Copyright M. A. McRae, 2017
This Shakespir edition published by Samray Books, 2014
Samray Books can be contacted at [email protected]
This story is dedicated to my mother and to my father, both of whom died in nursing homes.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.
This book is a work of fiction. While many of the places mentioned are real, others are fictional. Baldoon Correctional Centre is fictional and so is ‘Shades of Salome.’ Any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is coincidental.
Shirley finds she has an odd, impossible ability, the ability to end a person’s life – just by thinking it.
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It was a dream that began it, not just the dream, but the feeling that went with it – the feeling of an enormous love and compassion. I held the poor, poor, skinny old lady in my arms. I held her with love, and she felt no pain from all of the sore spots and all of the aches that go with an old, old body. She weighed nothing at all, and I held her so gently. She needed to die. She needed to leave the body that was only a burden for her. It had been so long since she’d been young and free. For years she had yearned for an end to the suffering. She wanted to endure no longer.
And I gave her that. That body in my arms, weightless, feeling no pain for the first time in years. And she died. I gave her that. She died, and I carefully put her back in her bed and covered her. She was finally gone, finally free, finally without pain. Love. Compassion. And I freed her.
I didn’t lose that dream when I woke, though if there were details, they were lost. What led up to it, what happened afterwards – if those things had been part of that dream, they were not retained. Just the feeling of an overwhelming love and compassion. And then the poor old, old lady was finally free.
If there was a God, it was what He should be doing, not me, just a very ordinary, middle-aged lady. Grey-haired, a worn face, and my own beginning aches and pains, the sign of what was to come, the trials that old people endure every day. Most old people, in spite of those stories of octogenarians lifting weights or running endurance events. Most of us are not like that. For most of use, old age is an endurance event. I read that somewhere and thought it so apt. So true.
I continued to think about it as I went about the morning routine, showering, dressing, making and eating breakfast, the same as on every other day. It was as I rinsed my coffee mug that the identity of that poor old woman came to me. It was old Mrs. Campion, Vera Campion. She’d been one of those I’d visited the day before, one of the sad residents of the Nursing Home that was only a short walk away. My husband had spent his last nine years there. He’d been only fifty when he’d had that stroke, two years older than myself. The children had come to see him, even Deb, who’d been in Italy. It had been the holiday she’d planned for years, but she hadn’t hesitated to cut it short. But seeing their strong father so helpless, just lolling there in the reclining chair, often dribbling, unable to speak, not really knowing how much he could hear and understand – it was too much for them. They’d tried, but their visits quickly became fewer. And they lived so far away, Jenny busy with her little son, such a demanding tot…
But Kane was eighteen now, in his last year of school. Quicksilver, they called him. My only grandson – lithe, black-haired, and with the unthinking selfishness of youth. I didn’t see much of him. Not just that they lived too far away, but that my home was quiet. There was not much for an active child at his Granny’s. His father’s parents were different. They had wealth, a big home in a big city, and money enough to spend on their family. They travelled a lot, and were happy to subsidise their son and his small family so that they could go with them. It was no wonder that Jenny and Renzo spent far more time with his parents than they did with me. Me, Shirley Bridgewater, who lived in a tiny country town, had no career and not even a husband. Not any more. Stan. He’d been gone seven years now, sixteen years since our lives together had come to an abrupt end. There had been no warning signs, he was not a smoker, not a heavy drinker…
But I switched off that line of thought. There were occasions when I’d have a quiet cry, privately, for myself. But I’d be a lot more lonely if I didn’t socialise, and while I found playing Bingo an awful bore, I would not tell my friends that. Sandra, Gwen, Maisie and Christine. None of them were close friends. I had no close friends. But life would be unbearable lived entirely alone, and I took care not to show that I sometimes found their chatter shallow and their pursuits less engrossing than they found them.
So I checked my watch and prepared to go out to play Bingo. We’d probably have lunch afterwards, maybe at the pub, maybe we’d try the new restaurant just opened, though their prices were a touch fierce for a country town. It would be interesting to see how long it lasted.
My days for visiting the nursing home were Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Especially Sundays. They always said that Sundays were awful. There was never anything on except for the desultory church service in the morning. The local ministers took turns, an ‘ecumenical’ service, though the Catholics missed out. Old Father Murphy was a nasty old bugger who thought that they should only listen to him. He visited sometimes, heard confessions, though what the pitiful denizens of a nursing home would have to confess, I couldn’t imagine. Absolution, I guess, Communion, whatever else Catholics did. I’m not Catholic myself, of course. Raised Presbyterian, but that was in the past. These days I had no belief in any God who actually cared about people. How could there be when people lived such miserable lives in their last years? I did more for them than any blessed God did!
That dream had been on Tuesday night. It stayed with me, though I didn’t put a great deal of significance on it. It made sense to me that I’d dream something like that. I was so sorry for them, for all of them. Most of them put on a cheerful face as best they could, applauded when someone with the talent made the effort to play music or sing for them, even when their efforts were so very far from professional, they didn’t complain when their care was not as good as it could be, understanding how short-staffed they always were, and talking about the visits of family with gratitude. Sometimes, it was as if they didn’t feel they warranted more. More care, more time, more understanding. It is such a sad thing, the quiet decline into helplessness.
So I did the things the trained staff never had time to do, took down letters for those who could no longer do it themselves, I read aloud for them, fetched coffee or took away used coffee mugs and threw away dead flowers. Visitors would bring them in, arrange them nicely, and then leave. And they would stay. The nursing staff were invariably rushed off their feet. It was only to be expected that anything like that was not noticed.
I didn’t try and take them to the toilet or bathe them or even help with lifting. Not only that my own back was not up to that, but non-staff were strictly forbidden from any such activity in case it resulted in injury either to the resident or the visitor.
And I admired them, these brave old men and women. So little in their lives, and the nurses would try so hard to bring them cheer. Wearing silly hats on ‘Mad Hatter’s Day,’ waltzing in front of some old lady who’d been beautiful once and liked to dance… They’d take her hands and sort of dance with her, even when the poor old girl could barely shuffle.
And the old ones seldom complained, instead they would smile and pretend with the staff that things were all right.
It was only after I’d come to know them, that they would tell me how they really felt, that life was dismal, that there was too little left to live for. And some would say how they yearned to be finished with it all, those ones for whom there was too little left. How can one enjoy life when sight has gone, hearing is poor, and independence of movement is lost? And pain. Not severe usually, but constant. They became accustomed to it, I think, and while they might have complained of their aches and pains in younger years, it had long become just the background to their lives. And incontinence. It’s something they dread happening to them, and when it does, it hurts them terribly. They were proud, independent adults once, and now they can’t even keep themselves clean. But they smile at the staff when they try to give them some pleasure and never show that life has become an all but intolerable burden.
It was not until I returned Friday morning that I learned that Vera Campion had died. Three days ago, Tuesday night, the same night I’d dreamed it. It was strange that I would dream it, but I’d known that she was ready to die. It had to be only a coincidence that she’d died that particular night. Some sort of telepathic link? Because I cared for her?
But I shook my head at that thought. I may have cared for her, but I was certainly not close enough that there would be any sort of telepathic connection. I did believe that people could be linked. I was sure I’d had a telepathic link with my daughters for a bit, but only when they’d been very small. Had I not heard Deb give a sudden scream when I’d burnt my hand that time? And much later, when they were both at school, I’d known there was something wrong from the moment that Jenny had broken her arm. I’d actually been next to the phone with the sudden need to check on them.
I’d not had the slightest warning when Stan had had that stroke though. I hadn’t even known for hours. I’d been out enjoying myself, playing bowls at a nearby town. There had been a trophy, but I’d long since thrown it away. I must have been presented with it about the same time that Stan’s heart stopped for the third time. And they’d brought him back – for the third time. It would have been so much better if only they had let him go then. Instead, he’d lived on – for nine years! For nine years, I visited every day, read to him, told him how the girls were going, told him about Debbie’s wedding, the births of her babies, Kane’s sporting triumphs, and when the new and ‘environmentally friendly’ lighting system nearly set our house on fire. I saw him crying once, when I spoke of Debbie’s wedding, silent tears running down his face. It was almost the only time that he reacted to me or anyone else, but it was enough that I tried very hard never to miss a day.
In some nursing homes, when a death occurred, the body was whisked away and the other residents not told. But I didn’t think any of them did that any more. It had always been a foolish policy. Residents of nursing homes might be old and feeble, but they were not stupid. Deaths were not hidden from the residents here. They always had a memorial service, usually about three days later.
The nursing home here is not, strictly speaking, even a nursing home. It started as a ‘hostel’ – a place for elderly people who could no longer live independently, but were not ‘high care.’ At that time, when they lost mobility, they would be moved to a dedicated nursing home. But there was a change in the legislation, some extra funding provided – never enough, and the hostel had to keep them, no matter how much care they needed. There were two old men, for instance, the same as Stan used to be – apparent vegetables. Who knew how much they comprehended of what was happening around them?
That it had been designed as a hostel rather than a nursing home meant that there were real benefits for the residents – that they had their own room, for instance, not a shared room, and nothing like a hospital ward. They were given their way on things, as much as possible. I remembered seeing an aunt in one of the old-fashioned nursing homes – the old ones just arranged around the edges of a large room, all of them staring at nothing, while a TV blared – ‘entertainment.’ The staff there hadn’t even approved of relatives trying to take their ‘loved one’ to a place more private in order to talk with them. They had shared rooms there, I remember, and were apt to be moved around without notice and certainly without asking permission of the resident or family. A shameful practice! They wouldn’t dream of that here. It was a home, as much as they could make it a home, not a prison, not a hospital.
Its name is ‘Shades of Salome.’ I love that – far better than ‘Shady Pines’ or ‘Peaceful Meadows’ or any of those other names people think fit for nursing homes. ‘Shades of Salome,’ a name with a bit of humour, and a name that acknowledged that the residents had a history. They had not always been the pitiful wrecks they were now. I have to admit that the reference to ‘Salome’ does rather exclude the men, but I never heard any complain. In any case, it is universally referred to as just ‘Shades.’
There is a separate part of the home called ‘Lindfield Lodge.’ It was added around fifteen years ago, and is expressly designed for those with Dementia. The nursing staff do their shifts there as they do here, and all the services are shared, but the residents don’t mix, and the Lodge residents have few visitors. It is too hard for family when they are not even recognised, and very easy for them to feel that it doesn’t matter whether or not they put themselves through the sadness of a visit. For myself, I avoided the place, and very much admired the saintliness of the few volunteers who visited there.
I ate lunch that day at the table that Vera had mostly shared with three others, Brian, his wife Catherine, and tiny Leanne, skinny, still able to walk, but racked with pain, constantly, day in, day out. She said she didn’t plan on raising the pain medicine as it made her more apt to fall. That no matter how her hips and legs and wrists hurt her, it didn’t hurt as much as broken bones.
They were talking mostly about Vera, how they hadn’t seen much of her for weeks, and Brian said that she’d been miserable ever since her husband had died six months before, and then she had to move to a single room. It was one of the best things about ‘Shades,’ he said, that married couples could share a room. In the ‘bad old days,’ married couples were never allowed to share a room, men in one area, women in another. And then he said wistfully, “They won’t let us have a double bed, though,” and Catherine said briskly, “It’s too hard on the backs of the staff. We can’t complain.”
But I didn’t see what was so dreadfully difficult in making up a double bed, and I remembered how I’d loved sleeping with Stan, not for the sex, though of course, that had been important, but that there was someone close, always. A warm person you could touch just by reaching out, half in your sleep. A cuddle in the morning, curled up together, sharing warmth, not of temperature, but of spirit. Warmth of spirit. I decided to ask again if there was some way that married couples could have double beds if they wanted. They should have them. They should have anything they wanted within reason. Lord knows they were paying enough to be here.
Leanne had been very quiet, showing her sadness in a way she seldom did. But now she quite suddenly said that she wasn’t at all sad for Vera, that she so envied her, that she’d gone so quietly to sleep and had not woken. How she wished each night that she could do the same, just never wake up.
Catherine said quietly to her, “Just demand more and more pain-killer medication, only take what you need, and then one night…”
“I tried it. I nearly had enough, and a nurse found the stash, and now I have to beg for just what I need. I lied when I said it was my choice not to have more.” And then, very quietly, “I am so tired of this. I want it to end.”
“Totally uncooperative. I told him that giving me medication for pain is not like euthanasia or anything, and he spouted some nonsense about God’s will.”
Catherine put her hand out and just touched her, and Brian said that it was a shame there were not more doctors to choose from, that a too-religious doctor was the pits.
I asked, “You and Brian? You’re not wanting it as well?”
“Not yet. There’s still plenty for us to enjoy. But one day. It would be so good if we could just decide when it was time, and neither of us would be left without the other. That’s what we would want if only it were possible.”
Leanne nodded, but tears came to her eyes, and she rose from the table and said that she’d be back for the memorial service. I rose and offered an arm to help her stand. She did use me for balance as she rose, but shook her head when I asked if she’d like me to go with her to her room, and said in a strained voice, “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be right in a bit.”
So I sat again, only watching to make sure she was steady enough on her feet. I knew the feeling; she just needed a quiet cry alone, and then she’d be ready to face the world again.
I helped the kitchen staff afterwards, and then rearranged the chairs for the memorial service. Some of the residents would go to the official funeral, but for most, it was too much. And they needed this, something to mark the loss of one of us. Of them, I mean. I was not a resident, I was still the outsider, still free. Tomorrow, I’d be out with the ‘Conjee Walkers’ in the morning, and in the afternoon, there was the big charity auction. I always tried to find something to do on a Saturday afternoon, something far from the quiet desperation of the ones like Leanne, Vera as she had been, and there were others, I knew. Enduring because they had no choice.
I could have stayed away. Few volunteers lasted long, though I’m sure they tried. But I felt as if it was the best thing I had done in my life, trying to make life a little more bearable for the old ones. It was worthwhile, and if it made me sad sometimes, well, I was sad anyway, ever since that horrible thing had happened to Stan. I still didn’t go the Lodge, I didn’t think I could bear to be made that sad.
The memorial service was quite simple, a short talk, a couple of hymns, even though Vera had not been religious, a favourite song, and it was over. Leanne was there, not crying, just being there as a tribute to one of themselves, the one who’d escaped. No-one cried, and I wondered how many others were quietly envying her. No more pain, no more helplessness, no more depending on others.
Afterwards, I spent some time with Clive Woodshot. Clive had been a well-known footballer once, and was still keenly interested. But not many were interested in listening to a lengthy analysis of the chances of his team’s results in tomorrow’s match. I wasn’t particularly interested myself. Sometimes, when I put up with his talks, I wondered if he knew I was only pretending to be interested. I see him looking a little rueful afterwards, and yet he wants to talk, and I’m the only one with the time to listen. As far as I knew, Clive had no family who lived close enough to visit.
And then I visited Leanne, who smiled at me when I saw her, and announced that her daughter was visiting the day after – Saturday. “And with her daughter and her new baby. My first great grand-daughter.”
“I’m surprised,” I said. “You don’t look old enough to have a great grand-daughter.”
“I started young, I’m not sixty yet.”
I was utterly shocked. Leanne was younger than myself, and she looked so much older; I would have guessed mid seventies, at least. Leanne correctly interpreted my expression, and said in a matter-of-fact tone. “It’s the pain, it adds years to the face.”
I shook my head. I didn’t know what to say.
Leanne continued in a determinedly happy tone, “So I’m to see my Lisa, and her daughter, Anna, and this one, just three weeks old.”
“And it’s a little girl?”
“A little girl.”
I saw her again on Sunday. She told me then that the tiny baby was to be called Leanne, after herself. And she added, “Now would be a good time for me to go. I’ve seen all my family just recently, and I don’t want to hang around any longer.” And she smiled, “A little baby called Leanne. I just hope she never suffers what I suffer.”
“I hope not as well,” I said, perhaps a little too fervently, as she looked at me with surprise, and then tears came to her eyes and she turned her head away. People who suffer with chronic pain learn not to complain. It only makes people uncomfortable.
I dreamed about Leanne that night. She died.
They rang me this time, to let me know. I heard while the dream was still fresh in my mind. But it was coincidence. How could it be anything else?
No-one in ‘Shades’ died for weeks after that, and I told myself that my dreams had nothing whatever to do with first Vera, and then Leanne dying in their sleep. I could forget about the coincidence, no matter how eerie. I still went three days a week. They’d do without me if they had to, as they learned to do without all the other things that made life more bearable. But I was a help and I knew I was a help.
It seemed sometimes as if I led two separate lives. My ‘outside’ friends, various others who were more ‘friendly acquaintances’ than friends – none of them had any interest in hearing about ‘Shades of Salome.’ They didn’t want to think that in twenty years, if they still lived, then they, too, would be facing that limited existence. We were all in that late middle age phase when problems begin to appear and we start to think of our own mortality. Gwen was religious and had several times tried to coax me to church with the promise that one day I would see Stan again. I was tempted sometimes, it was hard to think that he was truly gone forever, and yet this idea of a loving God – I just didn’t believe it. And heaven for the good people and hell for the bad – the idea was so silly and simplistic that I rejected it totally. They don’t talk about it so much these days, except maybe in those mad evangelical churches, but all the same, it is at the very core of Christianity, just as it is in Islam and Judaism.
A Friday. The weather was cool and overcast that day. It had been a mild summer, pleasant, but it was autumn now, and soon it would be winter. The nursing home was kept at a comfortable temperature, always, and yet the season made a difference. The old ones’ aches and pains bothered them more in the cold weather, and there were always more deaths in the winter months.
I glanced around the dining room as I arrived to eat with the residents. I paid the normal price for the meal, the same as any other visitor who elected to eat with the residents. A small price for a meal that I could only describe as ‘ordinary.’ Noon, but this was the main meal of their day, with a light meal in the evening, sometimes only sandwiches. As always, I thought they deserved better, but I no longer said anything. The residents themselves would jump to the defence of the kitchen staff – ‘They’re doing their best,’ and the nurses would say that a heavy evening meal was bad for their health. But having the main meal in the middle of the day was for the convenience of staff, I was sure, not for the sake of the residents’ health.
It was a poorer meal than usual that day, fish and chips, luke warm and limp, small serves, but with a very nice dessert to follow – a small portion. I was with Sophy, who was nearly blind, Evie and ‘Darling Pat.’ A stroke had deprived Pat of almost her entire vocabulary, but for some reason, ‘Darling’ remained, and she used it for everything, hence ‘Darling Pat.’ She may not have been able to speak, but she could hear and understand, her mind unimpaired. She was more independent than many, and went out regularly, though she didn’t drive herself. I thought she probably could if she chose, but imagine being stopped by a policeman and her only word was ‘darling.’
There was a voice raised from a table across the room, a demand that they hurry up with the man’s drink. Pat said scathingly, “Darling!” and Sophy said, “Larnie. I went to school with him. A pig then and still a pig.”
I nodded but said nothing. Just because a person becomes old and feeble, it does not mean that he or she changes character. Graham Larnoch was a pig and always had been. Except for brief periods, I’d lived in this small town all my life, and I knew something of his history. His first wife had died suddenly, supposed to be from a heart attack. But it was widely known that he was responsible for those times when she appeared bruised, though she would never say so, and became annoyed with those who tried to tell her to leave the mongrel. So then she died, not yet forty. As far as I know, the police had never even questioned it.
But old age is the leveller. The pig of a wife-beater, the good, the amiable, the harmless, the chronically bad-tempered, they were the same now. The ‘old families’ of the district, who used to look down on the rest of us, the post-war soldier settlers especially, but the business people as well, and any who worked for a wage – that is, almost all of us. But the squatter families no longer seemed to have money to spare, not enough for more expensive options in their old age, maybe private nursing. In any case, ‘Shades of Salome’ was about as good as any nursing home in the country.
I hadn’t noticed any condescension from old Marjorie Fraser now, though I’d seen her being abused once – by Graham Larnoch, who’d been a shearer until his back gave out, and did a few odd jobs since, in between stints on the dole.
So we chatted about the nice day, and Evie asked if I could take her outside for a bit just to enjoy the sunshine – Evie was in a wheelchair. I agreed. The nursing staff didn’t object to this, though I’d invite a rebuke if I tried to help her transfer to her chair or bed, anything like that. Sophy said that she was very much enjoying her book whenever I had time to read to her, and I promised her some time this afternoon. It was a Stephen Hawking book, a book that invited deep thinking, far from the light love story which I’d just finished reading to one of the others. Three or four chapters was the limit, though. After that, my voice would wear out. There were ‘talking books,’ but they always said there were never the titles they wanted to hear. Maybe it was as much the actual human companionship as the books they needed, but that was okay with me. If that was what they wanted, I would try and give them that.
There was Graham’s voice raised again, heard clearly from our table at the other end of the room, “Get Shirley then, if no-one else will help me,” and I looked around, meeting the eyes of Rameez Jassal, known as Rami. Rami was from India, and was one of the support workers – that is, he helped with nursing duties, but had not yet gained any qualifications, though he was working on it. Most had a mere six month qualification, the bare basics, but were still happy to call themselves ‘nurses.’
A few minutes later, Rami came over and said what was wanted – someone to help him sort out clothes and buy whatever he was short of. Winter was coming, and since clothing sent for laundering took several days to be returned, they needed an ample supply.
I agreed, and nodded at the man who was watching me, usual grumpy expression on his face. “Straight after afternoon tea.” They didn’t all bother with afternoon tea, but Larnoch was always there. He was a big man, his legs now bowed outward and swollen with fluid. He was another one who was probably in constant pain. I didn’t know him well; I’d never wanted to know him at all. But he was in need and it was why I was here, three days a week, every week, either a morning and lunch, or, like today, lunch and an afternoon.
So once lunch was over, I took Evie for a spin down the street, grateful for the good path that took us the few blocks into the small town, bought her the newspaper she wanted, agreed with her that more shops should be wheelchair-friendly, but then stayed with her when the owner of the town’s single clothing shop came out, greeted her by name, and on request, provided her with a choice of cardigans, holding each one up on the footpath as friendly passers by stopped to greet and to comment on the choices. It was a small town and had the intertwining network of relationships typical of small towns. By ‘small town,’ I mean a little under a thousand residents. Its name is Conjellaback. We called it ‘Conjee.’ Our nearest decent sized town was Everson, with a population of twenty-five thousand.
Afterwards, there was a brief call in on Marjorie, who was recovering from a cold, one chapter of Hawking’s book for Sophy, three chapters of ‘Infidel’s Revenge’ for Jacquie, (they were much shorter chapters) but I refused to read a portion of the bible for Irene, claiming my voice was worn out. And in any case, I was fairly sure that her motive was to Spread The Word and all that. Irene’s eyes were fine, or at least as good as the eyes of any other old lady of eighty.
By then, afternoon tea was on offer, and it was time to fulfil my promise to Graham Larnoch. Larnoch was one of those who were dependant on a walking frame, and he would usually serve himself, slow and painful though it might have been. But that day, I collected his tea for him and chose a couple of the cakes on offer. Most residents lost weight in the nursing home, but Larnoch only seemed to get heavier. The meals served may have been light, but there was a ‘happy hour’ when alcohol was on offer, and there were morning and afternoon teas every day. If they wanted to eat more than they needed, there was nothing to stop them, just that it was not exactly encouraged.
Clive Woodshot was also at the table; he seemed to be the only one who could tolerate Graham Larnoch. They’d been on the same football team once upon a time. But Larnoch was ignoring Clive, just grumbling that his family never visited and someone had to do some shopping for him or he’d be going around naked, and he gave me a look and said, “Not that you would have minded seeing me naked once upon a time,” and he gave his great, baying laugh.
There was no need for me to tolerate rudeness, but when I mustered my best ‘blighting look,’ he only shrugged impatiently and said, “Well, you would’ve. Don’t deny it,” and he said complacently, “There were a lot of women after me when I played for Geelong.”
“And Susan Hargreaves got you,” I said impersonally, and he grunted and looked at the cake I’d collected for him before stuffing it in his mouth. At least he was no longer boasting of his long ago and even then debatable physical attraction to women.
He referred to it again later on, when we’d finished sorting and I had the list of what he needed. “Susan,” he said. “I know they always say I killed her, but I didn’t. The doctor said it was an aneurysm.”
“I didn’t live here when she died,” I said. “I heard about it, though. They said a heart attack.”
“Yeah, her heart stopped because an aneurysm burst.”
I nodded, and maybe he thought me still accusing, because he suddenly said, “I know I knocked her about a bit. I shouldn’t of done it. I know that now, and I s’pose I knew it then. And all my mates knew, of course, and not one of them, not one in all of them years, ever said anything. Not one.”
“I always wondered about that. I reckon if a bloke was a wife-beater, then he shouldn’t have any mates.”
“I think it was disappointment, mostly. She was supposed to be a wife, and she never liked me much. I don’t think it was even my kid, that first one. An’ I mighta knocked ‘er about occasionally, but I never touched the kids, not to hit, not to fuck. I knew one who did that. He said it was only his step-daughters, as if that made it all right. He let his mates do it too. It went on for years until the welfare took the girls away. One was pregnant. Just thirteen, she was.”
He looked at me. “So you may not like me. I’ve not been a good man. I wonder sometimes if it would’ve been different if I’d had what others had, what good people mostly had. A mum and dad who cared, a wife who cared. Susan didn’t care, and neither did Cindy – that’s the one I got from the Philippines. She only stayed with me long enough to get her citizenship. And now my back hurts and my legs hurt and just about everything else and I can’t even buy my own clothing. Gotta ask somebody. And you might be a good person, I guess you are, but you don’t like me neither. It’s a sad life and I want to be dead. Maybe the Buddhists are right and I’ll get another chance. Even if I come back as an animal, maybe I’ll do better next time.”
“It’s an interesting concept, that one can be born again.”
“You don’t believe it, though, do you?”
I shrugged and didn’t answer. I almost never spoke about my atheism; it tends to upset the religious, though I notice that a lot of them never hesitate to try and foist their beliefs onto me.
He said, “So, you’ll get the clothes for me?”
“I’ll need money. And I’ll go to Everson. I can get more for less money there.”
“Petrol money as well?”
“No need. I was going in anyway next week, so I’ll do it then.”
I looked over the list, did some rough calculations, and asked if he had $250, “That will cover it, and I’ll bring back your change.”
“Don’t bother with nice stuff, and no bright colours. Just cheap and wearable.”
“Lowes? They’re pretty good.”
“Lowes’ll be fine.”
I enjoyed my shopping the following Monday. I had no excuse to buy myself new clothing, but I always liked spending money. So ‘Lowes’ for Graham’s stuff, though I didn’t follow his instructions precisely. There was a very nice olive-green jumper, more expensive than the other things, and easily washable, which was essential. Doreen, who did the laundry, didn’t believe in bothering with garments needing special care. No bright colours, he’d said, so I stuck mostly to the dreary grey that he mostly wore, though at least with a bit of a red fleck through it. I was not a believer in grey or black or any other shade of drear. There was enough to make people unhappy without unhappy colours besides.
It was a nice day for me, that Monday. A very pretty blouse caught my eye, so I did wind up buying something for myself. I had lunch with Gwen, who’d asked to come with me in the car, plus Gwen’s sister, who never had learned to drive confidently in traffic. Afterwards, we all went to see a film. It was about the very early days of Feminism, before women had the vote. A good film and a real education. We have it good these days, we women, or at least, far better than they did back then – not even a hundred years ago. That’s what struck me – it was not so long ago. In Australia, of course, we had the vote earlier than in England, but as I recalled, almost by accident. They gave the vote to land-owners and forgot to exclude women – something like that. I’d have to look it up.
Larnoch inspected the clothing when I brought it in for him the following day, and then pulled off the faded grey jumper he wore, and pulled on the nice green jumper instead. I said teasingly, “Maybe some better colours next time?” and he grinned at me, “Maybe.”
I came to know and understand him a little better in the next weeks, though I never knew whether he’d be in a reasonable mood or savage with the whole world. It depended on how much pain he was in, I assumed, but like Leanne, he told me the doctor would never allow him as much pain-killer as he wanted, and sighed one day, “If I only had my shotgun, I’d put an end to it all. All just misery.”
I said nothing, and he gave me that odd sideways smirk he used sometimes, “Any of the staff would jump in and tell me how there’s always good, like there’s a good entertainer tomorrow.”
“There is, or at least reasonable.”
“But you don’t say that. You understand. A man’d be better dead.”
Yes, I understood. The man’s life was misery.
But when I dreamed it that night, I woke myself with my cry of “Nooo!” and then stayed awake for hours, thoroughly upset. I didn’t want to be responsible for anyone’s death. And Larnie. How did I know that I wasn’t helping him die because I disliked him rather than because he needed the release?
But had I helped the other ones die? Vera and Leanne? How could I? No-one can kill by dreaming it.
I rang the nursing home the day after, just casual. How was everyone? How was Larnie, who’d mentioned that he was feeling unwell? Fine, they said, ‘a bit crankier than usual this morning.’
And then I said they would not be seeing me for a bit, as I was going on holidays.
And I did. I ran away. I didn’t know how I could possibly be responsible for people dying, and yet, I was pretty sure I’d somehow managed it.
I packed the car, made sure I had plenty of money, and ran away. I stayed away for six weeks, a road trip through three states. It was great, too. Or would have been if I’d been able to forget the old ones who depended on my help. Nobody else ever seemed to have the time to do what I did for them.
I was given a great welcome when I returned. I felt as if I’d let them down, but not a one said anything, not even Sophy, whose Stephen Hawking book was just two pages further advanced than when I’d left. Esme, with her lighter taste in books, was more fortunate. Another volunteer had finished ‘Infidel’s Revenge’ for her, and she had a new one started, ‘The Pirate Captain,’ another of what I privately referred to as ‘trashy romances.’
I was wondering about Larnie, and when I didn’t see him at lunch, I asked the staff about him. ‘A change of medication,’ I was told. ‘And now he’s a lot quieter.’
“But he was no real problem before that?”
“It was after you left,” Briony said. “Always shouting, sometimes hitting out. We don’t know what upset him, but something did,” and Rami said, “He hit me once,” and Briony added, “Bev, as well. None of the residents, thank God.”
“I might go see him, I think.”
They looked dubious, and one said that it might be best if I spoke to Sue first. Susan Dreyfus was the head nurse, one of the few fully qualified nurses on staff.
When I saw Sue, she was at her desk, piles of paperwork in front of her. “Graham Larnoch,” she said when I asked. “He has his meals in his room now. I was sorry to have to do it, but we couldn’t allow him to continue upsetting everyone.”
“Something upset him, Rami said?”
“We don’t know what. It was over a month ago now, and for a time, he was impossible. But I spoke to Dr. Hardwicke and his medication has been changed. All the same, he still yells at staff, and of course, that upsets the other residents as well as staff.”
“He told me he was in a lot of pain.”
“Medication is up to the doctor, as you know. We have little discretion.”
“So may I see him?”
“Of course. Just be careful.”
“I’ll be careful,” and remembered again that his first wife had felt his fists. He was still a big man, could undoubtedly still hurt.
