My Aunt Emily moved in after my father died when I was only two. She moved in because my Mum needed someone to look after me, because she spent long hours away at work (she was a lawyer). But … Aunt Emily never really looked after me. She would just sit me down in front of the TV while she would spend hours down in her study, where loud bangs and pops would issue from underneath the door.
I always wondered why she had moved in. Was it because she had nowhere else to go? Perhaps she just moved in for the free rent. Mum didn’t charge her because she was so kind hearted. Aunt Emily was a very odd woman. She was short and had very sharp features and had an odd habit of always having lizards in her pockets, although she never seemed to go outside. She was a very intelligent woman – skilled in biology, physics, chemistry and engineering. It is a surprise that she could never find work anywhere, even though she had seven PHDs. I always thought this was because she didn’t like to take orders and had a bit of a short temper and was terribly greedy with cakes at tea time.
It all started on a rainy afternoon while I was watching TV, when I heard some strange sounds coming from down stairs. BANG, RATTLE, SCREECH. I quietly turned the TV off and ventured down the stairs towards Aunt Emily’s study. BANG, RATTLE, SCREECH. I looked through the crack in the door but everything was quiet. That’s strange, I thought. I was sure I had heard noises coming from this room. Maybe I imagined it. As I turned to walk away the sounds exploded through the doorway. BANG, RATTLE, SCREECH!! “Arghhh,” I gasped as my hands clutch my chest. My heart was racing, and despite feeling all shaky, I found myself determined to find out what was making that noise, and I entered my Aunt’s study.
There was no one there! I had sworn I had heard something, but Aunt Emily was nowhere to be seen. But then it happened again, BANG, RATTLE, SCREECH. Hmmm that is weird, where is that sound coming from, I thought? It almost sounded as if it was coming from under the desk? I pressed my ear to the side of the desk and heard it again. There was something inside the desk. Then as I went to listen again, CLICK, the desk opened to reveal a set of steps leading down into darkness. My mouth went all dry and my legs were shaking, but being curios, and perhaps a little stupid I ventured down into the darkness.
As I walked down the steps, I could see a dim light in the distance. As I descended further down the stairs the room became clearer. It appeared to be a cellar. It did not feel cold, as I imagined cellars would. Instead it was warm and musty and smelt like faintly of hospitals. I looked around and saw several strange items on a work bench in the corner. The Janus Box, Travel Bubble Mix, The Hacker Watch, Chameleon Fluid and portable wings, I read. I took a closer look at the bubble mix. It might be fun to use this later, so I slipped it into my dressing gown pocket. I then picked up the Janus Box to take a closer look. It was bright red with two faces painted on it. I tipped it upside down to get a better look. “Hey!” it yelled.
“AAAAAHHHHHH,” I squealed.
“Hey calm down, calm down,” it said.
“Wh … wh .. Wh .. what are you?” I stammered.
“My name is Terence, I inhabit the Janus Box,” he said as a big ginger head of hair emerged. His face was squashed as though it had been sat on and his eyes squinted at me with eager curiosity.
“What are you?” I asked “Are you human?”
“Of course I am!” he said in a nasal voice.
“How do you eat?” I wondered out loud.
“Nosy aren’t you,” said a second voice. A second head had emerged, this one had fiery red spiky hair. His features were pinched yet he had a pointy long nose.
“Oh, shut up Jason, you’ll scare the dear boy,” said Terence. “Oh and this is how I eat,” he said. And with that, a small flap opened on the front of the box to reveal a vial of some green substance. “It dissolves food and gives our brains everything it needs,” said Jason.
“What are you?” I asked again, feeling as though a third head would pop up at any moment. “We are the Janus Box,” they said in harmony.
“Yes, I know, but how did you get in there,” I blurted.
“Emily put us in here,” said Jason.
“Emily!?” I said “My Aunt Emily!?”
“The very one,” said Terence.
“But how?” I asked.
“Why she decapitated us of course,” said Jason. “You mean she killed you!?” I said horrified.
“Well no, since we were already dead,” said Terence. “What,” I said stepping back “are you a zombie?”
“No, no. Your dear old Aunt brought us back” said Jason. “Really? How?” I pondered.
“Well Terence told me that she went grave digging for me” said Jason
“What! But that’s illegal!” I blurted.
Suddenly I heard a door slam upstairs.
“No time to explain, we’ll have to talk later,” said Terence who gestured repeatedly with his head that I needed to leave now.
“Goodbye new friend,” said Jason, who bit onto my sleeve and started tugging me towards the stairs.
As I rushed up stairs, I heard Aunt Emily say, “William, where are you?” I poked my head upstairs and saw Aunt Emily on the landing. She looked around and saw me entering her study from the cellar stairs. “What were you doing down there?” she said.
“N..nothing,” I stammered. It was hard not to feel nervous around the woman, knowing what she had done to Terence and Jason. I didn’t want to become the third head.
“Were you in my lab?” she asked. It sounded more like an accusation, not a question. “No,” I said quickly, “I was just…”
“Don’t lie child,” she said calmly. And with that she marched passed me and down the stairs. Suddenly I heard Mum come through the front door. While Aunt Emily was distracted, I dashed past her and ran upstairs to my room as fast as I could and locked the door.
Later that night I was awakened by a strange noise. GRUNT, WHEEZ, GRUNT. What was that? Was it Terence and Jason? No, they made more of a rattling noise. I quietly crept out of bed and down the hall. GRUNT, WHEEZ, GRUNT. This noise was followed by several loud thuds on the stairs, as though a group of billiard balls were descending them. I slowly crept down the stairs, my ears straining, trying to pick up the faintest sounds. As I reached Aunt Emily’s study, I noticed that the door was open so I slipped inside. I opened the special door to the cellar by pressing my hand against the desk, click it went as it slid open. I descended the steps into the cellar and there was Emily crouching at the base of a strange operation table plugging wires into it. When she was done, she turned to her work bench were the Janus Box sat, revealing a big body bag. “Pull the switch Terence,” she said with excitement in her voice. “My life goal is nearly complete.”
“Will she stop yapping on,” Jason muttered in Terence’s ear.
“Shut up, you might hurt her feelings,” said Terence. And with that he grabbed a lever in his mouth and pulled it. A bolt of blue electricity shot from some strange mechanism on the wall and hit the body bag lighting up the whole cellar. When the light cleared from my eyes, I saw Aunt Emily poking the bag with a pair of rubber tipped tongs. It stirred. “Speak. What is you name my glorious creation?” Out of the corner of my eye I saw Terence and Jason roll their eyes as Jason mumbled, “Frankenstein, obviously.”
“Um, my name is David, can I go home now.”
“No you lout. I have created you for one reason only, to be my horrifying assistant.”
“I thought we were your assistants,” said Jason sounding hurt. Aunt Emily ignored him. “Now I can have an assistant that can heft things around,” she said, “prove your strength.”
And with that the body bag ripped open and a grey skinned man stepped out. “Now punch that wall over there,” said Aunt Emily. David lumbered over to the wall and punched it. It exploded and I fell down into the cellar. As the dust cleared Aunt Emily’s head whipped around and caught site of me. “What are you doing down here boy?” I didn’t answer. “David, get him,” she said
“Ahhhh!” I screamed and ran back up the cellar steps with Aunt Emily and David in pursue. “How come we miss out on all the action?” I heard Jason say as David ran past.
“Wait I have an idea,” said Terence.
The chase led us through the house, all the way outside into the garden. I jumped behind flower pots to try and hide but they always found me. It seemed David could sniff me out. Eventually I was backed into the corner of the yard. “Now I’ve got you,” said Aunt Emily as she leered over me, “David get him,” she said.
“No! Wait,” said a voice behind us. “Stop right now!”
The weirdest sight met my eyes. The Janus Box was soaring through the air towards us on a pair of portable wings.
“Terence, Jason, what are you doing?” said Aunt Emily.
“We’re going to stop you from continuing your experiments, we don’t want to be replaced,” said Terence.
Aunt Emily tried to grab them out of the air but it was no use as they just soared higher and higher. I tried to slip away unnoticed but I slipped on the wet grass and something fell out of my pocket. It looked like a small vial with some strange blue liquid inside. As it hit the ground it shattered splashing all over Aunt Emily. She looked stunned as the blue liquid slowly started to expand, encasing Aunt Emily in an electric blue bubble.
“Let me out! Let me out!” she screeched, “David, David, help me, Terence, Jason help!”
David was surprisingly fast for someone who was dead. He threw a small stone and it sailed high into the air bouncing off the bubble but not before making a small hole. Soon the hiss of escaping air could be heard.
“Throw more throw more,” said Aunt Emily. But David had other ideas and he lumbered off towards the graveyard. The bubble started to rocket over the fence and make its way to the hills with Terence and Jason in fast pursuit. I looked down at the shattered glass of the vial and thought that Emily’s Travel Bubble Mix had turned out to work just right. Soon the bubble was just a speck in the distance. Suddenly the bubble burst and I could just see a tiny figure being carried away by a two headed box with wings.
A sunny winter morning is a fine time to be dead. Sometimes being a ghost can be
a bit annoying really. I try to talk to someone, but they run away screaming like their head
is on fire. Actually their head was not on fire. That’s how my ghost friend Sally died and
she did not run anywhere. Living people are so easily scared of the dead, but they do like
stories about us. Except their stories are always from the point of view of the living person.
As I saw in a film, they think dead men tell no tales – which is strange really – I mean why
shouldn’t we? I suppose the reason my friends, the poltergeists, scare humans and not
other animals is that humans are terrified of us.
I’m not a ghost that stays in one place like my sister who haunts the restaurant An
Indian Affair or my crush who haunts one of the lecture theatres at UNE. I’m the local
ghost girl who goes around the streets and buildings as I please.
There is only one person in all of New England who is not scared of ghosts,
Professor Eric Finch. Eric Finch works at the University of New England in the psychology
department. When I was going to visit my crush, I ran through Eric Finch by accident. I
thought he was going to scream like crazy, but he just said hi. After that, we became good
friends. We had many interesting talks about why humans are scared of ghosts.
I was getting worried. I was losing my memories the longer I stayed dead. All I could
remember now was a ship and another country that I could not Identify. Maybe the
Professor could tell me how I lost my memories and use psychology to get them back.
“Well this is very interesting,” said the Professor. “You remember most of death, but
you don’t know how you died and you remember a ship, a country, but not your name.”
“That’s all correct,” I said. “I haven’t been able to remember my name for a long
time so you wouldn’t know it either.”
“I think we should start by looking up ships that sailed to Australia,” he said. “I’ll look
it up now. Tell me if you recognise a name. There was the Borrowdale, George Marshall,
Samuel Plimsoll, SS Australasian…”
“I remember the Samuel Plimsoll,” I interrupted. “When did she sail?”
“Good,” said Eric. “You remember something. The Samuel Plimsoll sailed from
Plymouth harbour on the 29th of April 1880 heading for Sydney with three hundred and
ninety four emigrants.”
“Don’t read out three hundred and ninety four names!” I said.
“Of course not,” he replied. “I will just say ones that are around your age – probably
between thirteen and sixteen. There was Eliza, Anastasia, Kate, Catherine and Sarah.”
“I think,” I said slowly. “That my name is Kate.”
“Great!” said the Professor. “So we know your name, that you used to live in
England and when you sailed from Plymouth to Sydney you were fourteen. Now we just
need to know how you died. Let me look it up.”
The minutes slowly went past. Finally, I asked, “how did I die?”
“The information is difficult to find,” he replied. “But I think this old newspaper article
is something…yes it is. I can read it to you if you feel ready?”
“Yes, okay,” I answered confidently.
The Professor began to read. “The Samual Plimsoll sailed from Plymouth harbour in
April of 1880 and arrived in Sydney in June of the same year. With three hundred and
ninety four people on broad there would have been many interesting people with
interesting stories, but the most interesting of all the stories was that of Kate and her sister
Catherine. Kate left England when she was fourteen with her mother, father, sister, cousin
and aunt. When the family arrived in Sydney, they moved to the small town of Armidale.
One year later the family travelled to Coffs Harbour to catch a ship to Sydney. At Coffs
Harbour, Kate’s father got ill, so Kate’s mother took him back to Armidale. The aunt took
Kate, Catherine and her cousin John down to Sydney. Two weeks later they caught a ship
back to Coffs Harbour, but tragically the ship sunk and the girls were not survivors. Lucy
and Richard Finch tell how they survived the sinking ship. “We were third class kids,
myself and Lucy, though I did not know that she would one day be my wife. There was no
room in the lifeboats for us, but then these two second class girls, Kate and Catherine,
gave us their seats saving our lives.”
I was shocked out of my senses. Hang on, I don’t have any senses!
“Professor,” I said. “Are Richard and Lucy related to you or are there just a lot of
“There are many Finches,” he said, as he looked surprised. “But those people are
my great great grandparents!”
“So if I hadn’t saved them you wouldn’t be here?” I asked incredulously.
“Yes. By saving them you saved me.” Eric answered with shock.
It’s a weird feeling thinking that your only living friend is here because of something
you did one hundred and forty years ago.
The Professor spoke again. “A bit of the ship is at The National Maritime Museum.
Do you want to see it?”
“Yes, okay,” I replied. “But we are driving! I’m not going on anymore ships.”
“Yes,” said the Professor. “ Good idea, but remember to save me if we crash.”
It was the first day back and I was begging Mum to let me stay home.
Why? Well there was this new girl in my grade that came last term and when I walked over, I introduced myself and she looked me up and down like I haven’t taken a shower since last Saturday.
That’s why I don’t want to go back.
Oh, I forgot to introduce myself. My name is Elly and that new girl is Pippa. She the meanest girl in my school. Anyway, back to the story.
“Just get ready for school Elly, I can’t just let you stay home from school anytime you want.’’ said Mum.
“But Mum, I have a fever.” “That’s not going to work.”
45 minutes later…
“Hi Elly,” said Pippa.
“Leave me alone Pippa,”
“What are you two squabbling about?” Oh no. It was THE PRINCIPAL.
“I don’t want any of my students arguing at this school. We are Armidale City Public School; we can do better than this.” She told us. “Now off to class you two.”
A few minutes later…
“Now since I am new here, let’s all introduce ourselves.” said our new teacher, Ms Primrose.
“I’ll start first” I grumbled, “My name is Elly and my favourite food is spaghetti. My top 3 favourite things to do are read, draw and eat.”
20 minutes later…
“Good. Now that everyone has shared, let’s get on with class.”
DING! DING! DING!
“I guess that’s not going to happen.” sighed Ms Primrose.
Students erupted from the classrooms like a pack of wild bears, leaving me bewildered from the rush.
“What’s wrong? Scared to admit that you still sleep with a teddy bear?”
Can you guess who that was? Yep, Pippa. How did she know I still sleep with Mr. Cuddles?
“Can’t you just leave me alone for a second Pippa?” “No way!!”
“I hate middle school!” I said out loud without noticing.
A while later…
“Hi honey, how was your day? my mum asked cheerfully as I walked in the door.
“It was okay.” I mumbled.
“Oh, honey what’s wrong?”
“Nothing mum just this new girl at school….”
“Oh, are you two not getting along?”
“No mum I just think that this might not be… human.” “What? That’s crazy talk!” she laughed.
Eh I don’t need her help to figure it out.
“Mmm… this is delicious!!!!” my Dad announced, mesmerized by the pan-fried shrimp Mum had cooked up.
“Oh, it was nothing.” my Mum blushed.
I have got to admit this was pretty good, and I don’t even like shrimp. “Mum, this is amazing!!!” I complemented.
“But I thought you didn’t like shrimp” Mum said, confused.
“Well, like or dislike, this is yummy.”
“Well I’m glad you like it.”
The one thing I hate about bedtime… the sleeping part!!!!! I can never get to sleep! It’s impossible!!
Cannot get to sleep! Huh, what’s that sound? Ahhhh!!! You will not believe what I just saw. It was Pippa! I know I should be used to her by now… but she was climbing through my window! We have a three-storey house, had she gone crazy???!!!
“Brainssss!!” Ah, zombie!!!
“Come to my spaceship.” she said in a robot voice.
Ahhhh!! Zombie alien!!!
“Everyone, we have got an alien zombie in the house!!”
Of course, they all thought I was coo coo bananas but when they saw it, boy did they run.
“Everyone grab some cutlery and fight!!”
No use telling that to my little brother he was already armed with pots and pans of all sorts. Well at least he was ready to fight.
“Charge!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” I shouted at the top of my lungs.
“We did it!” my little brother shouted.
It was finally over. All of it gone. History. Memories. The past. It was all over forever.
“They were coming closer.” Okay let’s rewind to the start of the high school term.
“Hahaha loser!” “The people who were speaking were called The Fabtastics.”
Anyway they were torturing a poor girl. Unfortunately for me that was me.
“Look I think she’s gonna cry.” said the head of The Fabtastics.” ( Her name’s Fiona by the way).
At last we arrived (Oh I forgot to tell you we were on the bus.) at Armidale Secondary College.
As always it was a normal, boring day.
Okay this would just be boring if we went through all of the days of the term so let’s skip to the end of the term.
I was just packing my bag up. When I heard a sound. Everyone was gone, even the teachers or though I thought. “Brains!”
“Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.” That was me screaming.
I ran and ran until I couldn’t run any more. “Brains!” said the weird psycho teachers.
“Ahhhhhhhhhhhh!” they were coming closer and then I realised what they were. “Zombie teachers!” I screamed.
Thinking quickly, I grabbed a metal pole that was next to me. And whacked them out one by one.
As I walked through the trail of dead zombies I was actually feeling sad for them. The police should be here any second but I was glad It was all over.
“Hey, there’s a message for you!” A school messenger walked up to me as I strode through the towering school gates. She handed me a folded slip of paper.
“Um, thanks.” I muttered as she turned and strolled away.
I sighed as I unfolded the note, smoothing the crease with my index finger and thumb. I was getting used to receiving notes like this one. I guess the teachers prefer writing out punishments than face-to-face conversations like normal human beings.
I skimmed the note, as I already knew what it would be telling me. I had failed to hand in my English essay last Friday, and I would have to attend lunch-time detention to finish it. I wasn’t too upset, I just had to write the conclusion. Missing lunch wasn’t new to me, but I am improving. I’m not getting nearly as many detentions as I did in primary school.
“Jane! Over here!” My best friend, Katelyn, called out to me.
“Hi, Katelyn!” I greeted her as we high-fived.
“What’s the note? A detention?”
“Yeah. I just have to finish my English essay. It shouldn’t take too long.” I shrugged. “Okay then. Let’s go and get ready, class should start soon.”
Obviously, detention was boring. I finished my essay before lunch ended, so I packed my stuff away and headed to the staff room to hand it in.
But then a glimmer of light caught my eye. I turned my head and saw a door sitting slightly ajar. I walked towards it and realised it was just a storeroom. I was about to close the door when a tiny spot sparkled again. What was that?
I sighed as I realised I wouldn’t be able to let this go, so I opened the door.
As I looked around the small room, I was underwhelmed. It was just a normal storeroom, containing the usual; boxes and plastic tubs of educational supplies, piled high to the ceiling.
I was about to head out, when the strange spark flashed in the corner of my eye again. This was just getting weird. I breathed out deeply and turned back around, taking in every detail of the room. I would have to come back later to check it out. First I really had to get my essay to my teacher, or I would get an F.
Bring, bringgg! Bring, bringgg!
The school bell rang through every corner of the school. Wow, time goes fast when you’re exploring, I thought as I turned around and ran all the way to the staff room, dodging students, teachers and the school cleaner as I went.
When I arrived home, I was still puzzling over the spark of light I had seen in that cramped storeroom. I knew I should just forget it, but it seemed to stick in my mind like caramel toffee.
Mum greeted me at the door, and of course she asked about my day. I shrugged, and said it was uneventful. I didn’t want to tell anyone about what had happened until I had cracked the mystery. At least none of my siblings were home to bother me. Max and Lily were away on the Lake Keepit excursion, and Rachel was at her friend’s house, so it would be peaceful and quiet for the rest of the day.
The next day, I packed my backpack with a few extra supplies, including some paper clips (for lock-picking, if things got desperate) and my Dad’s pocket-torch. I was ready for anything that might prevent me from getting back into that storeroom.
Bring, bringgg! Bring, bringgg!
“Let’s go, Jane. Don’t want to be the last to the benches!” Katelyn smiled. “Yeah, sure. But first I need to -” I paused for a second, quickly thinking of a plausible excuse. “Talk to Miss Miller! Yeah, that’s it. About my essay.”
“Oh, okay then. See you outside?” Katelyn proposed.
I nodded, “Yep, I’ll catch up.”
I had only just pretended to drop my pencil case when Miss Miller called out to me to
come talk to her. Wow, that was unexpected, I thought.
It turned out that she had just wanted to congratulate me on turning my essay in after detention. She even complimented my “spectacular use of quotes”. Oh well, I was glad she liked my work, even if our brief talk did cut in to my cupboard-exploring
I was about to turn the handle to the storeroom when a large shadow fell over the carpet under my feet. Oops. I didn’t need to turn around to find out who the shadow belonged to, but of course I spun on my heels to face…
Ms Mosley. The school librarian. She was known throughout the school for her strict library rules, and her punishments when students broke them.
“Jane Fitzherbert. What – may I ask – are you doing in the hallway at lunchtime?” Ms Mosley looked down at me through her thin red glasses. “I’m sure you would prefer to, well, eat.”
“Oh, good afternoon, Ms Mosley.” I smiled, in an attempt to charm her. “Um, I was just… looking for a rat!”
“Looking for a what?” Ms Mosley exclaimed, her eyebrows shooting upwards.
“A rat. I saw it come this way, and so I followed it and managed to trap it in that storeroom. I was just closing the door, and was about to tell a teacher…” I bit my lip, hoping she would believe me.
“How disgusting! I will call the exterminators right away.” She looked flustered. “And you can leave the building, I don’t want this rat you speak of passing along their disgusting germs.”
Ms Mosley basically closed the conversation with the look in her eyes, and she walked briskly down the hallway.
“Phew,” I exhaled heavily, only just realising I had been holding my breath. “I guess this will have to wait,” I muttered to myself, sighing and heading out of the building, “For another day.”
A sunny winter morning is a fine time to be, the blanket of leaves has not cleared, yet the sun shines high. I wait, for I wanted my master to come back, my master who had once played on my fingertips all those years ago.
Daily I hear the soft sounds of whirring and horns in the distance. The sound of hooves was no more, the smells had vaporised and the whirring had started. I cannot take it anymore, my shoulders are weak from the parchment that is perched on me, my feet are sore from standing so long and the noises don’t stop.
It’s been decades since I heard the first whirring, and yet it hasn’t gotten any better. Although now it was getting closer. I saw the gathered leaves drift off to the side. Following were blue and red lights, flashing to clear the road. The noise was unbearable but I still watched in agony. They got out of their vehicles and started towards my home. They kicked in the stained wood that barred the doors.
Soon they all feathered in. Checking. Searching. Anything in their path they took. One looked at me curiously and sauntered towards me. Less than a metre away they were now, shocked, they stared at me, and then at the parchment that lay above me. In a sharp second he snatched it off my shoulders, for the first time I could see my master’s work. Black dots scattered the page, with the occasional line above them. The person stared at the inscription.
With a thick accent they then said, “Ludwig, Ludwig van Beethoven”.
“Hey!” “There’s a message for you.” The mom told the boy in the kitchen. “What did it say?” The boy asked quietly. “A phone call from school again?” “No.” “You will like it, a summer camp!” “Nice!” A wide grin spread over his face. The boy jumped high into the air, landed hard on his feet. “And it’s in a famous national park!” The mom told him cheerfully. “We are going to help you pack up now.” “You will like that place!”
The boy went on the trip in the next few days. After a long bus ride, the kids jumped out of the bus. They saw the mountains rose up in front of them, the river sparkled and gleamed. The forest was dark, and they couldn’t see the end. They walked through the muddy path. The air smelled so fresh. They walked slowly, trying to see everything clearly. After the sharp turn saw some little wooden cabins. A young man walked up to greet them. “Welcome to our camp, kids!” “You will have a great time!” He boomed. He was chubby with light brown hair and a big beard. He grinned at them as they walked past. He had a triple chin when he grinned. Funny and happy guy. They found their cabins quickly and walked to their meeting ground. The meeting was about to start. The boy saw there are a few benches on the muddy ground. He sat down quietly with his friends he met on the bus. He didn’t want to be at home during the holidays, but now he was feeling a bit homesick. But he turned around when the meeting started. A thin and tall man who wore a T-shirt with the camp’s name printed on the front appeared from the back door, he walked through the campers. He spoke up with such tiny voice that everyone could barely hear. “You are going to have great fun campers, we’ve got all the sports courts and great camping food, and the most beautiful national park of New England.” “Great.” They shouted.
The sunshine poured in from the windows. He could feel the warmth one his face. He rubbed his eyes and yawned. The first whole day of camp started. “What are we going to do today?” A friend he met on the bus asked. “A long hike through the forest.” A cabin mate answered.” “But let’s go to have some breakfast first.” “The other guys agreed. “I am starving.” The boy wailed. “I am going to wolf everything I can reach.” The cabin mate jokes. They headed to the mess hall, arguing about food.
“Whoa!” The boy cried. “Nothing’s on the table. But just some doughs and maple syrup jugs. The chubby and big beard man grinned at them and walked inside. “See what we do have today.” He boomed. “Ah, doughs and maple syrup, my favourite breakfast.” He disappeared in the kitchen with a dough. A few minutes later, the aroma of pancakes rolled up behind the door. “Yum.” The boy murmured. His mouth started watering. The man walked out with a high mountain of pancakes on his plate. He poured some maple syrup on his pancakes. He gobbled down his pancakes noisily and whipped some syrup off his beard. “Have a good one guys!” He cried to them and ran off. “What are we going to do?” “Eat the doughs?” Someone made a sour face and spoke: “Make our own breakfast with these things.” “Like the pancakes he made.” They started to get the ingredients. They got the pans and oil. Then they fried the pancakes. Some of them had completely burned the pancakes into black coals. But the boy fried his pancakes golden and nice. “Nice work.” Someone called from the end of the stove. They hurried to eat their breakfast. The pancakes smell so good and the maple syrup was sweet. He suddenly felt it’s so hard to cook every meal like his mom cooks for him, and they walked thoughtfully to the meeting ground. “You kids finished breakfast?” “How were the pancakes?” The big beard asked them. They nodded yes. “We are going to take a hike in the forest.” “Then we are going to swim in the big lake.” They walked through the forest. They saw a family of black cockatoo, galahs and a wallaby hopped down the hill. The sun beamed down. He felt hot and sticky. When they finally came back to their cabins. They were as stinky as little skunks. “Swim trunks!” The big beard cried to them. Too stinky! They walked toward the great lake. The lake was long but clean. The water shined. There was a little boat upside down. They jumped in and splashed around. They had great fun.
The lunch time came. They went back to the mess hall. They saw the ingredients line up perfectly. They got beef, pasta, tomato sauce and cheese. They made their own pasta for lunch. They felt great to eat their hand made food. They cleaned their dishes at the sink. They worked hard and played happily that afternoon. That night, they couldn’t sleep, they were too excited to see what’s coming up tomorrow. They had a great time at the camp. Sometimes cook their own lunch, learn to do more housework, make art works and play all those fun sports. The time passed like it’s flying. They had to go back home.
The engine boomed, the car stopped, he waved goodbye to his friend and jumped off the bus. His mom waited on the front lawn. She smiled at her son when he ran up to her. “How’s it going?” She asked. “Did you have fun?” They walked inside. “It’s time for lunch.” “What do you want to eat?” The son groaned: “Can I cook please? The mom smiled when the boy went on to work. “What a magical camp!” The mom thought.
“Hey there’s a message for you!” My teacher, Mrs Hall, shouted, holding my phone up in the air.
I had awoken from my daydream, to what I wished was a dream, a nightmare in fact!
“Sarah Wright! I warned you many times about the consequences of having your phone not on silent and disturbing the whole class. You make the choice. Either you get the cane, or I will read your message out to then entire class.”
I had never gotten the cane before, but had heard stories of how much it hurts, so I decided to just let Mrs Hall read my message. Besides, it was probably just going to be one of my friends saying hi or…. uh just someone asking to come over after school. Surely it couldn’t be that bad……could it? I unlocked my phone for Mrs Hall.
My teacher cleared her throat as she looked at my phone. “Hey Sarah,” My teacher read out aloud to the class. “Just wondering what excuse are you planning to use to have the day off tomorrow? Really looking forward to hanging out, see ya, Jared xxx”.
I wanted to run home, hide under my bed and never come out. “Sarah! Principal’s office, now! As I walked out, I heard kids giggling away. What was going to happen to me?
Walking home from school that day my palm felt like all the bones had been ripped out of it and the only thing left keeping it alive was the skin around it. The cane really did hurt!
Whenever I started crying about the pain in class, my teacher and all my classmates just told me to suck it up. The Principal had whacked the cane 3 times on the same hand all because my ‘friend’ aka Jared the naughtiest boy in the class had messaged me in the middle of English and pretended I wanted to ditch school just to get me in trouble. I mean you would probably be thinking why didn’t I just tell Mrs Hall on him but the thing is did!
However, all my older siblings had had a terrible record at my school and were by far the nastiest bunch of kids ever! So, I guess everyone just thinks I’m like that to and no one believes me about anything no matter how hard I try. Why is life so unfair? I don’t know! Why do I always have to be the bad kid even when I do nothing wrong? I don’t know. Why do I get punished for what others do? I don’t know. No one knows.
