By Dael Allison
A team, that’s what you are part of. A she-team. You repeat those words under your breath like a mantra as you stare at the notes in front of you, the report you will soon present.
The dot points blur.
You can do this. Show these women you can cope. Prove to them that this is where you need to be. Working in this team, protecting other women, ensuring they don’t have to live on the streets, that they have a safety net against physical, emotional, potential and real violence. So many vulnerable women. And children. Children who think instability and danger is something they and their mums just have to put up with. Kids need to be safe. They should have a future.
Your throat tightens. You glance around the long table. No one meets your eye. Three women at the far end talk quietly together, others riffle through the agenda papers, some simply sit, preoccupied. Everyone waiting for Hanny to arrive so the meeting can start. Hanny, still in her office, talking with the police.
You want this over and done with. To have said your piece, shown what you have learned, proven you can step up. But doubts press in. Nothing at uni – work placements, case studies, role plays, reams of reading – none of it prepared you for what you have experienced in these three months of internship. Women young, old and in-between, alone or coping with bruised babies, frantic toddlers, angry primary-schoolers, sullen teenagers. They come with depression, resentment, fear. They come damaged, undone by violence, betrayal, poverty, mental illness, lost jobs, failed mortgages – their possessions jammed into a car or stashed with sympathetic friends or stuffed into carry bags. Despite all this, some can still breeze in and make your day seem wonderful. Women who drop by to show you an op-shop treasure, an ugly glass butter-dish like one their mother had, a pair of leather baby shoes. Who might bring you a gift, a little pot plant, a Coles muffin. Essie re-appeared last Monday with a dozen books squeezed into the top of her battered shopping trolley. ‘Two dollars the lot,’ she’d gloated, pulling out Jung, Doris Lessing, a volume of poems by Neruda. ‘Stick this up on your bookshelf. Like an affirmation,’ she’d said, handing you a dog-eared copy of Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children.’ She added, ‘The title’s ironic of course’.
Essie intrigues you. She is hard to place in emergency accommodation because she fears tight spaces, and most refuge houses are old, with narrow hallways. When everything is full, or there’s no room she’ll accept, she’ll say, ‘Another train adventure!’ and sail out the door waving away your apologies. You worry about her on the station late at night. You worry about her on the train. She’ll catch the last one to Sydney, sleep on it and return to Newcastle in the morning. She is well educated, invariably cheerful, but she has lived on the streets for years and you often wonder how she manages, sleeping on trains, in parks, to keep herself looking tidy. Once she asked if she could borrow some tweezers – you’d noticed straggling grey hairs under her chin. ‘The bathroom’s good here, it has a bright mirror,’ she’d said, though you knew the appeal was the room’s spaciousness, and it opened off a broad corridor.
Grace, too, struggling on her allowance but always beautifully presented.
Don’t think about Grace.
You let your mind follow a loud rumble, something big passing in the regular grind of traffic beyond the building’s stout brick walls. A bus perhaps. Outside will be people walking beneath the newly budding street trees, getting on with their lives. Outside will be a normal, busy, noisy city day. Here, inside, nothing feels normal.
Grace. The burst of colour whenever she appeared in the office. The shiny fabric of her clothes, the scarves she twisted around her head so flamboyant people often missed the scars that corrugated one side of her face. Fading machete scars. Yesterday she sat vividly beside you and gently rocked the stroller where Happiness peacefully slept. Beautiful Happiness, with her rounded breast-fed cheeks and lips, her liquid brown eyes, the tiny knots of rusty curls that covered her head. Grace, at forty, hadn’t wanted a child. Hadn’t wanted attention from any man. The name she chose for her daughter spoke volumes. You’d found it hard to pull your eyes away from Happiness in the stroller, her satiny brown limbs beneath the frilly pink nylon dress. Until Grace showed you a creased photograph. Sent to her by an aunt, back in Sudan. A village of round buildings topped by conical thatched roofs. Bare earth, a few twisted trees, brown and white goats, a scatter of chickens. In the foreground, a clutch of village children jostle to be centre of the picture. Torn clothes, skinny limbs, beaming smiles. Tears seeped down Grace’s furrowed cheek as she named three of them. Her three killed children.
Acid wells in your throat. You drag your eyes back to your presentation notes. ‘Nothing formal,’ Hanny had said, when she suggested you put something together. ‘An overview of what you’ve learnt so far, how you are travelling in the job. A chance for us to give feedback, help if you need it.’ You’d worked on it every night for a week, exhausted after long days of counselling and absorbing story after sad, disastrous story, determined to show you love this job and want to keep it, that you can broaden your role.
Hanny rushes in apologizing profusely. She plonks beside you in the one spare chair, announcing, ‘The agenda can keep until later, and I’ll update you then on the meeting I just had. It’s been a hard morning for us all, particularly for Jaz as I’m sure you all know, so I think it’s best she gets this over with, don’t you?
There is muttering agreement, smattered applause. Hanny turns to meet your eyes. You nod.
The women here daunted you at first. They all seemed so in-the-know, capable, clear of purpose. Some daunt you still, but they have accepted you into their team. They feel like talismans. An image of dingoes flickers in your mind – the golden she-dingoes you often saw in your research year with desert communities, west of Tennant Creek. These women are like that, a pack with similar connections of responsibility and support. Similar tensions, loyalties, tolerance, willingness to share their wisdom. They have the same fierceness. Fighters, all of them, protective of their own but tolerating no bullshit. In this pack of experience you are an adolescent pup. Will they find you wanting?
Yesterday Grace quietly told you that the bare, brick-walled room where she and Happiness stayed was isolating. That she feared she could never adjust to life without a village.
Yesterday Grace nodded when you suggested she and Happiness get outside more. Take advantage of the spring warmth, sea air, fabulous views and explore some of Newcastle’s coastal walks.
Yesterday, instead of taking the usual bus home to the refuge, Grace pushed her daughter in her stroller over four kilometres, all the way up to Strzelecki Lookout. She climbed through the barrier fence with Happiness in her arms, walked to the edge of the cliff, and fell.
‘Go on, Jaz, you’ll be fine,’ Hanny says softly beside you. Blinking back tears you pick up your notes, stare at the dot points. A bland list of demonstrable learning. Around you is your pack, women who want you to succeed. Are you here to tell them what they already know? Here for the pat on the head?
In your gut unease turns to fierceness. You crumple the notes in your hands. Stand up to speak.