Short Story

Rules & Regulations

"That all the Women shall consist of One General Class, in which there shall be Divisions according to Ages,

peculiar Habits, &c.&c."

 

            In the new suburb, motherhood was catching. Not quite barefoot, but certainly pregnant, was the norm. For every new bungalow in a new street, there seemed to be a new baby.

            Wendy and her husband had tried, unsuccessfully, to have children and had finally put their names down on adoption lists.

            It was pointed out, tactfully, that there was a shortage of Caucasian babies but they should not rule out the possibility of a child of different racial background, perhaps, one with a slight handicap, even an older child, not a baby. By this time they had waited for some years and readily agreed.       

            They had been in the new suburb about twelve months when the call finally came through. Delighted, they told their neighbours, who were polite, then they drove down to Sydney to collect the child.

            When they returned, the neighbours were eager to see the baby at Number10 and crowded into the kitchen on that first morning. But the reaction was less than enthusiastic, for there stood a child of about 6 or 7, probably Melanesian, noticeably Downs, as well.

            Wendy was delighted, however, and kept hugging the child as if the years of love dammed up inside her had at last a chance to flow freely.      

            The neighbours said nothing and slipped away quietly, but from then on, there was slight change in their manner. Nothing she could define, more a sense that things were different. Behind her back, they found fault with the way she managed this strange child.

            "He seems happy enough but he's always barefoot, dirty."

            "I can't understand why she doesn't insist on his wearing shoes."

            As if they, as real mothers, maintained standards of excellence that were denied those who came to motherhood by proxy.

           

            The warren expanded as new streets spread and more children appeared. "Preventatives," as the women referred to birth control, were costly. They relied therefore on the grace of God, hoping that their husbands would stick light beer on Friday nights. Motherhood was thrust upon them.

            Yet, here in their midst, was someone who'd chosen the role. And they avoided her.

            "What do you think of her?" they'd ask newcomers. "Pale, isn't she? Couldn't be healthy."

            "Don't let her inside or you'll never stop her talking about that child. Adopted, you know."

            Wendy was rarely seen tending her garden any more, and now lived almost entirely inside. The tiny floral prints she'd once worn had given away to the comfort of jeans, which she found easier. Her hair, which she used to leave flowing, was now pulled back and caught in a band to keep it out of the way.

            When they passed her house they could hear her inside, always talking to the child, or outside, trying to get him to play.

           

"That a uniform Dress, suitable to the Station of the Women, be provided, to consist of a Blue or Brown Serge, or Stuff Gown, and White Apron, and Straw Bonnet for Sundays; and a Jacket and Coarse Apron for Week Days, with a Common Straw Bonnet, of a strong Texture, to be made by the women."

 

            Sarah was suspect too. It wasn't adoption in her case, but barrenness that branded her infamous to the women at the Female Factory. God's curse decreed that women carry the proof of their sins.

            Her skin suggested the colour had been rinsed from it like faulty dye, her cheeks hollowed out as though by chisel, deepening the colour of her eyes.

            The system which allowed for self-improvement among the men, plunged the women even lower, raising the temptation to seek comfort. An extra ounce of tea was always appreciated.

 

"That the Diet of the Women shall consist of a Government Ration of the following articles weekly; viz.

                                    7 Pounds of Bread; One-third thereof being of

                                       Maize Flour;

                                    3   1/2  Pounds of Fresh Meat;

                                    1 Pound of Sugar;

                                    2 Ounces of Tea;

                                    2 Gallons of Milk per Day, for the whole."

 

Daily, a chorus of tea whistles sang, breaking the monotony of their routine. Initiation was having a cuppa with the woman next-door, or opposite, or down the road. The sign of acceptance that gave one the right to discuss one's husband, one's income, children or pregnancies.

            Wendy's initiation was never complete. The women were polite, pretending she was one of the group, but what could she contribute, they asked themselves? How could she know about childbirth? Relive with them the drama of the labour ward, those hours of glory when for once the limelight was fully theirs? The trials of breast feeding, the problems of discipline and toilet training. Of these matters, Wendy said nothing.

 

"That Women, who behave well for six Months after their Admission into the General Class, shall be formed into a Class, to be denominated 'The Merit Class'.

"That the cause of Admission into this Class shall be general orderly good Conduct,  Sobriety,  Industry,  Cleanliness, and humble Deportment;  and they shall be allowed the Indulgence of a Portion of their Time to work for themselves."

 

            A break from carding fleeces for paramatta cloth allowed Sarah to sit and dream, hoping that when they were mustered before some settler who had come to choose a wife, she would appeal, if only for her gentleness.

            But the men who came to Parramatta wanted sons.

            Sarah longed for the friendship of other women who shared the same conditions and surviving. She needed more than the blue serge conformity which linked them to their station.

            Her yearning became a dull ache within her.

 

"That no Woman under Sentence from the Courts of Justice or Bench of Magistrates, shall be permitted to quit the Factory, to marry, or go to Service, until her Sentence to Labour, at the Factory, shall have expired."

 

From their houses they walked to the new shopping centre, pushing their prams. The time was always prearranged and Wendy was never told. She would start out behind them in flat shoes, pushing the child's stroller as fast as she could to catch up, while the women in front pushed theirs even faster, to maintain the gap.

            Whenever a new baby was shown off, they would take it in turn to discuss their own and she would add, "He had a rash last week, the doctor thinks he might have an allergy."

 

            Friday 23rd January, Eliza Collins, convict, was delivered of a son, before her time. They were unable to call the Superintendent and the labour continued throughout the night.

            "Rub her back." 

            "Stop her screaming, it doubles the pain." 

            "Here put this between her teeth."     

            Sarah took the scrap of leather and held it for Eliza to bite on. She felt somehow as if she were fulfilling her own deficiency as she knelt in the dark, cradling the weary Eliza, until the child came.

            Then she tied the life knot and wrapped the baby in her own spare shift.

 

On Thursdays when the pay packets were due, the prams rattled to the shops for a pound of lard and two sausages.

            It was on a Thursday that she caught up to them at the shops, and said, "Guess what! I'm pregnant!"

            They stopped. "Are you sure?"

            "Positive! After all this time we never thought we could. Perhaps it was looking after Bobby that did it."

            They looked at her and at the child beside her and decided that maybe she was one of them, after all. That she too had no say in the matter.

            "How do you feel?" The lines began opening up.

            "Not bad. Excited more than anything else, I suppose."

            "Morning sickness?"

            "A little." And she began to tell them every symptom she'd noticed and they, in turn, began to share.

 

            Eliza's lying-in had proved successful. The Superintendent was pleased with the minimum loss of greasy wool, for the unfortunate incident had taken place on a pile of uncarded fleeces. He gave orders for Sarah to be brought before him.

            "They tell me you have had experience?" 'Lying-in' was a delicate term to pass between gaoler and inmate.

            "No sir."

            "Then you have acquitted yourself commendably. Eliza and the others spoke highly of your prompt and caring actions. This will of course go onto your record, and I would like it, if in future you took on the duties of midwife."

            "Yes, sir."

            And Sarah smiled, for acceptance was a balm, of sorts.

 

© Vashti Farrer

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© Vashti Farrer 2017

Australian Author

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Sydney, Australia