That night my friend Evelyn came over and we thought about a plan to get revenge on Jared. Basically, when he puts his phone in his locker before he closes it Evelyn will distract him while I get his phone, put it under his desk and turn it on full volume. Then I’ll message him and say “Hey that was so not cool how you messaged me in the middle of class yesterday! Now it’s your turn!”
Walking home from school that day, I felt a mixed feeling of happiness and sadness. The Principal gave Jared the cane for having his phone in class but Mrs Hall said we should never do something like that to get revenge.
Two weeks later finally Jared apologised, and I did too. Then he started being really nice and we actually became really good friends and we all agreed that we would never prank each other ever again.
Silence, the light gong of the church bells rang out through the pitch-black night sky. Three suttle voices shattered the silence. The voices of three homeless children named Drake, Willow, and Simon, but they liked being homeless it was like a part of their life now. Their parents died in a mysterious car crash. A strong gust of wind blew willows mop of golden brown hair back, Drake was studying a small fungus as the strong wind blew his particularly garish silk coat back. Simon, on the other hand, was curiously inspecting an old door lock when it flew out of his hands he was surprised. A rapid flash of a dull foggy overcast carpeted the church park then disappeared into thin air. Out of it emerged a horrendous creature its jagged teeth snarled its mouth watered at human flesh, its wavy dreadlocks swinging as it walked across the dew ridden grass. five more horrendous, creatures appeared, on top of one, a being who appeared to be a human sat atop of a beast. he grinned his teeth were unusually jagged, his eyes burned like fire. He pulled Willow as if she was a mouse being lured in by cheese Willow was shocked .”They are not human” she said in peril she was dragged towards the being. Simon ran towards the being his slick black hair waving in the wind. A creature charged at Simon. His horns crashed through an oak tree, drool trickled down the creature’s body the only thing that drove the creature was hunger and pain, Simon thought… he needed to escape from the creature. Unparalleled fear struck Willow, Simon, and drake. The only thing Simon had on him was a lock. He brought it out as a last attempt to save himself, the creature stopped in its inescapable path. A beam of light that came from the old garish lock penetrated his hairy chest he slowly turned and charged back to his master’s side. I think they are fariees Simon thought, or some sort of creature he thought again. The man progressed, his black coat shone in moonlight as the breeze blew it away revealing a sword, its blades were as sharp as a diamond. He yelled in a courageous voice “freedom for the dark kind” then he noticed that Willow had escaped from his grasp Willow ran as fast as she could, the man conjured some sort of spell and rush of darkness consumed her once again. He gripped her tightly not that he had to she was imprisoned in the inescapable darkness. Simon ran over to Drake, Drake was stunned by the whole thing Simon spoke in a strong yet silent voice “we need to save Willow” Drake agreed, he was still very stunned. Drake said in a chattering voice ” they are not human ” Simon replied “yes I think they are fairees of some sort ” they sprinted across the soft overgrown grass. One of the beasts charged at them. Simon pulled his lock out and positioned it so the moon would reflect its light. The beast was discouraged “how did you do that? “Drake said amazed. “I think they are afraid of the light ” he said. Suddenly a flash of dazzling Luminus light blinded Willow, Simon, and Drake. The man fell off his creature. Willow was set free from her mindless state. She fell off onto the hard dirt surface. The man’s cloak fell off. Suddenly a book fell out of his grasp. He quickly got up. His horrendous body made zombies look loveable. His pointed ears had bites taken out of them and his chest was coated in thick slimy scales. He swiped his cloak and put it back on. His mouth was now drooling, he was angry. A small creature appeared on a pine tree. It had a bright green face, its pointed ears twitched. It said in a soft yet courageous voice” you will never rule!!!”. As the man went to speak, the creature leaped down from a pine tree and drew a dagger. Its blue eyes shone in the moonlight as the man spoke, “I will carpet the world in darkness even if you pathetic tree fariees try to stand in my way”. As the so-called fariee lunged with its dagger, the man quickly countered and grabbed the fariee. “Take me to your leader… and I might spare you,” the man said in a cold voice. His breath sent shivers down the fariees spine. The scared fariee said “I will never betray my kind you dark, dark creature, “the man said in a crackling voice” then you must die ” and stabbed the fariee. Blood dripped down her chest “we must go, dark creatures, a great wealth awaits us”. A strong wind blew and they disappeared into the darkness of the night.
An uninviting haze of whirling wind wiped above Willows’s head. The hurricane of angered ferocious wind enveloped Willow in a constantly rising cocoon of raging whirling madness, a sudden shock of exhilarating energy burst out of Willow. Her eyes glowed a violent white. The sudden shock woke Willow the wind mysteriously disappeared and Willow slowly floated down and was swallowed by the morning grass. Drake fell helplessly trying to get to Willow. Simon, on the other hand, was measuring the sudden burst of wind “THE WIND IS OVER 1000KM PER HOUR” Simon said helplessly trying to conquer the wind Drake shouted back “HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE” ‘fariees” muttered Simon. as Willow floated down Simon and Drake rushed over to her but then Willow just disappeared she was swallowed up by the grass. Silently a book floated down out of thin air on its cover, in a rusty old font it read FARIEES and where to find them.
Simon and Drake froze, then a sudden wind blew knocking them into there senses, the book flew out of their hands and was whipped away in a tornado of winding its pages flipped by they glowed an orange tint. Then as fast as light it dropped a shock wave of energy flowed throughout the park the, grass lifted, and fell, trees branches shook. One branch fell near Simon, Drake pushed him out of the way, narrowly missing his foot the great branch slapped the ground the book landed near Simon he picked it up carefully and read… fariees goblins whatever you be, what be you looking for water, wind, ground, magic or trees only one word so be, one with it yee. Simon sat there confused he carefully said “ground?” that was when Simon noticed the pirate head ” ahh” he screamed the book said, ” haven’t you ever seen a swashbuckling pirate before?” ” NO,” said Simon ” that’s odd I thought all fairees have seen a pirate before,” the book said “I’m not a fariee!” said Simon oddly… The pirate started speaking ” what fariee my dear human” ” warlock, wizard, goblin, or sprite” ” warlock?” said Simon “there be one in the deep forest over south” said the pirate then the book vanished “that was odd” said Drake “time to go fariee hunting” said Simon. chapter 2 coming soon!!
“A sunny winter morning is a fine time to go camping!” Exclaimed Lavinia’s dad, Mr. Albescu, trying to convince them that this was a good idea, the entire family groaned apart from Lavinia’s mother who was smiling. “Don’t grumble, it’s a lovely day and the perfect time to go camping” chided her mum. They were at the campground now, setting up some tents. Moral still was not boosted and then Violeta started to complain.
“Mum, its cold and I want to go home” she whined. “Don’t be like that Violeta, it’s a lovely morning! And it’s your sister’s birthday.” responded Mrs. Albescu in a reasonable voice.
Lavinia interjected, “It’s fine to complain Vi, it’s not like we were brought here willingly and you’re only stating facts.” “It is FR…FR..FREEZING and we’re going to get frostbites.” Wailed Alex Their parents looked at each other and sighed.
“You kids are so dramatic! We’re already here, so try to enjoy the scenery.” Their father chimed.
To this nobody said anything; they just continued setting up their tents in silence. It remained that way for a couple minutes, then, Violeta spoke.
“Mum, can we get the food from the car yet? I’m hungry!” Mrs. Albescu glanced at her husband, they exchanged a look. “Sure, let’s go to the car. Lavinia and Alex can stay and continue setting up.”
With that, her mother, father and little sister went back to the car, which was only a five minute walk from the camping ground.
As they continued attempting to put up tents, Lavinia’s one collapsed. They stared at it in defeat and then Alex teased.
“It’s not that hard Lavinia.” and went over to help her set it up again.
They were at the New England National Park Thungutti camping ground; it was a beautiful secluded area with lots of tall eucalypt trees. Lavinia even spotted a Kookaburra perching on top of a branch. The family decided to set up their tents near Tea Tree Falls.
Her father and mother had managed to get leave from work at the same time. It was rare that they had holidays, as both parents had demanding jobs. The children were very excited until they found out it was camping.
Lavinia was turning fifteen and all she had wanted to do was hang out with friends, but no! They had to go camping. Lavinia missed her friends and wished she could have spent the day with them.
Alex slipped on some leaves and fell right onto the tent, again it collapsed. Lavinia sniggered, and then stopped herself.
“Are you alright Alex?” Alex glared at her. “I know you’re laughing, and I’m fine thank you very much.” Lavinia couldn’t hold in her laughter anymore and let out a loud cackle.
“You witch! How am I related to you?”
Lavinia continued cackling; her brother rolled his eyes, and then looked at her sharply.
“Did you hear that?” Lavinia had not heard anything. “What?” Alex scrunched his eyebrows and looked around.
There was no mistaking it this time.
“Did you hear that?” He asked with a slight quiver in his voice this time. Lavinia nodded and looked around. “What is it?” She asked, trying not to panic. Alex shrugged.
“Maybe a fallen branch?” He did not sound convincing at all.
The noise was even louder this time.
“THAT is definitely not a branch.” Whispered Lavinia, heart pounding…, Alex nodded. “Probably just a kangaroo.” Alex turned back to the fallen tent trying to be calm and failing.
“Crunch!” “Crunch!” “Crunch!”
They looked at each other. The noise was getting a bit louder as if it were coming closer. Lavinia felt a chill down her spine.
“Wait here, I’ll be back.” Alex looked at her. Lavinia was starting to feel very nervous. She didn’t want to be left alone. She tried to be brave, it was probably just a kangaroo anyway, and their parents would be back soon. She nodded to Alex. Then he walked off in the direction of the noise. Lavinia felt a stab of fear and regret once Alex had walked out of sight. Maybe she should have gone with him. She felt so alone now, what if something happened to Alex?
“Alex!” she called out, hoping he hadn’t gone too far away. No response. “Mum!” No response.
It was getting closer, and she heard the rustling of bushes. She hoped it wasn’t a dingo or she would be dead!
More rustling, Lavinia looked around, and found a large stick.
Lavinia jumped, her heart racing, where was everyone? Her family should’ve been back by now. She lifted the stick as if to wield it, bracing herself for pain, would this be the end? She was definitely too young to die.
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY LAVINIA!” Her friends and family jumped out of the bushes.
Lavinia shrieked and promptly fainted.
A few minutes later she stirred and blinked.
“You’re up.” said her mother her had been peering over her anxiously. “Does it hurt anywhere?” asked her friend Amy who also looked quite concerned. Lavinia shook her head.
“What happened?” she asked, half dazed. Amy giggled.
“We planned a surprise birthday party for you and you fainted!” she burst out laughing. “Huh?” mumbled Lavinia, Amy looked at her, smirking.
“But, what was the noise? Where’s the animal?” Lavinia looked around half expecting to see a wild animal. Mr. Albescu laughed and shook his head. “That was no animal! It was just us trying to sneak up on you.” He said through his chuckles. Then Lavinia giggled.
It had been the most eventful birthday ever, she thought to herself that evening, but she’d had a splendid time. They’d spent the day walking at Tea Tree Falls, admiring the ancient rainforest and the misty twin falls. She had now decided that camping in winter was fun after all, and going outdoors once in a while was exciting especially with your family and friends.
A sunny winter morning is a fine time to be in bed. It’s a well-known fact. Yet, this truth that is universally acknowledged wasn’t enough to keep young and not-very-spritely Alison Anniston from her sleep, for she was taking her Year 2 primary school class to the local art gallery. Alison had never liked children. She had always found that they were somewhat magical. They had the ability to get sticky stuff all over themselves and, in turn, the teacher, even when there was nothing remotely jam- like around. They never got in trouble yet could make noise so loud that one would want to slam their head onto a table. They enjoyed food and unconditional love from their parents and never had to worry about paying rent. It all seemed very unfair. Yet, out of necessity, Alison found herself spending 6 hours a day, 5 days a week in their company. So out of bed she stumbled, while she grumbled and mumbled to herself. She showered and put no effort into her hair whatsoever. No one ever said she had to look presentable. She pulled on some jeans and odd socks, with a thick woollen jumper and then proceeded to make herself a steaming thermos of coffee, full to the brim, because today would just be one of those days, she thought to herself.
Arriving at the New England Regional Art Museum with a bus full of squealing children, Miss Anniston thought that even the old and original England wouldn’t be far enough away from this place, with these grotesque infants. She rounded everyone off the bus and together they all torpedoed through the doors of the gallery. Surely a nice, quiet museum would help the ringing in her ears, Alison thought. She was incorrect. The elevator music was too loud, the children too excited to control. They checked in at the desk and went to the first room, which held the main exhibition. Alison knew nothing about art or how much value it could hold culturally and economically, but as she passed one very small, yet intricate artwork and overheard a hushed conversation from behind her, the cogs started turning. There were two middle aged men standing a metre away, one wearing a leather jacket, the other in an official museum work shirt. Their conversation was without a doubt private, however, that didn’t stop Alison’s exceptional ears from hearing every word. Miss Anniston’s eyes widened as she realised what they were plotting. An art gallery scandal was about to take place.
Alison was angry. Oh, was she she ever. She marched the couple of steps to the men and intended fully to give them a rather large piece of her mind. Yet, as she stood in front of them and opened her mouth, something clicked inside her head. Perhaps this could be her ticket out of teaching.
Before she knew what she was doing, the words “I can help you” tumbled from her mouth.
The men were taken aback for a second, until one of them said “How?”. He then received a rather hard blow in the side of his ribs from the other man and added, “We don’t know what you’re talking about.”. Alison rolled her eyes and said, “You’re planning to steal that artwork over there and I’m here with 23 small children, which is possibly the best cover you could ask for. No one would ever accuse a child of stealing a priceless artwork. It is priceless, right?” The men nodded slowly. Then turned their backs and muttered to each other, while Alison impatiently tapped her foot. Finally they turned again and told this sleep deprived and coffee induced teacher that she was part of the group. They established a game plan and set to work.
Step one was to create a distraction. With a room full of children, this was no problem. Alison hand- picked her favourite child and took her aside to bribe her with a bar of chocolate. The deal was simple. This child would round up her buddies and lead them to the front desk where most of the staff sat, working and watching. She would then announce loudly that Santa wasn’t real and let the festivities begin. Surely there would be a riot with screaming and crying and many difficult questions. This meant noise, which would help to cover over the sound of the alarm when the artwork was taken from the wall. Being a local gallery, the equipment wasn’t particularly up to date and the alarm wasn’t so loud it could compete with a herd of upset kids. It would also automatically turn off after one minute of beeping. Then Alison would grab the artwork and tell Harold, a particularly irritating child, that his zipper wasn’t done up properly. She would unzip his backpack, slip the small work into into it
and zip it up again, whilst from within the technology closet the man who worked at the gallery would use his basic knowledge to disable the two security cameras in the room. Alison would then go to the front desk to see what all the fuss was about and tell the clerk that she was so sorry and would have to take the children back to school immediately to calm them. Of course the clerk would be relieved to have these children out of sight, so would ask no questions. Later Miss Anniston would give the artwork to the leather jacketed man for him to find a buyer and in turn pay her a hefty amount of money. Miss Anniston smiled to herself. Finally she would be rid of teaching.
All was well for the first week after the heist. Then the second. Everything seemed simply normal for most of the third week, until Alison heard tapping at her door. When she opened it, everything changed…
A sunny winter morning is a fine time to be leading twenty-three eight-year-olds down the only busy street in Armidale. As fine as any, at least. It would be wonderful to be back at home, maybe not even out of bed yet… oh well, I guess this is my job, after all.
“Come on, Michael,” I hear the other student chaperone, a young man fresh out of university named Robert Carter, attempting to chivvy along a distinctly rounded and unenthusiastic boy who has fallen about twenty metres behind the rest of the group. I turn around and put on a cheerful smile.
“All right, everyone, we’re going to wait here for Michael and Mr Carter.”
We’re at the corner of the mall and Faulkner Street now, and there are two disused telephone booths quite close by. I notice a faint sound coming from one of them, almost like a… like a phone ringing?
“All of you wait here,” I tell my students and walk over to the telephone box.
The ringing gets louder as I approach, and when I step inside, I see the old, black telephone is vibrating on its holder. Impulsively, I pick it up.
“The excursion is cancelled,” says a voice I can’t describe. I can’t suppress a triumphant grin. “That’s great – wait, who is this?”
“The excursion is cancelled,” repeats the voice, in what feels like a more… commanding tone. “Um, great, I think, maybe I’ve picked up the wrong call, I might just be going now. Got some kids to take to see the courthouse…”
“THE EXCURSION IS CANCELLED.” The ground drops away beneath my feet, sending me tumbling down into blackness.
“I… what happened?” I mumble to a slick, glasslike surface. My eyes are closed, but there is a sensation of light outside my eyelids. I can feel my faculties beginning to return, and in a moment I can prise my eyes open. What I see makes me gasp and sit up straight. I am in an enormous, rounded room, walled and roofed by the strange material I am now sitting on. It is a pure shade of white and emits a harsh light. I am not the only person in the room. Every student I had with me except Michael is lying on the ground, apparently sleeping. I suspect that is what I looked like until just now, and a few of them are beginning to stir. As my eyes adjust to the strange light, I see that around the room there are some odd, porthole-like windows out of which can be seen the unmistakable expanse of Cathedral Rock National Park. Oddly, I can’t see Cathedral Rock itself anywhere, even when I look out of the other windows, which are evenly spaced around the room. I come to a sudden conclusion. If I can’t see Cathedral Rock, I must somehow be inside Cathedral Rock.
A groan comes from behind me. A young girl named Anna has woken up. “Where are we? I don’t like it!”
“Me neither, Anna,” I respond.
“Make it go away,” she insists. I want to tell her that I can’t, but I am a teacher and she is my student.
“I’ll do my best,” I promise.
A section of the smooth white wall slides aside and an unnaturally tall humanoid creature steps through. It has sallow skin and enormous, black eyes. A robe in a colour I can’t seem to see adorns its body, making my eyes hurt to look at it. It says something unintelligible, and a moment later a metal box on its neck issues what is evidently a computer generated voice. “Clothes. Rdskd called the respected King Magistrate. Stay there!”
I am too shocked to respond for a moment. It must show in my face, because the creature glances at its metal box and fiddles with a few settings.
“Earthlings. You are called by His Majesty King Rdskd. Sit back in his appearance!”
Before I can respond, a much larger door opens in another section of the wall and out of it comes an enormous… slug. It is wearing a pointed cap made of gold, balanced precariously atop its rounded skull, and a deep scowl.
“Ko-so ro-so no-so!” it bellows.
“His Majesty is not pleased at the treatment of the Earthlings,” translates the first creature’s box. “Phase 1 of settlement must go forward.”
“Wait… settlement?” I ask with trepidation and wait while my voice is translated.
“Of course! Earthlings primitive are. People bring knowledge!”
“But we don’t want to be settled. We’re happy as we are, mostly. If you want to settle Earth, you’ll have to negotiate it with the world’s leaders.”
“You are negotiator. Excursion cancelled for this.”
I realise that he is not looking at me. I follow his gaze and see he is addressing the gaggle of primary schoolers behind me.
It was the first day back, and I was pretty excited. It had been a long Christmas holiday, and we hadn’t gone anywhere, done anything, not once! All my friends had gone away to the beach, or the city. The best offer I got was to go blackberry picking with my mother! In desperation I even went, that’s how bad a holiday it was. I have scars where they attacked me, and my mum burnt the jam she’d attempted to make!
So, I was walking to school, in a bit of a hurry cos I couldn’t wait to see my best friend. It wasn’t far; straight for three blocks, past the tall white fence containing the ferocious dog (a Chihuahua named Pixie) then a left turn. And there it was. Our meeting point. The telephone booth. Good old Boothy. It had sheltered us through storms and swooping Magpies and given us a place to vent our distaste in felt pen of Mr Flartten, our teacher. Farty Flarty Mc Fart Face, or Mc Farty for short.
Boothy was empty so I crouched inside to admire our handiwork and wait. Everything was still in this sanctuary. A crow called out lazily overhead, parked cars sat empty baking in the sun. No one else walked this way to school. Evie and I owned this part of the street.
Startled I whacked my head on the glass wall. I had never heard it ring before. I didn’t even realize it worked. I thought Telstra had just forgotten about it.
I rubbed my head.
Must be a wrong number.
It kept ringing, oblivious to the raising lump on my head. Unwavering it rang on.
Slowly, I reached out my hand, “h-hello?”
“Sophia, I’m sorry about your head” the voice replied
“Sophia” the caller said urgently. “I don’t have a lot of time. I need you to do something for me. Something dangerous. Something brave.”
“Who, who is this? My name… how did you know…?”
“I know everything about you. When you were three you decorated the cat with glitter and wanted to put her on the Christmas tree. When you were four you wrote me a letter. This Christmas you got a nail art stamping kit but what you really wanted was a pocket knife. You stopped believing in me a little bit. Sorry by the way, I hate disappointing children, there were… issues. Evie is your best friend. She got a cuddly unicorn with a glowing rainbow horn but it was exactly what she wanted. She says it’s uncool and mocks it but secretly sleeps with it every night. It’s me, Santa and I need your help. Someone on the naughty list is out to get me.”
I stood frozen, this was a lot to take in. His voice danced in my head along with flashes of brightly painted unicorns as he gave me the instructions.
“You must get there before the bell rings and everyone arrives. Hurry!”
“I didn’t know that worked” said a voice behind me. With a startle I whirled to find Evie standing there.
“Let’s go, I’ll explain on the way.” Grabbing her by the arm we raced off, me puffing as I talked and her wide-eyed protesting her love for the unicorn.
We arrived in the familiar classroom, it smelt stale after being shut up for the holidays. Following the directions, I went to the desk, Mc Farty’s desk. He would kill us if he caught us. Evie kept watch. The hallway was clear but the bell would ring any moment calling everyone to it, especially Mc Farty.
With a trembling hand, I reached past several moldy teabags (couldn’t he have used the bin?) and a dead moth in the top drawer and pulled out an envelope. Sure enough, inside was a key. A small silver ordinary key. The bell rang, the swelling noise of children came racing down the corridor as Evie and I went through a cupboard door and closed it behind us. Old books were stacked haphazardly next to a rolled map of the world leaning against a wall and Styrofoam planets made by past students. Moving the map aside we found the lock, it was right where he said it would be, a secret room. A secret room had been here all these years and we had never known.
Stepping into the dimly lit room our hearts raced. It was empty apart from a familiar shape in the corner. We let out a collective gasp and clutched one another. Could it be?
Sitting in the corner was a sack. A red sack trimmed with white fur and tied with a gold cord. Sitting on top was a scroll. In disbelief Evie picked it up, we held our breath, she started reading, “Aliya, Anna, Annika, Axel…, it’s the list, look, it says Nice at the top and there’s writing on the other side”.
Turning it over we saw the heading ‘Naughty’ with a list of about ten names (this shocked us ‘cos we thought there would be more). But the last one was crossed out, smudged beyond readability. Santa was right, someone on the naughty list was out to get him and we knew just who it was, we could hear his voice booming through the cupboard into the secret room. Rolling the scroll into my backpack we tiptoed back through the door locking it behind us. The buzz of the classroom was loud now but the dreaded voice was quiet. Suddenly the door was flung open and Mr Flartten stood red faced before us!
“What are you girls doing in there?” he bellowed. “Get to your desks right now, I will have a word to you after class.” A murmur followed us, everyone was relieved he had yelled at us and not them. It would set the tone for the year.
But we barely minded, we were too excited about the list. We knew what each other was thinking. Where was Santa? Why did he call us? Why was there as secret room in the cupboard and why, oh why, was the key in McFarty’s desk?”
The year just got interesting. But let me tell you, things were about to get a whole lot weirder!
A sunny winter morning is a fine time to be alone, frosted grass sparkles under the distant sun and the light reveals vast veins of branches writhing without leaves. I stare out a fogged window over my scant yard, lost in a waking dream. A hermit’s life is best spent dreaming. The world is too harsh for me to bear, so every morning is spent alone at the second-floor window assessing the gifts left by nature overnight. A pane of glass between the world and I, comfort like no other. I survey the familiar sights keeping score of the changes. A fallen branch lay smote on the ground, the only change since yesterday. The yard is bordered by a longstanding wooden fence that encloses my small world of trees. Beyond lies the yards of those I will never know, perhaps they think me mad, but I think them less sane than me.
A flash of yellow in the back corner startles me. I turn but see no sign of the yellow spectre that shattered my daydream. My eyes frantically search every inch of the yard, but everything seems untouched. I hear the muffled staccato of knocking on the door downstairs.
I run downstairs and reluctantly approach the door; the frosted glass is made yellow by the mysterious figure’s shirt.
“Hey let me in! Please! I need help!” His panicked knocking rattles the glass.
I stand frozen, examining the blurred figure beyond the glass. Suddenly my hand is wrapped around the cold doorknob, my body has decided to let him inside. The boy rushes through the door, I am sure he is a grown man, but his fearful eyes and baggy shirt render him more boyish than a man. He slams the door and stands against it, panting. I stand safely behind the kitchen bench. I take the moment to gain a full image of him; he is my age, greasy brown hair dangles over his gaunt face, he is scrawny and pale. I’m silent as I wait for an explanation, I adjust the long sleeves of my nighty.
He sighs and slicks his hair, “Struth!” he says through heavy breaths.
I clear my throat to remind him of my presence.
“Sorry mate, I didn’t mean to barge in on ya.” I say nothing, “I need your help with something.”
“My help? Whatever for?” I say, hiding my shaky hands in my sleeves.
“I live over the back o’ya fence. I’m Seth?” He asks as if I should know him, “Are you Lottie?” Hearing my name spoken by a stranger panics me.
I nod, “Yes, I’m Lottie. How do you know my name?”
“As in Phillip’s girl?”
I nod. My father never spoke of any Seth.
“Your dad told me if I ever found it, I needed to tell you straight away.”
“Found wha- I think you should leave; I’ve never heard of you and your familiarity is quite ill- mannered.”
“Yep. You’re Phillip’s girl alright. Yous both have that weird way of speaking.”
“Excuse me? My father was not weird.”
“I didn’t mean… you’re just a lot like him that’s all.” He waves his palms at me in defence, “Look we can’t waste time, you’ve gotta come with me now!” His urgency scares me.
Before I know it, I am dressed in my winter coat and walking down an overgrown lane fettered with fallen trees, rain-filled potholes and knee-high grass. I do not remember leaving home, I should, considering I haven’t done it for four years, yet here I am on the road to possible doom and not a single part of me can recall how I got here. Seth walks next to me with a purposeful gait and the reluctance I felt earlier is swirling in my thoughts again.
“It’s just up ‘ere.” Seth points down the road.
We arrive at the end of the lane and what lies ahead is dazzling.
Amongst large evergreen trees, is a house. A beautiful old house. The Edwardian architecture is crumbling beneath years of abandonment, but it is splendid. Two stories of magnificence amongst a tangle of nature that has almost swallowed it. Ivy crawls over the brown bricks and wildflowers line the large veranda. The sunbeams shine across the second story and green tin roof. Bay windows appear broken by age, but visions of mornings perched in the highest window float through my imagination.
“What is this paradise you have shown me?” I ask Seth. “Saumarez Homestead. It’s yours.”
“This cannot be. It does not belong to me.” I shake my head.
“Your 3 times great grandfather helped build this place, and for the last 30 years it sat here wastin’ away. Your Grandad lived here until he died, and the council took this place off his widow. Your dad knew it was rightfully his, but he could never prove it. He asked me before he died to keep lookin’ for the deed and not let anyone stop me. So, for the last four years I’ve been searchin’ for proof and this morning I stole the deed from the library archive, that’s why I was so scared when I got to your house. Here, have a look for ya ’self.” He hands me a letter. My last name is scrawled at the bottom of the document. “It’s all yours, no one can take it from ya.”
“How did you know my father?”
“Your dad was real good to me Lottie, my side of the fence wasn’t as nice as yours you know. My parents never loved me the way Phillip loved you. Phillip was like my guardian angel or something, he always looked out for me. So now I’m paying him back for all those times I ate the food he left for me, found new shoes at the front door and money in the letter box.”
I throw my arms around his bony shoulders and tears fill my eyes. A sunny winter morning might just be better spent with a friend.
They were coming closer, those memories she had fought so hard to bury. A resurrection of the past coming in the form of a brother, long unseen but never forgotten, a brother lost in a Solomon-style custody arrangement fourteen years ago, a brother she longed to see yet dreaded to disappoint. That was Alice’s special skill, disappointing people.
Sitting outside The Café, a steaming flat white in front of her, Alice watched the parade of passing students, talking, laughing, marching purposefully towards futures of realised potential or disappointed dreams. Alice gripped her coffee, suddenly self-conscious, her uneasiness growing as she waited for this stranger who shared her blood.
‘Alice?’ A single word in a voice she did not recognise but as she raised her head and met his gaze, the past came rushing back.
The nights of her childhood were never black but red, a blood-filled crimson full of voices that hated, of shouting fathers and mothers who cried, of plates shattering and doors slamming, of sirens and slow-talking strangers, and Danny always beside her, holding her hand.
It was the first thing she said to him. ‘You held my hand.’ So incongruous, so unexpected but with a slow nod and a small smile, he acknowledged the memory. They didn’t hug, or even touch, keeping their damaged distance, appraising each other across the table.
‘How is…?’ she immediately hated herself for asking, hated herself for caring.
‘Our beloved father? I don’t know. He went out for milk five years ago and never came back.’
‘I’m sorry,’ she muttered and he laughed.
‘Don’t be. Best piece of parenting he ever did.’
