by Karenne Griffin
Last week I put a fresh coat of white paint on the inside of the wall at the bottom of my garden. So on Monday I went out into the lane at the back, armed with my paint tin and brush to freshen up the other side of the wall. However someone had got there before me. Usually all we see round here is graffiti – mostly someone called Pest who leaves their tag everywhere. But it seemed someone with artistic talent had chosen to decorate my wall. At first glance the image looked like a man – or was it a woman? – in shades of grey on a monochrome, wintry background, the mouth with hints of red. But if I half closed my eyes it looked more like a tree than a person.
As I stood there squinting a car drove slowly down the lane. My neighbour, Claire. She rolled down the window. “You’ve been busy, Josie,” she called.
“It wasn’t me,” I replied.
“Maybe it was Banksy,” she suggested. “Similar style to the one he painted on a garage in Port Talbot. Just saying.”
While I stood dumbstruck, Claire got out of her car and checked the other half dozen walls that backed onto the lane. “Looks like yours is the only wall that’s received the star treatment.” She took a photo on her phone.
The following morning I heard voices out the back, so I went outside. There were about a dozen people in the lane.
“Did you do this?” asked a man, pointing and scowling like he was accusing a dog of leaving a deposit.
“No,” I replied. It was starting to rain, so I hurried back into my house, fuming at the cheek of the man.
That afternoon I heard more voices. I crossed the garden and looked over the wall. There was a BBC van and camera crew in the lane, for goodness’ sake. A woman with a microphone hurried over.
“Did Banksy paint this?” she asked.
I shrugged. “I’ve no idea. It just appeared. I’m not sure exactly when.”
She tapped her phone. “There hasn’t been anything on Instagram yet. That was how he verified his Port Talbot artwork.”
I never thought I’d be interviewed for television looking over my garden wall while standing on an upturned plant pot.
The following morning, while waiting for the kettle to boil, I gazed sleepily out of the kitchen window. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I shut them, and counted to ten before opening again.
Yup – my back wall had gone.
How could that have happened without me hearing anything? I walked down the path in a daze. Only a few crumbs of brickwork had been left behind.
Art – what’s that all about?
The Promised Land
by Karenne Griffin
“That’s Australia there, Kitty,” said Les Brunton to his bride as he pointed to a long, dark smudge on the horizon, sandwiched between steely grey sea and matching sky.
Kitty felt a surge of relief. The novelty of a sea voyage had long since worn off. Six weeks in a poky cabin was no way to begin married life, even bearing in mind the recent deprivations endured during the Great War.
“We’d better get our luggage together, then,” she said.
Les chuckled. “We’ve got a way to go yet. Wait till you see the size of Sydney Harbour.”
Kitty was disappointed by the grey skies, for Les had gone on at length about Australia’s endless sunshine.
The distant dark smudge soon became a line of forbidding cliffs standing guard on her future.
“Look over there,” said Les.
Kitty caught her breath. The ship was turning slowly, and up ahead was a break in the cliffs. How would their huge passenger liner fit through there?
The waters of the narrow channel swirled and buffeted the ship for a few nerve-wracking minutes, then they were through into calmer waters. Les was right, the harbour was vast. They seemed to sail ever slower through deep, dark green waters until gradually the tree-lined shores became dotted with houses. Then, finally, the tall cranes of the port of Sydney loomed ahead.
“That there is Circular Quay,” said Les. “Time we was getting our suitcases.”
Kitty felt giddy with apprehension, even a bit queasy as she hurried after Les. Anxiously she crossed the swaying gang-plank, relieved when her feet touched the ground. The air was humid, a mixture of fish and diesel that intensified her nausea.
Within minutes Les had whistled up a taxi and installed her in the back while he sat up front beside the driver. He called back a running commentary on whatever landmarks they passed, but Kitty could hardly hear. The city seemed quite small, hardly any larger than her native Cambridge. Soon they were out into the suburbs, with long streets of boxy bungalows that all looked very much the same. However to her amazement many of the roads were lined with palm trees. All the vegetation seemed lush and exotic despite the grey skies.
