The Beast, Amanda Midlam

Photo by Michael Held on Unsplash

The monster fire that ate Mallacoota on New Year’s Eve and spat out charred toothpicks is galloping towards us.

Just a few days into 2020, the mayor of Bega Valley Shire makes a heart-quaking announcement. My town of Eden will not be defended.

How can a town of 3100 people not be defended?

The answer is that Australian firefighters are stretched to the limit. Our fire season is now months longer than it used to be. It now overlaps with North America’s fires. There are not enough resources. A decision has been made. The towns of Bega and Merimbula will be defended from fire. Eden will not.

It is incomprehensible. Eden has a new $40 million wharf built to take colossal cruise ships. Literally thousands of people could be evacuated from the Eden wharf. But I do not have time to think it through. The second message from the mayor is terror-striking.

‘Your safest chance of survival is to leave Eden now.’

I have been preparing for bushfires since August. Drought has left the surrounding forests matchstick dry. Climate change is now creating Frankenstein fires. The rural fire service has told us to prepare, to have an evacuation plan and be ready to go. A leather overnight bag, which I bought in Bali in better days, is filled with documents and keepsakes and my passport and the dogs’ vaccination certificates. In the car already are a bag of kibble for the dogs and a change of clothing for me. To this, I add an air mattress and bedding, just in case I have to sleep in the car, then I panic off, forgetting to soak towels and place them under the doors.

Club Sapphire is the evacuation centre in Merimbula. The club is its usual, surreal, clubby self. Men wearing smart casual pants and women wearing make-up, socialising and playing poker machines. I find a desk with an evacuation sign and try to register but am told the club won’t take dogs and am directed to go to Bega.

Bega is another 30 km away. It lies inland and could easily be cut off from the coast. It is also under threat from two hell fires that are moving closer both to each other and to Bega. I am scared to go there but too scared not to. I am terror-shaken and trembling.

It is a slow drive on smoke-filled roads and it is getting dark when I arrive at the Bega evacuation centre. The first thing I notice is that it is right next door to the gas distribution centre.

If there’s an ember attack on those giant gas cylinders, the explosion will kill everyone.

The evac centre is nothing but the old showground, rebranded. It faces a nearby mountain that is caught in a conflagration but the smoke is so thick, it blacks out the flames. I can barely breathe in the miasmic smoke.

I am glad I had the foresight weeks ago to send away for a P2 face mask that has a filter. I clutch it like a lifeline. The dogs stay in the car while I register with the Red Cross in the vestibule of an old hall. The floor of the hall is awash with mattresses and bedding for the blank-eyed elderly people and families with dazed young children drifting around.

I am told there is no room for me and I should try to find a camping spot on the oval. I am also told to take a blanket so I rummage amongst a pile and select a woollen one.

Then I drive around the crammed oval looking for a spot for my car, careful not to hit any of the ghostly-looking people emerging through the gloom as I peer through the windscreen.

The showground is now a refugee centre and through the gates I can see a stream of more people coming. The lucky ones here have caravans. Most people have tents.

Who the hell decided an evacuation centre in a bushfire should be outside?

On my second drive around the showground, I find somewhere to park. I am next to a woman who has no other shelter apart from a swag she has been lent. We both cough in the turbid smoke that scorches our throat and lungs. She tells me food is available in the pavilion next to the hall.

Here I find volunteers cleaning up after the evening meal. One of them kindly makes me a salad sandwich. I don’t want to talk to anyone. Too much fear has inflamed my senses. I cannot cope with anything more. But a feral couple tell me they fled their home in the village of Verona as their house burst into flames. They evacuated to the town of Cobargo and saw fire destroying the main street. Next they evacuated to Bermagui, and then when fire threatened Bermagui, they headed to Bega.

I feel like telling them to fuck off. They are obviously bad luck. Then I wonder if this is a Lord of the Flies response.

‘It’s the government doing it,’ the man said, shaking his matted head. The woman agreed. ‘It’s a government plot to get all the hippies out of the hills.’

I don’t need their conspiracy theories. I have my own fear-fed, fiendish thoughts. This is a fight for survival. This is the end of days.

