It was a bad idea to walk through the park on a moonless night, almost morning, alone. But to walk around it would take an hour or more, and I was sure to get lost. I had no money for a taxi. And my repeated trips up and down the soggy stairs of the Trade Union Club, pushing through heaving rooms, asking everyone I knew — in a shout — if they’d seen my companion Jo, had delivered me nothing.
I stood on the footpath, weighing my few options, knowing I would walk through the park despite my reservations, pushing down the shame of being abandoned, blaming Jo for my choice even as I scripted the nonchalant telling of my bravado.
A skinny boy in stovepipe pants slouched out of the building behind me, loud music and muddled talk in his wake, a trail of damp, smoky heat. He shot me a cursory look, threw his cigarette stub onto the street. Overhead, a wide-eyed possum waddled along the electric wire, crossing from one terrace house roof to another. It could just have safely used the road, since there were so few cars. Moths whacked against the streetlights. Out of sight, I heard a bottle smash.
I’d already spent so long looking for Jo, had stood on the fringes of so many groups, trying to strike a relaxed pose. And there was no guarantee I’d find her if I kept looking. She may have gone home already. Maybe she and Leon were at the hostel.
We’d met Leon two days ago, in the elevator. He was a banjo player from Bath, visiting Australia with his parents, musicians who travelled across the globe performing at small music festivals.
Leon didn’t look like any of our friends. He had a shaggy pageboy haircut, and wore a bleached denim jacket, a t-shirt bearing the slogan of a pirate radio station, and canvas sand-shoes, when none of us would’ve even considered such Mickey Mouse footwear. He asked if he could hang out with us. We were thrilled, forgiving his fashion choices because he had an English accent and was, therefore, cool.
Jo, Leon and I explored Sydney together, trawling through second-hand stores, drinking in dimly-lit bars in the afternoon, meeting up with our friends and moving in packs from share house to squat, party to band room. Jo and I competed for Leon’s attention, and hoped people would notice we had an English musician friend.
We’d brought Leon to the Trade Union Club and shown him all the parts of it, as though we were locals rather than regular visitors from the north, as though he’d never seen a building with narrow stairs and tiled toilets and wires gaffer-taped to sticky floors and so many people drinking beer, dressed in black. Not everyone we knew was there tonight though. Not Holly.
I walked towards the park.
Holly lived in Redfern. She had delicate wrists, Clara Bow eyes, thin brows, chipmunk cheeks and a cherub smile; black eyeliner, blood red lipstick and chalk white skin, long fingers and bitten nails. She pulled her short shock of orange hair back with a vintage scarf, twisted into a tight headband so the patch above her powdered forehead was smooth, and then, on the other side of the fabric barrier all hell broke loose. She wore, without explanation or alteration, 1950s frocks, halternecks and heartnecks with patterns of cherries on checked tablecloths, roses and blueberries, American cowgirls, songbirds carrying wisps of shrubbery across a pastel sky, cardigans to cover her arms, even on the hottest days.
The boys adored Holly, were proprietary. They treated her as desirable but untouchable, somewhere between sister and goddess, vying for her love, as coolly as possible, but clumsily, relentlessly. Later, they would write poems and songs of great intensity that were inspired by her, stating so defiantly and often, as though daring anyone to suggest they had a bond with Holly that could ever come close. Only Leon seemed immune, oblivious, though he spoke appreciatively when he found Patsy Cline alongside Patti Smith in Holly’s record collection.
She asked nothing of the boys, smiled often and spoke little. She mothered, although we were all the same age, give or take a few years either side of twenty. She was a punk version of a Hitchcock housewife, baking sponge cakes, buying daffodils for her cracked vases, sewing cushion covers from old aprons while we swirled around her in the ramshackle house, the sink full of blackened teaspoons and stained teacups growing Rorschach blots of mold. Even when she was drinking cider at the bar of the Trade Union Club or jumping in a sweaty crowd of bondage pants, spikes and chains, even then her Doris Day on smack getup looked right, as though she knew something we were yet to learn.
