MY CHILDHOOD ENDED when I was ten.
It was the 21 March 2002. The subdued beauty of an autumn afternoon in Toowoomba. Cool enough to be winter. Dying light and green leaves. A yellow dome glowing in the western skies.
Mort Estate remained in the pre-gentrification era. We were the richest family on the street, which wasn’t saying much. The block was dominated by boarding houses and council flats. Graffiti covered the brickwork. Junkies deposited syringes in the wheelie bins. There was nothing unusual about sirens and high-pitched disagreements on a school night. Except this time it was my life unravelling.
A woman stood underneath the huge camphor laurel tree that erupted from the dusty lawn outside our house. She was shaking and bathed in shade. Her name was Mary Shelley. She was fifty-nine years old and described herself as a ‘nomadic missionary of God’ to children, refugees, prisoners, homeless people and the mentally ill.
Mary renamed herself after the mother of Jesus and obeyed style advice from the Bible. A purple dress sailed above sandals. Grey hair streamed past her waist. She fingered the glittering crucifix around her neck and stared at the blood-coloured letterbox.
After years spent living and loving each other undercover, my family had finally been found. Mary and her husband, Michael, were religious fanatics and biological parents to three of my foster siblings. Steven, John and Hannah hadn’t been in the same room as their natural parents since being taken into social care as babies.
The Shelleys were considered dangerous. The Department of Child Safety took special precautions. Mary and Michael didn’t learn the names of the foster carers who supplanted them. All correspondence that the Shelleys received from their children – such as intermittent pictures and video messages – were carefully screened to ensure they didn’t betray a single trace of information about their secret identities or where they were hiding.
Michael Shelley was a savant when it came to tracking people down. He was holed up at a motel in the Toowoomba CBD, a fifteen-minute walk from where his children had been living incognito.
Steven was eighteen. John was seventeen. They were tall, broad-shouldered rugby league players under little threat from a couple of underfed religious missionaries. Hannah was twelve years old. The Department of Child Safety believed that she was at a high risk of being kidnapped. Mary Shelley had repeatedly threatened to ‘liberate’ her daughter from foster care. In 1999, the preacher rang a senior social worker and told her that she ‘will take Hannah back when it is least expected’.
MARY UNLATCHED THE wrought-iron front gate. The drop rod scraped loudly across the scratch mark in the concrete. While I was hitting and missing leather balls at cricket training, Mary rattled the rust-eaten doorbell. After a short delay, she came face to face with my mother Lenore Blaine, the woman who’d so brutally usurped her.
Mum was a clichéd country housewife. She was forty-eight, but looked older. Unselfconsciously androgynous. She wore joggers with tight tracksuits and a loose-fitting T-shirt. Freckled face untouched by make-up. Hazel eyes and husky voice.
Mary was revolted. Before converting to Christianity in the 1970s, she had been a model, and her face had graced the front cover of Women’s Weekly. The basic elements of her beauty remained intact. She had a full figure with wrinkled olive skin and long, abundant hair. Her eyes were two brown beads in the dusk.
Lenore Blaine was her physical antithesis.
‘You look dreadful,’ said Mary. ‘Where are my children?’
Mum was non-confrontational by nature, self-deprecating and unfailingly polite. With a nervous smile, she led the person who considered her a child abuser up the long driveway that ran beside our run-down, one-storey bungalow.
My parents paid $70,000 for the tin-and-timber home in 1999. Mum left Mary Shelley underneath the fiberglass-sheeted breezeway to contemplate the uncultivated nature of our upbringing. We had a white cockatoo named Jack and a dalmatian named Mazda. The only indications of leisure were the dartboard, ping-pong table and a miscellaneous collection of sporting equipment.
‘I’ll be right back,’ said Mum.
She found John playing Nintendo 64 in the lounge room.
‘Get Hannah out of the shower,’ Mum whispered. ‘Your mother is here. Go and say hello. I’m calling the police.’
John half opened the bathroom door to tell his younger sister the news. Hannah hid behind the shower curtain.
‘John!’ she shrieked. ‘What the hell?’
John could see his mother through the curtains hanging in the laundry windows. The words struggled to escape his throat.
‘Our mother is here,’ he said.
