Grasping at Water - Carmel Bendon - E-Book

Grasping at Water E-Book

Carmel Bendon

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When a young, unidentified woman is pulled alive and well from Sydney Harbour in 2013, the connections to another woman – found in similar circumstances forty years earlier – present psychiatrist Kathryn Brookley with a terrible decision as the events of the present and past begin to mirror each other and the gap between truth and illusion shrinks.

When the young woman goes further and declares that she has lived continuously since coming to ‘understanding’ in the 14th century, her vivid accounts of life, love, childbirth, and loss in the Middle Ages seem so authentic that they test Kathryn’s scientific objectivity to the limit. As Kathryn delves she discovers that she is not the only one whose habitual assumptions about life have been torn asunder by an apparent experience of the miraculous in relation to the mystery woman. But it is the emotional, spiritual and mystical insights that emerge from the linking of all the facets of this mystery that affect Kathryn and others most profoundly, reflecting the commonality of human experience across the ages and the deep yearnings within all of us. 

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Carmel Bendon’s superb novel takes the reader from the most intriguing premise into a world of mysterious possibility that skirts mysticism, the limits of spirituality and the different ways in which we all approach the truth. In a world of carefully spun stories that are whispered in dreams and to doctors and nuns, can we ever really reach a rational conclusion in a world where nothing can ever be certain? And can we ever firmly conclude the facts that lie at the heart of fantasies? This is a tremendous, playful and richly poetic book that speaks to the storyteller inside all of us.

Walter Mason, author of Destination Saigon and Destination Cambodia

Grasping at Water beguiles with its strong sense of mystery, history, character and place. When an inscrutable young woman is plucked, alive, from the glistening waters of Sydney Harbour, her psychiatrist, Kathryn Brookley, becomes immersed in a tale that defies logic and time. As Kathryn’s quest for truth morphs into a voyage of self discovery, this spiritual page-turner draws you under its spell.

Michele Seminara, Verity La

Finely written historical mysticism entwined with a modern mystery, Carmel Bendon’s stunning debut sizzles with originality and intrigue. Grasping at Water is the thinking-person’s thriller that’s sure to whet the literary appetites of readers the world over.

Amanda Hickey, journalist and filmmaker

Grasping at Water

Carmel Bendon

Copyright © Carmel Bendon 2018

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted by any person or entity, including internet search engines or retailers, in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying (except under the statutory exceptions provisions of the Australian Copyright Act 1968), recording, scanning or by any information storage and retrieval system without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Published by Odyssey Books in 2018

Author: Carmel Bendon

Title: Grasping at Water / Carmel Bendon

ISBN: 978-1-925652-41-3 (paperback)

ISBN: 978-1-925652-42-0 (ebook)

Cover design by Michelle Lovi


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22


About the Author

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To Adrian, Laura, Erin and Bridget—

my loves, my lessons, my life.


Once there was a garden, lush and languid by the sea. And into that garden came a handsome soldier and an innocent young woman. And in their delight at each other, the young woman delightedly and innocently conceived a child. And the handsome soldier returned to the war, leaving the young woman with only a memory and the precious souvenir of a baby girl. But it was in the days of misunderstanding, when love was limited to respectable people; and so the baby was taken from the young woman’s arms and given into respectable arms. And, after that, all the young childless mother had left was the gaping wound in her heart.

7 May 2013

Unnatural. That’s how he’ll later describe the atmosphere that hangs like the dark clouds over the harbour this morning.

It’s early, the sun just up, and the light winds of the previous day have intensified to whip the harbour into a washing machine. The ferry from Manly to Circular Quay slips and dips and rises and rolls in the churning ocean and he is not surprised to be the only passenger who has chosen to stand near a deck entry door and look out onto the threatening sea. He stares toward the steep sandstone cliffs of North and South Heads; they offer no protection to the harbour today and loom, instead, like failed sentinels letting in an enemy that will swamp all in its path. Very unnatural.

Most days the ferry ride to work is a pleasure. When Sydney Harbour glistens under a generous sun, there is nowhere else in the world he would rather be. But today the sun has been swallowed by the deep, angry water, and the air is cold, very cold. Too cold for so early in May.

What’s wrong with the harbour today? What’s wrong with me? he thinks as the ferry falls off an impossible crest. He knows the answers to both questions. The first one is a straightforward matter of an east coast low pressure system that imposes itself on Sydney a couple of times a year in late autumn and winter. An early arrival, yes, but understandable. The answer to his second question is far more complex: a knot of sadness and love that last night’s argument with his wife has tied more tightly; and anger, too, that she is not interested in participating in the untangling. Such a beautiful, brilliant, headstrong, puzzling woman. A mystery to him. A mystery to herself. He shakes thoughts of his wife away, filing them in the ‘too hard basket’ for the moment as he steals himself to stay upright against the boat’s rocking motion.

Once the ferry is past the heads, the sea settles into a less chaotic, more predictable rhythm and he decides to step outside the crowded, stuffy interior of the main passenger cabin to get some fresh air on the port-side deck. He ignores the waving hand and shaking head of a crewman who gestures to dissuade him and, instead, continues opening the heavy door. He steps onto the slippery exterior boards, closing the door firmly behind him as he goes. He pulls his coat collar up around his ears then, spreading his newspaper on part of the sea-damp wooden bench that encircles the vessel’s lower level, he takes a seat and a very deep breath. Seaspray smacks his face, but he sits doggedly, willing the water to wash away his disappointment.

