See this woman. Maybe viewed as doing okay by some. Lives in a cramped rented flat near Botany with her two kids, her ex-husband Vince has moved to WA to try for a job in the mines, so he rarely pays maintenance. Her mother in a nursing home in the western suburbs. Still Sylvia subsists – she’s got a car she’s paying off slowly, has a job as a waitress near the children’s school so she can drop off and collect them, drive her boy to soccer on weekends, do the shopping. Can get around.
Yes, sometimes she’s compelled to beg the landlady for an extension on the rent, and she’d love to move her mother to another home, closer, cleaner, with more attentive carers. Where the fees don’t rise every time her mother’s meagre pension is lifted a few dollars. Where she hasn’t found her mother lying in fouled sheets, or freezing, blankets forgotten. She’s sick of arguing with that manager there, just like she’s sick of arguing with her kids as to why they can’t have an X-box or ipod or a DS. You’re lucky you’ve got what you’ve got. There are millions worse off than you. Sounds like her grandmother.
She’s been to Centrelink and has waited in queues to ensure she’s receiving the maximum government benefits. You should be grateful, look at those around you, the jaded anthem in her head reverberates. Sitting in the waiting areas with the sick and elderly, haggard, or those with limbs missing, gaggles of dirt-smeared kids, the simply poor. They make her recoil; she then recoils at her own disgust.
Still it hurts to see glorious Sydney prancing about in its money; driving past NSW University and those students reminding her of what she once was, what she might have had, if she hadn’t fallen pregnant and let her mother and Vince talk her into keeping the baby.
She tells herself it doesn’t matter. As long as she can borrow a good book from the library (buying is a real extravagance), see a film occasionally on half-price Tuesdays, and have a coffee with friends – other mothers she’s known since her oldest started kindergarten – she generally copes, pushing the shadow of looming poverty down, down. She will not acknowledge it. When they finish school, she tells herself, then I’ll do a course. Literature, art, something. She doesn’t think about how she’ll pay for it – the memory that university was free when she dropped out, that she took it for granted, is too painful – but a wistful future bursting with learning and intellectual stimulation keeps her alive. And she’ll travel. Somehow.
And so this woman survives. Nevertheless, the world has a tendency to turn.
It’s now a gloomy indecisive afternoon, sun battles cloud, until cloud wins and grimaces victoriously over a grimy row of shops.
But Sylvia hasn’t noticed.
She’s noticed neither the man behind the counter nor the people staring; the shopkeeper is talking to her but his words are incomprehensible, and she knows she daren’t speak…She’s being pulled into another universe again, full of radiant constellations, and her mouth opens and closes as she feels the stars from the heavens begin to climb like sensual vines up her calves, her thighs, tingling, a feeling she knows well, lifting her into a transcendence that ruefully she should resist but bizarrely the vine leaves are wrapping their way up her right side and stiffening her limbs for some reason (this is alien, this is different another part of her echoes and with it a rush of remote panic)…and the so-familiar otherwordly voice (god?) is speaking to her: loud, sonorous and deep, a comforting bass that is so clear in his mystical revelations and directions. The Truth! However she pushes at his seductive tones and orders her legs and arms to move but they won’t and this is so unfamiliar, abnormal, frightening, because she’s awake! and there’s no control! No control! Yet in a way it’s so soothing there’s no responsibility she’s watching dreams unfolding until…
Gravity betrays her and she’s on the ground, being scrutinised by men and women (who are they?) and god’s voice fades and she clutches at his words but they’re gone, gone, as usual. A filthy lino floor and she’s finally understanding these people’s get a doctor! and what’s wrong with her?
She drags herself up, head throbbing. Disorientated. I’m all right she repeats, Just a bit dizzy for a sec, then stands, legs quivering.
– Are you okay, love? one asks.
– Yes, yes, I’m fine, she stammers, staggering to the door.
She knows they’re watching, judging. Probably on drugs.
