By Renee McBryde
Before she left Alice Springs and everything turned sour between us, Mum had given me the most beautiful bunch of native flowers for my birthday. Now, months after she’s gone, the flowers still sit drying in a vase on my dining table. They are fragile, brittle, but still beautiful – even if it’s a beauty only I can see. I can’t bring myself to throw them out because they keep a little bit of her with me.
The first time Mum gave me a bunch of flowers, I was six. It was just after my father had told me he wasn’t the boss at Cottee’s Cordial, as I’d previously thought, but was in fact serving life in jail for murder.
My father had freed himself of this monumental secret in one of our weekly phone calls, without letting my grandparents or Mum know what he was about to do.
His announcement imploded any calm that had existed in my childhood up until that point. Mum’s mind shook with fear as “the secret” she’d been carefully guarding was now, against her will, resting in the hands of a child. And we all know how terrible children can be at keeping secrets.
Mum immediately set about inducting me into a world of strict rules to protect “the secret”. This was a world where my mother reigned supreme because she’d been pretending the truth didn’t exist for so long. No one knew about Dad – Mum never slipped up and I had to be the same. No one could ever know my father was a murderer. Not in a year, or 10 years. Mum always impressed on me that this was truly a secret I’d have to take to my grave – a big ask for a six-year-old.
“People are cruel,” she said. “They won’t understand that you can still be a good person, even if your father has killed people. People will think you are the same.”
If I revealed the secret, Mum told me, my dad’s image would be imprinted on me. Every time anyone looked at me, they wouldn’t see me, they would see a murderer.
If I revealed the secret, Mum told me, my dad’s image would be imprinted on me. Every time anyone looked at me, they wouldn’t see me, they would see a murderer. It wasn’t fair, she acknowledged, just the way people are – they would always think the worst of people like us. Mum and I were like lepers in hiding, and our lives and any future happiness we might find depended entirely on the ugly truth being kept hidden.
On the first school day after I found out I was a murderer’s daughter, I ran down the steps from the classroom to see Mum standing in the playground with her hands behind her back. Her face was searching for mine in a stampede of small bodies clothed in bright yellow uniforms.
I saw her before she saw me, and I ran to her, delighted; she was rarely in the playground to meet me. With one arm, she scooped me up on her hip, and then she swung her other arm around to show me what was behind her back. A beautiful bright bunch of flowers.
“Wow Mumma, they’re so pretty!”
“They’re for you! Pretty flowers for a pretty little girl!” she replied.
I was surprised and immediately felt so grown up. Mum put me down and thrust them into my hands. Her teeth sparkled behind her bright red lips – she was more beautiful than any of the girls in those toothpaste ads.
The flowers seemed huge in my little hands and my eyes filled with tears. Mum thought I was special. Special enough to spend money we didn’t have on flowers for me. Mum slung my bag over her shoulder and carried it for me, which she never normally did, and with our free hands clasped in each other’s, we started walking home.
On the way, we stopped and sat on a little brick wall for a rest, as it was a long, hot walk home. “You didn’t say anything to anyone at school did you, Ren?” I shook my head. “No Mumma, I promise.”
“Good. I knew I could trust you. That’s why I got you these flowers. Always remember, Rennie, no matter what, it’s just you and me against the world.” I smiled up at her. I liked it when she said this. It meant her friends and boyfriends and anyone else were unimportant to her compared to me at that moment. Mum trusted me more than anyone else, like I was a grown-up. No other kindergarten kids’ mums brought them flowers to school or trusted them with big secrets.
Maybe that’s why, as a 32-year-old mother of three, living thousands of kilometres away from my mother’s cold shoulder, I can’t bring myself to throw out the brittle, ageing birthday flowers. They remain a symbol of our solidarity. If I throw them away, it might mean that it will never be us against the world again – even though, truthfully, it hasn’t been that way for a long time.
The longer a secret is kept, the more shame it attracts, and the more we come to believe that if that truth is ever revealed, we simply will not survive it. Mum lived in fear of the truth being exposed and, because what we know comes from those we love best and observe most closely, I also came to believe that my life would end if the secret I was keeping was ever “found out”. Somehow, at some point, Mum’s fear had seeped into me and became mine.
The longer a secret is kept, the more shame it attracts, and the more we come to believe that if that truth is ever revealed, we simply will not survive it.
I watched Mum closely as she moved through her life, as she experienced one relationship after another, remarried, had my (untainted) sisters, and finally appeared happy. But behind her smiles Mum and I both knew the truth still rattled around in her bones. Her despair was never far from the surface and more secrets always seeped out of her whenever we were alone.
Over the years, I found out more about my dad through visits to see him in maximum-security jails, through my grandparents, and through Mum’s drunken confessions. But I always wanted more than the cobbled together tidbits. I wanted the truth. I went to the State Library and trawled the newspaper archives, conducting my own research into who I came from.
My father’s crimes were more of a big deal than I had ever been led to believe. Front page news, in fact. There were headlines about sex crimes, multiple stabbings and robberies. At the trial, the judge proclaimed my father to be nothing but a “brutal and cold-blooded murderer”.
I knew then and there that Mum was right. She had no blood tie to my dad; she had a new life. But me, I had my father’s blood in me forever. No one could ever know my truth. My DNA was stained.
When people asked me about my dad, I was always going to have to lie.
There was a night I sat holding Mum, listening as she gulped her way through the griefs of her life – my dad and his murders, the ongoing absence of love in her life, her mundane existence. Mum was so disappointed by the disparity between the life she was living and the one she felt she deserved.
I desperately wanted to go to bed and shut my eyes and ears until she was smiling again, but I knew I could never leave her crying and shaking like she was. It was as if the past were the present, as if the police had just delivered news of the stabbings to us tonight, as if my nan had just told her what a disappointment she was.
There would be hours ahead of us before the torment subsided. As I wiped the snot and tears from her face, I realised I wasn’t just looking at her, but at my future self. If I didn’t change things, I would be doing this for the rest of my life, too. I would be 40-something and still crying about all the stumbling blocks I’d fallen over as a teenager, crying about never becoming a lawyer. I’d be miserable because no one was delivering me my happiness.
Something inside me clicked. I couldn’t change my blood. I couldn’t change anything that had happened to me. But I still had a choice. I could either use the past to drive me to the life I wanted, or I could use it as permission to wallow in a life I didn’t want to be in. I still had time to try.
It was staring down the barrel of my future, with Mum crying in my arms, that made me decide I had to finish my degree, get a good job and make peace with the truth. I promised myself I would not stop working to find my own path, but I wanted Mum to come with me. Because all these nights I had witnessed her soaked in alcohol and despair had made it glaringly apparent that it wasn’t sharing our secrets that was going to destroy our lives, it was keeping them festering inside us.
Edited extract from Unravelling Us (Bad Apple Press) by Renee McBryde, out now.
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