When I knocked and entered his room, I stopped and just looked, struck with pity. His head was leaning back in his chair, and he looked so tired, as if all his spirit was gone. He didn’t even have his TV on, or his radio. He looked in my direction, but as if he didn’t see me. There were times when the minds of the old ones started to deteriorate, sometimes with little warning. But I didn’t think it was that, not so quickly.
I sat beside him and said quietly, “Hello, Graham. It’s Shirley.”
“Shirl,” he said, not rudely.
“You’ve been out of sorts, they said.”
“Something like that. Hardwicke put me on new pills. They’re no good. They don’t stop the pain, just make me sleep a lot.”
“Are you taking them?”
“Got to. They threatened me with ‘Loony Lodge.’ I might not be very free here, but ‘Loony Lodge’ would be worse.”
That was ‘Lindfield Lodge,’ where the Alzheimer’s patients went, the ones that Sue sadly referred to as ‘the lost souls.’ It was quite nice in its way, the best they could do. But I was only ever there when one of those I knew well went downhill. It happened. Sometimes it was as if they died only that the body didn’t know that it was dead. I never knew whether it was more or less sad than the ones who suffered chronic pain.
I just sat in silence a while, and he leaned back his head again and closed his eyes. He wore one of his old grey jumpers, currently food-stained. No-one had yet arrived to take away the meal he’d finished. It didn’t look to me as if he’d eaten much.
I said quietly, “Graham, did something happen to you just before I went away? Maybe something in the night?”
He started and looked at me suspiciously, but then, unexpectedly, his eyes filled with tears. I’d never seen him look so defenceless. Maybe the sedatives were making him weaker, undermining his control.
He hadn’t answered, so I pressed on, “Was there a dream, maybe?”
He nodded, and his voice quavered as he said, “She came to me, and I thought it was over. It felt so good, as if for the first time in my life, I was loved. And then it – she – was gone.”
“Who was ‘she,’ Graham?”
“I thought it was a mother, like a loving mother. My real mum wasn’t much, but this one… Maybe it was the Mother Mary,” and he grinned at me with a sudden resumption of humour. “There was even a hint of Shirley Bridgewater.”
I ignored the reference to my own name, and said, “A mother. Was she offering death, Graham?”
“She was offering an end to it. But then she went away.”
“I think she was offering death.”
“Mother Death, then. A death mother. And it was all right. I would’ve done away with myself long ago if I could’ve, and she was going to do it for me, but nicely.”
“Do you think she would have gone away if you didn’t want it?”
“She came because I wanted it. I knew that somehow. I don’t know why it didn’t happen.”
I stood and picked up the tray with the depressing remains of his meal, and said, “I could get you a beer, if you want.”
He hesitated, and then nodded. I suspected he was not supposed to have beer with his medication, but what did it matter? Poor Larnie was too sad. I sat with him for an hour, while he had three beers and I had two. We talked a little, no more about the ‘death mother,’ a bit about his real mother. He didn’t have much of a childhood, Graham Larnoch – not that it excused his later behaviour with his wife. I don’t care how ‘disadvantaged’ a person may be, they still have a choice how they live their lives.
But all of that was a long time ago, and now he was just a sad old man, in pain, and with nothing to live for.
I fully expected to dream about him that night, but it was not until Thursday night that the dream came. I knew it was Graham, but it was not the big man who lay, somehow weightless in my arms, but a young boy, maybe seven, and with an innocent gaze on a mischievous face – Graham as he had been long ago. A name came to me, Gae Gae. Someone had called him that name once. He’d never mentioned siblings, but I felt as if it might have been a little sister who called him that, a little sister who’d idolised him.
In my dream, the innocent boy transformed to the old man with the tired face, and he asked me, Now? This time, I did not withdraw as I had last time. I gave him what he wanted, what he needed. And then I carefully put the little boy/old man back in his bed and gently drew the covers to his neck. His eyes were closed. He looked utterly peaceful. He no longer breathed.
I woke, I think, not long later. This time, I was not worried, I did not try and tell myself it was only a coincidence and that I could not possibly have anything to do with the death, that it was quite impossible. I knew I’d done the right thing, what needed to be done because no-one else would do it, and the medical profession, at least as represented by Dr. Hardwicke, had too little compassion.
Maybe it was not me, exactly, but that I was like a conduit for a god, or maybe ‘Death’ as in the black cowled skull figure? But if that was so, they were pretty feeble to need any sort of conduit or help. It was me. Somehow, I could bring death to a person who needed it, in my dreams. I didn’t know how, but it was me. I didn’t even need confirmation, though I had it quite soon. It was Friday, my day to do lunch and the afternoon at ‘Shades.’ The receptionist told me as I signed in – two deaths overnight, Graham Larnoch and Sylvia Pratchett, one of the ‘lost souls’ of Lindfield Lodge.
Three days later, there was the usual memorial service at the home, though I don’t know how many would have been in attendance if Sylvia Pratchett had not also died. Sylvia had been a vivacious personality once, and well known.
Graham Larnoch had been raised Catholic, it turned out. There was a funeral a week later. It surprised me that there was a big turnout. He’d had a large family, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters – two younger sisters, and a tribe of what I assumed were more distant relatives. There were several old blokes who were probably long time mates, as Clive Woodshot was among them. He waved at me when he saw me, and I smiled and nodded, but stayed where I was, on my own. All these people, so why had it been me who’d done the needed shopping for him?
I didn’t go to the gathering afterwards, though all the others did. They were having a good time, starting to laugh and reminisce even before leaving the cemetery. Clive was enjoying himself, among his mates, some of them probably those he’d once played footy with. I thought it would be a long time before he’d be needing death. Not every old person yearns for death just because the body is worn out.
I wasn’t told for some weeks, but Graham’s death had been treated as suspicious. Questions had been asked, and especially whether anyone, (meaning Shirley, the volunteer) might have given him alcohol. Alcohol plus strong sedation can be lethal. But it was shown that I hadn’t been there that day, and besides, a stash of pills had been discovered tucked under his mattress. He’d given up on the medication that made him sleepy but did nothing for the pain.
I reflected that the sign in/sign out protocol, rigidly enforced, meant that I could not be under suspicion. It was a protection for me. Not that it could be needed. It was impossible that I could kill someone in their sleep, so there was not the slightest risk that I could be in trouble.
Winter came, and with it a series of dull, cold days. Spirits drooped. I no longer shirked what I had come to see as almost my duty. Both of those poor old men, totally helpless in their reclining chairs, died peacefully in the night, the same night. It had been raining for days. I went to their memorial service. I had never spoken to either, only knew their names. I was surprised when most of the residents made the effort to attend. Probably some had known them when they’d been personalities, but also, maybe it was simply respect for the spirits that had been trapped inside those helpless bodies.
But when Evie complained bitterly of the inadequacy of her pain medication, I went to Sue Dreyfus, the head nurse. Dr. Hardwicke was not doing his job, or not well enough. Just because the nursing home had used the same doctor for many years, did not mean that the residents should have to continue with him.
Sue agreed, but said that Dr. Hardwicke would be annoyed if they allowed a different doctor to see them.
“But they’re not prisoners,” I said, “Surely they can have whoever they choose.”
“I suppose. If you can persuade Dr. Erdogan to ignore Hardwicke’s wishes, then you’re welcome to ask him.”
There were only two doctors in Conjellaback – Hardwicke, around forty, good-looking, a kindly manner, and, in my opinion, either incompetent or simply uncaring. Erdogan was maybe ten years younger, quite a recent arrival, and becoming more and more popular. He made his patients feel important by testing not just Cholesterol levels but all sorts of other ‘indices’ and then claiming they needed repeated testing every couple of weeks, sometimes every week. He must have been making a fortune. Many of Hardwicke’s patients had transferred to him. Gwen went to him. She said he was wonderful.
For myself, I didn’t go to any doctor if I could help it. I preferred not to have someone try and get me onto the cocktail of drugs that most older people are on. I was past sixty, fair game in the eyes of the medical profession. Legalised drug-pushers, I sometimes thought, except that this time, I needed a drug-pusher. Evie should not be left to suffer and nor should any of the others.
I asked Evie if she’d like Erdogan to attend her, or I could take her to see him. She said it was worth a try, a lot easier if he would visit her at the home, pointing out that I was not supposed to help her move about, and she could barely stand these days.
It was a week before I even managed to set up an appointment with Erdogan, though I’d made it clear that it was not as a patient that I wanted to see him. But then he dismissed me out of hand – it would be ‘unethical’ of him to see any of Hardwicke’s patients. I pointed out that half of his practice was now made up of Hardwicke’s ex-patients, but all that did was have him look at his watch and say impatiently that people had free choice.
“So do these,” I insisted. “They are not prisoners, they are not inmates of a mental institution, the home is not their guardian – all they want is effective pain relief when needed.”
“Try a pain specialist then,” he said as he opened the door for me in a very obvious hint that I should stop bothering him.
I shook my head as I left, but didn’t say what I thought, that the bastard should never have become a member of what was supposed to be a ‘caring’ profession. The thing with making an enemy of a doctor in a small country town is that one day, in an accident for instance, they might be called upon to treat you.
I did a lot of asking around next. I knew people who’d been nurses – Lisa McConnell still was, working in Everson. The nurses all knew which doctors were good, and which not so good. Patients rarely knew. They just hoped and trusted. Sometimes they were lucky and sometimes they were not.
It took six weeks, but I finally found someone. She was a junior partner in a large practice in Ballarat, and she was prepared to make the drive every fortnight, a round trip that would take almost four hours. Even better, she was interested in the treatment of pain, and said that her uncle was a pain specialist in a hospice, and would help her. It was real luck, the first luck I’d had for a while. Her name was Dr. Cookson, Dr. Crystal Cookson, though she said she preferred ‘Chris’ since she didn’t look anything like a delicate ‘crystal.’ Chris was short and broad, heavy in the bosom and plain in the face. Her patients mostly called her ‘Dr. Chris.’
To begin with, it was only Evie who was willing to risk the displeasure of the nursing administration, (Sue) and of Dr. Hardwicke, who was said to be furious, but by the second scheduled fortnightly visit, there were three others asking to see her.
The winter turned into spring. Without the constant severe pain, Evie found herself able to move more independently, and that, of course, made the nurses happier as well as herself. Chris could not work miracles, there could not be any complete cures. There is no cure for old age. But when more of the residents looked so much happier, I thought her a saint.
There were no deaths for months.
But when there was an emergency, it came back to the local doctor – Edwin Hardwicke. It was Evie, who ‘had a turn.’ She told me later that he treated her well enough, though the next time he saw me with a few of the residents, he did say that he wanted to ‘have a word’ with me.
I nodded and suggested the library. “I don’t think there’s anyone there at the moment.”
“The staff room,” he said firmly, “And now.”
I didn’t want to upset the residents any more than he did, and Evie was looking distinctly worried at his tone. I smiled at her and followed him quietly into the staff room, where he turned on me – that I should stop interfering or he’d have me banned.
Now, I’m a perfectly mild-tempered person normally, but this annoyed me. I raised an eyebrow and said coolly, “Have me banned? I think you forget these are free people and perfectly able to think for themselves. And incidentally, I’ll send you something you might find valuable.” And I turned and walked off.
No-one else said anything about having me banned – if they could have done it. After all, the residents were free people, it was their home, and anyone who liked could visit. None of the nurses or carers said a word of criticism to me. Nearly all of them only wanted the best for those in their care, and to see miserable old Sam Atherton, for instance, without his usual air of gloom, was a nice change. He still needed his walking frame, but he was no longer so bent, and was walking a little easier. Dr. Chris Cookson was really helping.
I sent Dr. Hardwicke some information about a pain seminar, particularly with regard to the best drugs that could be used. Chris had told me about it, that there were to be some very worthwhile sessions. ‘None of those who think they can hypnotise someone out of arthritis or any of that new age nonsense,’ she’d said. ‘Just plain old drugs, some of which have fallen from use, but work better than newer things.’ She’d told me before, that the drug companies always promoted whatever was newer and made them more money, whether or not there was any improvement in outcome. This seminar was not one of those put on by any drug company, and there were to be no free giveaways for the attendees. Most doctors invariably have their office littered with items carrying the name of particular drugs or companies, from notepads to key rings. I’d read that some very generous gifts were made to suitably compliant doctors, right up to expensive holidays, but that book had been about America, not Australia. I had no idea how much the drug companies influenced Australian doctors’ choices, though they were bound to be influenced to some extent by the advertisements in the medical journals.
I had sent Hardwicke the information more as a wakeup call, or maybe a rebuke. I was very surprised when I heard that he actually went. It was a reminder – one should not judge. Maybe he would try harder in future. Maybe he had remembered that two of his nursing home patients had been found with a stash of drugs. He would not relish the idea that some of his patients might act to bring about their own deaths.
I waited to see what would happen. There was Gary Kilmore, for instance. His hands were knobbly with arthritis and it was perfectly obvious that he was often in pain. But Sam told me that when he’d suggested he change, he’d been adamant that he didn’t want a lady doctor, and anyway, he was too old to change. So I wondered if Hardwicke would maybe change his medication.
But the weeks went by, and he still hobbled, he still held his coffee mug with clumsy fingers, and he still grimaced with pain. Some of Hardwicke’s other patients seemed to be improving though, and Sue told me that he’d been checking over their medication, taking them off some and adding others. And there were improvements. But it was nearly Christmas and aching bones always did improve in the summer.
I had a lovely Christmas that year. For the first time in years, both my daughters came to stay, along with their husbands and children, Kane looking debonair and confident, and yet treating me with friendly affection, and Deb’s little girls each with their pushbikes, which they cycled around town at great speed and with too little regard for passing pedestrians.
Kane spent a lot of his time on the computer, but also, he made himself companionable and was nice to the girls, both of whom idolised him. I envied him a little – young, male, fit and handsome. I’d been young once, of course, but I’d never been good-looking, and had never had the gift of turning casual acquaintances into close friends, as Kane had. And yet his luck didn’t seem to have made him arrogant or selfish. He was a wonderful young man, and that is not just me being a doting grandmother. I came to know all the young ones better in that week, the sons-in-law as well, Jenny’s Renzo and Debbie’s Chris. I didn’t see nearly enough of my daughters and grandchildren, and I loved seeing them.
To be honest, it wasn’t so bad seeing them leave, also. Seven visitors were a lot of extra work, and the girls were just nine and ten, and while Amanda was quiet, Skye was demanding. At least she no longer squealed at the faintest excuse. I loathe squealing children, and had never tolerated it in my own.
I hadn’t neglected my hours at the home over the Christmas period, though for most of the residents, I was less needed. The staff made a great effort to make the place cheerful, and most of the residents had family visit as well. But there were some who didn’t seem to have anyone. There was a new resident, Mavis Brimshaw, aged ninety-nine. She told me she’d very much wanted to spend her hundredth birthday at home, but falling and breaking her wrist was enough to make her realise she could no longer cope alone.
“In the shower,” she told me. “And I couldn’t seem to get up.” Her wrist was still in plaster, but she was fairly fit otherwise, though too thin. She told me she was loving the food in the home, especially that she didn’t have to make any great effort to prepare it. She wanted to live to a hundred, and that was soon – the third of January, just a day after my own birthday. “And then I want to die. I’ve lived too long, a hundred is good enough for me.”
“You’ll get a telegram from the queen when you get to a hundred,” but she pointed out that no-one had telegrams any more.
“Something then. I’m sure there’s supposed to be something.”
“Well, we’ll soon see,” she said optimistically.
Maybe people do have some control over when they die. She was lively, apparently fit aside from the sore wrist, and yet, the day after the birthday, she lay in her bed and refused to move. It was time to go, she said, and nothing the staff could do would make her admit that life past a hundred was worth waiting around for.
When Mavis came to me in a dream, she looked directly at me and said that it was time. Her eyes were bright, her face cheerful. I saw her more clearly than I’d ever seen anyone. And then she was gone, but this time it was not like I did anything. This time, she just did it herself and only dropped in to say goodbye.
It was a hot January, and there were weeks when the air-conditioning just didn’t seem to cope. Young people are far better than old people at regulating their body temperature. The nursing staff sweated and complained, while the old ones suffered, but they endured. None of them came to me in my dreams, though there was one death, Gerry Cragge. He was only seventy or so, not much older than myself. He had a stroke, sudden and fatal. Surviving a severe stroke must be one of the cruellest things we can suffer. If it ever happened to me… I wondered if I could bring about my own death as I seemed to be able to bring about the deaths of others – though only ones who were ready to die, I added to myself. I did not count myself a killer. A facilitator, maybe.
Toward the end of January, I was walking the corridor when I almost bumped into Dr. Hardwicke, who’d been attending Loretta Spicer. Inside the room, I could hear the low, continuous moan that Loretta had kept up for days. She was dying, a type of cancer that resisted all attempts at pain relief. She hadn’t been transferred to a hospital; there was simply no point.
Hardwicke snapped at me, “I’ve done my best and I can’t help her.”
I nodded. “Sometimes one cannot help.”
He hesitated as if to say something else, but then strode off. He might have become better at treating pain, but it was still against his beliefs to give her enough morphine that she’d slip easily into death as many doctors did, or so I’d heard.
I didn’t know Loretta Spicer at all well. I thought about her that evening, not waiting to see if the dream would come in the night. If she was suffering that badly, and I knew there was no hope of a cure, then she needed what I could do for her.
I thought, and then I closed my eyes and concentrated until suddenly it was like I was with her. Her eyes were open, though she was quiet. An untouched meal was beside her, and so was her daughter, looking distraught. She held her hand. It was good that she was there. I exerted my will, though I held off – was it possible that I could somehow just make the pain go away? I tried. I sweated, and I tried harder.
It was no good. The only way for Loretta was to die. I held her other hand, and I made that final push. She closed her eyes and her spirit clutched onto mine. She died. Her daughter couldn’t believe it at first, and then she sobbed, part with grief, but mostly with relief.
That was the first time that I did what I did just by thinking about it, rather than waiting to dream about it.
I did it that way from then on, not often, just when it was needed. It was needed three more times that year, four the next. There comes a time for us all, but I never did it a minute before it was time. I was helping, even more than when I ran errands, or pushed a wheelchair into town, or read a book or a letter for them. I was helping.
I had first become familiar with the nursing home when that dreadful thing had happened to Stan. And then he’d finally died, but there were others there who were relying on me by that time, Sophy especially, who was nearly blind and liked books that most potential readers were reluctant to tackle. So I’d continued, though only once a week for a time. Counting the time only from when Stan had died, I’d been volunteering there for twelve years.
And yet, I was stunned when I was awarded an Order of Australia in recognition of my volunteer work. They cited not only the work at ‘Shades,’ but my other charity work, though it didn’t really amount to much in my opinion. I always helped Gwen and her husband, Stuart, with the annual charity auction, for instance, occasionally other things, and a few times, I’d filled in for someone when they couldn’t take their turn at ‘Meals on Wheels.’ Aside from that, there was only the computer club for seniors – some of them needed a lot of help to fathom the internet. My volunteer work was not nearly as much as they seemed to be saying.
I didn’t argue – I was just so thrilled. Except for the odd academic prize long ago at school, I’d never won anything, and those academic prizes had always come with the price of an increased unpopularity. It was why I’d made sure to be a mediocre student through most of highschool. My father would never have funded a girl to university in any case, though they might have tried for my brother if he’d wanted it. It would have been a big expense to pay living expenses for an adult living in the city. In those days, there was no living allowance for students and fees were high. Things have changed a great deal in the past fifty years.
So now I had an Order of Australia. If I chose, I could put ‘OAM’ after my name, though I reddened at the thought. I didn’t mind celebrating though, and I was loving the attention I was getting. The town was thrilled that one of their own had been so honoured, and there was a big party. A few of my family were there as well, even though Deb promised me a separate family celebration, and every single one would be there, she said. I had never felt so good, so honoured, so worthwhile. The honour was awarded on Australia Day, 26th January.
The elation of that award lasted for weeks. I was just an ordinary old girl of sixty-eight, no-one special, and yet I felt so very special for that time. I wished my parents could have known, but they were long gone, and so was my brother, killed, not in Vietnam, but at Puckapunyal while still in training. A car accident. He would have taken over the farm if it hadn’t been for that stupid, unnecessary war. But that was long ago, and aside from a few distant cousins I scarcely knew, my only family were my daughters, their husbands and their children, my three grandchildren.
At the end of February, Pat Atkinson – ‘Darling Pat’ – had a second stroke, a catastrophic stroke. It was ‘catastrophic’ not because she died, but because she didn’t die. She was like Stan had been, unresponsive. No-one knew how much she could hear, see, know. So a week after it happened, I held her hand, closed my eyes, found her, and released her. It was the first time I’d done anything while with the person. Always before, I’d been well away when it happened.
I went to Pat’s funeral. I’d known her for so many years. Most of the town was there. ‘Darling Pat’ had been very well known, even more so after the stroke had left her with just ‘darling’ as her speech. I wondered if she would have been so popular if her only word had been ‘bitch’ or something like that. Brain damage can do some very odd things.
I don’t think there was any investigation into Pat’s death at the time – probably Ed Hardwicke was just as relieved as her family was, and as Pat had been when I’d come.
But there was an investigation a few weeks later, when another resident died, another of the Lodge residents. It was not one that I’d helped die. I didn’t know about it at the time, but there was a suspect, one of the carer staff, only just qualified, a good-looking young man called Madhu Singh, mostly called ‘Maddy.’ He’d been on duty when the man had died, apparently without cause, and he’d been on duty when two others had died, apparently without cause. I’d had nothing to do with any of them, and I wondered if maybe I was not the only one intervening to relieve suffering.
It was June before I heard what had happened, that someone had raised the alarm when the medication count showed anomalies, in particular, that there was insulin missing. People can be quickly and simply killed with an overdose of insulin. But that was only what was being said. My informant didn’t know much, only that Maddy Singh had been suspended from his job, that there had been an investigation, but no charges were laid. Maddy did not return to work at ‘Shades,’ and they thought he’d returned to India.
Two more casual staff were taken on. Maddy had been a particularly good worker. He was missed. None of the residents mentioned the affair, and I suspected that none of them had been told.
Shortly after, Rameez Jassal, Ramy, told me he was leaving as well. ‘If they can accuse Maddy without evidence, they can accuse me.’ And he, too, returned to India. There was always a high turnover of the younger staff. The ones who stayed long-term were the middle-aged ones mostly, the ones who’d grown up in the district, though even they mostly wore out in the end and looked for less depressing work. It did something to a person when they saw, again and again, the inevitable decline, pain, helplessness and finally death. I think I would have worn out myself except for that feeling of worth that came with helping them to die when they so desperately needed it. I wondered sometimes – was it a flaw in myself? Was it that I liked having the power of life and death? And yet, I didn’t think so. I still so clearly remembered the dreams that came when it was time, the love and the compassion that I felt for the ones who suffered. I did what I did out of compassion, not any sort of liking for power.
It was Gwen’s seventieth birthday, organised by her daughter and supposed to be a surprise party, though I was sure that Gwen had a very good idea. She happened to be wearing a new dress, far more expensive than was her usual habit. It had been a jolly party. ‘Jolly’ – such an old-fashioned word, and yet it was the one that most fully described it. About sixty people, a dozen or so of her family, the rest of us, friends and acquaintances, as many as her daughter could muster. Several from her church, all seven of the walking group we were both in, the ones on her bowls team – Gwen was quite a decent bowler and played competition, though I’d been able to beat her once.
Laughter, stories of achievements, boasts of grandchildren (of course) and then later, there was a group of us in comfortable chairs, six of us much the same age, all of us long-time locals. The talk turned to reminiscences of school days – gym tunics, the bright yellow ‘bloomers’ we had to wear underneath. The insistence that the senior girls had to wear thin stockings with their winter uniform, definitely not warm socks, without the slightest realisation that many of us took the bus to school – cold, cold mornings and no heating on the buses. For myself, it was an hour each way. I can still remember the sting of chilblains on my feet, though I’d never had them before. And then there were the stupid looking hats we wore in imitation of posh private schools. There was not much that was posh about Conjee High.
“That was Miss Carpenter,” Maisie said. “She was the one who first came up with those horrible hats, and she was the one who’d get onto you if you didn’t wear the thing.”
“She married Mr. Guthrie, didn’t she?”
“And then they both left. Not many stayed long.”
“Well, so many were brand new, fresh out of Teachers’ College. They would never have chosen Conjee; they were just sent.”
“I think they get a choice these days.”
“Some of them were not very good,” I said. “I remember the Physics teacher, Mr. Bawden. He taught Calc as well, but I don’t think he ever understood either of those subjects, just struggled from books, the same as we had to.”
“You still passed, though.”
“I put a lot of effort into that final year.” But I shrugged, “Not that it did me much good.” I’d had ideas of a career in the sciences for a time, but in the end, wound up doing the books for various businesses around town, even though I’d had to teach myself how to do it.
“You did all right,” Gwen said. “The only job I ever had was working at the grocers’. And then, of course, I married Stuart and started having babies.”
Maisie said, “I’m sorry for the young mothers now. They just have to keep working, it seems, pregnant or not, and even when their children are little.”
“They would say it’s what they want. They’re sorry for us, the generation who were still expected to be housewives and nothing else.”
“I took part in Women’s Lib marches a few times,” I said. “That was when I lived in Melbourne. But none of us thought that the right to work would result in all those young mums struggling to be super-mum. It was supposed to be a choice.”
There was a silence for a moment. Times had changed so much in our lifetimes. But then Gwen said, “Remember Mr. Prescott? He was brilliant, and he’s still around.”
Mr. Prescott. Peter Prescott. He’d taught Chemistry and Maths when I was at school, and then later, he’d become deputy headmaster. I’d been interested in him – only when I’d left school, of course. It was after I’d spent those years in Melbourne and had returned. We’d even gone out a few times, but then he’d married someone else, someone with looks and charm, far more than I’d ever had. I never liked his wife, not that I saw much of her. She was of the squatter class, and like many of those, she looked down on the rest of us. I don’t know how she found Peter.
“He’s got Alzheimer’s,” Maisie said.
“Peter,” I said, surprised and shocked.
“I’d forgotten; you knew him well.”
“Not very well, only for a short time,” I said. “But Peter!”
“Mmm. It’s sad,” and another said, “We’re all getting old,” and Gwen said, “We put our faith in the Lord.” It was the sort of uncomfortable thing she said every now and then. Only Sandra agreed with her, the rest of us ignored it as we usually did.
The talk went on to other things, but I found it difficult to pay attention. Peter Prescott. I’d thought it was like our minds meshed, that he was the one for me. Almost the only one I’d ever met who was like that. Even my own dearest Stan had not been like that. Oh, we rubbed along pretty well, Stan and I, and the sex had been a joy, and then the girls. I only ever admitted to myself sometimes, that his mind had not matched my own in quickness. It would have seemed disloyal to wonder what my life might have been with Peter. Not that it was ever going to be. Like most men, he valued looks more than brains. And now his brain was going. It was so sad to see those I knew decline into confusion.
I heard more of Peter Prescott not long later – that he was becoming increasingly difficult to manage and was to come to Shades as soon as there was a vacancy – in other words, as soon as someone died. I wished he would not come to Shades, though with Alzheimer’s, he could be moved straight into the Lodge. I could perfectly easily avoid seeing him if he went there.
It always so hurt to see the decline. And it made them sad, sometimes very angry. They always knew what was happening – the times when they couldn’t remember whether it was breakfast or dinner, when common words were suddenly not there, when a name refused to come to them – they knew what was happening. Sudden aggression over nothing – that was men more often than women. The women tended to find themselves in tears and unable to say why. That was in my experience anyway. I don’t know whether the ‘experts’ would say the same or not. Often the so-called experts have no more idea than anyone else, they just pretend they do.
Dementia presented in a dozen ways, and there was no cure. Well, occasionally there was – there had been a very simple cure for old Annie. Her confusion showed only in the late afternoons and evenings, and Sue picked up on the clues – that she’d simply been becoming dehydrated. Sue told me that it took a lot of coaxing to get it out of her – the residents were reluctant to make any criticism of those who had power over them. But in the end, Annie told her. It was because one of the male staff had snapped at her when she needed to go to the toilet for the fifth time in the night. So she’d stopped drinking anything after lunch in the hope of reducing needed toilet trips at night. So Kenny was ‘counselled’ and Annie was coaxing into drinking more water. A cure, and no need to transfer her to the Lodge.
But dementia, real dementia, is only progressive. There is no cure. I didn’t want to see Peter like that.
The Lodge was full, and there were two more in the home who needed to be transferred there. The ‘lost souls’ can hurt themselves and others when they roam, by slipping out of the home and getting lost, for instance, or by scaring old ladies by wandering into their rooms at night. The exit door had a number to press to make it open, but it was not foolproof. It was not designed to keep the residents in a prison, just the ones without the ability to remember a six digit number, the ones who needed supervision.
I did not do my duty in those weeks of waiting. Janice Burr. She was in pain, the drugs were not working, there was no cure, no hope of improvement. When I asked Ed, (Dr. Hardwicke,) he said that he was consulting with Dr. Cookson, and that they were doing all that they could.
“So you can’t do anything?”
“The drugs are just not good enough, Crystal says.”
That was a surprise – he’d called her ‘Crystal.’ Ed was recently divorced, they were much the same age, and yet somehow I couldn’t see them together. Doctors mostly look for prettier wives than Chris Cookson.
But poor old Janice. She needed to die. I knew it, and when I went to see her, she looked at me with pleading eyes and frankly asked if I could help. “It’s too much,” she said. “Not fair. I want to go.”
I don’t know why she should single me out as the one who could help, but it was not the first time. One of the old blokes in the Lodge, one time. He hadn’t said a sensible word in years, just ‘bloody old bastard’ now and then, usually looking at something only he could see. But he’d looked at me and said, ‘It’s time, Mother. It’s time for me to go now.’ I was only there because someone had asked me to take a message to one of the staff, and yet he’d happened to see me and had called out. And so I’d held his hand and did it for him, but only after I was home, and the holding his hand bit was only in my mind and maybe his. I was prudent. I was nearly always prudent. I hadn’t been prudent when I’d given Pat her release, but she’d been crying out to me, desperate, even when nothing at all could be seen on the surface. There is a depth of consciousness below what can usually be seen, I know. I see it.
And now, there was Janice. When Janice died, Peter would take her place. I didn’t think I could bear to see Peter go like Davo or Sylvia or Janet, whom the nurses hated because she hit out at them. Poor Janet was angry all the time.
Janice Burr suffered for several more days before the dream came in spite of myself, and she died. It seemed that I was not in full control of this odd power I had, though I’d begun to think I was.
And so Peter Prescott came to Shades, looking gaunt, his face lined, escorted by his wife, impeccably made up, beautifully dressed, and displaying a loving concern and regret that she had to do this – put her husband in a home. Maybe it was only my dislike that saw her attitude as false, and I told myself that any wife would be relieved as well as sad in the same situation.
