Thomas. Thomas. We have to go.
Wind rolled through the trees and the canvas stretched and vibrated against the ropes. Her head swam.
Thomas grunted, half-turned; exhausted, he didn’t wake.
The air inside the tent was cold and she shivered. Her waters had broken, the blankets were soaked. She was glad little Frankie was at Drapers’. She reached clumsily for her coat, swallowing down fear. The baby had moved this morning but not since. Now this. Her stomach heaved and she quickly turned and retched into the sheets beside the bed, the sour smell stinging her nostrils. She closed her eyes, breath ragged, head swimming. She clutched at Thomas’s shoulder and hardly unbidden, she remembered the others. Two tiny souls, each had come, had come all the way, and each had died in that moment. She closed her eyes, tried to fight it, tried to fight the anguish, but the tears welled of their own. Her grip tightened on Thomas’s arm. And then –
A high-pitched keening, wailing above the sound of the wind, riding the pain of the first contraction. Her fingers bit into Thomas’s shoulder; awake now, alarmed, he came to, to the sharp odours and the cold in the tent, his wife in pain.
He reached for her free hand; with his other, he dragged her coat around, put it about her shoulders, not moving from her grip.
Mary, he breathed, and if there was hope and despair mingled in the hoarseness of his voice, in the way he held her, she did not hear it, she did not feel it.
The contraction stopped; the wind drew back; silence. Only their breathing making a sound. She felt his hand move to her face; he felt the hot tears on her cheek.
Can you move?
Could she? She took a deep breath, testing her swollen belly, nothing more rushing from her. She nodded. She stopped nodding; the dizziness and nausea overwhelming.
He wrapped her closer in her coat, folded the blankets around her. He found the ragged towels at the foot of the bed.
Take these, he said Where’s your bag?
She looked toward the corner of the tent. They’re near the chair, she thought. He followed her gaze to the pile in the corner.
I’ll warm the car up, just wait, and he was at the tent flap when he stopped and came back. He took her head in his hands and held her eyes with a firm gaze. She could feel the rough skin of his hands, wanted to meet his gaze with strength. She took a breath. He kissed the top of her hair.
It won’t be like last time, he said. It won’t be like the last time. Then he pushed apart the flaps and went into the black night.
Like the last times, she whispered.
She may not have been building fences today but she was no less exhausted. She let her eyes close – just for a minute. She did not hear the car start; did not hear him come back to her, did not feel his arms slide under her, or place her on the cold backseat, did not feel him pushing the blankets close. It was blessedly dark and she was lost.
She came in and out on the long drive to Colac, but she did not see the dark shapes of the trees bending under the wind, wild, chasing them along the black strip of highway. She did not see the shape of Thomas’s face, a black silhouette against the lights on the road.
She came out the other side, and saw instead the broad green stretch of bank that stretched down to the river. It was Spring along the Ovens and it had come in vibrant greens and tiny white jasmine. The water was clear, the air was clear. Delirious, she breathed it in, one more time, again, from the clear blue sky. It was marvellous. He walked ahead of her; he held the basket, the rug over his arm, and he held out his hand to her.
I can’t have you falling down this slope, and he’d winked at her. His voice, deep in its Welsh accent; she would never tire of listening to it. And when he sang, like they’d sung at home last night: she, at the piano, he at her left, laughing down at her as she played. Mother, Margaret, Agnes, their faces and voices blurring in the lights and the raucous noise. She joined in the chorus…run, rabbit, run, rabbit…
Out of the darkness of the front seat: Mary? Worried, concerned. Why Thomas? Why are you worried? It’s a beautiful day, she wanted to say but couldn’t make the words.
She decided not to talk and followed him, down the bank. Across the grass. To the water’s edge.
They would start a family when he got back, he said. They resettle soldiers, Mary, when they return. We know farming. This will be what we do, and his voice faded from her ears but she went on watching him speak, watching his lips move. She knew all these words for they had spoken them to each other so many times since that day in September. They had become part of her and him; their bargain. The words in her ears, the letters in which he’d committed them to paper. But the pain, Thomas, she whispered and she stirred and shifted and moaned against a new contraction. Again, the silhouette, unseen by her, looking at her. Mary, he said again, louder, hoarse, but she couldn’t hear a thing, only the voices on the bank of the Ovens, only the voices back in the front room of Templeton Street, whispering with Margaret, as they stayed awake long after dark. For Margaret was loved by Jack and they would wonder together about things they could never ask Mother, things Agnes had told them instead. Her cheeks felt hot. She reached out to hold Margaret’s hand, for she could feel her tears…were they Margaret’s tears? but her hand touched only the back of the vinyl seat and Margaret whispered and was gone. She was alone again, with the pain, in the dark and the worry of losing him to Egypt and the deserts.
