The blistering wind forces its way between the worn fabrics of the tent. The various cloths, stained with the rusty red sand, cover the floor providing beds for those young or old enough to sleep through the heat. Camels and sheep bleat almost in unison with each other while the quiet snores of the old fill in the gaps. The air is thick and causes many to have difficulty breathing. One of the young babies is wrapped up in a bed sheet near my feet. There’s barely enough room to move, as one or two new comers arrive every hour and the tent is only meant for twenty or so people. At last count, early last week there were thirty-five adults, three teenagers and seven children including the four less than two years of age. A total of twenty-five extra people in this overcrowded tent. Seeing the rusty sheets covering the floor I remember when there was just a few of us...
It was an ordinary day for me. I woke up early ready to do my home schooling before I did my chores. I did the washing, herded up the sheep back into their yard, fed the dog and then made my father’s breakfast. Just as I was setting down his breakfast on the outdoor table, I saw what looked like his ute coming down the dirt road, back from the market. This was routine for a Monday morning, so I didn’t think of anything when the car suddenly lurched to a stop, before someone getting out. His friend, Effie most likely. Effie was his new girlfriend. Usually I could get rid of his ‘new girlfriends’ before they started getting settled in. This however was not the case since we moved here. The middle of the desert, well close enough to the middle, made it harder to find a new girlfriend, especially since the only people that go to the weekly markets are males in search of new farm equipment.
Effie was sort of like a modern ugly step-mother. She was absolutely lovely when my father was around, but as soon as he went to the markets or out to one of our several paddocks, she definitely didn’t keep the ugly step-mother hidden anymore. She deliberately went out of her way to make my life miserable. She did anything from making me clean her room to making me tell my father to buy pink paint because I ‘apparently’ wanted to paint my room that hideous colour. Effie only stayed with my father because she knew if she stayed for long enough Dad would ask her to marry him and once that happened she could take our land for her father’s mining company. I had even more proof that this was true because she didn’t want to live with us when she could live in her father’s fancy apartment at the top of his own building in the city. She told my father that it was because of her job. In truth she didn’t even have a job; it was just a cover so that she wouldn’t have to spend too much time with us. Believe me I has tried to explain this to Dad, but he just thought I was having another teenage melodrama and opposed all mother figures.
Back to the story of that horrible Monday. As I said I was just standing there doing nothing while I waited for Dad and Effie to have their daily fight in the drive way about how Effie thought our house was too old and broken down for us to live in anymore and how she also thought it would be great if we moved just around the corner from where we lived now. Just around the corner or just around from the gold field we lived on. I’m sure Dad was still star struck by her so he didn’t realise what she was trying to do. I still knew.
The person who I was sure to have been Effie jumped back into the car just as a second car came flying around the corner. This car made twice as much dust on the red dirt road so I had no idea who or what the second car was doing. Our house was pretty remote; after all it was in the desert. We never and I mean never got visitors, unless it was Effie but she practically lived here anyway if you don’t count the extravagant mansion she liked to call an apartment. So the fact that we had two cars in our driveway was, as sad as this may sound, pretty amazing for me.
My mind wandered as I thought of the possibilities of who it was in the second car. All I saw was that the second car was black. So that meant it could be anyone. I hoped more than anything that it was my one of my sisters. A visit from just one of my two sisters would definitely make my day. My life started off complicated and always drove others to think of me as the weird girl nobody except her own parents could love. So I challenge you to listen to it and decide for yourself.
When my mother gave birth to us she wasn’t married to my father. Apparently the guy she married, she married on a drunken girl’s night in Los Vegas. You she never really remembered him or that night after that and they went on with their lives again back in Australia. My mother met my father a few months later in the Monday market. They never got married because my mother moved on business to the city and my father said he couldn’t leave the family farm to go with her. This caused my mother and father to constantly fight before they finally left each other a month after we were born.
As if my story wasn’t already complicated enough, a month after my parents split, her husband came looking for her. He had discovered ten and a half months earlier a wedding ring in his pocket when he returned to his home in Melbourne, he had been searching for my mother ever since. My mother and father were fighting at the time over custody of us. Apparently Dad’s farm was no place for a baby and he didn’t have time to look after twins let alone triplets. Mum thought that her city apartment wasn’t a great place for three kids either and that it would be better off with us being shipped off to an orphanage. Kind one wasn’t she. Mum’s husband at the time thought that he could look after us so he did, well for the rest of our first years at least.