I hadn’t meant to be there when he arrived. I intended to keep well away from him if I could. He didn’t see me that first day, and I tried not to look at him – the brilliant man I’d known reduced to this pathetic, shambling figure. He was strong enough, they said, just that the confused ones always seemed to shamble, as if they had lost the capacity to walk with decision.
The staff and other volunteers spoke of him, of course, over the next weeks. That he wasn’t really too bad, was easy to manage, though he never could remember any names, and when one of the Lodge residents died, it was another one who was shifted there, not Peter. Maria Daley had started entering other residents’ rooms and taking what she chose, whether or not the room was occupied at the time. So Maria was moved to the Lodge, where there was closer supervision, and in any case, most of them wouldn’t know if anyone was stealing from them or not.
For three weeks, I kept away from him as much as I could, while he stared around vaguely and did as he was told, seemed to enjoy it when there was entertainment, but could not be relied on to stay put when there was the weekly ‘choir.’ I couldn’t blame him. The thin, wavering voices were pretty awful, though the lady who so kindly came in to play the piano was invariably cheerful and enthusiastic. He hardly ever spoke, either to staff or to other residents, though he didn’t show contempt for them, either. Sometimes, a new resident would look around with a face of horror that he was now one of them.
A Sunday lunch-time. I nearly always had lunch at the Home on a Sunday. I came in a little late, but was promptly called to a table to make a fourth. I don’t really think it was for the pleasure of my company that I was in demand at meal times, rather that I was useful, available for errands such as mopping up if a drink was spilled, getting another drink, getting coffee – things that they could do themselves, and usually did, just slowly and painfully. Sophy, Evie and Esme, three who’d been around for years, three of those I knew very well. I thought that Evie might be wanting me soon, not for picking up the fork she’d just dropped, but that she was becoming more feeble daily. One day, quite soon, she would know that life was no longer worth living, and then I would give her what she needed. Not before it was time, of course. I never did it a moment before time.
I glanced around, noticing a table set in the small room off to the side. Quite often, family would join their ‘loved one’ for a meal, but not many liked to eat in the dining room. Table manners became more difficult with feeble old age, and while I’d learned to ignore it when Moira dribbled, or Sophy shuffled things around on her plate, too blind to see what she was eating, or others dropped food from shaking hands, outsiders were apt to wrinkle noses, or, more usually, look away, trying hard not to wrinkle noses. So when family came to share a meal, a table was especially set for them in what they called ‘the alcove.’ They’d gone to some trouble this time, I noticed, pretty fluted glasses with brightly coloured serviettes, a vase with roses from their own gardens, even a little flickering candle, though fake – electrical, not a real flame. It looked inviting, like a table in a restaurant. The food would be the same, just ordinary, never with much flavour – spiced food might upset digestion.
But then Sophy asked what I was looking at, and Evie answered her, that it was for Peter Prescott, with his wife, their daughter and her husband. “I was talking to Cliffy, and he told me.” Cliff Woods was the maintenance man. He was married to the cook, and he liked to gossip. Other staff mostly remembered that some things were supposed to be confidential, but Cliff never bothered with that – a small town man all his life, it was only natural for him that everyone knew everyone else’s business.
I said, “I heard they had a daughter.”
“There was a son as well, but he died young, I forget what it was.”
“They still live on Mulalai?” Mulalai was the property owned by the Calder family from the time the district was first settled, nearly 400,000 acres originally, though a lot less now, as some had been sold off, and some had been ‘resumed’ by the government for soldier settlement blocks. Cynthia Calder was the one who’d married Peter, and from then on, had called herself Calder-Prescott.
Evie answered, “Still on Mulalai, just the wife, not the daughter. They live in Melbourne.”
“And now Peter’s come here.”
“You sound sad about it?” said Sophy, and I admitted that I used to be keen on him at one time.
“So he can’t be very old, then?”
“I’m sixty-eight. He must be in his seventies, I guess, not that old.”
“For some of us, it comes early, old age.” Sophy’s sight had begun to fade many years before. She’d been a resident over twenty years.
I agreed with her. ‘Old age’ is not only a number, it’s a condition. I was sixty-eight. I often had pain – pain in the back, shooting pains in wrists and fingers. When I’d been sitting for a while, it took a few minutes for the stiffness to subside so that I could walk without pain. It was so standard for someone of my age that I’d never bothered complaining. I’d never gone to a doctor about it – there is no cure for arthritis, and no effective treatment. In any case, it was not that bad, and I preferred to keep clear of doctors. I’ve even wondered if prescribed drugs are responsible for some of the cases of declining eyesight and declining clarity of thinking. Blood thinners? Are they really such a good idea? What if long-term use led to leaking blood vessels which contributed to other problems? It was possible, though that was only my personal theory, and I’d never done any research into the matter – just my general suspicion of drugs, really.
My musing was interrupted when a voice called loudly, “Shirley! Is that you?”
I hadn’t even noticed, but Peter had come in along with his snobbish wife, a younger man who wore a look of casual command, and the daughter who appeared the image of her mother. I wondered if, when she married, she’d added his name to ‘Calder-Prescott’ to make it a triple-barrelled name. But I quickly collected my wits and went to greet them, noticing, without much caring, that both mother and daughter were looking at me with identical poison in their gaze. The man looked politely indifferent, and when Peter happily introduced us, he shook my hand, politely indifferent, while Cynthia, the wife, said coolly, “Oh yes. Of course I know Shirley.”
It was awkward to know what to do. It seemed that Peter was longing to talk to me, as if he’d totally forgotten that he was supposed to be confused, even forgotten that he was married to someone else. But then his wife put a hand on his arm and firmly steered him to the table set for them, and said that of course, he would talk to whoever he wanted, but later, not now.
So he gave me one last look, and obediently followed his family, leaving me in a turmoil. They’d said he never remembered names of the staff here, and in the many years since that short-lived romance, he’d only been polite on the rare occasions we’d happened to bump into each other. There had never been this sort of exuberant greeting. I guess it was as I’d said, that dementia can take odd forms.
He wanted me, wanted to talk to me. So I stopped avoiding him, and we had some good chats about old times, and we discussed the issues of the day, the far too high rates of immigration, the problems that schools faced, whether the climate was really changing, and so on. Mostly, when we talked, it was like he was fine. Only occasionally did he get something wrong, when, for instance, he referred to the Country Party, though they’d changed their name to the Nationals twenty or so years before, or referred to John Howard as Prime Minister, though he was long retired.
It was different with the other staff. He never called them by name, and he never talked much. He never gave them any trouble, either. He never spoke of ‘Loony Lodge,’ but I think he might have known about it, all the same. And feared it – not the place so much, but the loss of personhood that would condemn him as a ‘loony.’ The staff never, ever used the word ‘loony,’ only the residents did that, and then only occasionally. Graham Larnoch had spoken of it, that even when his body was crook, at least he still had his mind, ‘not like the poor damn loonies,’ he’d said.
It was not difficult to avoid Peter’s wife. She quite quickly stopped visiting more than a routine hour once a week, and the daughter lived too far away to be a regular visitor. One day, Sue passed on the wife’s order that I not be allowed to see him, but when I raised an eyebrow, Sue said that he was a free man, and all that she’d agreed was that she’d pass on the request. So I ignored the wishes of Cynthia Calder-Prescott, and continued to drop in and see him on those three days every week when I visited the home. There was never anything romantic, but I was the only one who could make him smile. He hadn’t been anywhere since that day I’d seen him arrive. I wasn’t planning on abandoning him to the sadness of the inevitable decline.
Conjee was lucky to have a place purpose-built to care for those with Dementia. But no matter what money had been spent, it was still a sad place. I knew hardly any of those who lived in the Lodge, though I wouldn’t say they lived – existed rather. They wandered the corridors, carefully designed to lead them in circles, never to freedom. There were paths outside, and they wandered there as well, though only when there was sufficient staff that they could be supervised. The paths in the garden, like the corridors inside, led in circles. There was a bus stop next to a wide path that looked like a road. At each end of the curving ‘road,’ out of sight of the bus stop, there were tall fences. One of the Lodge residents, I heard, spent hours just sitting, waiting for the bus that might take her away, the bus that never came. I heard one of the staff, Ken Brewster, laughing about it once. Alice Harman, her name was. To me, it was not funny. The Lodge was a prison. I so hated to think of Peter there.
But because I avoided that tragic place, I was not available when I was needed. There was one who needed me. I don’t know how she knew, or how she found me, but she came to me in a dream. She introduced herself, Janet Oakley. She was the one who hit the nurses, the one who was always angry. She showed herself to me, and she asked. It was enough, she said. She was so tired. And I could feel her wounded mind. She had not always been this angry person, who could not stop herself from hitting. She hated. She hated life, and the hatred spilled over to anyone who came near.
I did what she asked. Janet found peace, and no more nurses would appear with bruises that were the result of her bruised mind as much as they were a result of her fists. Janet Oakley had been a large and powerful woman. She was still big when she quietly died in the night.
They rang me in the morning with the news that Peter Prescott had died. ‘He was found not long after you left today,’ though there was no accusation in Sue’s voice when she told me. She didn’t mention that Janet was also gone. I’m not sure if I’d ever met her except in a dream.
Peter was gone. It was a sadness and it was also a relief. I would never have to see him as a prisoner, or at least, as no more of a prisoner than he was in the main part of Shades.
They combined the memorial services at the home – Peter Prescott and Janet Oakley. I cried a little at the small event – both for Peter and for Janet, who had suffered for so long. I doubt if any of the nurses were sad at Janet’s passing, and they could hardly be blamed. But maybe I was wrong. Sue spoke of her, that strokes affected people in different ways, and that she was as sad for angry Janet as she had been for harmless ‘Darling Pat.’
She also said that she was surprised that Peter had died. There had just been no reason.
I signed myself out as usual when I left that day, and noticed that there was no-one at the desk where the visitors’ book lay. That had been happening more and more these past few years – they’d become more casual, probably because of the chronic shortage of staff.
I didn’t go to Peter’s funeral, which was invitation only. No-one I knew went, though hundreds of locals must have known him as a teacher. It should have been a big event.
It was ten days later, the beginning of June. I’d been playing Bingo with a group of friends. I seldom paid much attention to my card, but this time I did, and the unexpected result was a win. The prize was a set of rather nice glasses. I already owned far more glasses than I would ever use, and yet I was very pleased indeed. There had been so few wins in my life, and Peter’s brief stay at Shades and then his death had left me depressed.
So I was in a laughing group as we left the Senior Citizens’ Club, happy. It was an enormous shock when two policemen interrupted us, and one said, “Shirley Bridgewater?”
I looked at him, startled at the grim tone. “Tim? What’s up?”
Tim Barraclough looked uncomfortable and it was the other one who said that I was under arrest for the murder of Peter Prescott.
I don’t like to think of the next weeks. I kept my wits enough to deny having anything to do with the death of Peter, but then they started questioning me about others – Pat Atkinson, Graham Larnoch, Lucy Bishop, Zane Cowan, Janice Burr, David Duval, others. Some I didn’t know, some I knew, but had not brought about their deaths, and there were some for whom I had. I denied them all.
They kept up the questioning for hours, not Tim, whom I’d known since he was small, but others I didn’t know – I think they were from the city. Mass murder. Serial killer. Me! Shirley Bridgewater. I couldn’t believe they could think this of me. I helped those old people. I only ever helped. I admitted nothing. It was impossible to bring about a death by only thinking it or dreaming it. They could have no evidence, no proof.
I denied everything. It was a piece of advice I’d heard years before, maybe from a comedy or something. Even a song? ‘Didn’ do it.’ Wherever it came from, it was the only clear thought I hung onto – deny everything. So I did. On and on through hours of questioning, day after day. There was just one instance when I’d actually been present at the death, and I cursed myself for that now. Pat Atkinson, and I’d held her hand. They hammered at me for hours about Pat. Had I injected her with insulin? Maybe just a syringe full of air? That could cause a fatal embolism, I knew. Twice, a used syringe had been found at the home. What did I know about that? Insulin had gone missing, they said. Peter Prescott. ‘What was your relationship with him?’ ‘You couldn’t bear to see him in the Lodge, you said so. So how did you kill him?’ ‘There was a witness who saw you leaving his room, and when she checked on him, he was dead.’
It appeared that it was the sudden death of Peter Prescott that had started the investigation, and then they’d started looking at other deaths, ones that had previously been investigated, others that had been accepted at the time. There were those that had been attributed to Madhu Singh, and some from years before, especially when someone had been suffering from pain. ‘Dr. Hardwicke said that you were always very concerned for those in pain.’ ‘David Duval. He was seen to call out for you.’
There was one day that a newspaper was slapped down in front of me, ‘OAM recipient charged with murder,’ and a photograph of me beaming all over my face as I was presented with that award. An OAM, Order of Australia, presented for outstanding community service. It actually helped, a little. I had been of service and that had been recognised. Just because they were too blind to see that giving an old person release was not necessarily murder did not mean that I had done the wrong thing. I didn’t say that. I simply denied any wrongdoing, day after day until they gave up hoping for an admission.
In the end, I was charged with five counts of murder, with several more ‘pending.’ Bail was refused. My family had rallied behind me, a defence organised by Renzo Pelaez, Jenny’s husband. He was confident and knowledgeable, totally supportive. I don’t know what he privately thought about my guilt or innocence.
But I was a mess. In prison, along with the sort of people I’d never known before. I was just a country lady. I had led a quiet life, a protected life. The prison officers were efficient, impersonal, but they had to do their job. It was when I was admitted to the prison that was to be my long term home that I totally went to pieces. It was the ‘cavity search.’ Do you know how impossibly degrading that is? No-one had even seen me nude since Stan, not until I was arrested. ‘Bend over, spread your cheeks.’ I started to cry and couldn’t stop. The crying turned to hysteria and then to silence as I pulled myself away from this awful world. I couldn’t cope. I was not equipped to cope. I had never even had to put up with voices raised in anger. Swearing offended me, and the sort of crudities tossed around by other prisoners, sometimes even the staff… How people could talk like that…
I did not know how to survive in this environment, so I curled up on my side in the bed, closed my eyes and refused to acknowledge the world. I’d always thought of myself as reasonably strong, or at least as strong as most. But when put to the test, I failed absolutely. I could not cope.
I scarcely remember those four weeks spent in the hospital section of the prison. The Baldoon Correctional Centre – that was its name, Baldoon. It was in one of the outer suburbs of Melbourne. The charges against me were deemed serious, so even though I was no risk to anyone, I was put into this high security prison. I was sixty-eight. I was not in a good physical condition, and I’d led a protected life – I had not previously realised how protected. To me, it had been normal, how normal people live a normal life. But everything was changed, and now I was deemed unfit to live amongst normal people.
I guess I must have had enough to eat and drink while I was in that state, but I never remembered the details. I think I kept myself clean – I hope I did. But one morning, I woke and looked at the ceiling. This was no good, and someone needed me. I thought, and it came to me. Evie. Evelyn Goodchild. She’d been in a wheelchair for years, in pain for years. She’d had enough and now she was calling me.
And then it was like I was there, right beside her. And so, from that hospital ward in a prison, I reached for her and gave her what she needed. And that feeling came back – the feeling of an overwhelming love and compassion. It was a good thing I did for these people in need. It was not murder; it was nothing like murder. And I was still useful. Even living in a prison, I could do the work that no-one else could do.
I was myself again, finally. And I remembered now that my daughters had visited, several times, I thought. I didn’t know if I’d even acknowledged their presence. And when I looked, there was a pile of letters on the bedside table, letters from Deb and from Jenny, letters from Deb’s girls, now teenagers. There was an enormous and obviously expensive bouquet of flowers, the note said from Kane. Kane now worked for a big firm based in New York, so probably Jenny had done the organising, though I had a vague feeling that ‘Interflora’ could arrange delivery all over the world. They must have cost the earth; they were lovely. Or they had been. A few were beginning to die.
But that I’d been allowed those flowers soothed me. I was a prisoner accused of mass murder. Maybe the prison staff along with my family just did not believe it. And I’d thought that letters were limited – had they said that? I couldn’t quite remember, but I counted thirty-six letters from family, and then a very thick one from Gwen, my friend from home. I opened a few family ones first, feeling so incredibly thankful that they’d stood beside me. I don’t know if I could have survived if they’d washed their hands of me. And I was causing them so much trouble!
The letter from Gwen. When I opened it, several pages spilled out – Maisie, Sandra, Christine, a dozen others, most of them very short, but all of them wishing me well. Not many actually referred to the accusations against me, but those that did declared they didn’t believe a word of it.
There was nothing from Shades, but that would be because I was forbidden all contact with them. I wondered what Sophy and Clive and all the rest thought about it. Gwen told me – that they spoke of me as someone whom they cared for, and they missed me very much. And she said that she went regularly now, especially in order to read to Sophy. I must have spoken about Sophy more than I’d realised because she knew that no-one else ever wanted to read the books she wanted. And I wondered with a smile, how she would go stumbling over some of the words. Gwen was not clever. I guessed she was something else – good. It would be a chore for her, I knew. And organising all the others to put in their notes – maybe someone had told her that prisoners were not permitted as much mail as they wanted and hoped her thick envelope would count for one rather than many.
A nurse bustled in and when she saw me smiling and with letters piled up everywhere, she said, “Now, that’s more like it!”
I humbly apologised for being such a nuisance, but she shrugged and said that some people adjusted more quickly than others.
I guessed I’d just have to try and adjust. It was that or somehow make myself die, and I wasn’t ready for that.
The following day, I was shown to the cell that would be mine for the indeterminate future. To my relief, the cells were not shared. I was afraid of these tough women who surrounded me. There was one appointed who was supposed to look after me the first few days until I found my feet. Her name was Joy, I guessed her to be around fifty, a worn face and blonde hair, awkwardly curled. Unfortunately, her personal hygiene was lacking and she caught an expression of distaste on my face. So she swore at me, turned her back and thereafter ignored me. I managed. I was a mouse in those days, just thankful they left me alone. I had to adjust.
Baldoon. It was quite new, around three hundred men, but only space for forty women. Not many women were thought dangerous enough to require such a secure prison. There were two adjacent blocks of women’s cells, W1 and W2. Each included a large sitting area, tables and chairs, coffee-making facilities, a TV – behind a wire mesh, presumably to make sure that no-one was stupid enough to break it. For a large part of each day, we were free within these bounds.
There was a door between W1 and W2, clear, and with clear walls on each side. They were almost all like that inside, either unbreakable toughened glass or maybe Perspex, something like that. Outside, the gates were see-through in a see-through fence – high and with barbed wire on top. There were no places where an inmate could wait in concealment in order to ambush anyone coming through. There were barriers everywhere, and only the guards could open the doors. Just on the short walk between W2, where I was, to the cafeteria, there were thirteen barriers where only the guards could unlock doors. Outside, the high guard points made me shiver. They seemed so ominous. There were cameras in the corridors, a few in other areas.
The men were quite separate, though we could hear them sometimes, especially when there were fights. Occasionally we would hear the Muslim call to prayer, but then it would be abruptly cut off – either by the other prisoners or the guards, I didn’t know which.
There were set times for exercise, and quite a big yard for the purpose. I tried to walk in order to keep my legs working. Too much sitting is bad for an older lady with arthritis. There were ball games, but even if anyone had suggested I join in, it would have been beyond me.
The food was poor. I was already thin after my stay in the hospital, but even if the food had tasted better, I would not have liked it. It had been prepared by prisoners. I didn’t trust their food hygiene. I’m not at all sure I would have trusted the staff, either. So many of them appeared as rough as the prisoners.
There was insufficient privacy in the showers; that was yet another hurdle for me. The toilet in the cell, even more so. It was not even behind a barrier. It meant you were in full view if someone happened to look in through that hateful spy-hole in the door. There was another thing. I liked to keep my surroundings nice, but how do you make a cell look reasonable when that toilet bowl was so blatant? At least it was clean. From signs of recent work on the floor, I thought it might have been quite recently replaced, and I wondered why it might have needed replacement. A toilet bowl is not easily damaged.
There were work details, though not compulsory for an inmate over the age of sixty-five. I didn’t know that to begin with, and when someone said something about how I was too old and they weren’t allowed to make me work, I thought it best not to say anything. I was assigned to the laundry, where I shook out and folded an endless supply of sheets and sorted an endless supply of clothing – the standard pale orange tracksuits, the standard cheap white underwear. It was unfortunate for the bigger bosomed women, I noticed. My friend from home, Maisie, was large. She once told me she spent a fortune on bras because she always looked appalling if she didn’t. After seeing the way that bosoms flopped about on some of those around me, I could fully understand. Some of the women were very big, especially the Pacific Islander women. And they stayed big. It was obvious that most were not as fussy about their food as I was. I’d been a little too rounded in a middle-aged lady kind of way before this, but not any more. And I was lucky enough to have always had a perfectly normal bust-line. I did not look as bad as some others in their shapeless tracksuits and poorly fitting bras.
We had to do the men’s laundry as well. The initial sorting was the worst job, usually done by those who had earned punishment for some misdemeanour or other. Corrie used to loudly announce just how many pairs of ‘shitty daks’ were in the wash when she did the sorting. Badly soiled items would be pre-washed before going in with the general wash, which was better than nothing, I suppose. I still found it a horrible thought, that the things I wore had been washed with things so disgusting that they should have been simply thrown out. Some of the men – and a few of the women – were truly foul creatures.
My family were so good. Jenny lived in Melbourne, so I was seeing more of her than I had in years. Renzo was often with her, and it was he who’d organised the lawyer, not a cheap one either. But I was told I was not to give a thought to what he was costing, that my freedom was more important than anything else. I guess it was, though I didn’t like to think of my nice house being sacrificed to pay for a lawyer. I tried not to think about it. There was enough to think about, just surviving in here. Debbie and Chris lived in Canberra. Debbie was an accountant. It was Debbie who was to look after my finances while I was out of circulation. ‘Out of circulation’ – such a bland phrase.
It turned out that I could send and receive as many letters as I wanted, but the only correspondents I was permitted were those I listed – no more than twenty permitted on the list. Naturally, I listed as many as I could think of, family, friends, acquaintances, up to the limit. If anyone was willing to write to me, I didn’t want the letter sent straight back to them. I didn’t put down any names of Shades residents or staff. I was not permitted contact. That had been made very clear.
I no longer had contact visits with family, though it had been allowed in the hospital ward. But it seemed the rules were different in ‘General.’ They were trying hard to eliminate drugs from the prison, and any ‘contact visit’ was followed by a compulsory full body search. My utter hatred of that humiliation was enough that I opted for non-contact visits. I couldn’t touch, kiss or hug, but they came as often as they were allowed. I could see my visitor behind a glass wall, and we could communicate through handsets. Jenny and Renzo were doing what they could to have me transferred to a different prison, maybe a low security prison. There was a women’s prison, they said, that was supposed to be more like a boarding school than a prison. I would be better there, they said.
Ken Haseldine was the lawyer. At least I could speak to him properly, as they didn’t insist on searching me afterwards when it was him. I guess they thought a lawyer automatically respectable. Mr. Haseldine – he never said I should call him Ken – was invariably impeccable in a dark suit, he spoke with what I thought of as a ‘posh’ accent – I presumed he’d gone to a private school, nothing like Conjee High. He treated me with courtesy, went deeply into the evidence against me, or the lack of evidence, and never actually asked if I’d done anything. I thought it probably didn’t matter to him. He said he was confident that the trial would go well, even if he had not been able to have me granted bail. But when I asked when the trial would be, he gave a date for the following year ‘probably about then if we’re lucky,’ he said. ‘No guarantees. Sometimes these things take several years.’
Several years. It might not be several years, but it appeared I was to be an inmate of Baldoon for a long time, whether or not I was eventually found guilty. So I reminded myself again that I just had to adjust. I had to make a life here, as best I could. It was strange that they would not grant me bail or at the very least, let me go to a low security prison. I was such a harmless woman, no threat to anyone, and there was no point in trying to run away. I wouldn’t know where to go, my passport was long expired, and besides, I would not like to lose contact with my family, my daughters, my grandchildren, even my sons-in-law. I was fond of them, as well, and they appeared fond of me. Renzo, Jenny’s husband – I don’t know what I would have done without him. He was so good.
It took a while, but I came to know the individuals around me. I was still afraid of a lot of them – the big Pacific Islanders, especially. I had never in my life seen physical fighting between women, and only once between men – that had been at a footy match, both of them drunk. I’d taken myself away as quickly as possible, appalled and sickened at the ugliness of it. But now I saw women fight, and it terrified me. They hurt each other so badly, and there was not a thing I could do. Joy had told me the rules that very first day – never, ever call a screw, never, ever tell them anything, and never, ever disobey when Vonnie told me to do something. Vonnie was the boss, though I would not have known if Joy hadn’t told me. It was weeks before I even knew her full name, Yvonne Schutter. She seldom interfered with anyone as far as I could see, didn’t tell anyone what to do – as far as I could see, and yet after a while, I saw the indications. Yvonne Schutter was feared. All I knew for sure was that her family was very wealthy, her husband a ‘racing identity.’ I assumed they were big-time criminals. Yvonne was a tall woman, around fifty, long black hair, a defined face – good-looking in a handsome sort of way rather than a pretty way.
But Yvonne ignored me and I was glad. There was too much here that was ugly, and I suspected that Yvonne might be the ugliest of all. I didn’t think of her as a mere ‘Vonnie.’ Yvonne suited her far better, maybe because I had once known a particularly nasty woman called Yvonne.
It was weeks before I was even approached. Her name was Maria Johnson. As usual, I lined up at the servery, though quickly moving aside when a couple of the tall Sudanese pushed ahead. I never challenged anyone, never stood up for myself. Maybe I would have tried to defend myself if attacked. At the time, I wasn’t sure I’d do even that. I was a mouse. I was ignored.
But someone had seen, and when I took up my place at one end of a long table, she came and sat opposite me. I looked up, and she said, smiling, “You need a friend?”
Foolishly, my eyes filled with tears. Of course I needed a friend. I very much needed a friend. She said, “My name is Maria.”
I tried to smile and nod, “Maria.”
She leaned forward and asked eagerly, “So how many are they saying now?”
“How many?” I said, not quite understanding.
“How many murders?”
I looked down. So it was not friendship offered at all. She was simply curious. So I shoved my stupid emotion back down and said, as calmly as I could, “I am charged with thirteen counts of murder.”
“They said in the paper there were dozens.”
I looked down at the unappealing meal and didn’t answer. I had stopped watching the news on TV, and while I read the newspapers whenever I had the opportunity, I totally avoided any article that mentioned me. I did answer in the end; at least someone was talking to me. I said distantly, “Allegations and hints of over a score, but my lawyer says that there is no evidence. It will probably dwindle to two counts.”
“How did you do it?”
I shrugged and looked away. Some of them I did, some I didn’t, but I was not admitting to any of them, and I certainly wasn’t planning on trying to say that I could kill only by thinking it.
Maria was studying my face, and I abruptly pushed away my plate. I couldn’t eat now. She put a hand out and just touched me gently on the shoulder, “It’s all right, you know. You can tell me.”
I shook my head, unable to speak. I so hated this life, and I wondered again if I could put an end to my own life. How long could I stand to be in this horrible place and with these horrible women? Was Maria horrible? I didn’t know her, didn’t know what she’d done. I had to adjust. I told myself that every day, sometimes, it seemed, every hour. I just had to adjust.
Maria said, “It will be spring soon. Maybe things will look better when the sun shines now and then.”
Maybe they would, and I was grateful to her for staying with me. I even managed to eat a dessert when she went and got it specially and placed it in front of me.
But later, in the exercise yard, I saw her talking to Yvonne, and wondered if she’d been sent to find out what she could from me. I’d worked out that the women who’d committed serious crimes were awarded more respect than the ones who’d committed lesser crimes. Even with over a dozen murders attributed to me, I had no status. I thought they probably simply didn’t believe me guilty, or if they did, did not count it as murder.
And yet that encounter marked a change in the way I was treated. Gradually, I came to know a few people, most of them the quiet ones. Janey, very young, who told me she’d been a drug addict but was okay now. Narine, who said proudly that she was Kurdish. She didn’t say what she’d done, and I would not ask. Janice, who’d been very badly beaten for being a snitch. I hadn’t seen the beating, but I’d seen the results, her face still looking appalling a week later, and the sight in her left eye had been affected, though she said it was expected to improve.
I no longer sat alone at the table at meal times, and quite often, there would be someone keep me company as I walked around the exercise yard every day. Stiffening joints had to be kept mobile, and I didn’t trust the walking machine in the gymnasium. In any case, someone always seemed to be using it. I was rock bottom in the pecking order. If someone else wanted it, someone else got it.
The weeks and months went by. There was an appearance at court, but just a video link, another a few weeks later. My lawyer turned up, Ken Haseldine. He was closely questioning me about the visitors’ attendance book at the nursing home. I’d told him that records would clear me of most, if not all, of the deaths, but he said that old books could not be found, and in any case, its accuracy was in question. “Peter Prescott and Pat Atkinson, those are the strongest cases against you,” he said.
“Pat. I was holding her hand and then she just died.”
“Unfortunate,” he said impersonally, and I suddenly knew that he thought me guilty.
I said again, “There is no possible proof that I ever did anything other than read to them, talk to them, occasionally do some shopping for them, things like that.”
There was no point trying to convince him that I was innocent, and there was no point admitting that I could think it and a person died. He wouldn’t believe it, and if he did, I guess it made me as guilty as if I had done something physical to cause a death, such as the injection of insulin that had been repeatedly suggested. It didn’t really matter what he believed, I was confident he would do his job. I’d had a decent amount of savings before all of this, but that was gone, and my house on the market, my personal possessions in storage. I couldn’t see how a jury could find me guilty with no evidence, but whatever the final verdict, I was ruined financially. I had not previously had to go on the pension. When I was freed, then I would have to apply. I’d taken pride in being able to rely on my own resources to keep me. No more. I reminded myself there was no shame in being on the old age pension. Almost all of my older friends were pensioners.
Outside of work hours, we were relatively free, free to exercise, free to sit and make ourselves coffee, free to watch the big TV that was in the sitting room. There was quite a reasonable news bulletin on at three, and at that hour, there was seldom competition for it. Shirley Bridgewater, ‘alleged serial killer,’ was no longer news, and so I resumed my old habit of keeping up with what was happening in the world. I glanced up when Joy sat down beside me and took the remote into her own keeping. She left the news on, though, and watched as well, though I didn’t think she did, normally. There was no smell of BO. Maybe someone had told her, someone she took notice of.
The usual sort of news, a big car crash, a cruise ship with several hundred passengers down with a tummy bug, the latest news on the latest gaffe by a politician, though I thought the ‘gaffe’ was that the bloke just accidentally told the truth for a change. Suicide bombs in Turkey, a Palestinian shot dead in Israel – he’d been running at a border guard, knife in hand. A car jacking in Melbourne, the culprits ‘of African appearance.’ Sudanese probably. Why so many had been allowed into our peaceful country, I really didn’t know.
