By Sharon Willdin
The Nurse’s Home, situated at the rear of Parramatta Hospital, stands four levels high against the banks of the river. The Registrar leads me up the stairs to the second floor and down a polished concrete corridor, full of unoccupied rooms.
“This is the lounge.” It smells of cigarette smoke, has two musty lounges, a coffee table and a box TV.
“The kitchen,” she waves her hand. “There’s tea, coffee, milk, SAOs and vegemite. Anything else you want you’ll need to buy it yourself.”
“The toilets.” There is a row of cubicles with showers at the end.
A cockroach runs out.
I step away.
She grunts, “Welcome to Sydney luv.”
“I’ve just never seen any that big before.”
“They come up in the drains. You’ll get used to them.”
She continues the tour.
“This one’s yours. I’ve put you next to the lounge room. There are two nurses in residence at the moment, but they’re mostly on night shift so you probably won’t see them much.”
Keys rustle as she chooses one to twist into the lock. The door flings open to reveal a two by three-meter room with beige walls, orange and brown zigzagged curtains, dressing table, chrome bed and a metallic locker. “Twenty dollars a fortnight will be deducted from your pay.” She hands over the key.
My heart sinks. “It comes out automatically then?”
For the first time, she looks at my face. “How old are you? They told me you’re seventeen?”
“Well, you’re the youngest we’ve ever had live here. And the first chef.” She pauses and examines me further. “Must have started working young?”
“I started my apprenticeship when I was fifteen.”
“Where are you from again?”
“Goulburn. I’m from Goulburn.”
“No jobs there?”
“No, it’s hard to get work down there.”
“Isn’t there anywhere else you can stay? Relatives?”
“No. Well, not any who I know.”
“No, not in Sydney.”
She frowns, “I guess this is the best place for you then. It’s cheap, and a security officer patrols the hospital grounds at night, so at least it’s secure.”
“Yeah. No. It will be fine.”
“Ok then. I’ll leave you to it. Clean sheets and towels are on the linen trolley. They go out in the dirty basket once a week and the laundry staff will bring you some fresh ones.”
I sit on the stained mattress.
This is now my home.
Time to remember the living and the dead.
Pots bang in the scullery, frozen chips crack in hot oil and steam hisses from industrial pressure cookers. Born in the USA thumps out and ricochets off the floor tiles and the stone walls.
Noel from Blacktown fries his masterpiece; Sweet ‘N’ Sour Pork. He shouts, with one finger up his nose, “Come and try some. It’s bloody beautiful!” I rub my stomach and shake my head.
Barry the Sous Chef from Merrylands waddles in from The Pitt after having his third cup of tea. Smithy from Tassie heckles him, “Mornin’ Six Dicks!” Smithy reckons Barry couldn’t be that silly just playing with one.
Six Dicks’ hand fiddles inside his pocket. He spots me and comes over. He whispers in my ear, while I pull the flesh of steamed chickens from the bone, that his girlfriend refuses to wear clothes at home. He complains that she puts her leg up at the dinner table, dusts her cunt with talcum powder and she ends up looking like a lamington.
Smithy stirs a pot of braised beef with a paddle and looks up and over at us. He yells at Six Dicks, “Hey you old perv, stop pulling yourself off.” Six Dicks blushes, grins and dawdles off to try his luck with the ladies in the salad bar.
Inside the meat fridge Hans, the Danish Butcher, secures a side of bacon under his chef’s coat and ties it down with double aprons. It sits up like a pot gut and he heads off to his locker to offload the stock.
Julie bolts out of the deep freezer, “You fuckin’ bastard!” Kenny follows behind her, grinning from ear-to-ear. She is shaking. Her face is red. “The prick! He unhooked my bra, pushed me onto the boxes, and started undoing his belt. I had to punch the prick to get him off me.”
Kenny winks at Smithy and laughs. He walks off fixing his pants. To him it’s just a game.
KB Rob comes out of the diary fridge wiping his chin. He’s been into the cooking wine. The boys always try to hide it, but he finds it every time.