The statement made zero sense. Hannah believed so deeply in the state-created fiction that my mum and dad were her mum and dad that it didn’t occur to her that John meant their non-fictional mother Mary. Genetics don’t mean shit when you’ve woken up to the same face and been kissed goodnight by the same lips every day since you were twelve months old.
‘Yeah,’ said Hannah. ‘I know she is.’
John was pale and shaking. ‘Our real mother,’ said John.
The distinction dropped on Hannah like a stack of bricks. The previous eleven years had been predicated, fairly or unfairly, on being kept hidden from her real parents. They were non-existent characters in the stories she told herself. Now, without warning, she was going to meet the woman who had authored her.
THE FAMILY REUNION went disastrously. Mary Shelley covered her eyes and refused to communicate with ‘Joshua’ until he put a shirt on. They were two people biologically inclined to getting carried away. John became enraged. He literally couldn’t remember anyone referring to him by the name on his birth certificate.
‘My name’s John!’ he yelled.
‘Joshua,’ cried Mary, ‘you’ve been brainwashed by these God-forsaken people. Take a look at yourself in the mirror. Shorts and no shirt. You are dressed like a baby!’
‘Don’t call me Joshua!’
‘In the eyes of God,’ she said, ‘Joshua is your name!’
‘You’re a dead-set fuckin’ idiot!’ he shouted.
‘Joshua! You speak the language of the devil! Repent!’
John howled further obscenities at Mary before fleeing inside the house. Mum stood at the back door speaking softly into the cordless phone, pleading for swift police assistance.
Mary turned her attention to Hannah. They sat opposite each other at a green outdoor setting from Kmart. It was covered in divots where lit cigarettes had seared the plastic. Mary was horrified by what she saw. Her long-lost daughter was a tomboy. Hannah wore Darling Downs hockey shorts and a red singlet that said ‘Girls Kick Harder than Boys’ in black, aggressive script. She was tall, with abs and biceps that put most boys her age to shame. Wet hair slicked back into a short bob. Later that year, she captained the Queensland under-twelves girls hockey team, excelling with physical grit rather than speed or guile.
Mary detected little hint of her own former glory. She saw the daughter of Lenore Blaine. So, for the next ten minutes, Mary berated Hannah for her unwomanly appearance. She didn’t express any relief to see her daughter after eleven years in the maternal wilderness. Rage was her only expressible emotion.
‘You took terrible,’ said Mary. ‘My daughter! They’ve raped the beauty from your face and body. So muscular and ugly. Dressed like a boy. What have they done to your hair? It should be long like mine!’
Hannah sat paralysed by fear. The champion athlete and captain of her state primary school, a lover of public speaking, had finally found an opponent who frightened her into feebleness.
Soon Steven sped up the driveway in a white Mitsubishi Lancer. He was a diligent accounting student. Unlike John, Steven shied away from confrontation.
‘Saul,’ cried Mary, ‘your foster care placement is a disgrace! Hannah needs to be saved!’
Hannah went inside to hyperventilate. Steve escorted Mary Shelley to the street. He explained as diplomatically as possible that she needed to leave immediately. Police were en route. He’d be willing to meet up for dinner at a later date, but only if she proceeded through the correct channels.
Amazingly, Mary conceded temporary defeat. Her aversion to the Queensland Police Service overpowered all maternal instincts. The preacher disappeared ten minutes before two police vehicles arrived. She was located on CCTV later that night and arrested on suspicion of stalking.
Eight years later, after Mum suffered a nervous breakdown, I discovered her diary from 2002. This is when she was still optimistic enough about the future to bother keeping track of time.
On the 21 March, she wrote: 5.01 PM – MARY SHELLEY ARRIVED. LIFE WILL NEVER BE THE SAME!!! Despite the foresight, she couldn’t possibly have predicted just how deeply the Shelleys persecution would derange her.
THE GENESIS OF Mary and Michael’s relationship was inside a Sydney psychiatric hospital. It was the mid-1970s. Mary was a high-profile Jewish socialite and model. She was a hallucination of beauty. Olive skin and profoundly brown eyes. A full mouth and high cheekbones.
Michael pierced her passivity with charisma. He was a rich North Shore entrepreneur with a high IQ and libido. Sandy hair and fair skin. Lean body and impressive jawline.
