Terror Australis Incognito
by Leone Britt
The chisel that I slid and then hammered between door and
floor to prevent my daughter getting into the kitchen was an
old one, part of a collection I began years ago to take my
mind off my fears. I thought if Caterina tried to open the
door, which couldn’t be locked from my side, it would slide
from the small end of the chisel to the large end, and
stick. I don’t know what made me think it would hold,
created as it was to transform stone to art, not as a
doorstop. Still, I was in a panic and pushed the rusted
thing, blunt blade first, under the door, because I couldn’t
find anything else in a hurry that came close to doing the
job. I wasn’t strong enough to lift the bookcase across it,
though I made a feeble effort.
Caterina frightens and enrages me. I feel small and
powerless next to her. She looks like her father, bulky and
bull-necked, and I often imagine that if she lives long
enough she will be one of those old women mistaken for a
man. I do love her translucent skin, though; and her green
eyes, her cat’s eyes, remind me of wilderness.
Earlier, she interrupted a blissful morning exquisite with
peace and writing, wild king parrots bobbing orange-red and
green on the lawn—a morning spent enjoying my only freedom:
‘Drive me to the shops,’ she said so loudly, the parrots
lifted as one from the lawn and fled to the safety of the
‘I’m writing, sorry.’
She huffed, lifted the shoulders of her T-shirt. ‘I need a
new one. You’ve hung this one up by the shoulders again and
now it’s got wings and I can’t wear it.’
I looked at her standing there like a child in an oversized
blood-red shirt that failed to hide her breasts, her huge,
odd-sized gourds. ‘I hang your shirts three inches over the
clothesline from the bottom end, as you have dictated, and
if you don’t like it, hang them out yourself,’ I said, and
almost repeated what my mother said to me: ‘You’re big and
ugly enough’, but since it was true in this case it would
have been cruel. I waited for my breathlessness to burst
into some kind of feeling. I had the familiar sense that
everything, including my breathing, was on hold until the
war was over. ‘Anyway, wash it again and they’ll disappear.’
It didn't seem worth arguing that I couldn't see wings.
The deck shook as she stamped her foot. ‘I'm going to buy a
new red T-shirt and if you don’t drive me, I’ll call a
We live half an hour from the nearest shops and a taxi costs
$60 one way, prohibitive on her disability pension. Still,
she has done it before, in secret, for alcohol. She waited
for my reply and since it was not forthcoming, she marched
off like a jackbooted soldier and slammed her door so hard
it almost shattered the glass at the top again.
A gush of anger surged from my stomach to my head, then to
my hand and before I knew what I was doing I stabbed my
journal in the guts with the red pen (the only one I could
find, again) and gouged out: FREE ME, which ripped out half
a dozen pages. I broke the pen in half in a delicious,
That rare catharsis over, I could breathe. I held the
wounded journal to my chest, replaced the ragged pages,
closed it and put the pen, now in two plastic bits with its
red ink-filled guts spilling blood, on top.
All I have ever wished for in life is peace in the home.
After taking some soy milk from the fridge for a cup of tea,
I did something I had been meaning to do for months. I
peeled from the fridge door the magnet sent by Prime
Minister John Howard to all Australians to protect them from
terrorism, and I threw it in the garbage bin. I had stuck it
there as a joke.
I swam the teabag around in the cup and decided it would be
better to get the red T-shirt ordeal over with rather than
be harassed all day, so I went to the door of Caterina’s
granny flat (she detests the term ‘granny flat’) and said:
‘Could you at least wait until I have a cup of tea?’
Kookaburras high in the coral tree struck up their raucous
‘Sure,’ Caterina said as she unlocked her door, victorious.
‘And if you think this is about alcohol you’re wrong. I
haven’t had a drink for a week and I’m not drinking any more
because it incites the demons.’
After fourteen years of Caterina’s mental illness and her
drinking I am, like the many caught up in this secret war,
left with a brain and a heart like mashed potato, although I
don’t know whether others have ever had a fit of quiet rage
and murdered their journal.
Driving in the car with Caterina has always been a problem.
It heightens my sense of imprisonment and her sense of
grandeur and power. I become agitated when she raves about
Buddhism and when she complains, saying she hates being so
close to me because she has to breathe into her pure lungs
the filthy air I expel. It is worse since she gave up
smoking. And since she has also (again) given up her
prescribed medication, she takes a concoction of what she
says is crushed turquoise, cardamom, nutmeg and precious
herbs prescribed by Tibetan Buddhist doctors, concoctions I
unforgivably and disrespectfully refer to as ground yak
testicle and roasted toenail of rat.
