Click here to read: Bad Romeo by Leisa Rayven
In May 2010, 250 kilometres offshore from the Queensland city of Mackay on the outside of the Great Barrier Reef, at a reef system known as the Swains, I was diving with a team of researchers when we were enveloped in a swarm of billions of small fish. The cloud of life was thick in the clear water, blocking out the sun. It was the kind of spectacle that sometimes plays out on television nature documentary footage shot from helicopters, yet this was real – I was in the water inside a baitball that stretched as far as I could see in every direction. There are times when you are scuba diving that you see the stunning things you expect to see, and then there are the occasions when something happens that you never thought was possible. The living cloud dancing and shimmering around me seemed like a magical illusion set in crystal water, a canvas of coral –a storm front of fish. There were so many teeming millions of them they were like huge droplets of rain being driven sideways yet moving as one. Eventually, though, the cloud passed and continued its rolling, morphing journey through the sea.
Amongst the beauty of the reef, it was often easy to forget that it is an ecosystem and that as well as wonders, there are many dangers. Such a cloud of fish is not referred to as a baitball for no reason – the little fish attract birds, marine mammals and bigger fish, which invariably attract those even bigger fish at the top of the marine food chain. In the past when I had dived on the reef and seen something scary it had been a furtive, uncertain feeling on the edge of my peripheral vision – a fast flash of something big that was often gone before I could be sure whether I had really seen it. The reality is this: nearly everyone who dives frequently in the ocean almost never sees one of the recognised shark species that are known to be dangerous to humans. After hundreds of dives, probably the most dangerous shark I had seen to that point on the Great Barrier Reef was a lemon shark in the lagoon of One Tree Island, off Gladstone. So what happened in the wake of the cloud of baitfish passing was a shock. As my dive buddy and I collected our coral samples for a scientific study being conducted by the Australian Institute of Marine Science, a huge bull shark slid by, only a few metres away. It was a very large fish and easily the biggest and most intimidating, dangerous shark I had ever been near. It really did feel as though we were suddenly in the wrong part of town – on the ocean side of the Barrier Reef you enter the environment of the biggest pelagic sharks. The bull shark was in no hurry and, slowly, lazily swam away. After exchanging some concerned hand signals, geneticist and close friend Petra Lundgren and I continued working. A few seconds later the ball of baitfish returned, only this time they were frantically fleeing, chased by giant trevally. In turn the trevally were being hotly pursued by half a dozen bull sharks. Now there was nothing lazy about the way the two and three metre predators were moving – they were at a full blistering pace, only swerving around us divers at the last second. It was like standing in a field as a pride of lions pelted past, hunting antelope. It wasn’t that we were invisible to the sharks – I had a sense, a really strong sense, they knew we were there – it was just that they were not interested in us. Even so, my instinct was to join the crush trying to escape. I remember wondering, what do you do in a situation like this. Should I act like I would in the face of a dangerous dog on dry land? Should I pull out my dive knife as I always imagined I would if I was faced by a big shark? In the end there was nothing I could do. But I did feel that I was in the crossfire of a fight that was not mine and so in a strange way, while all the players knew we humans were there, we were also afforded some immunity. It is true that bull sharks are regarded as ‘maneaters’ but what was baffling that morning was that if we really were a favoured target then why weren’t we eaten?
I realised that a lot of what I thought about sharks – and so a lot of what most people think about sharks – is actually wrong. I am a child of the 1970s and my whole view of what would happen if I ever came face to face with a big shark at the bottom of the ocean was informed by the following words from the trailer of the movie Jaws, a deep authoritative voice-over with its unforgettable musical score as a background: ‘It is as if God created the devil and gave him . . . jaws.’ But at that moment in the sea off Mackay, I knew that all this time I’d been had. There was a lot more going on than I understood and a fact that I had held as fundamental – that big sharks are always dangerous to people – was wrong. In fact once I began researching what happened to me that day I found that my experience of being ignored was not unique and is well recorded in the scientific literature. World leading expert on attitudes and public policy towards sharks, Christopher Neff, who normally confines his comments to well-thought out academic writing, puts it bluntly: ‘We are not prey, we are in the way.’ More formally, in his peer-reviewed writing, he explains it like this:
Observations of sharks in proximity to human swimmers in the ocean demonstrate that the animals do not usually take an interest in people. Sightings by New South Wales Fisheries staff, including Vic Peddemors and Amy Smoothey, have revealed that bull sharks regularly swim close to hundreds of human swimmers in Sydney Harbour and ignore them all. In Cape Town, South Africa, the Shark Spotters program has reviewed more than 1,100 sightings of white sharks swimming around surfers and near bathers Bathers were alerted and got out of the water, and the visiting sharks swam away. This story repeats itself in Port Stephens, Australia, where shark biologist Barry Bruce has studied juvenile white sharks that consistently ignore people in the nearby surf.