He starts to relax, taking in a vista that never fails to enthral him. The parade of harbourside beaches, still lovely under grey skies; Watson’s Bay with its pub and restaurants; Lady Jane beach (minus its nudists today); the expanse of Rose Bay with one of its seaplanes even now taking off into the blustery sky; exclusive Point Piper with its multi-multi-million dollar houses; the picnic areas of Shark Island. In the distance, even in the overcast weather, the Harbour Bridge presides over the scene. Above it, a Qantas A380 glides southward on its final descent to the airport.

Suddenly, as they pass Garden Island and Woolloomooloo, and with only about five minutes of the journey to go, the wind stops. Completely. Not a breath. Calm. Eerily calm.

Unsettled, he leaves the bench and steps forward to lean on the railing, his eyes darting between the approaching cityscape and the navy blue water beneath the boat. The ferry takes a wide, smooth sweep around the Martello-towered Fort Denison, the small, steep island where, over two centuries earlier, some of the young colony’s most difficult convicts had found themselves imprisoned, marooned in clear sight of the growing Sydney town but with no way of getting back there. And, always in view of course, but now coming closer, floating like a giant ship with unflappable white sails, is the Opera House. It captures his gaze, holds it utterly, till a shaft of sunlight breaks through the clouds and reflects so brilliantly off the building that he is forced to look away.

And then he sees it. A shape in the water. Pale but distinct. Small, but growing larger as the ferry bears down on it. A shape … with a head … and legs … and outstretched arms. A body. Floating. Face down. A body. A human body.

‘A body. There’s a body. In the water. Stop. Stop the boat,’ he screams, to the air, to the water, to anyone.

He runs, waving his arms wildly at those inside the main cabin.

‘Help. Someone. Anyone. Stop this ferry now!’

Somehow, people appear from everywhere. Shoving. Shouting. A crewman is calling the captain. The ferry is slowing … but oh, so, slowly. The blade of its prow prepares to slice through the body. Time suspends. All those crowded on the decks inhale as one and are silent.

The ferry stops. It stops within inches of the body. Group exhalation. Time recommences, accelerates. Ropes, hands, life buoys are lowered, thrown over the side, a young crewman jumps in and, somehow, the soaked body of a young woman is brought to lie on the deck at his feet. A thermal blanket is placed over her; people offer coats to the shivering crewman who has retrieved her.

‘I’m a doctor,’ he confesses, looking toward the ferry captain who has materialised by his side. ‘I’ll help her … if it’s appropriate … you know … usual protocol.’

‘There’s nothing usual about any of this,’ responds the captain, rubbing his hands together. ‘I just didn’t see her. I don’t understand. This is a busy part of the harbour. Why didn’t anyone report this earlier?’

‘Are you all right?’ he asks, stepping in the captain’s direction.

‘Fine, good. The important thing is, how is she?’

He kneels beside the body, feels the neck for a carotid artery pulse, registers the surprising warmth of the body, observes the even rise and fall of the chest, scans the face for signs of trauma but notices none, notes the remarkably healthy colour of the woman’s face and finds, on picking up one of her hands from under the blanket, that the fingernails are pink.

‘She’s alive,’ he announces.

‘Thank God,’ the captain sighs, the relief obvious. ‘Okay, well, Doctor, if you can stay with her, I’ll get us to the quay. Marine Area Command has already been notified. There’ll be an ambulance waiting.’ Turning to the passenger throng, he shouts, ‘Move back folks. Give them some room. We’ll be on our way now. There in five minutes.’

As the captain hurries off, the doctor kneels beside the woman. He is close enough to hear her breathing. He gazes at her face. The skin is clear, unlined, and he guesses her age at around thirty. He wonders at the delicacy of the brown-fringed eyelids. As he wonders, the lids flick open. Steely blue eyes stare back at him, sear him. His heart jumps, his nerves twinge, a sick panic seizes him. How can she be alive? So alive, after this ordeal, he wonders.

Several seconds pass before the veneer of medical competence can assert itself. He is aware of other passengers and crew staring at him from various vantage points, expecting information, intervention.

‘You’re safe,’ he hears himself announce. ‘I’ll stay with you until you’re moved from here to a hospital where you’ll get appropriate treatment. No need to try and talk but, perhaps, you can nod your head if you’ve understood what I’ve told you.’

The woman’s eyes remain fixed, unblinking, on him. She does not nod.

‘Are you in any pain?’ he tries. ‘I’m not going to examine you here; best not to move you about. From my brief visual assessment, I can tell you that your vital signs seem good. But, perhaps, you’ve got pain somewhere. Can you let me know if that’s the case?’

Again the unblinking eyes, the unmoving head.

‘Well, perhaps you could tell me your name,’ he coaxes.

At this, she turns her head away from him and the fringed lids clamp shut. And remain shut during the short trip into Circular Quay where assistance is waiting. Dutifully, the passenger-doctor offers the paramedics his thoughts on her condition.

‘All noted, Doctor,’ says one, as the patient is transferred onto a trolley and into the ambulance. ‘We’re taking her to the emergency department at Royal Harbourside. Do you want to accompany us?’

