Jo Penney – Words and Meanings
The first time I heard the word rape, I was nine and it was the Easter school break. I was playing in the street, as kids still did in the ‘80s, with the neighbourhood girls -the two Mormon sisters and the slightly older redhead who lived across from them. My sister, Terri, had taken our dog for a walk, most likely to get away from a giggling group of primary school girls hyped up on Easter chocolates, given that she was much older at 23 years of age, and a nurse.
The next thing we knew Terri turned back into the street with her arm around the shoulders of a girl not much older than us, followed by a boy about the same age wheeling two grown up style shiny new bikes, identical besides the colour; one red and one blue. The bikes look like the kind my sister sometimes rode, adult looking, and I feel ashamed of my cruiser, with banana seat, chopper handles and sissy bar. We follow them back to our old orange brick veneer house. The boy struggles to get the stand up on each bike, I throw mine onto its side, suddenly inferior. I can’t help myself any longer, ‘Terri, who is she?’ After all if these two kids are going into my house I should know who they are, is what I am thinking.
The girl raises her head to look at my sister – they’re the same height, then she turns to look at me – her blonde hair, straight and thin, falls back and I see her bloodshot blue eyes, puffy red surrounds that are no longer wet. I’m not disturbed that she has been crying, after all she may have fallen off her bike and my sister is a nurse, so it makes sense that Terri would want to help her. But there is a look in those pale blue eyes that gives me a creepy feeling – I’ve seen fear before but this is deeper and raw in a way that stops me from saying anything more. She doesn’t look at the others and seems unable to meet the concerned, wet gaze of the boy. With her head back down my sister guides her into the passage and turns right into Terri’s bedroom.
The sisters behind me start chatting quietly, as they’ve been trained to do with two baby brothers in their house. Terri leaves the kids in her room with the door shut and goes one room up to our parent’s room. The house rule is no closed doors with visitors.
Dad is out the back either gardening or fixing a car. He spends all week in an office and he is an outdoor soul, so every weekend and public holiday he gets up with the sun and goes outside until the sun sets. There’s no chance of bumping into to him inside.
Mum on the other hand is always in her room, some kind of dramatic depression that is rumoured to have lasted since my birth and means that I’ve never known her to be up before midday. Terri is taking a big risk entering without an invitation. Secretly I like it when she annoys Mum because I know I’ll be the ‘good daughter’ for the rest of the day.
Suddenly Mum is out and giving orders, ‘Girls, outside. NOW!’ We don’t move more than a few feet so we’re just out of view. In Terri’s room I hear her say ‘Wait here.’ And the boy is left alone in Terri’s room and then a mass of arms exits and moves to Mum’s room. The girl flanked by Terri and Mum, she sobs so quietly that I think I have figured it out. She has done something really bad, and she has to face my mother. That’s worth fear and sobs. I am trying to think of the worst thing a non-family member could do to get themselves in that much trouble when I hear bits of conversation ‘She’s injured…bleeding…pads…hospital.’ When I broke my arm in the third grade, Mum used to put a sanitary napkin behind my neck where the weight of my sling would rub and burn. Maybe the girl has fallen off her bike and is scared she’s broken something.
Terri hustles the girl out, gets the boy and they vanish in a taxi that she’s called and asked to be taken to work.
Mum approaches us girls, wringing her hands. She does that when faced with something she doesn’t want to do, or when she wants to be left alone, which is most of the time. ‘Girls, come over here, come on.’ We need the encouragement, after all this is not a woman who is usually approachable. ‘That girl that was just here was lucky that Terri came along. A man raped her, but her cousin, the boy that was just here, got Terri’s attention and she stopped him, but he ran to a van and drove off so we don’t know where he is. The girl has gone to the hospital.’ And she stood straight, like she was finished, until the eldest of the Mormon girls asked ‘What does rape mean?’ Not about to have a mob of angry parents after her, (she detested visitors at the best of time), my mother stooped and haltingly spoke, ‘Best you all go home and ask your parents that. And I mean straight home.’