Very few humans have an encounter like the one that I had, and for those that do, the overwhelming majority do not get bitten. And it wasn’t my first close encounter with a bull shark. At dusk a few years earlier, swimming on the south coast of New South Wales, with a friend in chest-deep surf, a two-metre long shadow tore through the breakers between us and vanished before we had a chance to even think about fleeing to the shore. I remember thinking two things at the time. First, if it had wanted to eat us we wouldn’t have stood a chance and, second, it didn’t want to eat us. On both occasions I was a huge piece of protein beside any of the fish being hotly pursued. I was a sitting duck, practically immobile compared to the fish tearing for their lives through the sea. Diving off the Swains with Petra, there was no choice but to watch, transfixed, as one of the bull sharks sped past me. It specifically seemed to see me, caught my eye and pressed on. At that moment I was utterly vulnerable. There wasn’t time to take any kind of evasive action and the idea of attempting to flee in the face of so many creatures a thousand times faster than me was just ridiculous. More than anything I was surprised because what had happened was so much more complicated and interesting and impressive than what every Australian is raised to believe about sharks. Still, we exited the water off the Swains Reef quickly rather than take the chance that they might become more interested in us in a second pass . . . As I gratefully pulled my legs onto the inflatable my mind was racing. What did that shark think when it saw me? What kind of animal was a creature like that? Soon afterwards, there was a horrific spate of shark attacks in Western Australia, and each time another person was killed, my mind went back to that day underwater and far out to sea, when the bull shark and I locked eyes. I also remember thanking God there were no white sharks in the tropics because otherwise things would have turned out very differently . . . wouldn’t they? I was wrong again.
I quickly discovered that it could just as easily have been white sharks in the water that day instead of bull sharks. Beginning at Christmas 2011, not long after my encounter at the Swains, the CSIRO tracked a 3.1 metre female white shark via satellite as it completed a mighty six-month return journey from 90 Mile Beach in Victoria to the Swains Reef, off Central Queensland, where I had seen the bull sharks.
Also around that time I was on a family holiday at Lady Elliott Island at the very southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, further south than the Swains Reef. As I prepared for my first dive off the island, the dive master said that the previous week they had been on a wreck a few hundred metres offshore when a large great white had suddenly appeared. But, as in my experience with the bull sharks, it showed no interest in eating anyone and after some curious investigation casually turned tail and disappeared. It was one thing for a bull shark to decide to leave me in one piece, but why would a great white shark leave those juicy, defenceless divers alone? After all, the great white shark is the most magnificent and supposedly dangerous of them all.
This was the second time in my life that white sharks had gotten snagged in my consciousness. The first had been in the early 1990s when I was a cub science and environment correspondent at the Sydney Morning Herald. While there, two books came across my desk that I felt compelled to keep. The first was an original edition of Peter Matthiessen’s book The Snow Leopard that I requested from the office library for a profile interview I was preparing of the world-famous author. For some reason his expedition in search of the Himalayan big cat resonated through my bones and soul as if someone had struck a huge bell. It took a decade-long campaign by the newspaper’s librarians, and finally a threat to have all my borrowing rights revoked, before
I returned The Snow Leopard. I still rue the day I gave it back. The second book was actually a review copy of a coffee table paperback called Great White Shark by Richard Ellis and John McCosker. Somehow I managed to convince my boss to let me borrow it from him and I never gave it back. The night I first got it I lay in my bed at home and could not put it down.
