Writing Place 2021

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Frances

by Christine Johnson

 

Randall Park Clinical Patient Notes, 1931.

To those observing her moods, the patient smiles and can be talkative despite her cleft lip. Confusion as to time and place makes her answers to questions irrelevant. She rambles from one subject to another. The diagnosis of puerperal insanity is ongoing. This follows the birth of an illegitimate child. It links to her hysterical accusations regarding the identity of the child’s father. Unwed and considered an unfit mother, we deem her commitment to the asylum long-term. Therapeutic sterilisation may be an efficacious treatment. In this way, the patient may recover close to a cultural norm within the social contexts of domesticity and femininity.  

*

The asylum was, in some ways, a place of safety.

On good days, Frances thinks about cows. At night, she can even dream about them. Imagine riding one. See it swaying into the yard. Her, dismounting and brushing its lowered horned head as it submits to her touch. She grew up with cows. Adores their eyes, mistily vacant and the way they stand unperturbed, rhythmically chewing; soppy ruminants, slow-moving, with nothing better to do.

On good days, Frances thinks about her parents too.

No newcomers to the land, time, sweat and muscle built what they possess – a dairy farm, family-owned and operated. A sizeable herd based on the purchase and breeding of reliable stock. Her father has his favourite bullock. He knows every animal by name, its dam, its sire; only has to look at a heifer to recognise it, lifelong. Given the effort put in, the family is well enough off. But her father insists it has never been for money alone.

‘Money’s just worry,’ he says. ‘Give me a good acre of land any day.’

Frances recalls listening to her father talk. How she formed the view that the rogues to avoid in this world were the scientists and politicians. Those who make rules and issue permits.

‘Wouldn’t know a real cow if it kicked them,’ he scoffs. ‘Too many authorities sticking their nose in, wanting control, there’s the problem. From the Railways Department to the Public Health lot.’

Given his opinions, you might consider him a hard man. But Frances knows that isn’t the case. He’s as docile as the animals he loves to breed.

On good days, Frances remembers.

‘A proud strain’, ‘a life’s work’, those are the phrases her father uses to describe his herd. Others laugh at what they call a ‘cracker’. A weak crawler, a worn-out old beast doddering behind, fit for nothing but the meat cannery. But not her father. Frances recollects how his heart broke every time he saw an animal reaching the end of its usefulness. How he had to call the knacker in to shoot the beast and take it away. And always made sure he was well out of earshot.

Yes, Frances smiles. Cows and family are for good days.

But there were still bad days.

Medication manages the pain. On a bad day, tablets rattle like dice into a tumbler. Frances shudders. Hears the clatter as a sign of a bet that won’t pay off.  She knows that by now. Sectioned, her body slips into separate parts.

‘The jigsaw puzzle never put together,’ she thinks, ‘even if all the pieces are there.’

She falls back, battling a drug-induced sleep. Feels like a distraught cow torn from her baby; hears the poignant ‘moo’ of her calf stolen away to be butchered as veal. On a bad day, her muddled mind crowds with awful cow stories she grew up with. Tales told by her father, when he could not bear the cruelty.

On a bad day, she groans.

What happens to these gentle beasts after a lifetime of giving? Wind whips through wooden slats. The slaughterhouse-bound animals huddle in vehicles speeding at precipitous rates. Her father describes when one truck crashes. The hopeless picture of doomed cows spilling and plummeting down a mountainside. It lives on in her imagination. Unlike those old, exhausted milkers arriving safely for killing. To end up in fast-food chains as hamburgers.

On a bad day, a vessel without oars, Frances drifts away.

Some days Frances ruminates, her mind numb. Arrival into this place brings her detachment. She is alone most of the time. That’s better than nothing; better than living with the fear of him.

Reginald. In the beginning, she quite likes him. He makes her laugh.

‘Something clownish about him,’ her mum says.

Frances knows the Jacksons for their transport company, a fleet of trucks driven out to pick up milk from outlying farms. Frances is just fourteen when Reginald – Mr Jackson – starts turning up to collect. Tells her how pretty she is, how her big sweet chocolate eyes are enough to melt any man’s heart. One day, he invites her into the cabin of his truck for a ‘quick ride round’.

She chooses now not to mull over the way things went. It’s best to turn to the wall. Curl up and try to forget. Wait for a good day.

And bit by bit, the days, months, years become almost bearable. For minutes at a time, Frances feels almost happy. She comprehends they placed her in this so-called asylum amongst those who, they feared, had collapsed into madness beneath the burden of the world. Perhaps it is a kind of craziness I suffer, she thought. A retreat into myself to a secret disrupted place nothing and no one else can reach.

So, at an early age, Frances, living most of her life alone separate from all she loves, dies alone too. With her final breaths, bliss comes like a wave. She lays back knowing there is nothing more to fear, happy to welcome something sweeter than silence: a magical, unbroken hush. Free at last.

Within the grounds of the asylum, they lower her coffin. Cold, dark earth heaps upon her and the grave marked, like all others within the walls, by a plain wooden cross.

*

1982, Freedom of Information Request

The patient’s clinical notes are released. They span twenty years from her committal to Randall Park in 1931, age 15, to her death in 1951, age 35. A handwritten death certificate notes the cause of her demise as “Cancer of the Cervix.” The clinical notes amount to 112 pages. They classify her as insane, following the birth of an illegitimate son, “puerperal [birth-related]” entered as the cause of attack. A small black and white portrait photograph pasted to the second page shows a smiling young woman with a hare lip, looking away from the camera.

*

Half a century later, a warm southerly fills the air. It sweeps along the crumbling walls of the abandoned asylum, dislodging more crumbling mortar from between what had once been its inner walls. Few visit this haunting monument to what has been a silent house of pain. A suffocating place for the hidden and forgotten. But if anyone was there to notice, they would see the breezes pick out a piece of flimsy tissue paper. Toss it up into the radiant screen of light that is the sky. The light wind turns the piece like a fragile treasure, brings it to rest, rubbing against the peeling bark of a eucalypt. Before it tore apart the delicate piece, to be blown away forever into insubstantial atoms, an imaginary and curious reader might have read:

I understand. There’s no true end to things. It’s like the cows.

For when there is no choice, when there is nothing that will change grief and humiliation, then it’s necessary to consent. Because to consent, that is the one, the only, thing left you can do. That you must do to be other than a victim. To break away from expectation, to stand alone, to be independent.

That is the ultimate, a real thing. And the worst thing.

So, I write to bless you, my son. To tell you, give them good pasture, for that is enough. In good time, their cumbersome bodies will turn. In a gentle parade following each other’s tails, they will approach, lowing their semi-mournful song. All you must do is open the gate and let them pass. Be sure to see the deep and gentle love in their velvet eyes, the tender serenity and innocence as they go by. Blow a kiss. And say goodbye.

Frances

 

About Christine Johnson

Christine’s writing career follows sixteen years spent as a professional theatre director, working in mainstream, community, opera and young people’s theatre. Artistic Director of three theatre companies, two in Australia and one in Hong Kong, she toured works to Munich, Kuala Lumpur, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Graduating from The Flinders University of SA, she has taught performing arts at the University of Adelaide.

 

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