‘No, I’m afraid I can’t. Very busy.’

‘Well, thanks for what you’ve already done. It was doubly lucky that you were on that ferry. I mean, what are the chances? You have the medical skills, of course, but to be the one who spotted her … the only one outside on deck at the time. Great coincidence, huh?’

‘Yes, quite a coincidence,’ he agrees over his shoulder as he hurries away.


This is what she said:

All things begin, and all things end, or so it seemed to me. But what if there is no beginning and no end? Only flow. What if everything I had believed all my life was revealed to be completely wrong? What if the world that I have seen for the years of my life was shown to be an illusion? Would I discard the solid illusions of a lifetime in favour of the truth?

She sat behind her desk, staring at the clock on the wall, her eyes fixed on the monotonous movement of its second hand. Tick, click, tick, click. Time moving on, and I am not, she thought as she bowed her head to observe the ringless fingers interlaced in her lap. As the experienced psychiatrist that she was, she made a mental note of the wry smile that accompanied the observation.

The sound of the mobile phone, as sudden and loud as a gunshot in the early morning office, threw her back in the chair. An intake of breath, a moment’s hesitation, and then she slipped into her professional persona to reach for the phone and answer, ‘Dr Kathryn Brookley here.’

She heard the caller make a false start, then a clearing of the throat before a young, male voice rushed, ‘Hello, Dr Brookley. Sorry to call before office hours … but, um, pleased you’ve answered personally. It’s Tim Mason here. An on-duty doctor in the emergency department.’

‘Yes, Dr Mason. How can I help you?’

‘Tim. Please. Just Tim. Ah, there was a woman admitted around seven-thirty am. I think she needs a psychiatric … I think a psychiatrist’s opinion is needed.’

‘I see. Can you tell me something about the woman?’ Kathryn placed the phone on the desk and hit the speaker button, providing a space between the caller and her lack of enthusiasm.

‘Yeah, I can tell you something. And it’s pretty interesting.’

‘Proceed, then. Give me the details, Dr Mason.’

‘Tim, just Tim. Okay. She was fished out of the harbour early this morning. A passenger on the six-thirty ferry from Manly spotted her, floating between the Opera House and Fort Denison. Not long after sunrise. Lucky to see her at that hour, the Marine Area Command officer told me. They were there within minutes of the call. Still, they couldn’t believe she was alive. Eyewitnesses reported that she was floating like a dead person one minute; the next minute, breathing and eyes wide open. Amazing, huh?’

Kathryn covered a yawn but, registering the young doctor’s earnestness, she made an effort to inject some warmth into her tone as she said, ‘Yes, fascinating. So, she’s alive. But who is she? Young, old?’

‘Good questions, Dr Brookley. And that’s what makes it even more amazing. There was absolutely no ID on her and no one fitting her description’s been reported missing in the last forty-eight hours. From the look of her, though, she couldn’t be older than thirty.’

‘Did she say how she came to be in the water?’

‘She hasn’t answered a single question, hasn’t spoken a single word, since being found.’

‘Maybe she fell off one of those big cruise ships. Maybe she’s from overseas and doesn’t speak English,’ Kathryn suggested, flicking off the speaker and taking the phone to her ear again.

‘No, no cruise ships in or out of Sydney since late yesterday afternoon, so if she fell overboard she’s been treading water for a very long time.’ Kathryn heard an awkward laugh before the young doctor continued. ‘And the dress she was wearing when found—looked like it was made from a sack.’

‘Yes, hardly your holiday cruise wear. So … are you thinking she just jumped in, from some point round the harbour foreshores?’

‘I wondered about that,’ offered Tim. ‘It’s possible but, as the officer pointed out to me, there are always people about the quay area and no one reported seeing her jump in. And, in addition, she was right in the middle of the main ferry lanes so … um …’

‘Yes, I see. A bit of a mystery,’ Kathryn said, hoping she sounded sincere. ‘So, where are we? I presume the process of notifying the appropriate authorities to assist in the identification is underway? And what about the physical examination?’

‘Yep. The police are across it; they’ve already started the process of posting bulletins with a general description of her going to all relevant agencies and authorities, and to social media so, hopefully, that’ll turn up some relatives or friends or, at least, some information. The Social Work department is onto it, too. As for the physical examination, there was a doctor on the ferry when she was brought in from the water and he reported that she looked fine the instant she was retrieved. The paramedics, too, found the vital signs to be good, strong. And, my examination … same thing. Remarkably healthy; no discernible physical damage.’

‘Well, perhaps you’re right. It sounds like she might need a psychiatric assessment. I’ll be down to Emergency in about an hour. See you then, Dr Mason.’ Kathryn cut off the call and returned her focus to the wall clock. Tick, click, tick, click. She decided to stare straight ahead for another forty minutes. Tick, click. Then she stood up from her desk, brushed her hair, applied her lipstick, picked up her phone, handbag, and notebook and walked, one foot in front of the other, to her meeting with Tim just Tim, and the mystery woman.

Kathryn knew Tim instantly—the awkward-looking young man bent over tying the laces on his running shoes. As she approached, he jumped up to his full height of two lanky metres, tucked an escaped corner of his shirt back into his pants, took a very deep breath, and thrust his right hand at her for shaking. She ignored the gesture but tried out a smile as she introduced herself, saying, ‘I’m Dr Brookley. But you may call me Kathryn, just Kathryn.’

