The up and down nature of ladders

by Julie Bowen Kearney

MARY AND I spend a long time tying the sign on the hood of her rusty station wagon. It has taken me days to paint the big board and we most definitely don't want it to fall off on the way to Red Hill. I climb onto the bonnet and wrap my masterpiece in an old army blanket, tucking it in tightly as if it was a toddler in her first bed. Then we wind down the windows and Mary passes the rope through and I sling it across the top for her to grab. We do this four times, then one more time just to be sure. But when Mary gives the blanket an experimental push the whole thing lurches drunkenly across the hood and we have to undo the ropes and start again.

'Hooray!' Mary cries when it's done, pushing back the long strands of hair that have stuck to her face. She smiles at me and everything about her is shining – white teeth, pink cheeks, black hair.

'Sock it to 'em, sister,' she says.

Mary is nineteen. Her Greek parents are well-off and from what she says, they're also pretty strict. But whatever her life is like at home, outside of it she's a free spirit, wearing her freedom as lightly as skin wears the passing breeze. What I mean to say, I guess, is that Mary is a breath of fresh air. Mary and I are both Radical Feminists, though she is the most radical of all the feminists I know. And by now I know a few.

Exactly when I became a Radical Feminist (with a capital R and a capital F) is hard to pinpoint. When a rationally argued idea happens to answer a need in my heart I free-fall into it like a bungy jumper, as convinced of its truth as any vacuously smiling born-again Christian. Even so, who could believe that only six months have passed since a friend dragged me along to my first Women's Liberation meeting? Back then the very idea of Women's Lib was intimidating, but in no time at all I was sporting badges that proclaimed 'Sisterhood is Powerful' and 'Feminists Demand Immediate Withdrawal', and scheming ways to spread the word to other women.

When we discussed this problem in our consciousness-raising group it was obvious the answer lay in having a place of our own. We needed somewhere for women to drop in, have a cup of tea, get information and support, that sort of thing – the kind of place where they would feel welcome and comfortable. And we also needed a centre from which to campaign. Two things that just aren't possible without a Women's House.

So we've done it! We've rented a shopfront in Red Hill. Half a dozen women have spent weeks knocking out walls, scrubbing and painting, bringing in chairs and rugs and posters and so on. All we need now is the sign on the roof.

I'm giving the ropes a last check when my two children come out on the front steps. They poke their plump little faces through the bars of the art deco railing and smile and wave while their father stands behind them, watching us sourly.

'Bye bye darlings,' I call. 'Be good for Daddy. Mummy won't be long.'

'Bye bye poppets,' coos Mary. She loves my kids.

I don't wave to Brian and he doesn't wave to me. Things aren't good between us, haven't been for a long time, but they're much worse now that I've become a Women's Libber. These days there's a suppressed anger under his usual coldness.

MARY REVERSES OUT of the driveway and we rattle along the Sunday-quiet Brisbane streets. As we pass the Ashgrove shops she starts belting out our favourite song so I join in the chorus. We sing at top volume:

'I am Woman, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore, and I know too much to go back and prete-e-end.'

After a while I stop because I can't hit the high notes and anyway it's better listening to Mary. When she stops singing we can hear the ropes creaking above our head and feel the slip-slide of the big wooden board on the hood. But Mary takes the corners slowly and we're still in one piece as we cruise up Musgrave Road. Just as we planned, there's no one about when we pull up outside the twin fronts of the shop that is Women's Liberation's new home. We're not just pretty faces – it's Sunday so we don't have to park in a side street and carry our heavy burden up the steep slope. We undo the sign and rest it against the shop door while I go back to the car for the hammer and screwdriver.

'How are we going to get up on the roof?' Mary asks.

Uh oh. I hadn't thought of that. Hopefully, I look at the posts that hold up the awning. We might be able to shin up that way but – no – it won't work. How would we get the sign up as well? And when I peer along the side of the building I remember it's perched on air, the wooden posts going down forever, disappearing into the gloom of the hillside below.

'You look as if you've lost a dollar and found five cents,' Mary laughs. 'Come on, let's put the sign inside the shop and go look for a ladder.'

We've only gone a short way along Musgrave Road when I notice a lane and two men up a ladder doing something on a roof. Mary sees them too and swings the car into the laneway.

The men have stopped to watch as we get out of the car.

'Hello up there,' says Mary, flashing them a smile. She's never gone along with the latest fad in Women's Lib which is to refuse to smile at men.

'How's it going?' says the one on the ladder, looking down at her.

He's a stocky fellow, shortish, dark-bearded. His mate, who is also watching us, is skinnier with long blond hair. They're both wearing overalls and they're both good-looking. Dishy actually.

'Could be better,' Mary says, tilting her head to direct another grin at him. 'We're looking for a ladder.'

'Is that right?' he says. He's standing at the top of the ladder in a lordly, leisurely way, a hammer dangling from one hand. His mate stands with his legs apart on the corrugated iron roof just behind him.

'We're putting up a sign down the road,' Mary says, 'but we forgot to bring a ladder so we were wondering…'

'How 'bout that, Col?' says the man on the ladder. 'Two good sorts want to steal our ladder.'

'Oh no, we don't want to steal it,' I say. 'We just want to borrow it. We'll bring it back.'

'Lady says she'll bring it back,' says the man on the ladder.

'That's good,' Col drawls, not taking his eyes off us. He pulls a packet of cigarettes from his overalls and lights up with slow, unhurried movements. 'Putting up a sign you say?' His voice is sceptical.

Mary and I look at each other. They seem okay, our eyes signal. We can probably risk telling them.

