‘Plain Woman’ – a short story by Justin Sheedy

1968.

epping-19681In the frail light of the desk lamp, Madge took up the photograph in her left hand, the scissors in her right.  And carefully, ever so gradually commenced the cut.  The photo was a group shot, her son’s first child swaddled and on proud display front centre.  Five years ago now?  Madge could barely make out the date on the lower border, yet, inked in her own hand, it agreed.  Back when she could still write properly.  Inch by tentative inch, the photo would soon be free of the bespectacled, stocky little woman to one side of the group.  Stocky.  An epithet she’d always hated, one of many applied to her for as long as she could remember.  Her outburst on seeing a photo of Margot at 18 months had since become something of a family joke.  ‘The poor little thing.  She’s the spitting image of me!’  Madge had laughed along with them, in time, though only to mask the fact she’d been perfectly serious. 

Half way up the photo now, the cut was becoming difficult.  Not for the dimness of the room but for the sensation draining from her hands.  Nothing wrong with the old lamp; the meagre illumination of Madge’s work was part of her plan.  She’d draped an old scarf over the lampshade so the family wouldn’t so easily see the light emanating under the door of her room, not from where they watched the television set down the hall anyway.  Madge knew they thought she must be going potty for doing it, regularly now.  In fact, they’d been wheeling her front centre of family shots of late, just so she couldn’t cut herself out of them, or so she surmised.  It had become harder too since she came to live with them, when the spare room became hers.  They’d caught her at it a few times, so she’d taken to doing it in secret, while they were watching the television after tea was safest.

Recent news from the doctor had been bad.  It was a new thing, he’d said…  Something to do with the Polio she’d had as a child, or so they thought.  In any case, he’d very sensitively given her a few months.  Her legs had gone already.  The progressive paralysis had started in her feet, and crept upwards.  Now it was beginning in her hands.  She’d soon lose them too.  Then everything else.  Bit by bit.  Hearing.  Speech.  Sight.  Until the end.  Madge knew the pattern by now: Almost full feeling would return to her hands in a little while, though each time the little while got longer.  Then she could use the scissors properly once more.  Nothing else for it:  She’d just have to wait it out.

Madge considered the little wooden box of photos open before her, all meticulously filed by date, all the way from sepia to the new colour ones.  With some effort, she pulled the material off the lamp.  They might see the light under her door now, it didn’t matter:  If someone knocked, she was just looking at old photographs.  Of when she could walk.  Of when she was young.  She lifted one from the beginning of the box.

On the bottom it read Ballarat, 1898.  It showed mother and father.  Yes…  Father seeking his fortune in the worked-out gold fields, mother pregnant.  Madge smiled.  Little Margot marvelled almost daily that someone could have been born in another century – That must make Gran a hundred years old! – another family joke of late.  Madge edged the photo to one side, and managed another from the box.

Chiltern, 1906.  There was herself beside mother, standing outside the lolly shop.  Fed up with following father around all points of North and Central Victoria, mother had bought the business with her own money – he’d certainly never made any – and settled down.  Madge contemplated the beaming smile on the little girl’s face.  Was it from all the lollies?  Or from finally staying in one place for a whole year?  They’d lived on farms, in hotels, many places.  How she’d loved that little town, particularly going to school there.  Her fifth in four years. Where was father?  That’s right, he’d left them before Chiltern.  At the time, Madge was told he had died.

Goulburn River Valley, 1908.  Little Madge looking sullenly into the camera in her first ‘proper’ dress.  She’d detested it, black with white spots, the black on account of her mother’s recent death.  It had been presented to her for the occasion of her First Holy Communion by the relatives who’d taken her in.  She forgot exactly who they were related to; they were a horrible family.  When she got home from the ceremony, she took the thing off and stuffed it down the back of chimney.  Madge chuckled: The dress was never seen again, the mystery of its disappearance never solved, no doubt it remained there to this day.  Her smiled dropped as she remembered her mother.  She’d died of a hernia.  A portrait of her, no inscription, showed those kind, intelligent eyes behind her spectacles, her wavy hair.  Madge smiled again.

The Piggery, 1912.  There they were, all twelve of them.  Mother and father and ten little pigs.  They looked down on Madge.  They were cruel to her:  Her Polio had given her a slight limp, which they made fun of, as they did of her ‘plain’ looks.

