Nike Sulway – Women’s History Month

more than one way

In the car, after her talk, I tell my friend that her speech brought tears to my eyes. We are driving down the main street in Toowoomba. It is raining, and I am trying to find a park. We drive past the restaurant where we are supposed to meet the others for a post-event dinner; they are all there, sitting at a table in the window, smiling and laughing and pouring the wine.

I haven’t seen my friend in a couple of years, and before the talk I was nervous about seeing her. I am still afraid. We used to be close. We worked together for a while, at adjoining desks. Before that we worked at a university, across the hall from each other. And before that, we were merely friends. I have slept on the floor of her lounge room, looking out over the city. She is one of those women to whom I feel joined. To whom I used to feel visible. But things had changed. My long-term relationship had ended in a long, slow, drawn-out war of attrition that took many of my friendships with it. And a great many other things, too. A home. A heart. A sense of belonging.

I now live in a city I had never visited before my life was torn apart. In a house I do not own. I cannot hear or smell the sea. There is no forest around me. At night, I hear cars rather than owls or wild dogs, or the distant thump of pub music. I no longer hear the train pass through my dreams. There are no children in my home. There are no rooms for them to play in; no beds in which they sleep.

I pull into the carpark behind the main street. My friend says something about the part of her talk that is about the long train journey her mother made without her son in her arms. The son who was stolen from her. I think of that woman, barely more than a girl, sitting upright on the train. Her body travelling in one direction; some essential other part left behind. I think: that is how it feels. Yes. Exactly that. I am sitting upright in my seat; I am facing forward, but some essential part of me is being torn out in my wake.

I say, There is more than one way to lose a child.

I say too much, and then apologise. Do all women do this? I say: I’m sorry. I know you must have to hold a lot of women’s pain. And she smiles and says yes, and no. That since the book came out, yes, many women have told her about how their children were taken from them. But, no, she doesn’t hold onto those stories.

I imagine them passing through her – this skeleton-thin, tender old friend – the way the ghost of a distant train passes through my dreams.

I live in a city where nobody knows me. It is sometimes easy to live in a place so distant from myself. To live somewhere so removed from my past. My children are grown, are flown, are gone.

One is happy; one is restless; one is gentle; one is lost.

This is what it feels like: you are a house. All the doors and windows have been left open. You are bare and undefended. People go in and out of your rooms. They open the cupboards and pull up the carpets. They peer into your most intimate corners, frowning. The wind and rain penetrate you. You cannot move to shake them off. You cannot defend yourself. And there is no caretaker. Nobody to close the doors or shutter the windows.

Glass cracks and falls away. Rot and mould set in. What was bright becomes dull. What was strong softens and gives way until you are only the shape of a house. Children tell stories about you. Hold their breath as they enter you. Soon enough, the house is gone. You are only a portion of forest. Something wild, but bounded. A place without words. Things grow that were not planted there. Trees throw themselves towards the sky.

In the tale of the seven ravens, a mother who has lost her child goes into the forest. She has made a vow not to speak a single syllable for seven years. She falls to her knees. She digs a hole in the earth with her bare hands, and pours her sorrow into that dark place.

Then she stands, wipes her hands clean on her gown. Turns back towards the world, and smiles. This is what is asked of her. This is what is necessary. Not that she forget, but that she pretend that she has forgotten. Not that she cease grieving, but that she not put her grief in your hands.

Nike Sulway lives and works in Toowoomba. She the mother of four children, and the author of a handful of novels. Her most recent novel is Rupetta, published by Tartarus Press; it was shortlisted for an Aurealis Award, and was the first Australian book to win the James Tiptree, Jr Award. She blogs, somewhat irregularly, at

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