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Arkell's Ark: Rae

Those who know about such things, those who can measure the speed at which messages travel through the human body, would probably argue differently. But the pain of that first punch registered in her heart before the pressure of his fist had left her face. And that pain, delivered in some fraction of time, stayed with her, scar tissue on her heart, if not her cheek. There were apologies, promises of change and better times ahead. Later she tried to reconcile the act and look for reasons to help her understand how things could be this way after just six months of marriage.

There is a period of self doubt at such times and an attempt to rationalise what has happened and to look for a solution. Sometimes such incidents are one of situational outbursts and while such violence can never be justified, it is not always indicative of cracks serious enough to cause the collapse of a relationship. And yet there are times when it becomes obvious that such behaviours are entrenched and regrettably, some personalities will always remain resistant to change. The difficulty is in recognising the difference. Unfortunately the resolution of such problems sometimes requires more than mere recognition.

Rae was twenty two, parents living interstate, just an Aunt the other side of town, a country town where such events were not unknown but rarely mentioned. In the early fifties in such towns, support groups, refuges, even concern at times, were absent. She lived with Charlie outside of town on sixty acres, a few cattle but a property not big enough to provide any real income. A rented fibro house, two small bedrooms, a veranda round the house where they sometimes sat in happier days and made plans for their future together.

Charlie was a drinker, as were most of the men she knew. It was the way of things in that small town; a culture where a woman was occasionally beaten, sometimes senseless, so that the police were called. But few women pressed any sort of charge and without any form of emotional or financial support, where would they go anyway?

And the police would tell them to ‘forget about it’ or ‘just keep quiet, don’t upset him’ and sometimes in the pub someone would comment that ‘maybe she needed ‘a belting, just to keep her in line’ and everyone would laugh.

Rae wondered what she’d done, reflected on the day, wondering if it was her fault but found no cause or reason. And as six months became a year the scar tissue round her heart spread, each new wound hardening that part of her that had loved him. Charlie worked on the local council as a grader driver, a young man with just two years of high school and a succession of labouring jobs that kept the rent paid and food on the table, with just enough left to be with his mates each afternoon.

In that year the gulf between them grew and Rae realised that far from any new beginning there appeared to be no end and that the messages that originally raced to her heart now lodged in her brain alone. We are all subject to learned behaviours and in that regard Charlie had watched his father and mother fighting for most of his childhood and understood how you treated women.

In the credit squeeze of ’61, everyone made cuts, belts were tightened and people were put off with vague promises of a job again when things picked up. And Charlie joined the ranks of others in the town who’d lost their jobs and often their self-respect. He picked up casual labouring work, but it was barely enough to pay the rent.

Rae had never worked, Charlie never wanting ‘a wife of mine to work’. But as things grew more desperate she made a decision and through a friend of her Aunt’s secured two days a week cleaning. She came home happy, wanting to share the good news, to feel as though she was contributing. He was in the kitchen drinking and stood up suddenly when she told him the good news. ‘At least’, she said, ‘It’ll take a bit of pressure of us’.

He said nothing, just back handed her, then started swearing and kicking her as she tried to crawl into a corner like an animal cornered, looking for an escape. He kicked her twice in the back then grabbed her by the heels and dragged her into the lounge room, where to complete the domination, he raped her.

She woke sometime later when it was dark and he was gone. It took her several minutes before she could turn over, even longer before she could sit up and realise that she had lost control of her bowels. Rae cleaned herself as best she could and then started the long walk to town, to try and reach some sort of safety with her aunt.

After almost two hours of walking the dirt road into town, she circled the main street in case he was looking for her and sometime during the early morning reached her Aunt’s farm. Celeste washed her in the shower, holding her as she sobbed.
In the morning there was bruising over most of her face, a lip that should have been stitched and pain in her back that made her wince when she tried to move.

‘I don’t want to go to hospital. Or the Police’, she added, anticipating Celeste’s next suggestion. ‘They’re drinking mates. You reckon the cops will do anything about it?’ And Celeste knew she was right and knew from experience these things never went away; that there was really only one choice and wondered if in the midst of all the emotional distress, her young niece had considered that option.

Rae stayed there, hiding each day anyone called or if she saw a car turning off the main road towards the farm. Most people in the area knew Celeste and her husband from years ago, when they grew sheep and wheat. They seemed happy enough, though Fred drank a lot and developed a reputation for being a bit of a nasty drunk. Then the abuse and drunken accusations started and in the same way that her niece felt the scarring on her heart spread, any feeling, affection or love that Celeste had for her husband died.

