I closed my writing journal and hopped off my bed to go and find Mum. She was standing at the kitchen bench peeling potatoes and I walked over and put my arms around her waist. She turned and kissed me and we both cried together as the words poured out and I told her all about everything that had been happening at school and showed her what I had been writing in my journal.
With my face pressed against the window, I watched the miles rushing past as we headed south. The tears running down my cheeks could have flooded the big rivers of the north coast, but they had started to dry up as we left the lush green pastures of sad-eyed dairy cattle behind.
The coastal landscape became a dry blur of trees that kept flashing past my eyes. Every now and then there was a small gap in the trees where a little sandy track disappeared into the bush. After a while I started to wonder what was at the end of those little tracks. I closed my eyes and pictured myself riding my bike through the scrub until it suddenly opened out onto a beach. The sand stretched as far as I could see, and in the distance was a hazy headland jutting out into the brilliant blue ocean. The sun danced with sparkles on the waves and I found myself soaring high in the sky. There was nobody else on the beach, and I felt like the only person left in the whole world.
Suddenly I could smell hot chips and I giggled as I started spiralling down to join the other seagulls where they were fighting over a packet of chips. I landed with a thump and opened my eyes to find Mum was sharing out chips into little paper cups for my sisters to eat.
Outside the window, the landscape had turned swampy and in the distance I could see tall chimneys billowing out smoke. Hidden in the trees was an old car body that looked all rusty. The boot was open and Mum said that was how the people had gotten out of the car.
There were more and more factories as we drove along and they were now close enough for me to see lots of cars parked near the bottom of the chimneys. I thought it was no wonder that the cars ended up so rusty when all that smoke was pouring out. I imagined the people in the factories must become all grey and rusty as well.
The swamps soon gave way to sandy grasslands that had little groups of black and white cows standing behind fences. They were too busy trying to find some grass to eat to notice me rushing past though. There were more and more cars around as well, and soon we were on a freeway and sailing past huge trucks. Every now and then a bearded truck driver would look down at me and I would look back and smile, until all the trucks turned off and we were back in the scrub again.
Then we were swooping down a huge hill and at the bottom was a bridge across a wide river. Dad pulled off the road and we all hopped out of the car to have lunch by the edge of the water. My legs were stiff from sitting in the car for so long and I could feel pins and needles in my feet.
The river was covered with all sorts of boats bobbing around, some with white sails that shone brightly in the warm sun and others with groups of men with fishing rods. There were also some men standing on the rocks fishing and I could smell the salty sea air; it reminded me of the beach near Grandma’s house and I started thinking about when I would ever get to see Grandma again.
I could have stayed happily by the side of that river for ages, but I was soon sitting back in the car and we were driving through the city. There were so many cars that we had to drive along really slowly and kept having to stop at traffic lights all the time. Far in the distance were the skyscrapers of the city centre, but from this distance they just looked tiny. Outside the car I could see lots of children walking to school or climbing off buses. They didn’t look very happy and I supposed that was because they didn’t have a lovely river running down the back of their playground. The only playgrounds I could see were all made of concrete; there didn’t seem to be grass anywhere, just lots of concrete. That made me start thinking of Stephanie again and I kept looking for her face amongst all those children heading to school.
As we left the city behind, I watched the landscape change from the bright green grass of the coast to the much duller browns and greys of the inland bush. The hills gradually disappeared, until eventually we were on a long straight stretch of road with just an occasional bend.
With my chin resting on my arm, I watched the railway line come racing across some paddocks until it joined the road and followed alongside for miles and miles. A lot of the trees between the road and the railway line looked dead, but Dad said they were just waiting for rain. I thought they must have been waiting there for a very long time.
There were fewer trees in the paddocks now, just isolated clumps of eucalypts standing on their own amongst short spiky grass. Dad said it was called wheat stubble. I thought it made the country look old and run down and somebody needed to paint it with bright new colours. There were lots of sheep though, and they looked soft and woolly. Some of them looked up at me as we sped past, while others were looking at the ground; I guessed they were wondering where all the grass was.
