Linda Jane became the person whose mother tried to kill herself when she was twelve years old. Just before she became that person she was hurrying home through the cold shadows of a winter twilight. Little bits of calm licked at the bilious residue of her weekly piano lesson.
Like many females of a similar age, Linda Jane’s mother had lingering aspirations of joining a certain class of ladies. These ladies had daughters who played Für Elise perfectly on a rosewood piano in the living room while they sat on their patio with lady friends and sipped tea from fine bone china cups. Noela already could never be such a mother.
Linda Jane, would grow to be a highly accomplished woman who loved classical music, with a decidedly erotic passion, especially on patios. But she could never hear the sound of a solo piano without the return of some sickly touch of those childhood piano-lessons. Part, or perhaps the essence, of the problem was that her piano teacher, Mrs Walsh, was the second woman in Linda Jane’s young life who lived whole days in, or just steps away from, her bed.
Mrs Walsh would give a distracted lesson, wrapped in her pink chenille dressing gown, in a small room next to her bedroom that smelt of cold tea and dust covered furniture. Her pupil never saw or heard her rise from her bed, or return to it with a groan of relief that would fall as heavily into the sheets and blankets as her body. The child did, however, catch glimpses of Mrs Walsh’s bed, which was as crumpled and disheveled as the woman. Mrs Walsh was like her mother; the woman and her bed were inextricably and permanently linked.
There were no other similarities between Mrs Walsh and Noela. Noela did not get out of bed to give lessons. By then the only time Noela would voluntarily rise from her bed, in intermittent slow performance, was to visit the bathroom. Mrs Walsh was a heavy older woman with veranda breasts and distracted eyes; Noela was a woman with a still astonishing loveliness. She was small and white with freckles that glowed from her skin like welcoming lanterns. Her one true green eye and the other clear blue, could catch you and lock you into a moment that would make you gasp. Many men did without realising they had made a sound at all. Her copper-coloured hair cut startlingly short, shone against the white sheets even on days when she would hardly turn her head. She was always so much more than an invalid in an invalid’s bed.
The glissando of hurrying from one woman and her bed to another took Linda Jane through the front door of her house and into the hall before she realised every room was dark. Not even a bedside light shone from the open door to Noela’s bedroom, which was nearest the entrance. In any other early evening gloom there would be a light on somewhere. The child’s immediate thought was; if her mother was unaccountably asleep and not waiting for the usual ubiquitous, dutiful, post music lesson conversation, she could escape straight to the kitchen. At twelve years old Linda Jane was already the family cook who prepared meals for her bedridden mother, bank teller father and younger brother. Efficacy drove her more than anything else. If it had to be done she could do it well. She already knew that much about herself.
It was a moment of deadened and cold expectations. She switched on the hall light and immediately noticed the blood. It was a darker mark on the dark carpet. The realisation it was a trail from the bathroom to Noela’s room crashed into the twelve year old’s head like some gory Old Testament retribution. She was finally, as she had always known she would be, the bad child who has the bad thing happen because that’s what happens to bad children. She had no forethought of what she would see when she reached for the switch in Noela’s room. She was a black cavern ready to be filled with whatever horror she deserved.
The dull bedroom light flicked over the green walls of the bedroom, instantly imprinting the sight of her barely alive mother into Linda Jane’s mind forever. Noela’s face had lost its whiteness, the mass of freckles on her brow and across her cheeks had congealed into a solid grey around her closed eyes. Her mouth was open and her nostrils flared slightly as she took shallow gasps of air. Both arms were outstretched and upturned, each seeming to float in a purple pool of blood.
Terror bound Linda Jane’s twelve-year-old fingers to the light switch and stung her hands and head. She wanted to switch the light off again but the fright wasps would not let her. She stood at the door and looked at the mother who had tried to kill herself. Somewhere deep within, and totally unknown to the child at the time, a tick of disappointment tocked that her mother had not succeeded in making herself well and truly dead, once and for all. In fact that tick-tock moment was so unknown it was not to be discovered until many years later by the grownup Linda Jane during a most harrowing counselling session.
