As the diminutive figure stepped down from the Greyhound coach in Bairnsdale, Victoria, head down, dark tresses firmly held in place by a blood-red knitted beanie, Lisa Stephens glanced up surreptitiously through hooded hazel eyes, to see if she’d caught any unwanted attention. So far, so good.
Jerking the dark leather hoodie over her head, Lisa strode quickly to the luggage retrieval area at the far end of the coach station, promptly grabbed her luggage and hurried over to the cab rank. Dressed in black jeans and black urban boots, the crumpled leather jacket hid the navy cable knit jumper, completing her inconspicuous attire… Or so she thought.
Lisa failed to spot the three teenage girls gathered closely around the ticket counter, whispering furiously.
“Who’s that?” Hissed Shirley Grenfell, the ringleader of the group.
“Don’t know.” Whispered Ella Dunaway. “I’ve never seen her before.”
“Shhh, she’ll hear us talking about her.” Diedre Brown was the least gossipy member of the early morning crew. “She looks scared.”
“Ha! She should be scared. This town will eat her alive!” Shirley retorted, never caring, as usual, to hide her contempt for anyone even slightly prettier than her.
Lisa missed the whole conversation, diving into the waiting cab, quietly directing the driver to the address she hadn’t seen for over ten years. “Can you please take me to 122 Lederman Street, in Metung?” At least Lisa would escape the gossipy mouths of Bairnsdale as they headed south for the coast.
“Sure”, Barney glanced in the rearview mirror at his passenger, thinking. Who’s this little rabbit caught in the headlights, I wonder? Everyone in the town had an opinion on everything!
“Gonna be a nice sunny day today.” Barney chatted. “New in town? The place you’re staying at is close to the beach. Should be able to enjoy long walks in the sandy shallows.”
The girl in the back seat didn’t look up, just indicated a quiet assent.
“Got a job lined up?” Barney glanced in the rearview mirror as Lisa shook her head.
“Maybe,” Lisa answered quietly.
Barney nodded sagely. Wow, we’ve got a live wire here, he thought to himself. Wonder how she’s going to survive in that town? The rumour-mongers will gobble her up! Barney thought a little warning wouldn’t go astray.
“Just a little word of advice from one who knows the ins and outs of the little town you’re headed to.” Barney tried to inject a little levity into the situation. “Me… I don’t care what people say. I’ve lived around here all my life and well… sticks and stones… you know? Folks around here are a bit gossipy if you get my drift… Best to try to blend in as much as possible if you know what I’m sayin’. Join a church, or a rock ‘n roll band… or even a craft group, he chuckled. It doesn’t matter much what you do, as long as you try to blend in… “ Barney was dribbling shit he knew and trailed off. With absolutely no response from the tiny figure in the back seat, he shrugged and thought.
Forewarned is forearmed! As they continued in silence.
After a tranquil thirty-minute journey, he pulled up in front of the old Stephens residence. A freshly painted white homestead with a return verandah all around and a royal blue front door, resplendent with highly polished brass door knocker, prominent round brass door-knob and doorbell. The front windows were hidden by grey and black striped canvas awnings. This home screamed “money”!
Ah, so she’s connected to the Stephens family. Barney thought. I wonder if she’s the oldest girl who went off to study medicine at Port Macquarrie and got herself pregnant. She must have gotten sent off to Sydney to get rid of the evidence. As usual, for the small town of Metung, on the spit at Lakes Entrance, everyone thought they knew everyone else’s business.
“That’ll be $35.50, thanks.” He leaned over the back seat, smiling broadly as Lisa handed him two twenties. “Keep the change.” Almost imperceptively.
Barney leapt out of the cab, retrieving the girls’ baggage from the trunk. Smiling, he passed it on to his passenger.
Hmm… She’s older than I thought. Maybe late twenties, my age. As Lisa ducked her head again. How come I don’t recognise her?
“Can I assist you with your bags?” Barney offered helpfully.
“No thanks, I’m fine.” Replied Lisa shrugging into her backpack, dragging the ubiquitous black suitcase behind her, the wheels singing in the early morning silence. Barney watched Lisa pause a moment before mounting the half a dozen steps to the front door.
Located on Lakes Entrance, the small town of Metung captured a population of 1,500, with the whole region boasting less than 6,000 people. In the height of summer, tourists flocked to the area and swelled the numbers to around 10,000. Melbourne’s elite chose Metung to spend the summer at their high-end retreats. Summer homes with price tags of $2.5m or more. High-class boats, yacht’s and fishing trawlers filled the busy marina in Lakes Entrance. As usual in country regional areas, everyone was a busy body and thought they knew everyone else’s business.