Every couple of days I wrote a letter to Stephanie and Mum let me pop it in a mailbox along the road somewhere. I missed Stephanie a lot and I often wondered what she was doing.
“Looks like we are nearly there,” Dad said finally. I sat up and looked through the windscreen, but all I could see was the top of a concrete tower above the trees way ahead in the distance. Dad said it was a wheat silo and that’s where the town was. He started telling us about how the town had started out as a gold mining village before the wheat farms and railway had arrived, but all I could think of was that we were in the middle of a dry dusty plain where I didn’t have any friends to play with.
We spent the first night in a caravan park and I started school the next day while Mum and Dad tried to find a house to rent. It was just like starting my first day of kindergarten all over again. I sat there looking at my feet while Mum talked with the school headmaster. He looked like he was a hundred years old and as dry and gnarled as all those trees along the road. His eyes were cold and grey as they looked at me without interest.
When Mum left I was taken to my new classroom by a lady with shoes that clicked loudly on the tile floor of the corridor. She knocked at the classroom door and pushed it open to be greeted by the noise of strange children chattering and giggling. I was taken across the classroom to meet my new teacher, Mr Anderson, who was sitting at his desk reading a book. Slowly, the class started to become quieter as some of the children noticed a new girl amongst them. I could hear the ones at the front whispering to each other and I just knew they were all looking at me standing there in my unfamiliar school uniform.
When the lady left, Mr Anderson stood up with me at the front of the classroom. He held his hand up until everyone was quiet and looking toward the front. “Class, this is Molly White. She has come to join us here in 1KA so I hope you will all make her welcome.” I knew my face was bright red, I could feel it burning and I heard some boys toward the back of the room whispering to each other. I just wanted to run away and I knew the tears were starting to form in my eyes. “Molly, there is an empty desk over near the window so you can sit there. Okay class, it is time now for maths so I want you to open your books at chapter three and we will have a look at number lines.”
I slid into my seat and opened the book Mr Anderson had handed me, but everything looked blurry and instead of number lines I saw rivers of tears running across the page. Warm autumn sunlight was shining through the window and I could see wisps of cloud drifting by in the blue sky as Mr Anderson’s voice droned on about something to do with numbers and lines and hopping from one to four. I thought about the railway line and wondered how many hops it would take before I got back to Stephanie.
At lunchtime I sat on a bench in the playground. It was all bitumen and there was no grass, just lines marked out for all sorts of games. It was like one of those unhappy playgrounds I had seen when we were driving through the city. I looked at the sandwiches in my lunchbox, but I didn’t feel at all hungry because my stomach was tied up in a little knot. I started to think of Stephanie again and began to cry.
After a while I noticed someone had sat on the bench next to me. “Are you okay?” I heard a little voice say. I could see a pair of white cotton socks and dusty black school shoes poking out shyly from beneath a checked school dress.
“I thought you looked sad,” the voice said again. “I wondered if you would like some of my vegemite sandwich.” The voice belonged to a little girl, about the same size as me with a face covered in freckles. “My name is Ellen,” she said.
“I’m Molly,” I said quietly as I finally found my tongue.
“Don’t be sad, Molly. School isn’t that bad when you get used to it. Do you want to come and play handball?”
“I don’t know how to,” I said.
“Well that’s okay, I can teach you.”
She took my hand and we walked across to where a crowd of girls were lined up watching two other girls hitting a tennis ball to each other with their hands. As we stood in the line, Ellen explained that I was meant to hit the ball to the other person with my hand, but it had to bounce before going over the line. If you missed it or hit the ball outside the squares then you were out and had to go back to the end of the line. Everyone wanted to get to the king’s square.
Soon it was my turn and I stood in the square opposite a big girl with short hair. Suddenly there was a tennis ball flying towards me and I threw my hand at it but missed completely. Some of the girls giggled as I walked off to the end of the line.
“Don’t worry, Molly,” said Ellen. “You’ll soon get the hang of it.”