‘You're discriminating against me because of my religious
beliefs,’ she says and I laugh, beg her to take the
pills the psychiatrist has prescribed, but then I shut my
mouth and remember I should be thankful her religious mania
has manifested in the form of something more colourful than
In the car with her on the red T-shirt expedition, I
remembered how she was often so paranoid she would forbid me
to touch any of her possessions in case I contaminated them.
I must also be careful not to brush her arm as I pass or she
says she will zap me with her mind—and you know, sometimes I
can feel the hatred licking my face.
‘Being of higher blood …’ she was saying as we drove past a
paddock of calm-looking cows.
‘Higher blood? What do you mean, Cat?’
‘What do you think I mean?’ She pursed her lips. ‘My father,
of course. I am superior to you but you don’t have the
brains to realise this and so you suffer, like all dumb
bastards. It’s your karma.’
Her father is the nephew of a Catholic cardinal. Caterina
was born after I fled from my first husband, my son Vinnie’s
The only thing Caterina’s father ever gave her was
polycystic kidney disease, which means before long she will
be on dialysis, and I fear the doctors won’t want to waste a
precious kidney on someone who will pickle it in alcohol.
Her gift from my side of the family is a predisposition to
In the car, Caterina waited for my response, but I knew she
was baiting me. Her green-eyed glance flashed across me. I
‘So, the dumb people of this world are not born to lead, it
is the intelligentsia who lead.’
She means people like herself.
‘How did George Bush get elected?’ I said, wishing I had
‘It was all rigged, of course, by the moral majority, but
you’d be too stupid to realise that.’
When she takes her medication she is a different person. I
know the illness is the enemy and my real daughter hides
behind those folds of fat, terrified. I tried to strike up a
happy conversation, to ignore the tawny-haired despot she
becomes. ‘Caterina, do you remember the time you and Vincent
were chased by the snake?’
‘Playing cricket? Yeah, it reared up at us and stupid Vinnie
tried to hit it with the bat and it chased us right up to
the house, a tiger snake for Christ’s sake. You don’t bat
I laughed. Usually the story makes her laugh too.
‘That’s what I mean by dumb. Vinnie belongs with the garbage
collectors and scum of this world.’
‘There is nothing wrong with collecting garbage. They earn
more than you and I put together. But you shouldn’t say that
about your brother.’
‘My darling brother who abused me when I was six, you mean?’
‘Caterina, he was nine when you were six.’
‘Well, he used to bash me up, and that’s abuse. And he broke
my toy robot. That’s why I busted his Big Jim and I’m gonna
‘You’re thirty-five. Most people forget that stuff by the
time they’re eighteen.’ I remembered how Christmas proves me
wrong every year.
‘What would you care?’ Her face whitened. ‘You’re just a
compassionless, ugly bitch. Anyway, I e-mailed my guru and
all the Buddhists I know. And I told them how you and your
henchman Vinnie are physically and emotionally violent to me
on a daily basis.’
‘You know that’s a lie. How can you call yourself a Buddhist
when you lie about everything? When was the last time anyone
was violent to you?’
‘When you called the cops, that’s when. They broke my wrist
and I’m going to sue them, too. I’m going to sue you for
having me locked up and scheduled and letting them brand me
‘That was a year ago,’ I said and wondered why my daughter
had become violent. She had been a passive if sneaky drunk.
The media's cliché—a
schizophrenic with a gun’—is not only cruel but inaccurate.
Mostly people with the condition are passive.
I remembered the inhumanity and pain
I'd felt—a mother forced to call the police to a daughter who was
sick, not criminal. How was I supposed to regain her trust? I
remembered how she had threatened Vinnie over the robot, and
how she crumpled to the ground and wept like a baby when the
police handcuffed her.
The court had ordered community treatment, which meant she
had to accept an injection once a fortnight. But when the
drug began to work, they took her off the injection and
advised her to stay on the pills. She took them for a while,
but then she either forgot or believed she didn't need them.
Again. It is a cycle.
the professionals preach.
‘I’m changing my name to Katamatite Mengali,’ she said, out
of the blue.
‘You are? That’s nice, but a catamite is a homosexual boy, I
‘Crap! Anyway I said “Katamatite” and it means Desert
‘Oh, it does not. Where did you get that from?’
‘I was meditating in the top paddock and a black snake
reared up at me like a cobra, all red like fire, then it
‘Anyway, then I summoned an alien demon, all grey and cloudy
and it floated up to me from the creek and told me.’
‘Told you what?’ I sighed.
‘To change my name and what it meant. God you’re stupid.’
‘Cat, are you taking your Olanzipine?’
‘Mind your own damn business, you whore! You’re the mad
‘Oh, all I want is my freedom,’ I said to the water as we
passed the tranquil lake. ‘I can’t do this any more, God,’ I
‘Ah, you give me the creeps, sighing all the time. You say
that every day, and the next day I’m nice to you and you
forget about your temper tantrum and forgive your little
‘I think you hate me, Caterina.’