It was captivating – anecdote after anecdote, scientific insights, personal stories, facts, breakouts, stunning historical pictures including the huge jaws of the white shark relative Carcharodon megalodon, which are on display at the Smithsonian Institution – jaws so enormous that six dapper fish scientists are framed by the reconstructed model of a Megalodon’s jaws. But there was one page that seared itself into my mind forever – an account of an attack by a great white shark in 1962 at the Farallon Islands off San Francisco, where Al Giddings and Leroy French, partners in a dive company, had taken a group of divers. Before pulling up anchor Giddings did a head count and realised French was not on board. He looked out to see French in the jaws of a great white shark. Revisiting the exact site later, Giddings recounted to McCosker:
I saw a great tail come up over Leroy’s head, behind him. He couldn’t see it but he could see reflected in my eyes the terror and total amazement and could hear the rush of water behind him. And, of course, he had already been hit once, so he knew it was coming again. Before my unbelieving eyes, the tail went up and then went down alongside him. [Leroy] disappeared and was gone. I continued to the spot where he had disappeared, and as I was looking around frantically, he popped up next to me, clawing, spitting an screaming in a way that I would not have thought humanly possible. Somehow I swam behind him, turned him on his back, and took off with him.
Miraculously, the pair made it to the boat, covered in blood. French was evacuated by helicopter and required 450 stitches. But two years later he was walking again. The blood, the violence, the strength of the fish, the courage of the rescuer and friend were all the stuff of white shark bite stories the world over. What haunted me was the fact that the victim knew the shark was attacking from behind because of the expression on the rescuer’s face. Imagine what that face must have looked like. And imagine what it must be like to have been bitten once and then to see the terror in the rescuer’s eyes. It was one of the most horrifying things that I had ever heard and I cannot imagine how Leroy’s certainty that the shark was on its way back, without actually seeing it, must have felt. And it was a moment like that I was braced for when we were stampeded by bull sharks. When it never came, I was left with a thousand questions.
This is a story about a fish – from the tips of its teeth to the end of its tail. It has the body of a torpedo, the jaws of a bear trap, the stomach of a wheelie bin, the power of a truck, eyes as big as billiard balls and a brain smaller than the top of the thumb of most men. It emerged from a lineage predating dinosaurs and its personality has the ill-deserved reputation of being somewhere between a psychopath and a member of an outlaw motorcycle gang. It is the subject of countless urban myths regarding its obsession with eating humans – from being able to detect urine from kilometres away to flipping to rogue after a single taste of human flesh. The simple fact is that each and every white shark is a rogue shark. Rogue is their permanent state of being and they are always dangerous. They are dangerous not because of what they usually do but because of what they can do when they make a mistake. They are everything that is both terrible and wonderful about life and food chains and oceans and primal power. They are what happens when time, chemistry, engineering, physics and competition to survive in the world’s harshest environments strive to build the planet’s most perfect fish predator.
A great white shark is evolution’s Manhattan Project.
Something was wrong. I knew it the moment I walked in the door. With one hand I flicked on the light, dumping my purse onto the couch with the other. After the dimly lit hallway, the sudden glare was dazzling. Little lights flashed before my eyes. When they cleared all I saw were spaces . . . spaces where, just this morning, things had been. Like the couch. My purse hit the floor and everything came tumbling out, tampons, loose coins, pens and make-up. A stick of deodorant rolled into the corner. The now empty corner since both the TV and its cabinet were gone. My thrift store retro table and chairs remained, same with my overflowing book case. But the bulk of the room lay bare.
“Skye?” No answer.
“What the hell?” A stupid question, what had happened here was obvious. Across from me, my roommate’s door stood wide open. Nothing but darkness and dust bunnies in there. No point in denying it. Skye had bailed on me. My shoulders slumped as the weight of two months worth of back rent, food and utilities came crushing down upon me. Even my throat closed tight. So this is what it felt like to have a friend fuck you over. I could barely breathe.
“Anne, can I borrow your velvet coat? I promise I’ll . . .” Lauren, my neighbor from the apartment next door strode in (knocking never had been her style). Then, like me, she stopped dead. “Where’s your couch?” I took a deep breath and let it out slow. It didn’t help. “I guess Skye took it.”
“Skye’s gone?” My mouth opened, but really, what was there to say?
“She’s gone and you didn’t know she was leaving?”
Lauren cocked her head, making her mass of long dark hair swing to and fro. I’d always envied her that hair. Mine was strawberry blond and fine. Anything past shoulder length and it hung limp like I’d stuck my head in a bucket of grease. It’s why I didn’t tend to let it grow longer than jaw length. Not that hair mattered. Making rent mattered. Having food to eat mattered. Hair styles? Not so much. My eyes burned, betrayal stung like a bitch. Skye and I had been friends for years. I’d trusted her. We’d trash talked boys and shared secrets, cried on each other’s shoulders. It just didn’t make sense. Except it did. It so very painfully did.