Before I had a chance to have another go, the bell went and we had to go back into class. “Let’s play again tomorrow, Molly,” Ellen said. “You’re going to have a lot of fun.” I wasn’t so sure that I would be able to hit the ball so I was glad that the bell went and saved me from further embarrassment.
The classroom was kept warm by a log fire. Ellen was a fire monitor and she asked Mr Anderson if I would be allowed to help her gather some logs from a box outside the classroom before we went back to our desks.
Ellen told me there was an old man that worked at the school and one of his jobs was to keep the firewood box stacked with wood for the classrooms. She said he was a bit creepy and that I should keep away from him, but there was no sign of the caretaker as I followed Ellen to the back of the classroom. She skipped along and seemed so happy and that made me feel a bit lighter, but the logs were really heavy and I got dirt and little bits of bark stuck all over my school dress when I carried them back to class.
The fire was in an iron box, like a little stove, and I watched Ellen carefully open the door and rake among the embers with a poker. When the flames were dancing around like little devils, I passed her a log and she put it on top of the fire. A shower of sparks and smoke rose into the air and me cough.
When I got back to my desk, I saw that my hands were all dirty. But I wasn’t game to ask Mr Anderson if I could go to the bathroom to wash them so I tried to wipe them clean on my school dress. My hair smelled all smoky as well and I started to worry about what Mum would say when I got home.
Then I began thinking about home and I realised that I didn’t even know where home was, or if we had one. I looked out the window at the clouds again to try and stop myself from crying, but a couple of teardrops still leaked out and fell on my cheeks.
I looked around and saw Ellen watching me. She gave me a little smile and I tried to smile back but my lips wouldn’t move in the right shape. Things improved later in the afternoon, though, when we had some quiet reading time. I picked a book out of a box that was on the floor and we were allowed to sit on the mat in the middle of the classroom and read. Ellen came and sat next to me and held my hand and I felt like I was in kindergarten all over again.
I met Mum outside school at the end of the day. “Hurry up, Molly,” she said. “We have to meet the truck at our new house.” She was so anxious to get going that she didn’t even notice that my dress was dirty and smelled like smoke. I climbed into the car and squeezed in between Catherine and Jasmine in the back seat as we drove across town.
“Aw Molly, you smell! What have you been doing?” said Jasmine.
“Jasmine!” said Mum, “That’s not a very nice thing to say to your sister.”
“But she does smell Mum, like she was in a fire or something.”
“Molly, what have you been doing?”
I was just about to tell her about the fire and Ellen and how she was a fire monitor when Mum pulled up in front of an old house. “This is it!” she said.
I wondered why she had stopped in front of such an ugly house and where our house was.
“No,” Mum said, “This is it.” I couldn’t believe it. How were we meant to live in that old thing? It looked like an old man who had stopped taking care of himself and let his beard cover the scars on his cheeks where it grew all long and straggly, and eyelids that hung down like broken window awnings. I felt tears coming back again when Mum said, “Come on kids, we have a lot of things to unpack before I can cook dinner tonight.”
Inside the house wasn’t much better. The carpet was old and worn and I could see the threads showing through. There were only three bedrooms so the three older girls had to share one room; I was in another room with Stephen, while the third was for Mum and Dad. My bedroom only had space for two beds with a narrow gap between them. The walls were painted a pale blue that had faded and I could see marks where there had once been picture frames.
Our furniture was already in the house and all I had to do was unpack my box. I took some of my dolls out of the box and sat them on my bed. There didn’t seem to be anywhere to put my toys or books so I just left them in the box and sat on the bed and played with my dolls.
Mum tucked me in bed later that night and left the light on for me until Stephen was ready for bed. From my pillow I looked across at Stephen’s side of the room. There was a pair of boots on the floor by his bed, one lying on its side where he had tossed it. His denim jacket was hanging on the corner of a chair and his blue jeans were in a pile on the floor with a brown striped tee shirt. On the little table beside his bed was his watch with a leather strap, sitting on top of a magazine about cars and next to the radio that he liked to listen to in the afternoons when he was reading his magazines. The blanket on his bed was turned down and I could see a little dint in the pillow, like a comma from where his head had paused earlier. He had already stuck a poster of a racing car on the wall above his bed.