Maggie – Maggie, plain and saggy
Who would ever marry Her?
Maggie – Maggie, wall-flower Maggie
Plain old wall-flower girl.

She was the ‘drudge’, doing all their dirty work.  They took her out of school at 14; the kids needed a teacher: ‘Maggie’ll do it.’  She’d taught them alright, no doubt about it.  All ten of the little runts.  Though, truth be told, they started to afford her a sort of respect pretty soon, perhaps because she proved such a benevolent, patient teacher towards them.  She taught them how to read, how to count, all about the Sabre-Toothed Tigers of Mount Buller, about the mighty bridge now linking Siam with Perth via the Bay of Tonkin… Something new and more wildly erroneous every day.  Until one morning, when a letter arrived.

She held it in her hands now, the paper trembling slightly.  It informed her that her Uncle Pat from New Zealand had died, and had left her the sum of 400 pounds, drawable immediately from any branch of the Rural Bank of Victoria.  God bless Uncle Pat.  Madge had never met her mother’s brother, though had read his letters to her when much younger and, even on her pitiful allowance at the Piggery, wrote to him as often as she could.  What a lovely gentleman he’d seemed.

Madge left on the morning the letter arrived.  The ‘plain’ 18-year-old thought to better herself.  As she walked down the path to the gate, the parents took the opportunity of telling her…  Her father hadn’t died at all:  He’d left her and her mother.  Only then had he died.  In 1910, five years after he’d left, to be precise.  With a suitcase, Madge walked the four miles to the train station satisfied in the knowledge that she’d left their children literate, numerate, and the older ones articulate enough to become the instant laughing-stocks of anyone to whom they should open their mouths.  (She unearthed the details of her father’s demise by her own research, and only many years later.  He’d died in 1910 alright, in Bendigo.  Of drink, evidently.)

The Traynors, 1916.  What a wonderful family they were.  Their faces still smiled at her, Mister Traynor, as ever, seeming on the verge of a laugh.  Madge answered their newspaper advertisement for a lodger the very afternoon she’d arrived in Melbourne, or rather, presented herself on their doorstep and never looked back: They took her in as one of their own.  Mrs Traynor treated her as a daughter.

Miss Engelbert’s Business College for Young Ladies is proud to award First Place (Shorthand Typing Section) to Miss Margaret Anne Guerin in this Year of Our Lord, Nineteen-Hundred and Sixteen.  Madge had clean forgotten she still had that.

‘The Land’, 1917.  There she was with Bess, on the steps of the newspaper offices.  Her first friend in Melbourne, her first of many, they’d started on the same day as secretaries.  It was the year that made her remember:  Once again, the face that kept returning to her all these years…

She had no photo of Jack. She’d had one – for a while.  It stuck in her memory still.  Such a fine looking young man, and so very smart in his uniform.  She’d met him at a dance at the Malvern Town Hall.  She wouldn’t have gone if Mrs Traynor hadn’t insisted so.  Besides, Madge had no choice:  Mrs Traynor had sewn her a frock.  Madge was just a little less terrified after Bess said she’d go with her, bless her heart. But it was Madge whom Jack asked to dance.  Jack never thought she was ‘plain’ – He’d given her her first ever kiss that day in the park, the afternoon before he left.  No letters came from him.  Only his name in The Land, and the single line that followed it.  Died of wounds.  She’d thrown out the photograph to try and forget him.  Though she’d never been able to… He’d said she had a good face. Down all the years, his had remained forever handsome, forever young in her mind.

Yes, she did well at The Land.  She hadn’t remembered she’d kept these little things either: Clippings from when she was ‘Queen Bee’ of the Children’s Page, the children, her ‘Worker Bees’.  1920, ’23, ’26 read the dates – all the puzzles, competitions, the countless stories and letters she’d written and received.

Nongs, 1923.  It had all started with an advertisement Madge had placed in The Land, inviting women of any age to meet on Sunday morning at 9 o’clock on the steps of Flinders Street Station if they might be disposed to a bushwalk in the Dandenong Ranges.  Bring own lunch and refreshment, parasol not recommended.  Twelve turned up at the appointed hour.   The day went well.  And the Victorian Women’s Bushwalking Club came into being.  It was still going, as far as she knew.  There they were, all the girls, ‘the Nongs’ as they called themselves, on the bank of Madge’s favourite creek.  Indeed, her ‘gammy leg’ became the club’s unofficial mascot.  It took them far and wide. …Grampians, 1924.  Victorian Alps, 1925.  But never far enough for Madge.

