In the early morning light, a dark shadow scales the side of the towering tallow-wood. At one hundred feet above the ground she finds an L-shaped spot in the tree’s dense canopy and slips off her backpack. With her spine braced against the thick trunk and her left foot hanging over a broad branch, she lays her right foot across her knee for support. She pulls her grandmother’s old rifle out of her pack and smiles as she remembers Old Ma striding across the boggy back quarter of her property, intent on keeping the rabbit and fox population at bay.
Another bunny will be picked off today, she thinks, screwing the silencer on the end of the barrel of the two-twenty-two. "Silence the muzzle blast," Old Ma whispers into her ear. "Then you don’t scare off the rest of the family."
Lifting the butt to her shoulder, the assassin fixes her scope on a window, two hundred feet away, in a small cottage that squats amid rose and plumbago bushes on the fringe of the forest. An elderly woman shuffles around the counter on the far side of the kitchen, too obscured by café curtains for a clear shot.
The assassin sits back and inhales the waxy scent of eucalyptus microcorys. "Valuable timber," she murmurs, resting the rifle on her lap while stroking the fibrous, soft bark with her gloved hand.
She perches, sharp-eyed and alert, until the faltering figure in the kitchen has made her way to the table that is pushed against the window. Through her high-powered binoculars the assassin sees that the target is shaking, using two hands to carry a cup of coffee.
Despite the effort, the cup still bounces and brown liquid spills down the front of the old woman’s robe. With visible exertion she sits down, pauses to collect herself and then lifts the drink to her lips. The assassin picks up the rifle, centres the crosshairs and cocks the bolt. She holds fire while the woman sips. When the bent, grey-haired figure finally pushes the mug away with a trembling hand, the assassin pulls the trigger. As the old woman’s head slumps down to the table in front of her, her mind registers how silent the bullet was—just the sound of cracking glass. Sliding into darkness, she wonders how long it will be before someone finds her body.
THEIR LIVES edited by Janie Chaing.
Fearless Crusader Loved Life – Dr. Olena “Olly” Semeniuk - 1917-[…]
When Olena Semeniuk arrived in Sydney in 1922 she spoke English fluently. She had learnt the language on the ship that brought her to Australia from Kirovograd in the Ukraine.
With a thirst for knowledge and determination that would serve her through many challenges in the years to come, the little girl entered the Australian school system with language and arithmetic skills far ahead of her classmates.
Like many migrant children, Olena found that the bigoted taunts of her schoolmates fuelled her desire to succeed. In year twelve, she won scholarships to Sydney University and graduated with honours in Medicine in 1939.
While she eventually overcame the prejudice against her ethnicity, she soon encountered a more pervasive discrimination based on gender. She worked many years at no more than 80% of the rate for a male obstetrics and gynaecology practitioner.
‘I didn’t select this specialty for the pay," She commented when interviewed by Contempo magazine in 1971. "I chose it because I care about women’s health and their ability to manage their lives."’
Early in her career she saw many deaths from infection and haemorrhage following illegal abortions. These cases were particularly rampant during the latter part of World War II when troopships flooded Sydney with charming men whose visits were short and passionate. Around this time she demanded to know why her peers were not advising young, vulnerable women about contraception. She was rebuffed with the opinion that "we are here to deliver babies, not prevent them."
This statement was to become a life-long challenge for the woman known as Olly to colleagues and friends. Long before it was socially sanctioned, she advocated giving women access to information about contraception and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.
She campaigned tirelessly for the rights of women to access safe termination of unwanted pregnancies. She argued, "Criminalising abortions does not save babies, it just endangers the lives of desperate women."
The slogan ‘every pregnancy a wanted pregnancy, every baby a wanted baby’ became her rallying cry as she led the campaign for family planning clinics. She encouraged women to educate themselves and make informed decisions about their reproductive lives.
In 1950 she married Dr. Stephen Jones, a biologist. Dr. Jones died in 1999. Dr. Semeniuk is survived by her two daughters, Dr. Vasilika (Lakki) Jones and Dr. Deborah Semeniuk.
Her crusade for improving women’s health led her to set up the King’s Cross Women’s Health Centre in 1960.
For her work with the oppressed and underprivileged women of the streets, Dr. Semeniuk made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1990.
