Barbara O’Connor

Overload #31

3 Stories

Duty First.

She was small and slender and the shadows under her eyes bespoke a tiredness that couldn’t be cured by a good night’s sleep. We had flown in the night before and she had met us to repay a courtesy. When dropping us at our hotel she had apologised for not being available to show us around as she was working and could not afford the time. We arranged to have dinner at her home the following evening.

When she called for us she was simply dressed in western clothes, and the car she drove was small and far from new. When she turned into the Palace gateway and drove down an avenue of palms amid luxurious gardens, we were expecting to be driven to a cottage in the grounds. Instead, she pulled up at a wide, shallow set of steps leading to an open verandah.

Murmuring come, she led us up the steps, across the verandah and into the first of a series of enormous stately rooms. Immediately I thought that simply walking from one room to the other would be enough to make anybody tired and I wondered at the number of servants it would require to keep it spotless.

Our meal was served in a modest room the size of a family home and while not sumptuous it was far from the fare of a street hawker’s stand. As the meal was drawing to a close I offered our apologies for keeping her away from the rest. She smiled wanly. Why, I asked, throwing civility to the winds, do you work, when you seem to have so little need? Her eyes remained gentle as she replied. I work, she said, because that means one less American in my country.

The end.

Why Cousin Ivan Died.

Do you answer your grandchildren, when they ask why did we go to war? Well, it was like this. John Howard, our Prime Minister, was in the U.S.A. Yes, that is the United States of America, on September eleven, oh you have heard all about September eleven, good good, well shortly afterwards John Howard had a meeting with Colin Powell, yes I am sure you know who he is too, and Colin Powell was leaning towards John Howard and you know how big Colin Powell is, and he is the, oh you know that too, well you know how powerful the United States are and when Colin Powell said you’re either with us or against us, what could John Howard do?

Yes, yes I realise he could have said how sorry he was and how he felt for all the people who were killed and their families and he did that too, but first of all he said, yes yes that is exactly right, our Prime Minister cowered before the schoolyard bully and said, we’re with you we’re with you, and that is why we went to war, yes, yes I realise little Johnny could have said he didn’t mean it quite like that, yes the other Prime Minister did say all the way with L.B.J. who was also an American President, yes the Americans do have a base at Pine Gap that is off limits to Australians, yes I know it isn’t far from Alice Springs, no no I don’t know how many Americans are at Exmouth, no I don’t know why Cousin Ivan had to die, he was in the army and that is what people in the army do, go to war. Yes the army trained him. No we didn’t have the money for that. Yes he was a helicopter pilot, he always wanted to fly.

Yes I suppose that is why Cousin Ivan died. I never thought of it quite like that.

The end.

Mystery Guest.

My husband died a long time ago. His big old chair on the verandah remains unused and unloved except for the odd stray cat taking refuge on a cold winter’s night. This morning, there was a child curled up between the arms, cold and frightened and feigning sleep. A girl child, slender and unkempt, tangled hair and dirty feet, shivering in the chill morning air.

I spoke to her and her eyes screwed tight, so I walked inside to find a blanket and a pillow and perhaps a toy. There was a teddy in a box in the kitchen, beneath a doerner and some old theatrical clothes. It was more than a moment’s work to find it. On the big chair in the main bedroom was a blanket, soft and brown with the edges frayed and a head of a horse in the pattern of the weave. In a cupboard at the rear of the house was a pillow, thirty years old, filled with tetra bark and covered with lemon lawn with a red rose bud embroidered in the corner.

I took all three to the verandah, and lay them blanket first, then pillow, then teddy on one broad arm of the chair. The child remained curled in position and I spoke to her and asked if she would like the bear to hold and the blanket to keep her warm and the pillow for her head. She didn’t speak, so I left her and went to the kitchen and prepared toast and tea for myself and a slice of toast for my guest. I found my sons’ old plate with the nursery rhyme of Tom Tom the Pipers’ Son running with a pig under his arm, and made milo in a cup with three men in a tub and carried them on a tray and set them on the table on the verandah.

The child was clutching the blanket to her and the pillow and the bear, but she didn’t speak or move toward the food, though her eyes seemed mesmerised by the steam rising from the cup. I sat in my accustomed place at the desk by the window and ate my meal. When I had finished I took my crockery into the kitchen, leaving the cold toast and the cooling milo where they were.

My hand reached reluctantly for the telephone, and dialed triple 0 and so I began the journey through the official maze of automatic voices and referrals and repetitions. Someone, somewhere, loved her dearly I hoped, though it was very heard to understand how anyone could mislay a child, even one so silent, so guarded. When I returned to the verandah she was sleeping. There were crumbs on the plate and dregs in the cup. Minutes later, a Police car drove slowly up the street.

The end.

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