A Tangled Web ...
Young Sydney journalist Pip Holmes visits a patch of lonely Australian bushland where her mother was gang raped only months before Pip was born. She is there to answer some pressing questions ...
This is episode six of my original mystery novel 'Paternity'.
LINKS TO OTHER EPISODES ARE ON THE SIDE BAR
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Frank didn’t seem to do breakfast often, but next morning there he was at one of the starched tablecloths in the pub dining room, making short work of bacon and eggs.
Pip helped herself to the corn flakes and tinned fruit salad offered at a side table before seating herself in the empty chair opposite him. She craved her usual fresh carrot juice.
She had really enjoyed the jog she’d just had ranging along some of the few side streets in the town, but already she was feeling she wasn’t as fit as usual. She must look after herself …
But then here was Frank tucking in after another big night. Everything was relative, she thought.
‘Not worried about your cholesterol then?”
His eyes were as round and as yellow as the egg yolks; his face pallid. The night on the turps or signs of some illness?
‘I hear you created waves at the football meeting last night.’ Frank was using a crust of toast to capture the jellied liquid clinging to his plate.
‘It wasn’t hard I tell you. This town doesn’t enjoy strangers. Did your spy also tell you about Gazza’s little foray?’
‘Yeah. The bastard. I warned you. What possessed you to go into that lion’s den by yourself?’
‘I’m a big girl Frank. He’s not the first chauvinist pig I’ve met in this job.’
‘It made me wonder if he has an inkling of this personal problem of yours. Have you been asking around … about Selene?’
‘Hell no. Don't worry - he doesn't know anything. That’s the sort of bloke he is. Can’t stand women.’
‘Certainly not uppity ones with minds of their own.’
‘I did make one friend last night ... Staunch, the club president. He’s promised to help, but I hit a brick wall with everyone else.’
‘You’ll just have to chip away at it. These people don’t confide in their own mothers.’
‘I’m beginning to realise that.’
Pip wasn’t worried about the assignment — it would look after itself in the end. She did resent the fact that it took her away from the real purpose of her visit though.
Frank could have been reading her mind: ‘By the by I have an appointment with a rapist in the morning … coming?’
‘How can I refuse?’
Pip hunched her shoulders and chose baked beans on toast from the hand written menu. Everything else looked as though it would be swilling in fat.
The brow beaten waitress disappeared into the kitchen, and Frank was at the urn at the side table filling a cup with black tea.
So … she was about to meet another of the monsters — this one supposedly human. Pip closed her eyes for a moment and saw her mother as a tiny speck, alone in an immense and hostile landscape.
Selene would have felt so alone here. It was fairly obvious that her mother couldn’t have counted on any backing from people in this town. And, thought Pip, but for one or two exceptions, neither could she.
Pip spent the rest of the day hunting through files at the Guardian.
Stories of the trial were all written by the same hand — chauvinist and very selective. It was as though the writer had a personal interest in the outcome. Snide references to the ‘city woman’ and the consistent gloss applied over uncomfortable facts seemed to her to be due to more than misplaced loyalty.
She did discover that two rapists were found guilty and were gaoled. George Wimpole was found not guilty following allegations, accepted by the court, that he had been coerced into the situation by the others.
Pip gleaned from another article that the third rapist, Gerald ‘Pug’ Raven left town in the eighties to become a boxing promoter in Sydney. Apart from these snippets, Pip wasn’t thrilled with her afternoon’s work.
The District Court records may be the way to go next …
Pip sighed deeply just before the sun made the horizon. She replaced the last of the files in its dusty home in the office shop front window and walked over lengthening shadows back to the pub.
In her bedroom Pip used the mobile to ring Harold Staunch to keep her assignment simmering.
After a shower and a dried out lasagne, she found herself ringing the doorbell of a substantial homestead on the outskirts of town. The tone was shabby prosperous, with a bull nosed verandah roof and sprawling down-at-heel garden just evident in the gloom. There was a medical practitioner’s brass name plate still in place near the main door.
The stained glass panels swung back and Staunch stood there with his toothy smile.
Pip followed him down a wide strip of shining linoleum and into a space of buxom lounges and porcelain figurines. A comfortable woman sat crocheting on a low chair set near one of those old style electric fireplaces with fake hot coals in the grate. Her smile matched Harold’s (and the fire) in its warmth.
Pip refused the offer of more food and Staunch ushered her into an inner room with a huge desk and bookshelves. She perched on a small lounge and the doctor wheezed into the heavy office chair.
‘This will be better for our purposes. Now, how can I assist?’
