About the author
For over thirty years Kevin Stone has been an advocate for people with intellectual disability – as a special school principal, a parent, a former president of the National Council on Intellectual Disability and as the long-serving Executive Officer of VALID – the Victorian Advocacy League for Individuals with a Disability, which he co-founded in 1988. He has been a prominent advocate for the closure of institutions and a strong campaigner for the rights of disabled people. While he has written several non-fiction works, including professional training manuals and articles, Faith is his first novel. It is based – if not entirely on fact – essentially on truth.
Read a sample:
GOING down the hill, I’m smart to every rock and branch of it. I know the downward ground with all its tricks and twists but going up I’m wandering like a blind man, tripping like a spastic, stumbling like an idiot.
My legs are cut and my arms are scratched because I’m nothing but a useless retard, stupid in the dark.
She picks me up and drives me on, not with a car but with a prayer.
Without her I am lost.
I know there are devils in this world, and demons and witches too. Like the rocks and branches they want for me to fall.
But she is my angel, sent to guide my way. She leads me to the light, she guides me along the path, she takes me through the window and she steadies my hand.
My Faith needs me to be brave, and she needs me to be strong. I am her only hope, and I have come to set her free…
LOOMING high above the town of Eagleton, the Forest Park facility was like another sun or moon, a feature of the natural environment that locals took for granted. No one ever doubted it or questioned it, just like no one ever doubts or questions stars or clouds or darkness.
But the Park was no natural part of Stella Blefari’s world. She’d had her doubts about this place ever since arriving in town over a week ago. Reluctantly dragging herself from her car, about to start her first real job in over fifteen years, her cheeks flushed, her head throbbed.
Sucking deep on the chill mountain air, trying to steady her nerves, she choked instead on the story told to her by the institution’s Director, Dale Roberts, during the ‘official’ orientation tour. A weedy little man with thin silvery hair combed back from a shiny red brow, he’d claimed that sharp alpine breeze was one of the main reasons the Forest Park Centre for the Intellectually Disabled had been built out here in the first place, atop the tallest of Eagle Valley peaks.
“Early last century, when the Park was first built, people were convinced idiocy and lunacy were carried through the air by invisible bugs. They believed these strong mountain winds would carry the contamination safely away from normal folk. How were they to know there’s nothing to fear from the air?”
Yet Stella was not convinced. There was a smell about this place – if not the smell of disability, then perhaps of despair and decay.
Slamming the car door shut, she hurried out of the darkened car park, up the bluestone steps and into the fluorescent haze of the Administration building’s central foyer – a grand and imposing place of lushly waxed floorboards, Persian rugs and old leather armchairs.
High-ceilinged corridors branched in all directions, all leading to the myriad covered pathways that connected to the Park’s eight scattered wards. Pausing to get her bearings, she veered south towards her destination, the all-girl Green Ward. In stark contrast to the Administration building and its lavish foyer, the dormitory wards were all long neglected. Slate-tiled roofs were shattered. Red brick walls and bluestone foundations were fractured and ruptured. An under-funded maintenance program was no match for the high winds, heavy storms and shifting earth. No match either for the wear and tear of over three hundred people crammed within.
During the tour she’d been relieved to find that Green Ward – the ward to which she’d been assigned – was not the worst repaired of the wards, nor apparently did it house any of the Park’s more difficult clients. Situated on the south-eastern face of the mountain, this unit was relatively protected from the elements and its thirty-six resident women were relatively harmonious. Dale had described them all as ‘trouble-free’, and that had suited her fine. Most of the women were in their mid-forties, most were able to talk and most, with just a few exceptions, could walk – a fact that Stella, who still suffered back spasms from a three year stint at Caloola in the late ‘Eighties, had particularly welcomed. Having spent most of that time transferring people from wheelchairs to beds and baths and toilets, she doubted her back – many years older and stiffer – could withstand such heavy work.
