As I was walking down the road to the hostel, I met myself coming the other way. My hair was the same as I’d worn ten years ago, the same shirt. I followed Myself into the supermarket and watched as I picked over the bottles of shampoo.
‘Buy that one,’ I said to Myself. ‘That’s what I always use.’
Gradually, I realised I was mistaken.
I’d never have worn black stockings like that.
If I scratch through the bushes enough, maybe I’ll find a trace of her. There has to be something… a ribbon… a bangle. I never looked enough enough enough before. That was the trouble. Everyone said to me, Stop it, you can’t keep searching, over and over! But I can. I search all through the dunes and the heath and our paddocks, parting the grasses and branches with my fingers, lantana scratching. Any moment expecting to find, expecting… that apprehension… that anticipation… Today, I will find…
The swamp laps my ankles, my knees. I can’t see deeper, the water’s muddy. It doesn’t help me. The rain drains the soil from the land, silting the creeks, rivers, lakes. I stand in the water, feeling with my toes like a Koori feeling for bulbs. You are waiting on the bank. Come out, you plead. Oh, please, come out of the water.
We are having a day at the beach. The car is packed with everything – a rug, umbrella, picnic lunch, thongs and towels, hats, Doll… Lucy won’t go anywhere without her doll. Funny old Doll, all raggy taggy with years of childish passion, four years old, just like Lucy.
Our farm is not far from the beach. The road wends through heath and swamp all fringed with melaleucas tilted by the wind, before finally coming to the lagoon, the high dunes, and that glorious stretch of coast. How lucky we are, to live so near the mountains and the sea!
Where’s Lucy? Where did she go? I thought she was with you! I thought she was with you! Quickly, Oh quickly. I snatch up Doll. She’s not far away, look! here’s her doll! She never goes anywhere without her doll! But she has, she’s gone, and all the people, all the searchers… How could she just vanish? No no no… I can’t leave, I
can’t go home. Not yet.
It’s late. The moon’s up. The searchers bring flashlights.
Your face looks old, as if the flesh is falling forward from the bones, all dropping with the grief of a thousand years. Five years. You are looking at me. I am standing on the path between the front gate and our veranda. I still search. I can’t help myself. I try to do it when you’re not around; it makes you so sad. You searched too, but not like me. You told me that we must accept… the Police, our relatives and friends, the Counsellors, they all said Accept. But I didn’t wouldn’t. I think, Maybe she… Or, I think, Perhaps someone…
My grandmother’s voice croons in my memory,
…I lost my dear little doll, dears,
As I played on the heath one day;
And I cried for her more than a week, dears,
But I never could find where she lay.
You are looking at me by the front gate where I stand, caught, with my fingers knotted together, grimy from scrabbling. I think, maybe she can find her way home somehow, like a cat that’s been lost… I want her arms around my neck.
‘You can’t keep doing this!’ you beg. ‘What about us? We’re alive! You have to live for us now. You can’t keep seeking forever…’
But I do.
I have it all worked out. We sat on our rug twenty paces from the waves. Behind us, the dunes are another ten paces away. Once through the dunes, it’s all she-oaks and vines and then the heath begins.
Lucy and I sometimes walked into the heath with a bucket, collecting flowers… tiny pink buttons, delicate blue flowering creeper and sweet boronia. There are places where it’s so thick I had to carry her. So deep, that the bushes are taller than me. Except, I know the direction; if I lose the path, I’m okay. And we never walked far. Once, we crouched together, and I counted thirty different types of plants within a square metre. We loved the heath, and the silence within it.
I take Doll with me, whenever I look for Lucy. For company. Talismanic.
You come to me on the veranda, your arms outstretched. ‘Don’t keep doing this,’ you say. ‘You’re losing me, too.’
I think Christmas and New Year holidays were just about the best times ever. Our families would all get together under one roof; I suppose we might have gone home to our own beds in-between-times, but it’s all melded in my memory, as if it’s one long celebration! Aunt Annie had a pianola and we sang and joked and danced and drank lots of wine, beer and lemonade, ate turkey, roast pork, lollies, nuts, plum pudding, icecream. Sometimes we went to the Christmas Eve midnight Church service. But not often. When Lucy was a tiny baby, she’d sleep in my arms. And leaning, I would rest my head on your shoulder.
The farm had belonged to your parents. It suited them to move into a house in town and leave us on our own. Thirty years of milking a dairy herd is enough for any one, they said. Lucy and I used to help put the cows in the yard some evenings. We’d walk out across the paddock to meet the big-boned fresians coming towards us. They knew what time it was. Slowly, they’d amble along, heading for the dairy. I can’t think of anything nicer than strolling along with the herd, my hand now and then on a big bony rump. They were such tall cattle, and kind. They’d wander into the bales, each one knowing her place, and her order behind the other. Sometimes a little skittish kick of a hoof. Then the slow, quiet chewing of cud, as the milking machine chugged and sucked, filling the enormous steel vat with Oh so white milk. Beautiful cows.