I don’t think I ever said more than a handful of words to Holly, even though I traipsed in and out of her house countless times. She seemed content with the one female friend she had, a fleshy, smiley girl with a physical ease uncommon in our group, a waggy Labrador who adored her eccentric, patrician owner.
I’m not sure where Holly grew up. But although the rest of us would’ve had it otherwise, we came from the suburbs. On the way to Holly’s house, we ran our hands along tall wire fences dirty with car fumes, passed telephone poles plastered with flyers for band nights or protest marches, paint-peeling terrace houses, old sheets and towels strung up along balconies to offer shade, feigning familiarity with the inner-city landscape.
We stopped to say hello to barefoot Aboriginal kids playing in the street. Some of them would regard us with suspicion but mostly they’d laugh white toothy smiles at our strange clothes and hair and we’d laugh with them, maybe offer hot chips or loose change. Equal but different, as the song said. We chose to be outliers, could dive back into the mainstream if ever — but why? — we wanted to. Greg from the flatlands house with so many trailers and caravans on the front lawn it looked like a carpark; his fat father forever slumped on a foldout chair, staring as we walked to the lime green door. Jo, whose meticulously clipped yard was somehow terrifying, nature brought to heel, a neat ring of paper daisies held in check by white stones at the base of her tinny letterbox, her German mother so outraged by her daughters’ willful unattractiveness she would shriek at them, standing in beige nylons on her wool Berber carpet, pressed A-line skirt, man’s haircut, telling them they were an embarrassment to her and their father, that they would die alone, aware enough of my presence to say, “I’m sorry your friend has to hear this but honestly, Joanna, honestly.” Camille, who carried a backpack so she could change out of her school uniform into her shredded party clothes without going home, who had a whole other wardrobe for when she went on family holidays. We’d grown up hearing the thwack of cricket balls, taken swimming lessons at the local pool, played in the sprinkler with our cousins and Kelpies. But at some point, some teenage point, the path had split, and we — my friends and I — had chosen the road less acceptable. Called to it by music, fashion, art, by the desire for something more than blank endless summer, by a yearning to see what was beneath the surface of things. But there’s a cost for stepping off the road.
I wasn’t certain until I was close, couldn’t tell if there was a person on the park bench. There was no light. Thick clouds had gathered through the night. But I could see something of an outline. Closer, I could see it was a man, long pants, loose around his legs, a long-sleeved shirt buttoned to the neck, long hair – a lanky body that seemed to be melting downwards.
I had no money to offer him, no way to contact anyone, nobody to shout out to, no weapon. Stupid stupid stupid. The air smelled wet, as if the rain had already fallen.
The park bench sat at the edge of the path so I would walk in front of him unless I changed course immediately. But to walk onto the grass might seem provocative, might arouse curiosity, and would take me a direction I didn’t want to go. So I stayed on course, sped my pace while trying to calm my mind and racing heart. He was a homeless person, spending the night on a bench. All I had to do was walk past as fast as I could and keep going.
I looked straight ahead, firmed my expression, held tight to the strap of my bag. Faster, faster, but not so fast that I looked scared. For a brief moment we were touching-distance apart. I wondered if he might stick out his leg to trip me, take my wallet. I held my breath. And then I was past the bench. My ears became alert in a way I hadn’t known they could – palpably straining to listen behind me, alert for any sound of movement.
When he called out, I startled, then mentally zipped through every option available to me. Could I run in these shoes? No. Flick them off without bending down or slowing? Maybe. What if there was glass on the ground? What if he wasn’t alone? How many drinks had I had? Was I definitely on the right path?
“Hey,” he shouted. “Where are you going?”