‘What did you do? You would have only been-‘
‘Sixteen. More than ready to look after myself. Jesus, after living with the old man, being on my own was a breeze. I moved up to Broome, got a job washing dishes in one of the resorts, worked my way up to restaurant manager. I’m still there. I love it. The desert, the oceans, the heat, the new faces every season. I can still remember how cold it gets in winter here. I don’t know how you stand it.’
‘It’s home,’ she said lamely, wondering what the word even meant.
‘Of course. And look at you! A university student. I didn’t even finish high school.’ Alice didn’t answer, focusing her gaze on the ants scurrying over the table, searching
out crumbs and droplets of spilt Cokes. She wondered if they ever questioned their own insignificance. She wondered if they even knew they were alive.
‘I was sorry to hear about Julia,’ said Danny, his voice neutral.
Alice nodded, her chest tightening. She was not ready to talk about dead mothers. She was barely ready to believe that mothers could actually die.
‘That is how I found you,’ he said. ‘From the notice in the paper. I’d wanted to look for you for ages but I didn’t know where to start. She married again.’
‘Yes. Tony. You have two sisters.’
‘Half-sisters,’ said Danny quickly.
Alice nodded but she knew it wasn’t true. Sisters were sisters. They had never felt
like halves. It was her whole heart that swelled when she held them, her whole heart that broke when they left.
‘What is he like?’ ‘Tony? OK, I guess.’ ‘Better than Dad?’
‘Oh yeah, way better than Dad.’ And yet, a father who never yelled, a father who was always kind, could still destroy with his friendly indifference.
‘She used to cry, you know. On your birthday. Every year, she would spend the day crying.’ Alice didn’t mention the bottle of vodka opened in the morning, or the angry resentment directed at her daughter, the child who was never enough, could never be enough to compete with the son left behind.
Danny shrugged. Mothers who abandoned were as taboo as mothers who died. ‘Do you still live at home?’
Alice shook her head. She didn’t want to talk about that night. Tony’s breath reeking of Southern Comfort as he leaned over her bed, asking her for just one kiss, showing her that there were far worse things than indifference. Alice had fled into the night, returning two days later to an empty house and a note telling her that the rent was paid until the end of the month. The fault was his, yet somehow the shame was hers. Anger grew in her, hot and illogical.
‘So what are you studying?’
‘I’m not. I’m a cleaner. So sorry to disappoint. And thank you for coming to see me and telling about how fabulous your life is. How you survived your crappy childhood and became a great success. That really makes me feel-‘
‘Come with me,’ he said suddenly.
‘Come with me to Broome. There are always jobs there. Cleaning. Waitressing. I
can put a word in for you with the boss.’
Her laugh was harsh. ‘I don’t even know you. And I don’t need rescuing. It’s a long
time since I needed someone to hold my hand.’
When Danny spoke, his voice was gentle. ‘Those nights, Alice, when the walls shook and we hid in the cupboard. It wasn’t just me holding your hand. You held my hand too.’
Alice looked at him. Both a stranger and the only person who had ever made her feel truly safe.
Above them, a flock of white cockatoos screeched across the sky, a raucous, joyous, chaotic drumroll rippling the fabric of the clear New England sky.
‘Excuse me.’ A student indicated the end of their table. ‘Do you mind if we share?’ Alice hesitated, then she smiled. ‘That’s OK. We were just leaving.’
As they left the courtyard, winding their way down the hill to the carpark, Daniel
reached out his hand, and without a moment of hesitation, she took it.
It was the first day back, and I was glad – stirs the possum.
I forgot to say the first day back of what, eh? I’m old as time, that’s why. Sometimes my words go walkabout. Sometimes I chase them. Oftentimes I don’t bother. Most times I don’t even miss them… Anyhoo, be happy I’m telling you this and don’t expect trifle with your damper.
Back to school for the young’uns – that’s what. The boy next door and his pa would clock on by my kitchen window every morning at half past eight, give or take. Helps me keep count of the days up to Wednesday. Then I lose track. Ah, no worries – Saturday, I get back on it .
So, there I was, waiting like a galah by the sink. Nine and nothing. T’was enough dillydallying – I have things to do too. And everything takes me three times as long now.
Later the kid bangs on the door. He wants to know if I seen his dad. Told him no. Looks at me like a stunned mullet. Maybe he’s planning to hang around til he gets a better answer or something.
His pa’s true blue but, every now and then, he leaves the digs with the moon, is back with the sun. Nothing wrong with that. Don’t know what he does. Get himself a tart? Hit the grog? Who cares! What counts is he’s there come brekky time.
I shoo the nipper away. Bit later I see him going to school on his own. Now I’m curious, so I keep a beady eye on the path but the next foot to stump along it is the kid’s. Back from learning. Face like a cucumber. In he goes and in he stays. Later, I’m about to switch off the telly and hit the sack, and it occurs to me he’s probably skipped tea. So, I take him a bit of bread and a slice of bacon. Less is better than nowt, eh?
This goes on for a while. He soldiers on, the battler. Goes to school every today a bit scruffier than the yesterday, but he goes. I take some scraps to him afterwards – what I can.
Anyhow, day number… Oh, I don’t know… It’s not like I marked the event on my calendar. Ten? He comes to my joint instead of waiting for me to take him some tucker. First time I see him cry. Boys at school call him feral. Worse yet, teachers are starting to wonder what’s cooking. He’s afraid they’ll take him away and he’ll never see his dad again. He’s all sobs and snot, and I’m about to get the shits. Well, what d’ya reckon? He wants to come and live with me for now. Wigwam for a goose’s bridle!
What? Did I say I had a heart of gold? Bit of decency, maybe, but that’s the size of it. So I sent him on his way with a crumpet.
Next bloody day he’s back! Dry-eyed this time. He wants moola for an ad, he says. One of his mates at school once lost a dog and his oldies put an ad in the paper, he says. Makes me wonder if he’s a brick short of a load. What about the coppers, ya drongo? Wouldn’t they be best? Turns out, dad’s not too friendly with the law on account of his business. Let’s leave it at that, which is where the kid left it because that’s where his pa left it too. I fossick in the treasure drawer and give him 20 smackers to get him out of my sight… and my other senses, by the by. He does smell a bit on the nose.
There goes my new shovel. I’m changing my mind about having a heart of gold…
Two days later I add insult to injury and blow another buck on the local rag to see what he’s got: “Have you seen my dad? Tall, thin and blond where there’s hair. Answers to Marty. Not seen since, blah, blah.” Buckley’s chance, I reckon. Shame about my shovel…
Like I figured – days keep rolling on with no sign of a father finder. His bright idea: give a reward… Well, what do I know? I have little to lose and littler still I would bother to try to recover. But I beat him to the post about what’s coming because there’s no more stashes for new shovels to tap into here.
The next bit is hear-say. He says, I hear. Not by choice, but the kid got into the habit of earbashing the neighbour arvo in, arvo out. And to think he used to be the quiet type… Once he opened the tap, he sure didn’t know how to turn it off!
It seems a cobber of his convinced him to nick the loot in NERAM’s donation bucket. So, there’s boy… Yes, he has a name, but what the heck does it matter to you? It’s not like you’ll be sending a birthday card, eh? Do you or don’t you want to know what happened? Ok, so where was I? Ah, yeah, there’s boy waiting for this mongrel when his phone rattles. Someone saying they know where his pa is.
Fair dinkum – who’d’a thunk? It was a sheila… of the nursey type. She been looking after this guy who been flattened by a delivery van, spent 16 days off with the fairies, then come to… mostly. Seems he left his memory bits on the tar. Not all there now, if you get my drift.
Been better if he carked it, if you ask me… But the kid seems happier to have a crook dad than no dad at all.
So there they go every half past eight weekdays like nothing’s changed. Except now I take snags over for two when I’m done with mine. Bloody do-gooder… Oh, well, such is life.
A sunny winter morning is a fine time to be visiting Bertie.
As if she’s read my mind, I hear the rapid thud-thud-thud of Lily’s feet coming down the hall. She swings into the kitchen, cheeks rosy pink in the cool air. I mentally remind myself to order more firewood. These historic houses are beautiful, so full of character, but they just don’t hold the heat.
“Mumma!” Lily exclaims, clambering up onto a kitchen stool. “We go see Bertie today?” “Yes honey.”
I smile at her excited squeal. You’d think it had been months since we’d visited, not just a few weeks. Although I suppose when you’re only 6 even a few weeks must seem like a lifetime.
“I have sooo much to tell him.” She looks at me, eyes wide, “He doesn’t even know what I’ve been doing at school!”
“I’m packing some snacks. And look, I’ve got something for him” I lean over and reach into my handbag. I hand her the little bear. Purple. Bertie’s favourite colour. “What do you think?”
“He love it!” Lily hugs it to her face. Then she looks at me and scrunches up her nose. “Mumma! You packing grapes? Bertie HATES grapes!”
I chuckle at the look of disgust on her face. She’s right. Most kids love grapes…but not Bertie.
“Maybe you and I can just share those then” I tell her. Her nod tells me this is an acceptable compromise. She hands back the bear and I tuck it safely into my bag. We wouldn’t want to forget it.
“Alright – how about you go and grab your jacket while I finish up here. It’s still cold outside.”
Lily slides off the stool. I hear the thud-thud-thud of her running feet along the thick wooden floorboards in the hall. Then a stop, and a thud-thud-thud back again. Her little face appears around the corner of the kitchen door.
“Mumma, remember how Bertie couldn’t say muesli bar? And he called it a zee-bar instead? Can we take him a zee-bar? Instead of the grapes?”
I sigh. “Sorry sweet, we don’t have any today. Grapes will have to do. Come on, let’s grab that jacket.”
She retreats, then immediately pops her head around the door once more.
“And mumma, remember when Bertie was little? And he thought his name was BIRDIE! Not Bertie?” she lets out a laugh. I feel the corner of my mouth twitch up in a smile. I love how she says this as if it was so long ago. As if Bertie is no longer little, but magically all grown up.
“I remember – and he chased you around squawking like a chicken. Now go on, jacket!” I shoo her out of the room again “and grab your hat too.”
I slip our snack containers into my bag, alongside the bear, and scoop up my keys as Lily comes scooting back into the kitchen, jacket in hand, a woollen hat perched askew on top her head. I shake my head with a smile. My beautiful little whirlwind of a child.
Hand in hand we head out the kitchen door, eventually coaxing it into latching properly. I add it to my mental list of things to get fixed around the place. These old houses were a never ending to-do list. I wondered if it was time to consider selling the place, moving on. It really was far too big for just Lily and I. But there were so many memories within those four walls. Anyway, that was a thought for another day. Today was about Bertie.
I bundle Lily into the car. As I lean over to fasten her seatbelt she grasps my face between her hands, and gazes earnestly into my eyes.
“Mumma – do you think Bertie knows we’re coming?”
I pop a kiss onto the tip of her cold little nose. “I’m sure he does, sweetheart. Now stop asking me questions or we’ll never get there.”
It’s a short drive, and soon enough I’m out of the car again, holding the door for Lily to clamber out. As soon as her feet hit the ground she’s ready to run.
“Wait” I remind her, just before she can dash away, “Don’t forget the bear!” I hand it to her and she’s off, legs pumping as she runs across the beautifully manicured lawn, still wet with morning dew. As she runs to Bertie I close my eyes for a moment and turn my face up to the sun. It’s lovely to be outside after days cooped up in the house.
I catch up to Lily as she plops herself down on the grass beside Bertie, heedless of the dew soaking into her pants.
“Hi Bertie, look we got you a present see. He’s purple, your favourite. And mumma packed grapes but don’t worry, they’re just for her and me.”
I smile and listen to her chatter away as she sets the bear down beside his stone. Albert William Taylor the inscription reads, but to us he will always be Bertie. I run my fingers across the words and sink down onto the damp grass beside Lily.
“Come on” I say, as I pull her into a hug, “Let’s tell your brother all about what you’ve been doing at kindergarten this week.”
The three of us sit together on the damp grass and talk and laugh, and I think to myself: a sunny winters morning really is a fine time to be visiting with Bertie.
A sunny winter morning is a fine time to be homeless, the wind in our hair and the chill of daybreak kissing our cheeks.
We’d risen at dawn, the grass frosty beneath our feet as we scaled an endless plateau. We’d picked through spurs and leapt across streams, a blanket of trees shielding us from the sky, clouds passing overhead like wisps of smoke.
The woodlands whisper around us, drawing us away from the trails. I call Amity to my side, our brows hot and our arms cold. She shivers when I draw her close despite her jackets, full of holes and soaked through.
We should’ve hit the rest stop an hour ago, but the turns of the New England National Park were relentless. This had been home for three years. Three years on the land, me and my sister Amity. No adults. Wild. Food had been scarce when we’d walked out of Ebor empty-handed. Being minors, it was hard to steal food from tourists, especially when we’d been met with sympathy and calls to the authorities.
The thing is, Ebor means nothing to us. Not since Mum died. When we’d planned our escape from Dad, we knew the National Park was it, far enough away to keep us hidden and close enough so we could watch for cops. But we’d never had to stay vigilant.
No one ever came, but we didn’t care.
We’d taken Mum’s ashes and climbed the look out our first day here. She was always with us, but more than anything I had Amity, twelve years old and full of pep. Amity was brave and full of life. Even when Dad had chased us out the house, she’d called him a deadbeat as we’d ran. People said we looked alike, brown-haired with piercing eyes. But that was where it ended, Amity tan and me a ghostly white. It didn’t matter. She was mine. Amity was all I had in this world and I needed nothing more.
I ruffle her hair when her arm knots in mine. So why are we heading inland if it means risking exposure? We were starving, plain and simple. We spent our time imagining burgers, and heading inland meant trash cans and left-overs from food trucks. We just didn’t think it’d be so far, skirting trails and sneaking past Bandicoots.
We were about twenty minutes away when I was smacked in the face. Amity was quick to grab what I hoped wasn’t a bat, peering down at a slip of paper stapled with something green. My eyes widen and I spot the twenty dollars before she does. It’s American money but it’s money.
With trembling fingers, I lift the bill, looking at the paper beneath. My eyes scan a series of numbers and the scribbles of a red pen. It’s a winning lotto ticket with the prize money intact.
Amity’s losing her mind. “Holy shit!” She gasps, and I’m so shocked I don’t reprimand her. “Twenty bucks? You reckon the food trucks are still around? That’s, like, a burger each!”
I peer at the money, dumbfounded. “Who do you think it belonged to?” I mumble, passing the note back to Amity.
Amity laughs. “Priscila, who cares? This ticket is going to change our lives! At least for tonight.” She adds sheepishly, leaning into my side.
I snap myself out of my daze and peer down the track. It’s at least twenty minutes to the rest stop, and I’m twenty-percent sure it’s a Thursday. I don’t know what time it is, but by some miracle, we might get fed tonight.
“We can make it.” Amity says, reading my mind. “It’s too rainy to know, but we can make it.”
My lips twitch and I ruffle Amity’s hair. “Maybe it’s from Mum.” I say, taking her hand in mine.
Amity sighs. “I like that.” She says, and the trip melts away from us.
By the time we reach the rest stop, we’re struck with disaster. We’re surprised when the wind picks up, the ticket flying out of Amity’s hands. Amity chases the note, horrified when the money sinks into a puddle, crumpled and splitting in two.
The note is soaked and so is our hope. I’m on my knees crying when Amity holds me, her tiny arms stretched around me.
“What’s wrong, Pris?” She says, running her fingers through my hair.
“It was your burger money.” I sob, burying my face into her neck. “Mom was never a part of this. I’m so stupid.”
Amity strokes my cheek. She’s looking right through me, her fingers on my shoulders. “Mum is a part of this.” She says, her voice quiet like the breeze. “She’s apart of you, and she’s a part of me. She’s the forest now.”
I cry silently, rubbing my face with my sleeves. Amity pulls me to my feet, tugging me towards a rusty park bench. The trucks are gone and I watch her as she digs through the trash, squealing with delight when she finds her prize.
She throws a box on the table and I look inside. It’s five nacho chips and an empty container of salsa. Her smile is so bright it’s blinding. It takes everything within me not to break down.
“Leftover nachos!” She cheers, handing me a chip. “How long has it been since we had nachos, Pris? Mum really was looking out for us, huh?”
I watch Amity snap the last chip in half, pushing it towards me. She’s still eating when I look at her. All of her. The bounce of her hair, falling around her hollow cheeks. The slump of her shoulders, sticking out like bones. The stars in her eyes shimmering brightly out her gaunt face.
The wind picks up around us and we shiver. I can feel Mum around us, holding us tight. But Mum died a long time ago, and even if I have nothing in this world, I have Amity.
And I need nothing more.
A sunny winter morning is a fine time to be burying your sister.
It’s better than a spikey Armidale summer day. The spikes of light are still felt on her skin when the day is harsh. A reminder of when she’d sneak out to lose herself in it for too long. Still.
I can breathe. Niamh thought.
I can see my breath today, I’m breathing. I’m out.
A hand on her back, one she’d felt so many times before, holds her breath in the air longer. The familiar touch is kind, and had been there through illness, to unlodge the apple she should have chewed better when she was two, hellos, goodbyes, heartaches, the good times, the bad, the really really bad.
I miss her.
“I miss her too, Nevvy.”
“You haven’t eaten, I feel your bones through your back. Let’s eat and I’ll tell you stories at the table, just like we used to.”
We were both there for it all, what is there left to tell?
“Oh Nevvy, there’s always a story to tell.”
Sile. Beautiful name on paper. Pronounced Shee-la. Living in Australia, it was never an easy name to bear. Most believe it was where it all began; the cruelty, the anger, the inability to push beyond a life started with an unforgivable, unrelenting moniker, constantly shouted and laughed at. It means Heaven. Fraternal twin to Niamh (pronounced Nee-v; it’s no Sarah, but it never killed anyone) and the rest who didn’t make it. Daughter to Caroline and probably Blue, Gam thought. Maybe Doug. Granddaughter to Lillian and definitely Poppy – everyone knew Lillian and Poppy. No mistaking his crowning legacy, the shade of manderine-peel. A most unusual trait, likely marking the reason to continue the bloodline, despite uncertain paternal lineage.
Gam chose Sile to have the outside world, and Niamh to fold hers away in the tiny hidden room only she knew about. Maybe if Caroline had survived the birth of her daughters, her intuition would have led the way, but it wasn’t to be, and so Gam made the choice and sent the bad out and kept the good in; not on purpose, of course, who was to know. They’d lose everything, so she made the choice. One out, one in. One known, one secret.
Gam was grateful to the nurse, a neighbour, for not registering the second one (Sile, she was born second) to the Coats when Caroline crunched in pain for another round. It was decided early that she’d remain out of sight until the birth. Gam knew nurse Ingrid would help when the time came, but it was best to not put her in a compromising position any longer than needed.
She checked the health of the newborns and left them, let them be, and hoped for all their sake, Niamh would never be found.
Three days before Niamh watched her breath in a morning too beautiful, or aptly beautiful, to farewell her sister, Sile looked up at the sky for the last time, through a small window from a sterile room. Her eyes slowly welcomed the black and she fell silently into the dark that had grown since birth, waiting to embrace her so completely.
She had always enjoyed the sky, it was a reminder of the difference between her and Niamh; Sile could be better in at least one way. Little Nevvy only saw the night, supervised, supposedly. Sile had so much freedom, and yet was so trapped. She was the distraction, taking the brunt of it all: the damage, the violence, the crying, the blood, the carnage, the death. She was the bad one. It was liveable for a time, she could take the beatings from annoyed strangers at first. A game, and sometimes better than home. The words were never said, but she knew Niamh was more loved, more wanted.
Gam believed she would love them both. But Sile became convenient, created by their choices. Her bond with Niamh grew stronger and stronger. Niamh needed constant protection, Gam was her world and the outside could not corrupt her. Sile was so corrupted.
The day Sile brought the body, lifeless and bloody, to the front door, so blatantly, was the day Gam knew she had lost Sile forever. It was time. She made the call to the Coats, and signed over the end of Sile, the end of the lie.
Once it was done, Gam went home and unlocked the door to the room kept secret for so long. The stench was more than normal, more pungent. Not the normal smell of isolation and stagnant air, food remnants. It was death. She first thought that somehow the sins of Sile had been left behind. She panicked that it was Niamh, until she felt the familiar cool and wet nose against her ankle. She switched on the light.
Three dead birds lay on the ground, all the indisputable colourful shades of the prized parakeets over the fence to the left of their Miller Street home. Fresh. The same as the others left on the now stained doormat. Only, this just happened. Gam wanted a companion so desperately, knowing that Caroline (not officially hers, but a daily visitor) would not be forever. These homes were so few and far between, she knew its curves and edges, how it’d help her when she lost her mobility with age. She couldn’t afford to lose it by breaking the rules. Just one, he had said. You can have just one. There just better not be any trouble.
She thought she’d been so careful, keeping Niamh in here during the day, letting Sile run around, presumed wild, taking the blame for the bark of two. The gap, Niamh sized, to outside, she sees now. The bodies and the gap. Niamh, the good one. Gam needs her too much, it’s just them. It was Niamh. It was always Niamh. Their story didn’t need Sile now. She was the good one.
If there’s something to expect, it’s the unexpected. I learnt that recently, ever since I started peering into my neighbour’s room through a hole I found in a fence. I call him my neighbour; he’s more of a friend, although I’ve never talked to him. And he’s not my neighbour; his house is behind my school – down the back corner, where no one really goes. I wandered over there after school a few weeks ago when I didn’t feel like going home.
The hole was perfectly round like a porthole on a ship and was aligned conveniently at eye-level. I could look straight through and see a perfectly framed view of my neighbour in his bedroom. At first I didn’t mean to stare, I was only curious because his head was completely bald, which seemed strange to me because he only looked about as old as a year 12 student. My dad is bald too, but I’m sure that’s because he shouts all the time.
I locked eyes with my neighbour accidentally. Just as fast as I could turn my head away in embarrassment, I saw him quickly raises his palm, gesturing me not to
go. I gazed through the porthole again. He was waving at me, smiling. He held up
a finger, as if to say, ‘one second…’ and pulled his curtains shut, disappearing
from my view. I could see the slow movement of his shadow behind the curtain.
To my surprise, when the curtains opened again, he had big, fluffy, rainbow-coloured hair and was wearing a red nose like a clown. He pulled three multicoloured
balls from his pocket and started juggling. After the performance was
over, he mimed walking down imaginary stairs – that didn’t fool me. For my birthday party last year, my mum hired a magician who did the same trick. My neighbour popped up again into view. He was waving goodbye. I pulled away from the fence to show him I was waving back.
The next afternoon, I went back to look through the porthole again. It seemed like my neighbour was expecting me. As soon as my cheek touched the fence, I saw him. He looked different today. I could see that he had a thin tube coming out of his nose. He did the familiar finger-raising gesture, ‘one second…’ and the curtains closed. When they opened moments later, he was dressed as Darth Vader holding a toy lightsaber. He waved it around just like they do in the movies. It was really funny. I used to have a toy lightsaber just like that, but it broke when my dad threw it at me. After the performance was over, my neighbour waved goodbye. I pulled away from the fence to show him I was waving back.
I went back to that porthole in the fence every day. Every day I peered in and every day my neighbour was dressed differently. Spiderman; Batman; once he
was even dressed as a banana. Whatever it was, he always made me smile.
One Friday, I went to look through the porthole again. My neighbour was dressed as a pirate. Although he seemed to be moving slower than usual, his performance was the best yet. He had an imaginary sword fight and ended the show by pretending to fall overboard! When he reappeared from the bottom of the
window, he was smiling and waving goodbye. I didn’t want to leave this time. Weekends are the worst. My dad is home a lot. Sometimes Mum makes me hide in my room.
My neighbour cocked his head and made a signal like he was tapping on his watch, ‘time to go’ he mimicked. I shook my head in protest. My neighbour pointed at me and mouthed, ‘you’. He then mimed a pair of binoculars, ‘look’. Next, he pointed behind me over the fence, ‘out there’. I was confused. He raised his finger, ‘one second…’ then disappeared from view. Another costume? I had never had two performances in one afternoon before. When he reappeared, he wasn’t wearing a costume, just a grey sweater and black tracksuit pants. In fact, he looked pretty drab. He was bald again and for the first time I noticed his face was ghostly white. He pulled up a big sheet of white paper to his chest with words scribbled on it:
Hi, I’m Charles.
I’ve enjoyed spending time with you. Happy things are all around you.
Charles closed his curtains. I waited for a while but he didn’t reappear.
In class the next Monday, I wondered what character I might see through the porthole that afternoon. When I finally got there, Charles wasn’t waiting for me. I kinked my neck every which way, trying to get a better view, but his room was mysteriously empty. Suddenly, I heard a soft voice from behind me, ‘excuse me, are you looking for Charles?’ I turned and saw an older woman, with a welcoming face. I glanced down shyly, wondering if I was in trouble. ‘I’m his mother,’ she said. ‘Charles wanted me to tell you that he won’t be home much anymore,’ her voice quivering. ‘He’s sick and will be staying in hospital for a while, just until he’s better. He wanted me to give you this… well, I’m not sure what it is.’ From her pocket, the kind woman pulled out a piece of wood the size of a small book, with an eye-sized hole cut out of its middle.
My very own, portable, porthole.
I nodded as I accepted Charles’ gift. I ran home excitedly but stopped when I saw my dad’s car parked out the front of the house. I hid behind his car. I raised the wooden block to my eye and moved it around like a periscope, until I landed on my mum, eagerly waiting for me by the front door. I framed her carefully so that her figure completely filled the space of my new porthole. She smiled and I smiled back.
They were coming closer, and more frequently these days. For almost a year, the Aurora Australis had steadily drifted further north, mirrored by its northern twin. It baffled the media and experts alike and blanketed more of Australia in its glow each day. More baffling still was the reappearance of plant and animal populations and species unseen in decades. But this didn’t interest Cassidy much.
Much to Cassidy’s delight, it now bathed Armidale in a wash of colours and hues. It transformed even the most overcast sky. Creating grey clouds that danced with technicolour luminescence. The display reminded her of the colourised black and white films her family would watch on movie nights. The memory brought a bittersweet smile, as a thick mascara inked tear traced a line down her left cheek.
Cassidy sat in her usual perch. She hugged her legs on a low bow of the massive ancient fig that stood vigil over the entrance to her university. Her school bag was cast dismissively amongst the fallen autumn leaves. Its zipper was broken, and its contents were strewn amongst the rotting foliage, with notebooks several weeks in disuse absorbing moisture from the cold damp soil.
It was her spot and had been since she was twelve. Its root system and sturdy low- slung branches provided ample climbing and hiding. But what drew her here lately was the security she felt in its tangle of roots and branches, embracing arms to offer shelter from the world.
Raptured by her own thoughts, Cassidy was barely preceptive of the passing time. The light from the sun was more a fleeting suggestion when the biting evening chill roused her from her melancholy. Pulling her jacket tighter, Cassidy’s eyes spared a glance up as something tugged at her peripheries. Her eyes opened wide as the fading sunlight gave way to a spectacle more enrapturing than nights before. Light rolled across the sky above in waves. It bathed the nearby landscape in the vibrant hues and surrealism of a dreamscape, as ribbons of colour danced overhead to a hidden tune. Cassidy was transfixed, lost within the display as it filled her with a profound sense of calm she had never felt before.
With a start that set her heart racing, Cassidy became keenly aware of someone watching her mere meters away. A tall, pale, womanly figure of lanky limbs, and a mouse face framed by a wild mane of curly ginger hair. The Stranger wore a simple pink and blue polka-dot dress, which seemed to emanate an aura of blue, and which left a slight afterimage as she nervously swayed from foot to foot.
Cassidy shot upright, backing up, and lost her footing on the dewy wood. Her world lurched and spun as she overcorrected to catch herself, and lost balance. With a throbbing pain in her right arm and a mouthful of dirt and leaves, Cassidy rolled onto her back and uttered a groan of relief that nothing felt broken.
Cassidy blew out the dirt and leaves from her mouth and turned to find where the Stranger had gotten to. She was startled once more as the youthful Stranger appeared from over a nearby root to Cassidy’s left. Puzzlement struck Cassidy as she recognised worry in the strange Woman’s face. Cassidy became aware of the Stranger’s hand extended down offering aid, accepting it after an unsure moment. The Stranger’s hands were soft and delicate but possessed a strength which surprised Cassidy.
Cassidy couldn’t help but stare as the Woman began to dust her off and straighten her jacket, driving her deeper into confusion for a time. She was finally slapped back into reality as she became aware of the gentle press of a backpack to her chest. Looking down, Cassidy noticed her bag and possessions was silently being offered to her. She slowly took the strap, slinging it over her shoulder. To Cassidy’s further bewilderment, the Woman looked pleased with herself, standing straight, hands on her hips with a full and matronly smile on her face.
Cassidy froze as the Woman suddenly closed the distance, and wrapped her in an embrace. Once she was able to overcome her shock, finally making sense of what was happening, Cassidy warmed to the contact. Cassidy allowed herself to sink into the Woman’s arms, drawn by a feeling she couldn’t explain. A tempest of emotions began to stir within, as the fragile barriers shed built over months started to break. As the lights above came to a crescendo, Cassidy wept openly. Her shoulders rocked, and her body felt weak, held up only by the arms of another.
After a timeless moment, Cassidy pulled back gently, and the Visitor relented with a smile. They shared a long look. Hands linked, smiling. As the Visitor turned to go, blowing a kiss to Cassidy. Cassidy waved. A tear of joy partly washing away the smear from her left cheek. Cassidy watched the Visitor stroll away through the fields of foliage, as the lights above painted the autumn leaves as fields of spring blooms, until she vanished, with a flash of colour.