At the medical centre she fiddles with her earring and tries to read a magazine as her appointment time passes and she’s still waiting an hour later. Oh, bulk-billing doctors. All she wants is a referral to her neurologist; nervously she reassures herself that the abnormality in her aura is no doubt something simple – her medication might need adjusting. That’s happened before. However she’s never had a turn like that. Normally during daylight hours it’s merely an aura – the voice, prickling in her legs, and gobbledygook if she speaks. Friends are accustomed to her auras – she just puts her hand over her mouth and shakes her head to indicate Can’t speak. No harm to anyone. Sylvia knows her epilepsy better than anyone; it first manifested when she was fifteen, but that last aura, being awake yet not in control, that was odd. That was terrifying.
Only in her sleep do her full-on seizures – her tonic-clonics, or grand mal fits (as they were once called) – occur. But that wasn’t a tonic clonic. Nor was it purely a basic aura (a petit mal). Drained, she pleads that it doesn’t happen again. Just at night, she begs, just at night. The consequences of the grand mal happening during daytime cannot be contemplated.
Back at the café where she works she sneaks a call to the neurologist’s secretary who confirms that she can’t get in for three months (this is a public system, the woman sighs impatiently). Sylvia cannot afford the luxury of a private neurologist (she can’t even justify the expense of private health insurance); she accepts the date. Her head is tight, pounding. Lord, she is tired.
She’s pushing the kids out the door one steamy morning. Running late. Roman and Marly seem to be dawdling which exacerbates her fatigue, her ire. Jackets, hats, sunscreen, lunch boxes, she yells. Finally they’re charging down the stairs, two oversized navy beetles.
– Be careful! she shouts immediately before colliding with a man and slipping, dropping her bag. Lipstick, books, tampons, purse, dirty tissues, sunglasses – an untidy summary of each day’s survival – tumble onto scarred concrete.
– Dammit, says the man and for a moment glares. She shrivels; his scorn rebounds in the small hot space. Lurid graffiti above him glows. Swearing under his breath, he bends to pick up her belongings.
– God, I’m sorry, she says, then halts. He’s the guy her neighbour warned her against. Moved in a month or so ago. Tall and lean, too thin, grizzled. He could be fifty or seventy, with that sand-mottled skin and grey hair pulled back tight in a ponytail. A startling widow’s peak on his forehead, minor scars on a broken nose, tattoos on both forearms. Menacing.
– Thank you, she murmurs, taking the diary from his long chain-link fingers, knuckles brazen, the sunspots on his hands celestial. He’s on all fours and she feels violated as he grimaces at her privacy in his hands. Like an evil supplicant.
– You live up here? he asks.
– In there, she points with her head. Thanks – look, please get up. Have we met?
His voice is unfriendly, cold, a little hoary. Too many cigarettes. He doesn’t move yet she’s not sure what he’s expecting.
– Sorry, I’ve got to get these kids to school. Thanks again, she says.
– And you are? he asks abruptly. Her eyes flicker – she’s not sure how to answer.
She’s not breathing as she walks down the stairs, aware of her exposed flank. What was it Fleur had said? He’d been in prison for fourteen years, something to do with armed robbery, was living with his sister. Fleur had stressed keep your kids away from him, Jacob I think he’s called.
– Why, was he a paedophile?
– No, but he’s a crim.
Weeks pass, seizure-free, thank God. The tightness in her jaw, her vibrating head – it’s easy to account for these. But the money, the money – where is she going to get it? Should she get another job (and do what with the kids)? Car payments are due; the price of petrol sky-rockets; Roman needs dental work; she’s overdrawn on her credit card; bills keep coming, piling up, a paper avalanche sliding off her sideboard; the kids complain and fight as only siblings do; rent is constantly owed; both children need new school shoes; a school note informs her that every child must have a laptop next year; they all dream of cable TV. And of course there’s the cost of her medication, even with government help.
There’s also the debt collector after Vince. A risky business venture he entered into unthinkingly, leasing cement trucks, that went under. And she let him put her name on the contracts. One day she hears the knocking and burns as she and the kids huddle behind the lounge, barely breathing, until the knocking stops and the collector leaves.