We are told that if all else burns, the Bega showground will be defended. I speak to a police officer who tells me bluntly that I made the right decision to come here. They are expecting hundreds of people in Eden to be dead by morning.

I am wretched with grief and incandescent with anger that we have known for a long time that we were sitting ducks and nothing was done to avert this. The state and federal governments both abandoned us.

Then it begins to rain. It splashes down on my hair, my face and my shoulders. It is not until I go to the toilet and see my speckled self in the mirror that I realise it is ash and soot. I hear hell-roaring thunder too. The nearest fire is so super-hot, it is creating its own weather. Thunder means lightning, which means brutal ignition and more country converted into crematoria for wildlife.

I check my phone. Many people are refusing to leave Eden. Neighbours and friends are staying to defend their homes. I am terrified for them.

The Beast is seething, ready to surge. A behemoth against an undefended populace.

My phone again. People are jammed in at the wharf area in Eden, in their cars, figuring if the worst happens they can at least jump into the sea. Some people are sheltering with their young children on one of the tugboats.

The Beast is the devil incarnate. Sleep happens on other planets. Not this one. I try to stay calm and rational, cowering in my car, incessantly checking my phone. Through the sunroof just above my head, I watch the sky as it changes from volcanic orange to incandescent red.

Phone again. My neighbours tell me police have knocked on their door to tell them to get out. But it feels too dangerous to leave Eden. The roads are full of smoke, visibility limited to a few metres. They head to the wharf.

I need to go to the toilet. There are 2000 people sheltering at Bega Showground. Sheltering is a euphemism. The hall can fit only a fraction of that number. The rest of us are outdoors desperate for shelter from the smoke. The women’s toilet at the hall is up some stairs. I don’t know how the elderly and disabled manage. Near my car is an ancient toilet block. I stumble towards it. Through the murk, I see people are walking their horses around the showground ring. I hear children crying. Everyone is coughing. A group of people are praying. This is the apocalypse.

I check my phone. The police have been to Eden with a bus to try to remove people to evacuation centres in other towns. Many refuse to go.

For me, that first evacuated night in Bega is the most terrifying. In the morning, I weep with relief when I learn that the Beast reached the edge of Eden – then the wind swung around and sent its fearsome flames elsewhere. Everyone I know in my community is still alive. No houses burned down.

But it is not over. I stay at the Bega Showground in my car for four nights.

I cry a lot. I cry constantly but I don’t know if I am weeping tears of fear for my life and grief for the loss of the environment, or if it is just my eyes watering from so much smoke. I also worry about the smoke I am breathing. What is in it? Trees, lost houses, crisped birds, charred kangaroos, chemicals from sheds, asbestos…

The experience changes me. What is valuable to me shrinks to a small list. My two dogs; the car that is our current home (and future too, if my house burns down); my keys; my P2 smoke mask; and my glasses.

Then I lose my glasses, leaving them in the shower stall, and when I go back they are gone. Without them, I can’t see to use my phone. I can’t text. I can’t access current information about the fires.

Fuck. I can’t cope with this if I can’t see.

I tie the dogs to the car door and turn the car upside down and find, falling apart with relief, an old spare pair of glasses.

The darkness does not lift. It seems perpetual. It lasts for 40 hours and intense disorientation sets in when daytime does not include daylight. Will we ever experience normal again? I develop a ritual to get me through.

Pat right pocket of pants, checking phone is still there. Pat left pocket of pants checking keys are still there. Fucked if I lose either. Utterly fucked. There are rumours, rumours, rumours everywhere. Conspiracy theories and religious proclamations about judgment day. Pat, pat, pat. Phone, keys, glasses. Pat fucketty pat.

What would it be like to die here? I think everyone is wondering if this is the end. Armageddon. Two mega fires are bearing down on Bega and further south the Beast continues to threaten Eden. There is nowhere safe to go. We are told the Bega showground is the safest place to be and will be defended if it comes under ember attack but I look around and I can’t see any buckets of water to put out embers.

My only shelter is a car out in the open with a full tank of petrol. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

Eventually we are told we can return home. The danger is not over but it is no longer so cataclysmically life-threatening. My house is still standing but there has been a snowstorm inside and there’s residue on floors and countertops and in corners. It is not white but streaky grey with black smuts. It is ash that has home-invaded, sneaking in under doors and through ill-fitting windows.

