The Nightmare Girls

People always want to know about beginnings.  They want to know where it all started, but the truth is, there is no such thing as a beginning.  Every beginning has its own past, and what we call the ‘start’ of anything is simply where we choose to say “there, that is where It began”.  When people ask where the Nightmare Women began, how a house full of women (Somebody’s Mothers, Somebody’s Sisters, Somebody’s Daughters) became Vigilante Murderers, they don’t really want to know how we came to be, but about how we came to be conscious of ourselves as Ourselves.  There was a Before, when we were still making ourselves into Ourselves – a dark, lonely, loud Before – but it is never allowed to be our Beginning.  Why not?  If we’d had no Before to escape, no Before to remember, no Before to fear, we would not have found that Beginning, the one everyone wants to read about.  The story of our Beginning is only a tiny fraction of Our Story, but humans are so very eager to know where Things Started.  They already know how it ended.  This is how it Began.

It would surprise people to learn what we remember first when we think of The Nightmare Women. It’s not blood, or death, or violence. Those were only ever background to those of us who were there. We remember the food – lasagne and risotto and stirfry and dahl and home-made naan, which was apparently a complete betrayal of a major culinary tradition, but which tasted delicious. We remember fruit mince pies in July, just because we could, and chocolate cake with jam in the middle, and butter cookies decorated in garish colours by chubby little fingers. It took three or four of us to cook dinner for everyone, three or four bodies dancing around one another and stepping over toys and shoes and toddlers as we stirred and strained and instructed various children to do their homework or take their shoes off at the door or don’t-touch-that-you-little-beggar. Our home – and it was a home, not a barracks, or a base, or a compound – our home always smelled of cooking. There were nearly twenty of us, after all, and all those mouths needed feeding, all the time. But we didn’t just feed each other with pasta and cakes. We fed each other with our words, our thoughts pouring out in a river, tongues finally freed after so many years of biting silence. Our words spilled out of us and filled the rooms, warming them and lighting them, resonating with laughter that was, for the first time, un-faked and un-smothered. These words that were as warm and comforting as tea-and-biscuits, or fresh-baked-bread-and-apricot-jam. Words of love; I-knows and it-will-be-okays and you-can-take-your-times. Words that were uncensored, unafraid, tumbling over one another, shocking at first, like a first kiss at the back of a cinema, or the first taste of alcohol. We baked words for our sisters. What we remember of The Nightmare Women is sustenance.

There was another beginning, of course, before the Beginning.  This beginning was Sadhna.  She was forty when she said “no more”, and escaped.  She brought Jaya here, just a child then, and made it a fortress.  And in the beginning it was a fortress, when it was just Sadhna and Jaya.  They barricaded themselves behind these walls and pretended the world didn’t exist.  But the world didn’t stop existing.  It kept creating more Sadhnas and more Jayas, and some of them found their way to the fortress, and Sadhna let them all in; all the single mothers and high school drop-outs; the queers and trannies; the Abos and towel-heads and chinks; the bludgers and povvos and spastics and nutters.  The survivors.  The empty rooms were opened and we filled them with noise, with bundles of second-hand clothes, and op-shop furniture, and recycled fabric turned into Etsy-worthy bedspreads.  We filled them with night terrors, and cups of tea delivered by sister insomniacs, with tears and whispered stories and arms around shoulders.  We filled them with ten people trying to learn sign language because the new girl was non-verbal.  With seven different languages, and toddlers who would use words from all of them in the same sentence, plus a few they’d made up.  With study for the first time in two decades, and night shifts keeping an eye on the diabetic eight-year-old, and children sleeping in their own beds for the first time, and music that everyone sang along to, and laughter.  The walls grew warmer.  They held the world at bay, and inside, we made our own world.

Until he came.  Fools that we were, we allowed ourselves to believe in Safety.  We had Got Out.  We had Survived.  It was a Good Area.  It was quiet, so quiet that you could Leave Your Doors Unlocked (although we never did, even in that magical innocent time).  None of us talked to our pasts any more.  We believed what we were told; we believed we should have been Safe.  But he found us, and for those fateful twenty-seven minutes, our home – our safe, warm, noisy home, smelling of roses and gumboots and curry – our home became a fortress again, and we were under siege.  This was the Beginning.


It was our favourite kind of evening.  We had already started hanging the Christmas decorations.  We spent our spare time stringing popcorn garlands to hang from the door frames and the three baby pine trees we’d cut from the bottom of the garden.  We’d already gone through three bags of popcorn and we’d barely finished the ground floor.  Sadhna and Bec and Meara and Jackie were making tacos, the easiest meal possible with so many children.  We always used normal corn chips, though, because they were cheaper.

– Harley, stop hitting your brother! Bec hollered through the kitchen window.  Harley was Viv’s, but we shared everything, including parenting.