Stephen had finished school now and he spent the day looking for work in town. When he got home in the afternoon he told me he was going to be working at a supermarket. Soon he would be able to save enough money to buy a car. He seemed excited about his new job, but I wasn’t sure if he was just being brave. What happened to his dream of joining the army?
Later on, when everyone else was in bed, I lay there listening to the strange sounds of the house creaking. “Stephen, are you awake?” I asked quietly, but there was no response, only the sound of his breathing – long and slow. I couldn’t close my eyes so I watched the reflections of the street light from across the road and wondered if my old bedroom was feeling lonely now I wasn’t there. I could still picture it clearly, my bed in the middle with its pink bedspread and Mr and Mrs Bear sitting on the pillow. Beside the bed was my dressing table where I always put my book when I had finished reading for the night. At the foot of the bed was a rug where Stephanie and I often sat and played with my toys; I wondered what Stephanie was doing now, I hoped she wasn’t sad at school now I wasn’t there. Then I started to think about Ellen, my new friend. I wondered where she lived. We didn’t get to talk very much at school but she seemed really nice with the way she held my hand and let me help her with the fire.
As the night wore on I still couldn’t get to sleep. There was an old tree outside; I could hear its branches rustling in the wind. All the trees around here seem old; everything seems old. Does that mean I will grow old if we stay here? My skin will dry up and my arms and legs will get all bent just like those trees. I could feel the tears coming again. I hopped out of my bed and walked into Mum’s room. It was really dark in there but I could just see the outline of the bed. I walked quietly over to Mum’s side. “Mum, are you awake?” I said in a whisper.
“Molly, is that you?” Mum said sleepily. “What are you doing there, sweetheart?”
“I can’t sleep Mum”.
“Oh Molly, you just need to lay there and close your eyes.”
“I’ve tried that, but I can’t get to sleep.”
“What’s the matter, honey?”
“I don’t know. Can I hop in with you?”
“You’re getting too big for that. There’s not much room anymore. Why don’t you go back to bed and try again?”
“Okay.” I sadly climbed back into bed and held Mr and Mrs Bear tight as I watched the reflections of the street light from across the road. I didn’t have any nightmares simply because I couldn’t get to sleep.
Outside I could hear strange noises, like someone was moving around the house and scratching on the walls. I wriggled a bit deeper under my blanket, but I could still hear the noise.
From further away I listened to the sounds of trains moving around. Every now and then there was a bang, then the roar of an engine until it eventually faded away. Then there would be another roar and more banging and a whistle would blow, over and over again throughout the night. I thought it sounded like dragons were moving around and as I lay there I pictured them flying in and out of their castle, roaring and breathing fire before flying off again. Sometimes the dragons would wrestle with each other and that explained what the loud banging was.
I still didn’t know what the scratching sound was as I lay there in the dark with my eyes wide open. I tried to picture the horses eating green grass on the farm across the road from my old home, but all I could see were dry dusty paddocks. I closed my eyes, but the harder I tried to concentrate the more the horses kept fading from my mind until they turned into grey sheep. Everybody looked sad because there were no princesses to ride through the kingdom and the only houses in the village were small and old and broken down.
It was Easter soon after we arrived in town and the weather turned bitterly cold. Mum had to buy me a new jumper because it was so much colder than on the coast and all my old jumpers were too thin. In the mornings my breath puffed into the air like smoke and it burned my lungs. I had to hug my arms around myself all the time just to stay warm.
That is when Mum first got sick. I was in bed when I heard Dad talking on the telephone. I couldn’t make out what he was saying but soon there were footsteps in the hallway and I could see flashing lights coming through the window. I hopped out of bed and looked through the doorway. I started to cry because all I could see was Mum on a stretcher and some men in white coats pushing her out the front door.
“Mum!” I called out.
“Get back in bed Molly,” Dad said sharply. Stephen was beside me and he took my hand and led me gently back to bed.
“It’s okay Molly,” he said. “Mum is just going up to the hospital for a bit. She isn’t feeling very well.”