The Beast seems immortal. It refuses to die. Helicopters fly over the flames with thimbles of water. It is too dangerous for firefighters to enter the forest due to falling trees. We are told they need to wait until the fire reaches a cleared area – a farm, or a town, or a village before the fire fighters can attack it.

I used to think that fires were sudden rapid events with names like Ash Wednesday or Black Saturday but our Beast has stamina. It gets status, something called a campaign fire. We are told that if we are lucky, it will burn for weeks. If we are unlucky, it will burn for months.

People in Eden are stupid with fear. I pay the newsagent for a newspaper and she stares at the money in her hand unable to count it.

‘Do you want a bag?’ asks the young girl in the crapadashery where I buy some crap.

‘No thanks,’ I say.

‘Do you want a bag?’ she replies.

We are all exhausted from being hypervigilant. Cognitive function is closed down. We are in fight or flight mode for months.

My car stays kitted out ready for evacuation. Twice more I evacuate but not to the hell hole of the Bega Showground. One time I pay to stay at a holiday apartment in an empty complex in Merimbula. The next time I go to a friend’s place, also in Merimbula. To thank her, I take her out to dinner and we sit on the deck of a restaurant until the rain of falling blackened leaves and ash forces us indoors.

And still the Beast is unsated. It prowls scarily in secrecy, invisible behind its smoke screen. No one sleeps as the Beast makes it ravenous raids, day and night. There is no clocking off when you might need to flee flames. Forty homes are lost on one infernal night in Kiah, just south of Eden. Many people I know are now homeless. Some are underinsured or not insured.

The army arrives to help and a navy ship arrives in Twofold Bay ready to take refugees. American firefighters arrive as their fire season ends and Australians from other towns turn up as fires, up and down the coast, are brought under control. Members of the community wear face masks and shuffle through the streets in fear and grief. The stories are terrible. Homes lost. Wildlife screaming as it burns. Forests incinerated.

When the cloche of smoke lifts after weeks, we see that the national park that borders the bay is blackened with plumes of smoke rising from the carnage. It is a war zone. And still the Beast keeps marauding. We are told to stay indoors, to avoid the smoke but the air has been smoky since late last year and we want to go out.

At last the Beast is brought under control but we are warned it is not over, there are hot spots and the wind could whip the fire up again. We are dead-tired. Then one day, finally, the mayor announces that the fire is out. The Beast is dead. That is in mid-March, the same time that another beast, invisible but just as deadly, sneaks into our lives. We are still in fire shock when we descend into another of Dante’s circles of hell. Covid-19 begins.

Amanda Midlam

Amanda Midlam earned a living for many years writing and directing and was employed by organisations such as Film Australia and Penguin. Wanting to write more reflectively she developed new skills and earned a Master of Arts in Creative Writing from Macquarie University in 2014. She lives on the Far South Coast of NSW.

Pervasive Poetry, Amanda Midlam


Memory Poem, Watching Life Go By On Twofold Bay, and a Suite of Three Poems: Quondola, Flotsam, and Community Soup




It begins for me with the news

of a body found floating off Quondola

an ending for someone else.

The police say there are no suspicious circumstances

which means an accident

or suicide.

The body is unidentified

and uninhabited

dressed in jeans, belt and boots.

It waits for someone to claim it

not the rightful owner of course

but someone else.

In rough seas fishermen are swept off rocks

and drown

but the sea has been calm.

Uneasiness flows through the streets of our small town

was it a stranger, or one of our own?

No-one knows.

It is several days before

identification is made

and waves of grief drench the town.




He drifted into Eden down the highway

and floated out of town

five years later on the tide

if Reece looking for humpback whales

hadn’t found him

would we have ever known

he hadn’t hitch-hiked off again

to try his luck elsewhere?

No-one knows why

speculation rises and ebbs

like the sea and waves

of rumours water the community garden

where he worked

and where he ran the monthly market

where people sold goods

and swapped gossip.

But no-one knew his story

and as speculation eddies

 his face floats haunting behind my eyes.




The market is cancelled this month

and all work has stopped in the garden.

But the community lunch must go on.

Some people, like June and Phil, rely on it

and others may not have heard the word

            Now that Greg has gone.