Kitty began to feel even more unwell. A realisation brought on goose bumps. She wound the window down and breathed deeply. Then, when she could hardly keep from retching a moment longer, the taxi drew to a halt. While Les paid the driver she burst forth from the back seat, opened the nearest gate, and vomited into a bed of flowers.
Les followed his wife, producing a handkerchief. “Wrong house, love. Ours is next door.”
Kitty followed, mortified, hoping nobody else had noticed. At least the mess was hidden in dense foliage.
“Les,” she said as he opened the front door. “I think I may be expecting a baby.”
He swept her off her feet and into the house. “You little ripper! Jeez, I hope it’s a boy. Just wait till I tell me Mum.”
Les insisted she took a rest while he sorted things out. Fortunately, the bed was already made up, and Kitty sank gratefully into its depths, an enamelled basin at her side.
Some time later she awoke, confused. The floor wasn’t moving. Then she remembered. They’d arrived in Sydney. This was her new home. She was twenty-one years old, newly married, many thousands of miles from her family, and most probably pregnant.
Kitty’s heart pounded giddily. So much had happened so quickly. Her parents had wanted her to wait, but no, she had to marry her Australian soldier whom she’d known just a few months. Kitty and her choir had sung at the hospital where Les Brunton had been among those recovering from their war wounds. He’d been shot in the stomach, lucky to survive. Les was different from the young men she normally met: fusty academics old before their time. He was strong and confident, with a positive outlook despite his horrific injuries. In the heady, optimistic days following the end of the Great War, Les had proposed, promising her a wonderful life in Australia. And on January 15th 1919 Katherine Honoria Redgrove married Les William Stewart Brunton in a sparsely attended ceremony at their local church, wearing a dress borrowed from a recently-married cousin. Her sister Sarah had been bridesmaid, and afterwards her parents had served afternoon tea in their front room. The cucumber sandwiches had been dry and flavourless, tinged with her parents’ disapproval. Her father in particular had wanted Kitty to finish her degree.
“Oh, Father!” she scoffed. “There are sure to be many opportunities for women in the New World.”
Kitty spent her wedding night alone in her single bed, with her husband installed in the dining room on a folding bed. The couple didn’t consummate their marriage until their first night on board ship. Kitty returned shyly from the bathroom with her dressing gown buttoned up to her chin and long nightdress beneath. Les seemed like a stranger. He turned off the light and kissed her hard on the lips, fumbling with the buttons of her dressing gown.
“Jeez, woman! Yer all done up like a game of pass the parcel.” Then he laughed, and started counting the buttons as he undid them. “If there’s more than a hundred the deal’s off. I’ll send yer back to yer Mum and Dad.”
Fortunately, he lost count and they spent their first night together crammed into one bunk.
The bedroom door opened slowly.
“It’s all right, Les. I’m awake,” said Kitty.
“Feel any better?” he enquired.
“Much better, thanks. But what’s that noise?”
Kitty thought a moment, then produced a low-pitched, rhythmic hum with her teeth clenched.
She looked bewildered.
“They’re insects.” He held up his fingers to indicate the mysterious creatures were about two inches long. “A bit like giant flies. There are thousands of them out there.”
“Don’t worry. They don’t bite. The mesh screens on the windows and doors keep them out.”
Kitty took a tour of her new home. A bungalow, with two bedrooms, a sitting room, a kitchen, and a bathroom with a terrifying gas-powered water heater that Les called a ‘geezer’. His family had taken a year’s lease on his behalf, and furnished it with odds and ends. It was basic, but comfortable. Nothing matched, but as soon as Les found work she would start saving for nicer things. Kitty knew she was lucky to have a home of her own when newlyweds in England often remained with their parents for years on end.