But the letters had come. The war kept on but the letters kept coming. Each one a blessing, an assurance, each one bringing her closer to her end of the bargain. I’ll be too old, she said to Agnes, but Agnes turned away.
The reverie broke and a searing pain dragged her back to the car and she moaned, biting down the pain. Breathing ragged, she blinked. The street lights flickered past as they raced up Manifold St.
Camperdown? Camperdown? But he didn’t hear her.
She could see his haggard face in the flickering of passing lights, Shadow, light, shadow, light, shadow, light.
She closed her eyes. She’d let that face down. She was probably about to do it again.
Still the war kept on, but his broken body had come home to heal on a hospital ship; El Alamein had yielded him up. His battalion had gone on to New Guinea.
They are dying from Malaria, he’d told her. She knew what was coming. They’re still fighting, he said. I can’t quit on them now.
The trials took him to Queensland, where he would be injected with the disease that would affect him all his life but she had no choice but to watch him walk away, do his duty once more.
Thomas, she called as the car wound through the dark bends of Pomberneit, but she’d only murmured and he couldn’t hear her all the way in Queensland.
I’m so tired, she whispered to the back of the seat, and she slipped into unconsciousness.
Older women than her had given birth and if Agnes cautioned her, it didn’t matter; she had every confidence rushing home from the doctor that day, and found him milking. She stopped at the door. He looked at her, saw her blush and rose clumsily from the stool. They stood for a moment and all the years and the letters and the hopes seemed to hang suspended between them. His face, then! She blushed for days afterward and how happy she felt! She wrote Margaret, and Mother. Agnes. Through the summer, Margaret came, and they waded in the creek in the fading light of summer like children.
The baby stopped moving. In the last long days of February he was taken from her and laid beside someone she didn’t know, someone he didn’t know; in a place she would never find. She would never hold him in her arms. Still. Not breathing. Not for so long, days. He arrived in a sea of pain and guilt and blurred madness. Agnes came. Margaret was there. But Thomas she couldn’t face. He came; he tried to bury his face in her hair. She felt his body heave with unshed tears and was mortified; she turned away.
She’d let him down.
Yet she would do it again.
She stayed with Agnes for the confinement this time, her second chance; but it didn’t matter. And this one a little girl! Laid away again, she would never know where. They would have called her Joy. The weight of failure pinned her down, even though she got up to move mechanically through her days, a ghost or wraith, Thomas hardly knew which when he described her to the pastor. The pastor knew Mary and he felt their anguish; he did what he could. He arranged for Frankie to come to them, a tiny baby boy with the fairest of hair. After all, a baby was what she wanted; the men agreed.
But they never spoke about what she wanted. She just had to go on. She worked in the cafe. She managed the farm. She was a good mother. Devoted. Dutiful. Responsible.
She came home a third time, same news, same wanting, standing before him. She hardly knew how to meet his gaze. Such a strange mixture of hope and despair and resignation. She felt this baby grow like she had the others, felt it grow strong, traced the outline of the little fists or feet that pressed against her from inside. Did her share of the work, looked after Frankie, put on determination –
The bright lights of the hospital woke her and she cried out under the glare as a new contraction took her body like a vice. She saw Thomas shouting into the doorway of the hospital, she saw his breath condense in clouds in the air, his hair in disarray, the worry in his face. He pulled her door open and his stricken face hung over hers as he pulled her carefully from the car, laid her on the guerney. Her eyes on his face, and there were orderlies pushing her but he held her hand and her gaze until they got to the doors, until he could go no further, and she was alone again with her end of the bargain.
It would be some hours before the wind calmed and the night was still. A grey dawn had arrived, resolving her third round of pain and the agony of pushing; yet even as it was over, and even as the head nurse had held her hand and stood for brief moments to stroke her hair – she found she couldn’t fight it rising: hope. A glimmer. She gritted her teeth, tried to steel herself, to push it down. Exhausted, wracked with pain, it was now, in this moment, that she would live or die.
She closed her eyes.
The way it goes: the doctor helps you have the baby. The doctor gives the baby to the nurse. The nurse takes the baby from the room. An unlucky nurse comes to your side, arms empty, arms by her sides. Comes to tell you.
Comes to tell you.
Mary, can you hear me.
She hears her name again. There is a muffled sound. This is the moment.
She takes a breath.
She opens her eyes.