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Sort and Deliver

Sort and Deliver

A Short Story by Marilyn Campbell

She wasn’t remembered for her industriousness though that had been apparent from the first week she arrived in the small Australian town and started work on the mail run. It was something more  uncanny than that, but no one could put their finger on what it was exactly.  It had a family ring to it of sorts, a communal connectedness.

 

Yet this appraisal defied all logic when it was discussed because they all knew she was an outsider and no outsider had ever been accepted so readily into their hearts before, not ever.  She had them well and truly stumped, from beginning to end.

 

Few could remember the exact day it was when she arrived in their midst, the month, or even the year. She had settled in so well doing the mail run she had become the regular feature of their daily lives. “She was one of us, was Pam,” said old Nick Evans as some form of justification for ignorance before his anger took over.

 

“Pammie,” as the locals called herwhere had she come from exactly? They opened it up to wide discussion in the pub two weeks after that fateful day when a disbelieving town was reduced to its knees and they all got their first real glimpse of the real woman behind their contrived communal model of country perfection.

 

“She came here because she wanted the job,” said postmaster Bill Evans, brother of Nick. “She had to put in a tender.”


 

“There wasn’t much competition,” said Ted Wilson, the bartender, as he poured another draft beer.

 

“She got it because she was the cheapest,” said Shirl Carruthers.

 

“She didn’t care about money, anyway,” said Margie Jones. “She only cared about people.”

 

“Yeh, sure,” they all scoffed. “She cared so much she didn’t care. How could she have done that?”

 

“Didn’t have a conscience,” Old Nick put in. The reality of what happened probably affected him the most as she had been his lover. When the truth struck home he resorted to heavier than usual beer breath mutterings. “No conscience, I say.” They all ignored this last remark as they were painfully aware he was right.

 

“Can we all stop being so emotional about this!” shouted Jens Bursten. “Can’t we just begin to look at it logically with a little bit of common sense so that we can try to understand it?”

 

“It’s alright for you to be so ‘okay’ and ‘separate’ and ‘detached’ from the whole business, Jens Bursten,” said Shirl Carruthers using her fingers to wag out the words in inverted commas. “Nothing was taken from your life. Nothing that meant something to you. I feel like, like,” she started to get very emotional, “like I was stripped of my clothes or


 

something, like I was standing there naked in the town street with people around me like snarling circus bosses poking me with sticks and bits of twigs.”

 

“Really, Shirl,” cautioned Margie Jones. “I wouldn’t go that far. She may have helped herself to our lives in one sense of the word, but she didn’t disgrace us. I’d revise my images if I were you. You know about the power of visualisation.” She gave her a very stern look.

 

Shirl Carruthers immediately poked her tongue out at her. “You always were a brat, Margie Jones. Trust you not to stick up for your friends when the going gets tough.”

 

The women moved their chairs away from each other, Shirl Carruthers so put out that she turned her face to the wall and tipped her beer glass to vertical.

 

They all looked relieved when Tim Evans, Bill’s son and Nick’s nephew, as well as the local senior constable, steered his way into the group past a table of head-heavy regulars who only appeared related because of the colour of their noses.

 

“I should have known you’d all be here,” Tim said. “I think we’re going to have to down a few more schooners to sort this one out.” He ordered a draught Victoria Bitter which was served on the spot.

 

“Any luck, son?” asked Bill Evans. Tim just drank and swallowed and shook his head in the anti-affirmative.


 

 

“Yeh,” echoed his uncle Nick. “Do we know anything more about the little bitch who didn’t have one scrap of decency?”

 

“Shhh!” screamed Jens as if they were all to blame. “Lay off the swearing. You really don’t have any right to call her that Nick. Not considering the circumstances. And also because you were the one who seemed to get on with her the most?" He threw him an angry glare.

 

Old Nick talked over the top of him. “I’ll never forgive her. We could have gone somewhere, me and her. But she had no conscience. One of the sexiest women I’ve ever met. Mentally, all over the place like a mad woman’s breakfast. I shall miss that. But no conscience. None at all.”

 

Old Nick looked into the beer streaks left in his glass, then put his glass forward on the bar. “Give us another one, Ted, will you, mate?”

 

“Sure,” answered Ted. “I wouldn’t take it so hard, mate. You can’t turn back the clock.”