At high school, we studied Barbara Baynton’s short story “The Chosen Vessel.” I don’t know what our English teacher was thinking, but clearly the head nun, Sister Brigid – a thin-lipped, stout, scrubbed woman who was apoplectic at every Monday assembly reciting reports of our shameful, whoreish behaviour on the afternoon buses and trains (we chewed gum, pushed our knee-socks down to our ankles, untied our hair) – had not read the works of Mrs Barbara Baynton (three times married, once to a philanderer) or she would not have allowed us to pore over this stark, savage tale.
The Chosen Vessel was first published in 1896 as The Tramp in The Bulletin magazine’s Christmas edition. That summer, Australia was frying, a drought having sucked the life out of the land the year before. The heat was extreme. It built up through December 1896, and by January the weeks of furnace-like heat had killed more than 400 people. Newspapers reported that desperate people paced the streets late at night, unable to sleep. Hospitals were overcrowded. Pubs were open but other businesses shut down. People in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria fled sweaty towns on trains, heading to the hills in search of cooler temperatures. Stories circulated of people dropping dead on the footpaths of Adelaide and Perth.
Into these punishing days, Baynton delivered her story. And the public bristled. Maybe readers felt the topic of isolated women in peril had been covered – more palatably, less viciously – in Henry Lawson’s “Drover’s Wife,” published mid-1892, a story in which the woman not only tolerates but somewhat enjoys her life of domestic solitude, rises to it. Maybe having a woman write about her life as grueling and frightening, about men as bullies and religious nutbags was too much. Maybe colonial readers suffering through heat in heavy pants and high-necked dresses, whites yellowed from sweat, preparing for meaty family feasts, swatting away flies, couldn’t take one more ounce of human misery on or off the page. But I had no idea a story could slap me awake so forcefully.
Baynton married this story with five others as a book. She couldn’t find a local publisher. In 1902, a London-based company printed the collection and titled it Bush Studies.
The boys closed ranks around Holly like a pricked clam. They were enraged, aghast, gutted. They owned the story. If any of the girls brought it up, even in the earliest days, the boys snapped and snarled until we shut up. This was not ours to discuss, this rape. They would talk among themselves, they would look after Holly.
I don’t recall who told me what few details were shared. Holly had been home alone, had heard a knock, opened her front door, been pushed into the hallway and raped. The man broke her arm and dislocated her jaw. I never heard what the man looked like or how old he was, but people often mentioned the hallway. A strange detail, but one that suggests how quickly she was overpowered, how unprepared she was to be on the receiving end of violence. The rest we imagined — the hard shove and rip, the grabbing and screaming, lips jammed into teeth, the searing pain of tight-clenched muscles forced open, the blood. We wondered if she was pregnant, if she could still have children.
We heard that the boys reluctantly, after much debate, called the police. The police who towered over them, strong and confident, who were visibly repelled by the wiry couch, the glum indoors when the day was so sunny and promising, by the boys’ attire. Who, having taken down the details of time, date, appearance, expressed their doubt the man would ever be caught, making the moment shameful for everyone in the room. I can guess how the police would’ve looked at Holly. Not with adoration for her clever outfits, admiration for her taste in music, not with gratitude for her doe-like gentleness, her generosity. They would’ve seen a freak.
The man was only a few steps behind me, though I was walking fast. If I broke into a run, he’d surely start running too. And he would catch me. The shoes, the dark, the beer, his legs so much longer than mine.
My best option was to talk and keep talking while I moved forward towards the other side of the park—this enormous park—where I would hit a road. Even if I couldn’t flag down a car, I could bang on a door, ask a stranger for help. In the meantime, I needed to placate and distract him.
I told him I was going home, where my boyfriend was waiting for me. That I was fine to get there by myself. I knew the way. He told me it’s a bad idea to walk alone. He told me his name, which I didn’t register over the sound of my thundering heart, my panting breath, and I told him the first name that came into my head. I looked at him for the first time so I could recognize him if I needed to, later. His face was gaunt, his eyes deep-set and black. I couldn’t make out whether the darkness on his cheeks was stubble, dirt or shadow from his loose hair. He smelled dusty.