Arriving at the Green Ward entrance, she pressed on the buzzer and presented herself to a defective intercom. A garbled voice crackled back at her, followed by the door being instantly opened. Stepping through it, she was met by an older woman in a crisp blue nurse’s uniform, whom she identified as Grandma Gloria. Having anticipated a different kind of grandmother, she was momentarily taken aback. Where she’d been led to expect an elderly woman who was small, bent and frail, this woman was manifestly fit, strong and straight-backed.
Masking her surprise, Stella looked to a nearby wall clock that showed ten minutes past her starting time of nine. Apologising for being late, she explained she’d had trouble finding her way in the dark, which was obviously a lie. In fact, it had taken her ten minutes to find courage enough to get out of the car.
If Gloria detected the lie, she didn’t let on. Assuring her there was no time clock to punch – after all, they weren’t running a factory here – she explained the women were all well asleep and wouldn’t need to be checked for at least another hour. Leading her into a small but homely staff room, with frilly lace curtains and the sweet smell of roses, she greeted her with a cup of tea, ready-made. Appreciative of the welcome, Stella remarked upon the fine porcelain tea-set, before sitting with her at a small round table and preparing for the ‘unofficial’ orientation.
Apart from the table and its four chairs, along with the lace curtains and the vase of flowers, the staff room had little else to commend it. A single sink and bench allowed the making of beverages, while a small fridge allowed the storing of milk. A set of shelves was neatly organised with crockery and biscuit tins and adorned with a display of girlish ornaments – teddy bears in pretty ballerina costumes and cute dolls with big blue eyes. A notice board over by the door was similarly well organised, with departmental bulletins, administrative memos and union newsletters all neatly pinned. The only exception to the dominant sense of matronly order was a large and colourful poster pinned high above the shelves – and obviously beyond Gloria’s reach – of Bob Marley and the Wailers. This was the only disruption to what Stella understood to be the way of things on Green Ward, but it was also an encouraging one.
Sipping at their cups, they exchanged pleasantries and chatted for a while, until Gloria ventured to ask, “So tell me, dear – how are you finding Eagleton?”
Aware she was being tested, Stella hesitated. Eagleton was an old goldmining town thrown aside by a big highway. Set deep in the heart of the Eagle Valley, surrounded by the mountains of the Great Dividing Range, it was the most remote place she could find work in, and the most secluded.
“It’s very pretty,” she smiled diplomatically.
It was her second lie, and this one wouldn’t pass. “Come on, dear,” winked the older woman, “you can tell me the truth.”
As everyone knew, Eagleton was an ugly little place, a messy patchwork of blistered weatherboards and triple-fronted brick veneers, of tin roofs and gabled TV aerials. As Stella also knew, however, there was no shortage of civic pride and local loyalty. Her smile, therefore – though slightly crooked – remained firmly fixed.
“That is the truth,” she insisted. “You don’t think so?”
Leaning back in her seat, Gloria conducted a careful re-appraisal. All her information on this new girl had come third and fourth hand, sourced mainly by the other new girls, Heather and Julie, who – at the suggestion of Dale Roberts – had rented her their backyard bungalow. According to them, she’d arrived at their doorstep with just one suitcase, an aversion to conversation and, on her left ring finger, the white scar of an absent wedding band. They’d given the impression of an intelligent but shy woman in her mid-thirties, returning to work after a failed marriage. Others had taken it further, speculating she was a battered wife fleeing home with an angry husband hot on her trail. Having now had her own opportunity to investigate, Gloria was convinced she knew better. This one was clearly too smart ever to marry a wife-beater, and more watchful and reserved than shy. There was something else she’d also noticed.
“You’re a new Australian, aren’t you, dear?”
Stella grinned. She hadn’t heard that term in a long time. “My parents were Italian.”
Gloria was pleased with herself. Stella’s olive-toned skin and deep black eyes were a dead give-away. “Does that mean you’d prefer coffee?”
Laughing, she eagerly drew the cup towards her. “If you think I’m going to pass up one of your famous cuppas, you’re mistaken!”