The next day, Cassidy left her room well slept and with a small, but growing, spring in her step. Cassidy fetched fruit from the fridge and stashed it in her bag, which now closed with the help of a large safety pin, and smiled at a new note in her father’s handwriting on the fridge’s door. “Tonight we are resuming family movie night. Casablanca!”. Headed to the front door, she paused by the credenza where beside a bowel of keys, sat an antique picture frame. Within its frame sat a young mousey faced woman in a lounge chair, with a mane of wild red hair, and a pink and blue polka dot dress cradling, a once infant, Cassidy. She wiped a tear from her eye, and with a smile on her lips, Cassidy kissed the picture farewell and began walking towards her first class for today.
A sunny winter morning was a fine time to be dead – at least, that was Sarah’s opinion. She looked out the window at the people gathering on the lawn. They were dressed in dark robes and graduate caps, all smiles and excitement. Sarah had never missed a graduation. At each ceremony she would take her place by the window and watch the sea of students parade up to the stage to receive their degree. This had been Sarah’s pattern since her death. When that was, however, she could not quite remember. Time tended to become nonsensical after the curtain is drawn. The world she now inhabited was different and strange. In her time, women wore long dresses and covered their arms to the wrists, and you never expected to see any women among the rows of graduates. Time had changed the world incrementally, replacing one thing for another, buildings rising and falling, plants growing then dying. Sarah stayed the same, her maid’s dress as crisp and clean as the day she had bought it.
Sometimes she would trail the crowds of people as they followed the guides through Booloominbah House – her former workplace. The visitors listened enraptured, as the guides spoke of the Whites, Sarah’s employers. No one asked about Sarah the maid. No one knew that Sarah the maid had even existed. After all, Sarah the maid had never done anything remarkable. She had been just an ordinary local girl, who cleaned the remarkable house and cared for the remarkable people.
Soon the graduation was over, and people spread like a swarm of ants across the green. Sarah took this as her cue to join them. As she walked among them, gazing at their smiling faces, listening in on their conversations, she found it was easy to forget that she was dead. Even so, Sarah could not ignore the eyes that skimmed over her, blind to her presence. When this all became too much, she took refuge under a nearby tree, remembering when she would sit in that very spot with her sister and watch the sunlight dapple through the yellow leaves.
Sarah started and turned toward the voice. There was a little girl standing next to her, staring at her intently.
“Yes.” Sarah said hesitantly. It had been so long since anyone had looked at her, she had forgotten what it was like. “Are you dead too?”
“Are you alive, then?”
“No.” The girl smiled like she was telling a joke.
“Then who are you?”
“What name would you like? I have so many – Charon, Azrael, Anubis, Thanatos.”
Sarah was more than a little annoyed. “What do you want?”
“I have an errand to run,” the girl said. “Would you help me?”
“I can’t,” Sarah said. “I’m waiting for someone.”
The girl glanced around. “Who?”
“My sister, Mary.” Sarah said. “She should be here soon.”
Mary had done everything with Sarah – playing, sleeping, working. One night they had even died together.
“Come find me.” Was the last thing Mary had said as they held each other, sickness coursing through their bodies in flashes of scalding heat and freezing cold.
The next thing Sarah knew, she was in Booloominbah House, searching the halls for her sister. But no matter how hard she looked Mary was nowhere to be found.
“You won’t be long,” the girl said taking Sarah’s hand. “It’s just short walk down the street.”
Sarah jumped at her touch. The last thing Sarah could remember feeling was her sister’s hair, stroking it as she lay curled up next to her. Now Sarah’s hands skimmed intangibly through the tangible.
The murmur of the crowd faded behind her as the little girl led her away. After a while she found herself on a familiar shop lined street. The town had not changed much since her death, and many of the buildings she once frequented were still there. Even so, a myriad of oddities had popped up here and there – automobiles, bitumen, telephone booths. It was the latter that the girl was leading her to. Sarah winced against the phone’s shrill ringing, which echoed out up and down the street.
“Your errand was to answer a phone?” Sarah asked irritably. “Couldn’t you have done that yourself?”
The girl released Sarah’s hand and peeked inside the booth.
“My errand isn’t to answer the phone,” the girl replied, watching the phone shudder with each forceful ring. “My errand is you.”
She opened the phone booth door and gave Sarah a patient smile, the sort of smile someone old and very weary would give to a child. Sarah frowned at the girl, then her eyes fell on the people walking by. They all seemed deaf to the phone’s incessant trill, no one even did a double take. To Sarah, however, the sound was all consuming. The phone was demanding to be answered.
Sarah shook her head. “No, I need to go back. I need to find Mary.”
“Sarah,” the girl said, “you can’t find something if you are looking in the wrong place. If you answer the call, then you will know the right place to look.”
Sarah hesitated before tentatively stepping inside the booth and reaching for the phone. Her palm rested on the cool metal. Gently, she lifted the phone off the receiver and held it to her ear. A voice sounded from the other end and a smile broke across Sarah’s face.
“Come find me.” It was Mary.
Sarah turned. The girl and the street had vanished, replaced by a horizon of white, and in that horizon stood Mary. As the phone slipped from Sarah’s hand and she stepped out into the expanse of white, she came to a new conclusion – a sunny winter morning was a fine time to be dead, but death was sweeter when you are not alone.
“A sunny winter morning is a fine time to be outdoors. We are blessed to be able to join together on such a morning to begin our learning journey this week”. Listening to the crisp and voice of the principal Anna surveyed the imposing figure in front of the assembly. Ms Virginia Harrington was an imposing prospect for anyone. A fifty-eight year old spinster, who oozed self-assured authority. Her forward expression was like the driving advance of an army tank and her words cut through the air with razor sharp precision. She was tall, slim and impeccably presented. Anna surveyed the conservative brown pants suit, neatly tied silk neck scarf, crisp white shirt and sensible black shoes. All of this was crowned with a meticulously coiffured grey bun.
As the verbal barrage continued Anna closed her eyes and tilted her head ever so slightly to the sky. For a moment allowed the warmth of the sun to seep into her face and she was transported. There was no gravity here in the glow of the rays. She floated beyond the reach of the mundane routine. The regimented lines of students dressed in uniformity and the strategic teacher sentries surrounding the perimeter formed a grid like pattern beneath her.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the murmurs and snickering of two small boys. She noted with amusement they were a regular blistering teacher gaze causing the pair to wither down towards the asphalt. They quickly halted and sat poker straight writhing under the heat of the piercing eyes upon them.
She rose quickly from the bench at the back of the assembly and shook herself into a more conscious awareness of the scene around her. Her gaze fell to rest on the only male teacher in the place. Mr Jones- what a strange, comical creature he was! A relic from a time where compliance and accountability didn’t exist. The local footy hero, morphed into the school sports master, who dabbled in education. A huge, dark haired, bearded bear that stood over six-feet and resembled a well-dressed lumberjack. Revered by the parent community and the recipient of quiet resentment from the multiple staff that consistently picked up his slack.
As she watched this hulking, hairy animal, sullen and sleepy, his heavy-lidded eyes looking down at the cement her gaze shifted to the bright and delicate flower sitting beside him. Miss Morley was like a fallow deer next to her colleague. Gentle, sweet and build like a whippet. Her soft, fair, features were framed by a cloud of wispy blond hair and a genuine smile. Anna was struck by contrast. She and the handful of new teachers (some jittery and skittish, fumbling about in their new roles like foals on spindly legs, others full of millennial confidence) were full of youth and promise. They were like little pockets of sun through a dim cloud bank.
She continued to scan the gathering observing the patchwork of personalities she found there. There were a few. And then there was Anna. Somehow disconnected despite the sharing the same role as educator. Almost universally distrusted for committing the biggest crime of all- leaving this quiet country hamlet of her youth and returning after a role in the city. On top of this she brought with her a quiet self-confidence and a yearning for change. The stink of urban influence seeping from her pores struck fear into the most stoic of staff members. Recalcitrant pair, who despite their talent for trouble, were likeable rogues. She watched as one of the more authoritarian staff swooped in with a
Revered and respected teachers, engrained into the fabric of the place like a wise owls; stoic, confident and dependable. They, like Virginia, lived for tradition, order and control. They expected from students and parents alike the reverence of the educator as the sage purveyor of knowledge.
They lived to be oracles and loved the power of holding the keys to the kingdom of learning. Broken down and burnt out looking specimens looking harassed and withdrawn.
The years of keeping up with the demands of an ever changing vocation etched on furrowed brows.
The frustrations of widening generational gaps and unchanging pedagogy causing constant tension as they fought to impart knowledge into ever-changing and often unwilling student vessels.
She cast her gaze once more around the menagerie of personalities before her. There was one obvious face missing- Grace.
How did you begin to describe Grace? The school Creative Arts teacher was most famously known for her collection of corduroy pants in jewelled colours and her inability to do anything without wild hand gestures and insatiable enthusiasm. To the majority of the staff this purveyor of the aesthetic arts was a dangerous and unconventional creature sent to upend routine, undermine decorum and challenge the conservative (and time honoured) traditions of the establishment. To Anna she was a lifeline, a reminder that there were others who viewed the world differently.
Anna assessed her friend as she bounded towards the gathering. Today she was wearing a fluffy grey cardigan and a pink and aqua shirt covered in various geometric shapes. Her pants were burnt orange corduroy and on her feet, a pair of sturdy brown boots. Draped around her neck, a pair of multi-coloured glasses on a chain. As she danced along the grass they bounced chaotically around in front of her chest. You could see Virginia Harrington visibly bristle as she caught site of Grace careering though the grounds. Her untamed and exuberant behaviour caused constant friction within the tight-reined bounds of her school.
As Anna watched Grace whirring across the landscape she felt the buzz of her phone in her pocket.
Slinking to the back of the assembly she gingerly opened it….
Anna- I know we told you we had filled the position but the original successful applicant is no longer available. Are you still interested? Ms Harrington still needs to be informed that she did not pass her appraisal but once that has happened we can move forward with your transition to the role should you want it…
She look back up to Grace catapulting into the assembly. They had work to do………
A sunny Winter morning is a fine time to be dead.
She can’t feel anything anymore; she can’t feel the bite of snow, the stinging of an early morning frost, can’t be swayed by the wind. There’s a window in her little room, a secret space, and she can balance her arms on the white sill and peel away the old paint and watch it drift from her fingers. She almost feels bad, peppering the floor, but not a soul comes upstairs. Not anymore.
From her perch, watching clouds drift innocently over the old boarding house with her head dangling like a spider on a string, with the sun keeping a lazy vigil over her, she can grasp some emotion resembling freedom or at least some pathetic rip-off of it. Ghosts can’t feel pain – but there’s a way to mimic that too, when her eyes flicker downwards and she can make out the wavering shapes of the living. Some of the faces are familiar.
A cleaner, grizzled with old age, stringy hair poking at all directions.
Another cleaner, a young one, that laughs at him when he grumbles.
She has come to expect the same group of young girls that sit on the grass outside. She
can hear snippets of conversation, laughter that floats up to her dusty window. One of them lays back to sun herself against the pavement. When her hair catches the sun, she shows off forbidden streaks of red, a silent rebellion tucked carefully behind her ears and half-covered by a head-band. It seems like such a mortal thing.
She had felt the sharp sting of sadness before, when she was alive, but it would come in swift blows, back when she was Brin and she could feel a heart beating beneath her chest. She had flitted from friend to friend, and had clung to her latest companion with furious vigour, but felt the loneliness twisting in her gut. As a ghost, her sadness comes in slow aches, but the pain feels like nothing. An empty space, a yearning.
No one expects death. Wouldn’t things be so different, she wonders, if I could have sensed my downfall? Could I have done something? Anything!
If only. The words are her heartbeat now, a constant reminder of what she has lost. What she could have been. What if?
Howling laughter reaches her again from the girls, making Brin flinch. The girl with the soft red hair sits up; she moves lazily, with the careful movements of someone who knows they
are being watched and appreciated, stretching with a wry feline’s confidence. Brin strains to hear voices, but they fade before they can reach her lonely window. She peels a stray piece of paint off of the side of the boarding house.
There’s a simulation of pain to be found there too, watching the chipped colours on the side of the building that she had once felt safe in, watching light curl and dip away before it reaches her secret room. She can stretch a hand out, have her palm turned upwards, but the sun will never cradle her body again; she can’t leave the boarding house, can’t bring herself to even touch the door handle.
Something creaks downstairs.
The laughter bubbles up again from the grass, the girls now craning upwards – Brin can see the flash of their eyes in the sun as they fix their gazes to the window.
Brin doesn’t let herself hope, even as she shrinks out of the sun, then warily cranes forward again. She inspects her arms; they still waver, a pale grey sheen to them. When she leans forward and the light snatches her, she sees herself shake. Sees the transparency. But in the dark, when the hue of her skin and her gentle movements seem to belong to someone living, Brin can worship the illusion. In her secret room, she can go on pretending.
Do they see me?
Even when she was living, Brin still shrank from eyes that settled for too long on her body, from any shred of attention. She sat quivering in the dark; when she was alive, she avoided the sunlight just as much as she has as a ghost.
Can… can they see me?
The illusion flickers; a triumphant shapes bursts through Brin into the sun, and the girl with fading crimson streaks leans out of the window, scattering pale flecks of paint. She balances on her toes, knuckles purple from gripping the window. She sticks her tongue out; makes a peace sign. Brin can hear the laughter, the frail giggles from below them.
Cautiously, Brin slides to the window, taking up a silent vigil beside the girl. So close that their elbows brush – one innocent to the curious gaze of the other, both swallowing with a sudden tension without acknowledging each other’s quiet presence. She wonders if she will
ever know her name – or any of the girls down on the grass, finding a thrill out of an abandoned boarding house. Are they anything like she was?
Brin doesn’t feel young. But she doesn’t feel old, either. Just tired.
“It’s like being in a horror movie!” the girl calls out to them, a response to the questions that Brin can’t hear. She steps back, clings to herself, cradles her ghostly body as if its the last thing she has left – her secret room, untouched since the accident, violated by the living, the free. The unburdened. This girl would claim that death is a release, a blessing. Brin bears the burden, and watches her with dismay.
The silence that unfurls beyond the plea never ends. It goes on.
And even as the girl bolts from the room, shrieking with laughter, and Brin rips the
curtains shut to block out the sun, she still can’t help the feeling that, despite everything, it’s a beautiful day. An untouched, sunny Winter morning.
Brin retreats back into the dark.
The art gallery itself was not huge, but a decent enough size for a small regional town in northern New South Wales. Situated on the outskirts, its stark and modern architecture either drew you in with interest or moved you on with indifference.
It was a place where those with sufficient money to spare came to see their name on plaques prominently recognising their generosity; a gallery well patronised and a gallery quite prestigious due to its housing of some quite extraordinary collections.
The curator for as long as anyone could remember was Ms Penelope Throsby-Jones – a name worthy of the diligent, fussy spinster who had made the gallery her life’s mission. She went about her business each day with more than a dash of proprietary.
The seasons rolled on, as did a collage of travelling collections – sent to the gallery either by an artist looking for exposure or a benefactor who wanted to share their collected works with a wider audience.
And so it was on a freezing winter’s morning in glorious New England that a new collection arrived. A day when frost crunched underfoot and the air was so cold it cut through to your soul; a day when the icy wind blew a secret.
Ms Penelope had been a little ashamed to admit she was not familiar with the artist and his/her style – what sort of a name was Elpis anyway! but the letter she had received asking for the gallery’s permission to show the collection had intrigued her. The collection was titled ‘Escape to Hope’ – words that struck a chord with the woman who could do with a little of both. The artist generously wanted no fee, but merely to show the collection for a limited time.
Ms Penelope took to un-crating and hanging the paintings with a great deal of curiosity. It was an eclectic mix – portraits, abstracts, landscapes … no distinct style. One piece in particular vexed Ms Ms Penelope – not because of its size, nor because of the content, but more because the title of the painting did not seem to suit the piece at all … ‘Expect the Unexpected’. Ms Penelope could not see how that caption related to the largely bucolic scene. Neither was the painting particularly to Ms Penelope’s taste – far too busy with a farmhouse set on rolling plains, a brook flowing close by, a profusion of fruit (apples, cherries, plums) falling in a cascade of colours down sandstone steps, a baby in a crib through the upstairs window … it seemed to go and on. Ms Penelope worked on and on as well and was relieved when all the works were finally hung.
A large billboard perched at street level outside the gallery announced the opening of the new collection and it was with some surprise that Simon found himself sitting in his ute staring at the sign that invited him to enter.
‘Escape to Hope’. He craved an escape; had certainly run out of hope. A third generation farmer, he had been brought to his knees by the crippling drought ravaging the bush. There was no water in the dams, no water in the tanks, no crops to be planted and no money left to stave off bankruptcy.
He didn’t even like art that much but the idea of ‘escape’ seemed a better option than another meeting with a bank manager who had no answers and so he wandered around the gallery losing himself in his thoughts for a while. The painting stopped him in his tracks. ‘Expect the Unexpected’ …
almost compulsively he pored over the vista that drew a harsh comparison to his own farm – here was beauty and bounty; he had driven away that morning from dust and desolation. The painting tore at his emotions and he walked away feeling raw – there was no escape, no hope for him here in the gallery.
That night, against all the weather predictions, the heavens opened and the rain began. It rained, and rained and rained – blessed rain, drought-breaking rain, and hope-bringing rain. Simon lay in his bed with the rain beating on the roof; his heart beating an echo of hope.
The next morning as Ms Penelope tidied the gallery and dusted the paintings ready for opening she paused at that one painting – there was something a little odd. She could have sworn there had been a brook … but no, there was not. Her mind was playing tricks.
David and Ellen Weston, firm friends of Ms Penelope, were frequent visitors to the gallery. A plaque acknowledged their financial support over many years though their commitment to the gallery went well beyond boosting the coffers.
Desperate to have children but not able to do so, they had thrown their time and energy into supporting the local arts movement. They were excited to see the new collection and spent a very suitable amount of time honouring the artist by carefully considering each painting. Perhaps it was the caption, ‘Expect the Unexpected’ that drew first blood. They had never had the joy of ‘expecting’ in a literal sense. The hurt only intensified when they noticed the baby in the crib – it cried out to a need in them and they moved on to escape a pain that hung thick in the air.
A few weeks later, the collection drew to a close. As Ms Penelope wrapped and re-crated the paintings, she smiled at the news she had received that morning. Inexplicably, miraculously, the Westons were ‘with child’. Placing the last painting ‘Expect the Unexpected’ into bubble-wrap, Ms Penelope thought she remembered a baby in a crib through that now bare upstairs window … but of course that couldn’t have been so.
Out on the farm, Simon prepared his land – he could say that now, his land … the bank would not be taking it from him.
Across town, David and Ellen prepared to welcome a miracle.
Weeks had gone past since they had last seen anyone other than the other paintings, guards walking past, or even the occasional cleaner. The silence was almost unbearable, the lack of interaction was even harder.
As a painting, they were meant to be looked at by human eyes and be either reviled or admired, sometimes both and sometimes neither. They couldn’t help but wonder if the humans were ever going to come back through the gallery, if they were ever going to sit and admire, or have younglings run around or have art students describe every detail of the brushstrokes that made them up.
They had been alone for many weeks, and the company of their fellow paintings would only do so much.
What was the point of having a gallery of incredibly decisive, historically noteworthy pieces of artwork when there was no-one around to properly take a look at them all? Art is meant to be seen, to be heard, to be felt and if none of that was going on, what was the point?
That morning they, and the rest of the artwork, weren’t expecting it to be any different from the previous few weeks of the monotonous bore that their lives had become.
They were not expecting a young girl, one that they had all seen before, come into the room. Slowly at first, but then her footsteps quickened until she was in the centre of the room. There had once been a comfortable looking lounge chair sitting directly where the girl was now standing, but some men had taken that away weeks ago complaining that it wasn’t safe for it to be there any longer.
The girl, they had never caught her name before since she seemed to only ever come into the gallery by herself, had a sketchbook on her. This wasn’t a rarity, but it had become lesser as the years wore on; as she grew taller, older.
They had been so caught up in their thoughts that they hadn’t noticed that she was coming closer.
“I missed this,” The girl spoke, her voice quiet in the already silent room. They couldn’t help but wonder if the other paintings were also getting their own visitors? Surely the humans were going to come back once more? That this was’t a complete fluke, and that she hadn’t just snuck in to see them?
“It’s nice to be able to leave the house and see things again.”
She had taken what they understood to be a photograph with her phone, edging ever closer once
again, sketchbook and pencil hanging loosely in her other hand.
“To see the paint, the layers and brushstrokes properly again and not just as an image on a screen.”
The girl sighed, pocketing her phone and opening up the sketchbook to a blank page. They watched on, unable to do much else as a painting, as she sketched their faces. They had seen her do this to other works before, but she had never taken the time to map their faces and often they wondered if she thought that they were ugly, or distorted, misshapen.
The time ticked by as the girl wove her magic upon the paper, a few lines here, some crosshatching there. It was a dance taking place upon paper as the girl wove together a likeness similar, if not exact to their own.
“I think, yes, I’m done.”
The girl put down her pencil, and admired the work that she had done. None of the works had ever seen a sketch of themselves done by her before, never had she shown them. They were all inanimate objects, so why would she have?
This time was different.
The girl held the sketchbook up, even inadvertently so that they were able to see themselves as she saw them. The moment only lasted seconds, but it was enough that they felt happy again. Happy that they had been seen, had been admired for the first time in many weeks.
She left the room shortly thereafter, but they wouldn’t forget her, even as a steady stream of others walked through the room and out again, standing apart from each other in an odd manner. To see someone who wasn’t a guard or cleaner was something that they hadn’t expected to happen again, as the majority of humans seemed to have disappeared off of the face of the earth.
The day wore on, the numbers of people visiting dwindled to none once more and the lights dimmed. The artworks never slept, only waited for the next viewer to see them.
They hoped that the girl would visit again soon.
They were coming closer to the end, Heather was certain, but she found she no longer had the heart to care.
If she were asked to determine the beginning of the end, she would blame her new job. Lukas had been happy for her. She’d practically grown up in that art gallery. He’d known how much it had meant to her. Here, finally, was the chance to walk its sculpted halls, to help it thrive, maybe even to climb the ladder and become director some day. Become someone important. He’d supported her ambitions and shared in her dreams. But all too soon, ‘go get ‘em!’ became ‘are you staying late again?’ became ‘I never see you anymore’. And in truth, Heather had seen the writing on the walls. Her relationship with Lukas was a precious, crumbling thing. Her future at the gallery was distant, but tangible. Tantalising.
She’d clung to both for as long as she could. But the more the gallery consumed her, the further Lukas fell from her thoughts. Until, ultimately, she fell from his thoughts, too.
She didn’t blame him. Not really. Heather had found her happiness in the echoes of quiet corridors, in the reflection of pristine floors and the grooves of every paint stroke. And he…
He’d found his in the words of text messages that no longer came from her.
Heather would admit, it hurt, despite it all, to think of him reading those text messages, to remember the smile that had crept briefly across his lips like a poorly kept secret. She’d asked, the first few times, who the messages were from. ‘Just a friend’, he’d said. A friend from work. A friend she’d never met. A friend who could make him smile the way Heather used to, when they were young and in love and their only dreams were each other.
She didn’t ask about the messages anymore.
Instead, she threw herself into her gallery. Gave herself to it, body and soul. First to arrive in the mornings, last to lock the doors at nights. Heather became synonymous with the gallery, and if she occasionally found herself checking her phone for messages that were never there, that was her own business.
It was Lukas’ birthday when she finally found herself relinquishing the gallery keys. ‘Just for tonight,’ she’d said. ‘I have plans.’
What plans? Lukas hadn’t mentioned his birthday at all in the previous weeks, and Heather carried the heavy guilt of knowing she’d not taken the time to prepare a party or book a
table. She hadn’t even wished him a happy birthday that morning; she’d left early and he’d slept late, their lives failing to coexist as had become their routine.
Was it love or shame that urged her home that afternoon? She pulled into their driveway and pictured him awaiting her, leaping from the lounge with excitement at her unexpectedly early arrival. The thought conjured images of a loyal hound. A forgotten mutt. She felt sick at pairing the notion with the man she had once loved (loved still). Heather paused to hide her grief behind a smile. It wouldn’t be kind to burden Lukas with her compunctions, especially not today.
She quietly closed the front door behind her. Took one step and there, she stopped. She held her breath. Was that giggling she heard from their bedroom, or simply her own mind mocking her? And more importantly… did she care to find out? One part of Heather’s mind urged her to seek the truth, to throw open the bedroom door and see what she had wrought. After all, how else could she be certain, truly certain, that she’d made the right choice? If she were to discover him in bed with another woman, would it be a relief, or would it cut like a wound?
And if no one else was there to be sprung? If she found him, only him, her Lukas, alone and waiting for her… could she return to him? Would he have her? Perhaps there was a chance, still, that her happiness could be cultivated in his arms. She could be his, and he could be hers, as they once were. Together and content. A work of art.
Yet through the turmoil, a quiet part of her heart pleaded with her to leave it all behind. Walk out the front door and never come back. Let Lukas have his secrets, let him have his happiness in whomever’s arms he could find it. After all, Heather had her gallery. She could seek her solace there. Cold, constant, comforting. A dream that she could paint for herself, where the only heart at risk was her own.
Would she regret it? Maybe. Quite possibly. But the same could be said for any of life’s choices. Should she stay? Or should she go?
She turned the handle and opened the door.
A sunny winter morning is a fine time to be telling your child they will be leaving home. This sentence circled my head like one of those brain worms you get with the lyrics of a song. A sunny winter morning is a fine time to be… it seemed to sink in deeper. It would not go away.
On the day I told my son, the day was sunny, and skies were clear and blue, except for some dirty grey thin clouds skirting around the edges, chased by the wind. The day was sunny but not warm, as the icy wind whipped and flattened the long yellowing grass in our home paddocks. The grey elm trees which lined the road, were bowing in humility to the strong winds. They were naked and stripped of their colourful glory, and as they bent in the wind, it was if they begged for my truth.
“I’ve been wanting to talk to you about school,” I practised my lines in the reflection of the long timber-framed mirror, resting on a wall in my bedroom. The paint-peeling bedroom in the 80-year-old Tilbuster farmhouse. A place with its own secrets and sadness, or so the local removalist said. I wondered what else he knew of the other homes in the town and all of the history they hid.
“You see, Dad and I’ve been thinking” I practised and tried to smile.
I looked into my face and my eyebrows furrowed, head resting to the side and smile fading. Should I back down now? It wouldn’t matter and I could wait for another day. This had been hush-hush between my husband and me. It was hard to let it out and for it to become real.
“A sunny winter morning is a fine time to be” and there it was again. The sentence which would keep me in the moment.
As I looked into the mirror, I saw the face of a middle-aged woman, but within the body, a young 16 year old girl who would have felt just as fearful of leaving home, “You see sweetie, we’re thinking it would be good for you…to have a challenge and be independent and have opportunities. It will be fun…you’ve always loved the city”.
He was growing up – now 6-foot-tall – and learning about civil wars and social injustices and…well, he was learning to drive…he’s old enough now. But he’s still my baby and it was only 16 years ago that I cradled him in my arms as I walked out of the maternity ward at the city hospital, waiting for my husband to bring the car around. The greatest prize I had ever held, and I had wept with happiness in the concrete carpark, not caring what anyone who passed by thought.
There was something right about the timing and I couldn’t leave it go any longer. Time to move on or so the land was telling me. Our much-loved New England countryside that had been stripped of water for 1000 days of drought and then smothered in bushfire smoke for the next 60 days.
The land seemed to ask for honesty and answers. It brought out what was important to us. Our families, our stories, our land. It reminded me of our first people of this land, who had managed it so well. How they must have felt when stripped of their beautiful home. The people who had kept the bush regenerated and walked lightly on the land.
During the long drought, we had been stressed to turn on taps to wash our bodies, and the plastic timer picked up from the Council, stuck to the shower glass was bright blue sand trickled out ever so quickly. Our soap still lathered up and the time was done. The guilt of using extra water to shave your legs or wait for conditioner to smooth your hair. If it was the kids, my broad-shouldered husband or I would knock on the door to let them know time was up. My husband, such a kind man, but when it came to water, he knew we had to be tough. And the shower would abruptly stop, music which was blaring turned off. They would come out with an act of mercy, holding the shower buckets filled with soapy water. A gift for the old roses which lined the house.
And then the fires. Photos of us smiling in New Zealand and our precious bits and bobs, like sports medals and passports, lived in canvas bags, piled into the boot of my old Calais for the whole summer. Just in case we needed to flee. We were ready.
It was now or never. I know it seemed like a hard time for a young man to spread his wings, but all of these disasters had made us think of the resilience we all need to face these things. Life is short and we need to have courage.
I walked out of the bedroom and to my son. “Can we go out and sit on the deck for a bit?” I asked him.
It was there with our feet on the solid new England ground and my arm around his shoulder, that I let him know that we were thinking he should become more independent and finish his senior years at boarding school in Sydney. The school which his father and Uncles graduated from and built their fine character. A sort of finishing school. You start there unsure, thin and pimply and emerge as a broad-shouldered young man who can express emotions, care for others and have a great network of friends. The four boys, his Dad and Uncles, were great examples of what a school can do for you, not because of the difference in teaching, but the fact you’re away from home and needing to get along with others.