Yet, some chose their company wisely, and secrets were held for decades, eventually shocking those who accidentally stumbled on the truth.
Barney had practically dismissed the whole story and was headed back to Bairnsdale where he was based, or he would have noticed that Lisa didn’t have a key and stood hesitantly for a few minutes before pressing the doorbell lightly. There was no response. Waiting a moment or two, she pushed again—still no sound from inside.
“Oh God, don’t tell me they’ve gone for a trip to Melbourne.”
Lisa was nervous; she had nowhere else to go. No one knew that she was coming, so her parents could be away. She rapped heavily on the colossal brass door knocker… and listened as the sound of footsteps on the wooden floorboards approached the front door. The door swung open, and surprised hazel eyes met hers.
“Lisa…? I… Lisa… Come in… we were out on the back deck having breakfast.”
Lisa lowered her eyes, taking in the familiar, highly polished jarrah floorboards and Blackwood hall stand to the right of the front door. Passing through the doorway, she stood stock still as the door closed lightly behind them.
“Mom… I should have called.”
“Yes, you should… your father… you should have called…” Her mothers’ brows furrowed worryingly.
The tears began to stream down both of their cheeks, and before her mother could catch her, Lisa began to sob.
“Mom, I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.” She was hiccoughing loudly and barely able to catch her breath.
“Oh sweetheart, come here.” Lisa’s mother, Elaine, wrapped her up in her arms as Lisa had hoped and dreamt that she would do all through the dark times of her turbulent past. They stood, fused in a noisy eruption of fresh tears and hiccoughs and would have remained so, had they not been alerted to the voice Lisa had dreaded, coughing loudly, causing them both to turn in its direction.
“What are you doing here? I thought I told you never to darken this doorstep after what you put your mother and me through!”
“Daddy, I … I thought… “
“You thought what? You’d just come back here and steal from us and lie to us all over again?” Her father, George, formerly a distinctive Criminal Lawyer, scowled at Lisa as his booming voice echoed down the long hallway.
“Turn around and go back to the rock you crawled out from under, take your lies and your filthy drug habit with you.” He hissed. “The years of your lies and deception were enough… we’ve had enough… you are an embarrassment! The whole town knows what you are and what you’ve done. Get out of my house now!”
Lisa turned, her face burning with shame and humiliation, copious tears blurred her vision, and she felt the vivid sensation of her father’s glare burning into her back. Then everything went black.
“Lisa… Lisa… “ she vaguely heard her mothers’ anguished cry as she silently slid to the floor.
She awoke sometime later with a heavily laden heart and realised that she was back in her old bedroom—the federation colours of red, blue and grey, a memory from a distant past. Pressed tin ceiling painted white, vivid as always. A shadow to her right lured her into turning towards it. Her mother slumped in the chair beside her bed lifted her head at the light movement of Lisa’s return to consciousness.
“You should have warned me, darling, and I could have prepared your father,” Elaine stated quietly to her eldest daughter.
“I’m sorry, Mom, I didn’t know what to say that would make you understand. I’m clean, Mom; I’ve been clean for four years.”
Lisa didn’t want to dwell on the years of living on the streets, of drugs, alcohol and rape and theft and violence, that her mother could never comprehend. Of self-medicating with anything that would set her free from the hell, she had found herself in.
Depressed and alone and so far from home, Lisa had witnessed the death of her beloved boyfriend, Paul. At the hands of another drunk student at the local University bar in Port Macquarie, Paul was king-hit from behind and crashed to the floor, striking his head on the fireplace. She had frantically tried to revive him before the paramedics arrived on the scene but to no avail. He was dead before hitting the ground, and Lisa thought her life was over.
It had all started from that first “taste.”Before she knew it, she had dropped out of Uni and all of the security that her parents had set up for her. Rent money, food money all went on drugs, each one more powerful and addictive than the one before. Alcohol fuelled the haze.
Returning home to Metung, she lied and told her parents she was okay. Just taking a year off Uni, whilst she grieved for her beloved. At first, George and Elaine accepted her story and propped her up with funds that allowed her to travel as far as Melbourne to feed her drug habit. On her return to Metung, broke, with no plans for her future, she stole from them. Not wanting to accept the truth, her devoted parents brushed off her problems. They tried to protect her and simply gave in to her every demand. They had watched their younger twin daughters, Eve and Sarah, finish Uni, get married and settle into respectable careers in the city. So would Lisa, they told themselves, time and time again, as Lisa’s drug habit spiralled out of control.
