by Doug Jacquier
We were sorting through Mum’s personal possessions before she moved into the aged care facility and we’d come to her ornate japanned jewellery box. She carefully sorted the contents in to two groups; one to take with her (and leave to me when she passed) and one for her favorite charity shop. In her personal pile I noticed a cheap costume jewellery red brooch, which I thought was seriously at odds with her usual good taste.
Picking it up, I said, ‘Sentimental value?’
‘You could say that,’ she replied, with a slight tilt of her head and a movement at the corner of her mouth. I was prepared to leave it at that, assuming it was a memory she’d rather keep to herself but then she began to breathe very shallowly and her already wafery skin turned to a shade of alabaster.
Deeply concerned, I said quickly ‘Mum, are you OK, do you want me to call the doctor? Can you speak?’
She seemed to return from somewhere else and her colour improved a little.
‘Sit down. There’s something I want to tell you that you must promise me you will never share.’
‘Of course, Mum.’
‘I mean it and you will understand when I tell you.’
I sat next to her, my mind shuffling through a myriad of possibilities; a secret affair, a love child, a theft …..
She began timorously but her voice gained strength as her tale unfolded.
‘During the war, life changed a great deal for women. Out of necessity, we took up trades, ran farms, drove heavy vehicles and all the other things that men had kept to themselves. We were even shown how to use guns, just in case the enemy ever invaded.’
Somehow this wasn’t gelling with the bird-like, frail person in front of me and the home-body mother I thought I knew but I didn’t interrupt.
‘When the war ended and the lucky men came home to their families, they took all those jobs back and the so-called natural order of things gradually returned. But many of those men, especially the ones who’d spent time in POW camps, had changed in ways we could never have imagined were possible.’
Here she paused and began gnawing at her bottom lip. Again concerned I leaned forward to comfort her but she gestured me away.
‘Let me finish.’
In control again, she continued, gathering momentum with each sentence.
‘Some just sat in silence, some just sat and cried, some couldn’t hold down a job, some became drunks, some became gamblers and some became wife-beaters. There was no help for them or their families, beyond pull up your bootstraps and get on with it. Frightened, destitute families were in every town and suburb and there was no welfare safety net then. And so it began.’
‘For goodness sake, Mum, what began,’ my mind was screaming but I said nothing.
‘Nobody knows, or has told, who started it but I remember at women’s gatherings and down at the shops back then a small number of women were wearing the same tacky red brooch you see here. Over a cuppa one day, I asked a very close friend if she had noticed it too. She had, she said, and she knew what it meant. It meant that the woman knew of a case.’
Impatient, I said, ‘What sort of case?’
‘A case of a man who could not be put back together again. A man whose friends and family had done all they could to bring him back to the human race but failed. A man who had beaten, raped, gambled or drank to the point that the misery he was inflicting was no longer tolerable but society seemed unwilling or uninterested in stopping him.’
I blinked involuntarily and rapidly and said ‘So what happened to these cases?’
‘They were removed.’
‘What do you mean removed?’
‘Someone in the network with no other connections would remove him. A drunk might go to sleep on a railway track. A gambler might be found floating in the river and rumors spread of unpaid debts to criminals. A rapist might accidentally fall into a machine at work. A man’s gun might accidentally go off while he was cleaning it. There were ways.’
I could no longer hide my shock. ‘But Mum, that’s vigilante stuff! What if you got it wrong?’
‘Oh, we were never wrong. If a woman reported a case it would be thoroughly investigated by others before removal was undertaken. That was part of the point of the network.’
‘But didn’t the police get suspicious about all these deaths?’
‘Oh, you make it sound like some sort of bloodbath. It’s not as if there were hundreds. Besides, there were police in critical positions to whom we could have a quiet word about not getting too enthusiastic about investigating further.’
‘So there were men in the network as well?’
‘Not in the network as such but, yes, there were men who were prepared to be helpful should the need arise. They’d also learned some new skills during the war.’
‘Is it still going?’
‘Haven’t a clue really but I haven’t seen that red brooch in public for donkey’s years. But I thought I’d put it in your pile in case it might be useful in the future. I mean I hear about some of these men returning from the Middle East … ’ and she trailed off.
The only thing I could think of was to change the subject so I shifted to my father, who had died not long after I was born. I asked whether there were any of his things that she would like to take with her.
‘Oh, no, dear, I got rid of those a long time ago. I truly loved him when I married him but he was never the same after the war.’
The briefest of pauses and then she said brightly ‘How about a nice cup of tea?’