She thumped the dashboard. ‘I do! I hate your guts.’
‘Sometimes I think I hate yours too, but it’s your
behaviour, not you.’
‘That’s idiot compassion. You’re malevolent, heartless and
greedy. You’re guilty too, that’s why you put up with me.’
I had no answer. Sometimes it's best to say nothing.
‘When I die I want a sky burial,’ Cat said, as I negotiated
Oh, not again with the Buddhism, I whispered to myself.
‘In Tibet they use an implement, remember the one I used to
I nodded, recalled the brass chopper she sold for alcohol.
What a relief that had been, to get it out of the house.
‘Well, they use it to chop up the dead bodies …’
‘Cat, I have heard it before …’
‘Well, you’re going to hear it again because I want to tell
you. They chop up the bodies and take them to a mountain and
feed them to the vultures. When the bones are picked dry,
they make drums from the skulls and mala beads from the
limbs. Human bone mala …’
‘Sky burials are not allowed in Australia,’ I said.
Oh, well, feed me to the dingoes,’ she said, then laughed
and began to sing, ‘Tan me hide when I’m dead, Fred, tan me
hide when I’m dead, so they tanned me hide when I died,
Clyde, and that’s it hangin’ on the shed, altogether now,
rip me spine from me back, Jack, rip me spine from …’
‘Cat! Stop it, please, you know I can’t stand it.’
‘You Westerners are all scared of death.’
‘You’re a Westerner yourself.’
‘I’m Tibetan, thank you very much. I was Angulimal in a
previous existence. He killed nine hundred and ninety-nine
people and wore a necklace of human fingers. He had to kill
a thousand and the last person he could find was his mother
but Buddha was so compassionate to him he became
‘Cat, be quiet, please.’
‘You think I’m a terror suspect.’
‘Why would I think that?’
‘Vinnie does. And he thinks I’m a paedophile …’
‘Oh, for God’s sake, he does not. You need proof before you
start making accusations like that.’
‘I can read his mind and yours and everyone else’s.’
‘O, God I’m sick of your nonsense. Just don’t go saying to
people that you’re a terrorist. I heard on the news a fellow
told a policewoman he had a weapon of mass destruction in
his trousers and he was arrested.’
This sent Cat into paroxysms of laughter as I pulled up in
the supermarket car park. ‘Terrorism is no joke, Cat,’ I
said, ‘I believe it is the result of poverty, desperation,
religious brainwashing and pain passed down from generation
to generation.’ When I turned off the ignition, I noticed my
palm—spattered with red. A nosebleed? Liver cancer?
Caterina saw me stare at my palm. ‘Is that blood?’
‘No.’ I sighed with relief as I remembered. ‘Red ink.‘
‘Stigmata,’ she said. ‘You should be locked up for your
panic attacks. Park there. I don’t like it here. And
backwards, not nose first. I want to watch the men while you
‘I’m not shopping.’
‘Yes you are, I need, ah, moisturizer …’
Caterina loped off in her running shoes. I decided for the
first time in fourteen years not to shop. I thought,
If you want
moisturiser you can get it yourself.
What a joke it was that I had waited so patiently for the
blessed day I turned forty and could devote myself to my
Forty meant freedom;
the kids would be grown up—I would be free of teenagers
who didn't listen to my warnings about alcohol,
marijuana and mind-altering drugs.
I was true to my promise to claim my own life by age forty,
though. I jumped ship, left them to their fates and fled to
the city. Within four years, after tasting the delights of
the drug towns Nimbin and Cairns and after she was
hospitalised, almost lost an arm to an infection, broke her
leg after she leapt from a viaduct in a marijuana-induced
psychosis, Caterina was back under the wing of her, albeit
reluctant, saviour: me. She was labelled a
because she wandered up and down the east coast of Australia
in search of a way out.
She had not seen her father since she was eight months old,
so one day she decided to visit good old Dad, but drank a
cask of wine to give her courage. He was so disappointed to
find that his only child was a drunk and a mad hippie (being
a hippie was worse) he severed all connection.
Oh, but I cared. I was Florence Nightingale, Mother Teresa
and Ghandi rolled into one and vowed my child would not fall
through society’s cracks and end up rolled in newspapers on
the steps of some giant corporation, walked over by the
suited, heartless office workers. I became a Sherlock Holmes
and found her in soup kitchens from Sydney to Cairns, in
hospitals and police stations, in squats, and once I phoned
the police and was told she had slept under a piece of
corrugated iron on a riverbank after taking datura. Because
she had cut her chest in criss-cross marks in some private
ritual, she was kept in a psychiatric ward overnight.
I sent money, clothes, boots, and a new tent because she
sold hers for drugs, and I sent bus fares to bring her back
home. She arrived with feathers in her hair and rings in her
nose, ears and navel; chains on her ankles; and she stank.
