The Convent

The Convent by Maureen McCarthy

Book: The Convent by Maureen McCarthy Read Free Book Online
Authors: Maureen McCarthy
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Det was left in the house with her three older brothers. The only part she willingly talks about is her need to escape. With the help of a sympathetic teacher she sat the entrance test for Mac.Robertson Girls’ High at fourteen years old. When she was accepted, she applied for government support to move to Melbourne and lived with the same teacher’s grandmother for four years while she completed school.
    Det was dux in Year Twelve doing languages and humanities subjects. Then she came back the next year and did all the science subjects and was dux again. Perfect scores two years in a row. Unbelievable. Her second Year Twelve was when Cassie and I got to know her. Naturally she was accepted into all the prestigious university courses, but in the end she chose Fine Art. It seemed a completely crazy choice at the time. She’d never talked about art, and none of us had ever seen her draw anything or even pick up a paintbrush at school. The teachers were beside themselves and went into overdrive trying to dissuade her, but Det stuck to her guns.
    As far as we know she has nothing to do with any member of her family in Mildura, and ever since we’ve known her she has carried a knife with a carved ivory handle in a leather sheath in her bag. I’ve never seen it in use, but … I have no doubt that it has a purpose.
    â€˜Why?’ I asked her once.
    But she only shrugged and made a face. ‘Why not?’
    By that stage, I knew it was the only answer I was going to get.
    It’s the huge unfinished canvas on the easel that grabs my attention now. I walk over, captivated by its dramatic central image. Three young men, faces turned away, arms raised in the act of throwing small canisters of … something. Tear gas? A thick fog hovers over and around them like a cloud. The misty whiteness covers most of the painting, making the men’s bodies seem caught in a dream. In the distance, through the fog, I make out dilapidated walls and buildings with bits of plaster hanging off open doorframes, the bricks and boards worn and battered. In the foreground, some space away, are three children – boys, I think – squatting down and playing in the dirt at the side of the road. The eldest, maybe ten years old, holds himself apart looking out. He has a gun slung across his back. In spite of myself I’m intrigued. Even unfinished the image hauls me in and makes me anxious. Who are the kids? And the men? What are they doing? What does it mean?
    â€˜Good huh?’ Cassie goes to the window and pulls up the sash, allowing the hot air to rush in. ‘She’s done a whole lot more on the kids since I saw it two days ago.’
    I study them more closely and see one of the younger ones is a girl. She’s in a windcheater and worn sneakers and is writing something on the pavement with chalk. The barely discernable words Here I am are scratched in a childish scrawl. Oh Jeez, what is that meant to mean?
    Still on the phone, Det must have noticed me studying the painting, because she grabs a newspaper photo off the wall, gives it to me, points to the painting and retreats to her corner to continue her increasingly acrimonious call.
    â€˜But I rang yesterday and the day before!’ she shouts. ‘Don’t give me that bullshit!’ She is quiet for a while and then she sighs heavily. ‘Then take me off the plan, because you said it was going to cost fifty-nine dollars a month, not seventy-nine.’
    I tune out and stare at the photo. It is a shot of three men throwing their canisters of tear gas. I can’t really tell what nationality they are. Is it the Middle East, or maybe Vietnam? There is no caption. But I see now that Det has used the basic composition of the photo as the starting point for her painting, adding in her own elements: the buildings, the walls and the children.
    â€˜Did she tell you that I’m going to be her agent?’ Cassie whispers to me.

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