Peter and Pam can’t be there

and Glenda has gone to ground

Community service has been suspended

so there are no workers to oversee

until there is time to think what to do

            Now that Greg has gone.

But Monday lunch must go on,

the door needs to be open, says Pam.

Old Kenny may need a feed.

And others may turn up

We don’t know what to do.

            Now that Greg has gone.

I offer to open the door and make community soup

In the hall Pam has left a loaf of homemade bread.

Alan brings apple crumble, Shannon makes pasta

and Suz brings fruit

Nine adults and two children arrive for a feed

            Janice washes up now that Greg is gone.





Mud and mire as I patter down the path

the more the mud, the more the mire,

the more my hopes go soaring higher

then I awake

and ponder how mud can hold so much pleasure

when honestly I hate the stuff

and why my waking spirits stay so high

but the answer flees as my muddled mind awakes

and shakes off the memory of this dream place.


But on another night I find that other world

and my feet skip and slip happily down that muddy track

There’s a road nearby but the mud is quicker

and I am in a hurry and my feet slither-slather

in mud, anticipation, joy and hope.

Then I awake.  Where was I going?


I try to remember details but they flee my waking mind

sleep images crumble into cornflakes

muddy path into highway as I drive my car to work

but feelings work their way into my city-cluttered day

I can’t help feeling concrete constructions block my way


Shreds of dream shroud my pillows and lie in wait

taking me back at night to the twists and turns

and the descent of the narrow muddy path,

the ragged edge of my long dress drags in the mire

but I don’t care about mud on my clothes

because I am going to see them all again!

Then I awake.


During the day I dream of this other realm

the smell of mud and horse manure and salt from a not distant sea

the feel of my rough dress, the leafy greenery along the path

at night my feet fly faster trying to reach the end before I awake.

And one night I make it.

I am there in the open glen and it is market day and everyone is there.

Then I awake.


I have discovered how to take myself there, to find myself on the path,

the mud and the mire, sweet harbingers of home,

I come to the glen where the market is held,

where people come from far and wide

and I look and remember and recognise each face.

Then one night they see me too and clamour in surprise

Sarah! When did you get back?  We didn’t think we’d see you again.


Then I awake.


I remember the horses and carts and old market stalls.

My name is not Sarah, not in my waking world

but I search the family tree and find seven generations past

Sarah, aged sixteen, stealer of silver spoons, sent to Sydney in 1792,

She survived as a washer woman purging clothes of their past.

And never went home.  Not in the flesh.

But at night Sarah and I go down the muddy path.

We come to the open glen in glee, it is market day and everyone is here.





Sleepy-headed, coffee-handed

on Cat Balou as mooring slips

and catamaran slides

on glassy sea

fur seals on end of breakwater wall

fat-bodied, flat-flippered, sleek-headed,

slumbering cumbersome clumsy on land

then one slides silkily into the sea and

sylph-like glides away

while another, face like a wet dog, pops up

beside us and beckons us to play.


We chug on towards the further shore

dolphins hear the chug, chug, chug

and answer the catamaran’s call

the game is on

I lean down and see through the sea

dolphins racing in the boat’s bows

three, four, five, six, seven

shining silver bodies thrilling me

we hear a shout, we see a splash,

a white explosion in the blue

a whale is breaching, belly to the sun

splashing back down

in a crash of water

then a smaller one hurtles from the sea

and reaches for the sky

mum and baby humpbacks

on the humpback highway heading south

to Antarctica.


Gordon cuts the engine

he’s not allowed to get too close

but whales don’t know the rules

and surround the boat and spy hop

standing upright

behemoth heads rear from the sea

whale eyes regard us

as we hold our breath

then pahhhh the blow from a spout

casts a rainbow

as water from whale lungs

shimmers in the sun.


A black ribbon of mutton birds

threads through the sky

migrating from Siberia to Tasmania,

an albatross soars

there’s a bait ball ahead

dolphins circling

seals sharing and whales wallowing

as gannets rain like  arrows

from a mackerel sky

diving for fish.