Arguing with Vince over the phone about the maintenance and debts, she’s whispering savagely, but she knows from Roman’s sullenness that he heard all.
One night after another dinner of tinned spaghetti the television is playing up. She sends Roman and Marly to bed, drinks a bottle of cheap red and, head in hands, howls silently.
Despite the epilepsy, no neurologist has ever told her not to drive, as her grand mal seizures have always attacked at night, in her sleep. Their after-effects hit when she wakes: aching limbs, severe headaches, extreme fatigue, a chewed-up tongue. Blood on her pillow, sometimes she’s wet the bed. But it was Vince who told her how her body completely stiffens, then convulses, how her eyes roll back into her head, how she gurgles and drools a red foam and he rolls her on her side so she won’t choke on her tongue (she’d long learned that swallowing one’s tongue during a fit was a myth). She remembers nothing of this, and he’s never wanted to discuss details, as if it were something embarrassing, something unmentionable, in the shameful realm of, say, menstruation, when she pressed him for details. Sure, they’d made jokes about it, how she’d have been burned at the stake for being a witch in centuries past, or gassed in Nazi Germany, but overall, except for the occasional aura that would manifest at an inconvenient time, she and the epilepsy live alone in harmony. She can even drive while experiencing an aura – the petit mals only affect her hearing, her speaking, but not her control over her body. The medication has only ever been the real thorn – it is expensive, and has definitely affected her energy, her verve, her memory.
So of course her whole life is thrown out of alignment when she’s driving the kids to school one shimmering March morning and the world begins to topple. Despite the ascent into rapture, a freedom devoid of responsibility, another part of her brain says No. Slowly at first the orb turns, as she whispers no no no no to herself, but then god’s words boom, clear and caressingly, blocking out all other sounds, and she and the sky and the clouds merge. She languidly tries to resist it, begs god to free her this once, but the divine powers are so relaxing, so blissful, she can’t win. Give in. Here there is no stress. The vines are massaging her right leg, and the caul enveils itself pacifyingly around her mind. In the distance she can hear her children screaming and she knows she must stop the car, a very vague part of her is scared, and she tells her right leg to get off the accelerator, to get onto the brake, but it just won’t do as it’s told. It’s like a major nerve has been cut between her head and her foot, she’s no longer connected, just an abstract mass of cells, floating. From outside her sphere she hears one thud, two, three; more screaming; then a giant balloon explodes in her face and the car stops and her leg moves onto the brake. She’s run into the back of a truck.
Reality now. Ripped from the caul.
Police, ambulance, four cars hit – unbelievably no one’s been hurt. Her children are whimpering and cling to her and she hugs them tightly. She explains brokenly to a cop who states, almost mournfully, that her licence will probably be suspended for at least twelve months. Thank god they won’t charge her. She can’t stop weeping or trembling, and apologises to the drivers of the hit cars, who appear understanding, even one driver who is pregnant. The paramedics check her, ask her if she wants to come to hospital; no, no, she simply wants to be home. Tow trucks have arrived; her car is a write-off. Despite her thudding head she remembers she only has third party insurance. No money to repair the car even. She rings Fleur who drives her and Roman and Marly home, gives Fleur a hurried rundown, and then asks Fleur to leave. She needs to lie down. Fleur nods uncertainly, warily – this is the unreal world, too strangely near. Doesn’t happen to normal people.
Sylvia sits the kids in front of the TV with some chips, then curls up in bed. She should be attending to something. What? Doesn’t know, doesn’t care, she only wants to sleep.
At five pm Roman is roughly shaking her.
– Mum, I’ve got soccer practice tonight.
She groans. Ok babe, I’ll just get –
Then the headache hits. The truth. There is no car. There is no way she can get to soccer. Her breathing gets faster. How can she get the children to school tomorrow? Pick them up? How can she get to work?