Noela was still alive and she needed a doctor. The child understood these two things instantly but still did not move. The phone was black and waiting in the hallway, only a few steps from the room with the dying mother. Linda Jane knew exactly who she needed to call but she could not.
Call Uncle Bill. The thought whipped in and out of her mind like pickpocket fingers. He was not really an uncle, in that he was not related in any way to Linda Jane. He really was the doctor, however, who visited Noela every weekday. On afternoons that did not end in a music lesson, mercifully four out of five, Linda Jane would open the front door to the sight of Uncle Bill sitting attentively beside Noela’s bed. Sometimes he could coax Noela out of bed and into his car for a short drive, small and pale and cosseted in the front seat. Uncle Bill never came on weekends.
These visits were not a mystery to Linda Jane. Uncle Bill lived in the same suburb. He and his family had been friends for as long as she could remember any friends. Not that there had been many friends around since Noela took to her bed, and not that his family were so friendly anymore. Uncle Bill’s wife deeply disapproved of the attention he gave Noela. Even that was not a mystery to the child. Her mother had been the receptionist in Uncle Bill’s surgery. Uncle Bill had given Noela the job because she was his friend, introduced well after Noela had married her bank teller and Uncle Bill had married his wife; a woman whom Uncle Bill’s own mother considered, and mentioned in confidence to Noela, to be unbalanced. Uncle Bill’s mother and Noela corresponded regularly about the dealings and wellbeing of the two families. At some time, for some reason, the women must have discovered a mutual gift for nurturing a friendship through letter writing. If that connection was odd, or the regularity in which the two women corresponded about Uncle Bill’s wife was a concern, the child Linda Jane knew nothing about it. Linda Jane was sixty-one years old when she first read some of the letters the two women exchanged.
The part time work Noela did in Uncle Bill’s surgery was barely acceptable for a married woman at the time. Good men did not allow their wives to work. Good women kept house and led respectable lives. Noela’s husband was good enough to allow her to help out a friend. Perhaps Noela was too graceful in receiving patients, noticed too much about the business or knew too much about how an office should work. Noela could do those sorts of things. Some people liked that about Noela. Uncle Bill seemed to like it. But suddenly his wife forbade Noela from working in the surgery. The families stopped meeting for picnics and tea, and there were no more shared parties.
Of course after Noela’s accident there were no more parties anyway. Uncle Bill’s wife may have gotten much more than perhaps she wished for at the time. The copper haired woman, who swirled in her beautifully hand sewn green satin dress to delight her little daughter, Linda Jane, before leaving for a night of dancing at the Trocodero, disappeared forever.
The accident itself wasn’t much. Noela stepped back and tripped over the family dog one forgettable morning. She broke her sacrum, which is the big bone at the end of the spine, and knocked her head hard enough to get concussion. The broken sacrum was unfortunate and painful. Bed rest and a cushion to sit on when needed was the treatment given. For many people it would have worked within a few months but it didn’t for Noela. Perhaps her head never mended either. The evening Linda Jane opened the door to the darkened house, and the rat’s tail of her childhood, Noela had been living in her bed for nearly nineteen months. Uncle Bill had visited her every weekday, every week, for every one of those nineteen months.
One afternoon, in a small child’s way to avoid a simple hello to Uncle Bill and the immediate mantle of daughter-nurse-invalid’s companion, Linda Jane slipped through the back door, far away from her mother’s front bedroom. She would have stayed in the kitchen if she had not heard the animal type grunting noises coming from the front bedroom. Uncle Bill was sitting in his usual spot beside Noela’s bed, Noela was lying in her usual spot in the bed; but their arms and hands were not in the usual spots and their faces were red and full of shock to see her standing in the doorway. She never snuck in the back door again. She would bang the front door open with a satisfyingly contained rip of anger. It was loud. It was perfect. Noela did not complain.