My parents felt horrible about leaving us when we were born with a man neither of them knew very much about and so they both filed for custody of all three of us. Mum’s husband didn’t want to give us up either. He filed for custody also. Once they made it to court the only solution the court could give them was because there was three of us and three people that wanted a child, they would split us three ways. One child to each of them. My sister Lydia, the oldest by five minutes was given to my mother’s husband. My other sister Alex, the youngest by 20 minutes to me was given to my mother. I Rory got put with my father. I told you it was complicated didn’t I.
The first and only time I met my sisters or their parents was late last year. We were reunited because Alex’s father was sick and she had to live with us for a few weeks. Alex was nothing like me. She had died her hair electric blue, in a spike and was always wearing black and other neutral colours. She had four piercings in her face, one in her eyebrow, one in her lip, one in her tongue and another in her nose. She was quite skinny like me but also had a massive tattoo on her back, a blue and green butterfly. Alex had to have what she wanted when she wanted or she would chuck a full on tantrum. Alex also hated having to be social with anyone except her boyfriend, Salem.
Lydia arrived two days after Alex and also was nothing like me. Lydia had long blonde hair, down to her waist, only two piercings; one in each ear, she dressed in designer clothing and wore expensive make-up along with her solid gold rings and jewellery to compliment her long, manicured fingernails. She was quite the opposite in personality to me as well. Lydia could not stand the dirt or anything that had a dirty look about it. So after about three hours of me not cleaning up the dirt around here, she was completely and utterly opposed to the place. She was quite stuck-up and was extremely bossy. Lydia often spoke of her many famous friends and loved to gloat about how she never had to do chores. She was very much a clichéd, posh, inner city penthouse inhabiter.
Me however, I have rusty red hair to my shoulders, green eyes, and no piercings. I wear no make-up at all and have a wardrobe consisting of jeans, overalls and t-shirts. I do chores everyday and am very shy. I look after my animals and only talk when I have something important to say, instead of babbling on about something uninteresting. I do well in my school subjects and generally do what I’m told. This according to my Dad is what to be expected of a typical farm girl in the desert.
As the dust finally cleared I realised that only one of the cars was still in the driveway. The first car to arrive was now speeding toward the house, at an immense speed. As the Ute pulled up in front of the veranda, I ran out to see Dad. His face looked as if he had been crying. This was unusual for him, he never cried. I gave him a hug and asked what had happened. “Dad please tell me. What’s wrong?”
“I’ll explain on the way get inside and pack your things.”
“Oh…Ok...” I raced inside and it took me only a few minutes to grab my bags and be settled into the Ute. I had really always loved this place but the excitement that overtook my mind and body when Dad suggested we would be staying somewhere together tonight, maybe even a short holiday, I just could not hold in.
“We’re not driving the Ute mate,” Dad announced as a look of shock ran across my face and my fingers automatically grabbed the seatbelt tighter. “We’re walking.”
“Down the road a kilometre, then you’ll get picked up by Effie and taken into the city.”
“Effie? What do you mean you’ll?’
“I’m staying here to protect the house, you’re going into the city with Effie to meet up with your sisters.” Pain flashed across Dad’s face, but as soon as it did he shook it off with a smile. “Don’t look so horrified, it’ll only be for a few weeks until this land thing settles down.”
“A few weeks Dad with HER! I’ve never been away from you that long. What does Effie want with our land this time anyway?”
“It’s not Effie, and you’ll be fine for a few weeks,” Dad tried to reassure me.
“Then who wants our land?”
“I’m not sure love, Effie wouldn’t say. Don’t worry they won’t get it.”
“Of course Effie wouldn’t say. It’s her Dad, I’ve see the way she wants it...”
Dad cut me off as we made our way to the end of the driveway. “Effie just wants the best for you.”
“Sure she does. The best for Effie is always the best me. Pink tiaras and high heeled shoes. Oh yeah that’s best…” Dad gave me a stern look and I quickly changed the subject. “ So why aren’t we driving?”
“I thought I might get more time with you if we walked.”