Vietnamese Trang wheels in a trolley loaded with lettuce and tomatoes. It’s his job to put them away in the vegetable fridge. He keeps his back to the bench so no-one will grope him from behind. Lebanese Claude, the Head Chef, spots him. Claude reckons the slopes are taking all the jobs. Trang tries to run. Claude, towers over him and grabs him in a head lock. Trang lets out a muffled cry, “No.” Claude pulls Trang’s arm up behind his back and takes him outside to the loading dock.
Maltese Dom is stoned and cranks the radio up full bore. Loose ramekins vibrate on the steel shelf. The beat pounds into my chest.
Dom protests in sync with the song. He’s still out on parole. He jumps up on the step to the boiler and starts fist pumping the air, keeping in time with each beat.
A wall of steam hits German Anna in the face when she opens the oven door. She takes out a tray of chickens and bends over to drain the stock into a plastic tub. Dom jumps down, goes up behind her and screams in her ear. He grabs hold of her hips and pretends to root her from behind.
The song fades out, along with The Boss’s desolate wails; out the swinging doors and into the empty corridors.
We are left yearning and complete.
Let’s celebrate children’s day for the 129 orphans
who died, and the endless others,
who didn’t make the count.
Julie is a year younger than me. When we have the same days off we catch the Ferry to Manly, buy a kilo of prawns, squeeze lemon on them, and eat them on the beach.
On Saturday nights, White Garry takes us for a drive in his Kingswood and we do a lap of the Cross. Skinny girls, younger than us, stand in doorways dressed in singlet tops and cut off shorts, with their eyes rolling back in their heads.
No ribbons mark the spot.
Some Friday nights, Black Garry gets hold of some “green stuff” and we all have a few cones. I’m called The Pizza Queen because it makes me spin out and spew. Well, at least it keeps the blokes away.
Every once and a while Fat Jamie has a party at his place and everyone gets stoned. Aboriginal Nell likes to take turns with a few of the guys. She is fifteen. Julie and I are not sure why she does it, but they don’t pick on her at work.
One-time Nell was so pissed she couldn’t stand up. She never speaks to me much. This night she started telling ghost stories. Nell said her aunty used to be in Parramatta Girl’s Home. She told us that it’s a prison now, but it’s haunted. She reckoned that if it was still a Girl’s Home they’d lock her up too. She said they used to take girls like her to the doctor and if he could insert three fingers up you it meant you were a slut and they could put you in there. Nell said her aunty was locked up for her own protection by white cunts.
When Nell was sober she never spoke to me again.
Covered with terror and leaves blown in by the wind.
10 steps to the wooden door, interconnected networks of rooms with walls
half-a-metre thick, made from convict bricks, embedded with a shackling ring.
Just a few more steps past till you meet the unloved, the unwanted, the unworthy,
caged and bolted in the dungeon, six small paces long and four wide.
One night, for a dare, Julie and I went to the Girl’s Home to have a look. There were high fences, prison guards and signs saying Authorized Personnel Only. Behind the fence was an old three story building. I saw a light switch on and off on the second floor. My back felt cold and went prickly.
We saw some graffiti on a sign outside the gates with the words:
Here stands a museum on Darug land,
a tribute to the sanctioned abuse of women.
I don’t think the Government would have approved. A security guard came up behind us. Julie and I both jumped. He asked us what we were doing. We told him we just got lost and ended up going the wrong way. He said that unless we wanted to end up on the other side of the fence we’d better shove off. He watched us leave the property, and made sure we left in our car.
On the other side, captive inside the high walls, apparitions of women
naked and clothed, serge and flannel, beaten and soiled,
with infants and without, dead and alive, depart and reappear,
as the river drifts outside the prison gates.
Black Garry got us some fake IDs so we can go out to watch the bands. We went to the Curb ‘N’ Gutter with him, saw a fight between two gangs and one bloke got stabbed. It’s Black Garry’s idea of fun, not ours, so we never went back.
Dom reckons War and Peace is a hole but it is the only thing open late at night so when we are in a group we usually end up there. The only other place is the Family Inn but it’s a long way out and the security on underage drinking is pretty tight.