The only explanation the grown-up Linda Jane could comfortably give for why the child Linda Jane did not just pick up the phone immediately and call Uncle Bill when she found her barely alive mother, was that she was sure his wife would answer. That was the first certainty. The second was Uncle Bill’s wife would think that it was all very wrong. It was all very wrong. Nothing could ever be more wrong. The phone stayed heavy in its cradle.
Terror took the twelve-year-old legs running out into the dusk again. Someone had to come, someone had to help. The grey of her mother’s face invaded the street. It swam around the streetlights and pinched at the heels of her school shoes.
There were no lights on in Mrs Scoble’s house next door. Linda Jane knew she was not home. She said she was going away for a few days. Mrs Scoble helped Linda Jane with old lady smiles, and sometimes up-close advice about cooking and vague condolences about sick mothers. Mrs Scoble seldom ventured into her invalid neighbour’s house, and if she connected with Noela in any way Linda Jane was not aware of it.
Mrs Scoble should have been home that evening. She should have been more than just home. She should have been Linda Jane’s real grandmother. She should have been Noela’s mother who would have cooked for Noela’s family and looked after Noela as she lived in her bed. “Fetch me a glass of water, come talk to me, make a pot of tea Linda”. All of those things Noela could have said to a Mrs Scoble mother, instead of saying them to her own twelve year old daughter.
Both of Noela’s real mothers were dead, the one who gave her away when she was five months old and the one who raised her until she was fifteen. As a Christmas Eve baby her first mother’s initial unfortunate act was to give birth to her on the day before Christmas. Only children who are born on Christmas day can claim a greater tragedy of a birth date. Just to remind her every day of her life of the closeness of that, her first mother named her Noela Eve. Her first mother also gave her the unlucky number five. She was last born with four older siblings, and soon after she was born mother had her fifth nervous breakdown.
The number five in turn made her the perfect gift, at the end of about that number of months into her life, for her father’s older sister, Jean Fortune. Childless women like Jean who had spent so many years alone needed a child to comfort them as they aged and what better than a younger brother’s fifth child who arrived on Christmas eve.
Jean took the baby Noela to Sydney to raise her. Noela always knew she had a first mother and a father as well as brothers and sisters living together in Brisbane. Jean was Mummy Fortune, who became Mother Fortune as Noela grew. Perhaps there was no intent behind Jean wanting to be called Mother Fortune. Truth can belong to everyone. A child and a woman who lived together for a decade and a half can each tell their own indisputable facts about their lives.
First mother in Brisbane regularly sent letters and gifts to her dear fifth and last baby. The letters were full of endless incomprehensible stories about fairies and pixies and elves and how tired mother was in the evenings. In one letter that arrived on the Christmas Eve that was Noela’s eighth birthday, in the paragraph before she launched once again into the fairy epic, mother wrote that not a day or night had passed where she had not been thinking about her dear baby. Noela kept that letter all of her life. It was in her dressing table drawer on the night she slit her wrists with a razor blade in the family bathroom and walked to her bed, minutes before her twelve-year-old daughter arrived home from her weekly music lesson.
Linda Jane ran down the footpath past houses in her street with lights that were on. She thought she didn’t know any of the people in them. If she did, she forgot as her feet pumped and pumped with her heart. She ran two streets away from her grey skinned mother to Mrs Gibbs house where she knew her younger brother had stopped on the way home from school to play with the Gibbs boy. Her brother had many friends’ homes to go to after school.
No rapping, no shouting. She rang the doorbell. Mrs Gibbs ambled to the chiming. “Mum’s hurt herself,” the child said through the screen door. Then because that wasn’t enough for her, or Mrs Gibbs who had never been properly introduced to Noela, with all of the knowing no twelve year old should ever have, she added, “I think she has cut her wrists.”
As they ran through the night together Mrs Gibbs furiously wiped her hands on her apron and puffed to Linda Jane, “You have to call the doctor.” Up the steps into the open front door and Mrs Gibbs disappeared into the terrible dull green saying, “You have to call the doctor.”