“I thought you said I’d see you in a few weeks?” I asked curiously.
“Just taking precau…I mean just wanted to give you a proper goodbye,” Dad said as another tear builds in his eye. By now we had made it where Effie was waiting at the end of the road. We said our goodbyes and I got into Effie’s black Mercedes. I waved to Dad and blew him a kiss, as Effie drove in the opposite direction to the city.
I didn’t realise that we were driving further into the desert until Effie sped up. The trees and slight amounts of life were decreasing as we went further and further into the rusty red desert. “Where are we going?” I asked curiously. “Where are you taking me?”
Effie didn’t answer but gave me a slight smile.
“We aren’t going to see my sisters are we?”
“Very clever little girl,” Effie said in her scary, seductive voice. “Now don’t say another word until we’re there, or else.”
“Or else what?”
The car lurched to a sudden stop and I recognised in the rear view mirror the second car from our driveway this morning. A tall, buff man got out of the car. He strolled up to the window and tapped on it. I looked in his hand as to what had made the clinking sound on the window. He was holding a big black gun in his hand and was pointing it in my face. I slunk back in my chair as an ice cold shiver of fear ran up my spine. Effie laughed her menacing laugh and took off down the road again. I must have fallen asleep-or passed out from her toxic cheap perfume-as I felt the car stop for a final time. Effie got out and opened my door. “Welcome home Rory.”
I woke in the tent, somewhat disorientated from my sleep in the car. I spent the next three weeks just sitting on the cloth covering the floor. There were twenty of us in the tent to start with. When there was only twenty we could lie down with just enough room to move our heads and limbs without bumping into each other. This was not the case at the end of the three weeks.
So now I am left with no answers to my questions and nothing to do but wait until my siblings get here. If they ever do. The floor has become even more crowded as I have waited. Flies now cover our eating mat. The toilets outside stink of heated sewerage. The babies cry for their mothers while they are out collecting our food. Earlier while I was rethinking what has happened in the past few weeks, a truck came (it was a lot like those they use in the war to transport cargo) and took all the adult males and one of the teenagers which was a male also. About half an hour later another similar truck came and took the rest of the adults. They told us that they were going looking for food, but we all know they aren’t coming back.
Suddenly another truck pulls up out the front of the tent. I hear a scream and then “Hey! Don’t you dare touch me with that filthy dirty hand of yours.” This was followed by “You can’t make me remove my piercings they go where ever I go!” I would recognise those voices anywhere, it’s Lydia and Alex.
Lydia and Alex burst through the tent doors together, dressed in their new white robes, the first rule of this horrible place. “Lydia, Alex. Over here.” The guard gives me a stern look as I have broken rule number two, speaking above a whisper.
“Great it’s weirdo Jillaroo!” Alex answers.
“Hey no one can be weirder than you Emo-girl,” Lydia adds in her beautiful chiming voice. Somehow I’m sure she wasn’t defending me, it was just to get back at Alex.
“What is this place?” Alex asks shocked by the look of our beds.
“This is what the guards call paradise,” I answer happy just to have someone to talk to. “It’s pretty bad but not as bad as being out there in the desert unsheltered.” My optimism even surprises me after three weeks of this hell hole.
“That guard stole my designer shoes and made me rub of my nail polish. He said that there were rules. What are they?” Lydia asks me.
“Hey that would be the same guard who took my piercings!” Alex adds, much to Lydia’s disgust.
“We have only a few rules,” I answer ignoring the looks they are giving each other. “Rule one...”
“Can’t you write them down?” Alex buts in.
“I have them in a list. I’ll just go and get it.” I rummage around under the sheets until I find a scrunched up piece of paper. It reads:
Always wear your white robe.
Never speak louder than a whisper.
No piercings, nail polish, make-up or shoes as everyone is equal except for your superiors-the guards.
No games or electronics.
Only eat when given food on the food mat.
Do as asked.
Memorise these rules.
Go to the toilet at your toilet time only.
Never leave the tent without permission.
No other food is to be eaten other than mash potato and pea delight.
Always have fun at the Paradise area of the Simpson Desert. Have FUN!
“Sounds like a pretty fun place,” Alex adds with about just as much enthusiasm as what was shown on Lydia’s face.