And then there was a story of an assault complete with pictures from CCTV. There had been a warning before that – ‘disturbing for some viewers.’ I might easily have switched it off at that point – I preferred not to watch ‘disturbing images’ if I could avoid it. But Joy had the remote, and I just watched as a shop-keeper, middle-aged and female, was brutally attacked by a man with some sort of a heavy club. Repeated blows crashing into the helpless woman huddled on the floor. It made me feel ill. There was a clear image of the man shown – thick set, he appeared Asian. I thought how much he deserved to be dead, and without even thinking about it, I willed it.
Nothing happened, of course. I didn’t know him, and the footage was several hours old. Even if I somehow managed to relieve the suffering of those who wanted it, I was sure I could not possibly kill a violent young man just because he needed killing. And anyway, maybe he’d change his ways and start to lead a good life? I had no right to execute, did I? How would I know whether that man should be dead in order to avoid future injury to other middle-aged female shop-keepers?
The following day, there was a report that the shop-keeper was still critical, and that even if she survived, there would be brain damage. There was the face of the attacker shown again, and a request that anyone knowing him should contact police, but definitely not approach him. So he hadn’t been found dead. I hadn’t expected that he would be. Had I hoped it would happen? It would be a favour for the world if that man did not live in it. A wife, maybe children? A man like that could never be a good husband or father.
But he didn’t appear to be dead because of that moment, almost accidental, when I had willed it. I was relieved. I had no right to be an executioner, and if I did not have the capability, I did not need to make such decisions.
I missed seeing the news for weeks after that. It was young Janey, who announced that she needed to watch NITV just at that time. NITV was the channel set aside especially for Aboriginal viewers. It had never occurred to me that Janey might have Aboriginal blood – she appeared white, maybe with a touch of Asian, though I had not previously taken much notice. But I shrugged and said nothing. It was an odd situation that to doubt a claim of Aboriginality was ‘racist,’ but so it appeared to be. In some respects, the world has gone a bit crazy in recent years, and the rise of the ‘politically correct’ was about the craziest. How could problems be solved if one could not define the problem for fear of offending someone?
So young Jane Casey was now Aboriginal, complete with a few extra privileges, especially the important privilege of a better lawyer. The government didn’t like having too high a proportion of the Aboriginal population behind bars. Janey had been part of a violent gang that had killed a school girl. She was on remand, as I was. I expected that the new lawyer would have her out on bail quite soon.
I was right, and just three weeks later, I could watch the news again. Janey was gone. I had no idea whether she’d even been asked to name an Aboriginal ancestor. It started a fad – several others also announced that they were Aboriginal – even Corrie whose Dutch parents had immigrated to Australia when she’d been a small child. But those claims were treated with scepticism and there were no more sudden ‘Aboriginals.’
It was while watching the news that I learned that most of the charges against me had been dropped, just two remaining, Peter and Pat. It was confirmed when the lawyer came calling, but with the news that there was a new accusation – Moira Morgan. I protested that I scarcely even knew Moira, but he said that her husband had come forward with the allegation that he’d seen me emerge from her room with a syringe in my hand. I shook my head and said that if I had done anything, I’d hardly be so silly as to be seen with a syringe.
“Mrs. Prescott said the same. If not for that allegation early on, they might have dropped all the charges.”
“She said that?”
He nodded and I said thoughtfully, “Peter should not have died. I wonder if she had something to do with it.”
“What about Mr. Morgan?”
I frowned as I thought. A vague-looking wispy man came to mind and I thought I’d probably seen him around. I would not have suspected him of malice, and I said that maybe he’d just been influenced by the publicity.
“Maybe,” Haseldine said, rising to leave. He never stayed long. But he added, “Expect more questions from the police, and the formal charge to be laid.”
“Ask them to cross examine Mr. Morgan first, please. I think he might be imagining things.”
“I’ll pass it on,” he said, rather dryly, and again I thought that he knew I was guilty of at least some of the deaths. It didn’t matter to me whether he did or didn’t. I was sticking to my strategy of denying everything, though I didn’t loudly deny it within Baldoon. I just didn’t talk about it, and so far, no-one had directly asked me.
The police didn’t approach me about Moira Morgan, so maybe they had concluded that her husband was imagining things. Cynthia Calder-Prescott, though, was sticking to her story of seeing me with a syringe. Spite? Or did she have something to conceal? Killing Peter meant that she didn’t have to watch his slow decline. I’d dreaded it myself, and she presumably cared for him, or had once. But it hadn’t been time yet. His disease was not far advanced, and he still enjoyed things. He’d enjoyed talking with me, and often, he’d appeared perfectly normal at those times.
Christmas was approaching. It was six months since that humiliating arrest in front of my friends. I may have been feeling more settled, but the other women became more restless. There were more arguments, more fights, some of them physical and brutal. I always beat a quick retreat when I saw those start. It made me feel ill. No-one bothered attacking me. I was a nonentity.
I’d not been permitted to have any contact with the residents or staff of Shades, but one day, with my regular weekly letter from Gwen, there came a large bundle of other letters. I accepted them in surprise, and the warder said that they were from some of the nursing home residents, but that I was not permitted to reply.
I said, “Thank you, Miss Bufton,” but I was anxious. What did Sophy and Clive and Esme and all the rest think of me? Would they have believed it? Would they condemn? Gwen said they didn’t, that they missed me, but I wasn’t sure that she would tell the truth when the truth might hurt.
But the warder gave her thin smile, and said, “Don’t worry, they are nice.”
When I thanked her again, it was with more sincerity. Of course someone had read them. All of our mail was screened, incoming and outgoing.
I read Gwen’s letter first. Gossip of the town, that she had a new grandson and would send me pictures as soon as she had some. That she still went once a week to Shades for an hour just to read to Sophy. That Sandy had the flu, but that she hadn’t got it herself, ‘though I have to try that new Keen-Wa super-food.’ Gwen took handfuls of vitamins every day, and at least once a year, tried a new diet, whatever was the latest fad, especially if she read that a film star endorsed it. It had often amused me, that she was so credulous. I could hardly feel in any way superior now. Whether or not she did silly things sometimes, she was still free and I was not. She was more my friend now than she’d seemed before it had all happened. Could it be that she found a satisfying sense of virtue by sending me comfort? Maybe so. Did it matter? Not in the slightest. Gwen sent comfort, and so did the notes and cards from other friends which she always enclosed along with her own letter.
And now for the nursing home residents. Most of the letters were old, many dated from shortly after the arrest. But they had kept coming, with the most recent just a few days ago. Some of the writing was shaky, and others began with words like ‘My daughter is writing this for me,’ or ‘Briony is writing this for me.’ Sophy, who said, ‘Gwen is writing this for me. She is very good.’ But then she said that she missed me very much and that she knew with all her heart how much I cared for them, always. There were others that said similar things, never, ever saying that they believed that I was responsible for some deaths, only that I was missed, and they knew – totally and absolutely – that I would never, ever do anything to hurt any one of them. ‘Stay strong.’ That was Brian and Catherine McVeigh, probably written by Catherine since Brian’s fingers were crippled with rheumatism. And ‘Come back please. We need you here.’
But I suspected that even if I was not convicted of any deaths, I would never again be welcomed in a nursing home. Like the nursing assistant, Madhu Singh, who probably never did anything, but would never again work in an Australian nursing home. It had been a good thing I did for those people – Leanne, Larnie, David Duval, once known as Davo. But how could I know, now, who needed it? There had been Evie, but I’d known her well, and she must have been thinking of me when she needed that favour. None had come to me since. Maybe none had needed me. There were times before when several months had gone by and no-one had needed me. I wished I could have written back. I could write to Gwen, though, and ask her to pass on how much their messages meant to me. Would that pass the censor? It was not direct contact, so probably it would get through.
My cell was beginning to appear more inviting now, even with that horrible toilet in plain sight. I hadn’t been permitted to put a screen in front of it – I’d asked. It seemed that the warders had to be able to watch us at any time of the day or night. Even me. What crime was I likely to commit? I had never taken drugs, didn’t harm myself, certainly didn’t try and grind anything into a shiv.
In other ways, though, my cell now looked reasonable – a nice bedspread brought from home, pictures on the wall – photographs of family mostly, but also a colourful and charming picture that Skye had painted when she was only about eight. Skye, Deb’s second daughter, and the picture just seemed full of the joy of life. When I’d had that framed, I’d had to have another also framed, a particularly nice photograph of Mandy. I hadn’t wanted her thinking that Skye was my favourite, but Mandy’s pictures were more sophisticated by then, and that very special childhood flavour had already fled.
I had not been permitted to have them when Deb had first brought them in for me – that was because glass could become a lethal weapon in the hands of someone so inclined. So now the large painting was laminated, the photographs just raw in the frame. Anything sent in from outside was checked for things like that – could it be turned into a weapon? Did it contain drugs? Could it be used to communicate with outside, like a Smartphone? The things my family brought in might have been strictly limited and always subject to a thorough check, but gradually, bit by bit, my cell had become just a little more welcoming and a little less alien.
My grand-daughters, teenagers. Debbie didn’t bring them here, not since the first time when I was still in the hospital ward. It was because of the men hooting at them. They were female and they were young, and while we almost never saw the male prisoners, visitors sometimes did. Debbie said she would not have them exposed to the unpleasantness, and I fully agreed. And besides, there could be real danger. Among the prisoners were some very, very bad people. Some of their visitors were very likely to be as bad. What if they were targeted?
I had no TV in my cell. You couldn’t just pay for one or have someone from outside bring it in for you, having a TV was a privilege that had to be earned, Miss Bufton said when I asked. A few had apparently earned the privilege, mostly the long term prisoners, those who’d been convicted and sentenced. Janice had a TV in her cell; Janice was the one who’d been so badly beaten for being a snitch. Maybe she’d actually earned it because of that incident. As far as I knew, there were never reasons given when the privilege was granted.
I saw a lot of Janice, who was part of ‘my’ group, the group of rejects. It reminded me a little of school – the way that the unpopular ones grouped together for companionship – the fat one, the one with the heavy breathing problem, the too-brainy one. The too-brainy one was me, before I learned better how to blend in. And Merrilyn Gregory. I never quite knew why she was a part of the group, but she was undeniably the leader. Maybe that was the reason – she liked being the leader. I remembered endless sessions of practising throwing a basketball through a hoop – she wanted to be in the basketball team. We never spent time playing tennis – I was on the tennis team, but Merrilyn claimed complete disinterest and we did what she said. I’d tried asserting myself once or twice, but one can only be a leader if people choose to follow, and you can’t play tennis by yourself. So we invariably did what Merrilyn said we would do.
Merrilyn had long left Conjee, the heavy breather had not made it even to middle-age – something wrong with her heart. Of that little group of school rejects, only Maisie and I were still locals.
I spent a lot of time thinking and remembering in those days. There was a lot of time to think, a lot of time spent alone with too little to do. We were only allowed two books a week from the library, and none from other sources. What did they think, that the pages would be sprinkled with drugs? Or that they could be hollowed out in order to hide a shiv maybe? No daily newspaper, but there were papers to look at in the library – on the two days each week that we were permitted to use the library. For three days, the male prisoners had access, and then it was closed on the weekends. The weekends were always very quiet, only the ones rostered to kitchen duty working, plus a bit of cleaning. The male prisoners – I didn’t know whether they were just put in together as the women were – the remand prisoners, theoretically innocent until proven guilty, together with the murderers, rapists, terrorists, drug dealers and all the others.
In other prisons, Janice told me, there were all sorts of programmes for prisoners – literacy, coping mechanisms, art classes, all sorts of things. She said it was because Baldoon was maximum security that we missed out, but maybe our small numbers was also a factor. I’d always been a reader. Just two books a week, and from a limited range, it was a deprivation, though minor compared to the big one, the deprivation of liberty.
Janice was transferred to a different prison and a new prisoner came. Hillary was bright blonde, around fifty, and she laughed a lot. I suspected she also lied a lot, but I didn’t know enough about the underside of Melbourne life to guess what was lies and what was not. She’d been the highest paid pro in the whole of the country, she said. She’d seen the world in the company of those men rich enough to afford her. She’d been to bed with famous people, from pop stars to prominent politicians, and she named some, names I will not repeat. As I said, I never knew how much was true and how much was lies.
Hillary Heffner, her name was. She said she’d had three different names, but had discarded the names of old husbands, and was now known by her birth name. Heffner? It sounded to me like an assumed name, but that was what she was officially. Everyone called her ‘Hilly.’ She seemed instantly at home, and quickly became popular. I even saw Yvonne smiling on her. I didn’t know why, but then I seldom knew what was happening under the surface.
I don’t know why Hillary decided to take me under her wing, but suddenly she was often with me, and when she was with me, I was no longer elbowed out of queues, and when I watched the news, no-one grabbed the remote and switched the channel. There was one who’d done that a lot – Corrie Kasteele. But Hillary had just stood up when she’d done it, and looked at her. Corrie hesitated, gave it back, and decided she had to do something else right then. I didn’t see much of her after that.
There was a nasty fight, much more than the usual pushing and shoving, and two of those big Pacific Islanders were very bruised. I really didn’t like that lot. It was as if they were born to be violent, though those times when I’d visited some of the islands, the people had always seemed lovely – broad smiles and a rather-too-effusive welcome, though that might have been because they were always trying to sell you something. They were sometimes with Yvonne. I’d watched a particular TV show that was set in a prison, and the ‘Top Dog’ had had ‘henchmen.’ Was that what they were? I didn’t know. Even after six months inside, I had almost no understanding of the undercurrents that swirled and oozed around me. Five of them, all big. I kept right away from them, and thankfully, they took no notice of me.
I began to think I was getting favoured treatment, because when Christmas cards started coming for me, there were many among them from people who were not on my list of ‘approved correspondents.’ Sixty-three colourful cards to decorate my cell with, even a few from total strangers, though only nice ones and none that said much except Happy Christmas, etc. I valued every single one of those cards. My daughters, my granddaughters, my grandson, they all thought of me. Friends from home, Sophy and Enid and Jim and Jacko from the nursing home – so many of them. Sue Dreyfus, as well, head nurse. I hoped she wouldn’t get into trouble for that. There was not supposed to be any communication. There was the merry little verse on that card, but Sue had written only, ‘Thinking of you. Love, Sue and all the rest of us.’ Love. She’d said ‘love.’ It made me weepy, that she’d said ‘love.’ She hadn’t said ‘Merry Christmas.’ She would know that it was impossible to be ‘merry’ in a place like this.
And yet some seemed merry. How on earth they’d managed to smuggle in casks of wine, I had no idea. One of the warders had to have been involved, there was no other way. Maybe more than one, as when there was the gathering, there were no warders in sight, though mostly, they always seemed to be prowling around. Surveillance cameras as well, and although it was quite easy to avoid the obvious ones, some said that there were concealed cameras as well, because sometimes the warders knew things they should not have known.
Yvonne was in a comfortable place of honour, her favoured friends around her. I would never have approached them if Hillary hadn’t caught me and actually pulled me to join them. And Yvonne nodded regally, and someone hurried to pour me some wine. Nice wine, too, even if it was only cask wine. A Shiraz. The first wine I’d had for so long.
I slipped away after a while, feeling a tiny bit woozy. Three glasses, but I hadn’t had any alcohol for a long time. I didn’t know how much they’d be in trouble. And the warders had to have been in collusion. They should have been caught long before this. There was almost no sign of the revelry when it was time for the twice daily Count – except for some faces rather redder than usual and a few stray giggles. It had all been good humoured, it appeared to me.
But something had gone wrong, I didn’t know what. Hillary was in trouble, not with the authorities, but with Yvonne. Vonnie, as they always called her. Only I thought of her as Yvonne, though on the occasions I’d spoken to her, I’d known to call her Vonnie – politely and humbly. Just two occasions, I thought, in all of those months. Hillary didn’t tell me there was anything wrong, but she appeared nervous, as I’d never seen her. Jumpy. I couldn’t imagine what she could have done ‘wrong.’ It had to have been more than speaking disrespectfully to Yvonne.
It was pure accident that I came across the punishment, all five of those big brutes of Pacific Islanders taking it in turns to kick her. She was on the floor, curled up, trying to protect her face. The brassy blonde hair was soaked in blood. I forgot that I was just a helpless old lady and ran to save the one who’d extended an arm to look after me. One of the women grabbed me by the shoulder, spinning me around, but then just held me pinned and looked at Yvonne, who was watching from a position in a corner. I hadn’t even seen her before. Yvonne nodded, and the woman hit me hard across the face, enough to send me flying. I couldn’t believe the pain. No-one had struck me before in all of my life, certainly not like that.
But Hillary was still copping it. They were killing her. Surely they were killing her. It was from Yvonne that the evilness came. I could see it, oozing from her in brownish oily strands, infecting the others. It was on her orders that they were hurting Hillary. I had to stop them. And crouching on the floor, half-blinded by my own pain, I stopped them. They all fell, but only Yvonne was dead.
My head was spinning. I thought my face might be broken. And my head. It was all pain. I closed my eyes and curled up on the floor. It was too much. Too much pain, too much evil. I thought I might make myself die now. It was enough.
I didn’t die. I guess I fainted. Or maybe retreated as I’d done before. I woke to find myself in the hospital ward. The light was low, but I could see that Hillary was in the next bed, just lying on her back, staring at the ceiling. Her head was bandaged, and some of her hair had been shaved, probably because she’d needed stitches. There had been a great deal of blood. I was surprised to find her there. I thought for sure she’d be in an Intensive Care ward somewhere. Either that or dead. She was obviously a lot tougher than I was.
I said, “Hilly?” and she turned her head, and said, “Shirl.” There was some swelling around her eyes, a bruised cheek, but that was minor. Her face was not too bad, which was a mercy. Hillary very much valued her looks. Even within the cell block, I’d seldom seen her without full makeup, eyeliner and all. It was something I hadn’t bothered with much even when I’d been young. Hillary, of course, had made a living out of her looks, though I’d never quite understood why she’d chosen that shade of brassy blonde to dye her hair with. To me it screamed ‘cheap.’ I would never say that, of course. Not to anyone, but especially not to Hillary, who’d been so nice to me.
I said foolishly, “You’re still alive.”
“Vonnie had a heart attack. That’s what they’re saying.”
“She did?” I said, levering myself up on one elbow.
“Funny thing was, they all fell down, all at once.”
I hesitated and then lay down again. “I can’t remember what happened. That big Anna – she knocked me out, I think.”
“Why did they all fall down, Shirley? All of them together?”
“No idea. It doesn’t make sense.”
“You forgot to ask how Vonnie was?”
“I don’t care. She was an evil thing.”
“Not any more. She’s dead.”
“I thought you were dead. They were laying into you so hard…”
“Bruises on bruises, but no internal bleeding, they said. I have to stay here for a while, though, just in case.”
I carefully stood up, needing to go to the toilet. I knew where it was from my previous stay. Same little four-bed ward, even the same bed.
Hillary said, “It’s around midnight, if you were wondering. The same day.”
I nodded, and made my way to the toilet. I felt shaky and ill. By the time I returned to my bed, the night nurse was in the room, Mrs. Sinha. There was always one on duty here, and at least one warder within easy call. She was looking at me very oddly, but then smiled and bustled over to ask how I was feeling.
“Pretty crook, actually,” I replied. Mrs. Sinha was Indian, and I knew from my previous stay in the hospital ward that when I used an Australianism such as ‘pretty crook,’ it amused her. I was hoping that no-one thought that I had anything to do with six women falling at once, one of them dead. But I’d been on the floor as well. Whatever happened, they should think that I was also just a victim of – whatever. It was the way she’d looked at me, and an Indian upbringing might have left her more likely to believe impossible things than the rest of us.
It was only when she finished checking on me, and said that I could stay for at least one more day, that I started thinking about what I’d done. Hillary was quiet. What did she think? How much had she seen? She couldn’t have seen much, as she’d appeared to me nearly dead at the time. But she’d obviously not been as bad as I’d thought since she was here, not in a real hospital and not in a morgue. I’d thought they were killing her! Maybe they would have done if I hadn’t interfered.
So what had I done? I’d killed Yvonne, but I’d known I could end life. It was the first time that I’d ended someone who didn’t want it – that I knew of. I’d never seen a follow-up of that story I’d seen on TV, the one when I’d tried to stop the man who was laying into the shop-keeper. Could he possibly have died? If I’d had access to the internet, I might have been able to find out. As it was, unless I happened to catch another mention in the papers or on the TV, I would never know.
But the Pacific Islanders that I’d made faint – what had they said when they’d woken? Maybe they’d just made themselves scarce and left Yvonne, myself and Hillary to be discovered. You did not snitch. It was a basic rule. But when someone was dead? But my head was aching and I closed my eyes and let time pass. I’d think about it in the morning.
I slept late the following morning – Christmas Eve. It was a visiting day, though Christmas was not. There would be nothing special for the prisoners on Christmas day, except maybe a better meal than usual. The staff would want their Christmas with their families. It was only natural, of course.
Hillary may not have suffered life-threatening injuries, but she could scarcely move, needing help even to hobble to the toilet. She didn’t speak again of what had happened, mostly lying still, eyes closed. Her headache was probably worse than mine. I left her alone. It appeared that she might be staying for several days. They surely couldn’t send her back until she could, at least, walk properly. I hoped no-one would think they should finish off her punishment – for whatever it was.
It was afternoon before I was questioned about what had happened. One of the wardens took me to a different room, away from Hillary, and there was a man who introduced himself as Mr. Brock. He was a senior warden, one I’d never met before. Maybe he had more to do with the male prisoners. He told me to sit, speaking in a friendly fashion, “I know you’re feeling a bit rocky.”
He remained standing, looking down at me. The door was left open – that was regulations when male wardens dealt with female prisoners. His voice was kind. “Now, Shirley. I want you to tell me exactly what happened yesterday.”
I hesitated. One must not snitch. My head hurt worse than ever. After a moment, I said, “I was hurt. Hillary was hurt.”
He still spoke gently, but his eyes were steely. “Who hurt Hillary, Shirley?”
I shook my head.
“Did Hillary hurt you? Were you fighting?”
The idea was ridiculous, and I smiled slightly as I answered him, “No.”
“So who hurt you?”
I turned my head away, and he changed tactics, a battery of questions delivered in a harsh tone – Who hurt you? Who hurt Hillary Heffner? What did I see? What did I know? What led to Yvonne Schutter having a heart attack?
There was no mention of the Pacific Islanders, so I concluded that their part was unknown.
I said no, I didn’t know, and no, I didn’t see anything, until the man sighed and sat down next to me. Another change of tactics, the gentle voice again. “I might be able to influence a decision for bail, you know, Shirley. If not that, a transfer, maybe to Tarrengower. That’s a low security prison in the country. You’d be better there.”
Tarrengower. I’d heard talk of it. It sounded so nice compared to Baldoon. I was sure I’d be better there, but word would spread that Shirley Bridgewater was a snitch. I’d rather be ignored than subject to the treatment meted out to prison snitches. I said nothing, and suddenly there was a mocking voice from the doorway, “Leave her alone, Stevie. You know she’s a babe in the woods here.”
Brock’s mood changed, and he grinned at her, “Hello, Hillary. In the wars, I see.”
“Somewhat. But I won’t tell you anything and Shirl won’t. She knows the rules.”
“If she was sent back to her cell?”
“Best to wait a couple of days until I’m discharged, just in case.”
He looked at me a moment, and Hillary said seriously, “You know she’s too old to be ill-treated. She should be let out on bail. Or at least, sent somewhere not as strict.”
“She’s accused of mass murder, the same as you are, Hills,” he said, quite lightly.
“That’s right,” Hillary said calmly. “I was responsible for the deaths of three men who very much deserved it. But Shirl? I don’t think she could bring herself to kill a fly. I’ve even seen it – she takes a swipe at a fly, but makes sure not to hit it in case it makes a horrible mess on her hand.”
I grinned. It was true. Hilly was a good friend. And the men she’d killed? She’d told me about it, and I agreed with her. They’d deserved worse than death, but death was enough. Death was final and they’d never hurt another child. It made me wonder if I should try and kill men like that. I’d need to know who, and I’d need to be close enough to ‘see’ their evil as I’d seen the evil oozing from Yvonne Schutter. That, or see them in action, as I’d seen that one attacking the shop-keeper. Maybe next time I saw something like that on the news, I would will the death, and with any luck, I would catch the follow-up – that a young man had been found dead, no apparent cause.
Mr. Brock sent me back to bed then, though he spoke to Hillary for a few minutes longer. I was so grateful to her for trying to look after me. I didn’t care what she’d done in the past, Hillary Heffner was a good friend.
I wasn’t sure that I wanted my family to see me with a massive bruise over the side of my face, didn’t like to think of the long walk to where they would visit, but then both Hillary and I were told that our family were visiting and could come to see us here in the hospital ward.
I asked, scarcely believing, “No horrible search afterwards?”
The day nurse, Mrs. Goldsmith, smiled at me reassuringly, “Not this time.”
Hillary said, “You haven’t got over that yet, Shirl? It’s not really that bad, you know.”
I said firmly, “To me, it is that bad. If that’s the price of a hug, I’ll do without.”
So that day, I was able to hug family – Jenny had come, also Deb, with both daughters, even Kane, who spent most of his time overseas these days. Hugs and kisses for Mum, hugs for ‘Granny’ from the girls, and Kane, as well, who pulled me close and said, “Soon, Granny. Dad says they’ll surely move you to a different prison soon.”
“I hope so,” I said fervently. I so hated living in a place where women beating up women was normal.
There was a commotion not far away, half heard. It was the men’s ward on the other side of the nurses’ station, though there was no way they could penetrate the women’s area, or that was what I’d been told. From the shouting, I’d gathered there had been more fighting than usual. There were some very bad men among that lot, especially the bastard Islamic imam who’d been convicted of instigating several terrorist acts, though never coming within sight of actual danger himself. I wondered if he’d been trying to stop the other men celebrating Christmas. In other prisons, groups of Muslim prisoners had banded together to intimidate others into converting to Islam, beating up any who refused. It had been in the paper not long before that arrest. But here, there were fewer Muslim prisoners, and they were well scattered amongst the others so they could not establish a power base. I guess the ones in charge had learned. I was slowly beginning to know more about the place I lived – I could hardly call it ‘home.’ I no longer lived in such isolation. The others talked to me now, at least a little.
Christmas passed very quietly. Hillary still had difficulty moving, though I was all right, a bit of a headache, a bit tired, but that was as much depression as a result of that single blow across my face. It looked worse than it was.
It had shocked my family, and assuring them that it was the first time had not really made them feel better. I admit that it had been a shock to me, as well. Not just the physical pain, so much more than I would have expected from such a blow, but the knowledge that came with it, that I was not somehow immune from the violence of others. It hadn’t even come with any real malice; it had been delivered more as a lesson that I should not interfere in other people’s affairs.
Yvonne was dead now. I shivered when I thought that I might be blamed for it. I had made those others faint. If I could do that, I must never again do it when I was close. I did not want to be blamed.
There was another episode of shouting and a few loud crashes from the men’s ward, not far enough away. I didn’t like them being so close. If I was afraid of the women, I was even more afraid of those violent men.
Mr. Brock appeared again late on Christmas Day. He was supervising the wheeling in of a trolley that held a small TV, set it up for us, grinned at Hillary, and said, “Satisfactory?”
Hillary thanked him. She called him ‘Stevie’ again. It was obvious that she knew him well, but I wouldn’t ask how. Not many of the women liked being questioned.
My headache subsided, and I could read or I could watch TV. I could walk around with no more difficulty than I always had – that is, I was slow to start walking after sitting for a while and stiffening up. For me, it was an interval of peace. Hillary didn’t even swear, or hardly at all. Even though I’d become accustomed to the continual swearing, it was like an additional pall of ugliness over my surroundings. I helped Hillary when she’d allow me. It would be weeks before she’d be able to move freely.
I was able to watch the news. There was a funeral for Yvonne Schutter, a very big funeral, almost flashy. Crowds of people. Hillary sat beside me and made a commentary – “That’s Malcolm Kay,” for instance. “He’s a weapons specialist. They all go to him.” And “Omar Halil, Enforcer for one of the biggest drug concerns. You won’t see his brother, though. He was a hit man, but became careless. Supposed to be in Syria now.”
But also, “Kim Carlisle, socialite. She has the best parties! Complete with all the party drugs any of the guests might desire.”
Kim Carlisle. She’d been shown in the social pages of one of the women’s magazines I’d been flicking through. A beautiful woman in a gown probably worth more than an ordinary person earned in a year. So she threw parties, provided drugs, and consorted with criminals. How many others of what some called ‘the best people’ were the same?
“See the skinny one with the long moustache? That’s Pierre Cloutier,” Hillary said. “An artist, the height of fashion. Gay, of course. He’s invariably high on something or other, and his images show it.”
I commented, “I like art, but the old masters, plus amateurs who simply paint beautiful pictures. Not monstrosities such as Cloutier’s.”
“I have a few of his put away in a safe. He’ll destroy himself soon, and then they’ll go up in price even further.”
And then I exclaimed, “Donald Elgar! I thought he’d have enough sense to stay away.” Elgar was an influential member of parliament.
Hillary said casually, “He was funded by the Schutters. To stay away would be to show disrespect.”
It made me wonder how much influence the rich criminal families had on politics. Hillary looked at me and said, smiling, “As I said, a babe in the woods.”
“I think you’re right,” I said sadly. I didn’t like to think that those who represented us were corrupt.
But then the news moved to the aftermath of a soccer game. Five hooligans had a man on the ground, and were kicking. I tried to look at one of him, to see him, more than the image on the TV screen. And suddenly I could see him. I was with him. There was violence, but there was not that same oily evil I’d seen in Yvonne. I did not try and kill that one. The footage was not live and yet I’d seen him anyway. I didn’t understand how I could do that.
Over those next peaceful days in the prison hospital, I did it a few more times, making the effort to really look into the mind of a person, looking for that taint of evil that was more than violence or dishonesty. I was thinking that if I could, I might be able to bring down the really bad ones, the killers and the rapists, plus any who hurt children. Terrorists, as well. How dare those who’d called themselves refugees try to hurt the people of the country who’d only helped them! I became better at it, though I never could find a person who was simply mentioned by name.
I guess Mr. Brock had given orders to do as Hillary had suggested – keep me in until we were both ready to return. Hillary hadn’t asked if I’d done anything to stop the beating, and yet that she’d asked that of Mr. Brock was an indication that she thought I could be in danger. Those Pacific Islanders, Anna and Rads and all the others, they may not know what had happened, but it was not really likely they’d blame me – half their size, and easily old enough to be their mother, maybe even their grandmother. Rads was the worst, I thought, only about eighteen, smaller than the others, and with slanting eyes. There had to be some Asian in her ancestry. Rads, short for her surname, Radsrada, I thought, something like that. But I was a mouse. They would not think I could have done anything.
Even when the 2nd January came around, my sixty-ninth birthday, we were still both in the hospital ward. I was as fit as I ever was, and Hillary was finally beginning to walk a little easier. We were told that we were to go back the following day, both of us. I sighed. It had been an interval of peace, and now I was to go back to the atmosphere of potential violence, always there, just below the surface, waiting to be released. The women here were those deemed the most dangerous female prisoners in the state. I could never understand why I was here. Even if I had committed each ‘murder’ that I’d been accused of, I could not be deemed dangerous, not to women like those.
