. Sarah had caught a special minibus to and from a school for the deaf and her mother had ridden another to the Clarks’ suburb where she’d looked after twin girls. They’d paid her well, but instead of giving her money to him for a car, she’d rented a cabin.

We’ve had enough, Joey. We want to stop.

Stopping wasn’t good.

Some images jam in the mind. Close her eyes now and she wasn’t on that train but in a hospital room, standing beside a high white bed, machine lights flashing. Like watching a movie with no subtitles, the actors’ mouths making words that forged no connection to her brain—

Like those deaf girls’ hands.
Very old … Ugly
. Other hands asking,
What for?
And Sarah, aware she’d been staring while her mind wandered, drew her eyes down to her book, or to the hand holding the book, to the small gold watch, her mother’s, to the wedding ring, also her mother’s. She’d worn both since the undertaker had taken them from her mother’s hand. Too big for a twelve year old, she’d worn the ring on her middle finger and the watch halfway to her elbow.

Not his fault, baby.

Whose fault then? Sarah’s? Maybe it was. He’d needed his wife but not his deaf and dumb daughter. Maybe his bottles had contained escape juice.

He’d been drinking the day he’d smashed his car.

Uncle Bill offered Sarah a home in Brisbane. Her grandparents had wanted her to go to them in Victoria. No school near their farm. She hadn’t wanted to go to any school. Hadn’t wanted to live anywhere. Hadn’t wanted to wake up each morning. Had been like an empty plastic bag, blowing in the wind, hoping each day that the wind would blow her onto a barbed-wire fence and rip her to shreds before another night came.

Made of non-biodegradable plastic, it floated one day to the battered old case Peter and Lynette Clark had brought from that rented cabin, all they’d brought from it, all Sarah and her mother had managed to hold on to. An old cake tin, an old camera, their old books.

Little girls liked her old books. Miriam and Mandy, two identical mouths making words, four identical hands, touching her. They’d stopped that plastic bag’s floating – and Lynette Clark had known it.

‘If I’m not back by three twenty, can you pick the girls up from school for me?’ she’d said.

For an hour Sarah had watched the hands of her mother’s watch, willing Lynette’s car to come home, and when it hadn’t, when the watch hands had got to three twenty, she’d had to open the front door and walk outside, walk to the primary school and wait at the gate for the twins to come out. They’d taken her hands to walk home.

As a mother, she knew she wouldn’t have trusted a deaf twelve-year-old girl raised in a caravan park to walk Marni home from school. Perhaps Lynette had been hiding behind trees watching her girls all the way. That twelve year old had believed she’d been trusted.

She’d become Lynette’s project that year. The Clarks hadn’t made her go to Brisbane or Victoria. They hadn’t made her go back to the school for the deaf. Lynette had found a private school with a deaf unit, then she’d turned Sarah into a person fit to go to that school. Bought her a new school uniform, new shoes and books, then enrolled her there as Sarah Clark because everyone had known her other name, and her father’s and the names of the three teenagers who had died in the other car.

For six years Sarah Clark had worn that uniform. For six years she’d walked little sisters to school and home again to that beautiful house she’d been allowed to call home. Learnt about cooking there, about cleaning, about sitting down to eat at a dining room table. Learnt about a different life with the Clarks.

The train was pulling into Museum Station. Sarah closed her book, dropped it unread into her bag, slung the strap over her shoulder and stood to follow the workers out to the platform and up the stairs.

Like a swarm of Gramp’s bees leaving the dark of their hive, they split into smaller groups as they hit the sunlight. Sarah walked not with the two deaf girls but close behind them. They were dressed like the other office workers; they looked like the other office workers, carried no cane, no crutch. Their disability was disguised until they spoke.

The morning she’d found her way to Mrs Vaughn’s house, the old lady hadn’t given her time to speak. She’d unlocked her front door, taken one look at her visitor, then slammed the door hard enough for Sarah to hear.

She’d advertised her granny flat in exchange for
housework, some cooking
.
Suit single woman, no children
. Sarah had applied for the job with Marni in a sling at her breast, an angry Marni, overdue for her ten o’clock feed and not pleased about it.

Back then, Mrs Vaughn’s overgrown forest had offered privacy, so Sarah had sat on the porch steps and fed Marni, unaware she was being observed until she’d felt the prod of a slipper-clad foot in her backside and turned fast to an angry elderly face.

‘I’ll have no truck with unwed mothers. Get off my porch.’

That was the moment Mrs Sarah Carter was born, on Mrs Vaughn’s porch steps, Marni suckling at her breast. She’d shown her mother’s wedding ring.

‘My husband die,’ she said.

‘You’re deaf,’ the old lady accused. ‘What are you called?’

To this day Sarah didn’t know why she’d chosen to be Mrs Carter, other than that it was easy to say and that name had belonged to a kind man, a plumber who had driven a white kombi van.

