Years ago I was “doing a reno’” for this Greek bloke who was managing the job for his daughter…who was the owner of the house. She was as the lovely “Anna” described in the story below. She would come around to the job every few days and talk to the old man about design and so on..I never spoke to her and only saw her from a distance..she always wore a jacket thrown over her shoulders in the Greek tradition, so I didn’t know she was a thalidomide child.
“ Is your daughter married? “ I once asked him.
“No!!..she never marry!” he replied with a twist of his face. I was puzzled.
“What do you mean ; never?” I persisted.
‘What?..You not see?..no arm , no marry”
“What do you mean : ‘No arm’ ?” I queried him.
“She have no arm..just a stump..her mother she once take that pill..tha…tha..” I twigged.
“Yes!…that’s it..and she have no arm…so, no arm no marry…”
So I have built a story around that moment, that awful reality…and I have moved the story to the mallee, to another older time and place.. Why not?..I too desire a better ending than what the sour cynicism of that old man offered. Why should there not be a..a simple love affair, set in a mallee town with two young people? Yes!..let us create our own “reality”..our own desire if only for one moment, one afternoon! And even as the some may attest; that only 1% of people are interested…so what!? Let it be just that 1%, for that small number is powerful enough to move Heaven and Earth to a better place in the heart of humanity even against the greater odds of the indolent 99%.. We must accept that our “Art” is failing us..there is a loss in western interpretation of “romantic inspiration”..by romantic I mean that desire for the imaginable reality rather than the “cynical certainty”..bad things in life are a given, but hope is always there…without desire, there is no hope..without hope there is no life.
So, dear reader..as the story unfolds, let us desire…
A Simple Love Affair.
When Anna fell in love it was not without a good deal of caution. You see: Anna was a thalidomide child and though she had grown to a beautiful woman, her left arm, stunted just below the elbow with two stumpy fingers threw a “check” on any chance of an out-going personality. So when Anna fell in love with Harry, it was a long, cautious apprenticeship.
Anna worked in partnership with her cousin; Bella, running a small general store in a country town out in the mallee. They named the business: “Annabellas” and it was a good business, an honest business well run that reflected the determination of the proprietors.
Anna was twenty- eight years old, of medium height with a slim face and long black hair down to the middle of her back. Let no-one doubt that old truth that a woman’s hair is her crowning glory! Anna was a fiercely independent woman and held no truck with self- pity, yet , there was that natural reserve that sets aside those with physical disabilities, that je ne sais quoi, (that certain something) of the spirit that brackets their behaviour, a caution in manner and speech that is sometimes sadly lacking in other, less impaired specimens of “Humanus Grossness!” However, in matters physical, Anna never failed to pull her weight, and was always ready with a quick witticism if her stunted limb failed her. Yet, she never developed a long term relationship with any boy from the district. Oh, she was not the type to lament this reality, nor did she overcompensate her disadvantage with lasciviousness! She just had a well-balanced perspective of the situation and the close-knit societies of country towns of those times seemed to lock the young of that era into behaviour systems that exclude, in the majority, any dabbling in relationships away from the physical and physiological norm…sadly, any who went against this “norm” had to leave the community for the wider understanding of the cities. Not that this is an unforgivable fault, for a country town is born of the earth and survives from the earth and therefore any deviation from the “pure state” (however illusory that is) of natural wholeness is, if not condemned; shunned. To put it simply, as old Smith once remarked with a worldly shrug: “No arm…no marry.”
Harry was of the district, once. His family sold up and moved away many years before and now he had moved back to take over the garage once old Peter Porter retired , for Harry was a mechanic. Harry was thirty- three years old when he moved back to the district. He was tallish, well-built (for a mechanic!) with short fuzzy hair and a fixed smile on a generally happy face. Harry had no chip on his shoulder (no axe to grind!) and a healthy disposition. Just the person to run a garage in a small country town! Why sneer? he created neither moon nor sun, nor shook fist at others fortune, yet, Harry suffered that most disabling of conditions: He was shy! Oh, he could slam the gearbox of any tractor onto the block of the engine, with appropriate epithets and wiping of greasy hands and shout to a farmer across the road:
” She’ll be right this ‘arvo Clem’ ,”..but, stand him in front of a social crowd in the Hall meeting, or a pretty woman and he’d fumble about like a cow in a mud-hole. So consequently, one rarely saw Harry outside of overalls and armed with a spanner… except for the annual football club ball. (you don’t like football?….tough, millions do!)