At Snug Cove passengers go ashore,

to lunch on fish and chips

assisted by sea gulls

while pelicans glide overhead

with pterodactyl beaks

feathered bodies full of air,

light enough to float,

graceful in flight, clumsy on ground,

best of all coming in to land

webbed feet tucked behind

then pushed out suddenly in front

aquaplaning with a swoosh

nearby more pelicans squat on lamp posts

growling deep-throated at my yapping dogs

flapping their wings in warning

others jostle with gulls in shallow water

below the tables where fish are cleaned

and scraps are thrown

but a seal decides he wants the scraps

and birds flap and scatter.


A pied cormorant and a shag on a rock,


hang out their wings to dry

the winners of bird world

able to fly, dive and swim

watch as a snake bird swims by,

with such skinny head and neck,

I once mistook one for the snorkel

of a friend

and swam after it out to sea.


Time to go home up the hill where

pink and grey galahs crop the nature strip,

a slow way to get the mowing done

but they eat the weed seeds

(then redistribute them)

while most birds hop, galahs prefer to walk

waddling like ducks left, right, left

while they graze, tiny feathered cows

and overhead crested pigeons

coo on the power lines

and one pair have a budgerigar friend,

a feather-bed menage-a-trois

and beyond the front fence the bird life changes

but the border doesn’t stop the immigrants

and a fat-bodied cuckoo from New Guinea

perches in the mulberry tree

watching the wattle birds

watching and waiting,

waiting to lay an egg in their nest

as mud larks lark in the bird bath

minding their own business.


Time to take the dogs for a walk,

they missed their morning stroll

and we amble across the road

and down  the track to the cliff

a white-bellied sea eagle soars

in thermals, corkscrewing in the sky

a masked lapwing, one tenth its size,

follows its flight and nips with beak

a sea eagle feather floats from the sky

another lapwing squawks as we walk by

because they lay their eggs in scrapes

on the ground then panic

and dive bomb anyone walking near,

the yellow spurs on their wings

inflicting pain and fear

I realise the sea eagle must have spied

eggs or chicks and the assailant lapwing

screams another feather falls

the sea eagle soars off as

we walk on to the pine trees

where yellow-tailed black cockatoos feed

their tough beaks tearing pine cones apart

hungrier now their forests in Victoria

have burned to ash.


Home again and time for evening wine

I raise a glass in the sunroom

lorikeets with tongues like brushes

lick nectar from the bottle brushes

on the other side of the pane

soon as pissed as parrots

on nectar that has fermented

hanging upside down

from branches flying low chattering

laughing as a cacophony of cockatoos

scream through the sky

sulphur-crested sulphur-tempered

destruction-tempted big white cockies

bosses of the birds or they think they are

but the lorikeets don’t care.


Darkness falls, dogs and I fall into dreams

and possums fall from trees onto the roof.

Ready for the night shift.


Download of pdf of Pervasive Poetry

Amanda Midlam

Amanda Midlam earned a living for many years writing and directing and was employed by organisations such as Film Australia and Penguin. Wanting to write more reflectively she developed new skills and earned a Master of Arts in Creative Writing from Macquarie University in 2014. She lives on the Far South Coast of NSW.

Leaving, Amanda Midlam

…My stepfather is going to kill us. Of this I have become convinced. I do not remember when I first began to fear this; the violence has been going on too long and now has become a blur. I feel the threat of death when I wake up in the morning, get ready for school and scuttle as quickly as I can out of the house…


‘Leaving’ is a chapter from a work in progress, a memoir of childhood, called Good Girl. In this chapter I have just turned 14 and my sister, Allie, is nearly 16.


My stepfather is going to kill us. Of this I have become convinced. I do not remember when I first began to fear this; the violence has been going on too long and now has become a blur.

I feel the threat of death when I wake up in the morning, get ready for school and scuttle as quickly as I can out of the house. I feel the threat when I arrive at school at 7.30am for a spot of early morning vandalism. I feel the threat during days at school that aren’t nearly long enough, knowing that at the end I must go home. I feel the threat when I arrive home, change out of my uniform and escape the house again to the bushland at the end of the road or to Taronga Zoo, which lies on the other side of the bush.

My stepfather threatens constantly to kill us.

