Kate and Genevieve
The fibro house sat towards the Fairfield station end of the flat street which led up to a Fleming’s supermarket. For months the local residents had petitioned for the development of the supermarket so as to avoid the two and a half hour round trip east into town on the train to do their messages. With the primary school just on the other side of the tracks, and Kate’s own school just a block further, sending her siblings off to school was no hard task.
Most of the property was carpeted by a large area of long grass at the front, and the pavement at the back supported the rotary Hills clothesline. The neglected building comprised about a quarter of the block.
Kate had managed to shuffle Joe and Teddi to school; now it was only Bea in bed, who was feeling less than her bubbly self and Tammy in her cot. Kate poured the chicken noodle soup from the can into the saucepan on the stovetop, which already contained a cup of boiling water, true to the instructions. Leaving that to its own devices, she started her daily clean-up of the morning rush, once the siblings had left for school. Occasionally, if no one was home she would head to school herself — it was always a welcome break to only have herself to worry about.
Fifteen steps took Kate from one end of the house to the other; she had counted many times while picking up half eaten pieces of toast and hastily shed pyjamas. In the front room sat the radio facing towards the front door, four mismatched armchairs sitting in front of them. Someone had spilt milk all over the fabric of one of the chairs, which was now dripping off the edge into a growing puddle on the floor. Kate knew the culprit; Joe never left sufficient time, preferring to languish in bed until the last minute. She would smile in respect for her brother hoping that this last minute efficiency would be the key to success in later life.
Kate returned to the kitchen only to see the saucepan bubbling over, the lid riding the bubbles as they popped and sputtered. She gingerly grabbed hold of the handle with a tea towel and poured the soup into Bea’s favourite bowl, the one with the bright inlaid flowers.
Trying not to wake Tammy in her cot on the other side of the room, Kate headed to her own bed where Bea was hidden under a pile of blankets.
“There you are sis’, be careful it’s hot,” she whispered.
“I don’t think I’m gonna make it Kate,” came the girl’s hoarse voice, “tell Joe, Teddi and Baby I love them.”
Kate laughed quietly to herself.
“Wait Kate!” Bea sat up, suddenly better, “can you put the noise on the radio up so I can hear it in here? Maybe prop that window open too?”
Leaning across Bea she opened the window, checking her sister’s forehead as she did so.
“Bea, you have to try and get to school tomorrow. I need to go into town to pick up some stuff for Tammy’s birthday,” whispered Kate. Bea’s eyes widened as she spoke, her mouth forming into a grin. Tammy and Bea shared a birthday, so Bea knew that if Kate was going into the city, it meant she would be getting her own present.
“I think I’ll be able to do that,” Bea nodded, her health returning by the second.
Kate often stole a moment to doze in the chair, the morning’s activity taking its toll. The next door neighbour Jill Price would often pop over just to check that everyone was ok, but mostly to see if Kate had survived the morning frenzy. Kate knew that Jill Price was the single most helpful person in her life. Often she would offer to take Tammy for a night. Once a week on a
Wednesday night she would drop around a meal as she had “accidentally made far too much” and would, without fail, have the whole troop around for Sunday roast. As if this wasn’t enough,
Jill had also taken it upon herself to attend school meetings, posing as ‘guardian’ for Kate and her siblings, excusing their frequent absence with talk of home schooling and long term illness. Kate loved this woman like a mother. She was just a little uncomfortable when Jill felt that she could just enter without warning — she was unsure why. Kate had ‘joked’ about this pet peeve a hundred times with Jill, though no amount of reference had been able to get the message across to her: she felt she was immune from this rule.
“Honey?” Jill called through the screen door, her voice rattling the floorboards, startling Kate awake and out of her chair.
Jill opened the screen, paused and smiled to Kate as she sat up in her chair, who glared groggily at her guest. Jill headed into the bedroom for a moment, returning with Tammy cradled in her arms to where Kate was slumped.
“Darlin’, this doesn’t look all too responsible from where I’m standing, you sleepin’ through that baby’s crying,” Jill’s tone somewhere between patronising and genuine concern.