“Mmmmmassshh potatoes! How am I mmmmeant to get my daily goodness if that’s what I’m eating?” Lydia manages to stutter out before she collapses on the floor beside Alex and me.
“Drama queen much?”
“Definitely,” I say in complete agreement, about the only thing we can agree on.
Slowly the day dragged on, and finally Lydia awoke from her mash potato fit. “How long do I have to stay here for?” Lydia asks groggily.
“Listen here princess; it’s not just you here. There are three of us.” Alex snaps at Lydia.
“I’m sure that you…,” as she looks me in the eyes, “lower than life’s don’t have a full time modelling career and an important meeting to attendant to.”
“Listen here miss posing like a barbie to get whatever you want in life, we are all together here. I have a boyfriend, you have your career in…whatever and Rory has her...her...,” Alex looks with a puzzled face. “What do you have Rory?”
“I have my sheep,” I add with a chuckle.
“Right, so that’s one boyfriend, one career and a flock of sheep that are waiting for us outside,” Lydia sums up.
“That will be our incentive to get out of here,” I add.
“To the sheep!” Alex bellows as one of the guard snorts and holds up his riffle at her.
“To the sheep.” We all say together.
“Wait a tick, does anyone know why we’re here anyway?” Alex questions Lydia and I.
I shake my head, with a now sad look.
“Does anyone?” Alex asks now loud enough for anyone in the tent to hear.
“I do. And I can also tell you what we’re going to do with you.”
A tall, dark lady skips through the tent door letting in a big gust of red dirt with her. She takes off her hat and shakes it over one of the young kids sitting on the floor below her, covering his head with the dirt too. “I am Zara. Welcome to Paradise.”
“This defiantly isn’t paradise mate,” Alex snickers.
“Silence child!” she stares at Alex, Lydia and me for a moment before continuing. “You lot are here for a very good reason. You all have something to do with the lady that ruined my families lives. So now I feel it is up to me to ruin hers.”
“The only thing we have in common is our mother. What could she have possibly done for us to deserve this?” Alex whispers to me. “Oh wait I remember, she gave us up when we a few months old, maybe she gave up this chick too.”
“That’s what I’m scared of,” I reply as a shiver runs down my spine.
“Quiet! Now where was I... yes that’s it the women who ruined my life. As we speak she will discover just how far I am willing to go just to get revenge. Believe me I am willing to go very far. Very far indeed.” Zara nodes in disgust to one of the guards by the door.
“Right everyone stand up in a line, according to age. Move it, no talking,” the guard grumbles.
“Hey buddy, I have never seen most of these people in my life and you expect me to know their exact age?” Alex questions.
“I said no talking,” the guard grumbles again.
“My point exactly,’ Alex adds.
“Fine. A whisper is permitted people,” the guard mutters.
Soon we are standing in two rough lines across the tent. The young babies are lying at the end of the line on a folded sheet, acting as a cushion. The oldest seems to be in their late teen years while, the youngest seems to be only a few months old, if that. “Today, old and very...err...young,” Zara says with a very puzzled look on her face, before turning to the guard and saying “What are the babies still doing here? They should be with their mothers in their tent, a few kilometres away.” I glance out the small opening of the door and fair enough, in the distance I see two large tents, about two-hundred metres apart. The guards grab the three babies off the floor and gruffly start off toward the tents. “As I was saying, today we will be making a little movie. This movie will contain all the people that are nearest and dearest to Miss Catriona Mel.”
“What but that’s my mother,” Lydia shouts. “What did she ever do to you?”
“Well, Miss Lydia Mel that is exactly what this movie shall explain.”
Zara has each of us then write on a sticky label what we are to our mother. The list of people is from her children to her work colleges children. Even a few of her models are standing before me in the line. “Right now everyone has a sticker. Stand against that wall in your order, from most important to least important,” Zara adds smugly. “I will teach your mother a thing or two about families and those closest to her.” The guard then came around with a long chain to which he attached a pair of handcuffs every few links. As he clipped them to our hands I saw the slightest smirk of happiness light up his face.
