In The Little Mongrel, Merlene writes about her personal experience of growing up as an adoptee in the 1950s, her sense of disconnectedness within her adoptive family, and her longing for her birth mother's return. This mother/child separation forms the genesis of the many fears that dominate her life and drives her search for invisibility. This journey provides a colourful illustration of the cause and effect of welfare practice, within a historical context that also has contemporary relevance.
It was mid afternoon before we reached the highway on the outskirts of the city, as we agreed there was no point trying to hitchhike until we were beyond the reach of regular police highway patrols. We’d skirted the city and walked through the outer suburbs, watching other people with ordinary lives going about their everyday business. I was envious. Normal was all I’d ever aspired to. I’d only ever wanted to be ordinary and blend with life.
This is a short excerpt from the chapter - A False freedom
There’s a sense of exposure when hitch hiking, of being open to the scrutiny of drivers who can assess, at a glance, a person’s worthiness to enter their vehicle or their potential as a partner for casual sex. I was not unaware of the dangers of hitching and, while Jan was less wary, she was as selective as I was in what rides we accepted. We walked backwards, facing the oncoming traffic, in order to make a quick assessment whether to extend our thumb or alter our gait to a casual stroll. My limp worked to our advantage in gaining a sympathetic response from families, and it was a deterrent for those of the prowl.
Three rides later we rumbled into Shepparton, exiting appreciatively from the high cab of a road transporter. Jan was excited to be in her home town, but it was an alien landscape to me, built on a flat plain and dominated by fruit canneries. I was, however, eager to get to Jan’s mother’s house where, she’d assured me, we’d both be made welcome.
The reality was something else again.
We entered the ramshackle cottage by the back doorway. The door was off its hinges and had to lifted to one side to allow entry, then returned to its position against the door frame in paradoxical security. Jan’s mother lived in this tumble-down dwelling, the decaying remnant of what had been Jan’s family home before the vibrancy had been stripped from it with her father’s death, ten years earlier, and his wife’s entry in to the confused world of Alzheimer’s in the years that followed. Her ten older siblings had migrated to other towns and cities as soon as they’d left school, eager to be gone from the stranger who’d taken their mother’s place.
Most of the furnishings had been stripped from the house and cooking facilities were non-existent. The bath was housed in a decrepit shed in the weed infested back yard, but we managed to light the old wood chip heater at the end of the rusting tub, taking turns to keep watch for the movement of spiders and insects. This was my first encounter with a water-heating device of this nature however, although it coughed and spluttered and spat hot ash at irregular intervals, I was grateful for the cleansing water.
Despite the shortcomings of the shanty accommodation, I felt safe enough to relax my guard against police apprehension. I’d planned to use Jan’s house as an address so I could get a job, save some money and go back to Tasmania, but the cycle of homelessness was to continue in the parochial and small town attitudes of 1960 Shepparton. In this rural backwater an address was synonymous with reputation, and offers of employment were not forthcoming.
Jan resumed her relationship with her old boyfriend and I tagged along as an unwilling appendage. During the day we wandered the streets in a fruitless search for the miracle that would change our lives, hanging out on the periphery of those already on the fringe of society; always outside looking in. We heard about a live-in position in Kyabram, looking after two little kids while their mother was in hospital. We seized this as the opportunity for a new beginning.
Kyabram was a small town twenty minutes by road from Shepparton and a generation in time away from the rest of the world. The position Jan and I were to share was at a farmhouse occupied by Hughie, a sixty-one year old farm hand, his twenty-one year old wife, and their three year old son and an infant daughter. The wife suffered from leg ulcers and needed hospital care.
The other occupant of the house was an aging Aboriginal named Jacky Bond, an ex-rodeo rider who had a penchant for grappa, a drink with a high alcohol content, produced locally by Italian fruit growers. Jacky Bond shared a room with an assortment of broken tools and other items gleaned from the local tip, a bicycle frame he intended to restore this year or the next, and the overflow from the colony of mice that inhabited the abandoned kitchen. He slept on the wooden floor with an assortment of old coats and other rags for covering.
Jan and I shared a double bed in a room that had a pine wall to Dado-height and, above this, hessian covered with wallpaper extended to the high ceiling. This was all that separated us from the room next door Hughie shared with his wife and children. The wall had tears in the paper where the hessian showed through and, on many occasions, Hughie’s aging eye could also be seen angled through the open weave.
Our only duties were to tend to the children, sad pale-faced waifs who ate sparingly of the meagre offerings. No meals were prepared in the kitchen, where hundreds of mice ran up and down the walls, over every surface, and through the unwashed dishes of meals past. This room, its furniture and utensils, had been used in cohabitation with the rodents, until the housewife eventually ceded defeat and simply shut the door on the whole filthy mess.
One day, early in our stay, and in a moment of shared optimism, Jan and I decided we might be able to re-take control of this room. Then we’d be able to use the old wood stove to provide more nutritious meals for the children, and we’d have pots and pans and crockery and utensils for everyday use. It was a short lived ambition. The flurry of mice when we opened the door, their defiance in the face of our intrusion, and the sheer enormity of the mess and junk in the room to be sorted out made us both shudder in defeat. We left the room to the victors and the door remained firmly shut.