It seemed that young Jim Rouse died as the result of hitting his head on a goal post in the final minutes of the under fifteens grand final, suffering a severe blow to the head.
Jack Tripp, the coach, had done the right thing with his first aid, but the stricken parents were forced to bundle the boy into a car for a 400km panic ride to the nearest hospital. Staunch was out of town visiting relatives at the time.
‘I’d have helped if I’d been around of course, even though retired. Not that I could have done all that much without proper equipment.’ The fat man’s eyes were moist as he reached for an old briar pipe and began scraping the inside of the bowl with a knife. ‘It was a crying shame.’
‘And Jim was dead when they arrived?’
‘He lasted half an hour. All that did was rub salt into the wound. Emergency surgery may have been possible. Mind you the cottage hospital wasn’t flash with technology, but we could have given him a chance until more help came.’
‘I read it closed down only a week or so before the accident …’
‘Yes … very sad.’
‘What’s the solution to this Mr. Staunch?’
The doctor was packing his pipe with scented tobacco. ‘Miss Holmes, I deeply believe that if they must close down so many hospitals around the countryside they should organise more medically equipped helicopters. The bases should be arranged in a tight network right throughout the State.’
‘There is such an arrangement isn’t there?’
‘Oh, they’ve made a start. But the bases are as scarce as hen’s teeth the further you get away from the city. To me it seems very unfair.’
Pip clicked off the mini tape recorder she had placed on the desk.
‘I have to talk to the Rouse family if this story’s going to pack any punch …’ ‘I’ll try again for you. Can I leave a message at the hotel?’
‘Sure … thanks. Look … the other night Gary Bullfinck was with a short skinny looking guy with a bad limp.’
Staunch stared at her under his bushy brows. ‘Could only be Con Robson. Why?’
‘Call it a journalist’s nose Mr Staunch. Intuition. I reckon he’s trouble.’
‘You may be right. Con is a solicitor. The third generation of his family in that profession. I suppose he’s the black sheep really, although I have always had doubts about his father’s integrity as well. I wouldn’t trust Con Robson, certainly. He’s a quiet worker, and very ruthless … ‘
Pip had a rotten sleep, and it wasn’t just the hammock-shaped bed. Her night was peppered with visions of werewolves circling in a macabre dance beneath a strangely prominent moon.
They capered and leapt, their weird forms thrown into relief by the flames of a central fire. The half-men-half-animals gyrated with increasing speed until, climactically, they leapt, one at a time and screaming, to perish in the flames.
In her dream Pip was a quiet witness: a wide-eyed owl perched in darkness at the edge of a ring of light.
The sun was well on its way when Pip finally got up, sick to death of trying to reach blessed oblivion. She stumbled down the hall to the toilet and then shuffled into the shower recess.
Her tongue felt as though it had been dragging on a gravel road. She reached over to place the hair conditioner on the partition that divided the two showers, and noticed the plastic bottle was shaking in her hand.
She was a mess. She went back to bed.
Two hours later there was a banging on the door and Frank’s voice drifted in through her tunnel of sleep: ‘Hey, we’re supposed to be on the way to George’s …’
‘Come in. It’s not locked …’ Pip lay there lethargic on the pillows. And still she didn’t move when Frank’s greying head appeared around the door.
‘I can’t be bothered Frank.’ He sat on the edge of the bed and patted her foot through the pink chenille.
‘Yeah. It’s all a bit hard eh.’
Pip used the back of her hand to stop a tear spilling onto her cheek.
‘Mmmm …’ This feeling of helplessness had sneaked up on her, and in a way she was surprised at herself. On the other hand these were big issues they were dealing with. It was so different when the drama was close to you, and not connected to someone she would write about for the next day’s paper …
In the distance beer kegs were being rolled down the beer truck ramp and into the cellar, the metallic rattle disturbing and abrasive.
‘So you’re going to call it a day Pippin? Chuck it all in?’
A rooster crowed somewhere.
‘I don’t want to … It’s pretty hard … Harder than I thought … I mean, I really want to know who my dad is.’
Pip’s head began nodding rhythmically, there on the pillows, ‘I must know. But I’m scared. Scared of what I will find. And scared if I don’t find it.’
‘None of that’s surprising … I guess you just need to make up your mind how much you want this. What sort of a hassle will it be in the future if you don’t find out? Or does it really matter after all … ’
‘Oh, it matters Frank. One helluva lot.’ A tide of pink had begun to rise on Pip’s wan face.
‘Okay … Okay. We’ll go.’