Not everyone agreed with her efforts and several times her clinic was fire-bombed by Pro-Life activists. She worked on, declaring that she was not going to be intimidated by bullies and cowards.
Her granddaughter, Dr. Judy Semeniuk, has vowed to continue Olena’s work with the poorer and disenfranchised members of the Australian population. She founded the Olena Semeniuk Travelling Women’s Health Clinic, which takes her to Aboriginal communities in the Outback in the four-seater airplane that her grandmother gave her as a graduation present.
Olena had read the synopsis of her life several times. The editor of the obituary section of the paper had given it to her. Only it wasn’t called the obituary section any longer, it had been more cheerfully renamed Their Lives.
Dead is dead no matter how you dress it up, Olena thought. May as well try to get the facts right.
Olena had made small changes in the details. She corrected the spelling of Vasilika’s name and deleted the part about the attack on her when she was pregnant with Deborah. She had never mentioned the incident, which had left her hospitalised for the last month of her term. It was in her diaries and she preferred her children learn of it in her words. She added the part about her granddaughter, not knowing it if would be included. It would be nice to end her brief history on a positive note.
She read it one last time and then e-mailed it back to the editor, a woman who had been a patient many years before.
Olena had found Janie Chaing sleeping on the doorstep of the clinic when she arrived early one winter morning. Janie’s tiny body had been knotted into a foetal shape. Her fatigue was so deep that she did not stir when Olena reached over her and unlocked the front door. When Olena pulled her to her feet, Janie barely woke. Olena found her some warm clothes from the charity box and served her tea and biscuits until she stopped shivering and was able to talk
Janie had disgraced her family by becoming pregnant. Not just an ordinary out-of-wedlock pregnancy but pregnancy by her white boyfriend. When he found out she was carrying his baby, he denied paternity and said he never wanted to see her again.
With nowhere else to go, Janie had turned to her parents. Her father had taken his belt to her while declaring that this whore was no member of his family. When his anger was spent, he announced that he had no daughter. He then pushed her out of the house wearing only a thin t-shirt and patched jeans. Over her mother’s crying he shouted at her to go away. The lights were turned off and Janie stood on the footpath outside, smelling the early jasmine in the air, straining to hear sounds of the life she had just left behind. She stood, fixed to the spot, tears running down her cheeks, until the house was as silent as it was dark. Nauseated and close to exhaustion she spent hours walking around city streets until she met a hooker who was having a slow night. The working girl told her that Dr. Olly would fix her up.
Olena listened to the familiar story before treating the broken skin on Janie’s legs and back. By the time she was finished, her healing skills were mending more than Janie’s abused body.
That same day she helped Janie find a reliable, although still illegal, abortion. She gave her a small amount of cash and keys to the family’s holiday home in the Blue Mountains, a refuge she offered to special patients. Janie lived there for six months before moving to Melbourne and starting university. For a few years afterwards, Christmas cards arrived with bright notes about her studies, a job she had been offered with The Age and a life far away from the misery of those dark days of 1969.
Like many of the girls Olena helped, eventually Janie wanted to forget the mistakes of her young life along with the people who had known her in a moment of need. The cards stopped coming and it was years before Olena heard of her again.
It was only when reading Stephen’s obituary that Olena saw Janie’s name at the top of the page.
When it came time to tidy the last details of her life, Olena rang and asked Janie if she might proofread her own obituary. Janie was as surprised by the unorthodox request as she was delighted at hearing from Olena. She was happy to finally repay a debt to the woman who had helped her recover her life. She was finally confident enough in her successes to no longer be threatened by her past.
She drove out to Olena’s home in Roseville to personally deliver a floppy disk, even though Olena had asked her to e-mail the piece. Janie wanted to thank the old woman and tell her, face to face, what her kindness had meant. It was Olena’s turn to seek anonymity. She wanted the memory of herself as a young, fit doctor who could almost lift a small woman with one hand, to live in Janie’s memory. So Olena stood behind her lace curtains, watching Janie wander around her front garden after she had given up ringing the doorbell.
When Olena returned the document she attached a note apologising for not being home when Janie had called. She said she must have confused the date but perhaps they might get together soon for a cup of tea? It was the sort of invitation extended to people she met on holidays but never expected to see again.