The family’s diet consisted of chunks of bread and butter, and their only meat was cheap sausages or hot dogs cooked on a pan over the open fire. Hughie’s remuneration, from his casual employment on a nearby farm, was free rent in the derelict farmhouse and fresh milk daily. When there was no food, the wife bound her legs in scraps of material and solicited assignations with the scions of the local cockies, who paid for her services with tobacco and butter and other grocery items.
For our assistance to the family, Jan and I received free board and food when it was available. The antiseptic environment of the institution, and the devout worship of disinfectant, left us both with an obsessive need for cleanliness and Jan and I began our duties with diligence and enthusiasm. We scrubbed and cleaned our way through the house to make a more hygienic environment for the children and ourselves. It was a huge undertaking, and we only ever completed our own bedroom and the general living area, before ceding to the unmovable presence of the mice and the daily trail of mud carried in on Hughie’s and Jacky Bond’s gumbooted feet. We then directed our energies into cleaning up the children. We found the bath under a pile of rubble and decades of dirt and looked at each other in despair when we realised it had no other connection with the house other than its location under its roof. There were no taps or other signs of plumbing, and no outlet drain. We settled on an old bucket as the only receptacle capable of holding water to sponge bath the baby and sluice down the older child, using this same bucket to wash in the privacy of our bedroom, one ear tuned to the sound of entry into the house and both eyes on the alert for Hughie, the elderly voyeur.
The only benefit from this accommodation was the respite it gave us from the anxiety of looking over our shoulder for the police, and the constant wait for the hand of apprehension on those same shoulders. Life down on the farm was boring in the extreme and more so after the wife came home and took over the care of her children, a feat she somehow managed from the comfort of her chair at the side of the fireplace.
Occasionally she’d venture into the town to visit the doctor and to importune some business for herself. When she suggested I visit the local hospital, because my leg looked ulcerated, I was more than ready and willing to go. I’d almost forgotten about it. My tolerance to pain had increased and I’d learnt to compensate for the limitations it placed on my mobility. I was very alarmed at the thought of leg ulcers, but even more concerned about using the horse and cart as a mode of transport into town. I didn’t want to attract undue attention, but I was assured this was the usual means of travel in the country so I acquiesced.
We bounced and jostled as the high wheels negotiated the rutted tracks leading from the farm to the highway, our backsides jolting in rhythm with the clopping of the horse as it trotted purposefully toward civilization. The nearer we came to the township of Kyabram, the more my earlier sense of unease returned, as cars whizzed past and the horse shied in their wake.
‘Are you sure everyone else travels by horse and cart?’
‘Yeah…I told ya that…everyone does it.’
The wife hitched her soiled skirt above her stumpy scarred legs, the better to display her wares, flicking the reins expertly.
As we passed houses on the outskirts of town, people paused in their daily tasks and stared after us with looks of amusement. Neat cottages set behind clipped hedges and green lawns, bordered the highway and housewives in floral pinnies watched our progress with wide-eyed amusement. I tried to hide from their scrutiny, slinking down in the cart, but there was no place to hide. My self consciousness was disrupted by the sound of children’s voices, that heralded our approach to a school. The open expanse of a playing field came alive with the rush of small bodies as they ran towards to boundary fence where they laughed and pointed at this relic from the past and its unlikely occupants.
‘Other people don’t use a horse and cart, do they?’
The wife had gone conveniently deaf, her jaw set in a solid line as she stared straight ahead, clicking her tongue and flicking the reins in unison.
‘They don’t do my washin’ so what’s it matter…we’ll be gettin’ out soon anyhow.’
With an expert ‘whoa’, she brought the horse to a halt at the rear of an old garage. A red sign at the front proclaimed it as a Mobil service station, while the side of the building still bore the faded signage of Anderson’s Livery. Anxious to divorce ourselves from this person who was so ill regarded, Jan and I arranged to meet up with her later for the ride home.
Kyabram was only a small rural town and it didn’t take us long to reach the hospital, only to find there was no doctor on the premises. A kind hearted nurse tutted over my leg, put on a fresh bandage, and urged me to have it treated as soon as possible, making an appointment for me to see the doctor when he had his next clinic before we made our leisurely way back to meet the wife. Jan stopped in every shop along the way and added items to her wardrobe, plus matching accessories, while I stood watch outside and waited for the weight of apprehension to fall on me.
‘I hid from the noise of his punishment; eyes shut tight, hands over my ears. Later that evening I overheard my brothers laughing as they pictured Mum in her flight from the bull, punishment forgotten and lesson unlearnt. I was beginning to understand humour as an essential tool for survival.’
‘My conditioning in conformity allowed me to settle into the cloistered life of the convent, a totally regimented existence, where every minute of the day was strictly and religiously controlled by the utterance of three words.
‘God be blessed’.’
‘One by one the girls were ushered into the rec room, belligerent through habit and conformity to expected behaviour. Freshly combed damp hair framed each shiny face, fresh with youth yet etched deeply with rejection and hopelessness. Arms and legs displayed institution tattoos; crosses and daggers and scrolls that framed the word ‘Mum’, while here and there a small rose bloomed between the raised scars of self-mutilation. The conflict between love and hate spelt out in thick uneven lettering on fingers scarcely old enough to know about either. The pain of life was evident in all.’