Think, think…buses. But no buses go from her house to her work or from home to school. She can’t afford taxis. She certainly can’t walk that far with the kids. And her mother…Sweating, she starts to vomit, rushes to the bathroom. I need a car and I need a licence. She’ll ring the doctor tomorrow and beg. Surely there’s a way out of this. Tonight, like many future nights, Roman will miss soccer.
She calls the neurologist, explaining the situation, and miraculously he squeezes her in the next day. He too confirms she can’t drive. Complex partial seizures he calls these unusual auras; and due to them her medication is increased.
Increased to such a level that within days she’s totally enervated. So many different drugs, different dosages. Her mind is now a fog, curled up, not wanting to do anything. She craves hibernation. Never has it been this bad. She can walk and talk, speak to people, cook and clean…but her yearning for slumber constantly haunts, summoning. And things are forgotten, small things, big things, the words for things: everything’s a thingo. The epilepsy and accompanying drugs have been eating away at her retention and cognitive function for years, slowly, a rat gnawing, with her hardly aware of the damage done, but this is like her brain is now muffled in a thick woolly blanket.
If long-term memories exist they’re in a very deep black hole somewhere; short-term recall is a flawed puzzle; reading anything but pulp fiction is more than her shredded concentration can manage.
And the driving. For two days she keeps the kids home, calls in sick at the café, swinging between resentment, panic, lethargy. She scours bus routes but the children would have to change buses twice and walk a few kilometres. In any event, they’re too young to travel alone. And she’d have to do the same to get to work. (Should she move them to a closer school? But they’ve already changed schools twice with Vince’s troublesome job moves; to consider doing it again…)
Help me, someone. I’m too exhausted to decide. Decision-making exists on the other side of the fog, in the luminous, cloud-free world she knows about but can’t remember.
Luckily friends collect and drop off the kids some days, but this is arbitrary and problematic – cars aren’t big enough for their children and hers, other kids have music classes or sport straight after school, some women merely don’t have the time despite trying. Twice in the first fortnight one friend doesn’t turn up to collect Roman and Marly because her own children were sick. Sylvia gets up earlier so that she can get the kids to school on the buses then catch more buses to the café, but she dozes on one route and arrives an hour late. Then she keeps nodding off at the counter during quiet times. At her break she asks a fellow worker for a lift to buy groceries; someone suggests getting a supermarket to deliver them. She simply stares, avoids making a smart comment – she can’t afford those stores, let alone delivery. She can barely afford the cheap places she now haunts, looking for budget foods.
Sylvia doesn’t visit her mother – that requires a train trip and gargantuan effort – so she rings her, which results in pain and entreaties. She promises she’ll visit her soon, soon.
She begs the neurologist to tell the RMS to lift the suspension on her licence. When you’ve been seizure-free for at least six months, he repeats, frustrated, we’ll consider it. She begs friends to help her with the kids, with getting to the shops. She begs Vince to send money. She begs Centrelink to increase her entitlements. She begs the retirement home not to increase her mother’s fees. She sticks up posters around the neighbourhood begging for someone to help with the school run for a very small fee (a few takers, but nothing lasts – some uni students seem keen but lose interest after a week). She begs her boss not to sack her for her poor showings. She begs the landlady for more time to pay the rent. She begs and screams at the children not to waste food. She begs the day to end so she can collapse.
– Your mother’s dead, are the only words she hears.
A rain-swept day, she’d made a water-logged trek out to the home – she hadn’t spoken to her mother for a week. A nurse grabs her as she falls, sits her down.
– We tried to call you but we couldn’t get through.
– They cut my phone off! she shrieks. Where did it happen? When? Her muscles are scorched, her voice straining. Leaning over she bangs her head again and again on a table sobbing Why? Why? A counsellor grabs her, holds her, tries to explains it all: very fast, only yesterday, we’re very sorry, forms to fill in, funeral to be arranged.
Even in her grief her demons hiss How do I pay for that?