‘Aw. Great to meet you, Kathryn. Great that you got here so quickly. So, she’s in there.’ Tim indicated a room to the left of the ward desk where they were standing. ‘Should I come with you?’

‘Why is the door closed? If this patient is as unstable as you seem to have been suggesting, she should be under careful observation.’ Kathryn did not try to hide her irritation. ‘I’ll do this initial evaluation on my own, thank you. And I’ll contact you later, Dr Mason, with my opinion. Your mobile number, please,’ she demanded, holding a flat palm out.

‘Here it is, Kathryn. Dr Brookley. Here’s my card. Yeah, sorry about the door. It was open … I don’t know why it’s now closed. And I checked the patient myself only about ten minutes ago. All good. She was quiet and comfortable in the bed. I’m sure I left the door open.’

Kathryn wasn’t listening. She snatched the card from Tim’s fingers and stormed toward the door, twisting its handle and flinging it open before disappearing into the room and closing it firmly behind her.

Kathryn was glad to find the woman’s room was darkened and still when she entered. Perhaps my temper outburst and door-slamming didn’t disturb her after all, she thought as she paused, leaning against the closed door, taking a moment to allow her eyes to become accustomed to the dim surroundings. And, if the woman was asleep, she didn’t want to startle her by flicking the switch and flooding the room with the harsh glare of a hospital ceiling light.

‘Please, please, come in. Come and sit with me.’ Kathryn heard a strong female voice of precise vowels and clear consonants speaking to her. She looked in the direction of the voice and there, to the right of the bed, sitting up perfectly straight in a green vinyl armchair, was a petite but very striking young woman with closely cropped brown hair and wide blue eyes staring intently at her.

‘Did you say something?’ asked Kathryn, mentally trying to square Dr Mason’s description of an uncommunicative patient with the confidently spoken woman in front of her.

The woman didn’t answer. Instead, she raised her left arm in a beckoning motion, and smiled as Kathryn approached and took a seat in the plastic chair opposite her. At first the two women sat in silence. Kathryn averted her glance sideways so as not to appear to be staring, but she could feel the other woman’s gaze searching the top of her forehead.

Finally, Kathryn looked up and, summoning a smile, ventured, ‘I’m Dr Kathryn Brookley, but please just call me Kathryn.’

‘Yes, I know who you are, Kathryn,’ the woman whispered.

At this, Kathryn felt her breath catch in her throat, felt her mind shuffling through names and images of past patients, but coming up with no matches. ‘Well, I’m at a disadvantage, then,’ she replied as her breath settled. ‘I’m very sorry but I don’t recall having met you before.’

‘You are correct, Kathryn. We have not met.’

‘Oh, then how …’ Kathryn stopped herself, realising that she should be careful to avoid being swept up into any game this woman might be playing. She settled her thoughts back into their professional box, straightened her spine, and continued. ‘Well, as I said, I’m at a disadvantage as you know who I am but I don’t know you. So, please, what’s your name?’

‘I am me. I have many names. Choose one for me if it’s necessary for you; if it makes you more comfortable.’

‘I, that is we, all of us here, want to help you. You’re in a hospital, but do you know why?’ Kathryn could not pinpoint why she was struggling to keep her own tone calm. She was aware of the rising tension in her voice. ‘If you tell us who you are, we can make sure that you find your way safely home. And, if there’s some reason you don’t want to return home, we can help you with that too.’

‘Thank you for your kindness, but there is no need to trouble yourself. I am always safely home.’ The woman smiled, revealing small, even teeth.

Kathryn arranged her face into an understanding look and said, ‘Well, that’s great. That’s really great that, ah, that you feel safe here with us. But, um, we could make you even more comfortable if we knew a bit more about you. So, do you mind if I ask you a few questions?’

The woman shrugged and replied, ‘Ask me anything, but I cannot promise to know the answers. Or, perhaps if I do know, I cannot promise that you will like my answers. But I shall do my best.’

While Kathryn listened, her mind raced. She made mental notes based on the woman’s somewhat formal way of speaking. Accent: English? Definitely well educated. Direct and confident? Or clever and manipulative?

‘Yes, do your best.’ Kathryn smiled in encouragement. ‘Why don’t we start with your name?’

‘Dear Kathryn, I’ve already answered that one. I am me. I am. But, again, feel free to put a name to me if it helps you.’

‘Well, I don’t want to put just any name to you. Maybe if you tell me a little about yourself I’ll be better placed to choose a name that I think suits you,’ suggested Kathryn.

‘Ah yes, that makes sense,’ said the woman, nodding and leaning forward in the chair. ‘I’ll tell you a short tale and perhaps you’ll see something of me in that tale, and then you’ll feel more at ease with me.’

Kathryn fought to keep the annoyance from showing on her face. This patient is trying to wrestle control of this meeting from me; I’ll have to tread carefully, she thought. ‘Yes, please proceed,’ she managed.