Kate knew it was pointless to defend herself and said nothing as Jill began to walk around the room, making sure to look back to Kate anytime she felt something needed to be raised with her. “Could you clean that one up?” Jill directed, noting the milk puddle. Kate scrambled as Jill spoke, equally annoyed at herself for forgetting about it as she was at Jill’s presence in that moment. Jill picked up a glass that Kate had clearly missed, as she headed into the kitchen. She soon returned with three clean glasses of water — one for Kate, one for Bea and one for herself.
Jill sat down at the dining table which sat against the wall in the lounge room. Kate had read in one of her Home and Garden magazines, which Jill had been passing onto her since Kate had begun to show an interest in Jill’s constant discussion of the subject, that the open plan kitchen/dining areas were the new vogue. Kate had become very interested and her current focus for the inside of the house was inspired by an article she had read in one of those magazines:
“Why your house should be changing now and thirty-five ideas to ‘anti-design’ your home by Ettore Sottsass Jr.”
Her most recent design was soon to be featured in the front room: removing all of the furniture and laying loose shag across the floor.
Jill stared at Kate for several minutes before speaking, “I’ve set up a meeting for you — I know you’re not going to like it, but I think its time to get some real help. You’ll have to go into town for it but they’ll be able to really take some pressure off you.” Jill handed Kate a slip of paper,
“that’s the name and number of the woman you’ll be seeing, her name is Genevieve, I’ll watch
Baby and Bea if she’s still ill. It’s at half eleven tomorrow.”
Kate tried to inhale some air into her lungs but came up with nothing, instead her breakfast was forcing its way out, and into the sink. As soon as she could, she walked out the back door into the air; as Kate began to scream, she heard a sound ringing out with her own voice as her sister began to cry out with her.
The desk was designed to promote open discussion, orange tones with scope to place a pot plant in a hole in the centre. The chairs matched, curving on such an angle that no one could ever find them comfortable; ground-breaking. The remainder of the room seemed to have avoided renovation. The filing cabinets no longer filed, the blinds no longer blinded; the chipped paint fell as dandruff, revealing the asbestos ridden panels behind. There was rarely a responsible parent entering the Child Welfare Department — though even the ‘less desirable’ entrants to the building had a few issues to point out.
Regardless of how the exposed wires crawling across the roof could pass even basic ‘Workmans Health and Safety’ standards, Kate found there would never be any stylistic justification for such a decision.
“I’d suggest you fired your interior designer, but I’m sure the union would have something to say about that.” Shifting in her seat, Kate waited for the laughs to follow, she’d nailed the joke she thought.
“The union’s not the problem — nepotism rules this place,” the larger woman reached her hand across the table, swallowing her guest’s in her own. “Hello, I’m Genevieve, auntie of said interior designer. Would you like a cuppa?”
Kate stared wide-eyed at the woman, as though she had been offered a million dollar cheque.
“I’d love one.” Kate’s words were almost a mumble, apprehensive to accept. Genevieve had an immediate impression which made Kate feel both comfortable and uneasy within the same breath. Her posture was ‘correct’ in her ergonomic chair, which looked as comfortable as a concrete slab. She was not grossly tall though she would hold great presence in any environment; she looked as though she was born in her perfectly fitted skirt and coat.
“So, Kate, as the protocol goes, we’ll have to perform a mandatory home visit to get our bearings and have you in again soon for the psych check. It’s really a very streamlined process if you follow it as written; he is a very good man — Thomas I mean, the shrink.” Genevieve spoke with deft diction as Kate slid her feet across the floor, tying knots in her hair anxiously as though there was somewhere she needed to be.
“There are, of course, alternate methods of working this process though I would highly recommend this method.” No breath was drawn as the contract was passed across the table, “Things have changed over the last few months, there’s been some reshuffling, and we’re really moving forward around here since the new legislation… the If you’ll sign here… and here.” Genevieve acted as though she had been programmed to perform an exact set of actions; her movements were somewhat too perfect. Never making a clumsy error, her hands worked in perfect tandem with her voice. Kate stifled her giggles as she began to imagine strings, making puppet Genevieve dance.
“Really, we’re developing into something better than ever, you should be very excited, there are some real innovative thinkers running the show these days. The goal really is for every child to have all the benefits of a normally happy home, with the maximum chance of success in the future,” Genevieve paused, sensing tension in the girl sitting opposite her.
“Now sweetheart, if we’re moving too fast for you just let me know, and don’t worry about the paperwork. It’s really just a formality, for our sake. While you do that, I’ll go grab you that tea.”