When Parkinson’s disease had first been diagnosed, Olena had been philosophical that at over eighty years of age something was bound to give. For a long time, she managed the condition with drugs. But, as the muscular tremors worsened and her limbs began to stiffen, she knew it was time to act before her loving but pragmatic daughters would want to move her into one of their houses or, worse still, a nursing home.
Since she was five years old and had first buttonholed the ship’s steward and asked him to teach her English, Olena had been looking after herself and others. When her family had arrived in Australia it was Olena who acted as interpreter and liaison to the foreign culture. The role forced Olena to be independent from a very early age. The idea of an accelerating reliance on others was unthinkable.
So she had donned her best navy shirtwaist dress and shoehorned on her matching navy pumps. She caught a taxi to King’s Cross, barely recognising the main drag now that the real estate had become valuable and street people were being pushed into lower visibility by an aggressive police presence. The clinic was still there in a back lane but it wasn’t as busy as in the old days. The middle-aged doctor who was holding the baby of a waiting patient saw Olena shuffle in and her face radiated joy. “Olly! Omigawd, Olly! Why didn’t you say you were dropping by? I’m here alone today or we might have gone for lunch!”
Olena smiled back at her, the depression that had settled into her bones with the advance of the shaking palsy, suddenly lifting.
“It’s you I want to talk to, love, and I don’t need much time.” She looked into the kindly face of Dr. Bennett, still seeing the young idealist who had rolled into the clinic in its early days, determined to make a difference in the world.
Wanda handed the baby back to his mother and hugged Olena, feeling the older woman’s bird-like bones in the embrace. Olena closed her eyes, smelling the same fragrance that Wanda had worn since her twenties, Nina Ricci, L’Air du Temps. Suddenly she was thirty years younger and Wanda was a newly graduated doctor with strong ideals and the stamina of a mule.
When she opened her eyes again she saw three patients waiting, flipping through copies of old magazines with deliberately averted their eyes; things hadn’t changed all that much. Sure the surface was different with facial piercings and rainbow-coloured locks replacing the long straight hair of the hippies. The fearful, defiant look was the same. Olena gazed at them and wondered if any of them would find hope, maybe a second chance, in the counselling offered. Or would they take the contraceptive pills and condoms and disappear into the underworld again? She broke from Wanda’s embrace and asked, “Do you think these good women might let us just have a minute or two before you look after them?”
Without a second look at the queue of patients, Wanda stood aside and waved Olena through to the office, the room that had once been Olena’s command post. Olena put her hand with its paper-thin skin into Wanda’s. She made her way to the back room in short, uncertain steps.
Surely Wanda Bennett would know a gun for hire.
The assassin pauses for a moment, enjoying the smell of the warm gun oil. She pulls the gun apart and packs it into her rucksack. Abseiling down the tree like a silent phantom she startles a feeding party of finches and pardalotes and they blow out of the she-oak. The gunwoman peals off her camouflage jacket and trousers and stuffs them into the backpack with her climbing gear. She trades her spiked climbing shoes for hiking boots and slips on a baseball cap and dark glasses. Packing a water bottle, carrying a bird book and wearing binoculars around her neck, she looks like dozens of other walkers who explore Garigal National Park every day. She heads down the track back to her rented car, a bounce in her step.
At first, the assassin thought Olena was deranged when they met in the seedy hamburger joint. But beneath the shaking and fragile exterior was a resolute intelligence. Olena had explained that she had access to drugs but somehow couldn’t bring herself to take that way out. She didn’t want to know when death was coming, she just wanted it to be soon and she wanted it to be clean. She pushed an envelope containing twenty thousand dollars towards the hired gun. Without looking at the cash, the assassin had slid it into her purse. Details were exchanged and a time frame set.
Olena specified a rifle, even though the assassin didn’t normally like to resort to firearms. Olena wanted it to be quick and definitive. She also wanted it to vaguely implicate the thugs who had resorted to violent methods when she was most vulnerable. She wanted a touch of melodrama and mystery to her death, to leave people guessing after a life that had been lived so much in the public domain.
The assassin wasn’t normally sentimental about her targets but the old woman’s calm dignity made her hesitate that morning. So she had waited, letting the mark finish her drink. If the assassin could choose her final moment she would ask for a last cup of coffee.
© Maggie Bolitho
Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Remington rifle cartridge SP bullet. Manufacturer: Sellier & Bellot. Photo by Malis