As my heart softened and rested, after the ache I had held by holding on to the hush-hush plan, for what felt like a long time. I sat with my son in silence, soaking up the relief and sitting together with our new reality. We sat there on the deck and I imagined the grey and naked elms dressing up in their spring green parade outfits. I imagined walking arm in arm with my son under the shady elms and living it up again.
They were coming closer, my eyes darted straight to the ground as I continued walking.
I heard the laughter growing stronger, than suddenly with a loud thud, I ran straight into the twins and my books went flying through the air.
“I’m so sorry” I quickly blurt out.
Tom laughs and walks off but Alex helps pick up my scattered books and replies calmly “It’s ok, let me help you”.
“Thank you” I shyly replied.
As he collected my books, he noticed we were in the same business class.
“Hey, you’re in my class?”
“Oh yes, we have been in mainly the same classes since orientation last year. I’m Eloise” I replied feeling invisible.
“Oh yes, I’m sorry but I’ve never been good with faces” he said with a nervous laugh at the end.
“That’s ok, thank you again for helping with my books, and sorry again for running into you and your brother” Then started walking away quickly as I could feeling like a complete idiot. No, an invisible idiot.
The next day I took my seat in class and then all of a sudden Alex sits down beside me.
“Hi Alex” I replied with a blushing face.
This kept happening in all our classes together over the next few weeks. We would walk to our classes together. Laughing and enjoying each other’s company. I couldn’t believe how sweet and humble he was.
Today as we were leaving class he pulls me aside into a small corridor, with barely enough room for us both.
“Could we hang out this afternoon?” he asked quietly, almost whispering it.
“Um, yeah, sure, that sounds nice” I spluttered out as my face turned pink.
“Can I pick you up at 7pm?” As a grin widen on his face.
“7 is good for me. I’m at…” but before I could finish, he places a finger on my lips and whispers.
“I know” and walked off leaving my flustered body wanting more.
Seven O’clock came around and so did my butterflies. 22 and I’ve never hung out with a boy before, shocking I know. He knocked on my front door but no sooner did I open it, I was being whisked off my feet and down to his car. Both of us laughing.
We drove for what seemed an eternity on this dirt road, never of us talking, he just held my hand the whole way.
Then loud music and a bright light came into view.
A party, my first college party. My eyes beamed with excitement. Alex quickly pulls up and goes to get us drinks. I wait patiently by his car. He returns with two beers.
“Are you okay with beer? It’s all they got sorry.”
“Beer is fine thank you” as I smiled, mind you, I’d never drank before and my first sip was horrible, I quickly drank the rest to avoid looking suspicious.
We started to mingle with the others for a while but then I started to feel funny. My body wasn’t mine anymore.
I tried to tell Alex something was wrong but he just laughed. Everyone was laughing at me. I stumbled around trying to escape their laughter which only grew stronger, echoing around my head. My eye zoomed in and out of focus. My heart beating out of my chest. Suddenly I stumbled into Tom.
“You ok darl?” he said concerned.
“No, somethings wrong, I only had one beer” I mumbled.
“Who did you come with darl?” the concern in his voice growing.
“Alex……” I managed to say before passing out.
The next few memories feel like out of body memories. A fight between Alex and Tom. Another car ride. The hospital. Blood tests. And Tom, not Alex…..
Tom was there when I woke up in hospital.
“Hey, you felling ok” his voice quiet.
“Yeah, I’m ok, um, what happened” I managed, my head still spinning as tried sitting up.
“Look I’m not sure what he gave you……Alex spiked your drink. I’m sorry… I didn’t know what he was doing otherwise I could have stopped him” he replied with his head hanging low.
“It’s not your fault, Thank you for getting me here.” I said with a yawn and suddenly very heavy eyes.
As I fell in and out of consciousness over the next several hours, he was still there. Like a knight in shining armour protecting me.
After a few days and many blood tests later, I could finally go home. As I walk out of the hospital Alex was waiting…..
“Go away from me” I yelled at him.
He started laughing.
“Oh no, is little old virgin prude is mad? Why can’t you just have some fun with the rest of them?” His voice sounding crazed with anger.
“Come and have some fun prude” he said as he grabbed my arm dragging me towards his car despite my best enough to escape him.
He shoved me into the car and locked the door. I was helpless. My fear had me frozen. He ran around the car when suddenly he was pressed up against his door. People started yelling. I curl into a ball in the seat covering my ears and eyes, trying to block everything out.
The door opens and closes. The car starts and it accelerates with crazed speed.
“Are you ok, did he hurt you again” I rushed voice asked.
I look out from my ball. Tom, its Tom. I jump up and hug him with excitement.
“Cops, were going to the cops, he can’t get away with this” his voice was stern.
We drove to the local station and we gave our statements. We were still in the station when they brought him in.
“Your dead prune.” He giggled as they took him away.
The next few months of court appearances blurred into the next. But Tom was constant. He is always there beside me, supporting me.
The good twin.
‘A sunny winter morning is a fine time to get married. On a sunny winter morning like today, I met your Dad. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Michelle, or as George used to call me, Auntie Mickey, and I was a long-time friend of Mark’s. George, Libby,’ she nodded at each in turn, ‘Congratulations on your marriage. Hugh and I wish you every happiness and we know that Mark would have too. Before I begin, I’d also like to say a big thank you to the staff here at NERAM for helping us celebrate this special day.’ The crowd applauded loudly and the waitstaff grinned.
‘It is an honour to give the speech that should have been for the Father of the Groom, so I’ve decided like to tell you the story of how we met. I asked your Dad for his side of the story over the years but I’ve retold it in third person because talking about George as a baby (gorgeous baby though he was and still is) would embarrass him.’ Libby and the guests laughed and George nodded heartily. Michelle waited for the last chuckles to quieten before she began.
‘A sunny winter morning is a fine time to take a long walk through Curtis Park. George loved the warm sun on his cold cheeks and his gummy smile warmed Mark’s heart long before the coffee warmed his belly. Reaching into his pocket for a handkerchief to wipe George’s nose he felt a paper crunch between his fingers. He pulled it out and realised he’d brought the ticket last week, and, in his frantic search for more permanent accommodation than the Sandstock Motor Inn, had forgotten to get it checked.
‘He turned back down Faulkner Street and headed towards the Plaza. The wind picked up as he walked so he sped up to reach the Newsagency, before he forgot about the ticket again, then they could warm up in a café. Five minutes later, Mark stepped on to Beardy Street in a daze. He’d won last night’s Powerball. He knew exactly what he would do with the winnings but was scared to believe it lest another good thing be pulled out from under him. George started whimpering as the wind whipped around the corner. Mark adjusted him in the papoose and a powerful gust yanked the ticket from his numb fingers.
‘Reaching his arms around George to shield him from the cold he set off at an awkward run down the street. He must have been a strange sight; a young man with a newborn baby in a papoose, waddling quickly down the sidewalk like a pregnant woman looking for a toilet.’ A few guests chuckled.
‘He deftly weaved in and out of the people, hoping to God that no one would call the police thinking that he was stealing somebody’s child. He dared not ask for help as his ticket blew across to
the other side of the street, knowing that most people would claim the ticket as their own if they knew it’s value (which they would guess instantly because nobody chases a dud ticket down the street with a baby strapped to their chest!) Oddly, George didn’t seem to mind, gurgling happily, thinking that Daddy was playing a new game.
‘Glad the street was as static as the images on Google Maps which he had poured over so diligently to familiarise himself with their new home, Mark didn’t have to give way to cars as he bounded across the road, straining to keep the slip of paper in sight. The ticket caught on someone’s shoe for a few seconds, giving him a chance to catch up before another gust freed it, lifting it up into the air like a dandelion.
‘Mark willed his feet to move faster as he saw the corner. The ticket came within reach. He lunged,’ Michelle paused for effect, glad to see the guests leaning forward in anticipation, ‘just as an olive green coffee cup crossed his vision and a lukewarm cappuccino exploded in his face.’ The guests laughed.
‘I was mortified and started apologising to the strange man wearing my coffee. Mark straightened up and blinked coffee out of his eyes. He apologised profusely but I’d stopped listening, suddenly captivated by the giggling baby. I pulled faces at the baby while wiping his face with my napkin and waved away Mark’s apologies, admitting that he’d woken me up quicker than that coffee would have (which was saying something because the café served Campos.)
‘Mark was relived I wasn’t furious, but still embarrassed he insisted replacing it. He shoved the ticket deep into his pocket and motioned me back inside the café where we stayed until George fell asleep against my chest listening to Mark explain how he came to Armidale after Cynthia’s tragic death. Soon after, Mark received his winnings and opened a trust account to be given to George as a wedding gift from him and Cynthia. Everything he did was in her memory. He truly loved her to the end.’ Michelle smiled at George’s grandparents who were smiling and dabbing tears from their cheeks.
‘Now it’s your turn, till death do you part.’ She indicated to George and Libby, who sat at the head of the Bridal table, hands clasped. ‘Your father would be so proud of you, Georgie. Well,’ Michelle chuckled, ‘I’d better start calling you George now you’re a married man.’ Everyone laughed. Libby squeezed her husband’s hand and grinned. ‘I wish we both could have known your mother. The way Mark’s eyes shone when he talked about her… Cynthia would have loved you and Libby with all her heart, just as your Dad did.’ She raised her glass. ‘I’d like to make a toast, to George and Libby!’
‘To George and Libby!’ echoed the guests as they clinked their glasses. George looked at Michelle, with joyful tears rolling down his cheeks, and smiled.
Mary looked up from her laptop for the umpteenth time in the library. The spot near the window were Miranda usually sat was empty. Frowning, Mary flipped her hair out her eyes and arranged her glasses. Why can’t she just get her act together. Pursing her lips together in anger she thought back to their conversation the night before at the college dorm. They were having the usual argument about finishing their university degrees. As their parents had contribute a lot of their savings to educate their only daughters. And Mary, being the more conscientious of the twins wanted to make Ted and Sally, their parents proud of them. Her plan was to pay them back the money, as she knew how hard life had been on the farm, with the drought and the fires. Miranda was like the black sheep, always in trouble or looking for trouble. And as much as Mary hoped her sister would change, there wasn’t much hope.
Deep in thought, Mary jumped when a hand with huge rings landed on her desk with a thump. Looking up into her sisters brown eyes, all she could see was mischief and mayhem.
‘Hay sis, guess what?’ Miranda said quietly, her long wavy black hair swinging over her shoulder.
‘What,’ Mary signed, eyebrows raised.
‘I found a gold necklace in the gutter in the Northern car park; and I think it is expensive,’ she grinned.’
‘Miranda, no, you have to turn it into security,’ Mary begged.
‘No, I like it and finders keepers, so there,’ she poked her tongue out at Mary.
‘What do you think?’ she grabbed a huge chunky gold necklace out of her pocket with a filigree clasp.
‘Miranda, hand it in, it is someone’s property.’
‘I don’t care. See yah. I’m going out with Oliver. He knows someone, you know,’ she touches her nose.
Mary stared at her sister’s retreating back. And placed her head in her hands.
Todd popped his head over the top of the partition that separated him from Mary.
‘Is she up to mischief again?’
Being a good friend of Mary’s, she just raised her hands in the air in exasperation.
‘I heard everything Mary! What are you going to do?’
‘I can’t turn her in, but the necklace must be worth $5,000.’
Ping went both Todd’s and Mary’s phones. An email message from UNE security lit up their screens. It read, ‘If anyone has seen a gold necklace, believed to be lost in or around the Northern car park, can you please hand it in, if found. Sentimental value.’
‘Oh no,’ Todd and Mary looked at each other.
Meanwhile, out on the cattle farm in Tenterfield, Sally looked at Ted and said, ’Why don’t we go see the girls, a surprise visit. What do you think honey?’ Sally looked at her husband as she took a sip from her hot coffee at the kitchen table.
‘Sounds a great idea. I am missing them, and everything is under control here. Rick can finish off the fencing.’ He knew his place was in good hands with his farmhand.
As life goes, Miranda’s head was spinning. Oliver had bought some marihuana, and they were sitting back at his house on the lounge dreaming, as they shared the joint.
‘Mm Miranda, we take the necklace to the pawn broker tomorrow and leave this hell hole,’ he mused.
‘Let’s do it, I can’t stand studying anymore, the pressures from Mary, parents and the lecturers. The beach is where I want to go. With $5,000 we could go anywhere,’ Miranda dreamed of the sand under between her feet.
Miranda turned over in the bed and placed her hand where Oliver should have been. Strange she thought. He usually wakes me up with a kiss. Grabbing her dressing gown she padded quietly to the kitchen doorway in her ugh boots. Standing near the sink was Oliver, hunched over his mobile, talking in angry tones to whoever was on the other end. ‘I will get the money to you today, mate, brother, just give me some slack,’ he said. ‘No, don’t you blackmail me with going to the Police,’ he hissed. ‘I will meet you at the pawn brokers in an hour.’ Slamming his mobile down on the table. Spinning around he saw Miranda. He walked towards her menacingly. ‘What did you hear, you bitch,’ he yelled at her.
‘What is going on Oliver!’ Miranda trembled. ‘There are things best you don’t know about, where is the necklace? Give it to me now!’ he grabbed a kitchen knife of the bench, and with one hand in her hair he pulled her closely up to his face. ‘Now be a good girl. Did you really think I was a good guy Miranda! You are laughable, with your toughness.’ ‘It is in my handbag, on the lounge,’ she whispered. He pushed her onto the lino and found the bag, emptying the contents on the floor.
‘Right, got it,’ he smirked. ‘Oliver?’ Grabbing his backpack he turned and said. ‘Bye Miranda, it was fun.’ He turned and stabbed Miranda in her back as he walked past for good measure. Then he decided to kick her several times until she was nearly unconscious. ‘If you tell the Police about me, you are dead,’ he threatened.
Slamming the door shut, he turned and was confronted with 2 burly Police Officers, guns drawn. ‘I guess we finally found your hangout Oliver.’ Oliver thought about fleeing, but knew his game was up.
Later that day in Armidale Hospital, Mary and her parents were standing around Miranda’s bed. The stab in her back had required stitches and her stomach had serious bruising. Mary told her, it seemed Oliver was up on sexual assault, drug possession and also a drug dealer. The Police had been looking for him. Mary had told them about the necklace, which was now with its owner. It was decided that Miranda should go home with her parents to recover.
Based on actual events. Kinda.
If there’s something I expect, it’s the unexpected. Expectations will let you down, everytime. Every Goddamn time.
Three months out from the police academy, and already the honeymoon was over. Well, I was never the marrying-settle-down-happily-ever-after type. But here I am, married to the job. Talk about an unhappy marriage. But I gotta see this through. I’ve just gotta lie back and think of New England.
To say that Inverell was a one horse town would be to drastically overestimate its number of horses. Maybe it had a horse once, but what with the drought, that old gray mare would have been knackered long before I got here. Then with the fires, well, the knacker’s yard probably burnt down.
I got the call-out early Thursday morning. A break-and-enter and a drunken disturbance. You gotta admire someone who can be drunk by 7am on a weekday. But who am I to judge? I was raised Catholic: I start every morning with an Irish coffee.
It was a short drive from the station to the Inverell Showground. Hell. It was a short drive to anywhere in this town. Even this early in the day, the place was buzzing. Like flies around a cowpat. The show was set to open the next day.
I parked the patrol car alongside a row of dust encrusted four-wheel-drives. A hot, dry wind set their ludicrously large antennae swaying, like so many flopping dicks.
“I’m Probationary Constable William Corgan. I’ve been called to investigate a –”
“‘Bout bloody time you got here. We called you lot bloody half an hour ago. Something has to be done!”
“And who are you?”
“Len Simpson, President of the Inverell Show Society.”
“And what seems to be the problem, Mr Simpson?”
“Just take a bloody look in here.”
We stepped inside the exhibition hall. It was as if Quentin Tarantino had directed an
episode of VeggieTales. The floor was littered with squashed squash, the walls were splatterdashed with tomato. I suppose you’d call it Pulp Non-Fiction.
“In all my years as President of the Show Society, I’ve never heard of anything like this. Who ever heard of smashing pumpkins!?”
I smiled politely.
“And look at this!” He reached down and picked up the shell of a pumpkin. “Teeth marks. What sort of bastard eats pumpkin raw!?”
“Do you have any idea who would do this?”
“I told you lot on the phone! We bloody found him in here. Passed out. Covered in the stuff.”
I knelt beside a mound of potatoes, mashed before their time. A can, crushed and empty. Welder’s Dog IPA. Another craft beer related crime. With all the talk of ice ravaging rural communities, there is little attention paid to the devastation wrought by microbreweries.
“Any idea where he went?”
“He can’t have gone far. He was here when I left.” “You left him here?”
“There was an emergency with the chocolate wheel.”
It was easy enough to track him down. It wasn’t so much a breadcrumb trail as a walk down the produce aisle. The horticultural debris led into a toilet block. A shower was running.
“Sir, could you please step out of the shower. Clothed, preferably.”
A pause. Reluctantly, taps were turned. A squelchy rustling. The stall door opened. Wet, bleary eyed; his clothes caked in yellow and orange. He’d either smashed those pumpkins, or he’d murdered an Oompa Loompa.
“Sir, are you intoxicated?”
“Nah, I’m just hungover now.”
“Wanna tell me what happened last night?”
“Like, man, I don’t even know, hey? So I finished setting up the bumper cars –” he
was a carni. You can’t make this stuff up. “– and we were having a few drinks by the bake sale stand.”
“Indian Pale Ale, right?”
Shuffling of feet. “Look, hey, I’m not proud of it. Everyone is doing that craft shit out here.”
“Then what happened.”
“I don’t know. Honest to God! We were drinking, chilling. Next thing I know, I’m on the floor covered in salad, hungover as balls.”
My phone rings.
“Wait right there.”
He wasn’t going anywhere anyway, so I left him to his nausea. I walk out onto the
road and answer the phone. It’s the Chief Inspector. Shit. “Corgan.”
“What’s the latest on this vegetable exhibition business?”
“A lot of puréed pumpkin, sir.”
“Jesus… I’m getting a lot of heat about this, Corgan. Chamber of Commerce, CWA,
Rotary Club, Lions, Apex. A lot of powerful people had vested interest in those vegetables. You got the mongrel that did this?”
“I have the guy. But my gut tells me there is something more to this.”
“Pull your bloody head in, probie. You got him. Case closed. Bring him in.” The line goes dead.
Something just didn’t add up. I turn back to my suspect. Sitting there, confused, like he too was trying to solve how or why he did this.
Just down the road, a pay phone rings. I’m surprised, as I forgot that pay phones exist anymore. Trying not to think why the receiver is so sticky, I pick it up.
“Follow the eggplants.” A voice thickly distorted, like an auto-tune gone terribly wrong. “There is more to this than meets the eye.”
“Who is this?”
“Follow the eggplants.” Dial tone, then silence.
I smile. Finally something interesting is happening.
I walk back to my suspect, who appeared to have just vomited pumpkin soup over
himself. Extra chunky.
“What about eggplants?”
“Huh?” Orange spittle dangling from his chin and nose.
“Eggplants. Did you see them? Eat them?”
“No way, man. I don’t ever touch eggplants. Someone told me that the eggplant
emoji — you know, on your phone — represents a large penis, and, hey, I’m not homophobic, but I think that sizeism in our already phallocentric society is already way too rampant, so you won’t ever see me touch an eggplant. Besides, they taste like snot.”
I make my way back to the exhibition hall. Sure enough, in the back corner, a purple puddle marks where some eggplants met their end. But the back corner. Away from the rest of the destruction. It was almost as if —
And then I see it. Behind the obliterated aubergines, in what I assumed to be the solid back wall of the hall, was a discrete — very discrete — door handle. Whilst the wall and door were splattered with eggplant, the handle was clean.
I turn it. The door opened inwards. A secret room. I enter the dark beyond. I pull out my torch.
Vegetables. Whole and huge. Improbably large pumpkins and suspiciously shiny squash. Perfect potatoes and tumescent tomatoes. Baked goods too, on paper plates. All neatly arranged. A placard before each that bears a name. I reach for it.
The light above snaps on, and I’m momentarily dazzled. I spin around.
You might call her a femme fatale, because when it came to fatality, she looked like she was just about there. If looks could kill, she looked like she was an inch from death.
She was old.
“Maureen Briggs, Secretary for the CWA.”
“Country Women’s Association. They said you were an outsider.”
“What’s going on here?”
“Well, Probationary Constable Corgan, it seems that you’ve uncovered the truth.
That itinerant transient out there –” “The carni?”
“Yes, the carni. He was just my patsy. My go-between. Whilst he made most of that mess out there, I planted the seed that got him to do it. And you reap what you sow, Probationary Constable.”
“How? Did you drug him?”
“Drugs!? My pension barely covers my own medication: I’m not giving it away for free. Oh no, Probationary Constable, it was far simpler than that.”
She reached over to a table, and picked up a paper plate.
“Care for a rum ball?”
“You spiked his dessert?”
“No one ever suspects a rum ball. What harm can there be in a little bit of pudding
and some desiccated coconut? But the clue is in the name, Probationary Constable. Rum! More rum than you can believe. Oh you men n owadays, all hopped up on hops and craft beers. You can’t handle your rum now, can you? I’ve been cooking with sherry since before you were born. My trifle would kill you. After a few of my rum balls, he was swaggering like a sailor. Rum makes for an angry drunk, Probationary Constable, and your little carni needed to vent that anger.”
“But why? Why do all this?”
“That pig slop out there, Probationary Constable. That was my competition. My entries might have stood a fair chance at winning, sure. But now? Now they are sure to win.”
“You won’t get away with this.”
“Oh, but Probationary Constable Corgan, I already have.”
With a surprising amount of agility, she lunged at my face. I scream, but my mouth is full of rum balls. I try to throw her off me, whilst also trying not to crush her bones to dust. We burst back into the exhibition hall, slipping on the eggplant. Down we went.
“Put your hands in the air!”
From across the hall a gun was pointed.
“I found the real culprit, sir.”
“Shut up and put your hands in the air, Corgan!” The gun was pointed at me. “Oh thank goodness you’re here, Chief Inspector! I thought the Probationary
Constable was going to kill me!”
The Society President rushes over and helps her up.
“Thank you Len. I think I’m alright, just a little bruised and shaken.”
I’m stunned. I feel myself hauled onto my feet, and the cold, merciless caress of
handcuffs locking around my wrists.
“What happened, Mrs Briggs?”
“The pressures of the job must have gotten to the Probationary Constable. It seems
that he drugged that poor, innocent carnival worker and duped him into destroying most of the produce competition entries. He must have wanted the prize money for himself. When he discovered that I had set my own entries aside for safe keeping in the secret back room — used always at the discretion of the CWA — he went mad and attacked me. I believe he’s been drinking. Smell his breath.”
“Rum!” The Chief Inspector hissed. “I had you pegged as more of a wino.”
“It wasn’t me! I’m being set up!” I was dragged from the hall.
“You expect me to believe that, Corgan?”
As I was pushed into the back of the paddywagon, she lit up a cigarette, dragged,
and blew the smoke in my direction.
“If there’s something I’ve come to expect, it’s the unexpected.”
A sunny winter morning is a fine time to be spending with loved ones, especially with a baby on the way, and yet Wally is stuck in his police car. The sun did little to stop the cold creeping into his body even while rubbing his torn gloved hands together. Normally he would at least have the company of his partner Mitchell, but after last night that was impossible; now he could only wait for back up in the National park’s parking lot. He had reported what happened around two hours ago but was ordered him to stay onsite and wait for backup. Eventually, he received a text message promising ‘the best the police had to offer’ was on their way, so long as he stayed onsite to assist.
Soon after, around 07:30, a single dented black car parked next to Wally’s. A man with frayed hair exited, wearing professional pants but with a ripped t-shirt under a ragged jumper. He walked over to Wally’s window and pulled out a badge book, the top section held an ASIO Badge while the bottom depicted a slitted eye with each curved stroke being a different colour of the rainbow.
Wally left his car, entering the cold winter air, revealing his old police coat with many sown closed tears. His boots were chipped all over with a recent layer of dirt from inside the National Park. His body shivered violently, but not from the cold air.
Wallace asked the obvious question, “What’s an ASIO guy doing here?”
“I’m your back up” the man responded, “Just me. My name’s Liam, by-the-by”.
Wallace’s panic began to build, “I’m sorry but one guy isn’t enough to stop that- “
Liam had walked to the trunk of his car and pulled out a large, blocky firearm. Wally guessed it was a sniper rifle, but with a car battery forged onto it.
“Sorry mate” Liam yawned out, “but I’m all you’re gonna get. Now, I need you to take me to where you saw- “
Wally’s breath caught in his throat at the idea of going back inside the park, quickly reaching for his car’s door. Liam’s hand shot onto Wallace’s arm, grabbing tightly onto his jacket. Wally looked directly at Liam’s tired face to demand he let go, but the words were stuck in his throat by the sight of Liam’s angry, demanding eyes.
“You’re taking me to where you saw it. No arguing. And if you’re quick about it, you’ll get a nice little pile of cash for the baby”, Liam’s glare made the threat clear.
Wally took the lead, under Liam’s insistence. The gate’s lock had been smashed and kicked inside the entrance building. As they entered the park, leaves crackling under their feet, Wally quickly explained why he and his partner Mitchell were here; dispatch sent them around midnight after the security guard claimed someone had broken in, but when the two officers arrived, no one was in sight or answered the phone. Soon they heard shouts inside the park and ran in to see what was happening.
Wally snapped back to the present when he and Liam arrived at the large clearing where he last saw Mitchell alive. Shreds of clothes were strewn along the branches of nearby trees, blood dried into black splotches on the fabric.
Wally froze when his eyes latched onto the body laid on a slope. It was skeletal, the dry skin clinging tightly onto dry muscle, naked except for the beltline of shredded pants, making the hundreds of small long, thin cuts along its body clear as day. Liam scanned over the scene using the sniper rifles scope.
“It’s a Redwood,” Liam told Wally as if he knew what that meant. “They hate cold water, it kills ‘em. Evil buggers get warm water however they ca- “
He goes silent and his body stiffens; Wally, following Liam’s line of sight realises why not long after; a large, tall tree with clay-like bark not far above the ridge. The Branches had grown like malformed arms, with several shoulder bends along each branch, ending in long, bony fingers. Patches of black fuzz stretched across the body, but it was not moss, more like matted long hair. And, close to the top, encased in shifting pieces of bark, was a human body.
“Sorry mate,” Liam said, unclear to who, as he aimed his strange gun towards the Redwood Tree, “They’re weak at the mouth”.
Liam pulled the trigger and the gun fired, booming like thunder, sending the bolt straight through Mitchell’s body and out of the Redwood, sending chunks of wood and gore flying out the back. The Redwood screamed causing Mitchell’s corpse to fall from its mouth revealing hundreds of long, curved teeth. Liam fired again, another thunder crack, sending another bolt into the Redwood’s mouth; more bark and sap-like blood followed. Large Bat- Ears unfolded from the Redwood’s body as it charged towards the two men using its 4 large stumpy feet. Wally was frozen in place by fear, knowing he couldn’t escape again.
Liam fired a third into the Redwood’s mouth, this time blasting through the mouth’s roof and out of the creature’s cranium, and the monster dropped silent. Its feet immediately went limp, sending it plummeting face first to the ground. Liam ran to the side, grabbing Wally around his waist, saving him from being crushed.
The dust settled; Liam fired a fourth, final bolt into the Redwood, ensuring it was dead. He turned to Wally, sleepy smirk on his face as he said, “They promised you the best, remember?”. Wally didn’t hear, his ears rang loudly thanks to the gun cracks. Liam
continued, “Right, now I’ll just go call for clean up, get you all the hush-hush paperwork you need to sign, and then you’ll get you silence bonus”.
Liam began walking towards the exit before stopping right next to Wally. “Oh, ah, can you drive me into town? I didn’t have time to stop for gas”.
They were coming closer every day and anticipation had built in her veins like charge. She knew the results would come and she would feel the buzz of notification but she kept checking the screen regardless, as though she would miss it, somehow.
She supposed she was losing her mind a little bit. Waiting. It was the waiting that did it. All her life now; waiting, waiting, waiting. It was odd, to feel echoes from her future self bearing back through time to the present – knowing what would happen and feeling the effects as though it were so incredibly awful it reverberated like a shockwave back, forward, sideways, always.
Silver flashed in the moonlight as she slipped the key into the lock and stepped in. A strange choice of meeting place, but a strange meeting.
The city was closed, it was long past five. Darkness permeated the streets, whispering along in shadows that coalesced into clusters of chiaroscuro moments, hovering around in the emptiness, glinting off the shop windows. She had a key to the place curtesy of the night security guard who had allowed her this one favour. He remembered how it felt back then – the waiting. The last night before they would know, one way or the other. Tomorrow they would all be transformed; moved from the earthly state of waiting into the transcended state of accepted. Or rejected. Depending how the message read. A burial or an ascendence.
Tamworth’s Powerhouse Museum was heavy with metals and plastics in the darkness of the night, and switching on the dim orange light seemed an interactive part of the exhibit for the little light it provided. She looked around the cluttered space, each appliance labelled with the year it belonged to – a treasure cave of lives gone by. Waiting for her old friend, patiently, half expecting to spend the night alone anyway. It had been hastily arranged, and they had not spoken for a long while. She thought about that as she reached out to almost touch an old telephone with a rotary dial. Atrociously minty green. How long had it been since its wires heard any voices?
The building creaked, and the items rustled back in turn. She wouldn’t come anyway. Stupid idea. They were hardly even friends now.