‘I can clean very well, and cook.’

‘There’s nothing of you if you put that brat down,’ the old lady had said, and clearly. Some people knew how to do it. Many didn’t.

‘I am very strong. Before, I cleaning very big house, and work on farm – before my baby coming.’

‘How did your husband die?’

‘He getting brain tumour.’

‘You’re on a disabled pension?’

‘Not disable. I get for my baby.’

Mrs Vaughn had gone inside. Marni, disinterested in the outcome, had sucked on, so Sarah had sat on. And the old lady returned, with a cup of tea, two biscuits and more questions.

‘How old is it?’

‘One month. Her name, Marni Olivia.’

‘Bring her in when she’s done, and show me how you can work,’ Mrs Vaughn said.

An hour could make the Clarks’ house shine. Three hours of hard labour couldn’t make Mrs Vaughn’s rooms shine, but while Marni slept on a spare bed, Sarah had done her best, and made a mutton stew. It, or her cleaning, had been judged good enough, and two days later she’d moved into the granny flat with her case, an inflatable mattress, one pair of sheets, a pillow and quilt. The kitchen table and two wooden chairs had come by night. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. She’d found many treasures since amid the piles of indestructible rubbish left out on nature strips for the council’s hard waste collection. She’d found a near new baby stroller, an electric fan, the pots for her garden, the original jade tree, its roots bursting out of a too-small plastic pot.

Marni was seven months old the day she’d left her in the care of strangers at a crèche and walked into David and Maureen Crow’s office. She’d worn her best frock to the interview, had bought a pair of new shoes with heels. She’d looked good enough to work in that office but had seen pity in Maureen’s eyes when she’d spoken. Had seen worse than pity in Crow’s – until their manager had sat her down at a computer.

In her element there, her fingers fast and accurate, her knowledge of computers vast. She’d had the best teacher in the world. Her skill had got her the job, or perhaps her hearing aids. At that time, large companies were being urged to employ the disabled.

She’d signed
Sarah J. Carter
on her application form. By then it had been no lie. It had taken months to do it – or months to find out how to change her name by deed poll. Her original birth certificate would always tell the truth, as would Marni’s, but they were sealed into an envelope and buried deep beneath her mother’s treasures in the old cake tin.

The day she told Mrs Vaughn she’d got a job and would only be able to clean at weekends, she’d been certain the old lady would tell her to pack her bags. She hadn’t.

‘How much are they paying you?’ she’d asked.

‘They talk not much to me.’

‘I worked for fifty years. My first pay was two pound seven and sixpence – and I had to pay board out of that.’

‘I will. And cook dinner. Every night. Weekend I will clean.’

‘Too right you will,’ Mrs Vaughn said.

Her bark had always been worse than her bite. For months she hadn’t asked for rent, and when she had, she’d only asked for fifty dollars a week. Through the years it had been raised to a hundred dollars, but since her old car had died and she’d bought the Hyundai she couldn’t back down her drive, since finding out that Sarah could drive, she hadn’t increased the rent.

T
HE
G
IRL WITH THE
F
ANCY
M
OBILE

M
arni ate her breakfast with the television news, where the kilometres of traffic banked up on the Hume Freeway seemed more important to the newsreader than the finding of Monica Rowan. Since she’d sat down to her cornflakes, every minute or two the newsreader said that the Ring Road exit to the Hume Freeway was closed to all traffic, but only three times had they interrupted their traffic report to show a cluster of police and police cars.

They hadn’t mentioned Monica by name, and didn’t need to. As soon as they said
freeway
,
body
,
garbage bag
, everyone in Melbourne would have known who they’d found.

Monica Rowan would have started high school this year. She would have had a thirteenth birthday party in July. Marni was having a small party this year, at McDonalds because they couldn’t have it at the flat. Even if they’d had enough space and chairs for more than two people, Mrs Vaughn wouldn’t have allowed it. She didn’t like strangers in her backyard. She didn’t like strangers setting one foot on her land.

There wasn’t much she did like. She’d stuck a sign on her letterbox,
POST NO JUNK MAIL
, and her sign was the easiest part of it to see. The junk mail man deserved a medal for dodging the spiky plum to get his junk into her letterbox.

She had a sign on her front door,
SALESMEN DO NOT KNOCK
, and her
BEWARE OF THE DOG
sign on the gate, and if she’d ever had a dog to beware of, it had been dead for longer than Marni had been alive – and God help it if there’d ever been one because Mrs Vaughn hated dogs.

She liked pills and smoking and funerals and probably her doctor who gave her the scripts for her pills. She visited him every month. Never missed a funeral – if it was close to home. She didn’t like the Chinese milk bar man but she bought cigarettes from him in an emergency.

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