The nurse wanted me to report the mother. “That baby’s severely neglected,” she said. “He’s had diarrhoea and nappy rash for months. His legs are sticks. That child needs to be taken away,” Her mouth was creased in distaste.
I softened my jaw, relaxed my shoulders, and tried not to let my gaze harden.
Today, the mother returns. The baby’s burning rash has healed after he began a lactose-free formula. He has gained weight, growing fat folds in chubby legs. His mother is suddenly a good mother in everyone’s eyes.
When I studied acupuncture at nights, my baby boy went a university childcare centre. The matron was very firm. “Still breastfeeding at fourteen months? No, that’s very bad for both of you. What will people say when they see him climbing up on you? You’re going to have to wean him if you want childcare. That’s the rule.”
My son was well-nourished, emotionally secure, very bright. We’d finish breastfeeding when we decided to. He enjoyed childcare.
I brought him there once dressed in a jumper for a three-year-old, sleeves rolled up. He looked cute. “That’s too big on him,” matron snapped.
It had been raining in sheaves of water for days. I had no dryer. The jumper was from the bag of baby clothes my family gave me. “He’s okay,” I said, kissed him and went to class.
Another evening I brought my French-Egyptian friend with me when I picked the baby up. Tall with long-lashed black eyes, she dressed down to confront people’s assumptions about her beauty. I was proud to be with her.
Later, I got a letter. My son had been reported neglected. He’d been dressed inappropriately, had cradle-cap, was exposed to dubious people. I was told these things by the department officer who came to assess my fitness to be a mother. She was kind enough. “It’s the mothers who aren’t worried when we come that we worry about,” she said.
Several years later I sat in a physics tutorial, bursting with quiet joy. I knew I’d learn to discuss Stephen Hawking intelligently. The tutor had a picture of a ball rolling down a plank of wood. “F = MA. Force equals mass times acceleration,” he said.
The windows of the room were too high to see through. I glimpsed sky above the painted concrete-block wall, trying to make a more interesting picture in my mind to remember the formula. This was a concept I might need to understand black holes later.
I was part of a group of Aboriginal women who were studying science with the aim of entering medicine. Yvonne was older, an accountant with a gentle husband. She studied for hours every evening and pushed the rest of us to work harder. Michelle had an unforgettable smile — young men were a nuisance to her. Mandy was quiet and determined. She’d worked as a ranger.
We were all born healers. But we had to pass calculus and trigonometry first.
This was my second year of science study. I’d withdrawn from physics the previous year, had failed chemistry despite my love of the periodic table and deep blue copper sulphide crystals. I’d failed maths seriously, too much new to me. I did very well in biology.
We had a physics tutor, a rotund Egyptian Copt. “Precisely! I’m loving you now, Dr Nelli!” he’d enthuse in his accented baritone. I made guesses, rarely understanding. I was frequently wrong. “I’m going to kill you in a minute,” he’d say, eyes narrowed, making me laugh.
Ten days after the Physics exam, we all rushed to the noticeboard. Passing well in physics meant we could begin medicine next year. Our scores varied between 7 and 18.
“I got 11. What’s it out of?” asked Yvonne. “Twenty?”
“Naah, it’s a percent, I think,” said Mandy sadly.
“Percent? You’re kidding! Jeez, that’s what you get for writing your name on the paper!” said Yvonne, disgusted.
It took another year’s work for me to pass well in physics. I also passed maths, after lots of tears and Glen’s tutoring. I failed chemistry again that year by one or two marks. I repeated it a third time.
I was able to study because I was granted low-rent public housing when I was 31, after ten years on the waiting list. Mum bought me a washing machine. My boy decorated his room with drawings of ninja turtles and basketball heroes.
Two hundred poor families living together created dramas there sometimes. The local police had a map of our complex on the wall behind their booking desk. They patrolled through there like they owned the place.
My downstairs neighbors were a peaceful family of fair-skinned Koori people. The parents were old: mum was deaf and rarely spoke but had wise, steady eyes. She had bangles on her arms and wore her grey hair long and wavy. Her husband was kind and almost toothless, with speech you had to have an ear for. The children — a girl who was the image of me as a child and her younger brother — were sturdy, bold and bright. Their parents knew they deserved and cherished their happiness.
One afternoon I heard screaming from the apartment below — a sound like human evisceration. There was crashing and crying, men shouting.
Next day I saw the old man, looking haggard.
“We did the right thing,” he said. “The boy had been interfered with when he was up at the town, so we reported it. No penetration or anything, but the man was a pervert so, you know, we reported it. That’s what they say you should do — on TV and all that. But the police reported the boy neglected. You know our kids have always known their way around. They’re very independent.” He had tears in his eyes. “Because he’d been on his own, they said he was neglected. We never neglected our kids. We always loved them so much, y’know?” he sniffed. “They had to handcuff the wife to the table to take them away. I was at work,” Tears rolled down his creased face.