A couple of people saw the bruises on Celeste’s face, which she explained away as an accident when she was yarding stock. Those same people nodded wisely, understanding what was happening; understanding it was best to say nothing, just mind their own business. And then suddenly Fred was gone, wasn’t seen in town or the pub, just disappeared. When people persisted and the police visited she admitted that he’d left and gone to Sydney, taking her jewellery and what money was in their bank account. There was, she admitted reluctantly, another woman. Celeste had survived, even prospered, and ran a successful stud and was known as a hard woman to deal with; a woman who stood by her word.

Rae recovered slowly, physically at least. But there were other problems that lingered. Whenever she saw a car she panicked, racing for the security of the house or one of the sheds. Any self-respect or confidence she might have had before that night, was gone.

A week after Rae had been beaten, Charlie visited Celeste and demanded to speak with his wife. He had been drinking but was more angry than drunk.

‘My argument’s not with you, Celeste and I don’t want no trouble. You just get her out there so I can talk to her. She should be at home, not listening to all your shit’.

Cecile stepped back inside and returned a moment later holding a rifle. ‘You know what, Charlie? I knew your father real well. He was a drunk, just like you and he beat his wife, just like you. And he ended up dead in a ditch, which I guess is where you’ll probably end up as well. I don’t like you Charlie, never have. Now Rae didn’t pursue this with the police and you know why that was. But I have to tell you, Charlie, and I want you to listen real good. You come back and you raise a hand to me, or you come back here and try to hurt Rae, I want you to understand something. I will shoot you. I want us to be crystal clear on this point. You understand what I’m saying?’

He looked at her for just a moment. ‘I’ll be back. Rae’s mine and this’s got nothing to do with you, Celeste. You get in my way you’ll get the same. He stepped closer. ‘Now, you understand what I’m saying?’

The rifle was an old .22 Brno. She was comfortable with it, shot rabbits and the occasional fox with it. Guns held no fear for her and she worked the bolt smoothly, brought the barrel up to within a foot or so of his face. ‘Time for you to leave, Charlie’. He called her a bitch and walked back to the ute, slammed it into gear and screamed off in a cloud of dust. A moment later the door opened and Rae came out and stood beside Celeste as they watched the car disappear behind a small rise.

‘I’m scared, Celeste. Scared he’ll be back, maybe with some friends next time. You don’t know him. He gets enough beer in him, he …’ The words trailed off into a silence that lasted for a while.

‘Well, he may well do that. Or he might just realise that he’s best to walk away from all this’.

‘Do you think we should try the police? Tell them what’s happening and …’

‘And what exactly is happening, Rae? What’s he done that we can prove, to make them take you or I seriously? Take my word for it. Some cop will come out here and tell you to go back home, behave and things will be ok. I know how these things work, Rae. It ain’t right but that’s the way it is. Anyway I want you away for a while. Let things settle down.'

‘I’m not going anywhere, Celeste. Not running, nothing like that.’ She turned away and walked inside.

Later in the afternoon, Celeste was out the back of the house throwing bits and pieces of wood and rotten timber onto a small fire. Every now and then she pushed at it with a metal rake but mostly just stood their gazing into the fire. Rae came up beside her and reached for her hand. ‘I’m sorry, I just don’t want to leave here.’ Celeste just nodded and moved around the other side of the fire. Rae followed and as she was almost beside Celeste, tripped over a timber platform and almost fell. Celeste grabbed her arm. ‘You ok? Sorry sweet, I’ve been meaning to get rid of that for years. In fact, while I’m in the mood give me a hand and we’ll throw it on the fire.’

It was about six feet square, lengths of old tongue and groove flooring now serving as a cover. They dragged it over to the fire, upended it and dropped it in a shower of sparks and smoke. Rae walked back to where the timber platform had been and peered down into a hole.

‘Don’t get too close, it’s a long drop. Used to be a well donkey years ago but I've used it mainly for rubbish.’ Celeste looked down the hole, threw a small rock down and heard it hit the sides a couple of times. ‘I’ve been going to fill it in for years but never got round to it and just dropped those boards on top of it. Think I’ll drag the front end loader out tomorrow and dump a few rocks and dirt in there. Yeah, now I think about it the place could do with a bit of a cleanup.’

Rae walked over to her Aunt’s side. ‘Just a couple of weeks. Ok?'