As if reading her mind, with averted eyes the counsellor gently mentions that she might consider a destitute funeral. Sylvia’s mouth contorts, she backs away, turns and runs into the downpour. She slips on a grassy footpath and finds herself on her back, winded, in a sodden slush of mud and weed. The aura strikes but she doesn’t fight it, simply allows herself to shudder in the mire, succumbing, listening to a lost god, calling for her mother.
Weeks pass, her fatigue a pallid balm. Nightmares of her mother burning in fetid sheets. Then one afternoon Roman returns from school with a maroon bruise smeared across his cheek, and a swollen wrist.
– It’s just a cut, he grunts as he tries to storm past her.
– Who did this? she yelps. Let me look at it, god, look at your face!
– I beat someone up, okay? I asked for it. They asked for it. Let me go.
– No, tell me what happened!
She holds both of his arms and he tries to squirm away as she bends and peers into his wet recalcitrant eyes.
– It’s your fault! he yells, specks of spittle on his purple lips.
– What? How? But suddenly she feels it coming, what she’s avoided, somehow, most of her life. She’s seared with a memory of a drab green kitchen, twenty years earlier when she was first diagnosed, her aunt saying to her You must never tell anyone about this, never, ever. You’ll never get a job, no one will take you seriously. She shakes Roman.
– Well? Talk to me!
– I have to defend you don’t I? You’re an epo, a freak! And you’re gonna kill someone some day!
He pulls away roughly, stomps to his room, slams the door. She doesn’t follow but his words resound.
– No wonder Dad left!
The police arrive one evening. One of the drivers in the accident, the pregnant one, has lost the baby, and although she isn’t bringing charges they need to double-check some statements Sylvia made on the day. She sits stiffly, trying, trying, to hold herself together.
Sitting on her bed later she cradles the bottle of sleeping tablets. How many would it take to end it? Wouldn’t the kids be better off somehow? Thinking of her mother, the dead baby, the bills piling, the debtors growing, and her own lethargy, she fondles the bottle knowing this is salvation, selfish maybe, but one that could allow her to finally rest in peace.
Gently, her boss asks her to leave her job. She’s been too late too often, too unreliable. She almost welcomes the sacking. It’s just too bloody hard to get there without a car, and to deal with the exhaustive demands of Sydney’s dismal public transport system. People do it all the time, the neurologist had said, just use a bus. So yes, again the guilt bit, she should tie herself to a fucking cross really, there are many so worse off than her, blah blah, but the torpor instilled by the drugs keeps repeating in her shrouded mind don’t care can’t cope.
Vince comes back from WA and says he’ll help, he’ll drive the kids to and from school. Two weeks pass, then he ‘forgets’ to collect them one afternoon and two mornings in a row. When she complains he tells her to get off her fat arse and sort something out – everyone has their problems. A month and several missed collections later he is gone, back to WA, leaving Marly wailing, and Roman even more sullen towards her.
And before he left he ate half her food, she thinks bitterly. They’re living now on packet food, old cheap fruit and vegetables she can scrounge, anything cut-price, bargain-basement.
She offers to clean her neighbours’ flats or do their ironing if they drive the kids to school. This works some mornings and afternoons, and on other days friends help with the school run. Some drop off meals, others pay her a bit, too, for the cleaning. Each night she looks longingly at the bottle of sleeping pills, balancing a few on her palm, grasping the bottle as she sleeps.
You need to find a proper job, a bell keeps tolling. But how can she work when plagued by prostration?
One Monday afternoon Jacob sees her coming out of the flat opposite his and raises an eyebrow. He is a criminal; she shouldn’t care what she looks like, but she does. Thick inky hair tied in a tattered clot, makeup forsaken so the circles under her eyes shine violet, her skin yellow. She tries to hide the bruises she’s received carrying her bucket and mop up and down stairs.
– Watta you doin up here, he asks flatly.
She is dismayed. The fug is falling and she realises she can’t speak. Her words would be garbled. Globe spins, god thunders, vines tingle, but luckily it only lasts a few seconds, that blissful Valhalla, knowing where she is yet not knowing, unable to explain to anybody the floating, its essence. A petit mal.
