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Copyright © Ian Irvine, 2000.


Ian Irvine

February 1999


Poisoned Chalice

This is the unedited
version and probably contains the odd error and typo. The corrected
manuscript was donated to an institution (Fisher Library at the
University of Sydney) along with other papers from the period and
is not readily available to me.


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The Physical


I don’t deserve to live.

I want to but I have no right. I’ve always
known that. I’m a defective, you see. A cripple. Short leg, twisted
foot, extra toe. An it.

I should have been smothered at birth. How
could my mother have kept such a thing? How did she get me through
the physical?

I’m not well-educated, no chance for that,
but I read. I know that once the deformed were only stared at,
or ignored, or kept out of sight. I’ve even read, though it must
have been a lie, that there were places where people like me had
a right to work, to play, even to mate. Not even I could come at
that though. No one could, since the Genes

I ruined my mother. She had to leave her wonderful
job at the University, her friends, her beloved Sydney. Anyone
might have betrayed me. Then, termination for me.

We went to live in a shack up the north coast,
in the mountains. In the summer it rained so much that mould grew
on the walls. On winter nights even the water in the toilet froze
solid, and the only warm place was in her arms. My mother became
a drab and a drudge, living on her wits, an occasional gentleman
caller, and a scabby vegetable patch. She could get no social security
for me – the annual physical, remember!

She cut off the extra toe when I was a baby
– I never remember having it. But how could I forget her next attempt
to make me normal? She broke my foot and my ankle, forced them
into the right shapes and plastered them up for a month, until
they healed.

It didn’t work. My foot looks like a wrung-out
cloth; my ankle is a gnarled lump. It still hurts like blazes when
I walk, though with a special boot I can almost conceal the limp.
I tell people that I had an accident when I was a child. But the
doctors who do the physical won’t be fooled.

She died when I was fourteen. Just willed herself
to death, refused to eat. I suppose she couldn’t stand the shame
any longer. Her only bequest was a Citizen’s Card in my name, good
for five years. How did she manage it? I’ll never know. She was
a very clever woman, my mother, and good with computers. But a
failure with bones.

No one with a card can go more than five years
without a physical. Without a card you have no education, no social
security, no job but the ones that no one else will do.

The card got me a bit more school, just enough
to show me what I can never have. So I went back to the city and
found one of those jobs. It’s a miserable living, packing things
in boxes, but it doesn’t require the physical.

I sometimes walk up Parramatta Road to the
University, where my mother worked. I love the old yellow stone,
the calm, the sacred aura of books. Once I even dared to go inside,
and there was a jacaranda tree in flower. How I yearn for the place,
but that is impossible. I think you know the reason by now.

More than four years have gone by since she
died. Soon the computers will call me to the physical. And then?

Australia is a civilised country. A panel of
doctors, all the evidence reviewed, process followed to the letter.
After all, it could have happened in an accident, my deformity.
X-rays, ultrasound, gene testing, whatever that is.

Finally, by letter – ‘We regret to inform you

Apparently scientists know which genes are
no good. The law allows no option, if you have bad ones. I understand
that. I don’t want us to become a race of monsters.

Termination. But in a very civilised way. Our
society doesn’t care about a lifetime of suffering, but it insists
that my death be painless.

I still don’t want to die.

Happy birthday! Nineteen today.

And I’ve found the answer, shameful and shocking
though it is. I will have a baby. Our civilised society would not
terminate a mother with a baby to look after. Surely not!

I’ve got a mate. I chose him with care, from
the small pool I can fish in. Of course I’m not tall, or pretty,
or clever with words or glances, but I’m told I have a nice face
and a sweet smile. I’m a woman, in spite of my handicap.

He, on the other hand, was just a youth – big
ears, freckles, shy, bewildered eyes. He had no defects, though.

He knew even less about it than I did, but
he learned quickly enough, and it was warm in his arms. I liked
that part very much, the sex. I loved to take him in, enclose him
within me, knead him. It would have been good to do more of that,
but each time was a risk. One day he would no longer be happy to
do it in the dark. I couldn’t bear to see his disgust when he realised
what I was like.