Harry’s garage was three doors down from “Annabellas”, consequently there was frequent conversation concerning pies or pasties or pieces of string between Anna and Harry. One of these centered around the aforementioned Ball..
“Getting close now.” Harry said in an offhand way.
“Yes” Anna checked the list of groceries. Harry shifted foot, like a horse resting.
“Who are you going with, Harry?” this threw him a little as he was about to ask Anna the same question.
“Huh,oh!…well, myself I ‘spose…you got someone?” a slight inflection of voice.
“Yes….”(drop of mouth from Harry)”My father”. ( mouth picks up again) Anna ticks the last entry on the shopping list and looks up expectantly.
Harry fumbles in his top pocket and withdraws some money. He counts out carefully on the counter saying as he does so;
“Well I was wondering if you’d care to go with me?” Anna raised her eyebrows, the merest flicker of a warm smile at the edge of her mouth.
“Hmm,..but what about dad?”
“Oh,..he’d come too.” Harry quickly replied, lest there be insurmountable opposition. His eyes appealed.
“Well….” and here the usual reserve stalled her, but this time she relented. “I’ll ask dad if he doesn’t mind… ”
“And you’ll come if it’s ok with him?” Harry persisted unusually but fearfully.
Anna thought, then looked at Harry closely.
“Yes.” she said. Harry seemed to lose a frightful burden just then, for he suddenly straightened up and smiled.
“Righto!..”he quipped confidently,” I’ll…I’ll catch you later”. and he left the store..he suddenly returned sheeplishly to take his groceries. He gathered them up as if they were a clutch of puppies, smiled, and quickly retreated to his greasy nirvana.
Well, the night out at the ball went smoothly, as neither Anna nor Harry were wild ragers and would rather dance than drink. So consequently there were other social events that they escorted each other to ,for Anna would invite Harry as much as vice-versa and so it became accepted that Harry and Anna would be matched on invitations ipso-facto , so do small communities naturally react…and their mutual company gave confidence to the two companions as they grew more familiar with each other’s idiosyncracies.
No more than a stage of evolution I suppose ( but you knew this was going to happen; quiet man meets beautiful, flawed lady, they fall in love, get married etc, etc and so forth!). But there was one hindering factor in this quaint affair of the heart, something most of us in our safe, sheltered worlds have never to face or confront: the thalidomide arm….the flaw!..ah!. as a flaw in a diamond will deflect the light so does a flaw in a human disturb the smooth natural flow of emotions . Why even an embrace would draw attention to Anna’s stump arm , she; the embarrassed frustration of not being able to rub a caressing hand over Harry’s shoulders, he ;the knowing of this frustration in Anna and the clumsy overcompensation on his part, the actions of dismissal of the offending limb! Yet that limb was her, or a part of her, as much as a leg or nose or breast! She knew it, he knew it but still the dammed thing would obtrude, out of all proportion into their consciousness. But then again, neither of them could or would broach such a delicate subject, such are the cautions in romance, the halting secrets of the heart: “will I? should I?” and so neither is done.
I’ll have to mention that long before Anna had met Harry, she became aware of this nagging feeling and once even, had seen a doctor in the city with a view to amputation of the offending limb, reasoning that it would be easier to explain away an injury than be eternally on show as a “freak”. Fortunately (for she was strong willed) this idea, born on the wings of youthful despair, was soon cast aside as ridiculous and childish. And she grew stronger for it. Oh! that us with body complete could draw on such fortitude, when even a slight ailment of body or soul sends us into paroxysms of complaints..Oh frail souls ! Oh weak heart!