 

“Even if I did, wouldn’t do me any good, mate,” replied Nick, “…didn’t know a thing.”

 

“None of us did, mate, none of us did,” said Ted consolingly. The men and women all sat silently for awhile without talking. They sipped their beers ever so slowly.

 


 

Of course, being an outsider myself, I do understand some of these issues. I sure as hell wouldn’t have lasted long here if I’d had the same outrageous gall to do what she did.

 

Sitting here listening to these people, though, helps me start piecing things togetherlike what I think and what I’d like to tell them. But I can’t, I’m a journalist. I’ve got to synthesise it first so it makes more sense, so that it’s more logical. But, maybe if I can't talk to them, I can tell it to you? If you’re interested in hearing an intriguing ‘truth is stranger’ sort of tale from a tanked journo.

 

But I better say goodbye to these folks first. “Bye, everyone.”

 

“Bye, Dennis,” they all chorus back at me. Typically, Old Nick has to get in the last word. “Hey, Dennis,” he calls out, “for a journo you’re a man of few words!” They all look up at me and smile in wry appreciation. It’s another easily coined smartarse outsider joke.

 

I walk out a bit unsteady onto the main street of the quiet sunny town, so thankful for the cool breeze at last. I find my nestling spot on a log underneath a sprawling jacaranda tree and settle in the shade. On my lap I have a complete notebook of factual details and I have taped interviews from my past two weeks here, ever since the quirky news broke. If I can but begin, I’ll tell you what I know so far about Pammie…

 

Pammie worked the mail run for three years solid, knew everyone in the town, drank beer and played billiards with the guys in the pub, babysat the local kiddies from the


 

church and even baked batches of fairy cakes for the Country Women’s Association’s fundraising rounds.  It would be nice to think she had some kind of background, which she didn’tor at least no one knew about. All they knew was what she wanted them to.  She frequently went to their houses, but curiously they were never invited back to hers.

 

Perhaps it would help if I read you some of the stuff from my journal or you listened to my interviews. Mrs Solomon had an interesting angle. But I suppose it can be said that all busybodies have interesting angles. Mrs Solomon  thought Pammie was a tart who always dressed like a tart except when she was in postal uniformbut she didn’t know where all of this tart gear came from.  It wasn’t sold in any of the town’s shops, she said, and Pammie never left the town or travelled to the city either by car or train.

 

This is interesting because Mrs Solomon lives next door to Old Nick Evans:   “(Pammie) … only pretended to be religious. But I could see through her. She used to disappear

into Nick’s four or five times a week, all tarted upthey weren’t church clothes.

 

“They’d stand on the verandah, him squeezing her round the middle, and I'd watch the old dog zipping up his trousers, saying goodbye to her. He’d kiss her on the neck till she got the giggles. Disgraceful conduct, especially for someone Nick Evan’s age.” Mrs Solomon was speechless.

 

But listen to Nanna insisting Pammie was kind… Where is it on this tape?… Here we are… “Pammie was so concerned if anyone’s kid was sick. She used to go to their house


 

and give them clothes, as presents. They were brand new kids clothesdon't know where she got them.” The clothes come back as a recurring theme.

 

Nanna says Pammie was “a healthy looking girl for 43”who, “always wore her red hair in a bun when she was in uniform”and, “for a single woman she was always welcomed at the church.” I guess she was trying to say that other women weren’t threatened by her, and by women’s standards she wasn’t very pretty.

 

Two weeks ago Nick Evans took a complimentary view of the illustrious postal Pammie, as well he might if Mrs Solomon’s observations are correct. “Well, she was my glowing girl. She had a presence about her.” Well, that was two weeks ago, Nick!  I’m sure I don’t have to explain to any of you the view that he now megablastsyou heard it in the pub.

 

Now romance always has a sad side. Ted Wilson shared with me yesterday how Jens Bursten was the odd man out, another of Cupid's casualties.

 

Jens doesn’t comprehend why he missed out on the affections of Pammie. Both single and of a similar age, Pammie was the first woman Jens had the courage to ask out since his wife died six years ago.

 

On numerous occasions he took the postal princess to the Club for a hot baked lamb, or out to the pictures. All he ever got for his efforts though was a smile, but the greatest smile everlike pure magic!


 

Ted confessed to me he’d never sufficiently learned to deal with the broken hearted. “What could I tell Jens?” he said, “That she didn’t take him seriously because she was slipping into Nick’s every other dayor, vice versa as the case was?”