As soon as I was sure about the baby I had
to break with him. I tried not to hurt him, but I did. I loved
him, in a way.

There was a physical for pregnancy too, but
I got through that all right. They didn’t tell me to take my socks

Twelve weeks, and I bled and bled. I was sure
I would lose my beautiful baby, my saviour, but it was loyal. It
knew my need and wouldn’t abandon me.

NowI’m four months gone. Strangely, no letter
has come. No physical. Maybe they’ve lost my file. Maybe I didn’t
need the child after all.

Labourday. A home birth. They pry so, those
hospital nurses.

I hadn’t realised that anything could hurt
so much, though the price was low if it bought me life.

I complained bitterly about cold feet, and
the midwife let me keep on my long woollen socks. But I didn’t
know that there would be so much mess, so much blood. It got everywhere,
even on my socks, and before I realised what was happening she
had stripped them off.

The midwife stared at my disability in horror
and disgust. There was no point in the story about the accident.

‘Please,’ I begged her between contractions.
‘Don’t tell. Who will take care of my baby?’

She threw me another pair of socks. ‘I don’t
know you!’ she cried.

She ran outside, hand over her mouth, and I
heard her retching in the garden. Then the gate banged and I was

There was more pain, but I don’t remember it
very well, and eventually my beautiful baby emerged. The child
that will save me. Her grip is very strong, my lovely baby. She
is pink, healthy, flushed with new life.

She is the image of me too – petite, fine-boned,
thick dark hair. Even to the twisted little left foot and the extra
little toe.

I flee out into the night, the mud and the
rain. The gate clangs behind me like the doors of hell. Which of
my choices is the least hideous? Her life? My life? Without her
I might continue in my drab existence, since the letter about my
physical has never come. But I never dare try for anything better,
for that would require the physical.

Walking is agony. It feels like I am torn down
there. A bus comes along and I flag it down, and sit up the back
in the empty dark. My baby is crying softly. I brush the raindrops
off her cheek and put her mouth to my breast. She sniffs around
for a moment then latches onto the nipple with such force that
I am hard put not to cry out. What life there is in her, my lovely

What can I offer her? No more than my mother
could give me. Go to some place so backward that they don’t even
bother about the Law, as
long as you are careful. Give up the little I have, in exchange
for nothing for either of us!

Cut off the evil toe, break the bones and twist
them into shape, hoping that I can do better than I was done to.
Give her a lifetime of pain and fear and endless tedium, until
the inevitable physical exposes her.

Or stay in Sydney? All newborn must have the
physical. The same result, only sooner – termination.

The bus has come to the end of the line.

I get up, leaving blood on the seat. Wipe it
off with my hand. I walk up the curves of the road, street lights
gleaming on wet bitumen. She is warm in my arms.

Now the sea roars far below. My steps have
brought me to The Gap, a fitting place. People in despair have
sometimes found the answer here.

The moon comes out, shining on the welcoming
rocks. Temptress!

My baby whimpers and I give her the breast.
What kind of a life can there be for her? Should I just leave her
to fate? Here? By the cliff? The easy way out?

Maybe if we were to go together. Life isn’t
worth this pain.

How eagerly she sucks. How she wants to live.
I thought she would save me. I didn’t realise my duty to her.

I pull her off the breast, her mouth making
a little wet plop. I stand on the precipice, holding her away from
me. Her life, my life. Our lives. The waves cry out for a sacrifice.
The glossy rocks beckon. They know there is only one solution.

My baby opens her eyes and stares up at me.
She knows too. She is loyal.

I am just as loyal. I will do what’s best for
her, whatever the cost.

The wind is cold on my abandoned breast. It
is blowing right into my heart. Why didn’t I give her a name?

Last night was the coldest I have ever been.
Where are my mother’s arms? Where are my lover’s arms? Where is
my babe-in-arms? All gone.

A letter came from the Medical Inspector’s
Office today. I haven’t bothered to open it.

Such a decent world.


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