Kate watched as Genevieve walked around the desk and left the room, pulling the door behind her. The moment it closed, Kate reached across the table snatching up five of the biscuits sitting still in their tin on the table, and shoving them into a plastic bag in the front of her rucksack. She pondered pouring the rest of the tin into her bag, but she was denied the option when the door swung back open. Kate jumped into her seat.
“Careful!” Genevieve shouted as Kate’s quick movement almost knocked her over; she glanced towards the half empty tin as she placed the tea on the table in front of Kate, “this is hot, I could have burnt you darling. Did you sign everything?”
“Well,” began Kate, picking up her teacup, drawing it to her face as the steam burnt her lips. She quickly replaced the cup on the table, “I really think I need some time to think about this. My mother always tol’ me not to make these sorta decisions light.”
Genevieve’s grin crept from ear to ear. It would have been impossible to find anyone as seemingly happy as she was in that moment. “Oh of course darling, take ten, go for a walk, go see the new artworks in the hallway. Go finish that drink!”
Kate left the room and made for the front door. One more moment in that building and she thought she would spew. She pushed out into the sunlight and made her way away from the building. She was a fugitive, escaping from the authorities to freedom. It felt good.
She’d done all she needed to do for this round. For the moment she had other things to do. Kate pulled out a tin box from her bag, the worn words ‘First Aid’ spelled out on the top, and drew out tobacco enough to roll a cigarette as she walked. Lighting the end she flung her bag onto her shoulder and began her walk home.
22761. 22761, her pen traced the numbers heading the file open on the table. Kate. Her paperwork was spilt across the table, covering every inch. Upon reading every word of the file, Genevieve had her eureka moment: nothing to be done. Slumping into her chair, she took a sip of her drink, grimacing at the burn. Not often a drinker, Genevieve felt her runaway girl called out as something of a special occasion.
If there was no girl, there couldn’t be an open case. At least not with the Child Welfare Department, in the case of a missing person, everything would be passed over to the police. Genevieve felt trapped within her apartment; the walls were closing in as she searched for a way to find Kate.
Genevieve gave it another hour before giving in, throwing the file up onto her ‘some other time’ pile. There was far too much to do to be spending her whole night on one case. Genevieve opened her pearl encrusted case, drawing out a pre-rolled cigarette. Putting a match to it, she drew it towards her mouth — breath in, and release.
Holding the cigarette in hand, she began to work her way through the next file: summarising on her master sheet, number, address, condition, tick, tick, cross. Genevieve repeated this process until she had filled her master sheet, conceding — she began to get ready for bed.
Tomorrow she would spend more time on Kate, make some calls. For now she packed up her papers and returned them to her briefcase. If she were to sleep that night, it would be only as a result of the pills by the side of her bed and the drone of the radio drama drowning out all thoughts; Genevieve fell asleep instantly.
The drive to work the following day was littered with pit stops. Genevieve, finding any excuse to avoid a direct route to work found herself in a coffee shop, the supermarket and finally at the mechanic to sort out that pesky rattling handle on the passenger door. She had little to no information on this girl and could think of only a few ways to find out. The new telephone system had been described at the lunchtime meeting the week before as one to revolutionise the working environment. In every department, one “Dictaphone” recording device was now installed which had every conversation recorded. Many people in the department had been very sceptical of such an extravagant purchase, though now that it was installed, the four typists finally had a reason to be paid and something meaningful to do other than sitting around shouting in their native language.
For confidentiality reasons, she had been unable to bring up the details of the phone conversation with Jane during her meeting with Kate, though in hindsight she realised should have — the meeting may have run slightly smoother that way. From what she understood, Kate’s grandmother, the children’s legal guardian after the sudden unexpected departure of their father, had passed away eighteen months prior and Kate had been raising four children on her own, including the baby her mother had birthed in Parramatta Gaol.
Between her arrival at work at ten a.m. and departure at midday, she achieved very little, though she did feel far more mentally prepared for what she was about to confront. This was partially due to her reading, and mostly to do with the double dosage of Valium she had extracted from the bottom drawer of her filing cabinet. Now with the address recorded from the transcript she was paying Kate a visit.
Her car was parked around the back of the building in a small side alley, which qualified as staff parking for the small government department. As she pulled out towards the street, she waved to four of her office mates who had escaped for a smoking break.