Hillary, on the other hand, looked totally confident, and laughed that she’d been missing Tilly and Jilly and Little Caro. The comment surprised me. She’d spent time with them, but I hadn’t thought they were particular friends. ‘Little Caro’ – that was Caroline Lee, of Vietnamese heritage, though born in Australia, I thought. At any rate, she had no accent. Tiny in size, though Hillary had told me she was part of one of the Asian gangs – Tongs. Tilly and Jilly, cute nicknames for two of the feared Sudanese. I scarcely knew any of them, even though I’d lived among them for so many months.
It was the afternoon of the last day of our time of peace. It was time for a particular news bulletin I liked to watch, so I put away the book I was reading. It had won an important literary prize, but it had bored me on the first reading, and still bored me. There was not much to do in the hospital ward, and besides, Skye had chosen it for me, and would want me to say something about it when I wrote next. ‘Just this once,’ Miss Bufton had said when she’d handed it to me, and she’d reminded me that books were not on the approved list of items that could be brought in.
I always felt that as a particularly mean rule. Just two a week and from a limited selection – it was not enough. Not for me, not for anyone who might like to use their time here to gain a bit more of an education. Did they think the prisoners here beyond redemption and that’s why they didn’t even try to help? Admittedly, for most, it was not their first time ‘inside,’ not their first imprisonment. Maybe they’d had their chances and had chosen not to use them.
Hillary was engrossed in one of the magazines that had been delivered for her, and ignored it when I switched on the TV. Politics, a major car accident, a body found on a beach, and there was live footage, a man who was being tried for the rape of a six-year-old girl. How anyone could hurt a child like that, I could not understand. He must have been out on bail, though he surely shouldn’t have been with a crime like that. Was the evidence weak? Was that why? He was headed for his car, three men surrounding him, fending off the reporters who were firing questions and thrusting microphones at him.
I hadn’t really intended it, but suddenly I could see him, see what he was thinking. He was optimistic – the lawyer had assured him he was going to get off. It was the girl’s fault – she’d tempted him. He should have stuck to his usual habit, a twice a year holiday in Thailand and he could buy what he wanted. It didn’t even matter if the girl died, but mostly it was only the very small ones who died.
I was condemning. He was being hustled into a car, almost out of sight of the cameras, but I was with him now. He suddenly looked at me, frightened. “Mother?”
I heard him; I don’t know whether anyone else did. He was questioning, afraid, and then suddenly he knew that what he did was terrible. Was it me that made the fatal squeeze that killed him or had he somehow known that he should die? I didn’t know, but watched as reporters’ voices rose in excited tones, and the limp body was pulled from the car and someone started CPR. The attempt at resuscitation was half-hearted and stopped even before the ambulance arrived just a few minutes later. The professionals would not be able to revive him. He was dead. I took a deep breath and looked away.
Hillary looked up and said, “Shirl?”
“Sorry,” I said. “Just day dreaming.”
“What are your day dreams?” she asked curiously.
“I pretend I’m walking along the nice, clean beach, no-one else around. Dawn maybe. Barefoot on the sand, ripples tickling toes. That’s my favourite day dream.”
“A long way from here.”
“A long way.”
I did a lot of thinking that night. It seemed I had an odd, impossible ability, the ability to end a life. Killing the man who liked to rape children – that had been a good thing to do. Killing him had saved other children. It was horrible and tremendously sad that in some countries, a perverted man could buy a child and do what he wanted with her, but I could not solve all of the problems of the world. But killing some of the bad ones, the ones that I happened to see or know about, maybe that I could do. Hadn’t I heard about a man who’d tortured a newborn baby? He should never be allowed to hurt another child. I had killed Yvonne Schutter. She had been an evil woman who’d caused hurt to Hillary, and no doubt, many others during her life.
Baldoon was a maximum security prison for the worst criminals of the state, and yet most of the women here were not evil. Many were violent, the result of a bad culture or a bad upbringing, or simply making the wrong decisions in life. I would not kill those. There were the male prisoners. I didn’t know them, but maybe some of them needed killing. That fanatical imam who was probably still doing his best to sway the younger Muslim prisoners to Jihadism. Should I try and find him in my mind? Then I could make sure he was not responsible for any more lives destroyed by acts of terrorism.
But also, I had to look after myself. I must not ever be seen to act to stop a person, either by a faint, or by death. I had to experiment a little, but never obviously. I could not be seen staring at the TV when someone unexpectedly died, and I must never again be close when someone dropped to the floor. What I did might have been impossible, I might look as if I could not hurt a fly, but if it happened again, then one day, someone would look at me, as they’d looked at me when too many of the nursing home residents had died with little reason. I would do that, too, if I was wanted. And I remembered that Brian and Catherine McVeigh had said that it would be so perfect if they could arrange to die at the same time, so that neither would be left without the other. I thought about them briefly, but they didn’t want me yet, and probably wouldn’t for some time. Neither did Sophy or Clive or any others I could think of and knew well enough to somehow go to them, just in my mind. That was the best thing I could do, end life when it was needed and wanted. But the other was a good thing to do, as well. Not often, and only the very bad ones. Those who hurt children, especially. No-one should hurt children.
On the following day, I was to go back to my cell. I don’t know what Anna and Rads and all the rest were thinking about a multiple loss of consciousness and the death of Yvonne. The only remotely possible explanation that I could come up with was that the prison authorities had somehow known what was happening and had gassed them all. That someone like me could have caused it was impossible.
So what if they thought I did have something to do with it and tried to punish? Hillary had seemed to think it possible that I was in danger from them. So if they did hit me maybe? I would not retaliate, just curl up and whimper maybe. If I was hit by any of that mob, I would certainly whimper. If they really tried to hurt me as they’d hurt Hillary? I was not anywhere near as tough as Hillary. If they tried to really hurt me, I would kill. Did that mean that I judged my life as worth more than theirs? Well, yes actually. And I was not going to feel guilty about that. I was a good person. Just because I killed people now and then did not make me feel as if I was not a good person. But Anna, Rads, Sika and the other two – they were not merely thieves, but were prone to violence. Both Sika and Rads had been convicted of murder, Anna of manslaughter when she’d beaten someone to death – just a passer by who’d been slow to hand over her money. Yes, my life was worth more than theirs, even when I judged them not ‘evil.’
So philosophy finished for the night, plans made, I turned onto my side and went to sleep.
It was two days later. I was no longer in the nice, protected hospital ward. I was showering, as was my custom, at a time when no-one else was likely to be there – I still loathed the lack of privacy in the showers. There were barriers between showers, though only chest high, a full back wall, but only a shower curtain to separate the wet area from the bench outside where clothing was left. Even if my body had not shown the sagginess of old age, I would not have liked it. I’d never been accustomed to public nudity.
So I was alone, water pouring down. I knew immediately when they came in, the five Pacific Islanders, even before I heard or saw them. And then Rads pulled aside the shower curtain and inspected me, eyes wandering up and down. I cringed, feeling absolutely naked, very afraid, and frantically reminding myself that I must not act to defend myself unless I was being killed.
She reached out, grabbed an arm and pulled me straight out so that I fell. A quick and quite mild kick into the side, and then she was hauling me up, shivering and naked in front of her. She was looking at me as if trying to work something out. And then she pushed me hard into the edge of the cubicle, so that I fell again. I didn’t try and get up, only pulling myself away, acting as frightened as I felt.
Anna said suddenly, “Leave her alone, Rads. She didn’t do anything, you can see.”
Rads hauled me up again and said harshly, far too close to my face, “You a witch or something?”
I didn’t try and stop myself from crying as I shook my head. A sudden slap across the face and then I was dropped again. They started to leave me then, only Anna turning around and saying, “Sorry, Shirley. Rads just had this idea.”
Rads just had this idea. I stopped crying, but it was several minutes before I stood up. My back was killing me – bad backs don’t take kindly to rough treatment. So I fumbled the taps off – ‘don’t waste water.’ It’s one of the first things learned by any country kid. I managed to dry myself, had some real difficulty pulling on pants due to back pain, and then just sat a long time on the bench, waiting for the pain to ease.
And then Hillary bustled in, hurried. Tilly was with her, one of the Sudanese, and Joy, as well. They helped me with shoes and socks, which I hadn’t managed, then walked slowly with me back to the sitting room, sat me down, and Joy made me a coffee the way I liked it.
Anna saw me, but I looked away. She may have said sorry, but I detested that one. My head was pounding, my back was aching, and the voices around me were making no sense. There was suddenly a chocolate bar slapped down in front of me. “Here. Eat that.” It was Anna.
Hillary said gently, “Eat it, Shirl. Maybe it will make you feel a bit better.”
Tilly said, and she was looking at Anna accusingly, “She’s too old to be beaten up. You should know that.”
“It was hardly anything,” Anna protested, and I said faintly, “Mostly, I hurt my back. I’m too old to fall over, as well.”
I hobbled around for weeks. My back was taking a long time to forgive the rough treatment. There was a change in the way I was treated. They became protective, and the biggest bullies amongst them, the Sudanese and the Pacific Islanders, the most protective. Not Rads. Even after hurting me, she treated me with suspicion. But others – Tilly started calling me ‘Mother,’ and then Joy and then a few of the others.
Out of the blue, I was told I could organise myself a TV in my cell if I wanted. I most definitely wanted. In the privacy of my cell, I could kill people when I wanted, and no-one would notice me staring hard at a particular criminal shown live on TV.
It was the middle of March, the date when an appeal was to be held, another appeal against the decision not to grant me bail. This time, I was to appear in person. Previous court ‘mentions’ and requests for bail had always been done using video-link.
I was in my cell, inspecting the dress that Jenny had chosen for me. My normal wear (pre-prison) had always been fitted slacks and loose overshirts, usually in fairly basic checks. This time, I was to look as harmlessly feminine as possible, a little old-fashioned. The dress was a gentle, subdued floral mostly in blues and pinks, there was a semi-fitted jacket in a dusky pink, my own shoes, flatties, a little worn, and stockings. I couldn’t even remember when I’d last worn stockings. But I was fully in favour of doing whatever it took to free me from this prison.
In the last months, the atmosphere appeared to have become more kind, there were fewer fights, and I was treated more gently than anyone else, but it was still a prison and I wanted very much to be free. That day dream I’d spoken of to Hillary – the bare toes in the sand of a deserted beach – I wanted that again. I would not return to Conjellaback to live. My house had been sold for a not-very-good price, the money spent. Freed, even on bail, I could go to the beach. I yearned to go to the beach.
As well as the clothing, Jenny had sent in some makeup. I hadn’t been planning on using it, but Hillary took over, put on far too much, and then Joy declared it all wrong, and I had to wash my face and she’d have a try. Joy did much better – far more delicate, a foundation that reduced some of the blotchiness and wear of my face, making it appear gentler. Soft, pink lipstick, barely there, and a subtle smudge of eye-shadow that gave me an appearance almost of pathos.
I inspected and approved. How could a gentle old lady like me be capable of murder? Surely, they would let me free. They should drop the charges. I didn’t understand why they hadn’t dropped the charges.
At least a dozen of the women patted me on the back or gave me a hug to wish me luck when Miss Bufton arrived to escort me to where the lawyer waited. It was like they were all friends now. It was strange to me, these often violent women with their painful pasts. They had all committed serious crimes, and nearly all had long sentences yet to serve. A few had started to confide in me, and nearly all now called me ‘Mother.’ I was quite unsure whether I was like a mascot, or whether a few actually had some respect for me. Whatever, it was far better than having to creep around in fear of their bullying.
Jenny and Renzo were both with Haseldine, and there was another there that I guessed I was also paying for – somehow. He was a barrister. He would argue for me in the appeal, and when it eventually came to trial, would argue for me in court. His name was also Haseldine, brother to the lawyer. It made it easy to remember, and I guessed they recommended each other’s services.
Ken Haseldine nodded his approval at my appearance, and Renzo said he was to take some photos, and that the best were to be given to the media – ‘little old grandmother wickedly incarcerated.’ I approved. In normal times, I might have resented the ‘little old grandmother’ part, but it was different now. Whatever helped.
After all the preparation, it took only about five minutes. The magistrate was brisk – the charges were serious. Whatever the motives, murder was murder. The appeal was denied. I held my head high, though if my eyes showed teary, that was fine. There were a lot of people in the gallery, many probably reporters. ‘Little old grandmother wickedly incarcerated.’
I was bitterly disappointed, quite unable to understand the decision. I was not a threat, not to anyone. The barrister gave me something of an explanation, that there was a groundswell push for ‘Assisted Dying,’ that there was talk of a bill to be put before the Victorian parliament, that feelings were running high, most in favour, some very much against, especially the Christian lobby. That the severity was because some of those in power wished to hammer home the notion that mercy killing would be punished the same as any other killing. And he added, quite gently, “I have not been told this, you understand, just a few hints that there has been some political influence. And it is not fair, of course. It makes no difference.”
I just nodded. I was trying not to cry. I hated to cry in public, and there seemed to be people everywhere. It had been nine months now. Things might have improved a great deal for me, but I was very tired of being incarcerated.
And then I had to wait hours for another matter to be resolved before we were both taken back to Baldoon. The other Baldoon prisoner was in an adjoining holding cell. He was Matt Freeman, very young, miserable. He may have been guilty of armed robbery, but his life was far, far worse than mine. I had never been threatened with rape. For this poor young man, it was a daily reality. I asked him softly, but only in his mind – Who?
There was no hint that he was aware of me, but all the same, a name and an image came to me, together with the fear and the remembered pain. There was not just that one, but he was the one who did it most, and he was the one who said whether others were allowed to do it also. But I couldn’t go killing large numbers or people would become suspicious. Why did the warders allow it? They must know, and surely they had some duty of care to those in their power. I didn’t think that the rule of no snitching should extend to the rape of a young man, little more than a boy, whatever he had done.
I killed twice that evening. First, the one who’d been the chief abuser of Matt Freeman. And then there was someone in my dreams, someone I didn’t know, had never known. She was not a resident of Shades, but she was seeking ‘Mother Death.’ How did she find me? How did she even know to look? But there she was, and I could see her as if from the outside, a lady who’d once been tall and slender and good-looking, but was now skinny and racked with pain. Rheumatoid Arthritis – not terminal, just a disease that can make life not worth living.
And then she was aware of me, and she begged, Please.
I warned in my mind, There is no turning back, you know, Death is final.
So I did it for her. I didn’t even know her full name, just Libby. I guess it was the name she most identified with, maybe a childhood nickname. Libby died and would never suffer pain again. I hadn’t even woken fully, and now I turned back to a deeper sleep, knowing that I did a good thing.
The weeks and months went by. Small celebrations when there was a birthday, and then one day, Tilly and Anna were insulting each other, ready to come to blows, when Rads said in a mocking tone, “Shirley’s watching,” and they both looked at me guiltily and turned away from each other. There were far fewer fights these days, and more were given the right to have a TV in their cell.
Tilly told me that Miss Bufton had commended her on her improved behaviour, and she said, “I didn’t tell her it was because Mother was keeping an eye on me.”
I didn’t understand how my presence could improve their behaviour, but certainly, that atmosphere of barely repressed violence that I’d first found there was far, far diminished.
They talked to me, and I came to understand that while they had made poor choices in life, there were reasons. Not many are strong enough to break away from family, even when family is made up of druggies and criminals. Even when the children were abused, physically and sexually.
Anna had broken away, though not to an improved life. Anna had been used for sex by her father from around the age of ten, and by various ‘uncles’ right up until she was fifteen and had slashed her father across his neck with a kitchen knife. He didn’t die, and she was in juvenile detention for a bit, but then, the moment she was released, he’d come for her. She was seventeen then. She’d killed him and disposed of the body. Anna said that maybe no-one knew he was dead, that for sure, no-one would have known he’d come for her and that was how she’d got away with it.
She should not have told me about killing her father. Secrets are best never, ever shared. But she did tell me. I would never tell anyone else.
Anna hated the police and she hated the warders. She also tended to hate those who’d lived what she saw as privileged ‘white’ lives. Anna might have taken the wrong path in life, but she was a very strong woman. She had seven years yet to serve, a manslaughter charge, nothing to do with killing her father. I wished I could influence her to choose a more peaceful path afterwards, but I had little hope for her. She was a victim of her family and a victim of circumstances. And yet she’d killed the despicable father – maybe she was strong enough to make a good life for herself if only she could put aside her hatred of the authorities.
Meantime she told me her stories that made me sometimes laugh with her and sometimes cry for her. I’d led such a protected life. I’d never realised how protected.
Outside there was a growing movement, just as Renzo and Jenny had wanted – free the poor innocent granny unjustly accused on no evidence at all. There was cautious coverage in the media – there were rules about commentary on a case that had not yet gone to court, but social media had no such constraints. My face was becoming well known, there were the photos that Renzo had taken prior to the abortive appeal for bail and the one on the occasion of the awarding of the Order of Australia medal. There were others, collected from various friends and acquaintances, comments from various friends and acquaintances. If anyone thought that I could be guilty, they were not saying. Or at least, no-one was telling me. I had no access to the internet, so could not check for myself.
But most importantly, there was an online fundraising push for my defence. It was run by a stranger, and at first, Renzo said that it was quite likely we’d never see any of the money. But we did see it, or at least Debbie did, and it was she who was looking after my money. The lawyers were paid, and my family no longer had to dip into their own savings. They hadn’t told me, but I had an idea how much lawyers cost, and I suspected my own reserves were long gone – the sale of the house and the investments that had supplied me with an income sufficient to avoid the need to claim a pension. It had been something I’d been proud of, that I had never been reliant on social security. There was a small annuity left, but the principal was out of my reach.
I was ‘the poor innocent granny.’ I continued to kill people, very quietly, when there was reason. There were not many, just a few I saw on TV. There were none who needed it because they were finished with life. I didn’t come into contact with any, and there had only been that one stranger who’d somehow found the ‘Death Mother.’
In June, a whole year after I was first arrested, my allotted job was changed. Instead of the heavy work in the laundry, I found myself working in the library, three hours every week-day. There were two of us, and our job was to keep the books in order, though there was no record of who was borrowing what. There were always two male warders supervising. They didn’t do much actual work, but I was grateful they were there, especially as I now had contact with any of the male prisoners who used the library. Maybe that was part of the reason I was given this job – they were not so likely to grope or otherwise harass the one that the women called ‘Mother.’
The other doing the job was a man called Paul Hafezi. Hafezi was of Arabic ancestry. He was around thirty, limped badly, and had a big nose. If he looked at me at all, it was down his big nose. I assumed it was because I was female and therefore beneath his notice. It suited me. He was criminal and beneath my notice.
There was a large variety of books in the library – crime, mystery, romance, biographies. And there were reference books including a whole shelf-full of books on law, a dozen new-looking bibles, and scores of books on Islam, some in English, some in Arabic. Whoever ordered the books had made some effort to cater for minority groups. There was a large section of books especially for the Aboriginal inmates, looking expensive, brightly coloured pictures, and stories of the dream time. They remained in good condition. No-one actually read them. There were books on Africa, again with bright pictures. The pictures showed the countries as beautiful, exotic, romantic, but I thought of the Sudanese women, and I thought of those gangs of young Sudanese notorious for violent car-jackings and home invasions. Their home country might have been beautiful, but the people were not. Or at least, the culture of violence they’d imported was not. I didn’t believe that anyone was inferior because of their race, but it is perfectly obvious that some cultures are worse than others.
The library was not well patronised. The women who came tended to look for romances, the men for thrillers or Westerns, simply written. The most popular books in the library were ‘Graphic Novels,’ which was a surprise to me. They were comics! I hadn’t realised that comics for kids had now become ‘graphic novels’ for adults. But few of those here were well educated, and even fewer of much intelligence.
Each book returned by an inmate was put in a bin, one of the warders flicked through it for possible messages or contraband, put it in another bin, and then Hafezi and I were supposed to have a thorough look to see if repairs were needed before returning it to its correct position on the shelves. I’d been brought up in an era when every single book was valued. I’d read every book that came my way when I was young, whether or not it was age-appropriate. Defacing or destroying a book was a major crime in my parents’ eyes, and the attitude remained. I hated the way these books were treated – rude words scrawled over the pages, for no particular reason. Sometimes threats, sometimes mess – disgusting mess. Why would a book on cars have pages stuck together as if it was a girlie mag in some seedy motel? Some of the men there were just utter pigs.
After the first week, when one of the warders noticed how difficult it was for me to reach down into the bin for heavy books, they changed things around somewhat, and now the books from the first bin went onto shelves instead of into another bin. When there were boxes of books for me to carry, they would take them from me. With my bad back, I’d have to carry them a few at a time, but Mr. Ryan, especially, was big and he was strong. He made nothing of picking up a big box of books and putting them on the table for me. And he started calling me ‘Mother’ as well. Most of the warders were decent people, who did their job as best as they could. None were ever cruel or rough with me, though I’d seen some being rough with misbehaving women, occasionally sneering at them in a hurtful manner. But as I said, it had never been often, and with the gentler atmosphere that now prevailed, it had become rare.
Hafezi didn’t help much, but as long as he ignored me, I took no notice. I enjoyed the work far more than working in the laundry, and it had the bonus that my books were no longer limited. I reckoned I’d read my way through the library by the time I even went to court. Just the act of handling books was soothing to me, and I soon had them probably better organised than they’d ever been. I’d wanted to be a librarian once, but my parents had discouraged the idea when I’d raised it when I was around thirteen – too many years of study, they said, and they could not afford it for me. So now I was a librarian, though I don’t think my parents would have approved of the way it had come about.
There was a large section of books in Arabic, probably a donation as almost all of them had the same sticker on them, but in Arabic. One day, I came across Hafezi in the process of destroying one of them. I looked at him, surprised. He sneered at me, but then glanced at where the warders sprawled at their ease next to the door, and lowered his voice. “Lectures by an extremist. It should not be here.”
I nodded and said fervently, “That’s for sure.” Every few weeks, there were reports of dreadful crimes committed by Islamists. Luckily, so far in Australia, there were more reports of terrorist crimes planned but ‘foiled’ than there were of successes. But it was inevitable that it would happen here, a major attack that killed scores or even hundreds as had happened in Europe. Plus there were always bombings in Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, places like that.
Hafezi added in a threatening voice, “So keep your mouth shut!”
I took more notice of what he was doing after that. He tended to be behind shelves, out of sight, but not working. Instead, he waded through the Islamic books, and more were destroyed. There were the ‘holy’ books – the Koran, the Hadith and the other with the name I could never remember. Just those had numerous verses urging violence on unbelievers as well as hideous punishments for disobedient women and homosexual men. (I doubted if a Muslim woman had any opportunity to be homosexual.) But neither Hafezi nor I could expect to get away with dumping those.
Hafezi started talking to me after a while – a long while. He said he’d been born in Australia to an Afghani man and an Australian mother, that he’d been given every consideration as an ‘ethnic’ including scholarships to fund an excellent schooling. That he’d done Islamic Studies at Melbourne University, partially funded by the local mosque, but had then switched to Sociology and History subjects, though his studies had been cut short before he’d qualified for a degree – ‘enough subjects, just not a continuation,’ he said, not explaining further.
I understood, though. I’d done a lot of university subjects myself when I could afford them, studying at home. But the subjects were seldom in the order they wanted, and sometimes separated by years. High Distinctions, almost always, and in total, quite a bit more than someone with a simple Bachelor of Arts. It always irritates me that the possessor of a degree has a tendency to feel superior to those who don’t, especially in recent years, when university education has taken on such a flavour of indoctrination rather than education. If a student doesn’t emerge from university as an ultra politically correct very-much-leftie, then they are exceptionally strong-minded.
But I’ve started waffling again, and this story is about the killings that should not have been possible, not about the irritating bias in what our young people are taught. The media, as well. In the past fifteen years or so, the leftist bias in the media has become more and more pronounced – inevitable when they’ve gone through that same ‘education.’ Plus, of course, there is the implicit attitude that those outside their circle, those of us who live in the real world, are just not ‘progressive.’ Not right minded. I hate the censorship that has become rife these days.
Christmas came again, and then shortly afterwards, I turned seventy. A trial date was arranged, March 17th. I didn’t know how final it was. Trial dates had been set twice before and then postponed. The lawyers were costing a great deal, especially as they’d hired an investigator as well. But the online fundraising had been almost too successful, and Renzo had made it public that we had enough and thank you very much, and that any excess would go to charity, suggestions for particular charities welcome. None of my family wanted to make a profit from my problems, and surely a million and a half would cover what was needed. They did use a portion to pay themselves back what they’d spent on me when my own reserves had been exhausted, and that was fair enough. The problems of one member of a family should not break all the others.
March arrived, and the trial date was still set for the 17th. I crossed my fingers. My own team said they were ready, though no-one seemed to think it necessary to tell me just exactly what tactics they were planning. I did know that I was to present myself as sad and humble, gentle and harmless. That was easy – I was sad and humble and gentle. Just because I continued to kill people now and then, didn’t mean that I was not a gentle soul. I always killed gently. Some scientist or other had recently announced that unexpected deaths were a previously unknown after-effect of a tick bite. Maybe he was right. I was only responsible for a tiny proportion of the unexpected deaths that occurred around the world. I’d killed some evil, evil men in the past months, including the bastard imam who’d been in the prison. But I’d killed him when he was released on bail so that he died at his home and not too close to ‘gentle granny.’ I tried to be careful, always.
Quite suddenly, I was whisked off for a complete medical examination, a sour-looking, middle-aged woman called Dr. Wallace. She did several tests, refusing to listen to me when I said it was quite unnecessary, but she had to listen to me when I insisted that it would do no good prescribing medication that was supposed to strengthen bones as I would not take it. I was pretty sure I’d read something about it in a medical article – that the effect of this particular drug was that the bones looked stronger on X-Ray or bone density tests, but had a tendency to fracture more easily. She wanted me to take other drugs as well, even though she admitted that my blood pressure was normal, insulin levels normal, and so was my cholesterol. ‘Preventative,’ she said. ‘Advisable for all older people.’ I did not agree. I don’t like drugs. Even the pain-reliever she wanted to prescribe for back and joint pain – I had no expectation that it would do any good. If there was an effective treatment for arthritis, there would not be so many snake-oil type treatments on the market, from copper bracelets to magnetic mattresses. Various ‘health foods’ as well, health foods which never sounded to me at all healthy.
Once Dr. Wallace accepted that I would not agree to take drugs, she said that I was far too thin and had to eat more. I was becoming quite annoyed by that time, and told her snappily that I would happily eat more if only it was food that had been prepared by outside caterers, that the ones here didn’t even know to wash hands after using the toilet. So then she said I was being thoroughly difficult and that I had to take more care of myself as I was not so young any more.
And that was it. Who decided I should see a doctor, I had no idea.
I don’t know who passed the story to the press, but there was a news item two days later, that the food in Baldoon might be suspect, that Shirley Bridgewater had criticised the food hygiene, ‘and that was why she’s become far too thin.’ The photograph again, one of the ones that Renzo had taken – the ‘sweet little innocent granny’ photo, with the comment that no more recent photographs were available.
That evening, I was suddenly confronted by the head of the kitchen team, who thrust her reddened face into mine and loudly asked what I was talking about. Alarmed, I stepped back, tripped on something and fell in an undignified sprawl. Her name was Louise Atwater, she was subject to dramatic losses of temper, and she was big and strong. I’d once seen three guards all piled on top of her, struggling to subdue her.
But Louise was immediately contrite, helped me up, dusted me off, said that I was not to be afraid of her, and that she’d make sure that every single member of the kitchen duty people washed their hands ‘at least every five minutes’ because I was far too thin and had to eat more. I was having an easy time in prison these days.
The trial date was put off again, now to be 18th April. There was more pressure on the authorities. Poor innocent granny’s health was suffering; she should be allowed bail. Renzo released a new photograph, carefully contrived to make me look old and frail, far more frail than I really was.
Louise ordered her crew to listen carefully to the instructor in food hygiene that was brought in, and I was coaxed to eat more.
And the trial date was put off yet again – 23rd May.
It was past the 23rd May, the trial date. No evidence had yet been heard as they were having so much trouble finding a jury. Of the candidates, almost all of them knew about the case, too many had formed opinions, and according to Haseldine – the barrister Haseldine, not the lawyer Haseldine – two had even contributed to the Shirley Bridgewater defence fund. Plus my side were objecting to anyone deemed too religious and the prosecution was objecting to older people, on the basis that older people were less likely to convict. Older people tended to be more in favour of euthanasia than the young and idealistic – the ones who had no personal experience of protracted decline and death.
I was warned it would be a long trial, at least six weeks, though I was surprised at that. Their only actual evidence was that Cynthia Calder-Prescott claimed that she’d seen me with a syringe shortly before her husband was found dead.
I asked Joy to do the makeup again when it was finally time, with the request that she made me look as gentle as possible, and a little pathetic. She laughed – ‘you don’t need much help for that,’ but she did as I asked, and I was pleased with my reflection. That was not the reflection of a cold-blooded killer. I don’t know how many I’d killed at that time. I didn’t keep count. There had been another scene where viewers were warned of ‘disturbing images’ on the news the previous night, and another vicious and violent criminal was dead. I didn’t know whether they’d yet found the body. Oddly, they were doing that more these days – showing those ‘disturbing’ bits of film from CCTV. I didn’t always kill the criminal, but sometimes I did. There had been a few old people find me, as well. Strangers. It was a mystery to me how they found me, how they knew to even look.
The same dress I’d worn at that brief bail hearing, and maybe they were right that I was getting too thin. It was loose on me. Jenny and Renzo would be there for the duration, and even though I’d said they should not take leave from their jobs for my sake, they took no notice. Debbie had come down from Canberra and was staying with them. Even Kane was there that first day, though he would not be able to stay long. Mandy and Skye were in the important senior years at school. They would not be in attendance. In any case, Debbie said it would upset them, if not the trial, then the aggressive reporters. The trial of Shirley Bridgewater, sweet little grandmother and Order of Australia recipient, accused of being a serial killer, was getting enormous attention.
It’s hard to remember that first day, only that the judge took one look at me, and said that I was not to be made to stand for long periods. So I gave him a timid smile, looking as harmless as I could, and was grateful to be able to sit.
There didn’t seem to be much of importance raised that day, mostly just the prosecution summarising the evidence against me. And even when they did their best, they simply could not make it sound as damning as they wanted. Just two – Patricia Atkinson (Darling Pat) and Peter Prescott. Pat – I’d been there when she died, and I’d been heard to say that life after a severe stroke was not worth living. Peter Prescott – that his wife had seen me with a syringe in hand and that I’d been heard to say that the decline of an Alzheimer’s patient was so desperately sad. I could not possibly be convicted on such feeble evidence, not for this. I knew of cases where men had been convicted on more feeble evidence, but that had been for historic sexual abuse of children which seems to be a special case – the ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ part forgotten. Rolf Harris? And they’d used ‘witnesses of bad character’ like one woman who’d testified that forty years ago – something like that – he’d put his hand on her behind when dancing. Didn’t every man do that in those days? But Rolf was rich and famous and was maybe standing in for the notorious paedophile who’d died before he could be punished. I didn’t think there would be ‘witnesses of bad character’ about me. No-one stood to make money from my conviction.