So into the summer months under a vacant sky rafting on a sea of mallee bush did they continue with their courting, a gentle affair with neither tryst nor jealousy but as two labourers with a common goal they met , socialised and parted. And then one day Harry “popped ” the question. And Anna accepted and indeed, why shouldn’t she?….She desired children, a home to raise them in….but should one feel a little raising of hackles at this servile “acceptance” of a woman’s lot? Should she rebel at this “presumed” social construction?..for after all it is but a story..a facsimile of a life..ah!….permit me a smile….and I ask : do we really believe the world and all in it waits with bated breath for miraculous revelations from those that would have us stride with determination down this or that corrected path?….Have we not all waited…and yet inside each of us there is that strange hunger, that desired want for a kind of fulfilment..and so we may now smile… Yes. Anna accepted, yet there was one unsolved dilemma left in the air and she meant to speak, felt she had to speak to Harry about it soon.
Saterdee arvo, is there a more pleasant occupation than being young and alive in the summer with work behind you on a sunny Saterdee afternoon in the country?… Harry thought not as he stood wiping his greasy hands with a bundle of cotton waste outside his garage. A smile on his dial, a song in his heart and whom should he spot walking up the pavement toward him?…
“Anna!” he called with glee.”Where’re you off to with such a pretty bouquet?..not another secret love I hope?” and he laughed …and gosh, didn’t she look pretty….her warming smile above the multi hued bouquet.
“It’s for mothers grave actually”, she said. Harry gulped at his over exuberant gaffe!
“Oh dear, pardon me”, he gasped. Anna smiled now.
“Don’t be silly, she’s been dead fifteen years now”. and she fussed with the arranging of the flowers”I’m going out to her memorial now, ..you want to come?”
“Say no more.” and off they went.They had hardly driven a hundred yards when Harry suddenly ducked his head below the dashboard.
“What are you doing?” frowned Anna. “Just keep going it’s Noela Maletz! I said I’d have her car fixed this arvo!”
“What, are you afraid of her?”
“Dammit, the whole town’s afraid of her.”
“Whatever for? she’s a lovely lady….she just knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to say it.” Harry raised his eyes to glance backwards out of the car.
“Well, if she saw me driving around instead of fixing her car, she’d want my guts for garters! I’d lend her my car, ‘cept it’s out of action.”
“Your car?! it’s the worst bomb in town!”
“Oh yeah. an’ I bet your cupboards are empty!” they were both silent for a moment then burst into simultaneous laughter.
“The carpenters house is falling down around his ears!…. Anna cried …”And the cobbler has holes in his shoes!…Harry laughed..”And the tailor has the arse hangin’ out of his trousers! they both choked in fits of laughter ..”Ahhaha!..but it’s true!” cried Anna.
The car pulled up at the cemetery gates, Anna jumped out, Harry made to follow.
“Wait there, just be a minute.”
“But I thought you wanted me to come?”
“To her memorial. yes, this is her grave. We’ll go there next, I’ll be right back.”
It seemed a mystery to Harry, “Graves…memorials…same thing.” Anna returned in a moment and they started going again.
“I just had to replace the flowers.”
“So where is the memorial?”
“On the farm, dad made it just after mum died, it is rather unusual…we’ll be there in a little while.”
The family farm was ten kilometers out of town on a side road. After the black ribbon of bitumen, turning off onto the dirt road was like turning into a photograph:
“And I mark how the green of the trees,
Matches the blue vault of the sky….”
The low stunted mallee trees leant in from the shoulder of the road, the fronds of slim leaves dipping over the limestone gravel. Blackened twists of discarded bark and twigs littered around the knuckled boles and roots. Here and there amongst fallen trees, rabbit warrens displayed their sprays of fresh diggings white and musty amongst tangles and hummocks and if the eye is quick enough, a flash of cheeky tail can be spotted sporting behind tussocks of native grass, or even a round-glassy eye spying unblinkingly for any sign of danger, then a quick “thump-thump!” signal to other rabbits and scurry down the safety of a burrow and braer rabbit says cheerio for the daylight hours!
Anna drove off onto a track with a gate in the fence, entering the paddock, she drove alongside the fence till she reached another gate, though much smaller than the first, like a front gate to a house, there was a carefully manicured path with white stones edging it, that led on a gentle slope toward a grotto-like cavern at the bottom of a basin in the surrounding land. Anna led them to this singular spot, for Harry had never heard of it before. They stood at the lip of the soak, green kikuyu grass spilled out from the sunken pit, it was circular, about thirty feet in diameter and the front sloped down to a pool of cool, clear water mirrored under an overhanging lip of limestone six foot above the pool. To one side of the pond, in a well tended, circle of earth, was the most beautiful flowering yellow rose-bush Harry had ever seen! He stood at the lip, gazing around at the scene.