The budding couple was suffering from a twin-life crisis. The divorces that ripped apart their childhoods had been repeated in disastrous first and second marriages. They were deeply depressed. Both high on a chemist’s wet dream of medication. Same movie-star good looks. Matching disdain for the privilege they both grew up with.
Something went awry during their intoxicated courtship. Michael underwent a religious conversion. He became inexplicably convinced that God had handpicked him to be his prophet. He persuaded Mary to be his wife and disciple. Their mission was to spread the gospel of Jesus to a corrupt and loveless country.
On the available evidence, it seems possible that the lovers were suffering from folie à deux, which is French for ‘madness of two’. The disorder occurs when hallucinations and delusions are transmitted between two or more people. Sufferers mutually reinforce their shared beliefs. The psychosis is incredibly difficult to treat without a sustained period of separation and deprogramming.
Over the next thirty years, jail time and psychiatric confinement did little to dim the deepness of the Shelleys beliefs. It was a miraculous transformation. Nothing in their past predicted religious fanaticism. Nothing in their future reveals the missing link.
ON 4 SEPTEMBER 1980, Mary and Michael were baptised under the cascade of a waterfall north of Cairns. Four days later, their first child Elijah was born with the help of two midwives.
Mary and Michael believed he was the same Elijah mentioned in the Bible. They followed the directions of Matthew 10 like it was a cake recipe. Jesus said: ‘Acquire no gold or silver or copper for your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics or sandals.’ So with snowy-haired Elijah in tow, the glamorous evangelists hitchhiked barefoot across Queensland, no money for food or shelter, preaching the gospel of Jesus to disbelievers, all of their possessions knotted up in a linen cloth: toothbrush, comb, change of nappy and a Bible.
They were arrested practically everywhere they went. The charges included harassment, credit fraud, vagrancy, theft and assault. Mary and Michael spent time in Boggo Road prison. A warden claimed Mary was planning to ‘sacrifice’ Elijah. She was detained in Wolston Park mental asylum. Social workers were alerted to Elijah’s existence. Considered underweight, he was put into emergency foster care placement that later became permanent.
On 7 November 1983, Michael and a disciple named Glen kidnapped Elijah, then three years old, from a foster home north of Brisbane. Following a nationwide search, Elijah was located at a hideout in the ACT and flown back to Queensland.
His parents wasted little time replacing him. Saul and Joshua were born in quick succession. They were harboured on a sheep and walnut farm in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. In 1985, the furtive family returned to Brisbane. Michael was arrested while plotting to kidnap Elijah for a second time. Mary took her sons to visit their father at Boggo Road. Saul and Joshua were taken into custody. Joshua, nearly one, was the same weight as the average three-month-old infant. They were legally renamed Steven and John and placed into foster care with my parents, Tom and Lenore Blaine, publicans living in country Queensland who at the time were unable to have children of their own.
In 1988, Michael Shelley threatened to kill Mike Ahern, the premier of Queensland, unless he immediately returned his three sons along with $11 million in compensation. A disciple of Michael’s named Roman was later arrested on the front lawn of Ahern’s house promising to deliver on the threat.
Mary fell pregnant again. Believing that social workers coveted their unborn daughter, the Shelleys fled to New Zealand. Hannah was born on the bathroom floor of a three-star motel in Whanganui. It was 18 April 1990. Michael left no trace of the bloody labour. He ripped the placenta into small parts and flushed it down the toilet.
Hannah spent her first five weeks alive in a series of cheap motel rooms across the north island of New Zealand. Eventually, Michael was arrested for credit fraud. Still a breastfeeding baby, Hannah was placed into a series of Auckland foster homes. Queensland authorities negotiated her return and reunification with Steven and John in foster care. She was flown across the Tasman in the autumn months of 1991. Social workers drove an evasive route from the Brisbane airport to my parents' pub in Wondai, afraid that disciples of the Shelley’s might attempt to follow them.
HANNAH HERALDED A miraculous transformation in my parent’s ability to procreate. I was conceived in the weeks following her arrival. It was Mum’s seventh pregnancy. The previous six had been miscarriages, which is why my parents became foster carers in the first place. Now Mum was forty-one. She had extremely low expectations of the birth reaching full term.
I was born in 1992, a miracle baby, ignorant of the conflict that predated my unlikely arrival. Life seemed like a Disney movie. Mum and Dad were good people who looked after needy kids simply because they could.