‘Promise. Much as it hurts, I want you away from here for a little while. Sure. A week maybe two and then you can come back. A friend of mine, Alice, think you met her a couple of years ago, has this place down at Cronulla, right on the beach. She’s by herself and believe me, Alice will understand. She went through exactly the same thing about the same time as I did. So, just a few days, let things work themselves out and you can come back. Is that a deal?’

And so the next morning Celeste watched as a bus pulled away from the terminal. Rae waved from the window, a scared young woman, uncertain of her future. Celeste finished her shopping and was opening the car door when a ute drove by so close she had to slam the door and squeeze against the side of the car. The ute went down to the corner turned round and drove back slowly. As it drew parallel with her the driver cocked a finger at her, pulled the trigger, then accelerated away.

She spent most of the morning working round the house and later in the afternoon went to the shed and dragged out a roll of chicken fencing, loaded it and some metal stakes onto the trailer and dragged everything round to the rear of the house with the tractor. She paced out at area, then standing on the the trailer, hammered the stakes into the ground.

The chickens had always roamed unrestricted round the place but one or two had disappeared in recent weeks so perhaps it was best to end their freedom. At the end of the day, just as the sun slipped behind the ridges, her work was almost complete. There was one more task left to do before her chickens moved into their new home. But that might have to wait for a day or two.

She sat on the veranda for a while nursing a scotch and started thinking of Rae. Alice answered after two rings.
‘How’s she going?’ asked Celeste.

‘All settled in, though that lip should have been stitched’.

‘Yeah, I know but she sort of dug her heels in. It’s a small town, Alice. That sort of news gets round real quick. Other than that, is she …?’

‘Oh, the outside’s ok. I mean the scars will probably fade but she shouldn’t have had to take that. We were older, weren’t we?’

‘Wasn’t any easier though was it?’

‘No, it wasn’t. Always ask myself why I took it for all those years. Anyway, past is past. You right up there, Celeste?’

‘Just finishing a scotch, then a good feed. Can I have a word with Rae?’

‘Well she crawled into bed just after we arrived home and she’s still dead to the world How about I get her to call back …’

‘No, it’s ok, tell her I love her and I’ll call her tomorrow night’.

An hour or so later when it was dark, she was at the sink washing the dishes and saw headlights sweep over the paddocks as a car turned off the main road onto her property. She followed the lights as they swerved erratically towards the house. And in those few seconds she recalled a time over thirty years ago when she had also been a young woman alone with no support and subjected to the same sort of drunken violence as her niece. But as scared as she had been that night, she had made an important decision.

* * *

The bus was late and Rae was tired. The bruising had all but gone and the lip, although there would always be a scar, was a lot better. They hugged and held each other for a few moments. ‘You hungry?’ Rae said she was and even though reluctant to stay in town , agreed to have a Chinese.

After some small talk, Rae broached the subject of her husband. ‘Has he been back?’

Celeste waved to the waiter for the bill and leaned forward. “Yes he was, the night after you left’.

‘And? What happened?’

‘Well, he was angry just like his father used to be. Think it runs in their family. And he was drunk as well. But we had a talk and he left.’

‘You had a talk and he left? Just like that?’

Celeste shrugged. ‘What can I say? I haven’t seen him since then, so…’

The next morning after breakfast Rae came out and saw Celeste herding the chickens towards their new home.

‘When did that happen?

‘Like it? Think it looks pretty damn good myself. Just need you to grab the gate when I’ve got them in and we’re done’.

Rae walked round the enclosure pulling tentatively at the netting. Celeste smiled. ‘Pass inspection does it?’

‘You have been busy.’ The new enclosure incorporated the area where the well had been and already there were scraps of fruit and vegetables littering the ground.

The early morning cloud had slowly, almost reluctantly disappeared and they sat there for a while, feeling the warmth of the sun on their backs, enjoying the moment.

Rae slipped her arm through Celeste’s. “Alice told me about you and Fred.’ Celeste looked straight ahead. ‘What did she tell you?’

‘Well, just that you had trouble and that Fred just took off one day and he’s never been back. You ever wonder what happened to him, what he’s doing?’

‘No, I just know he’s where he has to be.’ She turned and looked at Rae. ‘Thing’s usually work out for the best, sweet. Sometimes they just need a bit of a nudge’.

‘You think that’s what’s happened with Charlie? I mean when you spoke to him?’

Celeste shrugged. ‘I don’t know for sure, Rae. I just know he’s where he has to be, too. And that’s all that matters’.


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