Jacob is peering at her, speaking, but naturally for those few seconds she can’t understand him. She covers her mouth, holds her other hand up to ward him off, as she’s always done. Mustn’t talk. But after it passes she’s forgotten his name, can’t remember where she is exactly, slumps heavily against the doorframe.
– Come in here, you need to sit down, he says from faraway. I’ll get you a cuppa.
Distraught, hesitant, she seats herself in his loungeroom carefully. She says nothing, watching him, watching the door, her head hollow yet hammering as he makes her tea.
– Here, have some of this bloody cake. My sister made it. I hate it. You can take some for your kids.
– Thank you, she says.
Lighting a cigarette, he looks at the back of his hands, examining his life.
– Was it déjà vu? he asks, to her surprise.
– Something like that.
Pausing again, he peers out the window for a moment, preoccupied. Cloying smells of cheap cinnamon candles, only partially blanketing the pungent odour of tobacco.
– My old man, well, he had turns like that. Couldn’t speak. Called them auras. Told me that Van Gogh and Julius Caesar had them too. Even Wally Lewis.
Her eyes are wide. Listen or leave? It’s almost gratifying to hear someone understanding, even this strange man. She bites her cheek to stop the tears.
– Listen. My sister, she’s a bloody sticky beak, said something about you having an accident, can’t drive, or something.
Floodgates open. She can’t stop the sobs. He gets tissues, but doesn’t touch her. A waterfall. She tells him everything, the epilepsy, the driving issues, the poor pregnant woman, her mother, the horror of the retirement home and the destitute funeral, her kids constantly missing out on things, the monumental money problems. Eventually she slows down, runs dry. Panting.
– I’m sorry, you didn’t need that. I’ve just got to find a solution. It’s no one’s problem but mine. And there are people worse off than me, I shouldn’t complain.
– Forget that. Jesus, everyone’s got someone worse off than them. Bloody Catholic guilt.
It’s as if he’s tussling with himself.
Watching him she feels she’s overdone it, curses at herself for being a fool, stands quickly to leave.
– Where’s your sister? she asks.
– Ah, she’s probably at the club. Virtually lives there. Never has time for anything between that and her job.
Sylvia nods and heads towards the door. She hadn’t previously noticed the greasy kitchen, benches stacked with unwashed plates, blinds carpeted with dust. At the door she turns nervously and asks,
– What were you in jail for?
He stiffens. It’s near hatred in his eyes, betrayal. Scowling, his widow’s peak is magnified, making him a malevolent pirate, a villain.
– Armed robbery. And you can tell your friends it’s something I fuckin regret every day. But I’ve never fuckin hurt anyone, okay?
When she knocks on his door the next day he is unshaven, his hair tangled and loose. He glowers, his eyes wrathful, and Sylvia takes a step back as he releases his jaw, his body unwinding, metamorphosing.
– Jacob, she says uneasily. Thanks for the cake, my kids loved it. They don’t get many treats like that these days.
He stands, calm now, but guarded, fully alert. The cigarette in his hand is shaking.
– I, um, have a proposition for you, she says.
Raised eyebrows, he’s suspicious, and Sylvia is half-regretting being here, but she wrings her hands, determined to follow her midnight epiphany.
– I have an idea, Jacob. Please don’t take this the wrong way. But your house, your sister is busy, I was wondering if you could…do with a cleaner?
– Where the fuck would I get the money for that?
– Well, I could clean your house and in return you…you could drive my kids to school and back. I’ll go with you, she adds hastily. And I can do any ironing or washing for you too, or even cook if your sister is busy. I can also talk to some people I know who might be willing to pay you to have their lawns mowed, and even our landlady was complaining that she needed someone cheap to clean the inside common area and do some paint jobs…
She trails off. Is he offended? Fragments of her mind whirl. Is he going to hurt her? But no, he has relaxed, he half-smiles.
– Sounds good to me, he says. Come in and we’ll talk about it.
Tomorrow she’ll start looking for a job. But that night she takes her medication, reads, and returns the sleeping pills to her bottom drawer.