‘Thank you, Kathryn. I shall.’ And, closing her eyes, the woman said:

Once, there was a young woman who, for reasons that are not relevant to this tale, became very ill. Her illness took the form of a high fever, accompanied by a paralysis first in the legs and then progressing to the chest so that the woman found it increasingly difficult to breathe. Her mother, whom she greatly loved, called a doctor. When the doctor came, he prodded and probed and prognosticated, but it was all to no avail. The illness increased in severity but the woman herself began to decrease … in size. She became smaller and smaller so that by the afternoon of the second day of her affliction, she had shrunk to a size no bigger than a hazelnut. Her mother, distraught at the progression of the illness, picked up her tiny daughter and placed her on the palm of her hand. ‘What am I to do for you?’ wailed the mother. The young woman said, ‘I am the same person that I was yesterday, just in another form. So all you need to do is love me as you have always done.’ The mother mouthed agreement to this proposition, but her heart and mind could not grasp it, and so she put her tiny daughter in her pocket and carried her about with her wherever she went, seeking a cure that would restore the girl to her former form. Until, one day, the pocket developed a hole in it, and her daughter fell out and rolled into the sea. And there she stayed until the water renewed her, changed her form again. And so she was found.

The woman leant back in the chair, indicating that her tale had concluded. Kathryn shifted uneasily.

‘An interesting tale,’ she managed. ‘So, you’re telling me that you’ve been ill? And that your mother has been caring for you. Is that correct?’

‘We are all ill in some way, at some time. And it is in the nature of mothers to care for their children. So, yes, in some ways, you are correct.’

‘Where is your mother?’ asked Kathryn.

‘Right here.’ The woman placed her hand on her heart, not taking her gaze from Kathryn’s face.

‘Oh,’ breathed Kathryn, as she felt the room beginning to spin around her.

‘You know about locking things in your heart, don’t you, Kathryn?’ whispered the woman. ‘And locking other things, other people, out.’

Kathryn was conscious of her legs beginning to tremble. ‘I’m not sure what you mean,’ she replied, ‘but, in any case, this is not about me.’

‘In this case, Dr Brookley, you are wrong. Talk to your husband. You will see it has everything to do with you.’

The silence that followed seemed to be choking Kathryn. She could not utter the expected doctor-to-patient words and, instead, only coughed out, ‘I think I’ll let you get some rest … We’ll talk again later.’

She managed to steady her legs just long enough to get out of the chair and stumble from the room.

Tim came across Kathryn later in the day in the staff cafeteria. He recognised her from the back as she sat at a corner table, her head rigid and her face turned to a blank wall. She didn’t seem to notice him walk up to stand behind her and she reacted with a start when he tapped her gently on the shoulder, saying her name.

‘Dr Brookley? Kathryn? Hi. I didn’t mean to startle you, just noticed you sitting here, alone. I, um, I thought you were going to let me know when you’d finished your assessment of our mystery patient. Are you okay? Should I … um, do you mind if I sit down?’ he asked.

‘Please. Yes, take a seat. Sorry I didn’t get back to you earlier. And I feel I owe you an apology for my bad temper earlier.’

‘No problem,’ he said, dropping onto the seat. ‘I’m thick skinned. Nerdy, and nervous, but thick skinned. And I probably deserved it.’ Tim thought he saw a flicker of a smile cross Kathryn’s mouth and, encouraged, he continued. ‘So … what did you make of our patient?’ He heard the excitement in his own voice, was aware of leaning a little too far across the table.

‘I’m not sure yet,’ Kathryn began. ‘She spoke, you know? But she didn’t, or wouldn’t, tell me anything. Well, that’s not quite true. She told me some story about an illness. Shades of Thumbelina about it. But, then again, not like it at all. Far more disturbing. And something about her mother, but not really. She’s mentally unwell, that’s for sure, but I wouldn’t, I couldn’t, at this stage, make a diagnosis.’

Tim shook his head. ‘I’m not sure what you’re telling me here. I don’t know what thumbelina is.’ He felt his face redden as the awareness of his inexperience with both psychiatric illness and women struck him. He tried to read the psychiatrist’s reaction to his confession, and knew she was sneering at him when she said, ‘Thumbelina is not a disease, you know. It’s that fairy story of the teeny little girl. Didn’t your mother ever tell you any fairy tales?’

‘I didn’t have a mother. Or father,’ Tim muttered, trying not to sound pathetic.

He noticed Kathryn give a minute shake of her head before she said, ‘Oh, Tim. I’m so sorry. That was insensitive of me. Very unprofessional too.’

Tim relaxed back in the chair. ‘No, really, no need to apologise. I never knew my father. And I can’t really remember my mother. I’ve been told she died of an overdose when I was about two. After that, I was taken into institutional care before being fostered by several very nice families until I reached eighteen.’

‘That’s tough. You must have been tenacious, resilient, and smart, to get yourself to university, into medicine.’

‘Yeah, I worked hard at school. I didn’t really have much else to do. I was hopeless at sport; home life was pretty ordinary. Don’t get me wrong, though—my foster parents were good people.’

Tim thought Kathryn’s features were softening. He hoped she wasn’t going to cry. ‘So, any other thoughts on the patient?’

‘Well, there is something that’s really unsettling me about this one. I can’t put my finger on it. It almost felt as if she were attempting to diagnose me, as if she knew me, somehow. But, of course, she doesn’t. She’s clever, insightful. And I’m sure she’s manipulative. I just don’t understand her motivation yet.’

Taken into her confidence, Tim felt more confident himself and dared, ‘You know, the mention of an illness in that story of hers, and those changes in perception of body size, might mean that there’s some other pathology involved here. Maybe we should order a neurological consult.’