Even newcomer Stella had heard of Gloria’s special tea-leaf readings. All the young female nurses reportedly sought her out, looking for hope and guidance in their love lives. Though not so young, Stella felt she could do with all the advice she could get. From the moment Heather and Julie had told her about the ‘gypsy grandmother’ of Forest Park, she’d been looking forward to a reading. Conscious she’d sounded too keen, however, she let the cup sit and politely inquired about Gloria’s own origins.
Responding affably, Gloria explained she’d lived in Eagleton all of her sixty-four years, and had worked at the Park for almost fifty of them. Starting out as a cleaner and kitchen hand, she’d come onto the wards in the early ‘Sixties. They were dark days, she recalled, when Governments preferred to isolate and neglect, and when the power of the union was yet to be asserted. Her blue tunic, she said with pride, was the official uniform of the classified Mental Retardation Nurse. According to her, the MRN had represented the first real effort to professionalise disability services back in the ‘Seventies.
Stella, dressed in casual jeans and a soft leather jacket, had to bite her tongue. The tunic, she believed, was symbolic of the dark old days when disability services had been run by doctors and nurses, and when the lives of people with intellectual disability had been dominated by hospitals and institutions. Though also a trained MRN, she’d refused to wear the wretched thing fifteen years ago, and she wasn’t about to start wearing it now.
Sensing her opinion, as guarded as it was, Gloria bristled and became agitated. Railing against the ideologues and bureaucrats who’d conspired to empty the institutions in the name of social integration, she said all the failures ended up at Forest Park.
“Don’t talk to me about progress,” she sneered. “We get all the rejects here – people who don’t make it into any of the community group homes, and everyone else the system gives up on!”
Suddenly reminded of her tour with the Director, Stella slumped in her chair. Yesterday, as Dale Roberts had shown her through the wards, people had emerged to stare at her with lifeless, drug-glazed eyes. Though aged and gaunt, she’d recognised several faces from Caloola, the decommissioned institution where she’d last worked. At the time of leaving, they were all going to be ‘de-institutionalised’. They were all going to live in normal houses in the community. Yet here they were – stuck out in the bush, buildings falling down around them, crammed thirty-five plus to a ward. It had been bad enough seeing the few she knew, but it was distressing to think so many others might also have been abandoned.
It seemed a betrayal not only of them, but also of Stella herself. Her husband, Sam Carter – whom she’d first met at Caloola – had been a senior manager with the Department of Community Services for the past fifteen years. During that time he’d been involved, as both an ‘ideologue’ and a ‘bureaucrat’, with the decommissioning of almost all Victoria’s institutions for people with intellectual disability. Through him, she’d been led to believe all of the residents had been successfully given new homes and new lives within the mainstream community. Though she should hardly have been surprised, it galled her to learn he had lied even about this.
Sensing she’d found a raw nerve, the older woman poked it further. While it was a sad thing that all these poor disabled people had been betrayed by their Government, she said, at least the failure of community-based services had guaranteed the future of Forest Park. As long as there was nowhere else to dump them, she crowed, there’d be no politicians trying to close it down.
Again, Stella had to bite her tongue. She’d long been aware of calls from advocacy groups and policy-makers, including her husband, for this place to be decommissioned. It was the last large-scale facility in the State – the last Victorian stronghold of segregation and mass congregation. Even before arriving in town, she’d been conscious of the calls to ‘Close the Park’. It was hard to believe Gloria would not also be aware of it.
She was summoning the courage to set her right when the older woman suddenly seized control of her cup and began to inspect it. Caught off-guard, Stella anxiously recalled the words of Julie, the prettier and more pleasant of her new house-mates.
“Beware Grandma Gloria,” she’d warned. “Don’t fall for her gypsy fortune-teller act. It’s nothing but E.S.B.” According to her, the accuracy of Gloria’s tea-leaf readings relied entirely on the information she managed to coax from her subjects as they drank. ‘Extra-Sensory Bullshit’, she called it – or ‘E.S.B.’