Over the next days, there were witnesses. Edwin Hardwicke, who said that he’d wondered a couple of times, when patients had died suddenly, but that each time, Shirley Bridgewater had been nowhere near. But yes, ‘the lady’ had always been concerned when residents were in pain, and she’d been insistent that there be something done. Erdogan, who testified that Bridgewater had ‘made a nuisance of herself’ because she wanted him to take over some of Hardwicke’s patients in the hope that he would better treat pain. And Crystal Cookson, who said that she specialised in pain management, that Shirley had been the first to contact her, but that she was seldom called in these days, that Dr. Hardwicke was also expert. Sue Dreyfus, Head Nurse, who, on close questioning, acknowledged that I would sometimes say things like ‘so-and-so would prefer to be dead than like that,’ or ‘old age is so cruel’ or ‘we do better for our pet dogs and cats than we do for our own species.’
But then my barrister took over the questioning, and she declared that I was wonderful, that I was very much missed, and that she didn’t believe that anyone had seen me with a syringe, or with insulin, and she doubted that I knew how to inject a bolus of air to cause an embolism – ‘which is not nearly as simple as it sounds, or patients would be dying all the time.’
It appeared that the prosecution was intending to go deeply into the case of Peter, and only then, talk about Pat. They had not the slightest evidence that I’d done anything to Pat aside from being there, holding her hand when she died. I should never have been charged with her death, even if there was some slight evidence for Peter.
Every day, in different dress, but with the same emphasis on gentle, slightly old-fashioned frailty, I stood with the others as the judge entered, and then was permitted to sit for the rest of it. I had not yet been asked to give evidence myself. If necessary, that was to come later in the trial, Andrew told me. He’d finally told me to call him ‘Andrew’ as two ‘Mr. Haseldines’ could be a bit confusing. His brother did not suggest I could call him ‘Ken.’
The prosecution’s ace – Cynthia Calder-Prescott. Peter’s wife, now widow, presented an appearance of solemn dignity, and she answered the initial questions with assurance. That yes, she had seen Shirley Bridgewater emerging from her husband’s room with a syringe in her right hand, but quickly concealed when she saw someone there. Yes, she seemed somewhat upset – ‘there were tears in her eyes.’ Yes, she had asked that Shirley Bridgewater not be permitted to see her husband – “I’d heard rumours about her putting down patients, you see? I didn’t trust her.”
“Rumours?” the prosecuting lawyer asked, and she started to list a few names, but was silenced when my barrister’s objection was upheld. Rumour was not evidence, and yet the seed had been planted in the minds of the jury, and the judge’s instruction to ‘disregard’ that evidence was of little use.
I couldn’t understand why his wife had such a hatred for me. I tried to ‘see’ her as I could see almost anyone else. I had no intention of making her die – I only killed the really bad ones. But Cynthia Calder-Prescott, I could not see. She did not seem evil, and yet she was lying through her teeth, a lie that could condemn me to many more years of prison.
I looked over at the ones watching, wondering if any of her family was there. The daughter was Tiffany, married to Trevor Gilmore. I’d only been introduced that once, and probably would have forgotten if their names had not been in the newspapers. Tiffany wasn’t there, but her husband was, looking coolly imperturbable. I made the effort and I could ‘see’ that one. There was no suggestion of evil. I knew the feel very well now, and had killed scores. I didn’t even know if I had the ability to kill someone without that taint. I’d never tried, not counting the ones who wanted and needed to die, of course. That was different, done out of compassion. The bad ones were done out of care for all of us, especially for small children. I’d killed several men who’d liked to use children for sex.
I wondered again what they were saying about the trial on facebook. The jury had been warned to keep right away from any discussion on social media. For the first time, it occurred to me that it could only be a week or two now and I’d be free. There was just no evidence except for one unsubstantiated assertion made by someone with a far greater motive than I had. Andrew would cross examine her next. He’d told me he would hammer her. I’m not a vindictive type usually, but this time, I was very much looking forward to it. If not for that woman’s lie, I would still have been free.
I caught the eye of Renzo, and he smiled encouragingly. My family were there every day. I seldom looked at them as it made me want to cry. But it was important to me that they were there. Never, ever, had they indicated the slightest suspicion that I could be guilty of wrongdoing.
I had expected that some of those observing would be hostile, but if there were any, none were showing it aside from Cynthia, who’d looked at me with utter hatred, though only once that I’d actually seen.
Cynthia’s testimony. Yes, she knew that her husband had once had an affair with Shirley, but no, she had no knowledge of any continuing sexual relationship. Yes, she’d been seeing him a lot once in Shades. Yes, she’d asked that she not be permitted to see him, but no, it was not that she was in any way jealous and that it was only that she didn’t trust her to care for his wellbeing.
To me, it sounded more like the whining of a wife who thought she was being two-timed than anything truly damning. But the following day, Andrew would start the cross examination.
He started fairly mildly, establishing that the ‘affair’ had been six months before he’d married her, even before she and Peter had been more than acquaintances. I was unsure whether it even met the definition of ‘affair.’ Surely one of the participants had to be married to be an ‘affair.’ It had been so short-lived, about three weeks, and only in that last week had we gone to bed together. I’d been fully and absolutely in love. I’d thought it returned, but then he’d quite abruptly told me it was over because there was someone else that he wanted to ask out. At least he hadn’t overlapped. He’d had that much honour, and I sighed. I’d been dumped for Cynthia Calder, someone with looks, and someone who would inherit some of the best country around along with the massive house and the accumulated wealth of generations.
And then Stan had come along, and I smiled as I stared into the distance. Stan Bridgewater, who’d appreciated me for myself. I’d never felt that same giddy ‘in love’ feeling for Stan, but it was love, all the same, a tender and loving friendship that had lasted. Would it have lasted with Peter? For years, we’d met occasionally, just by accident, and he’d shown nothing more than a somewhat remote friendliness, and I’d taken care to do the same. But then there had been that ecstatic greeting when he’d first seen me at Shades.
Andrew was cross examining Cynthia about that now – how she’d felt about her husband showing his delight at meeting his old love. That was the phrase he used, his old love. And Cynthia snapped that he’d never loved anyone else, that Shirley, and she spoke my name with anger and contempt, had never meant anything to him.
I started feeling sorry for her when he hammered again and again at this sore point, until Cynthia’s facade of dignity was in shreds. It was established that in those last weeks in the nursing home, Peter had wanted Shirley, not Cynthia. That Shirley had gone there often, while Cynthia had made a visit just once a week, and Cynthia said defensively that she had other duties to tend to, that she had a sheep station to manage, investments to oversee, her charities…
“Duties more important than your husband?” Andrew said derisively, but withdrew it when there was an objection and Cynthia started to cry. There was a short break then.
All that day, Andrew attacked her, and took not the slightest notice when I sent a message to him to please give her some mercy. And suddenly, I did have that insight into her mind that I called ‘seeing.’ She hadn’t killed Peter, and she was entirely convinced that she’d seen me with a syringe in my hand. I could see her picture of it, me quickly trying to hide the thing I held. Andrew was not going to shake her testimony, no matter how he ripped into her. It didn’t matter that she’d never seen what she thought she’d seen, she ‘knew’ she had.
He finally abandoned the attempt, and Cynthia’s testimony stood, that she had seen me with a syringe, and yet it had also been shown that she resented me and had resented me for a long time, long before Peter had begun to forget words. It was not stated that their marriage had been a shallow thing, but it had become apparent, certainly to me, probably to the jury.
When the prosecution announced that they wanted to examine several deaths that I was not being charged with in order to ‘establish a pattern,’ Andrew objected to it as irrelevant, but the objection was over-ruled, and Edwin Hardwicke took the stand again. It was he who was questioned about all the deaths deemed ‘suspicious’ that had occurred at Shades – Graham Larnoch, died, no apparent cause. Yes, Shirley Bridgewater knew him. Loretta Spicer, died, no apparent cause. Yes, Shirley Bridgewater knew her. David Duval, died, no apparent cause. He’d called out to her when he saw her, and a few days later he was dead. Lucy Bishop, Zane Cowan, Janice Burr, Mavis Brimshaw, Moira Morgan, five others.
But then Andrew took over, and each time, established that Shirley Bridgewater was not present, and often, there were old records to confirm that she was not present. Almost always, the deaths had been quietly, in the night. Pat, of course, had been an exception, but they had not yet brought up the matter of her death.
Andrew had not expected that line of questioning to be allowed by the judge, but had prepared anyway. The price of the investigator had not been wasted. He started with another series of questions, another series of nursing home patients who’d died without apparent cause. But these were patients whom I didn’t know, some from when I was away from Conjee, others from when I was in prison and obviously could not have had anything to do with the deaths, and yet others from another nursing home for whom Hardwicke was the doctor, the small one at Djangelo, around fifteen kilometres from Conjee.
And he asked Ed, “So why have these people died?”
“These are old, sick people. They die. There does not need to be human intervention to cause them to die.”
“So you don’t think that Shirley Bridgewater did anything to them?”
And bless the man, he declared that Shirley Bridgewater was a saint and every one of the residents wanted her back.
My eyes teared up at that – I missed them, too. I missed my outside friends as well. The other prisoners – it surprised me when I realised that they had become friends as well, but I didn’t think I’d grieve when I left them. I hoped I would soon be leaving them. Andrew Haseldine was doing a very good job. It would be time for him to call his witnesses soon, but Ed Hardwicke, witness for the prosecution, had just given us an ace.
They knocked off for the day. They were quite short days of ‘work,’ and I thought that must be part of the reason why it was always so long between the offence and the trial – inefficiency and laziness on the part of the justice system. It is not fair when innocent people are kept in limbo for so long before the trial, whether they are kept in prison, as I had been, or allowed out on bail. It had been two years now, for me. They’d not yet mentioned Pat Atkinson – that was odd.
They mentioned her the following day, but it was as if the prosecuting attorney had already given up. Sue Dreyfus – that one of the nurses had gone in to check, and had found the patient with closed eyes, not breathing, dead. Shirley was still holding her hand, maybe not even knowing that her old friend had gone.
And then the ‘nurse,’ Beverley Linden. Pre-empting Andrew, the prosecutor quickly established that she was not a qualified nurse, but had successfully completed the six month course to become a ‘carer.’ They were commonly referred to as nurses, and referred to themselves as nurses. I’d heard that the course was not demanding, even that they never failed anyone.
Her testimony, that Pat was unresponsive, but it was not thought that she would die. That she was not on morphine or anything else as she was deeply unconscious and not in pain. And, “It was her. I knew it was her. Because when patients died like that, no reason, it was always her that was near.”
“So how did she kill her?”
“Well, we couldn’t search her, could we? But we all thought that she done a lot of them.”
“Killed, do you mean?”
“So what was the method used?”
“Insulin. There was some taken once, but then she must’ve got it somewhere else. Would’ve been easy enough, I reckon.”
It sounded damning, but there was not much in it other than her opinion. When Andrew did the cross examination, he demolished poor Bev. In the end, she admitted that there was no evidence at all to say that Shirley had ‘done’ any of them, and plenty of evidence that she had not – especially that in every case but Pat’s, she was nowhere near at the time of death.
It was time for the Defence to bring forward their witnesses. I had asked Andrew how much I needed to worry since their case seemed so weak, but he’d said that he had a strong suspicion that politics was interfering – that too many politicians and judges were far too religious to be unbiased. He was planning to cover all bases. He started preparing me to go on the stand, warning me that any tearful admission would totally wreck the case.
I shook my head. “There will be no tearful admission. I did not kill Peter or Pat or anyone else.”
“Good. Hold to that.”
I asked him, puzzled, “Can you honestly think that I did kill some of them?”
He shrugged, “My job is to get you off. It’s irrelevant what I think.”
“But if you think that – how do you think I killed people?”
“Well, it would not have been so hard to get a key to let yourself in after dark…”
I considered it, and finally shook my head. “They may have been short-staffed more often than not, but it would have been a colossal risk to be found there after-hours and without a reason. And getting a key? I’m not quite sure how. I’ve never thought about it.”
He was looking at me thoughtfully, and finally shrugged again. “As I said, irrelevant.”
I didn’t like it, though. If he could think me guilty without the slightest reason, so could the jury.
It was another fortnight before I took the stand. In the meantime, there had been expert witnesses who testified that it was not infrequent that people died without apparent cause, especially old people and that science did not always have the answers. Another string of names that I could not have possibly killed and yet had died anyway ‘without apparent cause.’ The list happened to include one whom I did kill – a particularly vile paedophile, a former priest, quite elderly, but still happy to rape little boys, even if he did need the help of Viagra. It also included Evelyn Goodchild – Evie – whom I’d released when she’d had enough, but I’d done that from the bed in the prison hospital ward.
There were testimonies from some of the residents of Shades, by video link, plus some from relatives of those who lived there, presenting in person – that I was a good person and helped a great deal, that they trusted me absolutely. The same from some of the staff, who said how I was greatly missed and they didn’t think I would do anything to hurt any of the residents. Each time one of them made that statement, it was questioned in cross examination – that they might think I would not hurt a resident, but that maybe I would think I was helping them by releasing them from life? None said I might have helped them to die, but when asked that question, they all hesitated before answering. It was easy to see that their hesitation could have sown doubt in the minds of the jury.
It was July by that time, and the weather had turned viciously cold, the heating in the court quite inadequate in my opinion. Andrew told me all the better if I was seen to be shivering, that anything that made me appear defenceless and vulnerable was all to the good.
I was to be the final witness, and Andrew questioned me very simply, ‘Did you kill Peter Prescott?’ I said no. ‘Did you kill Pat Atkinson?’ I said no. ‘Did you kill anyone else, anyone at all?’ I said no.
Andrew said something about me being the last witness for the Defence, and then the prosecuting attorney took over – Michael Gaunt, droopy eyes, sandy hair streaked with grey, a sad look about him. And yet he was vicious, and attacked me viciously, especially about my ‘relationship’ with Peter Prescott. For instance, ‘I put it to you that you had a continuing affair with Prescott for many years and then did away with him when you thought he might tell his wife.’ And ‘Was it mercy? Did you think you were being merciful when you killed people?’
But when he asked if I’d been two-timing Stan, I became indignant and furiously declared that I’d loved my husband very much and would never have dreamed of going with anyone else.
“You wouldn’t?” he said derisively, and I replied, very firmly, “No, I would not. Even if I’d been good-looking and desired, I would not have cheated Stan, who was a good, sweet man. I never looked for anyone else.”
“So why did Peter Prescott greet you like that?”
“I’ve lived in Conjellaback for nearly all my life, while Peter worked there for most of his, and lived only around ten miles away. We saw each other occasionally on the street when shopping, things like that. I would not have expected him to remember me with his mind going.”
“Ah, yes, his mind going. Was it really going?”
“I didn’t think he was so bad, just became a little confused sometimes.”
“His wife said that he’d become silent, that sometimes he didn’t seem to know even his own family.”
It was not a question and I didn’t answer except in my head, that maybe he had reason. I detested Cynthia, the son-in-law seemed a cold man, but I didn’t know the daughter – she’d never attended court. I wondered if the daughter could have killed Peter – maybe in the hope of an earlier inheritance. It could explain Cynthia’s conviction that she’d seen me, syringe in hand. She would not have wanted to think her daughter could do it, and so she’d first imagined that image, and had then tricked herself into thinking it true.
But probably he had just died. That list of deaths without apparent reason had impressed me. People do just die. There does not need to be human intervention.
Gaunt was still waiting, maybe in the hope of a ‘tearful admission’ as Andrew had suggested, or maybe he just didn’t know where to go from there.
But quite suddenly, he demanded harshly, “How did you feel when your old love died as you watched? Did it make you happy? Is it because you were expecting a proposal but instead, he preferred someone else?”
I was confused at the questions flung at me, and he snapped at me, “Answer the question?”
“Which question?” I asked feebly, and he sneered at me, “Did it make you happy to see Peter Prescott die?”
“I didn’t see Peter die. I knew only when they rang me the following day and told me.”
There were more questions like that. It was as great a hammering as Andrew had dealt to Cynthia Calder-Prescott.
At nearly the end of the third day, he asked, in a deceptively innocent tone, “Do you believe in euthanasia, Mrs. Bridgewater?”
Andrew had discussed this likely question, and I answered as we'd agreed. That in any survey, 80% of people agreed that voluntary euthanasia should be allowed. And that I, too, agreed that a person should be permitted to choose a painless death when it was time, and that when it was time, it was what I'd choose for myself.
“Ah ha!” he said triumphantly. “So you do admit that you’ve euthanized people.”
“I had a dog euthanized once. Poor thing was dying with cancer, in a lot of pain. So I held his paw as the vet put him to sleep. But that was a dog. I have never killed a human being.”
“What about Stan?” he demanded. “Your husband, who lived for years in an unresponsive state. Did you kill him?”
The sudden reminder upset me badly, and there was a pause in proceedings. I’d tried so hard not to become upset, but what had happened to Stan – a tragedy that had lasted far too long. If I’d known then how to ‘see’ him… If I’d known then that it was possible to free him, I would have done so. Pat, whose spirit had grabbed so hard onto mine when I’d come for her. Davo, the same. Each time I’d freed someone like that, they had been begging for release. Yes, I would have freed Stan if only I’d known how.
They gave me a half hour break, and Andrew gave me a pep talk – ‘For God’s sake, stay strong. You can’t ruin it now!’
So I stayed strong and I didn’t ruin it. I didn’t kill anyone, didn’t know how to kill anyone, would not have killed anyone if I had known how.
Gaunt thought he might nearly have won with his questions about Stan, and kept circling back to him, again and again, even when Andrew made frequent objections. Since I was not accused of my husband’s death, his line of questioning was not only irrelevant, but unnecessarily cruel. But each time, Andrew’s objections were overruled.
Gaunt gave up in the end, and I returned to my cell, exhausted. And Anna and Hilly and Narine and Joy and all the others poured on gentleness and care. Many of them had never experienced the gentleness and care that they lavished on me. I was grateful. I could not have endured cruel treatment. Even the guards were kind to me.
It was getting to an end. Closing statements by the prosecution, and then by the defence.
And then the judge made a lengthy statement to the jury – that it was irrelevant whether they agreed with euthanasia, voluntary or not. That murder was murder and against the law. That they had to carefully consider the evidence that had been presented to them, and not to be influenced by any feeling of pity for the defendant.
I thought that was a bit mean of him to say that. It really sounded like he was urging a guilty verdict in spite of so little evidence for a guilty verdict.
And so the jury retired to consider their verdict. A quick verdict was probably good news, Andrew told me. The more time they took was often an indication of a divided jury and ultimately of a guilty verdict.
I didn’t see how they could convict me of murder on so little evidence, but I was very much afraid that they would.
The days dragged by. After the first day, I asked to go back to my job in the library. It was something to do. I enjoyed organising the books, and I had come to respect Paul Hafezi, though I would not call him ‘friend.’ We’d begun to have some good discussions, especially since the beginning of the year. Someone else had taken my place since the trial had begun, Corrie Kasteele, incurably lazy, and nasty in an underhanded way. She didn’t care; she hadn’t liked working nearly alone.
Paul greeted me with an unexpected warmth when he saw me, and said that he’d never expected to see me again. Not long later, I was working in a back area, pulling out books that had been shoved, often backwards and sideways, into the wrong section. And then he was there and said, “Here, take this.”
I glanced at the three pages of notepaper, and looked at him, puzzled. It was not any sort of best wishes or anything as I’d briefly thought, but a list of names, with notes beside each one, written small. He explained in a low voice, “These are Islamic leaders. Do what you can do, and there’s a chance that the heart will go out of the Islamist movement. No more terrorism, and that’s far more important than putting a few old people to sleep.”
I didn’t know what to say, and he said abruptly, “You’re going to be freed, almost for sure. I thought I’d left it too late.”
I looked again at the pages and he said, “Hide them in a book. Your books are never checked.”
I picked up a book at random, and tucked the pages into it. Paul smiled and said, “Think about it. No need to tell me you can’t do anything; it’s just in case.”
I turned back to the shelves, feeling myself in a turmoil. Paul picked up a pile of the books I’d removed from the section and took them to where they belonged.
By the time I was escorted back to W2, the pages were tucked into my bra. The books I took to read might never have been checked, as Paul’s always were, but what if I’d dropped it and the pages had fallen out? It didn’t happen often, but sometimes, pain would lance through a wrist, the strength go out of my grip and then often, I would drop whatever I was holding. This was criminal stuff. If I was seen with that list and then those men died… What would happen to me? It was still the same, of course – quite impossible for me to have been involved when someone far away simply died, usually in their sleep.
And Paul knew – somehow. There was no evidence to say I’d killed Pat, almost none to say that I’d killed Peter Prescott. But that Paul had given me that list had made it seem far more likely that I’d be found guilty.
Three more days passed, then the weekend, two more days. The jury debated. There was little said in the newspapers or on TV, but Jenny told me there was endless speculation on Facebook and Twitter. Paul Hafezi made no further reference to the matter, and nor did I. I asked Miss Bufton what happened if I was found not guilty – was I free to go at that moment? And how could I say goodbye to my friends here? And what about my possessions? I would need to pack.
She said, quite kindly, that I would return to be properly ‘processed out,’ and that there would be a chance to say goodbye.
I gave a rueful smile and said, “I hope I am found not guilty. Mr. Haseldine told me that the longer they talk about it, the more likelihood of a guilty verdict.”
“You’re not guilty,” she said with assurance. “None of us here think you are guilty.”
I wondered, in that case, why I’d been kept in prison, and why such a secure prison. But that had always been a mystery. The answer I’d had from Haseldine – ‘politics’ – didn’t really explain anything. But I said no more to Miss Bufton. The other prisoners never liked the ones who ‘sucked up’ to the warders.
Word finally came, and I was told to get ready, just as quickly as possible. My clothing had been waiting, and I did the makeup myself, almost as expert now as Joy. And then I was whisked off to the court house to face the jury and to hear their decision.
“What do you think?” I asked Andrew the moment I saw him, but he answered that my guess was as good as his. It was not reassuring. They could not find me guilty, not with such feeble evidence.
I tried to be strong as the court assembled and I was led to the dock and told to stand. But it was hard. I felt as if my breath refused to come. I felt as if my legs might refuse to hold me.
There were surreptitious glances at me from the members of the jury as they filed in. Was that good or bad? I was sure that it was significant.
The formula, “Members of the jury, have you reached a decision?”
And the foreman of the jury stood and said, “We have, your honour.”
I tried to hold onto my dignity, but I could not, just staring at him desperately. A young man, too young, I felt, to take part in such a weighty decision.
There was no evidence at all that I had killed Pat. The verdict was not guilty. But I waited. Peter Prescott, the one I could have married if he’d not preferred Cynthia Calder. She’d testified that she’d seen me with a syringe, but she’d been shown to be a wife jealous with little cause. I wished he’d get on with it. I was almost fainting with the tension.
“Not guilty,” he finally said, in answer to the question put to him, and I sagged with uttermost relief. There were cheers from those sitting in court, and I noticed the foreman of the jury smiling at me. I’d thought him too young, but it appeared that it might have been the verdict that he’d wanted. They’d taken so long to decide, and I wondered just who of those on the jury had wanted to see a gentle old lady locked up on almost no evidence at all.
Such a confusing time. Laughter and cheers and calls from the press wanting statements. A smile and a nod from Andrew, but no more, and I suspected he still thought me somehow guilty. Ken Haseldine was there, too, somewhere, but it was all such a confusion and I was relieved to be taken back into the quiet of one of the inner rooms where almost my whole family were waiting – Debbie and Chris, her husband, whom I hadn’t seen for ages, Jenny and Renzo, and then Kane came in to give me such a tight hug and a kiss on the cheek with a very gentle, “It’s all right now, Granny. You’re coming home.”
That was too much. I started to cry and couldn’t seem to stop until Jenny shooed out all the others and sat with me, arm around me until I was able to stop. One of the court officers poked her head in after a while, and said that when I was ready, I was to return to Baldoon – ‘a few formalities.’
“Ten minutes?” I said tentatively, and she nodded and disappeared. The staff here, the staff at the prison, they had all been good to me. Even when I’d seen them being rough with others, I was always treated as gently as possible within the rules. Miss Bufton had said that none of them thought me guilty. They’d be pleased to be proven right. I thought of Paul’s list, again in my bra, each page folded to be as small as possible so that no lumps were visible. They hadn’t searched me in so long, and they surely wouldn’t now – I was declared not guilty.
Back at Baldoon, that had almost, but not quite, become ‘home.’ Hugs and congratulations and Tilly whispered to me that I’d made such a difference to her, that she was going to be a good person now when they let her out. Anna said something similar. I had no faith that it would happen, but I was hardly going to say that. Louise, who gave me such a hug that I could barely breathe. There were some big, strong women in Baldoon. Maybe that was part of the reason they ended there – our culture doesn’t seem to allow for big, strong women. She told me that next time she saw me on TV, I had to have put on at least ten kilos in weight, and I said that I had no intention of being on TV ever again.
I carried one small bag, and a guard carried a much larger bag with a few personal possessions. Hillary was allowed to come with me, and she had the framed pictures. I hadn’t even thought where I was to go, but Jenny said I was to live with them for a while, and then Kane casually announced that he was to be married soon and he wanted me there. Jenny and Renzo both turned to him in surprise and he grinned and said that he hadn’t actually asked her yet, but he was fairly confident.
I said, “She couldn’t possibly refuse you.”
He twinkled at me, “Not everyone sees me through the eyes of a doting grandmother, you know.”
Jenny and Renzo treated me so well as I tried to readjust to life outside. To begin with, there was a multitude of reporters camped outside, but Renzo took charge and organised a press conference, so I could get it over in one go. I had three days to get used to the idea, and then I faced them. I saw them at that moment as predators, feeding on misery. All the same, they didn’t treat me too badly – questions like what it was like being a respectable lady one minute and a prison inmate the next. How I felt about the trial and then the jury taking so long to decide. I was asked if I believed in euthanasia and I gave the same answer as I’d given at the trial – that like the majority of people, I believed that voluntary euthanasia should be lawful, and I said that when my turn came (not yet) I would want to choose death before I became totally helpless, earlier if I was in severe pain. There was a follow-up question, a young woman using a carefully innocent tone, “Have you ever euthanized anyone?”
I gave her a short answer, “No.”
There were a few more questions, most of them repeats of those I’d already answered, and then it was over, except that I held up a hand and said my piece – how very, very grateful I was to those who’d donated money for my defence, and that the remainder had already been distributed to various charities, with a copy of the list available to any reporter who wanted it. The leftover amount was less than I’d expected. The lawyers had cost a ridiculous amount, and yet without that expert legal help, I really think I would have been found guilty, maybe even of several deaths. It made no sense that they should have gone after me as hard as they had.
The media mostly lost interest then, though there was one TV show that kept offering more and more money to get me on their current affairs show. It had to be an ‘exclusive’ though, they said, so I was not to talk to any other reporters or the offer didn’t stand. So far, I’d refused. I thought I’d had enough exposure to last a lifetime.
I was getting a great deal of mail at that time, almost all of it from strangers, but also congratulatory letters from those at Conjee, even some from warders at Baldoon, including a few from ones I scarcely knew, like Steven Brock. But I couldn’t stay with Jenny and Renzo forever, and I arranged a post office address. I didn’t want them put to any more trouble for me, and I fully expected hate mail, maybe even death threats.
There was an email address as well, but only for family and friends. I had no intention of making that public.
Three weeks after my release from prison, Kane married his sweetheart. He’d travelled all around the world in the course of his job, was earning a first class salary, but the one he married was a girl who’d grown up just a few houses away. It was a small wedding, just his family and hers. I wasn’t sure if that was what he’d wanted, or what she had wanted, or whether it was because of his grandmother’s notoriety. There was also the fact that there had been so little notice. She hadn’t even been an official fiancée a month before.
And yet it was a lovely wedding. The bride, Kirsty, had red hair and freckles. I would not have called her pretty, but in her happiness, she was beautiful. I thought it said something for Kane’s character that he’d married this very nice young woman when he would have had the choice of far prettier models. Her parents spoke to me with politeness, and tried hard to conceal their intense curiosity. Kirsty’s grandmother was also there, her mother’s mother, probably a similar age to myself, and yet looking very different – expensively dressed, obviously expensively dressed, eyebrows unnaturally high and a smile with a strangeness in it, almost a smirk. I diagnosed an excess of cosmetic surgery and Botox. She was friendly enough, probably a perfectly nice lady. Her name was Veronice, though I did wonder if she might have been a mere ‘Veronica’ when younger, maybe even nicknamed ‘Ronny.’ I rather enjoyed that thought. I do not admire people who try and put on airs.
Late in the evening, there was something that brought tears to my eyes – I tended to be overly emotional in those days. Kirsty asked me if it was all right if she called me ‘Granny’ as Kane called me, because Veronice hated to be treated like a grandmother, and her dad’s mother had died a long time ago. I told her I’d love it if she called me ‘Granny.’
They were all so good to me. I don’t know how I would have coped if I’d been shunned by the ones I loved. Jenny told me to consider her home my home as long as I wanted, for the rest of my life if I chose. It was incredibly sweet of her, so generous, but I had no intention of taking her up on it. I had to organise my own life. They’d kept my car safe for me, used occasionally when Kane visited, seldom otherwise, and yet it had been kept registered. Luckily my drivers’ license had not come up for renewal when I was inside – I would not have liked to have to sit a test again. But I was tentative when I started to drive again. I’d never liked driving in big cities, and Melbourne was very big and busy. But I soon gained confidence and became more independent.
To begin with, being recognised was a problem, and to combat that, I changed my appearance when I planned to go out – a bandana around my head, blonde wig visible underneath, tight jeans and T-shirts with words on them – innocuous words, but several, not something that could be taken in at a bare glance. If other people were like me, it was automatic to try and read any words, and that would make it less likely they’d look at my face and wonder where they’d seen me before. That was my theory, at any rate. Different makeup – heavy lipstick, and eye-liner that made my eyes look different. Sunglasses whenever there was an excuse, but sunny days were rare that winter, sleet and strong winds more the norm.
My house was long gone, my savings gone, though I had accepted $10,000 from the defence fund. Renzo said I was entitled to take all of what I’d spent on my defence, but I hadn’t wanted to do that. My only income was from the private annuity that was paid by Stan’s insurance, sufficient for my needs only as long as I didn’t have to pay for accommodation. I conceded that I would have to apply for a pension. It was not that I was ashamed to go to social security, more that I didn’t want to have any further government interference in my life. That list that Paul had given me – I hadn’t done any research yet, and I couldn’t find anyone just from a name, but it was on my mind. Paul had thought that if I killed them, the Islamist movement might just collapse, and that would be a major benefit to the whole world. What was the latest? A poor old priest in France, and they’d interrupted a church service in order to slit his throat, maybe an attempted beheading, but they’d found it harder than they’d expected to saw through the spine of the neck.