Frank slapped his thigh and made for the door. ‘I’ll wait for you in the bar.’ Pip lay there a few moments longer, and then her bare feet slipped over the edge of the bed and onto the stained carpet.
The car rumbled over rocks in an exposed creek bed in a dip in the road. Frank had insisted on driving, and they’d sat in silence since leaving town. It was Pip who finally broke it.
‘So you say this Wimpole is not a bad type, even though he was arrested with a gang that was found guilty of raping my mother?’
‘Well, if you put it that way …’
‘What other way is there to put it for god’s sake?’
‘Look … the guy was very young at the time and being leaned on. Gazza wouldn’t be the easiest person to defy in such a situation mate. And get this — there was no evidence that George enjoyed his involvement. He said he didn’t even have an erection. They didn’t find any of his semen. He claimed he wasn’t caught up in what he was doing, and was repelled by the whole thing — in fact he said he felt fearful himself throughout your mum’s ordeal. And we can’t prove otherwise.’
‘If he wasn’t emotionally involved — I mean if he wasn’t getting off on the rape — he could hardly have been my father anyway. But if they were wrong about the semen and he was my father after all, the reverse could be true. He was getting off on torturing Selene and was as guilty as the rest.’
‘Yeah. I suppose so … But don’t forget the court let him off.’
‘I’ll know when I meet him.’ Pip was looking out of the window, not seeing the passing blur of trees and sheep paddocks, ‘I’ll know.’
‘Yes. You’ll know.’
George Wimpole’s hand shook as he placed a china cup and saucer on a small table nearby.
Pip slumped in the bowels of a huge lounge chair, as usual with her legs dangling at some distance from the floor. Men designed furniture.
She heaped two spoons with sugar and stirred it into her tea. Wimpole sidled across the carpet to Frank. ‘Hot and strong, as you like it.’
Frank winked at Pip as a whiff of heated whisky spread through the room.
Seems compassionate enough. There’s something weird about him though. Strange scratchy voice …
She recalled the way her stomach tipped over on itself as she had stood with Frank, waiting for Wimpole’s door to open.
To her, it still looked as though there was one in three chances that this man was her father.
She’d already met Gazza when Frank told her the mechanic was in on the rape, and by then she could not have contemplated Gazza as the one … the one who was the key to her existence. The possibility was just too horrible.
From Frank’s description she could just consider there may be a chance, and when the door opened and Wimpole stood there, she waited for her sixth sense to make a decision, and none came.
The old news reports suggested Wimpole was coerced into taking a role on the night of the rape. Gazza was his cousin, and George’s love of books and his home town were like oil and water to each other. According to his defence, the blokes had decided George needed some practical experience: a sort of initiation.
She looked again. At least he had a bit of humanity about him. And there was something else … he was small, as she was.
Wimpole sat on the edge of a chair with a wooden back, balancing his tea. A few drops spilled unnoticed onto his freshly pressed pants.
Frank was inclined to give George the benefit of the doubt. Could she?
‘It was good of you to let us come Mr. Wimpole.’
'I feel it’s the least I can do Miss Holmes. It was a horrible experience for everyone.’
Easy to say … but was he telling a tragic lie?
‘You know they left your mother for dead. A traveller found her next day, lying there in the dust, and they took her to hospital, badly injured. I understand she couldn’t even speak about her experience for some time,’ the words were tumbling ‘They might never have found out who was responsible except for the unusual tyre tracks left by Gazza’s car.'
Wimpole was far away now.
‘I felt so sorry … so sorry for her. I couldn’t … I couldn’t do a thing.’
The little man crumpled. The air went out of him. Was this the doing of a valve that had opened to let free the pain of years? Or a great act?
Wimpole began to sob, and Pip ignored his plight. ‘Couldn’t you have gone back yourself, Mr. Wimpole? To see if she was all right?’
‘I … I was frightened. And Garry Bullfinck made me stay at his home that night.’ George Wimpole was staring at her, his eyes deep red rings. ‘Please believe me.’
‘There’s one way we can put paid to this George,’ Frank was pacing up and down the centre of the room. ‘You could submit some DNA for comparison with Pip’s. It would rule you out as her father.’
‘As your father?’ Wimpole was in shock, and agape. ‘You … you were the baby?’
Pip gazed at her cup, nodding.
‘I didn’t realise. I assumed. I don’t know what I assumed …’ Wimpole was looking wildly around the room, as though to find help at hand in one of its nooks and crannies. ‘Are you sure?” he choked.