Her phoned buzzed apologetically, not wanting to offend the rotary she
still stood before. That would be it then. Her results. Only a number on a phone screen – but a powerful dictator.
“I think I just got mine too,” a soft voice whispered from behind her, familiar like a dream remembered just slightly. She took a deep breath before turning, and briefly imagined a plane full of terrified passengers adopting the brace position prior to an explosive crash.
Leah had grown taller, more beautiful since they last met in the flesh. How many years ago now? Her eyes were orbs in the dim light, not noticing the relics jumbled on the shelves, only seeing the memory before her.
They stuck there, time broken, for a moment. Breathing in the old dust of smell that all antiques have. Looking. Remembering. Waiting.
Leah pointed to her pocket, indicating what she meant. Zoe nodded. She had to say something. It was her turn to speak. Voices crackling into old wires, zinging them to life again.
“What do you need?” she asked softly. Of course she didn’t know. It had been too long.
Shining hell. Leah must have been more nervous than her, more tightly wound. An everest of a goal.
“You?” Leah asked, gesturing to her opposite’s pocket, where surely her phone hid.
“Ninety,” Zoe whispered, the word echoed around her, bouncing off the irons and light bulbs and old phones and appliances. Ninety…ninety…ninety.
Leah finally broke eye contact and wandered around the room a bit, looking at the artefacts. She reached out and touched some, despite the large ‘DO NOT TOUCH’ sign. Zoe had to shake her head – she quite understood what that was like. Forbidden. Unwanted even; frustrated. Touched.
“Do you think any of them were like us?” Leah asked, more to the yellowed sconce before her than to Zoe, the milky glass containing a bulb that had not been alight in over a century. “The people that had these in their homes. Were any of them-”
And she stopped, because it didn’t matter. Not really. Of course some of them were.
“I’m going to look,” Zoe said. Leah nodded.
They both pulled out their phones, absurdly modern in context, and forced their eyes to the messages there – refusing to wait – ignoring the pounding of nerves in their ears.
Smiles erupted on their faces. Big, stupid smiles, of relief and years of effort and hope. And Zoe knew the weight off her shoulders was so heavy as it cracked into the universe that her past self could feel it, five minutes ago she could feel that weight exploding like nuclear.
Their breath returned eventually, excitement settled. Comfortable.
“Maybe I can get your number?” Leah asked, biting her lip slightly. “We should – well. We should be in contact. You know? We’ve been through so much and…”
Zoe’s eyes travelled back to the rotary phone, and the same question floated back. A room of echoes. And breaths. Everything around her collected thoughts, whispers, secrets. Do you think any of them were like us?
And she walked forward to her past.
‘Hey. There’s a message for you.’ A note is thrust in front of my face, held between manicured nails. My gaze travels up the arm of the note holder, finally reaching the pinched face of Stacy Haring, the receptionist. Stacey is … not my favourite person, to say the least. The feeling is mutual.
I place the note on my desk to read later. Stacey lingers for a moment, waiting for me to open it. Busybody. I won’t give her the satisfaction of fresh gossip. I return to work, trying to seem bored, and finally she harrumphs and stalks off.
I wait until she leaves on her lunch break (probably off to kick puppies, or whatever she does in her free time) before I unfold and read the note. And it’s a good thing I do.
It’s written on plain note paper, but I recognise the handwriting as that of Claude, the Private Investigator. It’s the message I’ve been waiting for; two short sentences that will change my life forever.
I found your sister. Call me.
A few months ago, my mother called me into the hospital where she was staying. Mum and I never got along particularly well, but she didn’t have much time left and I figured I owed her … something. And what she had to tell me was insane.
I have a twin sister.
Mum gave her away when we were both only a few hours old; dad never even knew about her. I only have one clue to go on – a first name: Lorna.
It’s the plot of some ridiculous Hollywood movie but somehow it’s my life. I hired an investigator to find her, and today it seems he has.
The day passes slowly. Time seems to stretch, and the four hours left of my shift feel more like four years.
Finally the clock ticks over to five o’clock, and I’m up and out the door at five – oh – one. The trip home is lost to memory; the next thing I remember is sitting in my favourite armchair, staring blankly at the phone in my hand.
Claude found Lorna living in Tamworth, just a few hours away, and she wants to meet me. Now. She’s coming over in an hour. All this time, since mum told me the secret and died in hospital a week later, I’ve been running on fumes. All I could think about was meeting her. But now, faced with an actual meeting, I’m having second thoughts.
We may be twins, but I don’t know anything about this woman.
I answer the doorbell on autopilot. Like me, Lorna has long dark hair and grey eyes; unlike
me, she’s dressed to the nines and wouldn’t look out of place in a board meeting somewhere. She looks me up and down, and I assume she’s playing the same game I had: spot the familiar features. But I don’t have time for further analysis. ‘Jenny,’ she says. ‘I need your help.’
Ears ringing, clinging to social niceties, I invite her in for a cuppa, and we sit on my nice
squishy armchairs. I hold the warm mug in my hands like a lifeline as she explains her problem. I shake my head at the ridiculousness of the idea but she keeps talking, voice soft and insistent. It’s insane, but so is everything about this situation.
Finally – reluctantly – I nod.
She’s my sister; what else can I do?
We talk long into the night, fleshing out our plan. She sleeps in my spare room, and the next morning we get into the car and drive to Taree together. It feels like I’m falling down a rabbit hole. How did I let this happen? I don’t know her, not really… she could be setting me up to take a fall. But I’ve agreed to it, and I never go back on my promises. Her cause is certainly just, and now the ball is rolling and there’s no stopping. The plan is simple and impossible. It is impossible for someone to be in two places at once, but with my help… that is exactly what she will do.
We go back to her house, and she tells me about her life. I try to absorb it all; how she acts, who her friends are, her daily routine. I need to know all of it if this plan is going to work.
Finally, she declares me ready. I’m dressed in her clothes, with her hairstyle and her makeup. Our features are the same, but I don’t recognise myself in the mirror.
She smiles, satisfied, and my stomach roils. Can I really trust her?
I head to the art gallery, where the Gala is being held. I’m driving her car; she’s getting there later. I mingle with her colleagues, making sure to be seen by as many people as possible. That’s the thing about establishing an alibi; it needs to be as public as possible.
I laugh charmingly at the young man next to me, and he takes me by the elbow and leads me outside. When we’re alone, his smile switches off. I feel more than a slight flicker of unease.
I recognise him now; he’s not supposed to be here. His body is supposed to be cooling in the river, with Lorna on her way back to me.
“You’re not Lorna.” He says. It’s not a question. I smile as if what he’s saying is ridiculous. It is ridiculous.
“Who else would I be?”
“Lorna is floating away down the river. No one will see her again any time soon. Unless…” “Unless what?” My tone is sharp.
“She had a good life here. Despite her faults, she did good work. You could do that work.” I pause. Then I pull the phone from her purse (my phone) and smash it under my heel. The
last trace of me floats away, and I give him Lorna’s smile. I never liked being Jenny, anyway.
If there is something I expect, it’s the unexpected. I guess that is the way when you live your life not knowing who you are, or what you are. But not anymore, now I have some answers and today I get to meet him. My brother. My twin.
Well, that is if he can be trusted.
Heavy footsteps crack and snap against the littered forest floor and I swing around fully aware that the owner is only making this much noise so that I am not startled. He already knows how unsure I am about this, it took him three weeks of stalking and persuading to get me to agree.
I hate the small gasp that escapes my lips when he appears. His presence has this strange effect on me, with those ridiculous honey eyes set within an unfairly perfectly sculptured face. The beauty of the man who steps up to greet me is unnatural and I fight the need to drop my bag and run. The instinct on overdrive as he scans the clearing that I chose for this meeting. The national park behind my house both familiar and secluded enough to guarantee our privacy, and my family’s safety.
The blade against the General’s hip glistens its sharpness but it is clear that he doesn’t need a weapon to kill an enemy. I learnt that when I first met him.
“You came.” He states, his predatory gaze falling on me, my bones quake and I have to remind myself that I chose to do this.
“You were very convincing.” I manage, collecting my building nerves and shoving them down.
The male who appeared in my life three weeks ago bows his head slightly, his mocking smile grating against my patience.
“Calm down, Princess.”
“Don’t call me that.” I bite, not caring that he can snap my neck before I even registered that he’d moved.
The small chuckle that fills the clearing is both terrifying and spellbinding.
He is an ass but jeez he is stunning.
“But you are the Princess.”
“So you keep telling me. But to me, Artinian, my parents are two amazing ladies who adopted me when I was three. I am just a local girl who is moving away to study in the summer. I am nobody.”
Cutting me off with a wave of his hand, Artinian dismisses my words. “None of those mortal things matter. You are not human. You have always known this. You are needed back in the realm.”
As if slapped, I take an involuntary step back, “needed in the realm? You never said anything of that.” Heart pounding, I try to fight the panic of what he might mean.
But before I rethink this, the world stills. Birds fly in a dramatic screech of sound and movement while the land-dwelling occupants of the park find a safe place to hide. I envy them when the darkness descends within the forest and a figure appears, his back flanked by five imposing soldiers. I know the instant I see him who he is.
My twin brother, while not identical, matches me in the otherworldly green of our eyes. The hair. The skin. Swallowing, I keep still, afraid beyond words.
The Prince of Gaulion stares for a few heartbeats, assessing me. I think that I finally lose my mind when I become overly concerned about the very mundane outfit I have chosen for this event and not the seven very armed, lethal predators now staring at me. No, it is the fact that I have chosen white washed jeans and a plain tee to meet my long lost, not of this world, brother. I have to bite my lip to keep from laughing at my own stupidity.
Eyes sparkling, the Prince bows low, “sister.” His musical voice finally breaking through my building hysteria. “It gives me great joy that my General found you and that we are finally meeting.” With a shaking hand I grasp his, ignoring the way he skims my attire.
Unable to contain my fear and anxiety, I demand, “tell me why you have called me here. After twenty-two years I have believed myself alone. That I was some kind of freak. And out of the blue, I discover that there is this place, this world with people like me. Why?”
Brow furrowed slightly, the Prince holds his hand up to stop Artinian from reprimanding me, “it was necessary for you to grow as a human, to understand them.”
“Why?” I manage, mouth dry.
The smirk that fills the deadly males face is terrifying, taking a step back, I begin to formulate a plan to get out of here. I am not safe.
“To know how to kill them.”
Panic and fear consume me and I turn, blood pounding in my ears and sprint to the trees and the path to freedom. Willing my legs to move, I dodge and jump over obstacles, the tears streaming down my face obstructing my vision.
The mocking laughter filling the forest is the last thing I hear before darkness consumes me.
“And then what happened?”
Laughing at the question I always receive when telling this story, I kiss the two little monsters I still can’t believe I created.
“You will just have to find out tomorrow night, now to bed.”
Their moans are half hearted as they scurry under the sheets. “Is that really how mean daddy and Uncle were?”
The humour that fills the honey eyed male’s voice makes me smile. The sight of him standing against the doorframe takes my breath away and I marvel at the fact.
After everything we have been through. The death, the destruction, the peace. All of it was worth it. To be here. Together.
I wait for him to kiss the twins and fall against his embrace when he quietly shuts the door. My heart full of a love I would never have thought possible running from that clearing almost eight years ago.
A sunny winter morning is a fine time to be a young girl, free from all cares of the world. Unfortunately, that wasn’t me. I was helping Ma fix breakfast, stirring the gluggy porridge over the stove when I heard him come home. He’d been gone since yesterday morning.
Looking out the window, I saw Henry and James drop the bat and ball when they heard the front gate slam. Ellen, being only two, was none the wiser yet of our father’s ways and continued to talk nonsense while playing at Ma’s feet. Ma had heard the gate too, I know because I saw her body go stiff and she looked at me, dread in her eyes.
It had been a hard week. Neither Ma nor Father had told me why but I knew. Father was on the drink again and Ma had that stricken look about her when he was at home. In his drunken state, he became angry and violent. Ma told me when he was like that, he was beyond reason. I never understood how she could stand there, silent, when he threatened us. At ten years old, I should be used to it now, this had been happening for as long as I could remember.
“Mary!” Father bellowed as he stumbled over the threshold, the door slamming into the wall. “Mary, get the kids!”
Ma looked at me, her eyes hollow and my heart sank. My throat was suddenly dry and I could hardly swallow.
“H…Henry! J…James!” Ma stammered as she called for my brothers, who hadn’t moved from the yard. They trudged inside, their ruddy faces losing all colour and, I’m sure, the same heavy feeling weighed them down as it did me. Even Ellen seemed to realise something was amiss as her babbling had subsided. The boys entered the kitchen quietly, not wanting to add fuel to the fire that burnt like Hades in Father when he was drunk.
My brothers looked at me, at only five and four, fear radiated off them like waves and I tried to give a reassuring smile but I’m sure I only grimaced. Father sauntered into the kitchen with his rifle slung casually over his shoulder. The gun that we had already seen twice this week. The rifle got waved around as casually as a wooden spoon in our kitchen. Many times, I had stood in this kitchen, praying to God that this wouldn’t be the time Father accidentally pulled the trigger.
“Mary!” he roared unnecessarily at Ma and we all cowered as his voice assaulted us. I took in his slovenly appearance, the shadow of a beard, shirt untucked, and curiously, missing a boot.
“It’s all too much,” he declared, eyeing us. “Look at them! All four of them. Needing food and clothes and shoes and… and things. I can’t do it, Mary!”
Ma stared at Father, barely acknowledging him before hanging her head in shame. As if the four of us were something to be embarrassed by.
“It would be easier with three, don’t you think?” he smirked, indirectly threatening one and all of us with his notion. Ma’s head snapped up; her light eyes met his dark ones. If Ma had looked scared before she was now positively terrified. She stared, dumbfounded at Father.
“So, which one shall it be then, love?” he leered at Ma. He levelled his rifle, lazily running it before each one of us. Ma just shook her head in disbelief. She opened her mouth then closed it, before she opened it again, no words spilling past her lips.
Father snorted at her, “You look like a fish, you stupid woman!”
Ma cringed at his insult but her silence endured. Suddenly, anger flared deep inside me. The fact that she would not say anything to help us, defend us, and yet I was also somewhat relieved she didn’t name one of us to him. James and Henry stood tall but fearful. Ellen silently looked up at Ma with her big doe eyes but, sadly, she didn’t seem disturbed by the scene.
This time felt different and I thought if I didn’t do something, someone would die. With a deep breath and all my courage, trying to appeal to the man behind those eyes, I whispered, “Please, Daddy, let us go now?”
Father looked at me. His eyes bore into me as I stared into their black nothingness. I felt no love or compassion from him. At that moment, I realised how much I hated my father. Nothing I said or did would change him. Fear overtook me and I decided to do the only thing I could.
“Emma!” Father boomed before he started to follow me. His big heavy footsteps chasing after me.
I heard a thud and he swore. Turning around briefly, I saw him lying sprawled in the dirt and mud at the bottom of the back stairs. His gun had flown from his hands and was no longer in reach.
I kept running. My life depended on me getting as far away from him as possible. I had nowhere to go. No one to help me.
Except, maybe, Miss Smith. She had been so kindly to me at school, taking time to help with forming my letters. Ma always needed my help at home and I rarely made it to school, but when I did, Miss never made me feel dumb. I raced towards Brown Street, towards the school, towards Miss Smith.
Perhaps she could do what my mother never would and alert the constable. Perhaps she would help me survive today. Perhaps she could save me from the eyes of the devil ever falling upon me again.
A sunny winter morning is a fine time to be preparing to jump into the frigid waters of Blue Hole, thought Edith sourly. She had agreed to the ridiculous dare as the lesser of two evils, when her twin brother insisted she must earn the information he had to give her.
Edith adjusted her petticoats and glared at her stupid donkey of a brother as he helped her down from the horse-drawn sulky cart, remembering the choice he’d given her, which was really no choice at all.
“Henry,” she’d asked that morning, eyes wide, after he told her he’d managed to read the mysterious letter mama had received the day before, “what did it say?” Any adolescent ethical qualms were overruled by her hunger to know what might have caused their mama to gasp and drop into her sitting chair.
Henry had grinned and told her he would tell her only if she agreed to either swim in Blue Hole, or kiss Davie Drummond – as if that was ever going to happen.
Looking now across the calm waters, Edith was relieved that they were alone. Who else would be mad enough to swim at Blue Hole in late June?
She removed her outer layer of day clothes and stepped forward in her bathers more proudly than she felt.
“Time for the show!” Henry laughed, holding out his arm in mock chivalry.
They walked together to the water’s edge. Edith shivered as she looked into its depths. The short trot along Castledoyle Road had left her somewhat chilled in the crisp New England air. Even in the bright sunlight, the water’s darkness belied its name. The inky water didn’t look blue to Edith.
“Gee, Edie, that water looks mighty cold,” Henry teased as he stepped back and winked at his sister.
“Henry,” she said, quoting the proverb, “He that winketh with the eye causeth sorrow: but a prating fool shall fall”. At the last word, she lunged backwards, grabbed his arm and yanked him towards her. For a moment they hung, seeming to wrestle in the air, before momentum and gravity tipped them forward and together they toppled, squealing, into the water.
Spluttering and gasping, they flailed in the water together, before both started laughing and flicking water at each other. Crawling onto the bank, Edith winked back at her brother. “I agreed to get wet,” she laughed, “but you didn’t say you had to stay dry.”
“Actually, I was hoping you’d do that,” he lied. “It’d be such a shame to come all this way and not make full use of the facilities”.
Henry grabbed towels from the cart and threw one to her.
“So Henry,” she said as she dried her hair, “I think you owe me some information.” Her brother looked at the ground and took a breath, unusually reticent.
“The letter-” he paused and licked his lips. “It was from-”, he stopped again. Another breath. “It was from our brother.”
Edith stared for a moment then narrowed her eyes suspiciously. Was this an elaborate prank? Even though he looked serious, it paid to be careful. “You made me have a bath in ice, all for some ridiculous joke?” Her cheeks flushed and her eyes flashed. “The Lord knows, the one brother I have is one too many. You didn’t even read the letter did you?” She could feel her anger rising now, fuelled by righteous indignation.
“I’m not joking. Honest. I read the letter. When you and mama were hanging the clothes.” “And you were sweeping the house.”
“Well, yes, sort of. Anyway, in the scullery was mama’s apron and, well, the letter was sort of poking out a little from the pocket.” He looked at her and she knew he was telling the truth.
“I know it sounds like madness,” he went on, “but I read the letter, and it was from a man named Thomas. He said he was mama’s son.”
“Did mama know about him?”
“Well, I don’t quite see how she couldn’t.”
“Idiot!” Edith threw a shoe at him. “Of course mama knew she’d given birth. I mean, did his letter suggest they already knew each other?”
“Not at all. He was adopted out. Now he’s of age, he said he’s decided to track down his birth mother.”
Poor mama. Edith could scarcely believe their mother had held this secret shame, hidden from them all these years. Had father known before he passed? She held back tears, thinking of her mother’s pain.
Edith lay back onto the grass, and stared up at the ash tree above her. A few stubborn leaves still clung to branches, while their fallen brethren crunched beneath her.
She pursed her lips. “You should never have looked at the letter.”
“Ha! You’re the one who jumped into Blue Hole to find out what it said.”
Perhaps now wasn’t the right time to be casting blame. “Do you think mama is going to tell us?”
“Well that’s the thing. Apparently he’s a tipstaff to a judge in the Supreme Court. He said that he’s arranged to get some leave, and intends to visit before Christmas. He was writing to seek mama’s blessing on his coming. But he intends to come anyway.”
A secret brother. This was the most exciting and scandalous thing to happen in all her fourteen years. And a tipstaff. She wasn’t quite sure what that was, but Henry seemed to know so she wasn’t about to ask. It sounded exotic and important. And at the Supreme Court in Sydney, no less! Edith tried to visualise Henry, a little older, in a suit and tie. She added a judge’s wig to her mental image and started giggling.
“What,” he asked.
“Finally,” she smiled, “I might get to have a brother who doesn’t look and sound like a donkey.”
“Hee-haw,” he replied, helping her up again to the sulky’s seat. His eyes twinkled like the water behind him.
On second thoughts, two brothers felt just about right.
It was the first day back, and I was looking forward to hearing what my students did over the Winter break. The break seemed longer than three weeks given that we were trapped inside because of the snow. As such, I was eager to socialise, even if it was hearing long-stories from twenty-something ten-year-olds.
I hit the light switch, turned on the heating and opened the blinds. A small face was being reflected in the window. I quickly turned to look behind me and Bennett was standing in the doorway of the classroom.
“Bennett, you scared me!” I said as I clutched the scarf around my neck. Honestly, Bennett was not the student I was most looking forward to seeing. He was strange, quiet, and seemed to always have a cold. It’s difficult to describe the energy that you felt when you were near him. You seemed to always feel a deep sense of tragedy.
“So, how was your Winter break, Bennett?” I said trying to compose myself.
“It was okay,” he said looking down at his feet with a pale face. “I met Leu.” He seemed to almost curl away from himself as he said the name.
“That’s great news that you’ve made a new friend,” I said. “What’s he like?” I was actually surprised that he was able to meet another child during the break as his family’s home sat about two hundred metres off the road at the back of a large property. It was unlikely that any of the local kids would have wandered onto the property given the heavy snow.
“I don’t like Leu,” Bennett winced. “He wants my blood.” His head hung low as if he was about to pass out. The air was thick and a lump had quickly formed in my throat.
A few seconds passed before a loud buzz cut through the thick air. Students came flooding in through the doorway. I looked up at the clock above the whiteboard. “Eight-thirty” I whispered.
A week had passed since Bennett disclosed his new friend, Leu. I chalked it up to his imagination and the fact that every second movie, television and book series involved vampires in some form. Though, I felt sicker each day I saw him walk into the classroom. As if his strangeness was a disease infecting me.
Monday again I thought to myself as I took out the roll-call sheet. I shouldn’t have taken the Winter break for granted. I should have done something more productive, like take that children’s health course at the university that I’ve been wanting to do for so long. I never felt that I learnt enough at the mandatory first-aid courses the school made us attend each year. I started to call the names on the list, “Abeena.”
“Bennett.” No answer.
“Bennett,” I repeated as I looked up to his desk. Bennett’s head lay on his desk motionless. I stood up and saw the blood pooling on the desk. His face was paler than ever and appeared almost bruised. I ran over to him to find he was having a severe nosebleed. I pulled at my scarf for it to unravel from my neck and placed it over the sticky blood accumulating on the white desk. The contrast between white and red was chilling. I kept his head titled slightly forward and pinched his nostrils just below the bridge to stop the bleeding. But Bennett’s clammy hands immediately grabbed my own and ripped them away from his head.
His dark eyes bored into me as he said “Don’t. I don’t want Leu to have my blood.” Bennett collapsed onto my lap and lost consciousness.
“Sidney, go get Mr Freireich for help,” I called. I looked down at Bennett’s head on my lap. He was weak. I felt scared. It was as if another force was draining him before my eyes.
Bennett hadn’t attended school for three days since his nosebleed. Explaining what had happened to the children in the class wasn’t easy. No-one should not see that much blood, let alone children. I sat at the front of the class and looked at his empty desk. It was more than empty. I felt a vacuum where he once sat. My peripheral vision became hazy, and I began to feel nauseous. Thankfully, the loud buzz of the bell reeled me back to reality. I looked up at the clock above the whiteboard. “Three-thirty,” I whispered.
After dismissing the children for the day, I had decided to call Bennett’s mother to see if he was okay. I was concerned for his health and was beginning to think that his new ‘friend’ Leu may have something to do with his rapid health decline. Bennett’s parents kept to themselves and I hadn’t had much contact with them. Was Leu a family member or friend of the family that had recently moved in and was abusing him?
As I dialled the numbers, I felt a pit in my stomach. The ring tone was haunting. A pitch used for making contact with another realm. The line connected and a woman mumbled, “hello”.
“Uh, hello this is Bennett’s teacher from Mount Radford School. I was just following up to see how he’s going.”
The woman began to sob. A deep guttural sob. “Bennett has been diagnosed with Leu… Leukaemia.”
A sunny winter morning is a fine time to be dressed in cobweb, talking to a wall.
“Here’s a photo of Mum a couple months before she passed away,” I explain, tilting the stack of photos towards the wall. “She looks quite well here. She…”
She deteriorated quickly. It’s unnecessary for me to say, especially to a wall. I let my arms fall heavily upon my lap and inspect the tight space I sit within, photos strewn around me by the light of a camping lantern.
Katy would be unimpressed by my set-up; it wouldn’t photograph well with her baby. Katy and Rachel and the others require a setting which attracts a minimum number of likes. I require a setting which attracts a certain degree of my own liking. Deep incompatibility which, to their credit, they detected before I did.
“Just so you know,” I say to the ghost on the other side of the grate, “if you are a social media enthusiast, I’m judging you.”
There’s an odd almost-echo in this brick room, as if it has its own ghost. I wonder, only half-jokingly, if it might be his voice or my mother’s voice talking back to me through a faulty connection.
There’s a faint tapping sound from overhead which might be a sun shower. Once upon an autumn, it rained for four days and we staged camps on our respective sides of the wall to see if the rooms would flood. No real door meant mediocre draining, we reasoned; we were wrong. The rooms were watertight.
I remember the clink of dishes to the back of the room and the television directly overhead, even the gentle thuds of Tina setting the dishes in the wall cabinets next door, but I don’t remember the sound of rain.
“Do you remember when we camped out under here to see if these rooms would flood? It was sometime in the last nineties. I don’t know why that seemed interesting now. In hindsight, that could have gone very badly if it had flooded.”
I’ve made myself nervous. The possible-rain has intensified and I now accept it as definite-rain. Is this room still watertight? I’m not even sure the next-door neighbours realise I’m living here. If I perished here, no one might ever know.
“Jesus, Grace.” It strikes me suddenly that I am an almost-forty divorcee sitting alone in the darkness of a secret room, talking to the imagined ghost of an old friend about old times, and ruefully envisioning her own untimely and solitary death.
“Now, I can almost hear you saying, ‘Why are you here, Grace? Go upstairs and do some cleaning. Watch a movie. Go for a drive. Do something. Anything. Just stop talking to ghosts.’” I try to imagine his voice. Was it… deep? It wasn’t as deep as could be. It changed over time, of course. How does one describe a voice?
I pick the photographs from the floor and return them to their box carelessly. Several bend. Does it matter, I wonder? It’s not going to warp the memory, the event.
I can’t convince the photos to tidiness under the shadows, so I move the lantern to better light the box. There’s movement behind the grate in my peripheral vision. The grate commands my gaze and I am stone-still.
I can only hear my own breathing over the rain. Would I have heard anything on the other side of the wall if anyone was there? No, they sealed access to the room next door. It must have been a trick of the light.
I set the box down and edge over to the grate with the lantern, silently begging to be granted immediate vision of the enormous nothing on the other side of the wall. I negotiate share of the space before the grate with the lantern and soon I can see more of the room next door than I ever have. The light is performing so well because it is hitting a mirror resting on the opposite wall, I realise. There we go: an empty room and a mirror. I am oddly disappointed, then I am laughing, and then I am crying.
I know the exact year on this memory: nineteen ninety-nine. It had been eight months since we’d last met underground. I knew his family was planning to renovate and there was a question of what to do with the underground room. A rare occasion of our paths crossing presented and I tried to provoke him: “We’re talking about filling the underground room with cement. It doesn’t serve much purpose anymore.”
He had turned to me with a genuine smile, his full attention granted. “Well, don’t you worry, Grace. If they do, all you need is a mirror and something that echoes. I highly recommend you as a conversationalist. You’ll love spending time with you.”
Noah put a mirror down here knowing they were due to seal the entrance. Every part of my body aches beneath the weight of loss. It is so ironic that loss is heavy.
I was sixteen years old and Noah was seventeen. I was at a football game with my Mum, watching my little brother play, and, across town, Noah was scaling a brick wall in town to sit on the roof of the local theatre with friends. My brother slipped on the grass and fell with another player who broke his arm. Noah slipped on the wall, hit his head on the concrete, and lost his life. For five years, Noah was my echo on the other side of the wall. We were moving through life together and then we were not.
“… Don’t you worry, Grace.” I play his words in my mind again. “You’ll love spending time with you.” “Love spending time with you, Grace,” I try his words out on myself.
I must be listening because I take my box and lantern, and climb out of the secret room.
“If there’s something I expect it’s the unexpected. Ever since I got cartwheeled when on m- my bike a car hit me and the asphalt came up to meet m- my head, m- my brain doesn’t quite right work. M- my face doesn’t quite right look either. But I don’t have to look at m- myself in the m- mirror if I don’t w- want to.”
Brian was pleased to be home from school and to have a neighbour to talk to over the side-fence while the Covid-19 pandemic was creating havoc across the state and especially in Sydney. Bob was also pleased to be able to have some company. He had been lonely since his wife died just over twelve months ago and being a person with diabetes, he didn’t dare leave the estate for fear that he might become infected with the virus and possibly die.
“It’s b- bad, you know, really b- bad, and it can m- make you sick, really sick. I’ve b- been to the news a- listening. It’s here in Armidale too. you know. Our neighbours across the street got hold of it on the Rose Queen liner-cruise. They are in iso- isolation. I haven’t seen them for days. One and all are told to stay home and stay safe and and lives save. Are you going to stay home, Mr Bob?”