Over the space of twenty-five years, they accepted nearly a hundred foster-care placements. Some of the children only stayed for the weekend. Some remained for ten years before completely disappearing again. Many of them had physical and intellectual disabilities. The parents of these foster kids almost unanimously accepted that they were unable to take adequate care of their offspring. My makeshift family was unusual, sure, but I had nothing else to compare it to. It had been this way since before I was born.
Steven, John and Hannah were three constants. They remained with Mum and Dad from infancy until the age of eighteen. I made no distinction between their blood and mine. Steven and John were my idols. Hannah was my best friend. They had no contact with their real parents. My parents were theirs.
This is what enraged the Shelleys more than anything else. Love has an environmental basis. It isn’t contained in DNA. They’d conceived and delivered their children under extremely stressful personal circumstances. Within months, the children couldn’t recognise the difference between the faces of their parents and the pretenders who replaced them.
None of this occurred to me as a child. I knew the Shelleys existed, vaguely, but figured they’d forgotten about their kids. Steven, John and Hannah certainly seemed to have erased any memory of them. I was blind to the intricate history of grief behind each foster-care placement. The trail of broken relationships and bereaved families. The violence that can linger in the mind and body of a traumatised child. The unforeseen possibility that Hannah’s real parents might one day try to take my sister back.
AT THE SAME time that Hannah and I were in the front yard playing limbo under the lowering flow of the garden hose, or attempting over-ambitious mickey flips on the trampoline, Mary and Michael Shelley yearned for the return of their 'abducted' daughter. They stayed in New Zealand throughout the 1990s. Mary was hospitalised after a suicide attempt. Two preachers bereft of flesh and blood, dangerously disillusioned, waiting for God to return the children they believed were taken illegally.
The millennium passed without any hint of the apocalypse. Presumably the Shelleys were frustrated that God hadn’t delivered on their threats. A few days after Hannah’s tenth birthday, Michael rang the home phone of Anna Bligh, the Queensland minister responsible for foster care. He left eight messages on her answering machine. The voicemails were described as ‘increasingly abusive and unpleasant’.
It wasn’t long before Anna Bligh came face to face with her stalker. The Shelleys purchased plane tickets back to Australia. On 1 July 2000, Mary and Michael arrived unannounced at Bligh’s private home in Highgate Hill. The Shelleys knocked on the front door at 4.15 pm and handed a medium-sized parcel to her husband Greg Withers. Mary told Anna that she’d returned to take Hannah from foster care and wouldn’t be leaving without her.
Michael did the rest of the talking. He said that contrary to the intelligence contained in New Zealand government files, he and his wife were nonviolent people simply serving the Lord’s orders. They didn’t need guns or bombs to get their point across.
After the Shelleys left the property, the bomb squad was called. The entire block was evacuated while police defused the parcel handed over by the couple – a Bible for Steven’s eighteenth birthday.
On 8 October 2000, they returned to Anna Bligh’s house. It was 11.20 pm on a Sunday night. The family woke up to urgent banging on the front door. Mary Shelley said they weren’t leaving until she saw her daughter.
Minister Bligh stayed inside with her teenage sons, fearing she was about to be assaulted. The Shelleys shouted that she was a ‘slut’ and a ‘whore’. The police were called. Michael Shelley left the premises. Mary Shelley was arrested. She was admitted involuntarily to the Wolston Park Hospital, a maximum-security psych ward, where she was held for five months. Her diagnosis was revised to paranoid schizophrenia. Michael was charged with stalking a minister of the Crown. He was arrested and received an order prohibiting him from travelling within two hundred and fifty metres of Anna Bligh’s house.
Michael was released from prison in 2001. He personally represented Mary at the mental health tribunal and negotiated her release. With Michael’s encouragement, she immediately discontinued her intake of antipsychotics.
The couple regrouped in Sydney. Michael scoured the house of his recently deceased mother for information about Steven, John and Hannah. She had stayed in contact with her biological grandchildren. He found documents revealing the pseudonyms given to his children. More importantly, he learned the names of the foster carers concealing them: Thomas and Lenore Blaine.
It was all he needed. With a little more digging, he found the address of the house where his daughter was living. In the autumn of 2002, a few weeks before Easter, Michael set forth with an unmedicated Mary to see their children in the flesh.