I feel the fear, then and now, especially at dusk. That was the time I had to be home and the time my stepfather returned from work. Now, decades later, dusk is still a dangerous time for me. Time folds in upon itself like the pleats in my school uniform, grey and drab, sucking the colour out of my skin, making me clammy and cold. I forget to breathe.

Most of all I feel the fear one cloudy day in July 1968. Allie and I are huddled next to a grey sandstone wall, peering around the corner into St Elmo Street, too scared to go any further. Our mouths are dry and we are dumb in our fear. In our silence we share feelings of shame, loss and betrayal but most of all intense fear.

My mind can’t grasp this, then or now. My mother wouldn’t go back to the house without a police escort but she sent Allie and me, by ourselves, to get changes of clothing. My memories of this time are a skeleton in the family closet; broken bones pierce my dreams and make me wake screaming in the night but the connective tissue is gone. How did we get to this corner? I have no memory of that at all. A tornado may well have dumped us there. Suddenly, ill-prepared, we were close to home but too scared to go there.

All that was familiar had been left behind at Wedgwood when we fled. My diary, the notebooks where I scribbled stories, my collection of bus ticket stubs, cicada shells, sea shells, china animal ornaments, a collection of dolls from around the world in various national attire, rocks and odds and ends that I kept in dusty shoe boxes under my bed, books of course, my blue bicycle and my clothes. What tugged most strongly though were the pets. They’d been left behind. Were they being fed? Was anyone giving them fresh water?

Homer and Luther had been a source of solace to me since we got them when I was 7, especially Homer who was my own. Luther, a tan dachshund, belonged to Hyacinth and was bigger than the black and tan Homer, but Homer was smarter. I talked to him a lot with his sausage shape cuddled on my lap, my tears dripping into his sleek black coat, my fears alleviated somewhat by his warmth. Allie’s cat, Plato, has also been left behind but he is more independent and I think he’ll be okay. The pull to see the pets is immense and the need for clothes that don’t smell is strong but my terror is paralyzing.

We need to go home but we also need to know it is safe and there is no way of knowing that.

I replay the argument with my mother. I remember the words but not the setting. Probably it was the flat rented by Hyacinth and Pedro. Mum was staying somewhere with her new love Denys, and Allie and I floated, spent a night or two in the apartment of a woman that someone knew, from somewhere, and spent time on the streets.

‘I don’t want to go. I’m frightened that Teddy will be there.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ Mum scoffed. ‘It’s not you kids he wants to kill, it’s me. Besides he’ll be at work.’

Being a work day did not necessarily mean he’d be at work. Beyond abandonment I feel confusion. My sister and I have been taught to distrust our own perceptions. Perhaps our mother was right. Mum had copped more violence than we did, but I had seen with my own eyes my stepfather pick Allie up and throw her like a javelin at a wall and he had threatened to kill us all. Our fear meant nothing to her. Did she genuinely think we would be safe? Was she half-crazy from all that violence. Or was she prepared to sacrifice us for the future she wanted. There is no answer to those questions, but I never trusted her again. With a smile more enigmatic than the Mona Lisa’s she sent her children on this terrifying errand. We left home, we left everything behind; what we have left is our mother, and we hope, but do not trust, that she is right.

What we would do if Teddy is there, I wondered. No point in screaming. The neighbours never get involved. Would it be safer to run down to the bush at end of the road where we could hide, or run back up to Thompson Street, then to the busier Bradley’s Head Road in the hope that if he knew there were witnesses it might curb his murderous rage. But I knew there was no right answer, no safe place.

We stand frozen on the street corner. There seemed something inevitable to this journey, it was like a pilgrimage but we were reluctant pilgrims. I didn’t, and still don’t, understand why our mother would send us somewhere she was too scared to go.
Allie is ashen, moving almost robotically around the corner and, feeling like an automaton myself, I follow her. It is a few days since we left home. We are still in the same clothes. Those days are now a blur in my mind, but truth to be told they were a blur then too. We knew nothing about how or where we would be living and each day we did not know where we’d be spending the night.

I understand my mother’s fear but don’t understand why she ignores ours. Even if she genuinely thought there was no danger, how could she ignore our terror? Her lack of fear for her children was, and still is, breath-taking. Some time before she sent us on this dangerous quest I had witnessed Teddy try to kill her. I remember her running to the phone one evening and he chased her, wrapped the phone cord around her neck and pulled it tight but I don’t remember why he stopped strangling her. It’s a freeze frame and my memory goes no further.