The drive out west didn’t take as long as expected although the majority of the time was taken up with navigating the convoluted streets in Kate’s suburb. Her attempts to follow her street directory were futile, as it seemed her edition did not account for the recent train line extension, effectively cutting the suburb in two. As Genevieve drove around on the incorrect side of the tracks, wondering how to get from the school to Mercy Street, her earlier anxiety began to return. By the time she had found the underpass running below the train line three streets from the block she had been circling, it was two p.m. She had predicted she would have been finished by three, though it seemed now she may have to cancel drinks with the girls.
As she approached she noticed Kate sauntering down the street. There was a ‘tough-girl’ vibe that Genevieve had not glimpsed at her meeting two days prior. Genevieve slowed down to call out as Kate grabbed a crate of milk bottles from the doorstep of a house, looking around her to ensure that no-one noticed.
“I don’t believe that milk is yours, Kate, or am I mistaken? That’s yours, Kate,” Genevieve smiled.
“They’re overseas, it’s probably already gone bad anyway.” Kate was quick to reply, “what’s it to you anyway? Are you stalking me now?”
“I’m not too fussed really, doesn’t affect me, take care not to get sick with that though.” Genevieve hoped the banter would make her seem more human. “I’m checking on you, it’s just protocol — though we’re already a bit off the track after your walk out the other day.”
“Doesn’t that happen all the time?” Kate smirked, a blend of curiosity and embarrassment.
“More than we would hope, less than you would expect. Is it alright if I come visit?”
Kate tilted her head slightly, towards the empty car park at 23 Mercy Street and hopped into the passenger seat of the car. Within the time it took for Genevieve to drive the five metres and turn into the driveway, Kate had already managed to break the glove box clasp.
“I really am sorry,” Kate insisted, as they walked through the screen door. “I just break things, it happens.”
“It’s OK, we have policies in place for this — I’m insured for anything you manage to do.” Genevieve replied
“Oh, well in that case can I have a go?” Kate said, suddenly very excited.
“No.” Genevieve snapped walking through the front door and into the kitchen. “Can I make myself a tea? Do you want one?”
The house was in a condition Genevieve had been expecting. The front room’s setup: recliners around a radio seemed like something out of an arthouse film. The single bedroom which she peeked into from the living room, containing just one dilapidated couch, on her way to the kitchen contained four beds, a cot in the middle of the far wall, and one dresser had been divided into four by masking tape and labelled “Bea, Teddi, Joe, Kate”.
“Do you have a kettle?” Genevieve asked.
“Nah, you’ll just have to boil it in a pan,” Kate said, “or you could just use the hot water in the tap.”
Genevieve had to stifle a laugh as she picked up the jar marked “tea” from the bench and opened it to reveal the biscuits from their meeting two days before.
“They’re the wrong way ‘round, teas in ‘biscuits’,” Kate said anxious about Genevieve’s
reaction to her stealing.
“Thanks, we seem to have the same taste in biscuits.” Genevieve said straight faced, “though
I’ve run out myself at work.”
Looking around the room Genevieve was beginning to piece together the situation; if the Chinese container ‘plates’ and the stack of tins above the stove were not a clear enough indicator that something was very wrong, then the mildew on the walls and the smashed oven door confirmed her suspicions.
Genevieve asked Kate questions about her life, though Kate gave little more than she had at the last meeting; she seemed just as anxious to be somewhere else as she had last time.
Since her grandmother’s passing eighteen months ago — not too long after her mother’s gaol sentence began — Kate had taken on a new level of responsibility. As to the reason for her mother’s incarceration, Kate didn’t know why, or if she did, was not about to tell Genevieve.
They had been living off her mother’s welfare cheques before and were now relying on a small sum of money from her grandmother’s life insurance policy, taken out when Kate was born.
It was clear to Genevieve that Kate’s grandmother had always seen her daughter as a loose cannon, so had created some safety nets for the children. The man in charge of this insurance policy was an old friend of the family and was willing to look the other way regarding the children’s care arrangements. From Kate’s perspective everything was going fine, and to any onlooker there was no real reason to think otherwise. The children regularly attended school, Jill would take them to the doctor if they needed to go. Kate had everything working in such a way so that no one would notice, that is until Jill called them in.