Kitty opened the back door, taking care to shut the screen door behind her. The garden was a bewildering mass of vegetation, a solid wall of jungle on either side of the central path. She retreated back indoors. The darkness of night was advancing rapidly.
“Mum left us some food,” said Les. “Do you feel up to cooking? I’m starving.”
Kitty made a simple meal of bacon and eggs, and they passed the evening listening to the radio. Kitty supposed that eventually she’d become accustomed to the broad Australian accents. She still didn’t understand everything Les said.
The following morning Kitty felt better after a good night’s sleep, although she was still coming to terms with the likelihood of pregnancy.
“We’re going to Mum’s for Sunday dinner,” Les informed her.
He lit the ‘geezer’ so she could have a bath and wash her hair. The bath was enormous, and she luxuriated in the deep, warm water, remembering the malodorous, cramped bathing facilities on board ship.
Kitty felt apprehensive, but at least confident she looked her best as they walked to the family home. She knew that Les’s father had been killed in an accident years earlier, and that Cora Brunton shared her home with her younger daughter Rae. The elder daughter, Doreen, was married to Eddie, and they had a two year old daughter, Rose.
The Brunton home was, Kitty estimated, about two miles from their own. It looked smart and well-maintained, with the brickwork painted black and white. Cora came to greet them as they entered.
“This here’s me bride, Mum. Her name’s Kitty,” he said from the depths of his mother’s embrace.
Cora Brunton took Kitty’s hand. She was a tall, well-built woman with prominent lips that seemed to have a life of their own. “Delighted to meet you, dear,” she said. “Come and meet the rest of the family.”
Les’ sisters had both inherited their mother’s fleshy lips. Doreen favoured the same crimson lipstick and heavily powdered face as her mother. Rae, presumably still in her teens, had not yet discovered make-up. She seemed rather moody. Eddie entered the room with young Rose hiding shyly behind his legs. Kitty’s heart missed a beat as she realised she would soon have a baby that would grow rapidly into a little person.
They sat on the sofa, perched among over-stuffed cushions. The room was full of china ornaments. The dining room was the same. Sunday dinner was eaten in near-silence, and Kitty took great care not to spill anything on her dress or the tablecloth.
Afterwards, Les and Eddie washed the dishes while the ladies retired to the sitting room. Kitty could hear her husband’s voice over the clatter of crockery.
“… so, she jumps out of the taxi, opens the gate and spews her heart out in the flowers. Only trouble is, it’s not our garden, it’s next door’s. My oath, I thought I’d die laughing.”
Eddie laughed long and loud. Kitty only hoped that Cora, Doreen and Rae hadn’t realised Les was talking about her.
“Guess what, Mum?” said Les, emerging from the kitchen. “You’re going to be a grandma again.”
It took a moment for the news to penetrate.
“Jeez, that was quick work, mate,” said Eddie, clapping his brother-in-law on the shoulder. Kitty felt her face flush.
Cora and Doreen hugged Kitty, congratulating her.
“I’ll need to find a doctor,” said Kitty, relieved that the news had gone down well.
The following morning Les went in search of work, and Cora appeared at ten to take Kitty to the doctor. Dr Melrose confirmed that Kitty was indeed expecting her first child, due mid-November.
Les took a job labouring on the railways, the same as he’d done before going off to war. He worked long hours, but brought home a decent wage. He never spoke of his experiences in the trenches, and didn’t seek the company of other returned soldiers. He kept the scars on his stomach hidden even from his wife. However, sometimes she would wake in the night to hear him muttering and tossing restlessly in his sleep.
Kitty wrote to her family with news of the baby. She received a short letter of congratulation from her mother, and a longer, more gossipy one from her sister. She wrote back immediately, and a regular correspondence developed between the sisters.
Kitty spent her days cleaning and renovating the shabby little house. Winter segued pleasantly into spring; even the worst of Sydney’s winter had been mild by British standards. Kitty went to ante natal classes at the hospital, hoping to befriend other young women, but she felt like an outsider.