Allie and I turn the corner and inch down the street past the mock Tudor home of the Gray family, wishing we were invisible or invincible instead. But we are just scared children.

Mum had been wanting to leave Teddy for a long time and Allie had been like a zombie for even longer but I took note of everything I could that happened around me. My vice was eavesdropping and whenever I heard the catch cry ‘not in front of the children’ I would go into sleuth mode. I was very good at sneaking into the lounge room. Crawling silently on all fours, I’d hide behind the couch listening in to conversations. I knew, from doing this, that my mother had seen a solicitor, but as she told her friend Inger on the couch, he had told her that the law said that each time she cooked her husband a meal or ironed his shirt after an act of violence she condoned it. What she had to do was wait until he was violent again then leave immediately.

That wait was terrifying especially as our mother provoked the mad man with more venom and vehemence. ‘You’re not a real man,’ she’d taunt. The violence was one of the secrets that happened in the house and we never breathed a word of it to anyone. I thought and hoped that when he was next violent we’d leave permanently, but it didn’t happen that way, my fear didn’t abate and despair set in. What was my mother waiting for?

One night my mother calls, ‘Come on kids. We’re leaving’. For the last two years I have kept an overnight case packed and ready to go but we always return. This time I am very ill and have gone to bed early, I have a terrible choking cough and a fever, can barely breathe and don’t want to get out of bed but I stumble out and pull on the clothes I wore that day, old pedal pushers and a jumper. I’d love to leave Teddy permanently before he kills us but Mum always goes back. Always.

I am so sick I feel delirious and this time I leave the little red suitcase that is kept with Allie’s little blue suitcase behind our bedroom door. One time these cases saved Allie. She tried to hide behind the door when Teddy was on one of his rampages but he knew she was there and, big man that he was, he kept slamming the door with all his might. Luckily the cases saved her and she wasn’t crushed between door and wall.

This time, the time I left my suitcase behind, we didn’t go back. We drove to a Chinese restaurant in Crows Nest, oddly enough across the road from the appliance store where Teddy used to work some years before and where we used to wait for him in the car. Teddy came into my life when I was five and now, a couple of months after my birthday, I was fourteen and in the bizarre garish setting of a Chinese restaurant when I should have been home sick in bed I began to consider that Teddy might be leaving my life. Or rather that we might be leaving him permanently his time. My mother showed none of usual distress and despair but instead sparkled with optimism and hope. Usually we just drove around before going home.

I had no idea what we were doing in a restaurant and felt so ill I just wanted to lie down. The room was cavernous and looked like a temple with red and gold wall-paper and lamps, the waiters wore black suits and the tables, mostly empty as it was getting late, were covered with stiffly starched white table cloths ready for the next day.

Right at the back of the restaurant Hyacinth sat at a table with her boyfriend Pedro and a stranger, a middle-aged man with a balding head. He and my mother greeted each other and she bubbled with excitement and happiness. I hadn’t known she had a boyfriend but obviously there was something between them. ‘This is Denys, your new father,’ she said. Denys and I looked stunned.

Most of the rest of that night is a blur. Hyacinth, Pedro and Mum celebrated getting away from Teddy, Denys continued being stunned but kept looking at my mother, entranced by her. Allie, as usual in that stage of her life was present but not present. She hadn’t spoken for a couple of years unless it was strictly necessary but no-one seemed to have noticed. The red walls of the restaurant made me feel like I was in the middle of a fire, my throat was so sore and swollen I could barely swallow. I didn’t have a change of clothes and didn’t know where I’d be spending the night.

Denys hadn’t considered taking on teenagers. Mum assured him that Allie, turning sixteen next month, was almost grown up. She had left school at fifteen and had for a while left home, working in a cousin’s vet practice in the country. That left me. Denys was dubious. He and his wife – another surprise for me discovering he had a wife – had had a teenage foster daughter and it was a difficult experience that he didn’t want to go through again. But nothing was going to ruin Mum’s dream. I realised that Mum and Denys hadn’t known each other long and didn’t know each other well but Mum laid out for him what a life of happiness they’d have together and assured him I would be good and no trouble.