“From what I understood on the phone with Jill, there was some problem with absence.” Genevieve finally said, the tension building as Kate wondered how much she knew.
“What do you mean?” Kate asked.
“Nights or days you weren’t present, even missing. I’m only saying this because we have to think about the best interests of your siblings and whether or not you’re fit to be their guardian.
At — how old are you?”
With a deep breath, Genevieve repeated, “How old are you?”
Unsurprised, Genevieve exhaled and said calmly, “At fifteen, you should not be caring for four children.”
“Look, lady. I know you’re not gonna get it, but I’ve put far too much into this over the last eighteen months for you to stuff it up.” Kate spoke as though reading off a script she had been dying to perform. “I’m not stupid either, I know in the end you’re just gonna follow your stupid protocol and ruin everything. Is there a book? One that just says if it’s this,” holding out her hands showing a gap of about a foot, “then everything is alright, and if it’s this,” spreading her arms apart, “then you’d better duck for cover because big bad Genevieve or whoever is coming to get you.”
Though Genevieve had been preparing herself for such a performance, the girl she had imagined was crying on the floor, telling her she could not take her family away. For the girl standing strong in front of her, she had no words.
“So I’ve basically covered it all,” Kate continued, “this was more or less how you planned it? Come in to my home and tell me how sad it is that I have to care for these kids, and how ‘that’s not the life for me’, that I’m incompetent, I don’t know what I’m doing. That I’m killing these kids.”
In any other situation, Genevieve would not have stood for a fifteen year old challenging her in such a way. However in this case, Genevieve stood stunned. The children peeked into the kitchen sheepishly to where their sister was shouting. At ten, Bea felt the courage to step out, leading the other two.
“Hello, I’m Genevieve.” She beamed at the children, then turning back to Kate, she said, “am I wrong in thinking there were four children?”
“Teddi’s next door, she’s fine.” Kate stared at the ground as she spoke. “When are you leaving?”
Genevieve began to realise that while it was a real shambles, the room around Genevieve and the four children was not anything to be repulsed by. As she scanned the room she could not find anything that seemed out of its correct place. In her own home, Genevieve would not have been able to handle the schooner vase, full of dandelions and other weeds. But everything was in a certain state of order. This was in her mind a home.
“How about I just leave then Kate? How about I leave and I mark this off as ‘requires further assessment’.” Genevieve’s words came as a surprise to both Kate and herself.
“What does that mean?”
“It means that I would be lying, saying there is a responsible person to take care of these children.”
“Why would you do that?”
“Separating you wouldn’t help anyone.” Genevieve said, reluctantly releasing a calming smile, though her hand was shaking on the counter. “But this would involve a deal: I would perform regular house visits, and try to help you out. But we would have to discuss safety nets to make sure nothing happens. If anything goes wrong, this falls back on me.”
“No of course! Thank you. We can work this out, really.” Kate said, quickly softening.
That afternoon, and into the night Genevieve and Kate discussed the terms of the arrangement, which was clearly off the books. The only documentation was an unofficial contract written up by Genevieve on the back of an envelope. As it went,
Terms of agreement concerning Kate:
1. This is unofficial and against policy so it cannot be discussed with anyone else.
2. Kate will remain the carer of Bea, Teddi, Joe and Baby Doyle for as long as she is deemed fit based on:
a. Regular (monthly) checkups by Genevieve O’Greene.
b. A daily log to be recorded by Kate.
3. The arrangement will be upheld on the condition that there is:
a. No intervention by police or any other body.
b. No injuries are sustained by any of the children within the household, be it accidental, purposeful or self inflicted.
c. Constant supervision of the children at home and no absences by Kate any extended periods
4. If any conditions are broken, the arrangement will be terminated and the correct ‘Child
Welfare Department’ procedures instituted.
5. This is not to be taken lightly by any party, for Genevieve this is a great risk and it is to be appreciated as such by Kate.
Signed Date: 22/3/68
With the document signed they set the twenty first of April as the date of their next meeting. Genevieve left the house after dark, leaving all her contact details before quickly departing in her car. The drive home was far faster than the trip there, which was a relief. Genevieve made it home after ten, and filled herself a bath.