She plucked up courage and knocked at the house next door to introduce herself to the neighbour into whose garden she had vomited, of course not mentioning the incident. Mrs Hughes was a widow, deeply involved in her local church, and practically pushed Kitty out of her house within ten minutes saying she had to do the flowers for a christening. The remaining neighbours likewise seemed wrapped up in their own lives.
That left the Redgrove family. They were pleasant enough, but Kitty gradually discovered how different they were from her own family. She broached the subject with her husband.
“I’ve never seen any books in your mother’s house,” she ventured.
He thought a moment. “Nah, we don’t read books. Me, I prefer the radio.”
Kitty pulled a face behind his back. It was true, Les always had the radio on, either listening to the football or tinny, popular music. As time went by it became apparent how little they had in common. It seemed they’d said everything of importance during their brief courtship, and now she was struggling to make conversation with a reclusive stranger. On his home turf, Les was a man’s man who seemed to view her as cook, housekeeper and provider of babies.
Despite her advancing girth Kitty decided to tackle the garden. She cleaned the rusty tools in the shed and set to work. She didn’t mention it to Les, thinking he might disapprove of such strenuous activity in her condition. When he returned home that night she was in the kitchen, preparing dinner. Or tea, as he called it. She gazed out of the window at the ten feet of bare earth she’d exposed with great effort. Les didn’t seem to have noticed anything different. Only when he went out to the shed the following Saturday did he pass comment.
“You bin clearing out the back?” he said sharply.
“Yes, Les,” she replied, holding her breath.
“You done a beaut job. Now we can grow some veggies.”
Kitty forced a smile. Vegetables weren’t exactly what she had in mind, but at least he hadn’t been cross.
The following morning as she battled against the slowly diminishing jungle, Kitty pondered that she spent much of her time treading on eggshells, trying to please her husband, whereas he didn’t make any noticeable effort to please her. Perhaps this was how it was once you were married, but Kitty’s emancipated intelligence was already struggling to accept such limitations.
As a student Kitty had supported the suffragette movement, and discovered to her amazement that women in Australia had gained the right to vote before those in England. However, her hopes of a better life had soon floundered. Australia was still very much a man’s country. Les had already made it clear that he believed a woman’s place was in the home, and wherever Kitty went she came up against the same blinkered attitude. While Les was at work, she tuned in on his radio to debates on women’s rights that underlined the battle for equality faced by Australian women.
Grubbing out low-growing vegetation, Kitty came upon a more substantial plant. She looked up, admiring the broad, pale green leaves. She stared high into the foliage, unable to believe her eyes. Were those bananas? It was a massive clump, perhaps two feet across, and they were green, but definitely bananas. And there were several trees. She rested her hand on the little fruit in her belly and felt it stir.
Finally, with the garden cleared and cabbages planted, Kitty allowed herself more time to relax. She enjoyed sitting in the sun, watching the banana trees waving their large, flat leaves in the breeze. Les had wanted to cut down the banana trees, but she’d stood her ground. After all, she’d done all the work in the garden and had already compromised by agreeing to grow vegetables. The bananas were gradually ripening to a paler green, and she looked forward to picking them. But where would they find a ladder long enough?
The baby wasn’t due until November 9th, but shortly after Les went to work on November 1st Kitty felt the cramps begin. She walked to Cora’s house, pausing to breathe through the spasms.
Cora rang for an ambulance, and soon they reached the hospital. Kitty distracted herself from her discomfort by watching Cora’s lips bobbing up and down as she spoke. When the discomfort intensified, the midwife ushered Cora from the room. “It would be best if you went home, Mrs Brunton.”
Kitty dreaded each contraction. Nobody had told her she would feel as though her insides were being torn out. Afternoon dimmed to evening, and still the torture went on. Would it ever end? But no – the assaults on her body became more fierce and more regular. Where was Les when she needed him? Surely, he’d finished work by now?
“It’s a girl!” crowed the midwife, some time through the long night. Kitty’s heart sank. Les would be disappointed.