Most of the time Julie and I just go out on foot to Parra Leagues. It’s not very far from Marsden Street, we only have to cross the bridge. Cars drag past and pissed blokes yell out the windows, “Show us your tits,” “Suck my dick,” or, “How about a fuck?”
One night when we were coming home from Parra Leagues a car full of blokes skidded up alongside of us in O’Connell Street and stopped dead on the side of the road. We knew we were in trouble. One bloke jumped out. Julie was closest to the curb. He tried to drag her in. He slipped and she got away. We ran back the way we came and cut through places you can only go to on foot. It didn’t stop us from going out, but we learnt it’s safer never to walk in the same direction as the traffic.
Somebody else’s daughter.
In the country, people put pressure on girls to be married early. I was often the butt of jokes. “You’ve been left on the shelf,” my old workmates would stir.
White Garry got all soppy one night when we were at his place. He started crying and asked me to marry him. He said the only thing he ever wants is to have a wife and a heap of kids. I think he is kind hearted, and fairly smart, but I don’t know if that’s what I want.
It didn’t take him long to ask someone else. He hooked up with Kim, the Yellow Lady, and within six weeks they were engaged. She took our spot in the Kingswood and now she likes to sit up front with Garry.
A man desiring a wife, and being unable to acquire one elsewhere,
can present himself at the Female Factory and receive one on application.
Julie and I heard the best comeback ever at work. Kenny was working in the Diet Kitchen when Terri, the Diet Aide, walked in to place an order. Kenny tried to embarrass her and shouted, “Come sit on my face.”
Terri turned around, cool as a cucumber, and replied, “Why is your nose bigger than your dick?” For the first time ever Kenny blushed and was stuck for words. Julie and I laughed for days. Kenny never lived it down.
On payday Julie and I usually go out to the club for a meal and a few drinks. Once we drank so much Southern Comfort we couldn’t make it home. We passed out on the lawn outside the pool. When I woke up both my nostrils were bleeding. Julie thought I was a legend.
He may choose from the best behaved of the convicts.
At the station the platforms are dotted with gollies and cigarette butts. The train carriages clank and screech. The windows are marked with someone’s greasy face. Images of a worthless girl reflect back at me over a slideshow of insignificant backyards, rusted corrugated roofs and worn singlet tops. People sit across looking drained and lifeless. Sometimes they glance, sometimes they stare, but they never speak.
Candles flicker on a portrait of the deceased.
It is often safer just to take my Torana. I jump in and follow roads to their natural end. One day I ended up underneath a bridge over the river. Somewhere. Ryde, Silverwater, Meadowbank. I’m not really sure. It was pebbly and deserted. I kicked my legs up and was reading a book when I caught a glimpse of some movement. I locked the door, turned over the engine, and it stalled. I did it again, this time it worked. When I looked back I could see two blokes, about my age, chasing behind my car. I learnt a few things that day, never go there again, and always take the P-Plates off the car.
Scattered gerberas line the path.
I don’t mind traffic jams because it reminds me I am not alone. When there is a heatwave we get stuck for hours. Cars blast each other. Drivers get mad. Some of them have been up since dawn and are just trying to get home before dark. I make the most of it. I wind the windows down, whack in a cassette and sing along to Bow River, and again.
They went to the site of the trees and shrubs, just before the sand and water’s edge, the ropes where they had been captured and held were still visible, frayed and severed, for a moment it resembled that the top part of their arms had been cut off. They showed us, without the need for words, that it happened at the bottom of the hill. Two of them got away and one was killed. The apparition of the one that was killed manifested, wearing the clothes she had been in when she died. Her clothes were not soiled or stained. She looked crisp and fresh, and wore a linen frock with a white background which had a gold autumn leaf print. It was modest, with a slight plunging neckline, sleeveless, gathered at the waist, and the length fell between her knees and her calves. The dead woman had long mousy brown hair, a polished plain face and high cheekbones. She showed us a vision of her on top of the ridge, sitting on a bicycle, with her dress pulled up on the left-hand side. I assume she was taken from the site where they had all been tied up, put in the hessian bag and ferried to the island, across the dark waters, in a small row boat, and it must have been there that she was killed.