Linda Jane picked up the big black phone, gave the number to the operator and Uncle Bill’s wife answered.
She didn’t say, “Everything is wrong,” to Uncle Bill’s wife. Instead she said, “I need Uncle Bill, Mum has hurt herself.” That is all.
The child waited, not long, standing next to the phone in the hallway until Uncle Bill gasped into the house. He hardly glanced at her as she started to follow him into the bedroom. “Go out,” he said to her and she did, as far to the back of the house as she could.
In a minute, an hour, a lifetime gone and back again, Mrs Gibbs came looking for her, sheets bundled to her breasts. Linda Jane led the woman with her awful load to the laundry outside and stood silently behind her as she scrubbed and rinsed and wrung. Together they took a bucket back to the hallway and Linda Jane matched Mrs Gibbs’s rhythm as they scrubbed and scrubbed at the carpet.
Mrs Gibbs son appeared at the front door and left. Linda Jane’s younger brother couldn’t decide if he wanted the lounge room door open or closed. He sat in the lounge room anyway. Linda Jane sat with him. Her father arrived home with a snap and a slam and disappeared into the bedroom. She heard the two men talking intermittently. If Ms Gibbs was still there, she didn’t seem to have anything to say.
Eventually her father called her name. He stood at the door to the bedroom he still shared with Noela. Uncle Bill slipped passed him and into the night, closing the front door carefully behind him. As the doctor left he didn’t even look down the hallway to see if Linda Jane was responding to her father’s summons. He didn’t care if she didn’t want to or not. She didn’t want to. The fright wasps had left but the front bedroom held a new certainty for the child; she never want to be Noela’s daughter ever again.
The father’s hand that led her into the bedroom was soft and warm. Her mother lay in the most perfectly made bed Linda Jane had ever seen. She was awake. Her skin was white again. The neat bandages on her arms were matched adornments to the pillows fluffed behind her brushed red hair.
Noela looked at her daughter. “I am sorry Linda,” she said, “That it was you who found me.”
Mother Fortune would have approved of the perfect politeness of the words. Mother Fortune would have approved of the perfect picture of the woman in her near-death bed. If Mother Fortune hadn’t died she could have been there to tell her so. Mother Fortune certainly would have believed her. The child, Linda Jane, believed her for a moment. The grownup Linda Jane never did.
There had been no ambulance. No other doctors came. There were no trips to the hospital. Uncle Bill took the stitches out of Noela’s wrists the following week during one of his afternoon visits.
Uncle Bill rented a television for Noela from the first television rental shop in town. In the evenings after Linda Jane had cooked tea and her younger brother had washed up they would all sit on the bed with Noela to watch television.
Linda Jane learned how to spatter paint with old toothbrushes. She made a beautiful spatter paint frame around a nice white sheet of paper and gave it to Noela as a gift. “There,” the child said, “Now you can write down all of the things that are wrong with you.” Noela told her she was an inconsiderate and uncaring child who knew nothing and didn’t understand, then cried and cried.
Uncle Bill never stopped visiting Noela. His patients complained that he was neglecting them. He may sometimes have missed house calls or arrived late at the hospital, but he still came every week day and sat beside Noela’s bed. He was there every afternoon when Linda Jane banged through the front door after school. Even on music lesson days.
The music lessons continued but Linda Jane learned not to sing because it would remind her mother she had to practice the piano. By then there was only one thing Linda Jane hated more than the sound of a piano.
One day when she had almost grown used to everything being wrong, after she had bought her first Robert Carrier cookbook because she was tired of cooking the same meals every week, Linda Jane came home from school to find her father with Uncle Bill next to Noela’s bed, as well as some other men in suits who belonged to the hearse.
At the age of fourteen Linda Jane had become the person whose mother killed herself.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
©Maralyn Parker 2016
Yes. It is a true story.