Once we were all chained together Zara proceeded to prance up and down the line of people as the guard filmed. He occasionally zoomed in on our labels showing what we meant to Catriona. Mine and Alex’s labels said ‘distant daughter’ while Lydia’s said ‘closest daughter’. Even though we hadn’t seen each other since I was a year old, knowing that I would never be close to her like Lydia was made me feel even more unwanted than ever.
Zara continued to waltz up and down in front of us for another three quarters of an hour, before finally the camera’s battery died. “Right now young ins, rub this charcoal in small areas on your faces and in hand shapes on your arms.”
“Why Miss Zara?” One of the younger girls asked.
“It’s a little more incentive for Catriona.”
“Hey enough with the bagging out my mum already. What did she do to you anyway?” Lydia shouted in Zara’s face, surprising us all.
“Fine. I guess it’s time you knew anyway. When I was younger, your mother and I went to school together. We were always helping each other out in tests and things at high school until one day your mother told our principal that I cheated off her test paper. This was definitely not what happened. She had cheated off me. This horrified me and I decided to confront her once I had finished my punishment, cleaning permanent marker of tables, for plagiarism. She denied knowing anything about it and then told the principal I was harassing her. This went on for weeks and weeks until finally I snapped. I slapped her across the face in one of maths classes and was expelled from that school. Your mother and I didn’t see each other again for twenty years. At I had but forgotten about it until one day I was sitting in my new office in Sydney at my sister’s business, smooth street fashion. I noticed out of the corner of my eye, someone staring through the hall window. It was your mother. She came right in and told me to follow her. I stupidly followed her into her office and as she sat at her desk, she started yelling ‘no leave me alone you horrible person!’ I had no idea what she was doing and as she started to cry, my sister came running in. She sent me back to my office. I had only just sat down when she came in and told me I was fired. She said that your mother was the best employee she had and that she couldn’t lose her over something as little as having another employee not getting along with her. That was the end of my fashion and modelling career before it had barely had enough time to start. It was also the end of all my family’s money and caused us to move to a farm out here in the desert. To make matters even worse three months after I was fired your mother went into my sister’s office and stole her designs, even though my sister had signed them your mother rubbed out the signatures and out hers in the place. The next day your mother quit my sister’s business and began showing my sister’s designs as her own in high fashion agencies. She ended up going to Los Vegas with my former friend, Effie. I payed Effie to get her married to our friend, Leonardo, but not until she was heavily drunk. This seemed to work a treat and I enjoyed seeing Leonardo’s face when he discovered that he had married a woman like her. The only reason he took custody of you children was because your parents wouldn’t try hard enough to look after you three. Leonardo also felt extremely bad about any of you children having to live with her, the one you know destroys lives.”
“I can’t believe you,” Lydia screams.
“Lydia please. You must listen. What she is saying is very important.”
“Ok let’s have a vote. All those who agree with me go to the right side of the tent. All those who are on the side of Lydia and her dreadful mother go to the left. All those who have no idea just go to the right,” Zara snickers.
“That’s not fair,” Lydia whines.
“Fine, disregard the last thing I said.”
The biggest and bulkiest guard I’d ever seen walks over to undo the handcuffs. After he removes them all he walks to the left side of the tent and uses his gun as motivation. Everyone moves to the right side of the tent except Alex, Lydia and I. Alex and I share a worried look as Lydia moves to the left. “Please. You are both my sisters, why don’t you agree with me? This is your mother, she gave birth to you. Are you too selfish to think of anyone but yourselves?”
“Oh, shut up Lydia I can’t think while your whining voice is in my ear!” Alex snaps at Lydia. “Finally some peace and quiet.”
“How could you be so mean to me, yet you absolutely love Rory?”
“Rory does not constantly whine, rub in the fact that she has everything or make a note every five minutes that her mother has the best job and the most money. So you can probably understand why I tend to spend the majority of my time in this anti-paradise place with Rory rather than you Lydia.”
“Girls, girls, girls, settle darlings. I know this must be a hard time for at least one of you knowing that the person you have looked up to your whole life is nothing but a stupid, lying, cheate...”
That last word was all that it took for Lydia to snap. Lydia stepped out from her position on the far left of the tent, leapt into the air and in one humongous slap, hit Zara across the face, knocking her backwards, onto the ground. “Stop them,” she screams as Lydia, Zara and I, are running across the Simpson Desert as fast as we can.