“I’ll get you home,” he said. “You don’t need to be scared.”
Baynton’s story never received the acclaim my English teacher believed it deserved. So she read it to us, a room full of 15-year-old suburban virgins, the next generation. We breathed through our mouths, hushed, transfixed, thrillingly horrified.
The young woman lives in the bush, a day’s walk from the closest town. She’s afraid of her husband. For a while, you think it’s a good thing he’s left her alone with a baby while he goes away to work, so she won’t be yelled at. But she has so much to cope with on her own and when a drunken swagmen stops by her door you realize how vulnerable she is. She feeds him, watches him drink, lies that her husband is sick in the back room. She keeps a knife close to hand. Her husband has never taken her fears seriously: “When she had dared to speak of the dangers to which her loneliness exposed her, he had taunted and sneered at her. She need not flatter herself, he had coarsely told her.” But the swagman is leering and we know she’s right to be afraid.
We rested our chins in our palms, leaned forward across our school desks, listening to the English teacher read—as wide-eyed and breathless as we were.
The young woman is smart and resourceful. She bids farewell to the stranger but knows he’ll come back. She makes her home as secure as she can. Late that night, she hears his footsteps on her wooden veranda, holds her baby tight to her chest to keep it quiet. And then! She hears a horse! She runs out into the night, away from her home, where the swagman can see her. She shouts out to the rider for help. But the rider—we groaned in unison! No!—thinks he’s seeing a religious vision, the Virgin and Child dressed in white. He doesn’t stop.
The swagman rapes her and kills her. The men who find the dead woman cut her squirming baby free from her cold hands.
Then and now, readers fume at Baynton’s version of life in the bush. It’s not what they want to hear, see, or be. Her story was printed in the Bulletin and then as a book in the years either side of 1901 Federation, a time of unrestrained nationalistic fervor, when people would not countenance that the country was divided, fractured – Aboriginal and White, Asian and White, rich and poor, city and bush, men and women. The narrative of men (mates) versing natural hardships was celebrated. Her narrative of women versing men was not. To focus on women’s troubles was undermining the national story, and a distraction. (Though, of course, rapes of all varieties were regularly discussed in the courthouses and newspapers, at public meetings. The 1886 Mount Rennie case in which sixteen-year-old Mary Jane Hicks was gang-raped by nine men – some of whom had ostensibly come to rescue her and then changed their minds – along with rapes in Mount Carmel and Waterloo were debated for years in the pages of the Bulletin. For ten years, in fact, the Bulletin argued that the Mount Rennie victim had been a prostitute who’d colluded in the attack, that “real” rape of chaste women was uncommon, that the trial process was unjust, that men were often unfairly accused by hysterical women.)
The editor of the Bulletin published Baynton’s story as “The Tramp.” In her book, Baynton titled the story “The Chosen Vessel.” Because it wasn’t about the murderer, it was about the murdered.
In sex education classes, Sister Marie, blushing furiously, explained that when boys became aroused they couldn’t stop until they reached the end. It was biological. So it was in our best interests, it was our responsibility, not to arouse them in any way.
I didn’t even have the nous to lead him a few doors away from where I was staying. I pointed to the exact door I would walk through then stood on the step, staring at him.
“You need to be more careful,” he said. “Anything could’ve happened to you.”
“You walked me home.”
He sighed, shook his head. “Yeah, well, you got lucky.” He turned and walked down the street, and didn’t look back.
I started to shake. I used both hands to steady the key. The keyhole blurred as tears welled in my eyes. I was angry—angry at Jo for abandoning me, angry at being a person she wanted to lose in a crowd, angry for doubting him, angry that only dumb luck got me here. I turned the key, opened the door.
Photo “Walking alone” by Giuseppe Milo re-cropped and used under Creative Commons License BY-NC 2.0