A stranger and a stolen girl meet and recount a story.
|She had eyes like I had never seen before. They were simple, a plain brown, and really not at all distinguishing. They drooped down slightly at the corners, as everyone’s did at the age of sixty or seventy. They were not particularly large or small and didn’t sit too close or far apart on her face. Physically they were unremarkable. But I could see with barely a glance into this woman’s eyes that she was not at all unremarkable. They had a depth to them, one so profound that I can only try to explain it. She had the kind of eyes you’d expect to see on the faces of war veterans, or abuse victims - people who had seen all manners of violence and hatred and had learnt to live with the memory of it. They spoke of experiences beyond the grasp of normal people, of sufferances that I know I’ll never really understand. It was as if each line etched across her face told stories of who she was and where she‘d been, as if every wrinkle held secrets that only she would ever know.
None of this changed as a smile spread across her face, seemingly for no reason at all. She sat alone, cross-legged at the base of a tree. A eucalypt, I think, I could smell the clean and refreshing scent of its leaves from my bench twenty metres away. She closed her eyes for a moment, and if not for the slight upturn at the edge of her lips I would’ve thought her asleep. The relentless afternoon sun fell unevenly through the branches above her, dappling her dark skin in the shade and creating an almost dreamlike effect. Slowly, she grazed the palms of her hands over the grass beside her, with such a delicacy and tenderness it was as if she were stroking the face of a long lost and beloved friend. I could not help but relax when I looked at her. The way her back fit so perfectly into the concave of the tree, the way she let the breeze throw her wispy hair across her face, without pushing it away in agitation as I had been doing. It was as if she were in the comfort of her own home, out here among the trees and leaves and grass and birds. It was only a simple park we sat in. Beside from the barbeque area where a family sat eating steak and sausage sandwiches, and a small amount of benches and trees that dotted the area, it really didn’t appear all that special. But to this small woman, who sat silently resting beneath a tree, it seemed to be exactly so.
As the day wore on the heat remained harsh and unforgiving, and I could feel a bead of sweat run its way down the nape of my neck. My bare shoulders began to burn and the feeling was all too familiar, my pale skin rarely stood a fighting chance against the December sun. I debated moving to find a shadier spot, but as I stood I saw the woman move for what would have been the first time in half an hour. Using the tree as leverage, she pulled herself to her feet and crossed a nearby street. With an odd feeling of disappointment that I had never spoken to her, I moved slowly in the direction of a shaded bench, despite knowing my husband and daughter would be expecting me home soon. I sat down once again, and the wood of the sheltered bench had a cooling effect on my sticky legs. As I closed my eyes, and drew in a long and deep breath of eucalyptus leaves and summer breeze, I didn’t notice someone sit down on the seat beside me. It wasn’t until I heard a simple but melodious humming that I opened my eyes. And there she was. Sitting beside me. With a look so distant she could have been completely unaware of my presence. At first I thought she was, but as soon as the sound of her humming stopped I found she wasn’t.
“What’s your name?” she asked, her disconnected gaze unabated. Despite the simplicity of the question I hesitated.
“Sarah,” I said, after a short delay.
“Sarah Hampton,” I replied again, wondering why the surname of a stranger would be important to this woman.
“Names are important, you know,” she said, as if she had heard my thoughts exactly. “They recognise you as a someone, as a person. No one’s got a face until they got a name. No one’s gonna take notice of you until you got a name.” I couldn’t help but stare at her inquisitively. I wasn’t sure why she’d chosen to sit next to a stranger like me, who was so different to her in appearance and age, or why I wanted her to keep speaking as soon as she stopped.
“I guess that’s true,” I replied. “So, what’s your name?” The reaction I received was unexpected. She blinked quickly, as if my words had pulled her out of her frozen trance, and the top of her brow creased together in what appeared to be a mixture of surprise and confusion. She turned her head towards me, and looked at me for the first time. Those eyes. My God, those eyes. Some people have the ability to speak words with actions alone, but for this woman eyes were enough. After only a moment I could see the word she didn’t say, and I was surprised to find that that word was ‘thankyou’. At the time I didn’t understand it, I only wanted her to keep speaking.