‘Sure of what?’ Pip came to life and almost yelled at him.
Wimpole tried to meet her eyes.. ‘It wasn’t me, Miss Holmes, I’m not your father. The way I felt when that rape was happening … it couldn’t have been me.'
Pip’s folded arms kept him at bay.
‘I don’t know … Yes. Yes, of course I’ll have a test. Of course. But there’s no way. No way at all.’
Pip pulled the car over outside of the Guardian office and they sat with the windows down while Frank lit up his inevitable cigarette. ‘Well, what’s the verdict?’
‘I’m afraid the jury’s still out. My intuition seems to be failing me. I just can’t feel anything definite. Of course, he’s not your cold blooded fiend … He wouldn’t have been the leader of the pack or anything, but I seem to think he’s a bit too good to be true. Why couldn’t he have done something to make it better for Selene?’
‘Well he told you that Pippin. Gazza was the fly in his ointment. Anyhow, the DNA test will put things in their place.’
‘I … I just feel he’s hiding something, that’s all. There’s something we’re missing …’
Frank ashed his cigarette into a sad looking bottle brush at the edge of the bitumen. ‘Maybe. Maybe … There’s still Raven. We could take a look at the boxing promoter.’
‘Sure. But then I’d want to have another talk to Mr. Wimpole. Come at him from another tack. Whatever the result of the test.’
Pip watched as Frank stubbed out his cigarette on the pavement and ambled into the newspaper office, then she put the engine into gear and drew away onto the pot holed road. It was only four o’clock and there was still time for something she’d been avoiding for days.
Jaw set firmly, Pip made a U turn and took the unmade dirt road at the end of town.
So this was where her mother was violated. Where she herself was conceived. It seemed a perfectly ordinary clearing surrounded by a perfectly ordinary patch of Australian bush.
But Pip waited. Waited until the sun disappeared behind the hills, taking with it the muted colours of the landscape, and leaving behind lengthening shadows and intensifying darkness.
She sat cross-legged in that clearing, the hard earth pressed against her body, and soon a coldness seeped into her bones. A restless wind rustled her short dark hair and sent leaves skittering across the earth. The tall gum trees moaned in the suddenly turbulent air, and Pip’s consciousness took the moaning and turned it into a scream, the terrified scream of her mother as she lay in that same spot, crushed and mortified, so long ago …
A crescent moon cast a weak light among the trees.
When the sun rose next day Pip crawled stiffly from the back seat of her car where she had lain since dawn, stretched her limbs, and slipped behind the wheel. She needed to shake herself to get out of this doleful mood, and get on with it.
Back at the pub, Pip fired up the laptop and logged into the Telstra White Pages. It was time for a bit of research.
She was lucky the place had dial-up connections in the rooms – almost the only technology in the place. She supposed they were there to attract travelling salesmen.
According to a drinking mate of Frank’s the third rapist, Gerald ‘Pug” Raven, was still in Sydney making a packet as a boxing promoter.
The mate said that, originally, Raven’s father lobbed in town with a touring boxing troupe and got a local girl in the family way. There was a shotgun marriage and Gerald was born nine months later.
Years after, when he was a young man, Gerald’s own boxing ability became his passport out of town.
Pip fed ‘Raven, G, capital city, NSW, residential’ into the search page and waited. Only one result - ‘G. Raven, Esther Road, Balmoral’. She clicked ‘map’. Just around the corner from The Esplanade.
If this was her target, he hadn’t done too badly for himself …
She clicked again: Yellow Pages. No ‘Boxing Promoters’, but ‘Boxing Clubs’, with several individuals listed as contacts for the organisations. Bingo! Gerald ‘Pug’ Raven was there at his home address, Esther Road, Balmoral.
Balmoral was a lovely harbour suburb of Sydney, and Pug must have been successful to be able to afford to live there. She supposed he had a family …
Pip got out of the Telstra page and into smh.com.au. The Sydney Morning Herald archives.
There was one entry under ‘Gerald Raven’ in the past three years. An obituary!
‘Shock Death of Boxing Promoter. High Speed Car Crash.’ The story was four months old. No photograph.
Raven was young to have died, as her mother had been, but there it was.
Sitting on the chenille bedspread, laptop on her knees, Pip felt defeated. Had she made her move too late?
The foregoing is excerpted from Paternity by June Saville. All rights reserved. No part of this novel may be used or reproduced without written permission from the author.
GO TO EPISODE SEVEN
Country towns are mostly wonderful places in which to live and bring up children but, as in the city, a bad egg can spoil the dozen. What do you think?
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