There once lived a girl who was the middle child of a large family; she had at least three older siblings and at most three younger ones. I say at least three older because the girl’s mother had suffered a still birth and two infant deaths before finally a son was born (then the rest) who survived past childhood. The girl’s parents worked in traditional folk medicine, this meant the kids were around lots of herbs and dried things (like baby mice carcasses, snakes, mushrooms) when they were younger. The girl’s father died when she was 10. I am not sure how old he was when he died, but let’s take a guess at mid 40s. Altogether, the parents had three sons, two daughters, a fourth son and then a final daughter at the mother’s ripe old age of 40.
Being the middle child and the eldest daughter, the girl was dutiful and diplomatic. The girl was not self-centred like her older brothers nor aggressive like her younger sisters, however, she found solace and attention in being able to embellish any story. If one of her siblings had fallen into the creek at the back of their property, she would tell her mother it had been three. If there had been a firefly zooming away as she attended the outside toilet near said creek, it would turn into the lamp of an eerie spirit who had decided to spare her soul and seek another victim that evening.
The girl grew up and became a nurse. She was not particularly suited to being a nurse; on her first day she was called into a room containing a bloodied body, she fainted; a week later when a fat, hairy caterpillar dropped on to her shoulder as she walked into the hospital, she fainted. However, there was a war underway just as she was finishing school, nurses were needed, so she became a nurse. This was how she met her husband and the father of her children. He was from a well-to-do family who had ensured his university education – something quite rare in those days – and as he had just graduated from a geography and philosophy degree, this helped secure his safer position as lieutenant during the war. Unfortunately, he was on the losing side and had to be ‘re-educated’ by the enemy in a harsh and decidedly unsavoury camp. This was where he received a gunshot wound to his left shin and ended up in the same hospital as the nurse. She was pretty and petite, he was handsome and almost a war hero, so pregnancy, marriage (not sure the order) and a chubby little first-born son, followed by a tiny perfect baby daughter was inevitable. It was most uncomfortable residing on the losing side after a war, so the ex-lieutenant’s parents sorted out the bribes required to secure a separate refugee boat for each of their children. Separate boats were needed in case one sinking would wipe out an entire generation. This was lucky for the nurse as her widowed mother was not so well-off and couldn’t send any one of her seven offspring out to sea. The nurse’s flair for embellishment was still strong, so when she would describe the 15 metre boat and its 500 passengers later, I am not certain whether it was pirated as many as seven times, dragged out to sea – rather than into shore, and whether the skipper and a few other wise men were able to use the stars as guides to lead them eventually to a refugee camp; but the ex-lieutenant confirms the story, so we’ll stick with that. Fortunately, there was no kidnapping, murder, nor rape on the 14 day boat trip, so it wasn’t so bad. The chubby son and the baby daughter were only infants at the time, so they have no recollection of the boat, the camp (where everyone got much less chubby), or even the first year in Australia. For that is where the nurse and the lieutenant ended up: the land of the sunburnt prawn and lots of lawnmowing… or something like that. The ex-lieutenant’s siblings all coincidentally ended up surviving their boat trips and settled on the west coast of the United States, so that ended well too.
Australian Immigration Services placed the nurse’s family in a quiet part of Western Australia, the ex-lieutenant worked hard at learning English, the nurse had the two children to raise and she just didn’t have an ear for languages, so couldn’t make as much headway as her husband. A year later they moved cross-country on a bus and found themselves in a one-room flat in Sydney. Here, there were many more refugees like themselves, as well as employment opportunities for people who were not so great with English. The nurse reinvents herself as a seamstress, well, whatever you call someone who sits at a sewing machine for at least 12 hours a day and sews clothes for high-end as well as low-end brands. The ex-lieutenant tries his hand at a few factory jobs, short stints of unemployment, then an entrance exam into Australia Post finds him also reinvented: as a Mail Officer. The ability to save some money combined with the children getting taller and taller leads the seamstress and the postie to move out to the suburbs.
The seamstress’ widowed mother dies at about 90 years of age surrounded by generations of mourners, the seamstress and the postie have been able to visit the old country a few times since fleeing. They will never go back for good, but visiting has always brought joyous (and dramatic) reunions. The postie’s mother had died before a trip to the old country could even be entertained, but his father ended up joining the majority of his children on the west coast of America and the old man reached 91 years of good health before a bout of pneumonia took him out quickly.
The kids keep on growing and though they are not twins, they end up being about the same height and build; they graduate from different degrees at different universities one day apart. In that same year, Australia Post becomes automated and offer a redundancy to the postie whose local mail centre is being consolidated into a super-branch. He decides it is time to retire and organises it so that his wife joins him on this venture. The seamstress had been working at a sewing machine for roughly two decades and in the first four months of retirement she has terrible aches in her arms and legs – but this passes and instead, she can settle down to window shopping and gardening and seeing the kids most Sundays. Her first-born son and her last-born daughter have respectable careers, they are married, and now, here on her 60th birthday, she is playing with her two delightful granddaughters and prodigal grandson. In the old country, round numbers are bad luck, so the cake is actually frosted with ‘Happy 61st Birthday!’ but whatever number it is, the ex-nurse, ex-seamstress, doting-Nan is glad that at her small family-only celebration, she can say that it turned out splendidly for this middle child of a big, old family.
First published in TAT Fiction Magazine