Tim saw Kathryn’s eyes come to life. She thumped her hands on the table. ‘Oh my God, That’s it. Well, that’s part of it. Part of what’s been niggling me all afternoon. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner.’

Tim knew a silly smile had crept across his face, knew that the way he rested his elbows on the table stamped him as too eager, but he decided he didn’t care. ‘So … you know what’s going on with her?’

Kathryn took her time before saying, ‘Not really, but you’ve triggered my memory of a possible link. Quite some years ago, I was a young doctor at the Royal East Sydney Hospital. One morning in the staff room, Dr Anderson, a consultant neurologist, was telling the story of how the renowned psychiatrist, Dr J J T Smith, had enlisted his help on a case at Harbourside. It involved him conducting a series of neurological tests on a young woman who was found, alive and well, in Sydney Harbour, but who seemed to have no memory, no clue, of who she was or how she got there.’

‘Great,’ said Tim. ‘This is probably the same woman, at it again. Let’s speak to Doctors Anderson and Smith.’

‘That’s the problem. Both Dr Anderson and Dr Smith are dead. I’m now forty-five years old so it’s about twenty years since this incident. And the case Dr Anderson was speaking of was another twenty years before that. So … sometime in the 1970s. What I’m trying to say is, there’ll be no help for us from the “originals”. But, in reality, what help could they be anyway? You see, it doesn’t fit. If that woman was still alive she’d be at least forty years older than the woman we’re dealing with today. Our patient looks about thirty at the most, not seventy or more.’

Tim’s eyes widened. ‘Hmm, what are we talking here? Extreme facelift? Or, it could be some weird syndrome. Maybe we should do a search for that earlier case. It might give us some clues in dealing with our current mystery woman. Do you want me to go to Medical Records in my break?’

Kathryn shook her head. ‘No. They don’t hold records that go back that far. But …’ She didn’t finish the sentence. Instead, she sprang up. ‘Dorothy, Dr Smith’s secretary. She’s still there, working for the group of psychiatrists who took over his practice. She’s been there forever.’

When Dr Brookley had called to inquire about records or information on a mysterious woman who had been pulled from the harbour decades before, Dorothy knew exactly what was being asked of her. She knew where the file was kept, and she knew what it contained. Every day for the past forty years she had thought about the woman who was the subject of that file. Oh, how willing she had been then to be judge and jury. Now, very often, she wondered what her life would have been like if she had been courageous enough, all those years ago, to agree with her employer, Dr Smith. She suspected that she would have ended up like Margery. But would that have been so bad? Was her own lonely, tedious life any better than that of the deranged but happy and outrageously wealthy old nun?

This office had been the centre of Dorothy’s life for forty-five years. Now, at seventy-seven years of age, she was well past retirement but, as she had nothing and no one else to fill her days, and as she was still competent and had been willing to keep up with the technology that modern offices required, she’d kept working. On many winter mornings her bones ached as she set out from her little one-bedroom apartment, but the aches of loneliness, guilt, and regret were more acute and propelled her onto the crowded train and into the office that had once been her joy but was now her penance.

And now this. All these years later. Would it be the end, or was it another chance, a very late, last minute chance? Yes, it’s said that there are some things that happen in life that offer us the possibility of change, present us with an opportunity to completely renew our way of being in the world. There are some individuals who come into our lives and make an impact so startling that we can, if we choose, go into the future seeing ourselves and others in an astoundingly different way. Dorothy knew this, but she also knew that many people miss or reject the opportunity when it’s presented. People like her. They respond with fear; they put up their walls and retreat to live behind them, denying that they have ever glimpsed what’s on the other side. They move in comfortable and familiar patterns. They choose the delusion of security and surround themselves with friends who share the same delusion. Dorothy had often wondered if such delusion-sharing was the definition of sanity or of madness. She had concluded, at different times and depending on her mood, that it was neither—and both.

Dorothy made her first decision. She would give Dr Brookley the whole file. She would take more time with the second decision. Perhaps, when the moment came, she would answer all the questions; and, perhaps, if given the opportunity, she would see this young woman from the water. But not today. For today it was enough to hand over the file.

From the back of the top drawer of her desk, Dorothy took out a single key attached to a souvenir keyring of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. She used the key to try to open the middle drawer of the old filing cabinet in the corner. She was not surprised when the lock resisted the key’s entry—it was at least twenty years since this drawer had been opened. Dorothy trudged back to her desk and picked up a tube of lotion that she used throughout the day on her dry, wrinkly hands. She squeezed a few drops of the lotion onto the key and, on returning it to the lock, was pleased to find that it did the trick.

The drawer contained only one item. She took out the slim, yellowing manila folder and then placed it into a larger plastic document satchel, tied a string tightly around the satchel and wrote in black permanent marker across the front and back surfaces the word ‘Confidential’. Picking up the satchel she walked out of her office, not bothering to close the door behind her. She gave the satchel to the receptionist, Mrs James, with instructions to respect the ‘Confidential’ nature of the material and to hand it directly to Dr Kathryn Brookley, and no one else.

‘Thank you, Mrs James. And please inform my employers that I am retiring as of today,’ she said. Dorothy left without looking back.


