Unheard, Unseen...: A Novel

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Light was rationed in the dark days of childhood. Later the lights ran from a generator during the main part of the day and we used gaslight at night and in the early mornings. Until we got the electricity connected we had never watched television, except possibly on rare occasions when we were overseas. In fact I don't think I even knew that it existed until after the electricity was connected. We were in complete isolation Uptop. We didn't understand where we were situated, even near what city. We didn't even know that we were close to Melbourne, a city of three million people.

We had no concept even of what a city was, or of any other human community other than that in which we existed. When I was little I thought that 'overseas' was over the other side of the lake, and that was where Mummy and Daddy went when they went away.

We used to wave out the window to them at night before we went to sleep. Although we travelled overseas several times, it seemed we basically travelled along a road, hopped on a 'plane, got off, got into a car and travelled to one of Anne's properties in America or England. That was it. We weren't often allowed to see newspapers, in fact that happened only after we were quite a bit older and even then they'd been censored.

I did it. I found the Worst Book.

We were then only allowed to look at the sports section, and that was if we begged, as we loved cricket. I remember the rigidity of the routines of our life like a march, it went on and on. Looking back, I can see that any game or hobby that we started we would get hooked on, playing it over and over again in our limited spare time. If we got into a game or fantasy we tended to want to keep on with it and it assumed the utmost importance in our lives.

It might have appeared that we were obsessive kids but it was understandable considering the malevolent reality we faced outside our games. Usually Anne and the Aunties saw to it that as soon as we started enjoying ourselves, it was stopped, and a new rule would be made, forbidding us from playing that particular game.

We would thus be forced to try and make up a new one within the boundaries of the rules that governed our lives, still knowing that eventually this new one would be banned also. We were given daily doses of tranquillisers to "calm us down" and I think these took the edge off everything.

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That, plus the sheer monotony and sameness of our existence and the fact we weren't allowed off the property. Also the long punishment schedules which might go on for many months tended to make you lose your perspective and also your time span. Time tended to run into itself: we lost sight of any boundaries. This is what a normal day was like for me when I was growing up. I will first of all describe our schedule in brief and then go into more detail about it. This was our weekday routine. Wash dress and showers for either girls or boys on alternate days.

Make beds. Setting up the schoolroom. Getting dressed in smocks and jeans. Lunch: steamed vegetables and one or two pieces of fruit. Break or homework. You would always hear the alarm clock going off upstairs in the lounge room where Aunty Helen slept on guard against food thieves. She would come stumbling downstairs, guided by torchlight, and go first to the boys' bedroom and wake up Aunty Liz or Trish who slept in there. They would lurch out to the bathroom and get dressed.

Aunty Helen would light the gas light in the boys' room, and then go around checking the boys' beds to see who had wet them the night before. The poor children guilty of this would be led by the ear into the bathroom to have a belting administered by Aunty Trish or Liz. Then they would be shoved, still in their pyjamas, under a cold shower, no matter how freezing the weather outside.

Every morning I awoke to the sounds of children howling as they got their first belting for the day.

Rare was the day that no-one wet the bed, at least until , and even then the younger boys continued to do so on occasions. The unfortunate child then had to wash his own sheets out during breakfast, and often had to miss lunch as well. The sheets were piled in a corner of the bathroom until breakfast time and they smelled horrible.

After this ritual Aunty Helen would come in and light the gas light in the girls' bedroom, for which she had to stand on Annette 's bed. The mantle of the light always seemed to be broken. If it wasn't, it lit with a 'pouf' and sent out an eerie uncertain light. We were nearly always already awake so we had those few minutes after the boys were awoken to enjoy bed for a bit longer. We had to leap into action once Helen had lit the light otherwise the bedclothes would be torn off us and then it would take a lot longer to make the bed.

Beds had to be made very neatly, with nurse's corners.

Unseen Unheard Unknown

The older ones helped the little ones to do it as quickly as possible as we did not have much time. Then the stretchers were folded and put in one corner and the trundle beds rolled back under the bigger ones, so that the floor was cleared. Usually at night the floor of the girls' room was completely covered with beds. We had to walk along the edges of the beds to get out to the toilet, which, by the way, was usually forbidden as was any movement out of bed at night, although in view of the number of wet beds they later had to be lax about that rule.

Usually one of the Aunties would come downstairs at about ten pm. It didn't usually work. After the beds were made we would file into the bathroom two by two, the girls going after the boys, to wash our faces, drink a glass or more of water, brush our teeth, and go to the toilet. In winter, we usually had to have a spoonful of cod liver oil, supervised by one of the Aunties.

Also, once a week, or more if it was considered that an individual had a weight problem, we were weighed and the results entered in a book to be communicated to Anne. She had a horror of fatness and was obsessed with body shape and weight. She always insisted that we girls were getting too fat, even though in some cases it was malnutrition rather than extra kilos that caused our bellies to stick out. Weighing was a very serious business - particularly serious for us because if it was considered that we were putting on too much weight we would have our food rations cut down and that was a dreadful proposition - food being the most important thing in our lives.

We girls viewed the scales with hatred. They made our miserable lives even worse. Some of the girls also showered in the morning if there was time.

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We showered every two days in a rostered system, some in the morning and some at night. We were allowed a maximum of three minutes under the shower, and 'no washing down there'!. We were forbidden to look at our bodies under the shower - we were supposed to shower with our eyes shut - and also we were ordered not to look at anyone else.

Particularly forbidden was girls coming into contact with boys. I do believe that I had not seen a naked male body - even in a book , as these too were heavily censored- until HSC Biology.

In summer, when water was scarce, we often couldn't shower and had to wash from a bucket or else one bath would be filled and all of us had to use it. The water was pretty dark and scungy by the time it was the turn of the last few. After this we had to be on the floor in position for hatha yoga by to at the latest. Hatha time for lasted one hour, during which we followed a prescribed order of four main asanas positions with intervening minor exercises and relaxation. As we did yoga every day of our lives from a very young age, we were extremely supple.

Unseen, Unheard, Unknown by Sarah Hamilton-Byrne

We eventually got given red towels which we had to lay out to do our yoga on; before that time we laid out blankets, which I remember used to slip around on the lino. We lay on the floor side by side, about half a metre between us. The next row was placed in between the others to form staggered rows. Each person had a specific place and one child, who lay perpendicular to the rest at the front, acted as supervisor and directed the pace of the exercise and kept the time.

Hatha finished at - and then the girls picked up their towels. Hatha yoga was often the only exercise we got for the day especially during the long periods of time when we were totally confined indoors. This happened when there were people in the vicinity or some suspected media or police interest. It could go on for many months. Or we could be confined simply as punishment. While we were doing our yoga, most of the Aunties were upstairs having their breakfast. THEY got tea and toast. Sometimes one Aunty was left downstairs to keep an eye on us or would wash our clothes.

While there were times when we liked yoga, it was mostly very boring, and if we could fool around or sleep instead, we would. However, an Aunty was usually supervising or listening upstairs in order to rush down and catch us out, so there was little escape; we usually had to do all of it. But, because we could hear their movements above us, generally we had plenty of time to get back into our positions before they got even half-way down the stairs.

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Aunty Liz and Aunty Wynne would sometimes try to catch us out and creep down the stairs or outside under the windows; if they did catch us there would be severe punishments. Aunty Trish knew we mucked around but unless she was in a particularly bad mood, as long as she didn't catch us at it, she didn't make it an issue. When we felt enthusiastic about hatha yoga, there was pleasure in doing it well, and we were proud to demonstrate how good we were to Anne on her visits.