I sit on the loungeroom floor, holding my knees. You are doing all the dairy jobs by yourself, and it’s one o’clock in the morning before you close the ledger and switch off your light.
‘Stop rocking,’ you say. ‘Can’t you just stop rocking?’
Every day I tell myself, I will look for just one more day, then I’ll give up. But I never do. Maybe Someone… knows…
I see my daughter’s blondness over there with that woman in the shop, and I rush to look, my hand on the child’s shoulder, turning, making her face me. But it isn’t. Do you mind? the mother says, rudely. Yes, I mind. I mind and I mind. I mind so much. I mind What I do, What I say, How I go. All that.
I got on a train once and went to Sydney; just three hours in a train, because couldn’t she, wasn’t it possible?
Come with me, little girl. Let me show you a magic place. Come with me and you’ll see. Yes, mummy’s friend, mummy’s friend. I’ve forgotten to wear shoes. Oh, and money, I didn’t bring any money. No, I haven’t got a ticket! Excuse me, I know what I’m doing – I’m looking for my daughter – my little girl. I hear her crying, every
night. Do you have a phone, please…?
While I wait for you, they give me tea and biscuits. I dunk my biscuits, sucking the warm tea out of them, then forget, and the biscuit falls into my cup. I push the hair away from my eyes, tuck my dirty feet under the seat.
‘Whatever did you do that for?’ you say, taking my arm. ‘I was so worried. You must never again…’
We look a funny couple, reflected in the glass doors. He, small, neat and trim. She, barefoot, wispy. People stare at us as you propel me towards the road and your car. I imagine them thinking… How could they have ever…? I sometimes used to wonder things like that. I’d imagine waking up next to, say, that one over there. Ooh, no thanks! And I’d curl my arm around you as you lay sleeping. Not any more. We haven’t touched each other for months. It could even be years, I don’t remember. I am too busy working it all out. Twenty paces from the tide line, ten paces from the dunes. And close enough to home, a child might think, just a little walk through the heath and I’m there. Surprise Mummy and Daddy. I’ll put out cups and plates and make tea and they’ll be so pleased. I forgot Doll!
Too deep, too thick, too far, too late.
Are you there, Lucy? Where are you? Stop playing and answer me straightaway. Oh, there you are! You gave me a fright, hiding for so long. Come in now, let’s make dinner for Daddy. You can stir the pudding.
The first Policeman is quite young. He hasn’t yet attained the jowly, thick-set look of the average, older cop. ‘Do you remember exactly when you last saw your daughter?’
Yes, yes, I remember. She was building a sandcastle, slopping water from a bucket. She…
Now the older, jowly one takes over. ‘When? Try to remember When, not just What she was doing.’
I can’t remember. No, I can’t recall. We’d had lunch; I was reading, I might have closed my eyes, but only for a minute. I thought she was with her father. I might have slept. But only for a second!
It only takes a second.
Help me, help me.
We’re doing all we can. They’re searching the swamp. We’ve got the dogs out. We’ve got a road block, asking drivers. There’s the TV and radio… There’s nothing much more… Go home… Rest.
You are standing at the doorway to her room. I catch you there, unexpected. Every day, I put flowers on her dressing table, with her brush and her little china animals. I dust her room, every day running my rag all around her furniture, keeping it nice. She’ll be nine years old now.
I catch you there, and thinking that you also visit this shrine, I say, ‘You, too?’
You cast your sad gaze about, without looking at me, and I see that you have finished with weeping.
‘We should clear all this out,’ you tell me. But I press my hands over my ears, because I don’t want to hear any more. Well then, my grief is big enough for all of us. And I remain there, rocking on my heels, long after you’ve gone out.
We don’t get a very good price for the farm when it’s sold. Paint is peeling off the house and I never fix the garden so that the plants straggle and tangle, choking each other to death. Our paddocks wave flags of blue-top and yellow iron weed.
We lost our milk quota. But I don’t recall when.
One day you swept all my pill bottles together with the flat of your big palm, swept them clattering into the rubbish bin.
‘There!’ you shouted. ‘I should’ve done that years ago!’
One by one, I fished the bottles out, and to spite you for throwing them away, I took the lids off and ate all the pills, one by one.
One by one, you all stood by my bed. You, your mother, father. Mine. Doctor, nurses. ‘She’ll be all right,’ they all announce, one by one. ‘You found her just in time!’
‘But I didn’t find her!’ My lips are so dry that the skin clings and breaks, the words whispered dying in the air.
No-one hears. I whisper.
Her cheeks were all washed away, dears…
* * *
© Julia Osborne
Published: Island vol 48, 1991
Broadcast: ABC Radio National 2006, 2008, 2011
* Quote (4 lines) from ‘The Water Babies’ by Charles Kingsley. Published London, MacMillan, 1889. New edition.