In Goulburn I was told to be careful. “The Big Smoke is a dangerous place; people get murdered every day.”
You can’t say that I wasn’t warned. I know it’s no place for a girl to be wandering about alone. But I’d rather take my chance at freedom than stay locked up in fear.
A black heart one meter tall, imperfect,
made of rusted-black-plastic,
floats in the air.
The emptiness of the Nurses’ quarters confronts me when I am not at work. I can’t stay put. I really don’t care where I end up, as long as it’s not there.
I decide to go out for a drive. I drive down Marsden, take Phillip, ‘round to Charles, then turn into George. I see the road curve to the left and I follow it along. It takes me to an underpass which runs against the river’s edge. I hear a horn blast and see a man speeding up next to me on the driver’s side in an orange Datsun 180B. He cuts in front of my Torana and slows down. It’s one-way traffic so there’s nowhere I can go. He signals for me to pull over. He stops his car close to the curb. I pull up behind him with my car engine still running. He gets out and looks around. He starts to undo the top two buttons of his grey overalls and walks toward my car. His face is red and it has pockmarks from acne scars. His eyes are like a pigs and he has sebaceous shoulder length hair. My instinct kicks in. I put my foot on the accelerator and take off. He jumps back in his car and chases me down. He roars out of his window for me to pull over and gets in front of me again. I pretend that I am going to obey him and I pull over. He stops his car. Then I move my car around his and wait a few meters up the road. I wonder why he is so angry and think I must have hit his car somewhere along the way. So, I do what he says. I can see in the rear-view mirror that he is livid. This time he has a screwdriver clenched in his fist and all his buttons are undone.
On the banks, where the dark water stagnates with the hyacinth
and weeds, her body lays half-naked, face down.
A soft breeze taps against a possum in the Ironbark tree, his ancestors send out a signal up the river that another spirit flies free. A cheeky little fairy wren circles and flirts, teasing with its darts and trills.
The wren comes to rest on the gentle sloping shores of Iron Cove Bay, sheltered by sandstone rocks, and occupied by beings that travel the earth.
Sunlight filters through the Stringybark trees.
It hears a corroboree offshore, on Bennelong’s Island where the boats are moored, and sees a Wangal girl pushing a bark canoe into the water to gather shellfish for her clan.
Mangroves wade in the tide as a curious fiddler crab peeks out and then hides.
The wren wants to play, and weaves between the nuwalong and dog walkers with poo bags in their hands; and chases above the children who soar across the park on a flying fox.
It relaxes on the rocks as a recluse, in his seaman’s cap, carves sailing ships into the stone. The touch of warm sandstone crumbs will calm even the most tormented soul.
Dusk settles on the middens and the girders of the bridge.
The wren hears the tones of a simple soul who lives forever onboard JW888N, and watches him as he boards a dingy, accompanied by his best mate, who stands four-square at the helm. Dog barks and engine splutters dissolve as they move across Shark Point and disappear under the bridge.
The tide pulls in, and eases out. Vibrations ascend through the earth. The full moon rises to placate the cove.
Stars reflect off a pane of polished water, and jellyfish lamps float.
The little wren flutters away.
Tranquility and peace expand the heart as blue light soothes the bay.
The Parramatta Female Factory held women and children in captivity from 1821 until 1847. On the same 16-acre site the Roman Catholic Orphan School was established in 1844. In 1887, this precinct became the Parramatta Girls School. The Parramatta Girls School closed in 1974.
Sharon Willdin is an emerging writer from Sydney, Australia. She is a creative writing graduate from Sydney University and the Australian Film, Television, and Radio School. Sharon was raised in a housing commission property in regional New South Wales. She left school at 15 years of age to work full-time in an industrial kitchen. Working-class women are limited in their opportunities to have a voice. To have their stories heard they must be indoctrinated into the literary academy. At the academy, their voices are synthesized into a commodity whereby they can be further made subservient to the social order.