Cora returned in daylight, tickled pink with her second grand-daughter.
“Where’s Les?” asked Kitty.
Cora’s goldfish lips pursed. “At work, of course. I expect he’ll visit tonight.”
After Cora left, Kitty turned her face into the pillow and cried tears of abandonment and homesickness.
Les arrived after work. “Well done, love,” he said, giving her a self-conscious peck on the cheek.
“It’s not a boy,” she murmured.
He grinned, “There’s always next time.”
“May we call her Judith?” ventured Kitty.
“I don’t see why not.”
Kitty decided to buck up her ideas when she brought Judith home from hospital. No more homesickness or dreary thoughts. There were plenty of women worse off. Just because she and Les shared no interests didn’t mean they couldn’t make a go of it.
A few days after returning home, Kitty took baby Judith to sit in the garden as it was a glorious morning. Suddenly she recoiled – something had brushed against her leg. She laughed with relief – it wasn’t a giant spider, but a kitten. She hauled herself up from her chair and fetched it a saucer of milk.
That evening, Les brought the empty saucer into the kitchen. “What’s this, then?”
“I put some milk out for a kitten.”
He jabbed a forefinger into her breastbone. “Don’t you get no ideas about having a cat. I got enough mouths to feed already.”
Kitty bit her lip to fight off tears. She had hoped the new baby would bring them closer, but instead Les became even more distant. Whenever Judith cried in the night it was Kitty who went to her.
“You’ve got what she wants,” Les would say, rolling over and going back to sleep. After all, he had to be up early for work. But when he came home at the end of the day all he wanted to do was listen to his radio or read his newspaper. In defiance, Kitty kept putting out milk for the kitten, but made sure she got rid of the evidence before her husband returned home. Kitty began reading to the child from a little book about kangaroos.
Les shook his head. “She’s too young, she won’t understand. Waste of flaming time.”
Just before dinner one Sunday in March, Kitty noticed from the kitchen window that Les was kicking aside the blackened fruit that had fallen from the banana trees for want of being harvested. Then, as she emerged from the house, he picked up a shovel and dug a hole, into which he flung a bundle of bloodied grey fur.
“Damn cat. Caught it digging out me tomatoes.”
Kitty fled into the house, gagging on the sickly stench of rotting bananas. She took Judith for a long walk in her pram, beyond caring whether Les helped himself from the oven to Sunday’s roast dinner.
And so, when Judith May Brunton was nearly five months old, her mother bundled her into a taxi and headed for Circular Quay clutching the tickets sent by her sister. As the ship departed Kitty breathed a sigh of relief. Les would be furious when he returned home to find her note, but she was already beyond his reach. There’d be hell to pay when her parents discovered Sarah had paid Kitty’s fare from her savings, and she knew she’d have to swallow her pride and listen to endless amounts of ‘we told you so’. Although she hated to admit it, her father had been right. She should have completed her studies instead of rushing into marriage.
Kitty stood on deck with Judith in her arms and watched Australia fade into the distance, willing the return journey to pass quickly. She had the rest of her life to look forward to; no time would be wasted regretting her hasty marriage or wishing things had turned out differently. She had only to look into her daughter’s face, so much like her own, to feel optimistic. Kitty was determined to complete her degree, achieve her full potential and become a good role model for Judith. Quite what she would tell the child in response to questions about her father she had no idea.
Karenne Griffin left Australia, the country of her birth, in the late 1970s. Travel experiences soon led to an interest in writing, and she has thus far produced five novels and two short travel books along with numerous short stories. Her books are self published on Amazon.
She has spent the past 17 years in south Wales, and this has provided plenty of fuel for her writing.
Karenne has completed courses in short story writing and proofreading. Her short stories have been included in several anthologies.
She belongs to three writing groups, and is currently working on a novel set in the time of COVID-19. Karenne and her partner are renovating a yacht, and she is also writing about this.