They sent her back to Melbourne, to Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation Centres, more times than they cared to remember until they had to accept that their daughter case was hopeless. The last time they set eyes on her, she was a bedraggled wreck, her hair cropped short, black circles around blood-shot eyes, adorned with piercings to her brows, nose and ears, weighing about sixty pounds. She wasn’t a tall girl, but even so, her frame was skeleton-like.
Then one day, after she had graced their doorstep three years previously, she vanished. Immediately they were concerned; Lisa usually mentioned when she was heading back to Melbourne, or they drove her there themselves to enter a program. After a few weeks, they told each other that they had recovered from her sudden departure and that Lisa would turn up eventually. Intending a well overdue trip to Thailand, George had cause to open the family safe to locate their passports. At first, he didn’t notice how empty the safe seemed. Then he realised that somebody had moved things around untidily.
He called for Elaine, and together they realised that apart from twenty thousand dollars in cash, family heirloom jewellery was missing. A two-carat diamond ring passed down four generations on Elaine’s side had vanished from its antique case. A pearl necklace, with matching earrings, gifts from George to Elaine on their wedding day were also gone. Gold cuff links, bracelets and other valuable items were not located. Devastated, they wandered around the home they had created on their retirement and discovered that priceless artefacts were also missing from the formal dining room. Although everything was insured, their lives dived to unfamiliar lows. In a small town like Metung, gossipers had a field day, and the couple thought that they would never be able to hold their heads up in public again. They were so ashamed to raise such a deceitful and disappointing daughter.
There was speculation that Lisa was pregnant and her parents had shipped her back to the city. One or two people thought they knew the truth about the drugs and Lisa’s theft from her parents, but unconfirmed, it was merely supposition. Eventually, after a few months, gossipers found something else to focus their attention on and Lisa was forgotten. George and Elaine remained quiet about the full extent of their losses, even to their closest friends, and eventually, the rumours died down. Lisa made a couple of attempts at calling her parents but could never think how to explain her actions, so without actually speaking to her parents when they picked up the phone, she simply hung up. Her father declared to Elaine that Lisa was “dead” to him. Elaine was heartbroken.
As both Lisa and Elaine emerged from their dark reveries, both spoke at once and smiled, each deferred to the other.
“Go on, Lisa, what were you going to say?”
“Mom, it’s true, I’m clean. I hit rock bottom, and the only way to go was up. I worked as a cook at the drug and alcohol centre after finishing the program that finally set me free. I worked there, in the kitchen, for two years, saw people come and go, some died, some got better and got on with their lives. I’m one of the Mom.” Lisa smiled wistfully.
“ I studied and became a Chef and have a job at Sails Restaurant in McMahons Point on Sydney Harbour as Sous Chef. I’m sorry, Mom. I’m so sorry for what I did; I am. I’ll pay back every cent I stole from you; it’s a promise.”
Elaine smiled sadly at her eldest daughter. “I wish that would make it all better. Your father is a proud man, and you broke his heart.”
Lisa dropped her gaze. “I know, Mom, I don’t know how else to make it right. I’ve saved every cent I can and have $15,000. It’s yours, yours and Dad’s, and I will keep saving until I pay everything back that I stole from you. Drugs are a sickness, Mom, and I know that I’m better now. A better person despite what I did to you and Dad. I spend all my time off working with disabled children. Children who, apart from what horrors life dished out for them in the form of their restrictions, have also suffered terrible domestic abuse. It’s not only you and Dad that I need to repay; it's society and all I stole from it, too; I’m only too aware of the wrongs I’ve done. I’m so ashamed of who I became, and I want to make it up to the rest of humanity too.”
Lisa’s mother listened attentively to her daughter, wanting so much for her to be true to her word. As she was about to reply, George stepped from behind the slightly open door… He’d been listening.
“How are we to believe that you’ve changed Lisa? You’ve told so many lies in the past; how can we possibly believe you? “ A proud and honest man stood before her with tears glistening in his eyes, head erect, yet as Lisa sensed, he reached out to her for proof.
“I’m so sorry, Daddy, I really am. I have no idea how I can prove my story; I can only tell it as it is. If you tell me to leave, I’ll go, and you won’t hear from me again, but I still intend to repay every cent I stole from you. Even if you never want to see me again. I’m really sorry… For everything!”
Her father took a step towards her as her mother stood; words failed them both, but they wanted to believe her. Rising from her bed, the tiny figure found herself wrapped inside the arms of the two people in the world she truly loved and wanted to appease. Tears flowed freely, and Lisa felt acceptance from them for the first time in many years. She was home.