The twenty first came quickly and Genevieve set out early on the Sunday morning for Kate’s home, more accustomed to the drive which was to become routine for her. She made it to Kate’s street in just under half an hour and began her way along, half expecting to see Kate on her way again.
She pulled into the driveway and got out of her car, relaxed by the quiet. Everything felt fine. She grabbed a stack of letters and bills out of the box near the footpath and headed towards the door, which on this occasion was closed .
It took almost five minutes of knocking before a woman walked out of the house to the left holding a baby in her arms.
“No one’s home, can I help you?”
“Jill?” Genevieve asked. Jill nodded. “I’m Genevieve, we spoke on the phone a month ago. I’d arranged to see Kate today. You wouldn’t know where she is?”
With Tammy in her arms, Jill quickly invited her inside, sitting her down without a word. Noticing the tension, Genevieve began to brace herself for the inevitable conversation she was facing.
Finally Jill spoke, “Kate’s gone. It’s been eight days and I don’t see her coming back,” Jill said, seeing the shock in Genevieve’s eyes. “I didn’t know when you would be back, but I assumed it was best to wait. For you I mean, I didn’t want to make any trouble for the kids.”
Genevieve opened her mouth to speak, closed it, and opened it again. Her head was swimming with too many thoughts: she would have to arrange care for the children, call the police, she was going to be sacked.
“When you say gone… gone where?” Genevieve managed to spit out.
“If I knew, I would’ve hunted the silly girl down by now. There was a letter for you on the kitchen bench. Here.” Jill pulled an envelope of her back pocket and passed it to Genevieve. She fumbled to keep it in her hands before it hit the ground. Picking it up, she pulled apart the already unsealed envelope, extracting its contents:
Sorry, I couldn’t do it, something came up, probably should have just gone with protocol. I’m sorry I let you help me.
“I only opened it because I thought it would give me some idea of where she was,” Jill said shakily, “the kids will be back from school in about forty minutes. They’ve been staying here, and since our kids have left the nest, my husband and I don’t mind at the moment.”
“I’ve really not done much good here. May I use your phone?”
Jill stared at Genevieve for a few moments before saying, “I can take care of these three for as long as it takes, Kate will only come back when she wants to, don’t risk your job over her.”
“It’s not my job I’m worried about, what if something happens to her?” Genevieve replied, her breathing audible from where Jill stood across the room. She moved in and put a hand in Genevieve’s knee.
“She’s sixteen next week, she’s not stupid, and she’s not technically your concern as far as the books go, is she? Look, here’s a tip from someone with some experience in your field, the system you have is in place because it’s better than anything else anyone can come up with, work with it.”
Genevieve nodded blindly as Jill placed a teacup in her hand; for fifteen minutes she sat in silence before thanking Jill and leaving.
If it wasn’t for the woman shouting across the desk, Michael would not have felt so uneasy where he stood, he was very much out of place. In a way this thought comforted him, the police station should hardly be a place where anyone should feel at home, but he did have something important to do.
Michael had rationalised his decision enough to no longer feel bad for going against his wife’s wishes. Michael could handle having three extra children in the house, the month following had been a darling experience for Jill and himself, he missed the company of his own children, and Bea, Teddi and Joe behaved better than his own litter ever did. Jill was still sure Kate would return in her own time and insisted that they “just wait”, though in her older age she had developed the ability to filter anything troubling out, including Joe’s dangerous comments.
“It’s my fault Kate left,” Joe had said a week after Genevieve’s visit.
Jill had picked the boy up, simply saying, “You know that’s not true honey, don’t you say those things.”
The comments continued however, and only so many of the bruises up Joe’s arms and legs could be explained by “boys will be boys.”
While Jill had made a career of dealing with such issues as a government counsellor, she had never been able to accept the harm her own daughter inflicted upon herself, and now it seemed to Michael that history would repeat itself with Joe, whom Jill could not help but love.
Michael knew he was not equipped or qualified to fix Joe, though he knew he couldn’t lose another child, and maybe bringing Kate back would be the answer.
The shouting in front of him began to subside as the woman began towards the exit.
“He didn’t do anything wrong, you can’t lock him up,” she shouted, mumbling “scum” under her breath as she brushed past Michael.
“Sir?” The woman at the counter beckoned, “may I help you out?”
“Yes,” Michael scratched at his arm, trying to secure his train of thought, “I would like to report a missing child.”