The hand on my shoulder says I am not going anywhere. With the Mormons gone I get a graphic account of rape. I get most of it. Apparently it is what happens to females of bleeding age when they’re careless enough to find themselves in deserted places or when they’re vulnerable. A hatpin to the groin is the best form of retaliation, but girls are too silly to carry hatpins these days. ‘Now whatever the girls are told by their parents – don’t tell them different, it’s their business.’ It is the same line I got when I caught her being Santa Claus when I was seven and wanted to clue the other kids in on the lie. So now I have another word on the list of things I must never speak the truth about: Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, The Tooth Fairy, Rape, and of course anything my mother says, does or happens to be associated with. Life is becoming one big secret.
Half an hour later I find myself agreeing with the girls that rape meant the man stole her money and that she probably hurt herself falling off her bike when she was robbed, but I knew all those parents were liars, she wasn’t hurt by a grazed knee or crying because she lost her fish ’n’ chip money. I knew where she really hurt and although I did not fully grasp what she had lost so violently, I knew it was more than money for lunch.
A few hours later a car pulls up at our house, the grownups in the car speak quietly for a few minutes as the bikes are loaded up and taken away, apparently they had been an Easter present, and that was their first outing. Something inside me makes me feel that if it were me, I’d probably never want to look at those bikes again.
That night our whole family is home and we have learnt a lot in one day. Firstly, my sister is very good at remembering things because the police had gone to a house in the next street and found all the clothes she had described the rapist wearing, some of them had the girl’s blood on them. We also found out that the man was not long out of prison for raping another girl. That girl had been walking home from my primary school when she had taken the short cut across the railway line – the way I had been made to promise I would never go even though it was quicker. Now I knew why. The girl lived directly across the road from us. She was about 16 years old now, but she would never look the same to me now. Although I couldn’t say what was different about her now, I had questions, too many questions. How could I get answers if this was on the list of things not to be spoken about?
The man had known where to find my neighbour back then and he had thrown a brick through their window the night he was charged and bailed. For our own safety we were instructed by the police to keep all the curtains drawn and move the couch and chairs away from the windows facing the street. I do not want to walk up the dark passage to the bathroom that night. I sleep fitfully and with the light in my bedhead on all night as I wait for the sound of breaking glass. From the restlessness in the other rooms and lights that go on and off regularly I know I am not the only one too troubled to sleep.
I am way more afraid of breaking glass and flying bricks than the mysterious rape until November a year later. That morning I wake up for school and am greeted with the red smear of blood I’d been warned would come. Dad sent me back to bed so Mum could deal with me when she finally woke up; he went to work.
So that was it. I was of bleeding age, which according to Mum meant I had to be careful now not to let myself get into trouble. There were two types of trouble just waiting for me, she says, ‘They know, they can tell when you’ve developed so just you watch out, don’t get raped and don’t get pregnant; no boy marries a girl that’s used goods.’ She fails to explain how one becomes pregnant, but I have friends to fill in those details.
I thought of the girl and the bicycle and wondered if she had ended up pregnant, and whether she knew she would never have a husband now.
I looked at the posters covering most of my bedroom walls and tried to see each face now as a bleeder or someone capable of rape. But I couldn’t pin the title bleeder-victim to Cyndi Lauper or Madonna, nor could I see a man like Michael Hutchence, that moved like liquid, or a man like Corey Hart, who sung so sweetly of total devotion, as capable of rape. Years later I would learn that Cyndi Lauper had been raped, but that she refused to be a victim.
More disturbing was how my thoughts led me home to my sister, my mother, my brother, and my father and what Mum’s words meant for them.
And then my thoughts turned to school and how Steven had thrown his girlfriend, Ellie, on the year six tables at lunch one day, trying to pin her down and kiss her, how she had screamed and another girl who was bigger than him, had put an end to it, while I just stood there, frozen.
The next day at school I expected some kind of attention from all the boys who had ignored my existence up until now, but nothing changed, I still didn’t exist. And I was happy for things to stay the same, me the familiar outsider – at least I would never be like Ellie. If only it was that easy. Thankfully we can’t see how the meaning of a word changes the closer it gets to you.
Jo Penney has writings published under Jo Richards and Jo Penney (Anthologies: Cover Your Tracks, Whisper to the Moon, And the Dance Goes On, Imagine 2012 & Splashes of Colour). She is currently undertaking a Master of Arts (Writing & Literature) by research with Deakin University.