AFTER THE ARRIVAL of Mary Shelley, my family spent the next week laying low at a motel opposite the racecourse. Wintering trees spewed yellow leaves across footpaths caked with horse manure. It was officially a ‘holiday’. We stayed in the family suite and watched M-rated movies paid for by the Department of Child Safety.
Hannah and I spent our clandestine getaway swimming in the pool and bickering about who’d be kidnapped first.
‘They don’t even know who I am!’ I said.
‘Yeah,’ said Hannah, ‘but you’re so much slower than me. I’ll just run away. They’ll take you instead. Probably change your name to Moses and make you grow a ponytail.’
Mum sat inside the gazebo speed-reading Patricia Cornwell novels. She was halfway through inhaling a daily packet of Longbeach Menthols, pale-faced and clammy with trepidation.
‘Nobody is getting kidnapped!’ she cried out unconvincingly. ‘Don’t even joke about those kinds of things.’
‘Then why are we here?’ I said.
Mum lit another cigarette. ‘It’s just a little trip away.’
‘Yeah right,’ said Hannah.
We weren’t idiots. Mum’s promises that everything will be fine and nobody will get hurt clearly contradicted the need to seek refuge at a motel ten minutes away from our own home.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see that kidnapping Hannah was never actually at the top of Mary Shelley’s things-to-do list. Her main priority was striking fear into the lives of Hannah’s foster parents.
Earlier that day, Mum received a taste of the persecution that was to loom over the next few years. Mary left a handwritten letter in the mailbox. It was signed with a love heart.
‘You + Tom are child abusers of the very worst kind,’ Mary Shelley wrote. ‘You effectively are a LESBIAN, grossly ugly, lazy, game-playing, deceitful, a LIAR, greedy + really depraved. Jealous, envious, bitter + twisted, how could you ever make love, there is no love in your hardened heart, no love in your horrible house, no love in your children’s lives except what we send continuously.’
The letter finished on a foreboding note. ‘The GOD of Israel who Michael and I serve is about to set you some overdue limits… Take another look at what GOD allowed in the depraved city of New York on September 11th 2001. GOD causes or allows everything. You have been WARNED. Faithfully, Mary Shelley.’
ON SATURDAY MORNING, John snuck home to feed the pets and get the mail. He sniffed the sweet smell of mildew mixed with petrol fumes. The suburb was abuzz. Mowers exploded from front yards. Teenagers went lapping in their parent’s cars. Engines backfired to a cacophony of birdcalls and dog barks.
Mum told John not to hang around.
‘I’ll be sweet,’ he said. ‘What are they gonna do to me?’
The bravery was simulated. His biological parents scared the shit out of him, especially Michael Shelley. The skinny prophet inspired deep breaths and sweaty palms at midnight, but John didn’t believe a nightmare could materialise in real life.
Anticipation failed to weaken his panic when the apparition finally manifested. John heard the brake pads of a car whining to a stop outside our house. He stood at the front window and faced his gravest fear. A white Chrysler Valiant, old and long, sat stationary on the street. Red upholstery glowed through the tinted windows. Rosary beads swayed from the rearview mirror.
Michael Shelley climbed from the driver’s seat and stood on the footpath. He was fifty-six years old. A white, billowy robe ran to the tips of his thin wrists and ankles. Greying beard and ponytail. Voice deep enough to fill a cathedral.
‘Joshua,’ he said. ‘I need to speak with you now.’
John was frozen at the open window. He was six foot two and a hundred kilograms, a belligerent front rower who loved a fistfight. Suddenly he was reduced to speechless infancy again.
Michael moved towards the front gate. John’s body fled before his mind had time to rationalise the threat. He sprinted up the hallway of the house and out the back door, climbed over the back fence and stormed inside the neighbor’s house without knocking. He begged the old couple that lived there to call the police.
Sirens converged on our address for the second time in three days. There were two sedans and a paddy wagon. A bemused Michael Shelley offered himself up to the police without resistance. He didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Mary Shelley was located up the street. They were both arrested for stalking.
THE SHELLEYS PERSECUTION became more innovatively unhinged. Mary’s white dress was seen fluttering outside our house late at night while we slept fitfully inside. She left dead flowers on the gate. In the morning, leaving for school, I frequently sniffed incense lingering from her midnight visits. It was the aroma of obsession.