 

Collecting this information has been a kind of ordeal for me. I feel like I’ve been caught in everyone’s snare. The snare, that is, of their daily lives. It's exhausting. Perhaps it would be easier now if I just talked to youencapsulations of what went on and how Pammie came unstuck. The best versions of what occurred have surfaced from my conversations at the pub.  This is what happened…

 

One morning two weeks ago, Pammie didn’t show up for work. That was odd because for about three years solid she'd been there ready to start at the sorting shed behind the post office every morning at 5 am sharp.

 

Her boss Bill Evans was ready to send someone looking for her. But while this was going on, a whole lot of residents from Harrisons Lane, where Pammie lives, were making their way to her house as they’d all been woken up by loud screaming noises. The screams weren’t coming from inside the house, but from a shoulder high space underneath the house.

 

Well, you can imagine how none of the town would have had a clue as to what this screaming was all about. The screams didn’t stop. While some townies were trekking down the lane at that ungodly hour, others were on the phone variously calling the police, the doctor, the ambulance driver, the hospital, the minister and the Bush Fire

Brigade.

 

The first of the townspeople brave enough to go under the house to investigate were Nick Evans and his constable nephew, Tim.  They were aghast at what they saw:

Pammie was collapsed in an emotional heap on the bare ground, her face and clothes covered in dirt. She kept smearing herself with the stuff, like an almost deranged robot. Her screaming continued high pitched and drum like in between some really pitiful sobs. One beaten and broken woman gone senseless and troppo, they guessed.

 

What Nick and Tim couldn't make sense of however was what lay around her, beside her and underneath her. Pammie was sitting on mail. Pammie was surrounded by mailof all kinds and descriptions, opened and unopened: parcels, boxes, jiffy bags, padded bags, tough bags, postpaks, large letters, small letters, CD, video and photo mailers, cards, crumpled wrapping paper, tissue paper, string, ribbons, colourful stick-on bowsand tinsel.

 

On closer inspection, the tinsel gave it away.  Both men were instantly struck with the realisation that Pammie had apparently suffered some sort of nervous breakdown while opening Christmas presents. Only it wasn't Christmas and the Christmas presents she was opening were not even her Christmas presents they belonged to the town. The addressees were all residents of the town, and the addressees were everyone but Pam.

 

Though still a bit dazed, Old Nick was fuelled with compassion. He went forward to help her up with outstretched arm but she retaliated swiftly with a vicious swipe and contemptuous snarl. He quickly backed off, feeling most rejected. Wherever Pammie was mentally, he assessed, she didn't want him.


 

Outside, the group of townsfolk gathering on the lane was steadily growing. From this group and too scared to go underneath the house, the friends from early school days, Margie and Shirl, stormtroopers on tip toes, walked up the stairs of the house and let themselves in for a good stickybeak around. Considering no one went inside Pammie's house, their adventure had all the excitement of a sexual tryst. There was a woman under the house screaming her lungs out, for godsakes!yet the two friends got the giggles as they went.

 

But when they stepped into the lounge room, Margie and Shirl gasped in horror. The room was filled everywhere with framed photosnot of Pammie's family (whoever they were) but of everyone else in the town. Photographs of young and old, male and female in group shots, studio portraits, and impromptu snaps covering all situations, happy and serious, casual and formal, summer and winter, at home and abroad.

 

Snooping further, they found on Pammie's cluttered desk a stack of mail order catalogues featuring sexy women's clothes and, in others, children's clothes. Three business card folders, instead of holding business cards, contained an assortment of credit cards belonging to different townsfolk. There was also a large folder full of photocopied signatures of the people in the towna practice page on the right hand side meant she had space to copy the signatures many times over.

 

The two women became increasingly upset as to what all this meant. Locals had reported missing photographs and credit cards from time to time, but had always put it down to an inefficient mail service being streamlined by a federal government for the sake of economic rationalism.

 

But it was what was in the bedroom that was the last straw for Shirl Carruthers and the final assault on her feminine self. Two years ago, after experiencing problems in her marriage, Shirl tracked down her high school lover and, unbeknown to her husband, the two had started corresponding. But then the letters suddenly stopped. Her lover had announced he was going to send her a picture but she never heard from him again. When she looked at the bed she was shocked to see a photograph of her paramour sitting framed on a table right beside Pammie's bed!decorated with flowers, candles and the words "I love you" embroidered on a satin ribbon below it.