I thought my response was normal, but now they tell me I
made her dependent. My friends did not understand why I
couldn’t kick her out, and of course, I have tried. But I
found I couldn't eat when I thought of her starved in a
tent; I couldn’t enjoy a movie or friendship when I thought
of her lonely and sick in the gutter. I now know that 50 per
cent of people with schizophrenia self-medicate with drugs
and alcohol, but nobody seems to know which came first.
When at home from her geographicals she would get drunk and
spew all over my kitchen floor. Once she defecated in a
chair she thought was the toilet. She accused me of being a
witch, a paedophile and a mad woman who wanted her locked
up. The worst thing was, I did want her locked up. I do
still. I want her safe, treated, made whole again; and then
freed with insight into her condition and an ability to
manage it and live a relatively happy, independent life—have
children, a job, a husband.
I co-signed the lease on a flat for her, but she didn’t pay
the rent or clean up the vomit and beer bottles. Food scraps
were dumped in the sink to mould and rot and I had to scrub
the place and pay the rent until the lease ran out.
Oh, I have read about those who believe my daughter has a
human right to live the way she pleases, to commit suicide
if she wants to, to live on the street if she so chooses. I
believe in the theories and I don’t at the same time. Would
we allow someone with dementia or a broken leg to wander the
streets in pain and despair, shunned?
The hardest part is when I am lulled into thinking things
are better, when Caterina is taking her medication and seems
While I waited in the car, I scribbled some notes for a
story on domestic terror and how the government should send
us some fridge magnets to tell us what to do to protect
ourselves from our relatives. Writing is my lifeline. I have
two hundred four-hundred-page exercise books full of words,
mostly about my years of despair, which rot between the
covers. Sometimes, like now, stories grow from the muck. It
reminds me of Mary, a woman I know who has two sons living
with schizophrenia. She escapes to her garden and her lush
lavender during the bad times as if to prove to herself that
she can produce something perfect.
Fifteen minutes later Caterina came back, deposited a
six-pack of stubbies on the floor and produced a red T-shirt
from a plastic bag.
‘Caterina, you said you weren’t getting alcohol.’ I sighed.
‘Look at this.’ She held up a red T-shirt. ‘Ten bucks!’
I drove off, ranted about how despicable she was, how I
needed to escape from my self-imposed concentration camp,
how I was going to pack my things and leave; no, better
still, how she was going to pack her things and leave.
She laughed, all 90 kilos of her shook with glee. ‘I’ll sue
you one day and the farm will be mine. By the way, are you
feeling sick? Cancer, maybe?’
She would also inherit the mortgage, I reminded her. ‘If you
killed me you wouldn’t inherit anything.’
‘Why not? I’m mad and they don’t jail mad people.’
‘You’d end up in Long Bay psychiatric ward, worse than
jail.’ The injustice of such a sticky end for both of us
sent shivers through my body.
Later, after we got home from the red T-shirt rort, I
hammered the chisel under the door that separates her flat
from my kitchen. I knew she was going to drink herself sick
or more psychotic. I then undressed, and even though it was
mid-afternoon I was so depressed I slid under the sheets
with my journal, to write.
I heard a noise in the kitchen and thought it was Vinnie up
and about. He has a sleep disorder and stays in bed all day,
and is much worse since he came back home after his marriage
failed and he had to confront Caterina’s madness for the
first time last year. When I went in, I saw Caterina in her
new T-shirt, bent over taking something from the freezer.
‘How did you get in here?’ I said. I looked at the door and
saw the chisel on the floor.
She straightened up. ‘Who?’ She looked about. ‘Oh, the cat
you mean.’ She put frozen fish in the microwave as Puss
curled her tail around Caterina’s leg and purred. ‘You’re
allowed in the kitchen, aren’t you, Puss?’
Leone Britt was born in Orange, New South Wales,
Australia, and now
lives on her farm on the NSW south coast. In another life, when
she was 28 and a sole parent with three children, she studied
for her BA in journalism at what was once known as Mitchell
College, now Charles Sturt University. She has worked as a
journalist for more than 20 years. In 2005 her story, "The Black
Jellybean", was published in
Quadrant, and another
story, "Over The Hedge", (written well before the current movie
was even thought of, or perhaps the collective unconscious was
at work) was commended in the Canberra University Short Story
Competition. In the past, writing under another name, Leone won
the chance of having author Margaret Simons as her mentor
through Varuna Writer's Centre during which time she wrote her
first novel, as yet unpublished. Leone has won two national
poetry prizes and her poetry has appeared in major newspapers
Incognito" was published in a previous version in
Meanjin, Volume 64, 2005.
- Write to Leone
- southerner at aapt dot net