Michael stayed away from the house, aware that police would treat his presence more menacingly. He stalked Steven at university, looming at the side doors of lecture halls.
The timing of the Shelleys arrival heightened my fear. September 11 was six months earlier. The religious tenor of their threats meant that I conflated two very different events into a singular feeling of dread, convinced that my family was being hunted down by the Christian equivalents of Osama bin Laden.
In September 2002, Hannah’s social worker applied to the Children’s Court for a special protection order. The restraining order was approved. It banned the Shelleys from making any kind of contact with their daughter. This had little effect on their campaign.
In the aftermath of anthrax attacks in the US, my parents received envelopes filled with Polident, the white powder used to bleach false teeth. The contents of the endless letters were far more poisonous. With painstaking detail, Mary and Michael catalogued the physical defects of their rivals. They berated Mum and Dad for being fat, uneducated bogans. Obesity was used as proof of paedophilia. ‘All grossly overweight people are violent child abusers,’ wrote Mary.
The accusations weren’t limited to paper. Mary would arrive at the hotel my parents owned and announce to the front bar that the publican was raping her daughter. On New Years Day 2003, Mary and Michael sent a jointly signed letter to my father. ‘We need to give you a final warning,’ they wrote. ‘You need to realise that you + Lenore are endangering your lives in this world + in the next. E T E R N I T Y IS FOREVER.’
Dad was impervious to intimidation. He was a 130-kilogram country publican who’d seen and intervened in hundreds of bar fights. Whenever Michael Shelley called the pub to baselessly accuse him of being a rapist, Dad laughed down the phone line.
‘Mick, I don’t have time for this shit. I’ll catch ya later. Make sure you don’t go taking any apples from snakes.’
Mum, however, was ripe to be terrorised. She was shy and sensitive. Over the next few years, the letters and threats had their desired effect. She genuinely believed that Mary and Michael were capable of killing her and kidnapping Hannah. For years, she stayed under siege, tormented by a threat no one else around her could appreciate. Mary and Michael contaminated her existence with the paranoia afflicting them. Their madness of two slowly grew into a madness of three.
In the face of abduction threats, Hannah developed the same style of bravery as my father. She seemed completely unaffected.
‘Don’t give them the satisfaction of your fear,’ Dad used to say.
I was more like my mother, easily seduced by the prospect of impending doom. I suffered from nightly bouts of sleep paralysis. Mary and Michael were spectres levitating at the end of my bed. Luckily, Mum was suffering from insomnia. We stayed awake together in the spare room.
I WAS ELEVEN the last time I saw Mary Shelley in the flesh.
Spring 2003. Jacarandas bloomed and purple buds carpeted the footpaths of the inner-city avenues. The Carnival of Flowers was due to begin the following week. Toowoomba teemed with garden beds that would have made Adam and Eve green with envy.
The restraining order against Mary expired at the start of September. She came to our house a few days later. It was 1 pm on a Sunday. Hannah and I were home alone. Mum was picking up the bookwork from the pub. I locked the doors after she left and checked them again every few minutes. I sat at the computer playing solitaire. The desk overlooked the driveway. A white dress swept past the security screens. All the windows had been recently tinted, shielding my besieged family with a series of one-way mirrors. Mary Shelley stared directly inside. We came face to face for the first time, except she couldn’t see me. I’d never witnessed a face so animated with rage. Panic lit up my brain cells like a fireworks display. My skin prickled with adrenaline. I grabbed the cordless phone and ran down the hallway of the house. Hannah was on a couch in the lounge room.
‘Your mother is here!’ I shrieked without sound.
She grabbed me by the hand. We went inside my room and slid underneath the steel frame of my double bed. The smell of rust and dusty carpet filled my nostrils. Hannah took the phone and made a series of composed phone calls to the police and then Mum.
‘My mother is here,’ said Hannah quietly.
Mum arrived home, followed by the police, but Mary Shelley had disappeared. The police left to see if they could track her down. Hannah and I watched TV in silence. We decompressed from the episode by chewing through half-a-dozen Zooper Dooper’s.
Hannah had been sleeping in the granny flat at the rear of the house. According to police reports, she returned to her bedroom late in the afternoon. She opened the wooden door to find Mary Shelley lying on her bed with her eyes shut. Rays of sunlight from the back window illuminated her still body. She’d taken a picture of Hannah off the dresser. The frame was clasped over her heart along with a handful of her estranged daughter’s freshly cleaned clothes.