“How long has this been here?” he asked amazed.
“As long as I can remember, Mum and Dad used to bring us here in the hot weather and we’d wade in the pool. After Mum died, Dad and us kids made it into a sort of memorial….she liked the place so much…”The oasis” she called it. Dad also pumps water out for the stock in the dry weather. It never seems to run dry.”
“And the rose?” Harry asked.
“I planted that….a rose for incorruption….she liked yellow.”
“It’s a lovely place….peaceful.” Harry spoke dreamily…Anna took out a pair of clippers and went toward the rose.
“Come…”she called “Help me cut some roses.”
So they stood, she cutting, he taking the blooms. With her stumpy arm Anna deftly moved the prickly stems out of the way, her long, dark tresses falling this way and that over the blossoms so sparkling yellow in the sunlight. Now and then a petal would dislodge and fall spiraling to the earth, so silent was it there you could almost hear- the petals touch the soil.
“Harry?” Anna spoke as she concentrated.
“What do you think of my arm?” she didn’t look at him as she asked, she was listening to the tone in his voice. Harry hesitated…he knew what she meant and was delving into his emotions .
“Your arm…”He repeated almost to himself. “I..I think it’s unfortunate but I don’t feel put off by it.” it was a start.
“It’s a burden, Harry, always has been, always will be, strange how sometimes it feels like it isn’t a part of me, so different, when I wake sometimes I look to see if it was just a dream.”
“Does it make a difference to our relationship?” he asked.
“In its clumsy intrusion, you know that.. yes..more later perhaps than now, when our company grows so much more familiar and little things come between us.”
Harry didn’t answer, but shrugged his shoulders. Anna stood facing him and placed her hand on his shoulder,
“Harry, we are about to be married….to have children…from there it’s a long road ahead..”
“I..I’m sure we can do as good as other people in their marriages. ” Harry gently replied. Anna turned slowly to one side to stare at the rose.
“I worry, Harry, that any children we may have will not also be affected.”
“It’s not passed on .I believe.”
“You believe, but who knows!” Anna’s emotions engulfed her and she dropped her head crying “ Who knows,Harry…it killed my mother, the responsibility she felt for it…if..if I bore children that were deformed..”
“Oh I’d hardly call….”Harry interrupted.
“Yes!” Anna persisted “deformed, for that’s what it is Harry, deformed…and I would indeed blame myself for…for..” and she turned her tear-stained face to him..
“Oh, Harry, If ever there was a time to back away from your commitment, it is now!…I wouldn’t hold it against you…but marry me not with naivety, nor…for gods’ sake ..pity!” and she turned to him with a steady challenging gaze. Harry reached for her stump-arm and deliberately took it in his hands. she automatically went to pull it away but he held it tight and though she could have withdrawn it. a stronger force held her.
“Anna….would you think me so simple so as not to see the complications that lie ahead in our marriage?…for marriage it shall be, lest thou refuse me…and would you hold my feelings for you so lightly that you could see me casting them aside, like a discarded rag , for nothing more than this stunted limb? For if that be the measurement of grace, where does one start.? Do I compare the beauty of your eyes against size of your feet?…or grace of your step to the lobe of your ear?….hearty laugh against dirty nail?..and where do I stop?..” He rubbed Anna’s two stumpy fingers gently “If I gaze into your eyes, do you see pity, greed, selfishness?..look now, Anna , don’t turn away, look!…you see affection..no pity, no naivety, no denial…I’m a grown man….l love you, Anna, do not misjudge me nor deny your own feelings but just say you will marry me.”
Harry raised her stump-arm to his lips, the two tiny fingernails painted red like those on her other arm, and kissed her fingers. Anna’s face contorted to one of weeping happiness and she flung her good arm about Harry’s neck and there they embraced while standing over the rose bush.
“Yes, Harry,” she murmured in his ear” I will marry you, yes!”