Franz Josef Glacier, 1926.  New Zealand had taken her breath away.  After a loving farewell to Traynor family, and leaving the club under Bess’s capable stewardship, she’d gone to stay with Uncle Pat’s family in Napier, Aunty Jules being the Matron of the hospital there.  A tough old bird, they pinned some kind of gong on her after the earthquake a few years later.

Framey, SS Tai-Ping, 1927.  She became great friends with Captain Frame.  An American, he would always begin his letters to her, To my Swell Gal, his smiling summary of her the first day they met.  They corresponded until the war years.  He thought he’d be too old for a command.  If only he had been.  Killed in the Pacific, the poor man.

San Francisco Bay, 1927.  Ah, Jackie.  There they both were, in the cockpit of the seaplane.  A riot of a woman, not only did she fly, she wore pants, smoked a cigar and called everything ‘Baloney’.  She even let Madge take the controls after a few times, offering her the landing on one occasion, though Madge declined, something, in hindsight, she’d always regretted.  As well as, sometimes, that she hadn’t settled in California.  For Madge fell in love with the West Coast, particularly with a place called Carmel.

Shanghai, 1928.  Madge had never quite understood what people found so remarkable about her having gone to China by herself.  She’d had the option of boat going from San Francisco to Australia via China and took it, that was all.  Yes, it had been a bit of a rough and ready place at that time: Chinamen had spat at ‘Foreign Devils’ like her in the street.  But she’d always loved history and called it remarkable restraint given how the European powers had basically raped the place in the 1860s.  She was lucky for the chance of being there at all:  The Japanese invaded only a few years later and there were the most terrible massacres.

A.G.L., 1930.  The photo showed her on the steps of the office, hat and gloves, glasses now too.  She remembered Bess had taken it, on one of her regular lunch-break visits.  Bess was married by then and living in Sydney, Madge with Bess’s parents, the excellent Lindsell family.  Madge wasn’t happy at the Australian Gas Light Company:  A job was a job in the Depression, but her boss didn’t like the fact that she was a Catholic, and made things very hard for her.  She’d thought she might move back down to Melbourne – she had so many good friends there – but decided to take a ‘holiday’ in Manly (now a source of high amusement for younger generations, evidently), where she would think about it, and about her future.

Saint Therese of Lisieux, ‘The Little Flower’.  The illustrated card of her favourite saint remained one of her most prized possessions.  For direction in life, while in Manly, she had decided to make a Novena, petitioning the Lord via the intercession of The Little Flower.  She remembered it as if yesterday:  On the ninth and last day of the Novena, a Sunday and the Feast Day of Saint Therese, she came out of the holiday boarding house, and walked down the street to church.  On her return to the boarding house, a gent came down the steps.  Seeing the mass book she carried, he asked directions to the church.  Madge gave them, the man bid her good-day, and she went inside.  Later, sitting down to lunch by herself in the dining room of the boarding house, the gent came in.  He thanked her for her directions to the church and asked permission to sit with her.  His name was Michael Joseph Sheedy, he was 50, and a widower.  They were married a few months later at St Mary’s Cathedral.  She’d always wondered what he’d found attractive about her, she never wore make-up, lipstick, only ever a dusting of white powder.

Madge cradled the photo of the wedding party.  Albeit the smallest figure in it at barely five foot, she had to admit she scrubbed up alright that day, thanks entirely to dear Bess, her maid of honour.  Mrs Lindsell made the dress.  Mr Lindsell gave her away.  There was Bess, with her usual wicked grin.  A true eccentric, her memory always gave Madge a giggle, mad as a hatter.  Mick, smiling by Madge’s side, was looking forward to escaping his spinster twin-sisters with whom he lived and whom he detested, both Irish Catholics like him, but of the bigoted kind.

Here were the tickets:  For their honeymoon, they caught the train to Melbourne, where Madge took Mick bushwalking in the Dandenong Ranges.  Mick was a good man, a quiet man.  He spoke quite often really, when he wasn’t smoking, which was practically all the time.  She had a good life with him.  They never argued or fought.  Wasta good words, or so Mick once said.  The only thing she ever remembered him voicing any strong opinion about was Punctuality: He was the Station Master at Roseville, where they lived in the modest Station Master’s residence until 1936.