Mary’s face was so peaceful, her breathing so discreet, that Hannah thought she’d stumbled upon a successful suicide. She walked back into lounge room where I was sitting with Mum.
‘Mary is in my bed,’ she said blankly. ‘I think she’s dead.’
Mum called the police. Mary wasn’t dead. She simply refused to vacate Hannah’s bedroom. Eventually the police penetrated her oblivion. They escorted her to the paddy wagon out the front, sirens spinning one last time between the evergreens.
THE LEGAL CONSTRAINTS on the Shelleys had failed miserably. Social workers applied to have the restraining order extended to cover my parents. The application was approved. But my parents realised that new and improved pieces of paper were unlikely to be much more of a deterrent. The only stalker-proof option was to run away. So my childhood home was put on the market and reluctantly sold.
At the end of 2003, we moved into a six-bedroom brick house in the far more upmarket suburb of Glenvale. This section of town was treeless and brown, but the street names evoked an oasis. Liquidamber Street. Honeysuckle Drive. Evergreen Court. I was smitten with the dishwasher, air-conditioning and security system. It seemed like a different country to the rough, inner-city suburbs where I grew up. Deadbeats on the street had been replaced by neighbours smiling behind the tinted windscreens of their four-wheel drives.
I remained mostly oblivious to the portents of mental disorder and family breakdown. December was normally Mum’s favourite period of the year. For weeks, she blared tacky carols from a cheap stereo while plotting innovative gifts to give. The twilight of 2003 was blighted by low decibels and high anxiety. Nightly news reports about Western countries detonating the Middle East added to the ambience of paranoia. Mum had grown afraid of large crowds and open spaces, fearing the shadow of the Shelleys, so she made Dad go shopping for all the presents.
On 25 December, Mum slept in unusually late. At lunch she barely touched the enormous plate of prawns. Her voice was small and fraught between continual sips of Bundaberg rum and coke.
God’s disciples had ruined Christmas.
AT THE START of 2004, Mum went to see her GP. She complained of sleeplessness, chest discomforts and difficulty concentrating. He prescribed her a heavy dose of Zoloft, an antidepressant commonly used to treat people suffering from PTSD. One morning I walked into the kitchen and Mum was breaking in the lens of a new prescription. Her hands were shaking. Milk had been spilled clumsily across the granite bench.
‘What are they?’ I asked.
Her eyes fell sideways, a sense of shame I couldn’t decipher. ‘They’re my calm-me-down pills,’ she said. ‘Nothing to worry about.’
I had no concept of depression, let alone a panic disorder, so I didn’t think twice. Mum didn’t seem like someone losing touch with reality. Her fear was subterranean, numbed beneath a diet of substances.
The Shelleys had no idea where we’d disappeared to, so they changed the tactics of their harassment. Mary Shelley gatecrashed parliament and accused my father on national TV of molesting Hannah. She broke into the house of Peter Beattie, then Queensland state premier, late one night and harangued his wife Heather, obtaining a new restraining order in the process.
Michael Shelley consulted the White Pages. He began forwarding letters and court transcripts to people all over Queensland with the surname Blaine. Envelopes arrived in the letterboxes of close family members and complete strangers. The screeds accused my parents of child abuse.
The Shelleys spent the rest of the decade travelling across Australia. They campaigned for church reformation and warned of the looming apocalypse. Mary was frequently imprisoned. Michael was charged with harassment and assault.
Hannah exited foster care in 2008. Old age had begun to mellow out her biological parents. Mary and Michael travelled to South Africa, Western Europe and South-East Asia. They kept my mother abreast of their activities with a steady stream of emails that only occasionally became abusive. Mum didn’t tell anyone about the communication. Most likely we didn’t want to know about it.
Eventually, the communication slowed to a trickle. Mary was admitted into a nursing home. Michael became her personal carer. Their love had overcome a lifetime of losses. It was the only thread of hope in a tapestry of tragedy.
Note: A number of amendments have been made to the online version of this piece since its publication in the print version of Griffith Review 57. These include changing the names of the biological parents of Steven, John and Hannah Blaine from Israel to Shelley, plus a number of deletions referring to Lenore Blaine.