– Do I have to come out there? Viv shouted over the back of the couch.  A chorus of giggling ‘no’s came back through the screen door, followed by a shriek indicating one of the older ones had found the hose.  Bec and Meara rolled their eyes and laughed.  It would be worth the wet clothes to have twenty minutes of relative peace.

It was our favourite kind of evening.  It had been muggy all day.  There was a storm coming, the brief, showery kind that barely cools the air.  The gloryvine nodded in the breeze, the scent of rain and the distance crackle of thunder had energised the children, which was why we’d sent them all outside.  Except Finn, of course, who was sleeping on the rug, his little three-month hands clenching and unclenching as he dreamed his baby dreams.  Viv relaxed back into the couch and sighed.

– How long since we were all home at the same time? she asked, clasping her glass of wine like it was the Elixir of Life.

– About six weeks, replied Hen, her eyes facing the television but her hands flashing toward Viv.  We’d opened all the windows, and for once, none of the children had sports training or music lessons or dance class, none of us had to work or visit a relative.  We sat and leaned and stood and lay in the cavernous living area and drank tea and coffee and wine and beer while we strung garlands and yelled at Family Feud and at each other, and the only way we could tell what was going on was because of Hen’s closed captions.  She needed them because when we were too loud, she couldn’t interpret individual sounds, and we were often too loud.

It was our favourite kind of evening.  Finn woke suddenly, his face crumpling and legs pumping angrily as he worked his way up to a decent howl.  Seven voices said ‘aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaawwwwww’, but Sal got to him first, cuddling him tight as she couriered him to Meara for a feed.  Meara gave her a brief hug as she took her son back, resting her cheek against Sal’s.  It was nearly two years since Sal had arrived, bruises still fresh, the tiny urn in her luggage carrying a deeper wound than anyone outside of this home would ever understand.

– Can you hear something? Hen signed at Viv, the only one still facing her.  We were too busy smiling at Finn or worrying about Sal, and the television was turned up and the children yelled too loud for us to notice.

– Hey, shush, you lot, what’s that?”

It was our favourite kind of evening…


I know you’re in there, you filthy bitch!  Fe fi fo fum…

It’s amazing how silent a noisy room can become when fear arrives suddenly like that.  It’s amazing how familiar fear can be and yet still so jarring.  Only two of us knew the man, but we all knew the voice.  It wasn’t drunk, not this one.  He didn’t need to be.  It was a toddler-in-a-man’s-body voice; a toy-taken-away, it’s-not-fair voice; a bitch-slut-whore you-belong-to-me voice.  A Man’s voice.

– How did he find me?  Why is this happening?

– Ssshh, someone get the kids inside.

– Don’t worry, Meara, you’re safe, it’s fine, it’s fine.  Please let it be fine.

– What are we going to do?

– We’ll deal with it, don’t worry.  Who let this fucker walk free?

– Okay, kids, we’re going to go upstairs.  Don’t worry, sweetie, it’s going to be okay.  How dare he frighten our babies.

– Turn the TV down, lock the door.  We’ll deal with It.

– He’s my child, Meara!  You’re my wife!  I smell the blood of a frightened woman…

Nine pairs of frightened eyes.  Nine pairs of angry eyes.  Nine pairs of hands signing.  Nine heads nodding.

–  You promised ‘til death do us part!  You seem pretty alive to me, you fucking whore!  Be she alive or be she dead…

And just like that…

– Let me in, you crazy dyke bitches!  Give me my wife back!  I’ll grind her bones…

It was our favourite kind of evening.  And that was the real reason it became our Beginning.  We had finally found our Place, and he wanted to take it away from us.  Like every other Man we had ever known, this one wanted to take what we had worked for, what we had built.  He wanted to steal it and make it his.  We were all afraid.  We carried fear with us from the moment we were born, Women-in-a-Man’s-World; property, objects, saleable, ownable.  Killable.  But this time the fear didn’t win, because this place wasn’t a Man’s World.  This place was Our World, and he wasn’t welcome.  In this place, we could be angry.  Anger, after all, is what happens when you have been afraid for too long and you want it to stop.  Anger was our Beginning.  And those are still our favourite kind of evening.

I suppose there are people who will want to know his name.  They will want to know who he was, what he had done, exactly what we feared he would do.  They will want to know what we did, and where he is buried.  But to us, he has no name, not any more.  He is simply the one who reminded us that in this world, in this reality, we are never safe.  He is the one who tried to bring the Man’s World into Our World; who tried to take back our humanity and turn us, once again, into Women-in-a-Man’s-World.  Instead, he turned us into an army, and reminded us that there were other fortresses out there, other Women-in-Men’s-Worlds who wanted to be human too.  We learned, then, that if we fought on their terms, we would keeping losing.  So we made our own terms.  There was no other way, nothing else to be done.  This was where the Nightmare Girls began.

All Rights Reserved (text and image) to Cambrey Payne 2016. Acknowledge sources when sharing and do not repost without original source.


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