This is what she said:

Those who look carefully see that the mundane and the everyday are alive with the pulse and possibility of the miraculous. Think about your kitchen table. It is very familiar in its ordinariness and practicality. A flat timber surface, scratches here and there, four straight wooden legs. It is not a big table but it is well made, the tabletop perfectly rectangular in shape, with its longer sides exactly ninety centimetres apart along the entire one hundred and fifty centimetre length. In Euclidean geometry those longer sides of your rectangular table are defined as being parallel—and parallel lines, by definition, do not meet or intersect. But imagine that both long sides of your kitchen table happen to rest perfectly on two meridians of longitude. You remember from your school days that meridians of longitude meet at the poles, and here we move from the kitchen to the great circles of hyperbolic space. Planes versus spheres. Parallel versus non-parallel lines. Limits versus infinity. What you see versus what is. Things viewed from a greater perspective often look very different to things that exist within the limits of our day-to-day vision. What do you really know of your kitchen table?

Kathryn sat at her kitchen table, a glass of red wine in her hand, the forty-year-old folder from Dr Smith’s archives in front of her. On its cover, in the ‘Patient’s Name’ box, she read ‘Known as Julie X’. She took a gulp of wine, put the glass down on the table, and brought her hands together, raising them to let the tips of her index fingers rest on her lips, prayer-like. She stared at the folder, hesitating to look at its contents. She lowered her hands, spread her fingers out on the table’s surface, and thought of the rings that once circled the fourth finger of her left hand. She lifted the glass for another gulp and was aware of the earthy flavour in her mouth. She placed the glass down again, noticing the dark knot of honey-coloured wood next to where the glass sat. She listened to the silence of the late-night kitchen.

She opened the folder and fanned its contents across the table. At a glance, she could tell that it was a collection of medical reports, newspaper clippings, records and transcripts of interviews, miscellaneous jottings, and a small faded photo. On closer inspection she saw that someone had taken the time to give each item a number and a heading of sorts—a description of the item’s origin, type, and a date. She began to read.

Item 1: Xeroxed copy of Emergency Department admission notes; attending doctor not named.

7 May 1973, 7.30 am

Female, age uncertain but estimated to be around 30 years, brought to Emergency Dept by ambulance at around 7.20 am after being pulled from Sydney Harbour by a ferry crew. Crew members reported woman was breathing when rescued. Ambulance officers attending reported breathing and blood pressure normal, and no apparent signs of trauma to head or body. No signs of hypothermia.

Examination on admission:

Temperature: 36.5C

Respiration: 13

Blood pressure: 120/70

Pulse: 65

Non-communicative; uncertain if this is due to lack of comprehension or of speech, or both. At this stage, patient is unable to be identified, and cannot/will not identify herself. Social Work assessment ordered. Patient to be transferred to a general medical ward for overnight stay by which time, hopefully, family will be located.

Item 2: Newspaper clipping, Herald Sun, late edition, 7 May 1973.

A young woman was pulled from Sydney Harbour early this morning by Manly ferry crew members after a passenger spotted her floating near Fort Denison. The ferry immediately called for assistance and Water Patrol Officers responded. Ambulance officers were contacted and were at Circular Quay when the ferry docked to transport the woman to the emergency department of Royal Harbourside Hospital where she remains in a stable condition and under observation. The woman showed no signs of physical injury, but is apparently confused and disorientated as she is unable to give any account of herself. Police are appealing for help in identifying her. She is described as being about 30 years old, 5’ 2” tall, and of slim build. She has light brown, closely cropped hair, pale complexion, blue eyes, and was wearing a long, grey woollen dress but no shoes or jewellery. Contact North Sydney Police Station if you have witnessed anything in relation to this incident or if you have any information about this woman.

Item 3: Typed copy of Resident Medical Officer’s report on incident of 8 May 1973; attending doctor not named.

Re: unidentified female patient, admitted one day prior (7 May) following her discovery in the harbour.

11.20 am: paged to urgently attend a patient on Level 4 Medical Ward experiencing sudden onset of breathing difficulties and paralysis of the lower limbs. Arrived within 5 minutes of being called but, on examination, found patient to be breathing normally, lower limbs mobile and responsive to stimuli. All other vital signs normal. Patient was still unable/unwilling to identify herself, still not speaking, but did shake her head when asked if headache was present. Appeared somewhat drowsy but otherwise well.

Recommendations: allow patient to rest but continue half-hourly obs.

(Note that patient was seen by psychiatric Dr J J T Smith yesterday pm; Dr Smith to be informed of this latest development. Note, expedite Dr Smith’s recommendation for neurological consultation for this patient.)

Item 4: Transcript from tape recording of Sister Margery Plimsoll’s account of her first meeting with mystery woman, which took place on evening of 8 May 1973. Recorded during interview with psychiatrist Dr J J T Smith on 25 May 1973.

I remember every detail, every thought, word, and action of our first meeting. It is etched in my mind like a woodcut design, which I have used as the stamped background to my life since that time. Many nights I dream of it; many nights I dream of the other meetings. All of the meetings, all of our conversations, inspire my days and soothe my nights.

When I came on duty at ten pm for the overnight shift, I was told by the head nurse of the departing shift that the woman had slept for some hours following a short episode of breathing difficulty and partial paralysis earlier in the day, but had awoken at around six pm and appeared bright-eyed and alert. She had eaten all of the evening meal before falling into a normal and very peaceful sleep as soon as the main ward lights were turned off. But, so far, the woman had not spoken a word.