There was something every week, something almost every day. I was going to try and do something about it, but there was no point being in too much of a hurry. I had to be careful and I had to make plans.
It was September. Melbourne is famous for its changeable weather, and that year, spring started with days of ferocious weather, winds strong enough to cause damage in several suburbs. But then came the most beautiful sunny day, even if not exactly warm. It made me happy to look out my window, happy to have a stroll in a nearby park, and it was on this day that I made the decision to take up the offer from that current affairs programme. I needed money for what I planned to do, and their offer was now at $160,000.
My family was stunned, and Jenny said again that she’d give me enough for whatever I wanted. But she’d done enough for me, and that much money for an interview, even if an upsetting interview, was well worth it. Even if, as Renzo said, they could be planning on an ambush. I’d been through a great deal these past couple of years – they would not destroy me with words. I briefly thought about them making me so angry that I killed someone, but I was pretty sure I couldn’t do that – not just because I was angry. They had to be either very bad people, or they had to be at the end of their lives and wanting it. To make someone faint? I hadn’t managed that since prison, and then it had not been an act of conscious will. I guessed I should try it – carefully.
I arrived at the TV station on the day and time nominated, all made up as I’d done for the trial – the ‘gentle old lady’ makeup, not the ‘more like a harpy’ makeup I used when I tried to avoid being recognised. The blonde wig I’d affected, worn under the bandana, was nowhere in sight.
But the moment I arrived, I was whisked off, makeup removed, and an expert took over. As far as I could see, there was not much difference in the final result, maybe a few more wrinkles concealed, eyes and mouth a little more defined. Hair was recombed and fluffed up. I appeared younger, not exactly attractive, but fair. It was still a ‘gentle old lady’ look.
After that, Freda Lane came in to brief me in person. Freda was the show’s main presenter. She told me again the areas she intended to cover, and she assured me there was to be no nasty cross examination, and she said with a disarming smile, that she was sure I’d had enough of that. She left me in the care of one of the helpers then, a woman who looked no more than a teenager, very beautiful, but without that quality of empathy that Freda managed to project. She was impatient, just sitting and waiting with me, occasionally tapping her toe and consulting a watch. Quite abruptly, she rose and said it was nearly time and then she sent me to the toilet – like a child before an excursion. I didn’t actually mind. When you are seventy, there are times when a toilet break cannot wait. Had someone told her that or did they do that to everyone they were about to interrogate? I was feeling a lot more nervous than when I’d first made the decision.
Nearly time. I was put in a comfortable chair, hair fluffed up a little yet again, a crease in clothing pulled smooth and patted down, a microphone attached, and I was told where to look and the light that indicated when we were ‘live.’
Freda took her chair almost at the last minute, and she smiled at me, trying to project confidence as she did to every guest she interviewed. I doubt if many of them felt it as clearly as I did. My nerves dropped away. Freda was not planning to give me a difficult time, not planning to ‘ambush’ me, as Renzo had suggested. I could do this.
The first question was carefully innocuous, easy to answer, but then the experienced interviewer went on to draw me out further. She was very good, but sitting so close, I could see that she was not as young as she appeared on TV. They’d probably sack her soon and look for a younger model. It was the way of TV, to some extent, the way of the world.
My experiences, the trial, conditions in prison, the food and that old complaint about the food hygiene. Louise would be watching, very likely, the woman prisoner who’d overseen the food preparation. I took the opportunity to mention her by name, (though only ‘Louise’ in case she preferred not to be publicly identified,) and said that she organised very well, and that the standard of hygiene was fine these days, “though I think I was being a little over fussy before.”
“Your standards were far higher before, I assume?” she said, and I hesitated. I didn’t want to criticise, and I said, rather vaguely, that I guessed that most people on the outside preferred to live in a clean and tidy environment.
She went into broader issues then – how residents of nursing homes were treated. I became heated as I said that while the staff did their best, there should be enough of them that when an old lady, for instance, needed help to go to the toilet, she should not have to wait and should not be made to feel guilty, whether it was once in the night or twelve times! That there should be help where needed, whenever needed. One of the old girls I’d known, for instance, said that a hot shower was her only real pleasure in the day, but they said they didn’t have the staff to help her every day, and she could only shower every second day. ‘They have so little, and yet they were denying her that small pleasure.’ The food. I said that the food should be good, sufficient in quantity and that when someone needed help to eat, it should be offered ungrudgingly. That cost should not be an issue and that old people should not have to pay a fortune for a place in a home that was not really a home, could never really be a home because they had no choice.
“So you’re saying the staff are not good enough?”
“Nearly all of them do their best. But there should be more of them and they should be better paid. I think it’s because nursing homes are run as profit-making concerns, but the old ones should not be fodder for some rich man to make himself more rich!”
“Fodder. These are people who’ve mostly led blameless and productive lives. Maybe you can’t make them young and strong again, but they should be given every comfort possible. And the ones dealing with them have to remember they are people to be respected, not someone lesser, someone merely to be ‘kind’ to as you’d be kind to a cute kid or a dog.”
“They’re not respected?”
“Oh, they look after them as well as they can. They just look down on them. Even the media when speaking of them, I’ve noticed. They say things like ‘eighty years young’ or they condescendingly refer to some old person who’s achieved something, maybe a hundredth birthday, as ‘cheeky.’ They don’t seem to realise that ‘cheeky’ is just a kinder word for ‘insolent.’ Calling a person insolent is an assumption that the person is inferior. People are not inferior just because they are old! It annoys me, that attitude. I see it often. Young ones don’t realise.”
Freda said, “On the local news just yesterday was a story about a man’s hundredth birthday. Thinking about it now… Yes, there was condescension in the attitude of the reporter. He didn’t realise himself, I am sure. I didn’t realise. It is something to think about.”
I smiled and sat back in my chair. “Then I’ve done something good.”
They went to an ad break then. It was getting towards the end of the time allowed. At the last, the question of euthanasia. It had been in the news a great deal in the past few weeks. There were potential laws being considered in South Australia now, as well as Victoria. One article, well written, well researched and considered, spoke of ‘the slippery slope’ and suggested that old people could be pressured into agreeing to it before they were ready.
I suppose it was a possibility if there were no safeguards, but that remote possibility was never going to change my mind. There were many who needed it, few who were at all likely to be talked into it when they were not ready. So I said as I’d always said, that voluntary euthanasia, yes, of course I was in favour of it, that no-one should be forced to live on when they’d rather be dead. And, quite indignantly, I referred to something that had happened a few years before, police raids on older people’s homes looking for Nembutal. “Harmless people,” I said. “Just interested in options, and they prioritised them over real drug dealers, bad drug dealers! Ice. Every addict knows a supplier. Someone told me you just have to ask. But the police would rather target old people who had no intention of harming anyone at all!”
“Maybe there was a complaint about them. Nembutal is illegal.”
“Ice is illegal. I am complaining. Half of those in prison now would not be there if the police did their job and really did wage a war against drugs rather than just pretending to.”
“An interesting point, but we’re getting off the subject,” and she glanced at the large clock, and said, “There is time for just one last statement. What do you especially want to say to the world?”
I took a deep breath. I’d been getting too heated, and the Ice epidemic was not what I was here to speak of.
“I would like everyone to understand that old people, and especially the residents of nursing homes, are people to be respected just as much as any person out on the street. They should not be condescended to, they should not be scolded for needing to go the toilet in the night, and they should not have to be grateful for every little bit of consideration that comes their way.”
The cameras were off me, and I leaned back and relaxed as Freda wound up.
And then she told me I’d done a great job, ‘some very valid points made,’ and one of the cameramen came over especially to say that his grandfather was in a nursing home, and always complained that while they gave him a beer, just one a day, it was in a plastic cup and always warm.
I nodded and said that while the complaint sounded trivial on the surface, it indicated that same feeling – that the residents of nursing homes were not entitled to the same consideration as everyone else expected as a matter of course.”
He grinned at me, “I’d be very cranky if my beer was warm.”
But then I was being steered out the back to where Jenny was waiting for me, and she, too, was warmly congratulatory. I’d done a good job, they all said that. More importantly, just as soon as payment was made, I could start on the next phase of my life. I’d been making plans.
Many years before, Stan and I had taken a caravan and travelled around Australia, ‘the circuit’ as some of our fellow travellers had referred to it. We’d been younger at the time, but most of those travelling were in their sixties and older, retired after a lifetime of work. They were what has come to be known as ‘the Grey Nomads,’ and there are hundreds of thousands of them. Stan and I had taken four months, the whole span of the long service leave he was owed. But I had no time limit. I could take as long as I liked.
But a caravan? I didn’t have the physical strength of a man and I was no longer young. I was unsure how I would manage.
So I looked at caravans and I looked at motor homes. And then a neighbour of Jenny’s mentioned that she knew of someone with a converted bus for sale. “It was his brother’s, and then the brother died.”
“A bus?” I said dubiously.
“A little one,” she said. “It might just suit you, though I don’t think it’s been unpacked yet.”
“I’d like a look…” and she made a phone call then and there. Michael Schaeffer, she said, and he lived less than a block away.
She was right that it would suit me. It was close to perfect, a twenty-seater bus that had been converted into a travelling home. If it had not been so compact, one could call it a luxurious travelling home. Painted white, with large and swirling stripes of red, orange and yellow – I had thought to be as inconspicuous as possible, but the sheer joyousness of the colours made my heart lift. The owner had been a Vietnam veteran, an amputee, and that was why there was a mobility scooter in the back. Just touch a button, and an opening appeared in the side of the bus and a ramp slid out, all smooth, all automatic. Mr. Schaeffer – ‘Call me Mike’ – demonstrated for me, and I had a go, even at moving the scooter down and then up again.
“Lived in it for nearly three years, travelling around Australia twice,” he told me. “Kev was always adventurous. Died of snakebite, way out west, and I had to drive it back while a mate drove the car. A pleasure to drive, too, smooth as silk. He was always fussy with his vehicles.”
There was a rollout awning. It didn’t even need to be pulled out, but was automatic with the press of a button, the same as the ramp for the scooter. Inside, the bus reeked of cigarette smoke, the bed was made up, though carelessly, presumably just as he’d left it. There were the man’s clothes in the cupboards and there were still some provisions – a few cans and packets of soup, coffee, sugar, tea, neatly packed in their containers so they wouldn’t move when the road was bumpy. There were saucepans, a frypan, crockery, cutlery, a torch, even a spare battery. A length of cord and a bag of clothes pegs, stored with a half used bottle of laundry liquid. There was a small dinette, suitable for no more than two people. Fridge, stove, microwave, TV, even a satellite dish for receiving TV where reception was poor. Just a single bed, one comfortable chair in addition to the dinette. It was compact, and yet every single thing that I needed was already there.
There was a toilet. I was pleased with that. I didn’t fancy going outside at night. No shower, but that was fine. One can have a wash without a shower, and anyway, every caravan park has its amenities block.
And the mobility scooter. It would come in handy when the shops were several blocks away from the caravan park. It had always been the disadvantage of motor homes, that you had to secure everything if you even needed to drive a few blocks to pick up a carton of milk and a loaf of bread. That or carry a bike, or even tow a small car, as some did. The scooter – it was a good, big one, fitting across the rear of the bus, with just sufficient space for the toilet on the other side, discreetly out of sight in a tiny cubicle.
“The scooter for an extra two thousand,” Mike said, “And everything else included. I’ve taken out the disposable food, and m’sister told me I had to clean the toilet straightaway so it doesn’t start to stink, so I did that. Needs new chemicals, though. So you take it, here and now, even the clothes and stuff. Means I won’t have the job of dealing with it. It hurts, you see? We were close, Kev and I. In Vietnam together.”
“If I find something I think you would like to keep?”
“Phone me if you do, but I did take his computer and camera.”
The price was reasonable, better than reasonable since there was so little to buy. Maybe nothing to buy, but I wouldn’t know until I started living in it. I thought that maybe there was a god after all, and that he – more like she – was looking after me. Everything would have to be washed, the soft furnishings cleaned as much as possible, and I’d just have to get used to the remaining tobacco smell. Everything else – it was just made for me.
There was a reversing camera. It made it a lot easier when I cautiously manoeuvred the bus out through the narrow driveway. It was a long time since I’d driven a vehicle larger than my small car, but I’d been competent once and had had a heavy vehicle license for over forty years. Thrilled with myself, I parked it outside Jenny’s home.
I was wearing the ‘bit of a harpy’ disguise when I went to transfer the vehicle registration, but all the same, the woman serving me glanced at the name, then at me. She smiled and said that I looked different and she thought I did a great job on TV, that she had a granny in a nursing home and all her clothes kept disappearing. Every time they brought in something nice, it would vanish. I said that at least that was one complaint I hadn’t met before, but there was a queue, and so she did what was needed, I paid what she asked and she told me good luck and called me by name. Others turned to look, and two others repeated the ‘Good luck.’ There was one, though, who glared at me and said something to his companion – something about murder.
My full name is Shirley Judith Bridgewater. I made the decision that I’d call myself Judy from then on, and simply avoid supplying a surname except when required. Judy, blonde, fluffy hair, at least whenever I went out. Judy, with tight clothing and heavy makeup, pretending to be younger than she was. Judy was almost never recognised.
The bus. My bus. I was so proud of it, and I was thrilled that I would soon go ‘on the road.’ I’d visit Conjee first, to see old friends, including those at the nursing home, though only once and with a friend beside me at all times. I didn’t want to make anyone nervous.
It might have been a little sad going through a dead man’s belongings, but it happened to be school holidays, and Debbie brought her daughters to stay with us and help. Mandy and Skye, eighteen and sixteen respectively. It was Mandy who discovered the store of pornographic magazines, me who discreetly disposed of a half empty packet of condoms. It seemed that Kevin Schaeffer had not allowed his lack of legs to hinder him from his chosen enjoyments, and I wondered where the snake had bitten him – obviously not on one of the artificial legs.
His good clothes, washed and ironed, went to a charity shop, others for rags. I decided to keep the half dozen books he’d carried. They were not what I usually liked to read, but it was a time for broadening horizons. They were on a bookshelf, upright, with a high ledge in front, even a spring that worked to keep them upright. There were all sorts of things like that, adaptations that meant that even over rough roads, things stayed put.
Right down deep, under the bed, I discovered a sheaf of writings, some old black and white photos, even some letters. I rang Mike about those. They were personal and he would probably prefer to keep them.
“Right,” he said. “And there’s something else you might like as an option to go with the bus. I’ll come over Saturday?”
We agreed on a time and I went back to my bus. I felt a real pride of possession in it. I hadn’t worried about the outside so far, but inside was fully emptied and scrubbed. It still had a faint odour of cigarette smoke, but that could not be helped. I sat in the driver’s seat, and started playing with the satellite navigation device – the GPS or ‘Satnav.’ It would be invaluable once I started travelling, though in my experience, they were not as good as they should be on country roads.
And then I started stocking it again. Almost everything that had been in it went back, but cleaned, whether or not it had needed it. And then, with immense satisfaction, I started putting a few of my own things in. Not everything yet, it would be a week yet before I left, but I was looking forward to it. I’d imposed on Jenny and Renzo for long enough. Even now, there were a lot of my things stored in their garage, a few in use in their house. The antique brass bed from Stan’s parents was now in a spare bedroom, for instance. I’d been sleeping in it since I’d left prison. I’d told them to use what they wanted, to sell or give away the rest. But they’d kept it safe for me, instead, though it took so much of their storage space. Everyone should have a wonderful family like mine.
I was inside the bus when Skye brought Michael Schaeffer around the back, and she gave me a whistle. I looked out, surprised to see that he had a dog with him, black, four white feet and white on his face and chest. He was pulling, and when Mike let him off leash, he galloped straight over to the door and leapt into the bus with me. And then he sniffed around as I still watched him, surprised, and he lay down next to the bed and looked at me.
Mike had followed him in, and I asked, “Kevin’s dog?”
“His name is Larry. Kev picked him up around eighteen months ago. He was not full grown then, and he had a broken leg. It was the middle of nowhere, and Kev reckoned that someone had thrown him from a moving car. No owner could be tracked, so Kev took him in. He’s desexed, he’s microchipped, and he’s fully trained as a travelling dog. Kev told me once he could point and say ‘Crap now,’ and he would. He’s accustomed to waiting with the bus if you go somewhere dogs are not welcome, and he’ll be a protection for you. Just a little lady all on your own, he’ll be a protection.”
I said quietly, “Larry?” and the dog came to me, sat at my feet and looked at me expectantly. I knelt and hugged him. I hadn’t thought of a dog, but I now knew that I absolutely did want a dog, this dog, Larry.
Mike was watching me with satisfaction. I asked who’d been looking after him, and he said that his sister, but that it was a long way from ideal, as she was out working every day. “An active dog in a small backyard – it’s just not a good arrangement. And he got out the other day and I found him back in my backyard.”
“I hope he doesn’t run away from me then.”
“So you’ll take him?”
I asked, “Larry? Will you be my dog?”
He barked and wagged his tail. I took it to be a yes.
Mike said, “Take him straightaway? I’ve got his bed in the car, dog chain, everything you’ll need.”
I had to sleep in the bus that night. I hadn’t been planning it, but Larry had been reluctant to come into the house, and Jenny didn’t really look pleased to have him inside, though Skye and Mandy were delighted. So I made up my bed, the same bedding that Kevin had used, and put Larry’s bed where I thought most suitable. Larry disagreed, and pulled at it until I put it where he wanted, next to the bed. I guessed I’d just have to make sure and not trip over him when I got up in the night. Maybe he thought he knew more about being a bus dog than I knew about being a bus lady.
Larry. The colouring was that of a Border Collie, the greyish flecking on the white of his legs indicated a Cattle Dog ancestor, but the shape of face and body appeared more Kelpie. Lean, athletic looking, a little smaller than most working dogs. I guessed half Kelpie, some Border Collie, a dash of Cattle Dog and a dash of a smaller breed, though goodness knows what. Whatever his breeding, he was a grand dog, and would be the best companion I could want. Probably some protection, as well. Almost any dog will try and protect his human, and if I was right about that fraction of cattle dog, he’d help protect my possessions even when I was not there. Cattle dogs are famous for that – or infamous. It was a cattle dog who’d bitten me once when I’d just been walking past his boss’s ute.
There would be disadvantages – some caravan parks did not allow dogs, and I’d have to keep right out of National Parks.
I was smiling when I went to bed, and suddenly realised something about myself. The old sadness of losing Stan had finally dropped away from me. I was happy.
It seemed to me that it had been a lifetime since I’d seen Conjellaback. Conjee. My own town. I drove into the caravan park and greeted the manager, Archie. I’d known Archie all my life. He’d grown up on a soldier settlement block not far from ours. Long, long ago, we’d been on the same school bus. He was a couple of years younger than I, but he was not in good health – or maybe was just a bit lazy. The amenities block was less than immaculate and the grass too long. Luckily, there were cement slabs to park beside, old and cracked, but perfectly usable.
The first thing was to let Larry out, and when I took him to a suitable place, he did indeed obey the instruction ‘Crap now.’ Kevin had taught him well, though I’d have to teach him different words. ‘Bathroom break,’ maybe? That was a bit mealy-mouthed, but I was a grandmother. If I wanted to be mealy-mouthed, I had a perfect right to be.
Then to set up my temporary home. It was not yet routine, and I refused when Archie offered help to roll out the awning. I had to learn to do it myself, and anyway, it was not difficult. Kevin had made things easy for himself, and the awning was automatic. Mike had shown me how, and I just had to remember just which of the buttons to push, and my button pushing resulted in the toilet hatch opening and the scooter ramp letting down before I had it right. But then the brown-striped awning smoothly slid out to provide me with some outside shelter. The electricity, the water hose and the drainage hose all had to be done manually, but none were difficult. There was no need for the satellite dish. TV was no problem in Conjee.
And then I brought out the scooter, set up a folding table and two folding chairs, and I was organised. I was unsure how long I would stay; it depended on my reception. A few days, maybe a week, and then I’d wander around Victoria for a bit before returning to Melbourne where I’d stay in Jenny’s backyard again until after Christmas. There was Paul’s list of Islamist leaders, but I wanted a little time for myself before even thinking about it. I’d spent two years in prison, and then the strain of a trial. I felt I needed to coddle myself for a time, a holiday. A little more time to recover.
I wasn’t planning on wearing the blonde wig in Conjee, and my clothes were the same as I used to wear. Not tight jeans and T-shirt, ‘mutton dressed up as lamb,’ as Jenny said – she didn’t like my disguise. Not the ‘innocent little granny’ look either, just fitted slacks and a shirt, a size smaller than I used to wear, and still a little big on me.
Gwen knew I was coming, had agreed that my dog would also be welcome when I came to visit, she had told me what time she wanted me to come, but I wasn’t expecting to find a crowd of people milling around me to pat me on the back while those further back cheered and clapped. Larry pressed closer to my leg, but showed no sign of aggression, to my relief. The utter surprise of it made me want to cry. Sandra, Maisie, Christine, all of those I’d never thought of as close friends. And I didn’t think it would last if I did try and treat them as close friends. But here, right now, they were acting as if I was a long lost member of the family. If any of the Conjee locals had their private doubts about whether I should still be in prison, no-one was showing it.
Sue Dreyfus was there, head nurse at Shades, wanting to know whether I was going to resume my volunteer work. She showed no indication that I would not be welcome; she was one who had no doubts about my innocence, and yet she preferred that I not go back to Shades. I could tell, and I could tell her relief when I said that I planned to visit just once, to say hello and goodbye, and that any of my friends there who wanted could write to me, and I’d leave my new address. So she said to bring Larry, that the residents would like to meet him, and we arranged to come the following day – Gwen and I. I wasn’t planning on being alone there, not even for a few minutes.
Sophy, the following day, asked for a hug and then whispered something that worried me – ‘How will I find you when I need you?’
“Just write,” I said, and gave her my card with the Post Office address, and explained that I checked it regularly, but would not have a fixed address for some time, maybe years. I was pretty sure that all she had to do was to think of me, or think of ‘the Death Mother’ and I would somehow ‘hear’ and do what she wanted. It was a regular thing now that strangers came in search of me, not really knowing what they were doing, not knowing that Shirley Bridgewater was the Death Mother. Could there be more ‘death mothers’? How could one possibly know? But when someone asked, when they were old and tired of life, I ended it for them. I didn’t know what I’d do if a suicidal youngster came searching. It had never happened. Somehow, I didn’t think it would happen.
I lingered a week in Conjee, and then packed up and went exploring inland Victoria, mostly a day only in each small town, until the routine of setting up the bus became automatic, and also the routine of securing loose objects when I started off again – though not before finding a mess of spilt milk and broken eggs one day – I had not properly locked the fridge. There was a broken bowl as well, which I’d carelessly left on the table. I kept in touch with family and friends by email, using the library facilities in whatever town I happened to be in.
Larry. He was a great dog, seeming totally willing to take me as the replacement for his old boss. According to Mike, it was because he’d seen the encounter with the snake, understood he was gone forever, and so was happy to accept the replacement. We’d exchanged a few emails.
One of the Shades residents visited me at that time, not Sophy, but Catherine McVeigh. She and Brian had been married seventy-one years. They were like one person, but Brian had just died, and she wanted to go as well. Few of those who somehow ‘found’ me, knew who I was, or were able to ‘talk’ to me, but Catherine did. Please, she said. I don’t want to live without him.
I could understand that. The sadness of losing my Stan had lasted so long. Anyone else would have argued with her, but I knew. She was sure, and she was very old herself. It was not as if she was young and healthy and had time to get over her loss.
So I did it for her, and then wiped away my own tears. I cried not for Brian and Catherine, who were beyond pain now, but for the loss of two more friends whom I’d known for so long. That is what mourning is, I think, not being sad for the person gone, who feels no more pain, but the sadness for yourself, for the loss you suffer. I’d concluded long ago that mourning was essentially selfish, though when I’d mentioned my conclusions to my mother, she’d warned me never, ever, to say such a thing to anyone else. I’d been just a child then, and it was just after her grandfather had died. So I never, ever said such a thing again, and most certainly not when my brother was killed. I cried for him, but it was not really for him. It was for my parents and for myself, those who had lost him. Richard was simply gone, and would never feel pain or grief again. And when I see people displaying a great show of grief for people who played no part in their lives – think Michael Jackson or Princess Diana – I doubt their sincerity. Mere show, I think, meant to proclaim what sweet and sensitive people they are.
I didn’t officially learn of the deaths of Brian and Catherine McVeigh until three weeks later, when I arranged for a sack of mail to be delivered to me at Mildura, a place I liked enough that I was pleased to stay there for more than a few days. I was still getting a great deal of mail, and now had a printer and paper with me in the bus beside my new laptop computer. Most of it was from strangers, and I’d devised three different form letters to answer standard questions – what I thought about this or that – they seemed to assume I was an expert, and the standard complaints that I could do nothing about, though I wished I could. Someone’s mother, who complained that the nursing staff had forgotten they’d left her on the toilet, and she’d sat there for an hour, freezing, no call button in reach. Another, who complained that her father was always showing bruises and she suspected the staff were abusive. Nursing home staff were not well screened, often not at all well trained, and some could be abusive. But also, old skin became so frail and bruised so very easily. And the standard blood-thinner medication they dosed old people with, made it worse. It was probably not abuse, but it could have been. It did happen. Not in ‘Shades of Salome,’ I told myself. Never in Shades.
There were letters and cards that were simply good wishes, and there were requests for more interviews, and a suggestion that I appear on the panel of a programme exploring better ways of handling the need for high care in old age. I declined. I’d had enough exposure; I didn’t want any more.
And there was some hate mail, even threats. I didn’t answer those, though I tried to answer everything else. It took some days to get through it all.
But it was time to think about more than my own pleasure – those twenty names that Paul Hafez had given me. Even now, I was unsure whether I would do anything, but if he was right, how many lives could I save? If Islamist leaders started dying in numbers, dying when no cause was visible, then maybe the fools would come to the conclusion that Allah didn’t like them murdering innocent people. They were fools, though. I was convinced of that, and was still thinking about it. The last thing I wanted was to make things worse. What if they decided that somehow the Americans were using death rays or something, and only redoubled their efforts to cause chaos and a subsequent reversion to the Dark Ages.
I didn’t do any internet research then, but I did buy the Islamic books, the Koran, of course, the Hadith and the Sira. I paid cash, as I did routinely for almost everything. Visa card records can give far more information than I wanted to leave. But if I was going to take action, I had to know as much about it as possible. There was no point in merely taking on faith what a Muslim ‘authority’ told Westerners. A religion of peace? I didn’t think so. Far better to look at the source documents – what they actually say rather than what people say they say. So I studied the books, I picked up other books, I took notes, and I absorbed what was written in newspapers, quite often coming across names of those on my list, especially three men who were very prominent in Australia. I took notes. And always, anything relevant to the subject was tucked well out of sight in the bus, the same place where I had found those private papers belonging to Kevin Schaeffer.
For Christmas, Jenny, Renzo and I travelled to Canberra, to Debbie and Chris's place. I didn't take the bus; Debbie didn't have the good-sized backyard that Jenny did. Luckily Larry didn't seem to mind the temporary curtailment of the life of freedom we both enjoyed. The whole family was there, even Kane, who said he counted himself lucky to have the time off. His job involved a great deal of travelling, but he said that he'd applied for a job in the Melbourne office; he needed a stable home before the baby was born, he said. It was such a short time after the marriage, and he admitted that it had not been what they'd planned, but that all the same, he was thrilled. And he grinned at me, "And no, it was not a shotgun wedding, though she must have conceived before the wedding. 100% safe contraception is not 100%, it appears."
I could have told him that. I was lucky that the pill had been invented before I became sexually active, and even though those early versions were stronger than later ones, I knew two who’d become pregnant in spite of them, another who’d become pregnant with an IUD in place, and then had twins, as if to mock the failure.
“And you’ll be a great-granny!” he told me. A great grandmother. I’d be seventy-one by then; surely it was early to be a great grandmother. Kane, my only grandson, and he would soon be a father.
It was a bit of a shame that I wouldn’t be staying closer to see the new baby grow up. But I had my plans, and they didn’t include settling down quite yet. I’d been a prisoner, and now I was relishing the utter freedom of being able to travel wherever I pleased. The beach whenever I chose. It was as I’d told Hillary that time, that walking barefoot on a beach has to be the best thing.
There was my ‘work’ as well, if I chose to do it, and I rather thought that I would. Just one grandmother, soon to be a great grandmother – could I really bring a pause to runaway Islamism? That would be something.
World peace, what beauty queens are said to claim as their greatest wish. No-one could achieve ‘world peace,’ not while humans stayed human. I might not be able to influence major powers like Russia, China or America, but just possibly I could do something about runaway Islamism. Rapists and murderers as well, whenever I came across them. Plus any criminal who thought that a little old lady might be easy prey. I would not hesitate to defend myself if attacked. I was going to do good. I was going to kill people.
The day after my birthday, I started travelling again, heading north-west from Melbourne to South Australia, and then wandering as I chose, sometimes staying at caravan parks, sometimes ‘free camping,’ which carried the advantage that my visit went unrecorded. I kept a large amount of cash in order to avoid use of ATMs or Eftpos, and I took care to limit my use of internet. In many places, I didn’t even turn on my mobile phone. I was practising being a ‘ghost.’
I used cash when I bought myself a second laptop, this one reserved for the checking of Islamist sites, especially including looking at those individuals whom I might kill. Internet was by satellite, a little gadget you plugged in, something with a stupid name I find difficult to remember. It is obvious that the computer industry is run by the young, with names such as Google and Yahoo, and… dongle. That was it. I called it the internet stick. I paid for that with cash as well, along with topups whenever needed. I never used this laptop to access or send email, merely continuing to use public libraries as I’d been doing since I left Melbourne. But I felt that even public libraries might not guarantee me sufficient privacy when I started looking at Islamist sites. I didn’t want to leave any trail. I’d had enough of prison for a life-time.
Once I became confident that I could go almost unnoticed, I started some concentrated research of those men on Paul’s list, but only when I was in an area where I left as little trace of my presence as possible. No use of ATMs, no phone calls, I didn’t even switch on my mobile phone for messages. I used only paper maps to find my way, not the GPS. I used rest stops where one is permitted to park, sometimes State Forests. When using caravan parks, I preferred the ones where the manager or owner asked if I wanted a receipt when I paid. It almost certainly meant that he was simply pocketing the money, but it also meant no record of my visit – much better than when records were kept on computer. I didn’t like those, but didn’t try and fake who I was, name Judy Bridgewater, correct number plate number. They never asked for ID.
My family were apt to complain when I dropped out of sight, but I explained that my travels quite often took me to places where there were no public phones and my mobile didn’t work. They didn’t always accept my explanation, but they gave up complaining. In any case, it was seldom for more than a couple of weeks at a time.