“Marjorie Wilson,” she said. “My name is Marjorie Wilson.” As she spoke a hint of a smile touched her lips, and I noticed the thin and faded line of a scar running from the lobe of her ear across her cheek. She must have seen me stare, because her hand quickly flew up to her face to cover the scar defensively, and I looked to the ground in embarrassment. Just as quickly I sensed her hand relax, and heard an audible sigh escape her mouth.
“Everyone’s scars have got a story, you know,” she said, in an almost conversation-making way.
“Does that scar have its own story?” I asked, and immediately found myself unsure of whether to regret it or not. She laughed.
“My girl, this scar is part of a whole bigger story. A story that started well before you were born and probably isn’t gonna end in either of our lifetimes.”
“I’d really love to hear your story,” I said nervously. “If you have the time.” There was a silence. I could tell she was contemplating, and I waited anxiously for her response. Minutes passed, and I was about to lose hope before she began:
“31940. That’s where my story started. For fifteen years of my life that was me. State Ward Number 31940. That was in 1941 when I got that name, the same year I turned three and the same year me and my sister were stolen. I was too young to understand what was going on, people just turned up to take us away and there was nothing my mother could do about it. I don’t have much memory of what happened in the next two or three years, just that I was too young to understand. I guess my first memories are from the time I spent in the State Children’s Orphanage. I was about seven when the whitefellas told me and my sister that our mum was a prostitute, and that she abandoned us when we were young. We were told she didn’t care about us, and at the time we believed it, coz she was a native and that’s the way they were. They used to tell us to watch out, coz if we didn’t we might turn out like her, and it was in our blood to be like that. Our blood was dirty.
The following year was the last time I ever saw my sister. I was moved to a place called Sister Laura’s Home. We were taught to act and speak like white kids, but at the same time we were still told to be ashamed of ourselves. And how could we not be? We were nungas, and they were a bad sort.
In my first year of high school I was sent to work on a farm as a domestic. At the beginning I loved it. The air was so fresh I would sometimes breathe in for so long that my lungs felt like bursting. I could see for miles in every direction, beyond the boundaries of the paddocks and the trees that lined the fences. Everything looked so big to me, the horizons just kept going, and for tiny moments I let myself think that maybe, somewhere beyond those horizons, there might be a person out there who cared for me. Who wanted me. And who might have even loved me.
It wasn’t long before I would never let myself think that again.
One night on the farm the man of the house came into my room. I can still feel his hands on me. The way he pinned my arms beneath him, the way he pressed his body into mine. Even the look on his face when he told me not to scream. I did anyway. That’s how I got the scar. He was just so powerful. The same thing happened every night I spent on the farm, and sometimes his workers would join in too. They didn't even know my name. I would scrub myself so hard each morning to try and get their smell off me. But I could never get that dirty feeling off my skin.
When I got back to the Home I told the Matron what had happened. I got belted with a leather strap and my mouth washed out with soap. I was put into a cottage so I couldn’t tell any of the other kids, and through it all I never said another word. It’s unbelievable how much you can hold inside. How much we all held inside.
And for fifteen years that was my life. Every year I was sent back to the farm, and every year the same thing happened. It all became so familiar to me that I couldn’t tell the touch of a friend from the touch of a rapist. I just grew immune to touch. Guess I had to really, if I wanted to survive. And then I turned eighteen. And I wasn’t just a number anymore. I got myself a name. I got myself a face. After fending for myself for a while, some things started to change around me, what with the Freedom Rides and the census and all. Lots of people didn’t take much notice, but gradually the stares got a little less harsh, and the taunts a little less frequent. People even started to accept us. Trouble was we couldn’t. I couldn’t. How can you accept yourself as an Aboriginal when all you got is hatred and humiliation and anger? When all you been taught is that you’re part of a bad breed and that’s just the way it is? I’ll tell you, you can’t. Not for a while anyway. Time, that’s what you need. Just a lot of time. And that’s why this story may never really end. Coz this country’s got scars much deeper than any one of mine, and it’s got more pain in its past than people every really want to believe.”
And that was her story.
I later found out that I was the first white person she had ever told her story too. When I asked her why she told me, she answered simply. She said, “My name is Marjorie Wilson. I am seventy-one years old. It’s been fifty-three years since I was given my freedom. And you, Sarah Hampton, are only the third person in that time who has ever asked my name.”