“Is she going to be okay?” All I could think about were those dry old trees.
“She’ll be fine. The doctors will look after her.”
I couldn’t sleep at all that night after that. I kept worrying about Mum being all lonely up at the hospital. She still wasn’t home when I woke in the morning. I climbed out of bed and found Catherine in the kitchen making breakfast. I asked her if she knew when Mum would be coming home and she said that Mum was probably going to be in the hospital for a few days. She told me to go and get myself dressed in my school uniform and then come back to the kitchen and help her cook breakfast.
Catherine already had some porridge cooking on the stove and she showed me how to keep stirring the porridge so that it didn’t stick to the bottom of the saucepan. When the porridge started to bubble I had to turn the stove off and let it cool for a while before it could be served into bowls.
I sat with the girls and ate my porridge quietly while they chatted about high school. Stephen had already left for work before I had woken up and Dad wasn’t home from last night.
The girls all rode their bikes to school, and because Mum wasn’t home to walk to school with me, Catherine said I could ride my bike with them. It was the first time I had ever been allowed to ride my bike to school and I was really excited, even though I still felt sad because Mum wasn’t home.
We set off together, riding in single file along the street toward school. I had trouble keeping up because they rode so fast, but Catherine stayed back and rode slowly with me. She kept looking back over her shoulder and calling out to me, telling me when to stop for cars and when to get going again. Before long we arrived at school and Catherine said goodbye and then hurried off to catch up with Samantha and Jasmine. I climbed off my bike and wheeled it through the school gate and left it parked in a bike rack.
As I sat in class through the day, I kept thinking about Mum and wondering what was happening and why she was sick. It made me feel sick and I couldn’t eat my morning tea or lunch. I sat with Ellen at lunchtime and told her all about how some men had come to the house and taken Mum away to the hospital last night. I thought it was strange when Ellen asked me if my Dad had done something to her. I told Ellen that she had just gotten sick, but I didn’t know why. I didn’t feel like playing handball or anything so we just sat there holding hands and Ellen told me about a time when her Mum was in hospital. Ellen said it was only last year and her Mum was in the hospital for a whole week and then came home with a new baby. Ellen hadn’t been able to see her all the time she was in hospital because her Dad was too busy working to be able to take her. I started to worry about what would happen if I couldn’t see Mum for a whole week. I asked Ellen if she knew where the hospital was and she told me that it was at the top of the hill, just past the high school.
All afternoon I kept thinking about what Ellen had said, and by the time the school bell rang at the end of the day I had decided that I was going to ride my bike up to the hospital to visit Mum. I couldn’t stand the thought of going a whole week without seeing her. I wondered if I should tell Catherine where I was going, but then I started to worry that she might stop me from riding up to the hospital so I decided that I would just go on my own.
I climbed on my bike and set off toward the high school. I knew it was only a few blocks up the hill from my school from what Ellen had told me. There were lots of other kids riding their bikes home from school so I just followed what they were doing and pretended that I was heading home as well. I kept my head down as I rode past the high school, just in case one of my sisters saw me. But I was soon past all the teenagers without being spotted and then I could see the big white hospital building right in front of me.
The hill was quite steep and my legs were really tired by the time I rode up the hospital driveway. But I had made it and I let my bike coast to a stop in front of the door. I climbed off my bike and walked inside the building, but I didn’t know where to find Mum. A lady in a white uniform asked if I needed help and I told her that I was looking for Mum.
“What is your Mum’s name, sweetheart?” she said in a kind voice.
“M-M-Mrs White,” I answered nervously.
“Oh yes,” she said, “I think she is sleeping, but if you promise to be really quiet then I will show you where her room is.”
The kind lady took my hand and we walked down a long white corridor together.
“So what is your name, young lady?” the kind lady asked.
“Molly,” I said quietly.
“Oh, what a pretty name! Well here we are, Molly.” She started to whisper, “There’s a chair beside the bed that you can sit on. Just make sure you stay really quiet and don’t wake her, okay?”