I admit to being intrigued by the woman’s flawless skin—very pale, but very beautiful, as if it had never seen the sun. Strange, though, that her hands were quite calloused, indicating manual labour. There was something about the woman that disturbed me. Something familiar; a chord of recognition, but I could not find the melody.

‘Are you all right, dear?’ I whispered, placing my cool hand on the woman’s forehead. Here, I thought I detected a slight rise in temperature and so I reached for a thermometer.

‘Just pop this in your mouth, dear. You seem a little warm. That’s right, just hold it there gently. It won’t take too long,’ I assured her. I took the woman’s right hand in mine and held it as I waited for the temperature to register. When I removed the thermometer, I saw that her temperature was indeed elevated and she seemed a little agitated. She began to make a series of small, sighing sounds, forming her mouth into shapes that suggested speech.

‘What is it, my dear?’ I asked, leaning my head closer to her quiet utterances. ‘What can I do for you? If you tell me your name, I’ll be able to help you.’

‘Ju, jul … ju,’ the woman breathed, the quality of her voice as gentle as bubbles in dishwater.

‘Is your name Julie?’ I prompted. (I have a particular liking for that name. If I’d had a daughter, that is the name I would have given her.)

‘You must tell me, my dear,’ I tried again. ‘I see now that you can speak after all and, if you tell me your name, I’ll be able to contact your family to take you home. I’m sure you’d like that.’

The woman shook her head, rapidly and vehemently, and then she fell back against the pillow and, reaching her right hand toward me, patted my arm. Such a kind touch. And, as no other patients called for my attention, I remained with the woman, gently stroking her forehead and close-cropped brown hair, until the first pale rays of dawn tapped at the east-facing window at the end of the ward. The woman seemed to respond to those rays. I noticed her eyes moving under their fragile lids; I saw her fingers twitch; I heard her take a solid inhalation, and then she awoke.

‘How are you feeling?’ I asked.

‘I am well. And you are well. And all is well, and all shall be well,’ she answered, even though I had asked only about her health. Later, of course, I would understand what she meant but, at that time, I just thanked God that the woman was beginning to communicate. It gave me confidence to try, again, to find out something about her.

‘Yes, you do seem well,’ I began. ‘I’ll check your temperature again in a minute but, perhaps, you’ve now remembered your name.’

‘I have not forgotten it,’ she said.

‘Oh, that’s good. If you tell me, I can let the right people know and we can help you get home to your family.’

‘What is your name?’ she asked, not seeming to be ignoring me but, rather, enlarging the communication. It seemed a reasonable question so I answered, ‘I am Sister Margery.’

‘Sister Margery.’ She said it as a repetition, not an address. ‘It is a good name. But do you understand that even though you have told me your name, I cannot help you get home?’

‘Yes, I see. But I’m not a patient, I’m a nun, so my home is here, in my work in this hospital, in my prayers, in my dedication to others, and to God,’ I tried to explain.

‘Then we are the same, Sister Margery. Like you, I am home already.’

I was confused, and I told her so.

‘Then I will tell you a tale, and you will see something of me in the tale, and you will understand better …’

Once, long ago, there was a woman who delighted in the ordinary things of her everyday life. She loved the high heat of a summer’s day, and the deep chill of winter evenings. She loved the fragrance and colours of her garden in spring, and the way that the bees gathered sweetness from the garden’s flowers. She loved the way in which the rain tumbled in plump drops over the eaves of her cottage on darkening autumn afternoons. Best of all, she loved the open arms of her husband and the laughter of her children. But one day, there were no more children—they had grown and gone on with their own lives and her husband had died and her work in the cottage was no longer joyous; it was hollow. But her heart was still full, for, in her ordinariness, she had learnt to love and to suffer; she had embraced the lessons of everyday life. The sun still shone, and the rain still fell, and the bees still gathered. And so she knew that she too must be useful. But her home was no longer the place of her usefulness. And so she left it, to find her work in the home of the world.

Something in that tale moved me. I cannot describe what it was. I stopped asking her for details of her life after that. I just called her ‘Julie’ because that name had come to me when she had made those first sounds. I know it didn’t really suit her. Julies are outgoing, pretty, and popular. She was nothing like that, but I hoped that giving her an ordinary, happy name would stop others pestering her about irrelevant details.

Item 5: Handwritten note in Medical Ward nursing file of morning of 9 May 1973. Authoring nurse not named.

Sister Margery reported at shift changeover this morning that during the night, the mystery patient gave her name as ‘Julie’. Files relating to this patient will now be marked as ‘Julie X’ until more conclusive identification comes to light.

Item 6: Carbon-copy of original letter of referral from Dr J J T Smith to consultant neurologist, Dr M Anderson.

Dr J J T Smith (Psychiatrist)

Suite 45

Sterling Medical Building

Pacific Highway

St Leonards NSW 2060

17 May 1973

Dear Dr Anderson,

Attached please find the ‘official’ referral for the patient known as ‘Julie X’, whom we discussed in our recent phone conversation. From that conversation, you will understand that, unfortunately, I can give you very little in the way of substantive personal information about this woman, but I shall attempt to summarise my thoughts on her to date.