“Yes, I am for sure, Brian. I’ve got all I need to last me a few weeks without even going shopping.” “It’s really b- bad, you know. To the news I’ve b- been a-listening. Lots of people have b- been inflicted and to hospital they have gone for respiration and treatment in I-ICU. Some have stopped b- breathing together-all. Only ten people are allowed to their funeral attend. It’s awful. They are not allowed even to give another-one a hug. They can’t go for a drink together at the b- bar. The pubs are c- closed.”
“Yes, it’s awful. You are right,” Bob managed to say.
Autumn was just beginning; leaves were turning to brown, orange and gold all over town. The afternoon sun was pleasant, so Brian and Bob kept up their conversation, separated as they were by the fence. Accustomed as he was to dominate the conversation Brian continued: “It’s really awful. The ’planes have stop flying. Now they have to w- walk. The paper loo is out-sold. M- masks for your face are in short supply. The b- boarder to Queensland is off-blocked. Thousands of people are unemployed. Anyone who has a job is an essential worker. The b- budget surplus has eva- evaporated. The price of shares has plum- plummeted. You can’t b- buy a m- magazine. You can’t get a haircut. You can’t go to the gym or the m-movies. You gotta w- wash your hands all the time. It’s really b- bad, awful Mr Bob.”
“Yes, Brian, life as we knew it has certainly changed. I agree with you; if there’s something I expect, it’s the unexpected.”
“I expect it will go on for m- months. They say on the news it could take years for the eco- economy to re- recover. But if the unexpected happens I’ll be b- back at school b- b- by June. Then I’ll m- miss you, Mr Bob. I’ll really m- miss you. Mr Bob can I ask you a question?”
“Sure Brian, go ahead.”
“What do you expect will happen?”
“I expect life will be quite different when this is all over; vastly different. People will have to keep their distance from one another for a long time – at least until they find a treatment or develop a vaccine. I expect we’ll enjoy cleaner air because of less pollution. There will be less people with respiratory problems. More people will ride bikes to school and work. We will become fitter and healthier and the burden on the health services may be reduced. We will see more stars and the night sky will be brighter. We might even change our values. Some jobs may become redundant while there will be a greater appreciation for spending time together and being with the family. I expect I’ll see much more of you, Brian. You won’t miss me.”
“W- why?” Asked Brian curiously.
“You must expect the unexpected.”
“W- what’s that, Mr Bob?”
“I’m going to marry your mother.”
I’m stuck, in a place that’s very far away, and all I’d rather be doing is sitting on my mother’s couch, with an old blanket, a small dog, and the television playing something terrible, while I quietly hope that she’ll turn the heating on soon. “Just put a jumper on”. The refrain of my childhood. I’m going to need another pair of socks.
It’s summer where I am, but it’s winter where she is, and I can remember the feeling of the cold air on my skin in the mornings and the smell of wood smoke, settling in the valley. There’s no wood smoke here. There is sand, and with that sand comes a haze that makes your face chalky and your eyes itch. The heat presses in on you from all directions, while your glasses fog and sweat trickles. Everything burns. I stay inside.
At home, her home, that is, I drive her to work so that I can take the car for the day. Freedom, if fleeting. I don’t drive here because it’s too terrifying to be surrounded by six, eight lanes of cars weaving at speed, occupied by drivers on phones and children roaming free inside. I only have a few weeks, but there’s a lifetime of things to get done. In my mind is a map of the places I’ve been and the places I’ll go. A bit rusty, but I still remember the instructions of twenty years ago, somehow. Scraps scratched on the back of an envelope, recorded for posterity while we’d speak on the phone for hours, twisting the cable around and around my fingers, the handpiece in the crook of my shoulder. “Drive for 15km out past the old church until you reach a T-intersection, then take the left on to the dirt road and drive for 28 minutes. Just after the crest there will be three mailboxes and you’ll be at the driveway. If you get to the cattle grid, you have gone Too Far.”
I lived in fear that I would pass the cattle grid without noticing, and continue driving until I’d reached the wrong place. Lost. At night, those roads are long and dark, and you can never really be certain that you haven’t missed the mailboxes, and 28 minutes seem like forever. An empty world, the road in front of you lit up to make a bubble, with fuzzy edges that disappear into the blackness around you. A flash of a pair of eyes as a fox, or something more ghostly, darts past you and disappears. We would wander outside, our group of friends, moving quickly in the cold, inside a ring of torchlight. The gentle sounds of animals grazing, and twitching, living things everywhere around us. I was always scared of what was beyond us. My eyes would play tricks, every shadow moved, and the warm house on the hill would seem very far away.
We’ll leave the house early in the morning while there’s still frost on the ground. Crunchy, glassy underfoot, leaving tracks as we go, and puffs of breath, still, in the air behind us. We’ll drive the same way every day, the motions of the steering wheel and the indicators on autopilot. Passing paddocks with sheep who don’t look up, and around the corner past the kangaroos, over the speed bump that never used to be there and that makes me stall the car, and into the car park, but don’t park under that tree because the sap sticks to the window. I’ll go back down the hill, those old elm trees arching up and over the road, protectors. It’s still quiet and there’s mist on the road, so watch out for the ducklings.
When I left, I knew where I was going, and I didn’t plan on going back. But now I’ve been living somewhere else, and I’d like to go home. I live behind gates, in a made up world, rows of identical houses full of people from everywhere who are strangely the same. It didn’t feel so bad when we could go anywhere we wanted. A few days here. A quick trip there. Now beyond our gate the borders are shut, and we’ve got nowhere to go. To the
supermarket perhaps, but maybe it would be better to order delivery. We need more supplies, but I can send a message and it will appear at my doorstep and I’ll go another day without talking to someone outside these walls.
Time flies. That’s what they say, isn’t it? I’m sitting and I’m waiting, and time doesn’t seem to be going anywhere in a hurry. I have no plans, except that I want to be somewhere else and so I feel like I am floating without purpose. But I will be flying, when time starts moving again, and I will sit first on a big plane, in a bubble moving through the dark once more. We will touch back to earth with a jolt and my eyes will fill with tears when I see the ground, and hear friendly voices. I know it, because it has happened before and will happen again.
Then on to a small plane, full of the chatter of people who know each other, heading to a town so small that it could be insignificant, except that no matter where I am in the world, someone has heard of it. The six degrees of separation, we joke, when we find out that the people sitting next to us at dinner, 16000km away, are friends with the childhood neighbour.
I’ve taken this trip many times. I will look out the window and find the sights I remember without realising that I am watching. The dry grass of winter, yellow from the air, propellers cutting through the clouds as we pass overhead. People will know me, because I am someone’s daughter. I will know where I am, and what I’m doing, because I will be home.
They were coming closer to surfacing; I could feel the emotions ready to explode. The water pooling up on my lower eyelids. My throat swelling closed, causing me not to swallow. The invisible brick suddenly placed on my chest.
So, this is what shock felt like.
I could feel the tears starting to stream down my face. I hastily wiped them away to examine my computer screen once again. To tell myself that I was wrong.
But there were the numbers as clear as day.
“2 8 28 20 31 11 34” and the grey Powerball number “18”
A lump was still lodged in my throat, making it hard for me to breathe. Gasping for air, I could feel my hands shuddering trying to comprehend what I just read. Those were my numbers! I had hit the Jackpot! And not only that, my lucky number was the Powerball!
I have just won 20 MILLION DOLLARS!!
As I peered down at the paper ticket in my hand, in that moment, I felt weightless. An unexpected smile creeped wider and wider across my face. 20 million thoughts flooded my mind. Not only will this money set me and my children up financially, but my drought-stricken parents too! This money will change all our lives forever!
I glanced down at my watch. “I have an hour” I thought to myself. My students were all in cooking class and I had exactly an hour before I would be needed to do lunch duty. The excitement was overwhelming me, I had to get to the newsagency immediately!
I grabbed my handbag, wiped the remaining tears off my face, and clutched onto the paper ticket for dear life. With my adrenaline pumping, I could barely make out who I was rushing past in my haste to leave the school office. I could hear my name being called, but they went through me like air. I bashed the front doors open forcefully, oblivious to the disrespect it caused. The blur of the rose bushes in the garden brushed past me like a mix of white and green smoke. The next thing I know I was at my car door, scurrying to open my handbag and dig through the extraneous amount of garbage to find my car keys. The wind blowing behind me forcing my hair into my face and obstructing my sight.
As I felt my fingers grasp the cold metal of my keychain, a white paper quickly brushed my cheek and soared off out of sight. Instantly my heard stopped. I dropped my bag and withdrew my hands to inspect them.
THAT PAPER WAS MY TICKET!!
With pure instinct I started to run! I had not spotted the ticket yet but knew to keep my back to the wind and to follow in the direction I last saw it. I quickly ran out the school carpark and across into the large nature strip at the front of the school. Leaves were sailing past as I was fixated to catch sight of something white.
And then I saw it!
At least a hundred metres ahead of me, a small glimpse of white tossing on top of the grass in the wind. The million-dollar lotto ticket so close but so far. With every stride I took, it gracefully gained the same distance. It dangled in front of me like a worm on a line, and I was the prey that could not keep up. I could feel my ankles twisting, trying to not snap under my heels. Desperation forcing me to quicken my pace, blinding me to run across intersections without looking. I did not dare break eye-contact of that elusive paper.
Without hesitation, I jumped over an old wired fence, tailing it up the old Porcupine Hill and into the Reserve. I could see the ticket getting snagged on a few of the eucalyptus and pine trees, causing me to gain ground. I was getting closer! But I could feel the trees getting tighter, suffocating me. I started to struggle past, branches clawing at my face and clothes. The incline and uneven ground making my ankles buckle under my heels. I could feel the pain shooting through my legs, but it was a subtle sting in comparison to losing 20 million dollars.
As the trees clutched onto the ticket longer and longer, they also held onto me, hindering my chase. But as if Mother Nature herself could see the desperation in my eyes, one tree grabbed the ticket and held on. My heart was in my throat as I clambered towards it, pleading for it not to let go.
I held my breath as I reached out and wrapped my hand around the paper.
I finally had it!!
Without warning I burst into tears. The water stinging the scratches down my face and neck. I could feel the cool breeze sneaking through my torn Gunnedah South School shirt. My exhausted legs burning with intensity, straining to stay upright. But none of it mattered, it was worth it!
“20 million dollars!” I chuckled, strangling the partially torn ticket.
I had done it! I was a multi-millionaire!
And then I looked up, feeling suddenly disorientated. Standing in the middle of a forest I scanned every direction thoroughly, each way seeming identical. I had lost all concept of time during my pursuit. And then it hit me.
Which way was out?
‘Hey! There’s a message for you.’
I push my chair from my desk across the dirty tiled floor that hasn’t been cleaned in months. I come to a stop when I run into a pile of old files stacked next to Denny’s desk, spilling them onto the floor.
‘Yeah, what is it this time?’ I say.
Last time a message was left for me here, it was a very cold reminder that, for the simple fact that I’m not a local, I was not welcome as the new boss.
It’s a hard pill to swallow. I joined the police force straight out of high school. I was 18 years and 7 months exactly on the day I graduated from the academy. It was such a proud moment for mum and dad. Being their only child, they have both invested everything they had in me and I felt it was only fair that I did something to make them proud.
‘They don’t say much. Just to call this number at 8pm tonight.’ Denny passed me a torn piece of notepad with a mobile number. He was a man of few words but he was great at his job. No fuss, no drama. He just did the job exactly how he’d been trained. The problem with Denny was that he never went home. He didn’t have a wife or kids, no partner, not even a pet. He came in early, left late and worked weekends. I tried to convince him to take a holiday but he flat out refused. He argued that ‘people like him don’t need holidays’ and that was that.
‘Maybe it’s a hot date?’ Denny said, looking at my slyly. I rolled my eyes. ‘Just play the message, Denny.’
The voice took me by surprise. It was warm and gentle. ‘Officer Cadley. Please return my call tonight, 8pm. 0496 254 126.’ My stomach lurched and my heart raced.
‘Any ideas, boss?’ said Denny, looking a bit confused. ‘No’ I said as flatly as I could manage. I didn’t want to give anything away. With every emotion flying through me, I couldn’t let Denny know I was still investigating the case that got me relocated here in the first place. He’d never forgive me.
Three years ago, whilst investigating a missing persons case in Shepparton, Victoria, I came across 34-year-old cold case #18526 of missing 2-year-old girl, Sophie Vance. I can’t explain what it was about the case, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. No one knew what happened. All the leads fell away, clues uncovered nothing and everyone gave up, even her parents. I submitted an official request to re-open the case and two months later it was approved. I temporarily moved from my home in Melbourne to a motel room in Shepparton and set up a cosy office in the store room of the local station. I can’t say I was exactly welcomed with open arms. It seemed like this case was taboo. When people at the supermarket or pub asked me what I was doing in town, as soon as I mentioned the little girls name, they changed the subject and then proceeded to avoid me. It just made me more curious.
Six months ago, after two and a half years of dead ends, no answers and strange events, I had the case formally closed on me and was told by my seniors to drop it. That was never going to happen, of course. I’d opened a huge can of worms and I hadn’t even touched the bottom yet. So I moved to a town just north of the Victorian and New South Wales border called Barooga. Small, quiet and far enough away that I could still work on the case without common knowledge.
So, for the last six months, I’ve been working out of a dark cellar in my house that no one knows about, on a cold case I’m not supposed to be investigating because something in my gut is telling me to. The strangest part of this case though – everyone involved in the case has disappeared. I can’t even trace her parents, they just up and left. Then suddenly I get this message. Someone knows I’m working on it, which has me terrified.
At 7:45pm I’m pacing in my cellar. My heart is racing as I’m going through the case in my head, over and over again. This call might not even be related to it, but I’m convinced it is. I know it is.
As soon as the clock ticks over to 8:00pm, I pick up the phone and dial the number. It rings once and a woman answers.
‘Ben Cadley?’ she says.‘Speaking’ I reply, hearing the terror in my voice as it waivers.
‘I know what you’re investigating.’ My stomach drops. This is it. I’ve been found out and someone wants to end it. They’ll hide all the progress I’ve made and bury it back down in that Shepparton store room.
I don’t know what to say. I’m worried that if I open my mouth, I’ll be sick. She fills the silence.
‘I know what happened to her. And I want to tell you. Open your front door.’
I don’t even think about it. I climb up the crumbling brick stairs out of the cellar, replacing the carpet and furniture hiding the entrance. Trembling as I walk to the front door, I have no idea what to expect. For all I know, this could be the end.
My shaking hands fiddle with the three separate locks I installed when I first moved in. I take a deep breath as I turn the handle and open the door. A woman, not much older that I, taller than me but the same shade of dirty blonde hair and olive-green eyes, is staring back. Still on the phone, she holds out her hand.
‘I’m Sophie Vance. I’m the little girl who went missing and I’m your sister.’
‘Hey! There’s a message for you.’ The lad turned around to see a friend holding an envelope. ‘What is it?’, he asked. ‘My sister asked me to give this to you’ his friend said, thrusting a NEGS envelope into the lad’s hand. Nervously, he opened it.
The story had begun three months before at the end of third term. The lad was going to Sydney to stay with a friend and had joined the boarding school train. This was a considerable adventure. A townie, the lad had heard about the boarding school trains with envy, but had never expected to travel on one.
The railway platform was crowded with boys and girls waiting for the train to arrive. Some stood with their bags looking up the line, others thronged the refreshment room buying supplies for the trip. Teachers from the various boarding schools kept some order, but were clearly waiting for the train to go to get home for a drink and dinner.
The lad was with Charlie, a particular mate who had come to the school from the UK to finish his education. Stories about Charlie were legion. English, he had been in Australia on a holiday when he decided that he to finish his education at TAS. He had apparently enrolled himself and then instructed his parents to pay the advance fees. That may or may not have been true, but Charlie had a poise that the lad could only envy.
The long train pulled into the station. ‘Quick’, Charlie said, dragging the lad onto the train, ‘We want to get our own compartment’. First through the door, they carried their suitcases down the corridor to a middle compartment, quickly spreading rugs and small bags to make it look as though the compartment was fully occupied. Other boys came by, looked, and moved on.
A group of NEGS girls came by. Savvy, they knew the game, one opened the compartment door and asked ‘Charlie, can we join you?” They all knew Charlie, of course. He gallantly replied ‘certainly’, introducing the still silent lad who had always found the NEGS girls rather sophisticated and daunting.
The group settled down, effectively blocking out anybody else who might want to enter. There was a degree of impatience now as everybody waited for the train to leave the station on the long journey south, the teachers drifting towards the station exit, the students waiting for them to go.
As the train pulled out in a cloud of steam with the whistle sounding its mournful wail everybody relaxed. Out came the cigarettes and snacks.
Armidale’s little Beardy Street tobacconist stocked a remarkable range. In addition to the local brands such as Craven A cork tips, there were a wide range of imported brands that seemed very exotic. There was also snuff and chewing tobacco. The lad had tried the snuff, but drew the line at the chewing tobacco.
Now black and cocktail Sobranies, Galoises and more conventional brands came together in a smoky mix, while sweets and biscuits were exchanged. As the conversation flowed, the lad began to relax, joining in, enjoying himself. He was especially attracted to Claire, a tall blond girl sitting beside him. By 3am they were all tired, settling down under rugs to sleep the last bit of the trip.
Arrival in Sydney was chaos as people were met or rushed to join trains for the next leg of journeys. Claire was collected by her parents, leaving the lad wondering if he would see her again.
That Christmas vacation was a busy time, then school resumed. The lad almost forgot Claire beyond a thought that it would be nice to see her again although he did not expect it to happen.
The school athletics carnival was held on Backfield early in first term. The lad was running in the 100 and 220. He was moderately fast, but nothing like the best runners, one of whom was a GPS champion.
Walking across to the school, he found that the senior NEGS girls had come to watch the carnival. Claire was there! He immediately felt shy. He was in his tracksuit and hadn’t shaved. Then Claire smiled at him and said ‘H’i.
After the races, they started talking. Plucking up his courage, the lad asked ‘would you write to me?” She said ‘yes’. That hand delivered letter was the first response.
From that point they became quite blatant, writing to each other each week through the normal postal system, TAS envelope followed by NEGS envelope reply. The lad had no idea that the delivery of TAS envelopes at NEGS would create such a stir! It was his first love affair.
Years later, the lad came back to NEGS to talk to a senior mistress about a NEGS event. When introduced, she said at once “you were Claire’s boyfriend”!
If there’s something I expect, it’s the unexpected. Every new school is an adventure but this one topped the poll. Deepville wasn’t even in my road atlas. I checked after I opened the letter advising my new teaching post for the year, 1962. A one teacher school in the bush, I’d asked for that, thinking of perhaps the Blue Mountains or the Central Coast.
‘It’s north’, my flatmate told me. ‘A long way north, almost Queensland.’ My vintage VW Beetle could baulk at a road trip like that. But we made it, the VW and I, up the New England Highway, over the mountains and almost to Queensland. I stopped in the nearest big town, big by local standards at least, to collect keys from the headmaster of the school there. One key for my school and another for the residence, my solitary home for the year. ‘Call on me if you need any help’ he said without enthusiasm. I was on my own.
On my own with a school of twenty-seven pupils – aged from five to fourteen according to the sheet I found in the teacher’s desk. Best to be prepared. I dusted the blackboard, arranged the library, all thirty-two books, mostly worse for wear with broken spines and loose pages, and sharpened the pencils. I’d brought some of my own books, more in fact than were in the wobbly shelves that masqueraded as the school library. So absorbed was I in preparing lessons for tomorrow that I didn’t hear the car outside. My texts from college would serve me well: Spelling for grades four and five, basic grammar for junior students, Social Studies for the sixth grade, Mathematical Problems for grades two and three. By the time I locked the door of the one-room school and headed across the paddock to my new home the shadows had lengthened and the western sky was suffused with pink and orange. The back porch was dark and I stumbled over something solid wrapped in a white sheet. Next to it was a round tin, the sort my mother used to store cakes in.
I grappled for the light switch in its unfamiliar location along the central hallway. It didn’t illuminate the back porch enough to identify the heavy object. I lugged it, rather clumsily, onto the kitchen table, then returned for the cake tin. I sniffed something meaty and gingerly peeled back the sheet to reveal the skinned, headless carcase of an animal. It looked like a halved sheep. A bizarre gift of welcome, or a macabre joke? From one of the local parents, I supposed. Intended to victual me for a whole term perhaps? I managed to heft the carcase into my fridge after removing two shelves and bending up its knees. (Do sheep have knees?) The cake, lavishly coated in brown icing and coconut sprinkles, looked marginally more appealing.
Nine o’clock next morning I was ready. I thought I was ready for anything until three children on one horse stopped outside the door. The two smallest ones slid off over the horse’s tail while the oldest rode around to my back gate and proceeded to let the animal loose in my yard. Garden was too grand a description for the straggly grass fenced in around the schoolhouse. ‘Mr Martin always let us put her there’, challenged the middle child, citing my predecessor as an irrefutable authority.
So, a family of four on three bicycles, the youngest sitting on the crossbar while an elder brother pedalled, was no surprise. By nine thirty, twenty-three children had arrived in various outfits: the girls in cotton frocks, mostly faded through many washes, and the boys in shorts and drab, often patched, shirts. Three girls wore navy pleated tunics and crisp white shirts. Two of the boys in grey shirts and shorts, neatly pressed, even wore maroon ties. Perhaps that was the school uniform. However, I’d best concern myself first with the two who were barefoot. I’d been told the winters were bitter here.
Rollcall was illuminating. ‘Jack Spence’ I called, starting from the top. ‘Gorn, Miss. He got a job at the sawmill’. ‘Michael Benson’. ‘Mick’s out west rousabouting with his Dad’.
‘Jane Watson’. ‘Her Mum’s just had ‘nuther one so she has to stay home and help. She’ll be back.’ Attendance was more promising among the younger ones. Three of the smallest weren’t on the records. One was barely toddling. ‘I just had to mind him today Miss, till Mum comes back’, an older sister chimed up.
I struggled to rearrange the seating. ‘Who is in sixth class this year? Please sit in the back row.’ After a deal of shuffling and muttering I had the classroom in vague order. The toddler clung fiercely to his big sister’s skirt and one of the girls in uniform distanced herself disdainfully from the other three in her class. ‘Bit like drafting sheep, Miss. There’s always a few stubborn ones want to go the wrong way.’ A ginger haired, freckled face lad from third class winked at me.
We recited our times tables printed on the back of the exercise books. ‘Mr Martin always told us to sit down when it got too hard, especially for the little ones.’ I figured that the procedure meant that the whole school started on the times 2 and only the back row would be left standing by the times 12. ‘Mr Martin always read us a pome before we went home,’ I was told. With some quick thinking I discarded Wordsworth’s daffodils or Tennyson’s charge of the Light Brigade in favour of a bush Aussie. They all chanted along to ‘The Man from Snowy River.’ Day one over without mishap.
‘Dad says to yell out when you want more meat,’ said young Ginger as he filed past my desk. I swallowed hard. ‘Do you think he could come over and cut up the first lot for me?’
“If there’s something I expect, it’s the unexpected,” I say turning towards Addi as we walk towards my house.
“I don’t think that’s the case. Besides, if I was planning on hosting a surprise party for your 16th birthday, you would definitely not be expecting it… or rather unexpecting it,” he looked puzzled as his brain tried to figure out what he was saying. He shook his head. “Besides, where would I host it? It can’t be at my place because it’s too small and it can’t be yours because, well… look at it.”
We had just arrived at my front gate and it felt as though the temperature dropped. I stood at my gate next to Addi and stared at the dark, old timber that held my house together.
“It is the haunted house of New England and people aren’t going to come to a party hosted here,” Addi said, running his eyes over the house’s dark and run-down features. I think back to the day my parents purchased the house, they were so excited to fix it up and make it a grand old-styled house. However, they soon ran out of money and the house remained as it was when we moved in. “I have to get going. Mum will kill me if I’m home later than Bradley because I was meant be walking him home,” Addi grinned mischievously and his eyes lit up. “Have fun! I’ll see you tomorrow! Try not to let the ghosts get you!” he yelled whilst taking off down the street. I stuck my finger up at him, which made him grin more. I walked to the large front door and pushed it open, causing it to creak loudly.
“Hey Liv, how was school?” dad called out from the study.
“Good thanks. How was work?” I called back, placing my backpack on the ground and making my way into the kitchen to get myself a snack.
“Good thanks Hun. Mum said she would be home late so I’m cooking tonight!” he was very excited. He loved to cook, it’s just a shame he isn’t very good at it.
“Oh joy,” I called back sarcastically. I jumped up onto the kitchen counter and ate my yogurt. As I sat and ate, I got thinking about why people thought this house was haunted. It was just an old house with lots of history. A historical home is what the advertisement for it said before my parents made the purchase. We had lived here for a few years now and I had not once had anything strange happen to me. I hear weird sounds during the night but I’m pretty sure it’s just rats in the wall. Sometimes I hear dad up and walking around in the middle of the night but I’m assuming he is just heading to the toilet. In the whole time I have lived here, I have never thought to research the house’s history.
I jump off the counter, put my yogurt container in the bin and grab my laptop from my backpack. I wait for the laptop to connect to the internet and I search my address in Google. Nothing comes up, expect the directions to my house and a few pictures of it when it was for sale on the real estate website. I even searched for haunted houses in New England, but no results came up.
Dad cooks us dinner and we talk for a little about how school, work, and how we both feel bad that mum has to work late so often because she always comes home looking exhausted.
I help dad clean up the dishes and tell him that I’m going to bed.
“That’s just code for staying up and watching tv without the interruptions from my parents,” he says, drying the last plate and giving me the knowing parental look.
“I must say old man, you know me too well,” I grin at him.
“Old man? Wow… that one hurts,” he places his hand over his heart and pretends to fall like someone who has been shot. I roll my eyes at him and smile.
I walk into my room, put my pj’s on, head into my ensuite to do my skincare routine, and fall into bed turning the tv on.
I awake, startled, to the sound of people laughing. I realise my tv has been left on. I get up and turn it off. I use my phone as a light to get back to my bed. I hear the scratching noises through the wall, they seem to echo through the whole house.
Suddenly, there is a horrible ear-piercing scream. I feel the whole house shake. My heart is pounding in my chest when I heard footsteps running down the hall way. I open my door to peak out and see it’s mum and dad.
“What is happening?” I yell at them as they run down the hallway. They stop and seemed startled that I’m awake.
“Oh, did you hear that sweetheart?” Mum looks guilty and dad keeps fidgeting with the bat he has in his hand.
“ummm… yeah. I think the WHOLE ENTIRE NEIGHBOURHOOD DID!” I couldn’t help but yell the last part at them.
“Calm down, it’s all okay I promise. You should just go back to bed.”
“I’m not going anywhere until someone tells me what is going on!” I can feel the rage building up inside me.
“Okay, um… well… the thing is… well… um… how do I put this… John…?” Mum turns to dad who is walking towards me. He slowly approaches me and lowers his voice until I can barely hear him.
“Well, sweetheart. Let’s just say… you’re the good twin.”
They were coming closer and I didn’t know what to do. I was unable to move, my whole body frozen in shock.
It all started back in grade three. I was sitting and eating my lunch in the playground at school when I noticed another girl sitting by herself. I went over to introduce myself.
“Hi, my name’s Sarah, what’s yours?” I asked her quietly. “Ella.”
Ella was very shy at first, but over the next couple of days I continued to sit with her, and we soon became friends.
“The other day, my parents took me to a dog shelter!”
Ella told me all about how her parents bought her a puppy for her 9th birthday. We told each other everything. We were best friends.
In grade five a new girl came to school. Her name was Angela, she had long brown hair and wore these cool red glasses. Angela, Ella and I quickly became good friends and discovered that we all shared the same favorite flower – a tulip – that we would gift each other on Valentine’s Day. We would laugh at Ella when she would always manage to drop something she was carrying. We comforted Angela when her Mum passed away. We really were best friends.
A few years passed, and we were about to celebrate Angela’s 13th birthday by having a slumber party at her house. Her Step-Mum made fairy bread and bought a yummy chocolate cake. We played dress ups and talked about boys we liked. It was just another normal night. We’d had many sleepovers before, too many to count and this one was just like all the rest. We ended up going to sleep at about 2am after watching movies and eating lots of junk food. The next morning, we woke up, had showers, then went downstairs to find that Angela’s Dad and Step- Mum had made eggs and bacon for breakfast and there were presents for Angela. We all sat around the dining room table to eat and watch Angela open her gifts. After breakfast we went back upstairs, got dressed and went for a walk to this secret room in an abandoned house that Angela’s Mum had told her about when she was alive, which was just down the road from Angela’s house.
When we got there something was wrong. I could sense it. We got to the room, it was dark and scary. Angela turned the lights on and it was a huge stone room with blood, red curtains on the walls and red doors with big padlocks on them. As I was looking around, I tripped on a lose stone on the ground. Usually if one of us tripped over the others would laugh and help that person up, but this time was different. I was laying on the ground about to get up when Angela jumped on top of me and shouted “NOW!”
The next thing I knew Ella was running at me with a knife. I couldn’t feel anything at first, it was like my body was in shock, but after the first few stabs, I started to scream for help, hoping,
praying that someone would hear my screams, but no one did. When they were finished with me, Angela whispered something in my ear,
“I’m sorry, it had to be done.”
Then they left. My two best friends left me for dead. I couldn’t move, but I knew if I didn’t try, I would die here. My vision was blurry, I didn’t know where I was, but determined to survive, I got up and crawled my way up the stairs we had initially come down. Eventually, I made it to the front door of this horrible place and gathered the strength to stand up and hobble outside where hopefully, if I was lucky, someone would walk past and help me. At this point I was having trouble breathing. I tried to call for help, but when I yelled nothing came out. I thought I was going to die. I closed my eyes for what I thought was going to be the last time.