Madge placed them one after the other across the desk, she’d taken them from the Beulah Street wharf at Kirribilli: 1928, 1929, 1930, 1931, each shot showing the arches of the Sydney Harbour Bridge growing closer together, almost touching in the last one.  Shame she hadn’t been able to complete the series:  By March ’32 she was too heavily pregnant with their son.  1933.  There he was in her arms, her strong, black-haired little John.

Carmel, 1936.  Napier Street, West Lindfield.  It was a lovely home, she’d designed it herself, and named it after her favourite place.  At first the builders thought she was having a lend of them, about her not being an architect.  Madge chuckled.  They finished it in three months, one of the best things he’d ever built, said Mr Grace.

Bradfield Park, 1940.  There she stood with Group Captain Ashton, commanding officer of the Training School.  Women weren’t allowed in the Airforce to begin with, so she’d organised a group of six women from the tennis club to be volunteer typists at the new Lindfield base.  There the boys came from all over the state to join the new Empire Air Training Scheme.  About twenty women under her by the end of the war, they must have processed ten thousand boys, all coming to fight Hitler, then the Japanese.

Ashton liked her a great deal.  When she mentioned one day about her flying back in San Francisco, he insisted, as she wasn’t being paid, that the least he could offer her was a joy-flight if she wanted.  Mick forbade it.  She went up anyway.  Though she never took a photo of that day, of the yellow Tiger Moth.  Security.  Young Pilot Officer Curran had been a charming fellow.  Flew her all the way from Mascot to Bankstown and back.  He had the most remarkable eyes, she remembered, blue and piercing.  He ended up a Squadron Leader with a Distinguished Flying Cross too, flying Lancasters. …By the time he went missing over Nuremburg in 1944.

Dux, Christian Brothers Chatswood, 1949.  Her darling John.  So handsome in his school blazer and boater, School Captain as well.  Also in the First XV, the First XI two years running.   How lucky it had been, she reflected, that she’d had him late – at 35 not 25:  John’s talents would without doubt have seen him a bomber pilot; they picked only the best and brightest, physically and mentally.  She knew that much:  They’d picked them at Bradfield Park – She’d typed their paperwork.  In all probability, John would have gone precisely the same way as a talented young man named Curran she’d once met.

D.M.R., 1950.  Outside the office in Chatswood, taken by good old Bess, as ever.  After Mick dropped dead in the street one morning, (a massive heart attack, and a decent way to go, Madge always thought), she put her age back ten years to go to work as typist for the Department of Main Roads:  Mick’s retirement pay stopped when he died – She’d never understood that – and she had to support John.  There until ’56, when John left the roost for good.  Besides, her health problems had started about then.

Passing Out Parade, 1954.  John in his naval officer’s uniform and cap.  Was a more dashing figure ever cut?  About University, they told him he could do ‘anything’.  He did Dentistry, graduated, and had been a dentist for six months when the call-up letter arrived:  The Australian Army required him for National Service.  Madge said it would be a waste of his time, square-bashing in the Army for six months.  It had been her idea that they write the letter to Mr Francis, Minister for the Navy:  John had always been keen on sailing, the Navy treat you much better than the Army and the food’s good.  They hammered it out together, Madge typed it:  Wouldn’t he be more useful to them as a dentist?  The Navy replied saying there was no precedent for it, nothing in Queen’s Regulations, and only Officers could be dentists.  John wrote back. …Fine by him.  Thus her son became the only National Serviceman ever, to her knowledge, to enter the National Service as an Officer.  In any case, he did them proud:  In basic training he topped the firearms course.  His perfect score had been a mystery to everyone – He’d never touched a gun before, he’d never even been on a farm.  John liked the Navy, they liked him.  Stayed in for three years, only leaving to marry Angela.  Luckily for John, he just missed Korea, and now he was too old for Vietnam.  …A right good year to be born, ’33.

1957.  The wedding party, Ange looking very much like Grace Kelly.  Herself, looking very much like a little old lady.  Irritatingly, the photographer had placed Madge towards centre of the group.  So she couldn’t cut herself out of that one.

MV Southern Cross, 1958.  By the gangplank, John and Ange beaming, about to board the ship for England, like all their friends.  They only came back because of Madge’s condition.  They should have stayed, the silly duffers!  It had been her own fault:  She should never have mentioned her cursed legs.  Besides, what of them?  She had her books now.  Her histories, her Shakespeare, all the company she needed, thank you very much!  …They still didn’t believe her, even now, even when she reeled off long tracts of the Bard just to prove it.