I nodded and climbed onto the chair where I could see Mum’s face resting peacefully against the pillow. Her hair hadn’t been brushed and it was all knotty and spread out. I knew Mum wouldn’t be happy to see her hair so full of knots and that’s when I realised that she must have been pretty sick.
I sat and watched her breathing. She looked peaceful but her face was very pale. Her eyes were closed and every now and then she would move a little. I lay my head on my arms against the edge of the bed and watched. I thought that if I looked away she might disappear. Her hair framed her face with a red-golden glow; I could see the lines on her face – the ones around the eyes where they crinkled when she smiled at me; small creases on her forehead when she frowned if I did something wrong. I could see a small pulse beating in her neck; as long as that kept going she would be okay, I kept saying to myself.
Eventually I felt Dad’s hand on my shoulder. “Come on Molly, time to go home before the hospital closes.” My hands felt numb and my eyes were all blurry as I leant over and kissed Mum on the cheek. She hadn’t even woken up to look at me.
After Mum had been in hospital I began to ride my bike everywhere on my own. She started to get better and eventually came home but for a long while she wasn’t able to do much out of the house and I had to find my own way around. School was only a few blocks from home anyway and I could easily ride and park my bike in the racks at the back of the playground. My sisters soon stopped waiting behind for me to ride to school with them, but I was able to find my own way there. Every time I got on my bike I could feel the wind blowing deliciously in my hair, and the sound of my bike’s tyres humming along the road made me feel wild and free.
In the mornings before school it became my job to ride my bike down to the corner shop to buy a loaf of bread and a carton of milk for Mum. I had a basket at the front of my bike to carry the groceries, and when I got home I put the change into my moneybox. Every now and then I would pick my moneybox up and feel how heavy it was getting and give it a shake to hear all the change rattling inside.
After having porridge for breakfast I would kiss Mum goodbye and rush out the back door to get on my bike again for the quick dash across the road between the traffic then around the edge of the park until I arrived at school. In the afternoon my bike would be waiting patiently for me, eager for the journey home again.
Just down the road from home was a greyhound racing track. It was dry and dusty and on Saturday nights I could hear the noise from the greyhound races. Some cheering and muffled announcements over the loudspeaker drifted through the window as I tried to sleep. Sometimes on the weekend I would ride my bike through the gates of the greyhound park and ride round and round the car park, dodging broken bottles and tin cans scattered on the ground. I soon learnt that I had to watch out for catsheads, those terrible sharp thorns that would lay hidden in the grass waiting to puncture my tyres. Mum went down to the bike shop one day and bought me thorn proof bike tubes and Stephen had put them on my bike, but they were still no match for catsheads.
I didn’t get to play with Stephen much anymore now that he had a job, so I spent a lot of time on my own. One weekend I rode out of town, leaving behind the giant peppercorn trees that lined the main street, riding past the ornamental apricot trees on the smaller side streets, past the greyhound track, past the bulk grain storage silo that I had seen on my first day, until I found myself free as a bird and pedalling into a wilderness of twisted gum trees, dry gullies and flat paddocks of dusty wheat stubble.
The backyard at home was really huge but it was overgrown with weeds and shrubs and looked just like a jungle. Stephen made a tree house in the stump of an old tree down the back, cutting some foot holes so I could climb up and sit on the platform he made from old. It was about six feet off the ground and Stephen showed me how to climb up there so that I could sit and read, looking down on the world from my castle so high.
I was slowly reading my way through ‘Oliver Twist’. Mum had given it to me for my birthday but I had to take my time so that I could understand it properly – some of the sentences were just so long and confusing. I saw a reflection of myself in the orphaned baby who lost his mother when he was born. At night I lay in bed, terrified of the dark and worrying about what would happen to me if Mum got sick again. I was the same age that Oliver was when he was taken to the workhouse and asked for more to eat.
The more I read, the more I found myself lost on the narrow streets of London, a small and timid child. I trembled with fear when threatened by Fagin, and as my fingers turned the pages anxiously I ran when chased by the crowd from the bookstall. From high in my treehouse in the middle of this dry, dusty plain, my mind wandered the cold, wet streets of that far away city.