It was around that time that I finally mastered the ability to make someone faint without actually hurting them. It was a little risky for them, not just that I might make a mistake and kill, but also if they fell and hit their heads, something like that. So I’d only practised on the villains of this world, and I stopped once I was confident. It was also a little risky for me. I could only do it in person, and that was a poor idea, or if I was watching live TV, and that was also a poor idea. Too many people fainting without reason could cause undesirable speculation.
Not long later, I marked off the nineteenth man of the twenty on Paul’s original list. I could ‘see’ them and I could know them. These men were not the same as those who were simply evil. There was that oily taint of evil there, but it might never have been translated into evil acts if not for the catalyst of Islamic teachings. The religion was the trigger that turned on the evil. Do not believe it when some try and say that the religion has nothing to do with Islamic terrorism, or that the men who commit such acts are influenced by motives other than religion, such as the hope of gain or influence or power. I knew these men; I knew their minds. It was evil multiplied and inflamed by religion – that religion – Islam. The religion that teaches that non-believers should be exterminated by whatever means available, the message reinforced by the preachings of innumerable respected clerics, most of whom would not be categorised as ‘extremist.’ I didn’t know if my actions might persuade a billion or so Muslims to choose a more peaceful interpretation of their holy books. Even if I wound up in prison for the rest of my life, the hope of an Islamic ‘Reformation’ was worth a lot of risk.
I did long hours of research every day that I thought myself ‘off the radar.’ I learned a great deal, about Islam itself, about those who were trying to fight expansionist Islam, but also the Islamist sites. I found more names, many names. Sometimes, the sites I accessed were in foreign languages, and yet I managed to gain a sense of what they were saying anyway. I was getting to the stage when I thought that ASIO or the CIA might come calling any day, but I was looking for a trigger.
I was in South Australia, inland, just a ‘rest area’ back off the road a bit. Empty and dusty, a pit toilet, a water tank, though not water suitable for drinking. Nothing else, no other people. I sat under the shade of the awning, the computer set up in front of me. Larry roamed around, off leash, sniffing at a hole and then slumping in the shade and yawning. I was looking at a site I’d come across only recently, a site that sought new recruits for ISIS. They seemed to especially value recruits from the Western world, probably for the propaganda value. It showed videos of ISIS successes and ISIS atrocities, sometimes live-streamed. ISIS, ISIL, Daesh, ‘the so-called Islamic State.’ Almost three years since it had first became widely known, it was still referred to by different names. The original ‘caliphate’ had been greatly reduced, and yet the organisation was still powerful, still fanatical, still unimaginably evil.
On this site, I’d seen imams urging young men to serve Allah in the best way, that rewards would be in heaven. Except that once, one middle-aged fellow, big beard, but grey instead of black, spoke of the rewards in life, as well, the privilege of slaves, and there was a picture of three female figures in full covering except for the downcast eyes. One was quite small, surely a child. But Muhammad had liked children, and as he was the perfect example to these primitives, they saw nothing wrong in using children for sex.
This day, there was a heavily bearded fanatic in a large and beautiful mosque. It was unclear where the mosque was, but the preaching was in English, accented, but perfectly understandable. It was being live-streamed, so I was watching as he spoke. When the camera scanned, one could see that there were hundreds of men there, all listening closely. If there were any women, they were well out of sight. The imam – that it was the duty of any able-bodied Muslim to kill as many Westerners as possible, by any means possible. If he was unable by reason of circumstance or physical limitations to take action himself, then he should help those who could by all the means available to him. And the usual – promises of rewards in heaven, promises that all crimes committed in the past would be wiped out by a single act of Jihad. Murder a Westerner, and you would be rewarded.
That the sermon was live – that was the important thing. An actual cleric, a mullah, preaching Jihad as I watched. “Some say I am not telling you the truth of Allah,” he proclaimed. “Some say that He does not want Jihad in this form. Know this, that those people are as bad as unbelievers and they are subject to the same punishment. If what I say is not the truth, Allah’s truth, then He would strike me down. Yes, strike me down. Strike me down in front of you all.”
It was ideal. I killed him, in front of the hundreds who watched and listened in person, and all of those who watched online. I regarded the confusion in the mosque for a moment, and then switched my attention to his second-in-command, quickly ‘found’ him and executed him as well, plus three others.
But then I went to my list and started systematically working through it. Syrians, Lebanese, Muslims in America and Europe, eleven in Australia, twenty-one in Nigeria, Ghana and the Sudan. Once finished, I was exhausted, and one hundred and twenty-one fanatical Muslim extremists were dead.
Larry was nudging at me, but before I provided him with his overdue dinner, I deleted my search history, then deleted everything else I could on the laptop, files and programmes. I fed Larry, and even before he was finished, I was packing up, just as quickly as I could. I dealt with the potentially incriminating laptop by running over it with the bus, and the internet stick with a hammer. And then we left the scene of the crime, taking care not to speed. It would be a bad idea to call any attention to myself. We drove a hundred or so miles before stopping at another rest area and I collapsed in exhaustion, while Larry watched me, concerned and confused.
Once sufficiently recovered, the laptop was thrown into a lake, and the internet stick dropped into the pit toilet of the rest area. I doubted they could recover anything from either laptop or internet sick, but I was taking as few chances as possible.
I was still tired three days later, but I was also a thousand miles away from the scene of my crime, and only then, switched my mobile phone on. As far as I could tell, there would be no record of my being in the area from which the murders had come – if they could work it out. I didn’t know how they possibly could work it out, but it was likely they knew that someone had been researching a lot of those people who had so suddenly, mysteriously died.
It was ten days after my crime that I booked into a caravan park. By then, I was in urgent need of a proper shower – a wash from a bowl in the bus might be sufficient for a day or two, but I really didn’t like going that long without a good, long soak and a chance to wash my hair. I’d been keeping off the radar as much as possible, but I had seen TV coverage, and when I’d really needed to buy some groceries, I’d taken the chance to pick up a newspaper. It appeared that the whole world was confused, the piece of film when the one who preached Jihad had died – ‘If what I say is not the truth, Allah’s truth, then He would strike me down…’ – I’d seen that several times. Several times, I had seen a newsreader go through the list of those suddenly dead, though it did not include all of those I’d killed, and it did include, oddly, one that I’d had nothing to do with. The mosque was in Canada, it turned out, though I’d thought the Muslim population there not large. That sort of preaching – they might have been very lucky I had intervened when I did. ‘Murder a Westerner, and you’d be rewarded,’ he’d said.
The general consensus seemed to be that God had woken from a long sleep, or maybe he’d been merely looking the other way, ‘Time moves differently for an Immortal,’ one had written, and that He was seriously displeased with the Islamic leaders who’d made such trouble. Some Christian leaders were crowing, as if it proved the superiority of one form of superstition over another. I didn’t like that, but it was undeniable that it was a very long time since Christians had tried to spread their version of religion by letting off bombs or shooting up nightclubs. I preferred the Christians.
It was a very nice town I was in at that time, Busselton, Western Australia. There was a beach, and the weather was mild, not even particularly windy. Six days after I parked my bus, I picked up three sacks of mail from the Post Office, loaded them precariously on the back of the scooter, and set off back to the caravan park, Larry trotting beside me as usual. When one of the sacks fell off, and even before I dismounted, a passing stranger did it for me and asked where I was going and if I needed help.
“You been doing some serious shopping,” he said as he patted Larry. Country people are so much more friendly and helpful than city people. It was something I’d been reminded of the previous Christmas – I’d made a smiling, casual remark to a woman and had been met with a cold stare in return. But that didn’t happen in country towns, or not in my experience.
So much mail, mostly because it had been accumulating for a few weeks. One from Paul Hafezi, which I recoiled from. He should not be writing to me. Did he have no sense of security? But it gave away nothing, just congratulating me on my freedom and suggesting that I should visit his sister when next in Melbourne, and he gave an address. Paul was in a position where he’d know a great deal of what was happening in Melbourne. Maybe I should visit his sister, maybe quite soon before the weather turned cold. Victorian winters could be bitter. I was thinking of spending winter in North Queensland.
It took a week to get through that lot of mail, working for hours every day. Hillary had written, and there was a letter from Anna, painfully written in block capitals. Poor spelling. I hadn’t realised how close to illiterate she was. It was too late now, but I wondered if I’d offered, whether she might have accepted help learning to read. I took care with the reply to Anna, a pretty card, and two pages, slightly larger print than normal, and a little more simply written. She was not unintelligent, but putting too many ‘long words’ in the letter might have put her off. It was probably naive thinking that friendship with me might help her, but it was not going to hurt, after all. I resolved to write to her, maybe every month, whether or not she replied.
Gwen had written, though it was only the third since I’d been freed. I expect she didn’t think her support as much needed and had lost some of her interest in me. It was understandable, of course. She had been so good when I needed it, and that was most important. I wrote a long letter in return, a description of my travels, a bit of attempted humour, though I’ve never been much good at that. I was vague when answering her question about when I would return to Conjee. I guessed I would return one day, but I was in no hurry.
Most of the mail was from strangers and was answered with form letters, but they still had to be signed and posted. It was a lot of work, but I didn’t have much other work to do. The bus ‘housework’ took approximately ten minutes a day.
There was a terror bomb in Sweden, the first in the Western world since the killings. It would be most effective if I could kill this mongrel as well. Luckily, it had not been a suicide bomb, and when he was prominently displayed on TV, I ‘found’ him and I killed him. I was quick and efficient these days, and there was no way they could trace a killing that came because of an image on TV. That killing was very widely publicised, reinforcing the original message of the first killing and the other hundred and twenty or so. On the news, in every newspaper, it was saying the same, that God had shown his hand, and that he disapproved of the killing of innocents. Oddly, I never saw anyone point out that ‘God’ seemed to intervene more often when something was shown on TV.
Muslim imams had been so slow to criticise the Jihadists in the past, but now they were loudly saying that Allah would not reward fighters in His name. And there was a verse of the Koran that they kept preaching, though I’d never heard it spoken before – ‘He that fights for God’s cause fights for himself. God needs no man’s help.’ So live a peaceful life, they were all saying. Allah does not want us to return to barbarity. What a pity they’d not been saying this in the past several years when Islamic terrorism and Islamic wars only seemed to get worse and worse.
The wars. There was war in Afghanistan, the Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Libya… Israel, of course, always subject to attack, both with violence and with propaganda. There was a quietening down, according to what I could gather, but not a cessation. Most of the frank wars had been about power as well as religion. It took another month before the first announcement of renewed peace negotiations came, followed by more. I had no faith they would be successful. At the same time, I knew I was simply not qualified to try and intervene. Assassinate one nation’s leader, and another would take his place, possibly worse. One could only hope.
There was something I had to do, but I made sure to be a hundred miles from anywhere I was known to be, just in case. There were several Christian leaders who were crowing that Christianity had won, and now it was time to make plain their teachings on issues such as abortion, euthanasia and contraception. And they had to be enforced – on everyone, Christian or not since it was obvious that it was a Christian God who was in charge. I didn’t want to kill these men – it always seemed to be men. They were not evil, and not even particularly fanatical. Mostly, they just enjoyed telling people what to do.
It turned out to be less difficult than I expected. An obliging TV host was to present a live ‘forum’ on their calls for strict enforcement of church rulings. It was well advertised, so all I had to do was to tune in at the right time. And then I simply waited for the best moment, made three of them faint, and I grinned with utmost enjoyment as I saw the resultant confusion. I so much enjoyed live TV.
I was in a small caravan park at the time, luckily with TV reception, and the manager would call around in the afternoon to collect the overnight fee. There were only two others there, one camper-trailer, and a tent that flapped mournfully in the breeze. I was yet to see its occupant. I didn’t hurry off after my small intervention. I was fairly sure there were ways they could isolate the place where someone was looking at particular internet sites, but there was no way they could know just who of the millions watching a particular television show had done something – something impossible.
I whistled up Larry, and we walked the few blocks to the few shops of the tiny town. It was as I walked, I suddenly thought that it had been a long time since I’d felt my back complain much. I could almost stride, as I’d not been able to do for years. I was no longer too thin. I felt good. And how long since my fingers or wrists had given that stab of pain I was so familiar with?
But then I glanced at one swollen knuckle. Well, that morning actually. And yet they were not getting worse, and I really did feel full of wellbeing. I was happy. I was living a free life. I had the companionship of Larry, and wherever I went, people were friendly. I was a ‘Grey Nomad,’ one of the travelling population of older people with their caravans, relaxed, friendly, and almost all of them with a background of a law-abiding, working life. There were none extremely rich, and none very poor, though certainly their vans varied, from enormous and luxurious motor homes, to small campervans like the one set up not far from my little bus. I was a Grey Nomad. I was loving the life.
Larry was lagging, so I whistled him up and put him on the leash. Even in a dead quiet tiny town like this one, the locals were apt to disapprove of dogs not on leash.
I turned my tracks east again, back towards Melbourne, where I set my bus up in Jenny’s back yard, and renewed acquaintance with the neighbourhood including Mike Schaeffer, the one who’d sold me the bus. Jenny and Renzo, who’d done so much for me. Kane, as well. It was lovely to see them, and yet after a few weeks I was thinking of the open road again. It was turning cold, but Kane and Kirsty were expecting their baby in early May, and I wanted to see her – they said it was to be a girl.
Poor Kirsty looked pale and tired, but said that everything was going well, there was nothing wrong and she was always getting people saying that – it was just her colouring and she wasn’t really pale at all. So I gave her a hug and said that I remembered being so irritated when anyone said that a pregnant lady was supposed to ‘glow,’ and certainly that I had never ‘glowed.’ So she smiled and said, “Thanks, Granny,” and then I was glowing. How nice to have this nice young lady calling me ‘Granny.’
But this story is not about the normal ups and downs of family, and so I’ll be brief here, just that Kirsty had a little girl they named Kaitlyn. The babe was on the small side, but healthy and quickly gaining weight. Within two weeks, Kirsty was looking healthier and happier, and only then did I set off for the warmer weather up north. I had not visited the sister of Paul Hafezi. I was not his hired hitman, and I reckoned I’d done enough killing for a time, though I still obliged when someone asked. Two or three a week usually, none of them ones whom I knew. Word was spreading, I don’t know how, and none of them seemed to know who I was – just ‘Mother’ or ‘Mother Death.’
Once away from the city, I stopped bothering with any disguise, though I still called myself ‘Judy’ and not Shirley. It was several months now since the trial and freedom, and I thought that people would have forgotten me. And besides, I was among the grey nomads, and I looked much the same as all the other women, all of us grey-haired, in varying sizes, most of us with casual, conservative dress, most, but not all, with equally grey-headed husbands. I was more conspicuous with blonde hair and a bandana than I was as just another elderly lady.
Such a good life, wandering as I chose, though I had learned quite early that it was wise to book whenever I wanted to stay at one of the beachside caravan parks. I continued to feel fitter than I had for years; I was able to walk faster and further, and no longer did I grunt with pain if I merely had to pick something up from the floor.
Islamic terrorism had died right down, and when I looked for that site that I’d found, the one where I’d started the mass killings nine weeks before, it seemed to be gone. Other, similar sites I’d known had also vanished. There had not been a single Jihadist attack in the Western world for several weeks, though there had been a bomb in Turkey and several in other parts of Arabia and Africa.
I knew I should not interfere in world politics, but I was curious, and I did try and know the minds of various world leaders. But I was seldom able to ‘see’ them in any depth, even when they were on live TV. I could mostly see something – Russia’s Putin, for instance, mostly seemed to be interested in power. The apparent lunatic who supposedly ruled North Korea? Block-like in his stupidity, but not evil. The power there was obviously in other hands. The new American President? No matter how hard I tried, I simply could not ‘see’ him at all. I could only judge by his actions, the same as everyone else. So far, he seemed fine, and I liked the new direction the world appeared to be taking.
So I put politics out of my mind, and only killed a few criminals who were shown on TV, and with whom I did feel that oiliness that I’d come to see as the taint of evil.
Even when a list arrived in the mail for me, names of seventeen Melbourne criminals, I didn’t do anything straightaway. I couldn’t go killing every criminal in the country. I assumed it was Paul Hafezi who had sent it. I was tempted simply to bin that list, but then there was a particularly gruesome crime in Melbourne, the name of the suspect one of those on my list, and I sighed and decided I should not shirk this duty. These ones were far harder to research and find than the Islamic leaders had been. Frank criminals seldom liked to advertise. I tried, but could only find three on that list, and only killed one, James Lovelace. I also killed his wife. It was the woman who lured children to the car, the husband who used them for his pleasure, and then killed them. They’d both revolted me with their slimy feel. Eradicating people like those left the world just a little cleaner.
So, a criminal now and then, plus the old ones who wanted death.
In June, there was a particular newspaper article that really made me smile, that God had shown his/her hand, and he/she was a ‘Just-be-nice’ God. And the article said no churches or places of worship, no creed, no need for prayer or ritual, just ‘Be nice.’ Well, that was fine with me.
The months passed quickly as I wandered, Larry always my close companion. Sometimes, there would be travelling companions for a time, each of us with our own van, but enjoying the same destinations and going on day trips together, meals together. Single women mostly, widows like myself, sometimes couples. There was a man once, who set out to make himself agreeable to me, and for nearly two weeks, I quite enjoyed his company. I dumped him the day he suggested I do his laundry for him. Did he think I would be so honoured to have male company that I should be his servant? If so, he was sorely mistaken.
More old people were coming to me, though the most in one day was nine. There was still talk of making euthanasia legal. It even looked like it might be passed in Victoria – eventually. Unfortunately, they’d built in such strict limitations that it would be all but useless. So they came to me. I made it a routine now, a set time in the evening just before I prepared for bed. I’d make myself comfortable, stop thinking of jobs to do or where to go next, and just wait for them to come to me. I was pleased to be able to do this favour for them.
I visited Canberra sometimes, where Debbie and Chris lived with their girls, Melbourne sometimes where Jenny and Renzo lived, and where Kane and Kirsty had also made their home. They had their own house now – a wonderful house. It overlooked the sea, it was big, quite old, but recently renovated, and there was a large backyard with rear access, a swimming pool, and what he called the ‘Pool House.’ I was stunned that he thought he could afford such a home. He was still only in his twenties, but his job paid very well and there was something about a bequest from a favourite aunt on his father’s side. Kane had always had a winning personality. It’s probably part of the reason he managed to wind up in such a high-paying position as well, though of course, it would not have happened if he hadn’t had a considerable intelligence as well. As I’ve said before, Kane was very lucky in the lottery of genetic inheritance.
The only thing was that to maintain his high income, he still needed to do the overseas trips that he said he’d prefer to give up. He was always off somewhere – Dubai, Hong Kong, Tokyo, New York, London, wherever he needed to go. Kirsty must have had a difficult time sometimes, being left alone with her baby, but at least her parents were close, and she hadn’t yet made any attempt to return to the paid workforce. It may be an old-fashioned viewpoint, but I was pleased that little Kaitlyn didn’t have to spend every day in the care of those who were not her parents. It meant that she was not exposed to nearly as many coughs and colds, and also, that she would probably grow up better behaved. Daycare staff do not have any real stake in bringing up well behaved children, and besides that, are hindered by a multitude of rules. A small child needs an occasional smack, for instance, and a lot of cuddles. There are even rules about cuddling a child these days, if you are not the parent.
It was only when Kaitlyn was four, that Kirsty took on a part time job, and for five hours, twice a week, Kaitlyn found herself in a more regulated environment. Kirsty worked in fashion and design. Her skills were in demand.
The day I turned seventy-five, she presented me with a colourful quilt she’d made, colours chosen to complement the colours of my bus, and measured to perfectly fit the bed. I was thrilled with it, only a little worried that the luxurious fabric would not wash. But after all, it was not likely to get dirty inside the bus. I was in Melbourne for my birthday. My family made much of me, though the planned party barbeque was moved inside. Melbourne can put on some stinking hot days sometimes, and this was one of them.
My travels had been blessed with good fortune, scarcely ever a problem, and I felt fit and well. It was like the gods were smiling on me. The idea of the ‘Just-be-nice’ god hadn’t really taken off in that no churches were preaching about him/her, and there were no preachers of the concept, but the idea was not forgotten. It was quite often raised as a topic of conversation, and sometimes it was given credit for the more peaceful times we were experiencing.
Organised religion, including Islam luckily, seemed to be on the decline, though I’d hardly ever had reason to intervene. There was one time – a sharp reprimand to the Pope. He was to broadcast a new ‘encyclical,’ and was widely expected to condemn the voluntary euthanasia laws that had been recently passed in three different countries and was being debated in several more. With the time difference, it was an awkward hour to watch the live broadcast, but I made the effort. I wanted no misunderstanding. I timed it perfectly, and then sat back to enjoy the uproar. Just a short faint, no-one hurt, and when, a few days later, there was a new ‘encyclical,’ there was no mention of euthanasia.
By that time, there were a few states of Australia that allowed ‘doctor-assisted dying,’ but it was not made easy for the individual who wanted it. I had noticed no lessening of demand for ‘Mother Death.’ Luckily, no increase, either. When there were too many, I did feel drained afterward, and tended to sleep longer than usual.
Midsummer, a caravan park on the shore of Lake Albert in South Australia. Peaceful and pleasant in the daytime, and with some incredible sunsets. I’d taken so many photographs of sunsets. They were of no actual use to me, but I still took photos.
I’d put my book down on my lap, and was just enjoying the sight of several children out on the water with their raft when it seemed that an alarm ran straight though my body. Kane, and suddenly I could ‘see’ him, and more, I could see what he was seeing, feel what he was feeling. Sheer terror. Kane was an intelligent, mature man, not easily frightened, and he was terrified. An attack by several men, not for robbery. One of Kane’s companions lay either dead or near-dead, another was being handcuffed and he was to be next. Kidnap for ransom. Kane knew it, and therefore, so did I. I bared my teeth, though I didn’t know I was doing it, and I killed every one of those bastards who were attacking my grandson. No-one was going to hurt Kane.
Kane and the other who survived couldn’t quite believe it at first. That their captors had simply dropped dead? Things like that didn’t happen. I stayed watching. After a moment, Kane rifled through pockets, found the key and unlocked the handcuffs they’d put on his friend. And then he made a phone call. I didn’t relax or leave him until I could see he was safe. The one who’d been shot was taken off in an ambulance. Kane was hoping he’d live. I thought he would die. He was in Morocco.
But back on the shores of a peaceful lake in South Australia, there were several people around me, concerned people. They’d thought I was having some sort of a seizure, a stroke maybe. One said I’d looked as if I was in terrible pain, and another said I just wouldn’t answer when they spoke to me. They’d been on the point of phoning an ambulance. It took me some time to reassure them, to thank them for their concern, and to pretend that I’d been only dreaming, a bad dream, maybe because of my book – a rather bloodthirsty thriller.
The woman, Shenelle, whom I’d met a few days before, picked up the book, read the blurb on the back, and said, “Maybe you should look for nicer books.”
I grinned, though I was still feeling shaken. “An acquired taste, I think, that particular author.”
“Hmmm. Are you sure you’re okay?”
I shared a campfire that evening with Shenelle, plus two couples who’d also been concerned. One had been a nurse, and when she pressed, I agreed that I would see a doctor just in case. She’d thought it was a ‘petit mal,’ an epileptic fit that presents as a brief absence of consciousness. I guess in a way, it was related in that I had been ‘absent.’ I’d been looking after Kane.
I’d also killed five men. I’d killed them without looking at them properly, just enough to find them and extinguish life. I did not know whether they’d been evil men, or merely desperate. For all I knew, they’d been starving and needed the ransom money to live. Or maybe druggies, maybe simply hired. Maybe they’d thought they had no choice but to obey their employer. I didn’t know. Whatever sort of men they had been, I was totally sure that my Kane was worth more than a hundred men who would attack him. I did not regret my actions.
And yet, something changed after that incident, though I didn’t know to begin with. It was ten days later, and a piece of CCTV film was shown of a thug kicking into an old man who lay unmoving on the ground. I couldn’t ‘see’ the thug and so I couldn’t kill him as I might otherwise have done. A few days later, another the same. There had always been a few whom I could not see, but I was a little puzzled – two in a row? So then I made a deliberate attempt to ‘see’ those I’d been able to see before – not the ones I’d killed, obviously. But I was blind to them. It appeared that my days of being an executioner were over. Was there a god after all? Maybe that god didn’t agree with me that Kane was worth a hundred other lives. Or maybe, somehow, I’d lost the faith in myself that was needed to kill. Even after the odd and impossible things I’d been able to do, I was still reluctant to believe in a god who took notice of individual humans. I was still an atheist, still wanting any other explanation than the interest of a god, even the ‘Just-be-nice’ god.
There was no change in the ones I killed for mercy. They still came, and I still gave them what they needed. Some euthanasia laws only applied to those who were terminally ill and expected to die within a designated time. I took no notice of that. If it was what they wanted, if that was what they needed, I would give it to them. They had made the effort to find me. How they found me, I had no idea. I didn’t even have any independent confirmation that they were not figments of my imagination. But I knew, and I did what I saw as my job.
I didn’t mind that I’d lost the ability to kill the bad ones. It was a responsibility, and whether it was myself who’d decided I could no longer be trusted with it, or some sort of a god, it didn’t matter. If Kane was threatened again, or any other of my family, that might be different.
I did go to a doctor, since I’d promised Shenelle, though I had every intention of ignoring advice to start taking Statins or blood pressure tablets or anything else. But the local doctor was excellent. He did a few basic tests, said I was fine, and so I told Shenelle when I returned to the caravan park. I did not admit that I had not spoken to the doctor about what she called the ‘episode.’ Meningie, it was. A lovely little town, and I did like that doctor. No fuss and a dose of common sense. You don’t get that very often when you see a doctor.
There was a letter from Kane a few weeks later, quite a long letter. He said nothing of an attempted kidnap, rather that he’d accepted a different job, one that did not involve overseas trips. That he wanted to be a family man, and maybe soon there would be another child. ‘Kirsty wants a big family,’ he said. ‘And I think I do too.’
There’s not much left of my story to tell. My health continued good, and my luck. In the years that followed, the worst that happened was a tyre puncture, and even that wasn’t the problem it could have been. A slow leak, and it happened to be in a good-sized town where there was a tyre place. New tyres all around, and a lecture on checking them more often. I might have had even more of a lecture if he’d known how old I was, eighty at the time. Many people would think an eighty-year-old woman should not be wandering all over Australia by herself, though my family hadn’t said anything except to comment on how fit and healthy I was looking.
Kirsty and Kane had three more children, a large family these days, though standard just two generations back. They were doting parents, and all four of the children bright and healthy. I visited all my family regularly, though more often in the summer than the winter. I didn’t like Melbourne much in the winter, and Canberra could be even worse.
Two more years of carefree wandering, and quite suddenly, I noticed that I was finally slowing down. Larry was as well. We’d been travelling together for twelve years, which made him around fourteen.
I didn’t have enough money to buy a house for myself, and didn’t fancy the idea of simply stopping in a caravan park as a ‘permanent.’ It was Kane who insisted that I should not waste the money he’d spent converting the pool house to be suitable as my accommodation. The bus had its place beside it, and I would have the pool house as additional space, space that included a bathroom. I didn’t need extra handrails and I didn’t need the shower to be extra large with no ledge to step over, but Kane had made provision for my advancing age. I don’t know how long he’d planned this. There were even emergency buzzers in case I needed help at any time. It was safe and comfortable for an old lady. I appreciated it.
A bonus was that I had the privilege of being close to my great grandchildren, Kaitlyn, Maxine, Brian and little Donald. I loved them all, and when the noise became too much, which it did sometimes, I had my own space to retire to. Only four of this generation so far. Neither Mandy nor Debbie had children, Debbie recently married, Mandy with a live-in ‘partner.’ It’s the norm now, of course, and I approve. A few years together before marriage is not a bad idea, though I really think one should marry before having children.
Both Larry and I seemed to age more quickly once we’d stopped travelling. Larry’s turn came, and I gave him the easy death I’d given so many. How many? There had to have been thousands. The old ones didn’t come any more. I don’t know whether there were other death mothers out there, or whether the changing laws were enough that there was less demand. All I knew was that I was no longer called upon for this service.
I am so lucky to have had so many good years in my old age. Such very good years. I am loved and valued by my family – they all gathered here for Christmas, every single one of them, including Debbie’s new baby. But it is my turn now. It is becoming harder for me to move, my sight is fading, and I am in pain, pain that the medications can relieve, but pain that never, ever goes away entirely. I have contrived to have myself in a hospital ward ‘for observation’ – a concocted story of two episodes of severe chest pain. It is better that I die in a hospital rather than at home.
I don’t know whether anyone will ever read my story. I am leaving my laptop to Kane. The document is password protected, but if he tries, he can probably guess what it is.
So now it is time for me to go. Can I do for myself what I have done for so many others? If this story ends here, it means that I have succeeded.
The password was ‘Larry.’
Do you believe what my grandmother has told us? I would not have believed it if it was not for that episode when myself, Pierre and Nazir were kidnapped. Nazir did die, incidentally, as Granny said. I never told Kirsty or any other of my family about that incident, not wanting to frighten them. So it was my grandmother who made that miraculous rescue that I could never explain.
The ‘Just-be-nice’ god is still spoken of, and Islamic terrorism is no longer a concern in Western countries, though there are still some wars. No big wars, luckily. It is more peaceful now than it was when I was younger. The stabilising population has probably helped with that, but maybe so did Granny.
So that is my grandmother’s story, a story that, of course, is quite impossible. It could not have happened. Except that I think it did.
Imprisoned within helpless bodies,
crying voicelessly to unheeding gods to set them free.
Tired nurses patiently coax unwanted nourishment between reluctant lips.
Loud cheerful voices strive valiantly to penetrate the pall of apathy.
Sad wives and dutiful children come and go,
hopefully bearing gifts that cannot heal the grieving spirit,
mourning lost independence, pride and dignity,
believing itself unloved, unlovable.
Bewildered wanderers pace endlessly,
seeking in vain their own lost selves,
forever haunted by vague memories of a distant yesterday,
of tasks unfinished, promises unfulfilled.
A desolate figure waits forlornly by locked doors,
imploring embarrassed passers-by to take him home.
In my dreams their yearning eyes still follow me,
pleading hands reach out to me,
And a lonesome voice keeps calling, calling
“Is anybody there?”
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It was a dream that began it, not just the dream, but the feeling that went with it - the feeling of an enormous love and compassion. I held the poor, poor, skinny old lady in my arms. I held her with love, and she felt no pain from all of the sore spots and all of the aches that go with an old, old body. She weighed nothing at all, and I held her so gently. She needed to die. She needed to leave the body that was only a burden for her. It had been so long since she'd been young and free. For years she had yearned for an end to the suffering. She wanted to endure no longer. And I gave her that. That body in my arms, weightless, feeling no pain for the first time in years. And she died. I gave her that. She died, and I carefully put her back in her bed and covered her. She was finally gone, finally free, finally without pain. Love. Compassion. And I freed her. I didn't lose that dream when I woke, though if there were details, they were lost. What led up to it, what happened afterwards - if those things had been part of that dream, they were not retained. Just the feeling of an overwhelming love and compassion. And then the poor old, old lady was finally free.