I opened my eyes and all I saw were flashes of white. I didn’t know what was going on. I was on a bed, but I was moving, really fast. I could hear lots of people talking. I tried to say something, but I couldn’t speak. Next thing I knew, I was being pushed through doors and I saw a doctor standing there, ready to do something. It seemed serious.
I was in a hospital.
A nurse put a mask on me, and I fell asleep.
I woke up from what seemed like a short nap. I looked around the room and saw my Mum crying and my Dad holding her in his arms. I gathered up all my might.
“Mummy,” I managed to say.
She came racing over to me and hugged me and soon after my Dad joined in too, both crying.
“What happened? Where am I Mum?”
“Don’t you remember what happened?” Mum asked me, confused.
“I was with Angela and Ella. We were walking together and then… I don’t remember,” I said.
My parents urgently called the doctor.
“Why can’t she remember anything?” Dad asked frantically pacing around the room.
“After a major operation it is completely normal for patients to have mild memory problems, she should be alright in a day or so,” The doctor reassured my parents.
Three days later, I woke up and I remembered everything, every harrowing detail about what happened. I started crying out for my Mum and I told her everything. Mum told me the severity of the injuries – 15 stab wounds.
I am 18 years old now. It’s been five years since the incident. Ella and Angela never got caught. I am in my final year of school and finally living a normal life again.
However, today, at my front door there lay a tulip.
In memory to Poppy Horne
The raucous ring of the chainsaw as it bites deep into the flesh of the young pine tree interrupted any conversation we were having. Here we go again as his arms toughened by decades of swinging an axe made short work of cleaning off the broken limbs and stripping away the bark. The slippery pole revealed beneath smells sweet under the warming morning sun and its sticky sap melts into the crevices of our hands as we lift it for its short journey to the edge of the little forest.
He meets us there with motor bike and chain to drag the pole over to join the growing pile of soon to be fence posts. A joyful glint in his eye and with a robustness that belies his age Poppy hoists the pole with one hand and wraps the chain around it with the other. All the while never stopping in his instruction of the old bush ways of felling timber and building fences. He is in his element here a man full of vigour, energy and determination to finish the job at hand. So, we cut and clean, lift and drag each pole until our task is done and lunch beckons.
The afternoon is short now and the wood for the evening fire must be fetched. Soon the children scatter in all directions and return with armfuls of kindling whilst Poppy, with little granddaughter riding on the back of the quad bike shouting with glee at the top of her tiny voice drags in a large dead tree to serve as our warmth this night.
At long last the day’s work is done. The poles are stacked, the camp fire is set and all is in readiness for the evening so we sit and wait for the unfolding of the night. At length, a falling shadow lifts my gaze upwards to see a fine blue pall of smoke from the half dozen small fires set amongst the fallen timbers hanging, suspended, as if invisibly anchored by the outstretched fingers of the bush pines and iron barks beneath.
It is still now. No breeze to disturb the gently wafting smoke or the smell of freshly primed kerosene lamps that linger in the air. The voices of the children carry clear in the twilight air from across the wooded paddock as they wander between the fires set to consume some of fallen timber with small armfuls of sticks with which they keep their playthings going.
The light begins to fade as does the sound of a passing flock of currawong rejoicing in the last rays of the departing sun. A sun now replaced by crackling red beacons of dancing flames emanating from the still burning logs. As light blue sky becomes deep purple and finally charcoal black so too the air cools and the warmth of the day disappears into the crisp chill of a mid-winter night.
A warm inviting campfire and the delicate smell of Nan’s roasting meat, vegies and frying eggs draws us all together and brings to a close the toil of the day. Hands, blackened by soot and sap now eagerly reach out for cups of tea.
Our dogs, brought along for the weekend have even ceased their endless wandering of the campsite and now lay beneath our seats dozing in the radiant heat from the fire. Its crackle and the gentle tone of domestic conversation: hopes, dreams, washing up, cooking and who is living where fill the gathering in of the night.
In the distance the sparks from still smouldering tree stumps rise on warm currents of air. Rise and then spill outwards to disappear into the blackness. Overhead, huge hulking shadows from nearby trees dance in the
A sunny winter morning is a fine time to be to out felling timber. Picked out weeks ago when the weather was warmer our family has work to be done over the next two days and it doesn’t take long for my father in law to round up his team and get us to work. “let’s go! Let’s get into it” he yelled across the paddock. A paddock half cleared of timber and badly in need of refencing. Finishing off our morning cuppa we ventured
forth to challenge the day.
flickering light and above them, tiny pinpricks of light, the first stars of the evening twinkle in the inky darkness.
Our attention returns to our campfire, an ancient bull oak, which looks more like the gutted carcass of some colossal sea creature washed up on a beach with its bowels spilt out upon the soft grey sand. The fallen tree alive with fire lies helpless. Slowly consumed until its sides collapse inward and all that remains is a silent pile of dying embers. The whistle of escaping air and the snap of breaking timbers the only allergy for this giant of the bush whose days beneath the sun were measured not by years but a century of wind and its relentless tearing at the fabric of the tree.
When finally it fell, a shadow of what once it had been, the myriad of creatures that had called it home departed and new tenants, insects bent on its destruction moved in until it became our campfire and by morning it will be but a heap of charred ends and powdery ash to be blown away, the last victory of the wind.
Now as the night sounds strengthen and the light from the stars takes over from our campfire the children drowsy with fatigue and with faces pink from dancing in front of the fires gather themselves up and crawl off into their sleeping bags to relive the adventures of the day in their rest.
Weary parents wash the grime from their faces, arms and bodies as best they can with cold water in a plastic bucket. Finally with embers from the fire still softly glowing they retire to their blankets leaving the old couple, their arms linked in hushed communion, watching over two generations of their dreams and listening to the receding sounds of the campfire and the enveloping silence of the night.
What will the morning bring? How will our day unfold? Tomorrow will have more than enough worries of its own so go gently as in an ancient time when felling timber and drinking warm tea kept the world at bay, even for just one night.
It was the first day back, and I was struggling to focus on study.
Returning to campus, the train ride was long and arduous – the entire time, whenever I looked around at fellow passengers, I noticed heads swivelling away as my gaze reached them. I know it shouldn’t affect me this much, that respected activists and celebrities proclaim that you have to be proud of yourself. If this was the reaction, though, did I really want to be me? It wasn’t that I disliked attention, it’s that I was afraid of what people would do. After all, the history of transgender people has more than its share of abuse, scandal and prejudice.
I didn’t always know. You hear stories of boys with a penchant for their mum’s clothes, or girls who are very invested in sports, but that was never me; I just did what was expected of me, and for the most part I was okay with that.
Over the course of my first year at UNE, though, I could explore myself away from my parents. I met wonderful people who didn’t care who I was or what I did, as long as we respected each other. Slowly, I discovered that without even realising, I’d been holding myself in a box for my whole life.
Counselling began when I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I was so scared to walk in that office, I’m pretty sure I had an out-of-body experience, and it took nearly the entire session before I could even utter the word “trans”.
Through the support of friends and counselling, I knew I needed to tell my parents. It might sound like a cop-out, but I planned to do it the night before returning to uni – giving mum and dad some space after telling them was important, and I was catatonically terrified. I never thought they were transphobic, but they’d only ever known cisgender, heterosexual people who fit spectacularly into their view of gender. I was breaking a bubble they’d lived in for their entire lives, and I knew that was a lot to take in.
All too quickly, that evening came and my mouth was so dry I could hardly speak. I was painfully aware of the quick thudding of my heart, and my stomach somehow felt like it was both tied up in knots and in my feet.
“H-hey guys,” I cringed internally at myself – I was never that casual with them. “Before I head back to uni…I just need to talk with you.”
“Can it wait ‘till the ad break?” Mum asked. She was always way too invested in Married at First Sight.
“Uh, it m-might take a bit longer than an ad break.”
Mum looked disgruntled, but muted the T.V. anyway. Dad bookmarked the page he was reading with his thumb, clearly not anticipating it would take long.
“Look, um. I just have something to tell you, and uh…I don’t know how you’ll react but please remember I’m still the same person you’ve always known.”
Dad perked up a little, putting his actual bookmark in the book and setting it aside. Mum’s eyes narrowed. Neither said a word.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people and…and I’ve talked to counsellors and friends and people I trust at uni and I just…don’t think I’m in the right body.” I paused, waiting for a comment.
“Wait. What does that mean?” mum asked, clearly not sure what I was getting at. Dad seemed to understand though, and waited for me to continue.
“Well…I’m not…the right gender.” I said haltingly. “I’m trans.”
Dad sighed and raised an eyebrow. Mum had a little smirk on her lips. Neither of them were taking me seriously.
Time seemed to become excruciatingly slow and incredibly fast while I tried my best to convince them it was serious. I let them know my preferred name and pronouns, and answered the questions they had, to the best of my ability.
By the end of it, though, I’m not sure they properly understood, and I’m unsure that they ever will. Hopefully they just needed time to process everything, but I don’t think there’ll be another long conversation about it for a while.
In saying that, my parents had still said a stiff and uncertain goodbye to me the following morning. For that, I was grateful – even though it was incredibly awkward and they didn’t understand what I was going through, I still appreciated that they made the effort to show they still cared.
Getting ready for the first day of class for the year, I thought back to the train ride to campus. I’d wanted to be more myself in public, so I’d tried dressing outside the gender norms – not obviously so, but I’d just wanted to be less of the ‘boy next door’ that people always saw me as.
I noticed every one of the numerous stares on that train. Through the entire eight-hour journey to New England, my cheeks burned with embarrassment and I often wanted to melt away into the upholstery.
While I was thinking of that train ride, though, I decided to try again. I held my breath as I decided to, once again, wear again what I’d worn on the journey to uni.
Sure, there was the occasional double-take on campus throughout the day, but this time I felt safe. The overwhelming desire to disappear wasn’t there, and I became more and more comfortable with my choice of clothes.
Later on, some of my friends’ eyes widened when they saw me. “You look different. Like…good different.” one of them said pensively. Someone else chimed in, “I think you look more yourself!”, followed by a rumble of collective agreement through the group.
Suddenly, although I had no idea what the future held, I knew these people were my support network. With them, I could weather any storm.
I was home.
A sunny winter morning is a fine time to be hiding in the past. Staring back into the present, it really did feel like hiding in a secret room. It was the way the noise had disappeared.
A minute earlier, Sophie and I were sitting in a corner of the university café, with the sound of everyone’s chatter pummelling our ears. Neither of us were speaking. I was feeling quite irritated about that. I was only there because she wanted to show me something, but instead she drank her coffee wordlessly, occasionally looking at her watch, while my only break between classes ticked away.
At last, when she’d drained her large mocha, she decided to show me what I was there for. She pulled two metal dice from the coin pocket of her jeans and tossed them in front of us. They bounced and rolled oddly, like they were being driven by hidden magnets, and came to rest about three feet apart. When I looked up from their landing spots, the slice of café between them had nobody in it.
It wasn’t spectacular. There was no visible hard edge, like with a pane of glass, so it just looked like nobody was standing or sitting there. It could have been a parlour trick, where everyone stepped to the sides while I was distracted by the dice.
Then she walked into the empty strip of café and said “If you want your half hour back, it’s through here.”
So it was then, when I followed her and the hubbub of the customers dropped away as soon as I stepped across the line of the dice, that the wonder of it struck me. I found myself in an empty version of the café. Walking around the dice, I could look back into the version I’d just left and see everyone talking and drinking, but they couldn’t see me and all I could hear was the empty room.
And the cash register.
I turned to see Sophie had popped it open and was pulling some of the larger notes from the drawer. “Don’t worry,” she said. “It’ll still be there in the future. It turns out I’m not actually robbing anyone.”
Outside, magpies were starting to peck at someone’s abandoned fish and chips.
“You say we’ve gone back half an hour, but the room was full then. We were here,” I said.
“Yes, I wanted you to see that,” she answered, “but I’m afraid your next question, where’d everybody go if the birds are still here, is going to make more sense to you than to me.”
I suppose she was right.
“I guess it’s the same as why they can’t make multiplayer computer games with time travel,” I said. “You can backtrack in time, copy the world, copy every material and physical thing, even the computer controlled characters, but you can’t copy a mind or a soul. You can’t make all the other players come back with you.”
Sophie was sitting on the counter, eating a muffin from the basket by the till. “Nice philosophising, but I’ve heard it before,” she said. “I hate to move us on, but this isn’t the main thing I wanted to show you. I just had to bring you here so you’d believe me.”
“Ok. What do you want to show me? And why me?” I asked.
She grinned enigmatically. I think she’d been rehearsing this. “Because you’re the good twin, I hope.”
I could tell she was waiting for me to say it, but what else could I say? “I don’t have a twin.”
“That’s right,” she answered. “You’ve got three. One of them was lovely, right up until he died, and I can’t find the other two. So that leaves you, the one that moved to Australia. At least, you could be twins. You could be time travel copies. All we know is you’re genetically identical. Maybe some people don’t have souls to need copying?”
She’d clearly been saving up the last part. I brushed it off. We experience everything through our subjective selves (the material world could be a dream, as they say), so trying to convince me I’m just soulless atoms is like asking me to read a proof that there’s no such thing as sight.
“Sorry,” she said suddenly. “It’s just you were never going to like this conversation. I know you from last time. You’re going to like it even less when you realise I’ve kidnapped you.”
I looked back over to the dice. The café between them was gone, replaced by a dusty market square on an even brighter day than the one outside. We were only half an hour back in time, but there was no way back to the present.
“We think they’re colonists,” she said. “We think they found a pair of dice and a nice warm planet back in time, and grew their own world. At least, that’s our best guess. They’re like us, anyway. Nearly thirty years ago, a secret research team in Cambridge found them and sent them a time capsule – Shakespeare, Homer, bottle of wine, that sort. They thought they’d found an alien world until the aliens sent back a note with four names and addresses. Four children around Cambridgeshire, all adopted and all, it turns out, identical. The research team’s gone with your dead twin, but that’s another story. The important thing is the note also said there’s a disaster in the future of both worlds that only you can solve. I thought we’d go and see their past first.”
It was a lot to take in, so I asked the only question I could. “You keep saying ‘we’. Who’s we?” I should have guessed the reply.
“Now it’s just you and me. Shall we get going?”
It’s strange the things you think of when the world has gone bananas. As we stepped towards the dice, I wished I’d brought my sunglasses.
A sunny winter morning is a fine time to be staring into the middle distance, where pale images beckon and werelight flexes. Zac meandered along paths of association, past majestic granite boulders and remnants of Gondwana rainforest, to mossy swamps that sucked at his feet and belched like pobblebonks.
“Flat white and raspberry friand?”
“Yes, thanks.” Zac pulled himself back from the swamp. He’d never been a Zachary or Zechariah. Zac was a nickname, bestowed by Year 6 boys a decade or so ago, when Gillian Logan had brought a sixpence to class and he had burst out, “Crikey, a zac! I haven’t seen one of those since I was a boy.”
Now Zac, or Mr Sixpence as he was also known, was free. Unemployed at last, as he liked to put it. Others said retired. He came most mornings to the art gallery café, to catch the winter sun and stare into the exquisite middle distance over the college playing fields. He sipped the coffee through the velvet microfoam. He tossed a beakful of friand to the wattlebird perched, expectantly, near the whispering wall.
After this ritual Zac browsed the Hinton collection. He paused, as usual, in front of The Yellow Gloves. Esther Paterson portrayed her sister as bohemian but unpretentious, warm but subtly distant, looking out while looking in, to render visible the sadness Betty hid behind the cigarettes and wine. Zac felt an affinity with Betty, not with her childhood steeped in art or the Melbourne flapper scene or permissive cultural politics, but with the slab of solidity overlaid on fragility. His own fault line was rendered smooth with stolidity, the mask he used to protect himself from children.
They were predators. Even in primary school. Teachers were prey, unless they used Batesian mimicry. He’d assumed the camouflage of impassive authoritarian. Others managed by seeming hard disciplinarians. The matey types, trying to be besties with the kids, soon came a cropper, usually as prac teachers. He’d seen them run bawling from the classroom, never to return, the poor, sweet sensitive ones, the naïve and overly friendly ones, the earnest unprotected ones. It didn’t take much more than a spitball battle, with biro barrels and salivary paper pellets, or the wilful resistance of the class to any learning. The boys could all take their cue from one cocky, impertinent question; the girls could all titter and whisper and lie.
But the camouflage worked a treat. No need for theatrics. Just the calm preservation of an imminent threat. He could even like some of the kids. The smart ones, the sassy ones, the quiet ones, the bewildered ones, the kind ones and, best of all, the curious ones. He struggled a bit with the smelly ones, stewing in their fug. He also disliked the lickspittles and the whiners. “Sir, sir, can we have extra homework?” “Aw sir, aw sir, do we have to?” Well, no one had ever actually asked for extra homework, but some were obsequious enough. One or two of his favourites were even capable of asking for it ironically.
The impassive authoritarian spilled outside school as well. He walked home in his grey suit, sometimes via the supermarket. There’d be kids there, trailing parents, fiddling, fidgeting, lingering in the lolly aisle, pestering, bottom lips protruding with terminal boredom. Flustered mums tried to shoosh their tykes, looking ineffectual and apologetic as he greeted them with polished professionalism. The kids calmed down immediately. He never looked back.
His grey suit became both camouflage and straightjacket. He even wore it to the pub on Friday evenings. The chalkies’ pub had changed over the years. Once it had been Bruins, then Impies, and now his colleagues had migrated to the Grand, seeking authenticity in sticky carpets and formica tables. He’d followed the flock, the men in grey, for a schooner or two and a counter meal. The men without families and the men escaping their families. Never the women. They were either doing their other job as domestics or went somewhere more exciting. Drama club or choir or tennis under lights or so they said, to deflect the men in grey from their secret wells of happiness.
In the twilight of his career, Zac had almost lost the knack of finding visions in the middle distance. He’d felt numb, not just in his extremities, but right through to the core of his being. Feeling numb was an oxymoron. He couldn’t feel at all, though when he realised that, panic punched him in the diaphragm and reverberated in his heart and bowels, until the numbness set in again.
He decided to change his routine by visiting the art gallery one weekend. There he encountered Betty Paterson, her yellow gloves and secret sadness. He imagined what he could say to her if he’d found her like that at the Grand Hotel. Gauche in his grey suit, stuck behind his impassive mask, feckless like his friends. He tried to imagine dancing the Charleston with her, rigid in his authoritarianism, ridiculed by his own mind’s eye, hideous as Gregor Samsa on the morning of his metamorphosis.
But her sadness seeped into him. Her secret seduced him. He felt the edge of his fault line shift and could almost hear the hiss of gas escaping under pressure. He felt giddy, heady and a disorienting smile cracked open his mask. He stumbled outside and sat in the empty café courtyard, staring into the middle distance. There, in the miasma, he saw himself, comically sad, sickly grey. A recovering life-denier.
Then the mist dissipated. His mind wandered and his heart skipped. The boring, smelly, whiney child he had been stopped to stare at him. He laughed. He held his arms open and breathed the keen air.
“There’s something happening out there.” Chris puts down his book and goes to the window. Light from the one street lamp that still works reflects off the wet road. The autumn Armidale night has brought a hushed stillness to the neighbourhood. Somewhere nearby a dog barks and someone yells.
“Come away from that window and hand me my tea,” Grandma appealed.
“I can’t see anything,” Chris presses his nose against the cold glass.
“Christopher! Come away from the window!” Grandma again insisted, more urgent now.
Chris fiddles with the curtain and a trace of street light crosses Grandma’s round face, revealing milky, sightless eyes. Light from the kitchen down the hall dimly reveals the front room of their old stone cottage. Grandma is in her recliner with an ancient hand-knitted blanket on her lap. The recliner is the largest piece of furniture in the tiny lounge. It used to be caramel coloured velour. Now it’s more grubby grey and sweat stained. The headrest is gluey from decades of hair grease. A lifetime of crumbs and other debris hide beneath the cushions. The room is full to bursting with books, stacks of old newspapers and broken furniture
A lop-sided electric keyboard, that hasn’t worked since they lost the power cord, is piled high with more books and junk mail catalogues. It’s impossible to tell what colour the carpet used to be. In the dim light, it’s an indeterminate shade of grime.
Grandma’s recliner creaks as she reaches for her tea on the little side table, a remnant from a decades-ago school project involving tiny pieces of broken tile, glued into a beach-themed mosaic pattern.
Through the window, Chris watches as neighbours begin to congregate on their front porches. One from across the road steps off and begins to cross the road toward next door’s gate. There’s some more yelling, but the words are fuzzy and muffled and Chris can’t make out who is doing the yelling or what they are saying.
Behind him there’s a thud and the tea cup clatters to the floor. “Chris, stop gawking! I’ve knocked my tea and I need a biscuit.”
“We’ve only just had dinner,” Chris replies, his breath frosting the glass. “I know that, but I’ve knocked my tea. Be a dear and make me another?”
Chris turns away from the window, but he’s drawn back by the flashing blue & red lights of a paddy wagon pulling up outside the house next door.
“What’s happening out there?”
“I think it’s next door,” Chris whispers, concerned that talking too loudly will bring trouble to their door. “The police have turned up,” he explains to Grandma.
“I don’t know why they don’t just lock him up and throw away the key,” Grandma grumbles.
Chris turns away from the window and weaves through the maze of clutter to the kitchen. He brings Grandma a fresh cup of tea and another biscuit. Placing them on the little side table, he guides her hand to the cup.
“You’re a good boy, Christopher,” she says.
Chris is softly comforted by the praise. He’s hardly a boy, having just started at university, but the sentiment is somehow soothing. Back at the window Chris watches as the flashing lights illuminate the man next door, who has been handcuffed. Two police officers push him into the back of the wagon. “They are taking him away,” Chris explains.
“Good. Maybe this time it’s for a long time. What’s that racket?” Grandma sips her tea.
“She’s crying and banging on the back of the wagon,” Chris continues, watching the social worker restraining Sarah away from the van. She’s barefoot and wearing a thin nightdress. She has one kid on her hip and another, in a saggy nappy is holding on to her leg. A scrawny dog weaves around her feet.
“She’d have to be cold in that nighty,” Chris says. “She looks like she’s pregnant.”
“Not again!” Grandma exclaims. “When will they ever stop? They can’t even look after the little ones they’ve got. Someone should do more to help people like that.” Grandma stops herself. This is not a conversation to be having with her grandson.
Chris watches as the paddy wagon pulls out from the kerb and the neighbours return to their warm, safe homes along the street.
“I think I’m going to like helping families like that,” he tells Grandma. Chris is studying social work but he already knows that books alone won’t teach him how to help people like his neighbours.
“You’re gonna be a natural at it”, Grandma confirms. “The way you take care of me when you could be out having fun with your mates. I don’t know where you get it from. Your father was never around and your mother, well, who knows where she is?” Sipping her tea, Grandma reflects, I feel like I failed with his mother, but at least some good has come of it with Christopher being such a good boy.
“Be a good boy and read to me some more of that book you’ve got there,” she says.
Chris turns from the window, switches on a lamp and opens his book. Next time he hears his neighbours fighting he’ll do more than just call the police. Finding where he left off, he resumes reading to his Grandmother.
“A sunny winter mornin’ is a fine time to be havin’ a cuppa.” Charlie said to himself as he stirred the billy one last time. Yesterday it had all been horses and hitchin’ rails as he got back late from cartin’ hay from Deepin’ Grove, his mate Tommy’s place, out near the Ponds. Whilst it was all cobblestones and reedy swamp around the Ponds, Charlie knew that Tommy Frost took real pride in the fact that it was his family that had been amongst the first to make a living share-croppin’ out that way. It was back in the late forties or early fifties. Yeah, if he remembered rightly Tommy’s Da’, Ben was born out there in 1853, with the help of old Mrs Ferris the midwife who trundled about in her sulky helping out best she could.
Charlie didn’t understand the all of it but he knew there were silences too in Tommy’s tale of family pride. Once, when he was about nineteen he and Tommy were shepherding further west, out on Balala Station. It was a bleak day of sheep dags and drizzle. As he and Tommy moved the bleating, bedraggled sheep amongst the shelter of a stand of snow gums, an unsettling wind had made them both shift uncomfortably in their saddles.
Tommy had said, oddly, “Don’t worry mate, sometimes the wind just murmurs with the memory of the old blackfellas chant.”
“They aint gonna get us now. Old Uncle Jim said there’d been none around here since that business up at Clerkness in the thirties”. Charlie had asked “What business at Clerkness?”
But Tommy had said “I don’t know mate, Da and Old Jim had never spoken much more about it.” “And you know mate, as they both worked harder and got older they never had much time for explainin’ things beyond the farm to me anyways”.
Just as well thought Charlie. He had found that unknowing was the safest of silences.
He poured the near syrupy black tea into his pannikin and settled down on his front porch to enjoy a few more minutes of the warm sun. Charlie needed time to think. If old Bill Howe had spoken right to him about Clerkness last Thursday, then some things were gonna change for Charlie. Forever. In fact the worry for Charlie was how much time could he be spendin’ gettin’ stuck on the thinkin’ thru of things.
The cuppa was a nice warm distraction, and for a few minutes, Charlie just sat looking out to the scrubby stringy bark brush on the hills to the east. In the spring of ‘74 he and ‘Wombat Billy’ had done some of the ring-barkin’ that had cleared all but the ridgetops of these same hills. He liked that the view from his verndah was a constant reminder of where he’d been and the hard work he had done in the past. And He always liked how the light caught the dew on the fence posts at this time of the mornin’…
Just then Flint, his ten-year old grey gelding trotted up to one of the old fence posts and started windsuckin’ on it like some old tobacco ridden miner scrambling up the ridge at Hillgrove.
“Get outta that Flint! Said Charlie. “I’m comin’ mate and yeah we’ll be off up along the Bundarra Road as soon as I’ve got ya saddled up.”
‘Just in time’ he thought, grateful for Flint’s noisy interruption. It’s nice and sunny here now but judgin’ by the clouds bunchin’ up to the southwest it was only a short time before the weather was gonna turn. It mightn’t snow he thought but it was gonna sleet for sure.
Charlie was a fine horseman and it showed as he cantered along the Bundarra Road with a straight back and steely purpose. The sleet had come in as he had predicted and though it was gonna be a tough ride nor’west he’d keep it up for a good few miles yet. He was used to ridin’ in the high country. It was in his blood. His Da’ Ted had made a living out of it, ridin’ the weekly mail run from Armidale to Bundara before he was born.
“Blast it!” He thought. Charlie didn’t really want to think about his Da’ and that time before he was born. Yet this was the sole reason he had to grit his teeth into the rain today. The time before he was born. Sometime after that business at Clerkness Tommy had spoken of…and yet as Billy Howe had swore to him, about Clerkness nonetheless. Business about his Da before he was born. Other business long kept silent.
Charlie left the main road and headed northwest. He was gonna cross the Pinnacles and camp along the Gwydir for the night and then keep headin’ north towards Abbington Station in the morning. And, if things came to pass as Billy Howe had suggested, he might get to finish his journey at Abbington and not have to ride on to Clerkness or Bundarra.
You see from Billy’s tellin’ he wasn’t even gonna have to head for the main homestead at Abbington but rather he needed to ride out some four miles northeast of it to where a stockman’s camp was set up along the creek. Charlie was in no hurry to get there…but a strange mixture of trepidation and anticipation was startin’ to creep up on him. Flint could tell too, his ears twitched and sat a little higher and his gait began to imply impatience with the reins.
Soon Charlie sat astride his horse in the middle of a campsite made up of a couple of canvas tents and a hastily put to together kerosene tin shanty. A big, dark skinned brute of a man was skilfully filing a hoe ready for some burr cutting… and closely beside him, a fairer – although still caste with a skin far browner than Charlie’s – a strangely familiar looking woman stood staring at him. Charlie knew at once….she was his older sister. He could see it in her eyes, his Dad’s eyes. In that moment, Billy Howe’s story of his young Dad getting a girl pregnant, and that girl, a black housegirl taken up by the McIntyre’s after that business at Clerkness, having her baby, and keeping it amongst the others of her kind, as they worked the stations about Bundarra, was forever true.
Born in Indonesia of French parents, and brought up in France and Australia, Sophie Masson is the award-winning and internationally-published author of over 70 books for children, young adults, and adults. Her fiction ranges widely over genres, including speculative fiction, historical fiction, contemporary fiction, mystery, thriller, and romance, and she has also published picture books and non-fiction.
Sophie has received several major awards for her creative work, including the Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, the Young Adult category in the Aurealis Awards, and many Notable Books citations in the CBCA Book of the Year Awards. She has also been shortlisted for numerous other awards and has been the recipient of a Keesing Studio Fellowship and an Asia-Pacific Fellowship. She holds a Ph.D. in creative practice(2018) as well as an M.Litt and B.A from the University of New England(NSW) and was a Visiting Scholar at the University of Cambridge (UK) in 2017.
A former Chair of the Australian Society of Authors, Sophie is the current Chair of the New England Writers’ Centre, Vice-President of the Small Press Network and President of the New England and North West sub-branch of the Children’s Book Council of Australia (NSW branch). An experienced workshop and talks presenter for audiences of all ages, she is also publishing director of acclaimed small-press children’s book publisher, Christmas Press.
In 2019, Sophie received an AM (Member, General Division) award in the Order of Australia in the Australia Day 2019 honours list. Her citation read ‘For significant service to literature as an author, publisher, and through service to literary organisations’.
For more on Sophie, visit her website www.sophiemasson.org
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