Heather, the plainer and sterner of the house-mates, had put it more bluntly. “The nosy old cow only knows what you tell her. Tell her nothing.”
Ignoring their advice, all week Stella had been secretly looking forward to being enlightened, but still she wasn’t prepared for the gypsy grandmother’s opening premonition. “It’s just as I thought, dear,” she observed, studying the dregs. “You should never have moved in with those lesbian bitches.”
Stella, still swilling the last mouthful of milky tea, almost choked on it. Stunned, embarrassed, she could see there was no love lost here – on both sides. All week, Heather and Julie had been ridiculing Gloria’s work, and disparaging her age and experience. They referred to her as the ‘silly old bitch who should’ve retired years ago’. They called her ‘Grandma Gloria’ not with affection but with spite. Whereas Gloria’s way was to mother and indulge the people of the Park, the modern approach – and the better approach, they asserted – was to regard them as adults and treat them as equals.
Condemning her attitude as patronising and demeaning, Heather and Julie were strong on the concepts of age appropriateness and independence. For the past three years, they’d worked exclusively at the Forest Park Community House, an annexe of the Park located down the hill in Eagleton, devoted to teaching independent living skills. Matched to stereotypical perfection, Julie was easy-going and friendly, while Heather was intense and aggressive; Julie, with short blonde hair, was feminine and petite, while Heather, with long dark hair, was thickly‑set and mannish. From the outset, Stella had automatically assumed the pair were a ‘couple’ and hadn’t thought twice about it. As for being ‘bitches’, she had every reason to admire their approach and to reject Gloria’s own. Her uniform, felt Stella, tied her not only to the memories of the past but to its ignorant and oppressive attitudes.
Sensing her persuasion, Gloria reacted indignantly. Swirling the cup with a dramatic flourish, she thumped it upside down on the table to drain the excess liquid. Then, after a measured count to seven, she replaced it in the saucer to interrogate the residue. Leaning across the table, Stella saw only a scattered mess of thick black leaves. The gypsy grandmother, however, had apparently made an important discovery.
“You’ve recently separated. See the circular shape to the left, deep in the cup? It tells me you have not long been apart. It suggests the separation was particularly difficult for you.”
Stella was impressed, until she reminded herself of her naked finger, still bearing the tell-tale marriage scar. “You’re right,” she said, covering her hand. “It didn’t end well.”
Gloria nodded wisely. She’d seen it many times. Young women torn apart by the conflicting demands of husbands, families and the duty roster. She peered deeper into the cup. “No children?”
Stella stiffened. She was guilty of abandoning no one, other than the husband who had, slowly but surely over many years, abandoned her. “No – no children.”
The absence of children had actually been one of the main issues of her failed marriage. Not just the absence of children, but the absence of all that children might bring: purpose, commitment, meaning. By the end, the absence of children had come to represent the desolation – not of her womb, which was fully intact, nor of his virility, which was forever and literally being rammed down her throat – but of their love, which had been barren from the start.
Presuming to know all about it, Gloria began nodding sympathetically and was about to offer something sage and supportive, when suddenly from down the hallway there came a bellowing roar. Leaping to her feet in alarm, she ran to the door. “That sounded like a man’s voice.”
A second roar followed, and this confirmed it. The deep and anguished wail of a man’s voice shook the entire ward. With a look of recognition, Gloria’s eyes flashed angrily as she bolted urgently from the office, with Stella close behind. Together they came into a large day room gleaming with freshly-polished linoleum and smelling of musty old armchairs, to confront a lone man standing with his head in his hands, weeping inconsolably. Wearing a blue tracksuit and dirty sneakers, he looked to be in his early forties.
“David!” snapped Gloria officiously. “What are you doing here?”
Lifting his head, revealing a face wet with tears, saliva and snot, he was apparently relieved to see her. “Something’s happened!” he exclaimed.
“What do you mean? What’s the matter with you?”
“Not me!” he insisted, wiping his face with his sleeve. “Faith!”
“Faith?” Gloria snapped urgently. “What’s happened to Faith?”