More baby photos, in colour now.  Margot, 1963.  …Michael, ’65.

Then she came to it.  The last one in the box.  Taken just this Easter past, there they all were together.  A sunny day, the garden looking lovely, John, Ange, the two little tots, Ange pregnant with another.  Just a few months to go now, July 21st, they expected.  Finally, Madge sighed, no frumpy little old lady to spoil it:  She’d had to stay in her room that day, and a good job too.

Madge flexed her fingers.  She would have another try with the scissors now.  She listened out hard for a moment.  Yes, they were still watching the television.  She’d never really taken to television.  Besides, she’d been having trouble seeing it of late.  Blast:  She’d have to get the scarf over the lamp again.  Where the devil was it now?

Then she heard them.  Voices coming up the hall.  They must have seen her light on under the door.  Quickly now!  Where was the scarf?!  There!  She snatched it up and, in her fastest single movement in weeks, spread it over the scissors and half-cut photo.  Just as the knocking came.  With every ounce of strength left within her, Madge tried to sound calm.

‘Who is it?’

‘It’s me, Gran.  It’s Margot.  Can I come in and see you?  Mummy says it’s alright…’

Madge breathed a sigh of relief.  Thank goodness.

‘Come in, my pet.’

Madge wasn’t looking at the five-year-old’s face as she entered, only at the narrow gap in the doorway to see if one of the adults was behind her.  But no.  The little girl pulled the door shut behind herself, crossed the floor towards her, put her arms around Madge and squeezed.  Such an affectionate child, she was always coming in for little talks, always with her ‘news’…

‘What are you doing, Gran?’

‘Just looking at old photos, darling…’  She scanned the desktop before her, and picked one.  Chiltern, 1906.  ‘Look…’

The child squinted.  ‘Is that me?’

Madge chuckled.  ‘No, that’s me.  When I was a little girl.  And that’s my mother.  …A very long time ago.’

‘She looks like a nice lady.’

‘Yes.  She was a very nice lady.  Just like your mummy.’

‘Yes.  We’ve been watching the television!  They said I could watch it with them ’cause I’ve been good.’

‘What were you watching, my pet?’

‘It was a… a docca…’ the child faltered, ‘a doc…’

‘A doc-u-mentary.’

‘A doccamentry.  About Space.  They’re going to the Moon soon, did you know that?  When I grow up, I’m going to be a Astra-naut.’

Madge paused.  ‘I think they only let boys do that…  What if they won’t let you?’

The little girl considered this for a moment, her brow furrowed in thought.  ‘…I don’t care. I’ll make them let me.’  Looking up again, her eyes sparkled anew.  Was that defiance Madge saw in them?  ‘…And even if I can’t, then I’ll just be a explorer.  Yes.  Or the captain of a ship!  And I’ll go a long, long way away where they can’t stop me so I can be what I want.  You’ll see, Gran.’

Madge smiled at the tiny face, and spoke to it softly, intensely.  ‘You just do that, little one.  You just do that.’

Another knock on the door, a voice on the other side of it.  ‘Time for bed now, Margot.  Give Gran a kiss goodnight, there’s a good girl.’

The child hugged Madge once more, and kissed her on the cheek.  ‘I love you, Gran.’

‘I love you too, little darling.’

Margot held her grip a moment longer, released it and retreated to the door, opening and closing it carefully behind her.  After a few seconds, the woman’s voice came through it again.

‘Would you like me to bring you in a cup of tea, Madge?  We’re making one…’

‘No thank you, Ange.  I think I’ll turn in now.’

‘Alright, love.  Sleep tight then.’

‘Thank you.’

Having judged when her daughter-in-law would be safely down the hall again, Madge turned back to the desk.  Though dreadfully tired now, her eyes caught the photograph little Margot had thought was her own.  She picked it up.  It was indeed her spitting image.

Drawing back the scarf, Madge put her hand on the half-cut photo.  For a moment on the scissors…

And wondered where the adhesive tape might be.

*          *          *

Madge Sheedy died in May 1968, two months before the birth of the author, of what has since been termed ‘Post Polio Syndrome’.

To read another short story by Justin, click HERE

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