 

Margie asked what's up, but Shirl was drawn in a zombiesque dance towards a folder on the table's lower shelf. She flipped it open fast as the disbelieving lumps in her throat got bigger and bigger. Inside were hole punched letters from her dream man written to her, Shirl. In another section were copies of all the letters written back to him by someone who had been signing the name, 'Shirl.' When she realised Pammie had actually done this pretending to be her, to Margie's bewilderment Shirl ran crying out of the house and down the lane. The 30 or so townsfolk gathered outside to listen and witness, thought 'this makes no sense' and agreed it was a crazy morning.

 

That's how the reaction of the town stayed for at least two weeks. All their confectionery images of the idealised Pammie began to crumble like icing sugar avalanches. People were confused, humiliated, while some felt emotionally destroyed. After Pammie was arrested and charged, Tim successfully got a court order for all the people in the town to go into her place and collect their things; strictly supervised, of course. Broadcast on local radio the day was organised chaos. This unusual communal activity attracted more excitement, crowds and traffic jams than the annual Show.

 

But I'm losing my train of thought here. This town's losing light, my tummy's grumbling, and it's almost time for the evening meal.

 

I walk more steadily this time back into the warm atmosphere of the pub. Inside, Tim's talking: "Look, I know you're all in shock but there's no use getting upset. The magistrate will sort her out. Credit card theft and tampering with the mail are serious offenses."

 

"Do we know anything more about her yet, Tim?" asks Ted Wilson busily washing out glasses. "Do we know who she is?"

 

"Well, look, Ted," Tim says, "The truth about Pammie is she could be anyone. She's had a history of homelessness, and non attachment to an area. She's lived in many places, usually for not more than two years at a time. She liked our town more than the others," he sniggers. "We don't know who she is, or her real name. The identity cards we found are so numerous: department store cards, credit cards, NRMA road service cards, petrol cards. Stolen from people all over Australiadifferent names, of course.  Anyway, sorry , got wife and kids waiting at home." Tim bids us farewell, dons his police cap, and leaves the pub.

"She was the finest, the greatest mail carrier we ever had," says a lachrymose Old Nick who is feeling a little kinder towards her.

 

Jens agrees, "It's true. But she hated compliments. When anyone told her how great she was at her job, she used to say, 'But all I do is sort and deliver. Any moron can do that."


 

Ted hands me my plate of steak and chips and I eat steadily listening.  "Ever seen that movie, The Great Imposter?" Margie suggests.

 

"Oh, yeh,” they all groan. "Maybe."

 

Shirl is still feeling particularly bitter: "She was just a clever deviant who kept the eye of the townand especially the finger of the policeoff her."

 

But I've heard enough dribble for the day! I really have. I put my utensils down. It's time to let them have it:

 

No, listen! You lot have got it all wrong! Completely wrong! Know what I think? I think she was a drifting soul, the epitome of loneliness, with no real place to call home. She grew up in an orphanage. She didn't have roots like you take for granted. Why do you think she had pictures of all you lot sitting around her house?

 

Margie sniggers, "Because she stole them?"  The rest are silent.

 

You mean you don't know? I persist. She was trying to create a family! Tim told me a story about when he was alone with her at the hospital. She'd been formally charged and, sick of the questioning, Tim decided to talk to her instead. She was all broken up and he took her hand. He said that she said, "There were no big arms to hold me." And he said stroking her head, "What do you mean?" And she said, "What I mean is, when I was a child, no one ever picked me up. I have no memory of adult arms." And that's when he held her in his arms. It's pretty damned sad. I want you to take note!

 

"Yeh, it's pretty damned sad," they all chorus, and drink their beer as quiet as the other.  So, are they sad? I think.

 

I'm coming to the realisation that maybe the Pammie saga is over.  I might actually be able to leave the weight of this town. But I suppose I better thank them first. They made me feel welcome enough. I will finish my dinner first though.

 

"Hey Dennis!" Bill yells, as I'm walking out the door. "For a journo, you're a man of few words!"

 

"Not as talkative as you, Bill," I say to him smiling, "But 'long as you say so."

 

 The End.

 

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Origins HARP Healing and Recovery Project for Forgotten Australians