17 stories in book. This is part of one …
… Children are easily frightened, more often by fantasy and fear itself than reality. Bellarine was real, however, and the fear a generation of children had of her, justified or not, was very real indeed.
She was a legend. From one child to another passed the tales of terror that fed our fertile minds. We were warned often enough. “No one, but no one, goes near Bellarine’s after the sun goes down.”
But each child needs to learn life’s lessons alone, and in their own way.
This is the story of one of my earliest memories of her. I had gone to the corner shop several streets away with my big brother and his friends. We were straggling home in twos and threes, with me at the end of the straggle, about to sink my tingling teeth into a twopenny icy pole, when one of the big boys up front turned to speak to the rest of us. His eyes fixed in horror at something just beyond my right shoulder.
“Bellarine!” he screamed and they all stampeded off around the corner and left me utterly alone.
I remember a frantic feeling of fear and foreboding in that endless second before adrenaline reached my feet for flight. Something unknown and awful was very close behind me. Icy pole flung to the wind, I bellowed home into my mother’s worried arms at the gateway, speechless and hysterical.
Such was the power of Bellarine.
Later I remember my mother chastising my brother and his friends for being “unkind to that poor old migrant lady”, but children have no sense of sympathy or understanding of adult loneliness or the hurt that builds barriers of bitterness and barricades of bluff. Fear is their only reality.
We children knew that, in that large handbag she took everywhere, she carried a knife and a snake. We knew everything about her – and nothing. She was dark. She was different. She was danger. She always wore black – black from her thick lace-up shoes, long dress and coat, to the thin black shawl she wrapped around her head.
She spoke no English. The sight of children seemed to trigger some dark paranoia hidden deep inside her. She would screech and shake her stick at us and charge like a raging rhino. She who sometimes hobbled was capable of great speed and surprising strength.
She hated children and dogs, and the dogs were just as afraid of her as we were. When we ran, they ran. To my knowledge she never actually beat a child but many a dog felt the end of her stick across his retreating rump.
Over the years we developed a relationship with Bellarine rather like a herd of gazelle to a lurking lioness. She was the dark thread that criss-crossed the fabric of our lives and wove a pattern of fear that remains indelible to this day. She was a threatening shadow lurking in the corners of our collective childhood. We were always aware of her, always alert, always prepared to panic.
The words “Bellarine is coming!” could clear the street in seconds, no matter who was winning at hopscotch or marbles, or whose precious taw or cat’s eye was left abandoned on the roadway. Not until she was a tiny figure in the distance would the bravest of us re-emerge from hiding.
Such was the power of Bellarine.
Childhood is coloured by characters and punctuated by exciting episodes of encounter and escape. Once a ball landed on her roof and bonk-bonk-bonked down onto her front steps. From within the house awful yells in some strange language sent us scattering.
Another time a ball crashed against her front door and to our horror the door opened just a crack and a long, skinny arm emerged with a claw-like hand to engulf the ball and drag it inside. I had nightmares about that long, skinny arm for weeks …
*Heather Donaldson is the author of There Be Dragons …