Trembling with emotion, too distraught for words, he answered with another mournful and desperate howl. Gloria, starting towards the dormitory, commanded Stella to stay and watch him.
Her heart sank. David was much taller than her, and much heavier. If he decided to run, there would be no stopping him. But then, she saw, there was no chance of him running. He was trembling, shuddering, helpless. Gently engaging him, coaxing him to relax, she managed to learn that he was thirty-eight years old; that his full name was David Philip Armstrong; that his younger sister, Faith, was a long-time resident of Green Ward; that he had also once lived at the Park, and that he was now a normal person living in a normal house in Tower Street, Eagleton. He’d come up here, he explained, to set his sister free.
She had almost managed to calm him when Gloria emerged from the dormitory, ashen-faced. “You keep watching him,” she instructed grimly, without pausing to explain. “I’ll call for help.”
As she disappeared along the corridor, presumably to use the staff room telephone, Stella looked at her charge with sudden alarm. Evidently his distress was justified: this was no common night-shift incident. “What is it, David?” she pressed. “What have you done?”
Too anguished to answer, his face turned from white to red, then to a darker shade of green. His dim yellow eyes rolled into the back of his head and his mouth dropped open, exposing ugly brown teeth. Suddenly convulsing, a foul white jet spewed from his mouth and gushed through his panicked hands before splashing onto the newly-polished floor.
Leaping out of the way, she searched in vain for a bucket and mop. Dashing back to the staff room, she found Gloria shouting into the telephone, demanding immediate help. Catching her eye, she started to explain that David had vomited and needed a bucket, but Gloria’s reaction was hysterical. Slamming the phone down, she screamed at her for deserting her post, before pushing past her and sprinting back to the day room. Following in her wake, upset at being attacked, Stella only fully realised her mistake when she came into the room. Gloria was standing over the pool of vomit – alone. “I told you not to leave him!” she snarled accusingly.
Reeling, Stella quickly acted to make amends. Running for the dormitory, knowing there was only one place he could have gone, she came into a cavernous room dissected by a wide central aisle, with moonlight streaming through a row of lace-curtained windows. To the left lay two rows of beds, each evenly separated by a small standard dressing table; to the right, a reverse image of the same. All the ceiling lights were ablaze and all the women were awake. She recognised several faces from her orientation tour, and even recalled several names. There was Agnes, a shy old woman with Down Syndrome, who’d been too busy crocheting a scarf to acknowledge either the Director or the new girl. There was Helen with the hair, and Suzanne with the foot. Half of them were screaming in their beds; the other half filled the aisles, crying and howling. David’s mournful wail was loudest of all.
Pushing her way through, she glimpsed him in the far corner of the room, standing over a bed. He was cradling something in his arms. Drawing nearer, she saw it was the body of a small woman, hanging limp. He was cuddling it like a baby, gently rocking it back and forth. “Is that your sister?” she asked in trepidation. “Is that Faith?”
Suddenly Gloria was upon him, screaming wildly. “You leave her alone!” she cried, slapping at him. “Get your filthy hands off her! Don’t you hurt her any more!”
Terrified, he dropped the body onto the bed and bolted for an open window. Chasing after him, Gloria tried to call him back but her feeble plea was no match for the howling and screaming of the Green Ward women.
As he clambered through the window, Stella turned back to the bed in hope his sister might simply be sleeping, or at least, God-willing, be alive. Moving closer, however, she saw there was no hope at all. Faith’s head was twisted hideously. Deep bruises, strung like beads, adorned her neck. Her tongue protruded horribly, as if a stumpy‑tailed lizard had been stuffed between her teeth.
One of the women, coming alongside Stella, shook her head in dismay. Recognising her as Eileen, one of the more capable Green Ward women, she tried to shield her from the shocking sight. Faith wasn’t well, she said, so perhaps Eileen should go outside and wait for the doctor to arrive.
“Doctor!” scoffed Eileen, as if the new girl was stupid. “Too late for fuckin’ doctors!”
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