Hyacinth, madly in love with Pedro, had moved in with him and was thrilled that her mother and sisters had also gotten away from Teddy and she shared Mum’s excitement and enthusiasm for a brighter, happier future. I sat still. In my head I could hear my mother’s constant refrain to her children, ‘Don’t rock the boat’. Allie had subsided into herself. Wherever she was, she wasn’t rocking the boat. I felt sea-sick, clammy and nauseous and the room was spinning. Thinking I might throw up, I went to the toilet and discovered my period had started and I was flooding blood. Mortified I returned to the table and tried to get Mum’s attention but she had eyes only for Denys and flirted with him persuasively. Finally, I think Hyacinth or Pedro must have engaged his attention, I whispered to her that I had a heavy period and didn’t have any pads. She looked crossly at me and hissed ‘stuff toilet paper in your pants’ then proceeded to ignore me while I tried as hard as I could, as sick as I was, to collude with my mother in giving this new man the impression that I was good and no trouble at all. That meant ignoring my own needs, so I sat, smothered in my own silence, somewhere between pretending my needs didn’t matter and believing it was true, as I bled into the nap of my blood-red upholstered chair.

A few lost days after that Allie and I slink towards our home. In silence we sidle by the beautiful Federation homes of the Holman’s and the Whelan’s. We are getting close now.

Leaving Teddy wasn’t supposed to be like this. Leaving Teddy was supposed to mean that we were together with Mum and were safe, and happy, and living without fear. It wasn’t supposed to mean this heart-in-mouth creeping down the road.

We are barely breathing although my lungs still rattle with bronchitis. St Elmo Street is quiet and empty. The sandstone walls give the impression of solidity and stability, the houses sedate behind them. The people who live in these houses have not given a sign that they ever heard or saw anything on the nights of screams and police visits at our house. The houses are rigid and durable, the lawns manicured, the flower beds professionally groomed by hired gardeners. There are no people in sight. Children, the only residents ever seen in the gardens, are in school.

The stillness and silence is eerie. Being winter there are no thrumming cicadas or buzzing of bees and the birds are absent. The sky is light grey and the road dark grey, and colour seems absent.

We inch down the road. I want to see the dogs, to pat them, to tell them how much I love them and miss them, I want to sob into Homer’s fur but the fear is overwhelming. Wedgwood seems malevolent, malignant and I want to run away but it is as if I’ve been programmed and have no mind or will of my own. Maybe Mum is right and if Teddy is there he won’t attack us.

The quietness of the street is disrupted as behind our backs a car turns the corner from Thompson Street. The sound has a deadly familiarity. It is Teddy in his green falcon. Allie and I break into a run as he accelerates. Time stops beating in its regular pattern and instead splits into two. On the one hand it takes half an eternity to try to think what to do. Do we run up a neighbours’ front path and bang on theír front door? What if they aren’t home? What if they are home but don’t let us in? Our thoughts are hectic and over-active and our feelings of horror are matched by feelings of the shame that has attached us to us, shame that follows us for decades like a shadow. Did we deserve to die?

The car is coming closer and on the other hand, in real time, the whole thing happens in seconds.

Then our stepfather swerves to aim the car at us. I don’t know how the hell we do it but we jump a shoulder-height sandstone wall as the car mounts the kerb. He had tried to ram us. We are next door to Wedgwood and that is as close as we get.

If there are any witnesses behind the windows of these expensive houses they stay silent. The fog of forgotten memory descends here. I don’t know how we get out of there. I think we stayed crouched behind the wall for a while. In a state of trauma I think our short term memories were not functioning any more. It is not so much that I have forgotten what happened next, but in my state of shock I think memories were simply not recorded for several days afterward. Not that anyone cared at the time.

I don’t know what happened next but I can tell you that I am writing this in my late fifties and part of me is still cowering behind a wall, terrified of what may happen next.


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Amanda Midlam

Amanda Midlam earned a living for many years writing and directing and was employed by organisations such as Film Australia and Penguin. Wanting to write more reflectively she developed new skills and earned a Master of Arts in Creative Writing from Macquarie University in 2014. She lives on the Far South Coast of NSW.