A few days ago I saw ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ at the Dendy Cinema in Newtown. It was cool in the cinema, but a hot, dry wind met me on the street, when I stepped out, my mind still floating in the fugue of the film, my body almost frigid from the aircon.
I’ve learned to keep my eyes on the pavement in the city. The toe of my prosthetic has caught more than once on tree roots lifting pavements and I've fallen on my face. So I looked down as I walked up King Street and along Missenden Road.
I paused outside the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse building. The wind was warm, and my prosthetic leg was worrying me. There aren't many public places where it feels okay to remove my leg, and this wasn’t one of them. The street was crowded with people leaving work—scrubs, stethoscopes and suits.
I wondered as I walked on in discomfort, if it would ever be acceptable for an amputee to calibrate their prosthesis in public. When it would be as acceptable as breast-feeding, once another taboo. An odd comparison, but you see my point.
I stopped and looked across the road at the Victoria Pavilion of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital; it’s used for administration now but once it was split into wards, and its patients included me. I spent a lot of my life there between seventeen to twenty–seven.
Memories rushed me of one day in particular, when my relationship with my mother teetered on a fulcrum, when it could have been changed forever. I was seventeen and in ‘Vic 6’, the women’s surgical ward in the Victoria Pavilion.
It's a week after my seventeenth birthday, and I drive us all into the inner-city; I’m going to a new hospital, an old one near the middle of Sydney. I'll likely be there a while and this is the last chance to use my new licence.
The place is a Victorian extravaganza, inside and out; the floors are richly tiled, and the carved stone pillars along each wall are topped with busts of people who must be important. I’m led through halfway rooms, where admission and consent papers are signed, along corridors, and up and down a few flights of stairs. By the time I’m delivered to a bed I can’t tell the direction to the front door.
There's a bed either side of mine, and a mirror image opposite. Six beds. Another six beyond the dividing wall I’m facing, and another six behind me. No privacy in any direction. No window near me either. All I can see through the distant pane is the sky.
Mum was tense all the way here in the car. Something’s going on. I don’t know what. But I must have spoken off guard, maybe mentioned Ian, when we were unpacking, because all hell broke loose. Boyfriends have always been an anathema to Mum. When she finished with me, she gave a signal to Dad and Helen and they left.
“Don’t expect to see us soon,” Mum said as they went. “It’s an hour’s drive.”
I’ve done some thinking since the court adjournment. So bad at home. No way, no way, absolutely impossible to think of living there if I lose the case.
Now I’m alone and playing solitaire. I’m hopeless at shuffling. My new deck of Queen’s Slipper feel smooth and silky between my hands. I never buy red, always blue; it’s a soothing colour.
I can’t perfect shuffling, it drives everyone mad at home. Or it did, when we used to play cards, when Jenny and Malcolm were still there. Dad doesn’t play. We don’t have the numbers now for most games. Mum has taught me two handed five hundred, one hand we hold and one on the table, five cards face down and five up; or, with Helen learning, we deal four hands and have a ‘dead’ hand. We have ghosts in our house.
After my solicitor’s phone call a few months ago, telling us my litigation case against the NSW Government Railways was adjourned, I found it hard to keep up my pretence that life was going on as usual. It was like an emotional trip wire for Mum and Dad. They inflicted their pain on each other, childhood scars rubbed raw, then turned on me. Can they take any more? I wonder.
I know it will be my fault.
I adapt. I bend to Mum; I bend to Dad. I keep discovering things can get worse, and I keep going.
But they don’t know I have a bottom line, a pact with myself; it lets me tolerate, endure and survive everything—almost. I’m not quite the rock, the Simon and Garfunkel rock. I will hold steady. But I have an escape plan. I’ve resolved what to do if I lose the court case.
I’ve shuffled the deck. I lay cards on the tray table—space is cramped, with a water glass and books. The first card I turn up is an ace of hearts, six more follow face down.
The next turned up is a king. When I’ve finished dealing I can put the ace above the row, take the king across to the vacant spot and turn one over. Two of diamonds is next. Damn, if the ace is under that I could be stuck.
No–one will know if I cheat or look and see if this is a game with nowhere to go. But I can’t cheat; I’ll know even if no-one else does.
I’ve only been here two hours. There are visitors around the ward.
I hope I get this game out.
And what game is that, Fay?
What am I going to do about Mum?
My fault, my fault again.
Everywhere I look, there are skerricks of guilt I can pick up, pick at, and collect like an anxious child collecting fluff from a new wool blanket. Picking it to bare threads to amass a ball of fluff—a treasure to play with, pass from one hand to the other, left to right then back again.
I’m playing solitaire and picking thoughts backwards and forwards; nowhere to put them away. No music box like the one I broke with fluff when I was young. The thoughts go round and round like a tinny tune.
A hopeless game. Stuck after the second deal of the deck, I sweep the cards up and shuffle again.
This afternoon spools through my head in time with my hands shuffling from right to left.
I think I’ll pack up and go. I can still walk, but after the skin graft tomorrow I’ll be trapped in bed for three weeks. Not even able to give myself elective privacy. I’ll have to buzz a nurse if I want a curtain pulled across. She’ll be annoyed, “Is that all you want?” Like, “If you buzz us you’d better, at least, be dying.” Not as many nurses around as there used to be when I was young. I can’t oblige them; I’m not dead yet.
I deal another game.
What will I do?
Stay here, trapped? Or leave now? Run away. Wow, imagine the news story: ‘Seventeen-year-old girl on the loose: last seen in a nightie playing cards on Vic 6.’
I pluck mental fluff again.
Will I or won’t I? I’m on the Invalid Pension, I’ve got a car—if I break in at home to get it; and some clothes, all I’ve got here are nighties and what wore in today. I can still go to school. I’ll find somewhere to live, I’m sure I can.
I wonder whether the nurses will notice me packing up and sneaking out. Do they lock the front door at night? Will I find the front door? What happens if you run away from hospital? Do they go after you? Or just give you a wave, good-bye? Will I be breaking a law?
You’re the same age Jenny was when she ran away!
Yeah, I know. Why didn’t she take me with her?
I can do it!
I pack. It’s definite. I’m winning this game but I sweep all the cards and throw them in my bag. I sneak out of the ward. I’m on my way. I’ll finish school. I’ll be better not being at home.
You can’t! You can’t go, Fay. You have to stay.
The court case. You’ve got to hang in. If you leave now it’ll still cost Mum and Dad a fortune. You can’t abort it now!
You’re my head! Whose side are you on?
I go back to Vic 6. Unpack. Ready for ‘Nil by Mouth’ in the morning.
Walking down the street, struggling with my prosthetic, I couldn’t shake the memory. It’s still with me, three days later.
It’s no mystery why.
Many of you who have seen ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ may think it an unlikely trigger—except for one scene—a moment of high tension between a mother and an adolescent daughter which was pivotal for both their lives.
Sometimes lives can turn on one moment.