'It's for a women's house,' Mary says. 'The first women's house in Brisbane. So women can meet and…and get help, counselling you know, that sort of thing.'

'Women's Libbers are you?' says the first man.

'Yes, we are,' I say proudly. Now it's the men's turn to exchange glances. There's a tiny, almost imperceptible shift in their stance, though their faces remain expressionless as ever.

'Much of a mob?' Col asks after a pause. 'Lots of pretty girls like you?'

His question is out of order. The other day when I was in The People's Bookshop buying the latest copy of Mejane, another customer was having a chat with the man behind the counter and said casually, 'What's your membership these days?' The man behind the counter was incensed. 'Them's copper's questions,' he cried. That's right, I think narrowing my eyes at Col, them's copper's questions. There's no way I'm going to let him know how few we are.

'We'll be taking over the world soon,' I say, 'so you'd better watch out.'

Mary shoots me a warning glance. 'Is it possible?' she asks, smiling sweetly at Col and his friend. 'We have to do it today because the opening's next week.'

'Whaddya think, Col?' says the man on the ladder. 'Should we help the ladies?' Without waiting for an answer he slings the hammer on his belt and climbs down slowly. Left alone on the roof, Col takes a drag on his cigarette and grins at us.

'Hey Lofty,' he drawls, 'maybe they'd like a hammer too. You got a hammer, girls?'

'Yes, we've got a hammer,' I'm pleased to be able to tell him. I don't want him thinking we're stupid. Lofty gets to the bottom of the ladder and strolls over to a ute on the other side of the lane. He reaches into the tray and pulls out a second ladder. Deaf to our cries of gratitude he carries it over to Mary's station-wagon and stows it in the back. Mary starts the engine and he lifts his hand in laconic salute. 'Thanks Lofty,' I say again from the window, all smile boycotts forgotten, and we drive off, farting clouds of smoke. I hang out the window to wave goodbye but he's walking back to the ladder and doesn't notice.

'That was an omen,' I tell Mary. I'm pleased about the ladder, not just because it means we'll be able to put up the sign, but because my faith in male goodwill has been vindicated. I like men. I've always liked them, even though these days I'm often angry with them, generically speaking that is.

GETTING THE SIGN onto the awning is difficult even with the ladder, but with a lot of shoving and pulling we manage. It's a lovely afternoon, I realise when we're standing on the roof. I can see Col and Lofty in the distance, moving about on their roof in the laneway and I feel a small thrill of kinship. We are on a roof too. Well, not quite. We still have to get the sign up onto the top of one of the twin gables that loom above us.

Red paint dust flakes off the corrugated iron as we heave the sign up and into the narrow valley between the gables. It covers my jeans and purple Women's Lib T-shirt and when I lift a hand to wipe the sweat off my forehead it must be there too, because I see Mary has red smears on her face. She looks like a holy woman on pilgrimage in India. We take a rest with our feet propped in the gutter between the gables, the sharp angle of the roof taking the weight of our bodies while we stare up at the framework fixed to the opposite ridge. The destination of our sign.

I can't wait any longer. Up the incline I scramble and sit astride the ridge-top. 'Ride'em cowgirl!' Mary calls. I take a deep breath, feeling a different kind of air fill my lungs, air that is full of sky. I look down at Mary, waiting for her to push the sign towards me. It's tricky but at last we get it into place, wedged precariously in the metal frame.

'You'll have to come up now,' I tell her. 'I need you to hold it while I do the screws.'

Mary comes up slowly. Gingerly she slides a leg over the ridge. Her face is pale under the paint dust and her trademark smile has disappeared. 'Jee-zus!' she says, hugging the sign between outstretched arms. As soon as I've managed to get a couple of screws in place she slides down the roof on her bum and lies spreadeagled against the opposite gable, breathing heavily. She looks up at the sign. 'Blimey!' she calls. 'No one's going to miss that!'

I grin down at her and she raises her arm in a clenched fist salute. I look up and the sky wheels above me, a September sky with a couple of fluffy white clouds floating in blue. Brisbane's sky in the spring of '72. There will never be the same one again. I look over the rooftops of Red Hill, a mosaic of faded reds, row upon row of worker's cottages clinging with spindly legs to the steep hillsides. St Brigid's Church rises like a stern cliff on my right and beyond it I can see the floating towers of the city. If I swing my head the other way I can recognise Waterworks Road snaking through the bigger, leaf-hidden houses of Ashgrove. I peer towards where I know Dorrington is and see the meandering green line that means Ithaca Creek. Somewhere near that line of trees, in one of those tiny houses that look like matchboxes, is the cold man I am married to. But he can't grieve me now, not up here, not on the roof. I look down at Mary and she punches the air with her fist.

When we climb down the ladder and put it in the back of the station-wagon Mary does a u-ey across the road so we can park and admire our handiwork. 'WOMEN'S HOUSE!' the sign seems to shout, the words standing out boldly against the blue sky. The black letters on their white ground have such a look of authority that we start laughing, then we turn to each other and solemnly shake hands.

Mary does another u-ey and we cruise along Musgrave Road.

'That Col bloke thought we couldn't do it,' she says, grinning.

'Women can do anything,' I say, grinning back at her.

'We are strong, we are invincible,' she sings as we turn into the laneway.

It's empty. No sign of Col, no sign of Lofty. No ute either. We prop the ladder against the wall and look at each other.

'Do you think they'll come back for it?' I say.

'I don't know,' Mary says.

'Maybe they've gone to get a sandwich.'

'Do you think?'

We get back in the car and drive along the deserted streets. We don't sing on the way home. Somehow, just at the moment, we're not in the mood.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 40: WOMEN & POWER © Copyright Griffith University & the author.