real life

Mary did everything she could to protect her daughter. Then she found out she was a killer.

The Call came on a sunny afternoon in spring. Every parent dreads The Call, a sombre voice informing you that something unspeakable has happened to the precious being you’ve used your every trick to protect since they were just a clump of multiplying cells. But when your child has told you countless times that she wants to die, and on several occasions has very nearly made that happen, I think you dread it more.

I was already on my mobile, chatting to a friend, out in our unruly backyard. Thirty years before, when John and I jauntily referred to ourselves as ‘young homebuyers on the march’, we were thrilled to find this big block with its many trees and a house full of light, in a little suburb called Oak Park in the northern suburbs of Melbourne.

The friend I was listening to was deeply upset about a row she’d had with another friend of ours, and she needed to vent. That’s when the two little beeps came, plonked in the middle of one of my friend’s sentences. I reminded myself not to panic. Over the last few months I’d been practising the discipline of not reacting instantly to Anna’s dramas.

So I waited till the conversation came to a natural end, then I checked my missed calls. Voicemail. I pressed the green light, the one in the shape of an old-fashioned telephone receiver. Easy. No warning that a tiny light would slice my life in two, dividing it neatly between Before and After.

The Pershall family. Before. Image: supplied.
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It was a man’s deep voice, a police officer. This was about Anna. The officer stated his name; I don’t recall what it was, even though I’m usually good with details like that.

I think the police officer said in his message that he was calling from a station in the CBD. Again, I can’t be sure. I pressed in the number he gave me and a receptionist answered.

‘Miss Pershall?’ The police officer who’d left the voice message had come on the line. ‘We have your daughter in custody.’

‘What? Why?’

The previous summer, her brain marinated in ice, Anna’s behaviour had escalated to the point where her long-­suffering dad put his foot down and said that she could no longer live at home.

Mary Pershall shares her story with Mia Freedman on No Filter.

Anna had calmed down a lot since we made that difficult choice. She swore she wasn’t doing ice. She was eighteen weeks pregnant and so wanted to have a healthy baby that she was hardly even drinking, only smoking a little weed to help with her persistent morning sickness.

‘What’s she done?’ I asked the police officer. I couldn’t imagine her even shoplifting, as she spent most of her time these days pinned to the bed with nausea, her kittens in her arms.

‘Umm,’ the officer hesitated. ‘Are you close with your daughter?’

gorgeous girl mary k pershall
Anna and Mary. Image: Supplied.
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‘Yes.’ I’d seen her two days before, when I had driven to Johnnie’s house at 8.30 a.m. to take her to her antenatal appointment at the Northern Hospital.

‘You realise she was living with some older men?’ the officer inquired.

‘Yes . . .’

‘You know the elderly gentleman there?’

Well, come to think of it, you would call Johnnie a gentleman. He was a big Macedonian who spoke broken English at top volume, and he always made me feel more than welcome in his home. ‘Anna mama!’ he would boom when I arrived. ‘You good mama. You the best mama!’

‘Unfortunately,’ the police officer informed me, ‘there’s been an assault involving your daughter. The elderly man has passed away.’

I’d heard of people feeling like they were outside themselves, watching a terrible event unfold as if to another person, and now I know that phenomenon is real. I could hear someone screaming, moaning ‘Noooooo!’ over and over again. I’d wandered from the garden into the house by then, and I was sitting on the edge of our bed. John appeared at the door. My husband, with whom I had made a perfect, blue-eyed baby twenty-seven years before.

‘What’s wrong?’ There must have been alarm in his eyes, but that’s not what I remember. What I remember is what I sobbed to him. ‘She’s killed Johnnie!’

Mary Pershall shares the rest of her story with Mia Freedman on No Filter.

This is an edited extract from Gorgeous Girl by Mary K. Pershall, published by Penguin Viking. Available now. RRP $34.99.

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