The Lost Daughters

Penny insisted the caller was impersonating her sister, screamed violent abuse down the phone line, hung up. Her behaviour was consistent with past performances which had led to an impression, rightly or not, that she could possibly be mentally ill. Were her delusions self-induced? Or was her manner just that typically uncontrolled rage, foundered on her opinionated, abusive and nasty personality which she had had since the very beginning. Can that be Penny?

Police assessments are merely observations- no opinions; some predictions; mostly descriptions. Psychiatrists use emotive language, sentimentality, a veneer of medical jargon. They watch an adult whereas Penny’s sister also remembers the child and sees that there is not a great deal of difference in the underlying lack of self-control in either the mature or the supposed innocent juvenile. Reading all the reports she sees that there’s not much difference in the obsession with being centre stage either. There were instances Kate could recall and those that she had been told about where Penny had deliberately gone against authority to engage in stunts that beggared belief, deceiving and lying to get her own way, always dragging innocents down with her. So bright and clever at pushing the right buttons to get a reaction from others so that they would appear to be the aggressor and she would play the self-righteous victim. Or because she had the look of the waif she would get the sympathy of those watching and they would leap to her defence. Or she would appear so credible, trustworthy and genuinely misjudged that they would rule in her favour. Nothing changed as years passed.

Very early one Sunday morning without changing out of the frilly shorty pyjamas, hers always pink and Kate’s blue, Penny quietly set out to visit her friend. Taking her little sister’s hand she walked barefoot along the footpath passing beside the gateways of the rows of federation bungalows, heading from a quiet suburban street to the eight lane highway she knew was a landmark dividing her own locale from that of a playmate. Currawongs sang, cicadas rang and the clear sky still pale hinted at one of Western Sydney’s heat wave days. Mummy had refused to plan a visit. Penny would not accept that. A couple of hours later the toddlers were knocking on a door, Elaine’s mother instantly frowning at the explanation for their cheerful neighbourly call, she phoned the parents.  Edna was horrified but her husband Ted laughed at the gumption his eldest daughter had shown. His reaction of amusement was sparked by the cuteness of the instigator who knew just how to put on a face that won him over, “how clever she is to know the way, cross that road. Of course she could not be aware of the danger she had put the two year old in, no … no … Penny is obviously just a headstrong young child with a good sense of direction.”

Another Sydney suburb, inner city, this time the two year old is Penny’s daughter. A cold winter’s night in a derelict vacant block the occupants of the adjacent terrace houses can’t reason with the drug-crazed naked woman sitting on the rubble and weeds clutching a child, the thin blond toddler is shivering but too tired to cry out and probably knows better than to attract her mother’s attention. Later the DOCS workers find evidence that little Tara has been tied up at some stage and when they go to the flat it has a bare room with a cot mattress on the floor where the child has also obviously been locked for some hours without care, judging by the smell from unwashed nappies strewn about with the general litter. And in the only other room a residue of the other activity: marijuana stubs and empty alcohol bottles, no evidence of good food but some opened tins starting to rust above the stale dried remains which could just possibly be identified as Heinz Steak and Onion Stew.

Police Constable Lombard states in his formal report:

‘At about 6 pm we were called to Bowtell Street in Glebe where it was stated that a woman was causing trouble. Upon arrival she was seen sitting in the middle of a vacant lot and screaming out and holding a small child. She stated that she was an Aboriginal; that she was in her ‘bora ring’; and then stated that she was ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ Police feared for the well-being of the child and when requesting to talk to the woman about her problem she became berserk and had to be overpowered and placed into the police truck and conveyed to the psychiatric hospital.’

Ted was dead by the time Penny had the child so he never got to react to this behaviour however it’s a good guess that he would no longer have found it so amusing. He had already lost his sense of humour where Penny was concerned a few years before. Attached to the family home he had a small antiques shop with a pretty courtyard to one side of the entrance. When Penny was sixteen she had one day decided that this was the perfect spot for some nude sunbathing and caused a rather conventional Ted some serious embarrassment. She was extremely bright at academic studies and that should have made him proud to go to school occasions but her reputation was not that of a scholar, more a trouble maker.  He tired of her bizarre moments, teenage angst and headstrong ways. As soon as possible she was sent to board at a University College where she could be less conspicuous amongst the bearded rabble of extroverts. This would also make for a more congenial atmosphere at home where Edna had spent a decade protecting the younger children in the family from Penny’s moods and outbursts when she often blamed the others for her own misdemeanours or teased them with such accurately targeted jibes that they exploded (to Penny’s great satisfaction)in tears of rage themselves.

At universities in the 1970’s it was all ‘sex, drugs and rock n roll’ so that cocktail was added to the mix up that could be called Penny’s psyche. She soon lived the consequence of each element: pregnancy, arrests and a rollercoaster of environments from inner city squats to a hippy commune on the north coast. Penny became a single mother when the child’s father returned to his native Germany deciding that he could not cope with co-parenting involving such a partner; he reluctantly left the child behind knowing how the law favours women in any custody decision and not daring to risk a fight with such an unpredictable opponent. Penny had by this time remarkably graduated in Law so she knew her rights and when she was coherent she could make quite a statement.

Edna was also now a single parent to the two younger children and was alternately confused or disgusted by Penny’s predicaments especially as they were such an embarrassment in the straight laced middle class suburban culture where she hoped to live quietly with Penny’s school aged siblings who were so very normal in comparison, she feared for the example Penny gave to the teenagers in her house. The twenty two year old visited but only when she needed money or accommodation and these occasions were not a cause for celebration. Edna worried about the welfare of Penny’s baby, Tara, and felt any financial help she gave was most likely going to be wasted on drugs. She wished Penny would just stay away.

Finally there did come the day when a line was crossed, the straw that broke the camel’s back was put in place. Penny arrived with Tara while Edna was out at work and attempted to strangle the family cat then systematically broke all the mirrors in the house – the cat was apparently perceived to have evil powers and the mirrors were photographing for the CIA. The younger sister was dragged into the bush and threatened with a rock. Luckily the younger brother called the local police who were quick to arrive but probably shocked at the canny way in which Penny chose to allude them. She took off all her clothes and ran further into the bush shouting ‘rape’ at the top of her not inconsiderable lungs. This police report is understated when it summarises the event: ‘she acted strangely when she tried to strangle a cat at her mother’s … stripping off and running through the scrub closely followed by the constabulary.’

The police sent Penny’s young brother, carrying a modesty blanket, into the bushland to chase his sister down for them. This strategy finally paid off and Penny was carried away in a van to custody both lawful and psychiatric. Edna was left holding the baby. Not many weeks later a letter came for Edna from the psychiatric hospital:

“Dear Mrs Delaney, … I understand that Penny cannot be located at present and we therefore follow our normal procedure of seeking through yourself written consent to divulge information from medical record for declaring the status of her child. In response to police investigations, the social services department may claim her as a ward of the state. I am therefore taking the step of supplying the relevant information to you as you would have the best interests of daughter and child at heart and will exercise discretion as to how the information is used… yours faithfully, Terry Masters, medical superintendent”

Pages of assessment were attached. One doctor was of the opinion that Penny was suffering from schizophrenia but settled down with medication. Another concluded that she appeared unable because of her mental condition to give a child a stable upbringing, another warned: “she appears to be prone to episodes of potentially dangerous behaviour unless under medication.” There were accounts of her psychotic episodes where she commonly suffered from delusions of persecution and refused to believe the staff were doctors, so it was unsurprising that they described her attention to medication as ‘sporadic’.

Not without inner torment, Edna decided enough is enough, she contacted the baby’s father in Germany and arranged to send the toddler to him, quickly booking a seat for the child’s twenty year old aunt as a chaperone and getting the whole operation over with before Penny was released from custody. Edna then sold her own house, moved to an unregistered address in a far off suburb, connected an unlisted phone and never saw Penny ever again. But the younger sister and brother were too curious to leave it like that. Every year on Penny’s birthday they called her if they had been able to find a phone number for the refuge, government housing flat or hospital she was in at the time. Mostly they could, but each time the communication became more and more bizarre and confrontational.

Psychiatrists fall into many camps, those that give the patient hope and some that don’t, believers in medication and some not, a few that see reality and some who live in dreamland with their patients. Despite clinical notes over the next few years frequently stating that she was readmitted in a grossly disorganised state with obvious thought disorder, thought blocking and paranoia, medication was rarely administered because Penny was unwilling to stay in a hospital and absconded when advised to do so.

Eventually Penny retreated to a commune in the hinterland of a coastal country town. Perhaps this was because she had given up on getting Tara returned to her, although during the past months while she was in the city Penny had made several submissions to various courtrooms, always failing to gain support due to her well documented erratic behaviour. In a rural location she could escape from the need to make these efforts, the inner city was full of the places that reminded her of Tara, where they had lived, people they knew. A change of scene may have been an attempt to rebuild, but if it was it did not work. She became involved in a lot of local hassles, scuffles with Aboriginal Australians, and finally the police in that area command knew her quite well.

Early one morning some youths came across her as she wandered along a road because she was in danger of being run down, she was walking in the centre of the road completely unaware of the traffic or her surroundings and appeared to be in a trance. On closer examination they noticed a head injury and when they inquired Penny said she had been in a fight at the local pub and been hit by one of the other drinkers. The young men took her to the nearby hospital where the ICU quickly picked up on her other symptoms: hallucinations were becoming apparent now but the progress notes would state that she was desperate for food and fluids, and three months pregnant. She fell asleep after being given tea, toast and a warm bed.

Next day the police arrived at the ward, they wanted to interview Penny because they thought they knew who had assaulted her and they needed to know if she would press charges. This court case would act as a deterrent to further brawling in the community, it had become a problem more and more lately with the hippies coming down from the hills, stoned on hashish and adding alcohol to the mix. The townsfolk were antagonistic to these blow-ins and that could get fights started when the two groups clashed in the confines of the pub. The police never got a statement. Penny had signed herself out. Typical.

The court judges make decisions but can’t enforce them, they hide behind regulation and restrictions. No law or its enforcers can beat the will-power of the inner-self hell bent on destruction in the mistaken belief that it is an outward manifestation of their freedom. If someone is badly behaved and therefore is rejected, it can be their fault. Years of incidents finally cumulative, enhanced by drugs and alcohol; initially they are making those choices, taking those steps; no one forced them to do it, no one forced them to keep on repeating it. The benefit of hindsight, what a cliché, but how right it is that if young characters were analysed according to their actions as children some wild predictions might ensue, and in the outcome  to be justified. Soon the brother left the country. Edna never mentioned her name ever again. Tara never boarded an aircraft bound to Australian shores ever again. Kate never picked up the phone to dial that number ever again. Penny was gone.

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About clareseligman

A flash fiction/short story writer with an interest in the themes of cultural studies, travel, music, teaching, sailing and snow skiing.
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