“No.” My voice sounded strange. I swallowed hard, clearing my throat. “No, I didn’t know she was leaving.”
“Weird. You two always seemed to get along great.”
“Why would she take off like that?”
“She owed me money,” I admitted, kneeling to collect the contents of my purse. Not to pray to god. I’d given up on him a long time ago. Lauren gasped. “You’re joking. That fucking bitch!”
“Babe, we’re running late.” Nate, my other next-door neighbor, filled the doorway, eyes impatient. He was a tall well-built guy with an edge. Normally, I envied Lauren her boyfriend. Right then the glory of Nate was lost on me. I was so fucked.
“What’s going on?” he asked, looking around. “Hey, Anne.”
“Where’s your shit?”
Lauren threw her hands in the air. “Skye took her shit!”
“No,” I corrected. “Skye took her shit. But she took my money.”
“How much money?” Nate asked, displeasure dropping his voice by about an octave.
“Enough,” I said. “I’ve been covering for her since she lost her job.”
“Damn,” muttered Nate.
“Yeah.” Seriously, yeah.
I picked up my purse and flipped it open. Sixty-five dollars and one lone shiny quarter. How had I let it get this far? My paycheck from the bookshop was gone and my credit card maxed. Lizzy had needed help yesterday paying for textbooks and no way would I turn her down. Getting my sister through college came first. This morning I’d told Skye we needed to talk. All day I’d felt crappy about it, my stomach churning. Because the truth was, the sum total of my talk involved telling her that she needed to ask her parents, or her fancy ass new boyfriend, for a loan to pay me back. I couldn’t keep the both of us housed and fed any longer while she searched for a new job. So she also needed to talk to one of them about a place to stay. Yes, I was kicking her to the curb. The guilt had weighed in my stomach like a stone. Ironic really. What were the chances of her feeling any remorse for screwing me over? Not likely. I finished retrieving the contents of my handbag and zipped it up tight. “Ah, yeah, Lauren, the coat’s in my closet. At least I hope it is. Help yourself.”
Rent was due in eight days. Maybe I could work a miracle. There were sure to be some cash savvy twenty-three-year-olds with savings in the bank out there. At least one of them must need a place to stay? I’d been doing fine before this. But there’d always been something my sister or I needed more than future financial stability. Books, clothes, a night on the town, all those little treats that made living worth-while. We’d sacrificed enough already. Yet here I was, broke and on my knees. Guess I should have prioritized better. Hindsight sucked. Worst case scenario, I could probably get away with sleeping on the floor of Lizzy’s dorm room if we were super sly. God knows our mom didn’t have the cash. Asking her for help was out. If I sold my great aunt’s pearls it might help toward the deposit on another apartment, a smaller one that I could afford on my own. I’d fix this somehow. Of course I would. Fixing shit was my speciality. And if I ever saw Skye again I was going to fucking kill her.
“What’ll you do?” asked Nate, lounging against the door frame. I rose to my feet, dusting off the knees of my black pants. “I’ll work something out.”
Nate gave me a look and I returned it as calmly as I could. The next thing to come out of his mouth had better not be pity. My day had been crappy enough. With great determination, I gave him a smile. “So, where are you guys off to?”
“Party at David and Ev’s,” Lauren answered from inside my room. “You should come with us.”
Ev, Nate’s sister and Lauren’s former roomie, had married David Ferris, premier rock god and lead guitarist for the band Stage Dive, a few months ago. Long story. I was still trying to get my head around it, frankly. One minute, she’d been the nice blond girl next door who went to the same college as Lizzy and made killer coffee at Ruby’s Café. The next, our apartment block had been surrounded by paparazzi. Skye had given interviews on the front step—not that she’d known anything. I’d snuck out the back. Mostly, my relationship with Ev had involved saying hi when we’d passed on the stairs, back when she used to live here, and with me hitting Ruby’s Café every morning for a big-ass coffee on my way to work. We’d always been friendly.But I wouldn’t say we were friends exactly. Given Lauren’s penchant for borrowing my clothes, I knew her much better.
“She should come, right, Nate?” Nate grunted his affirmation. Either that or his disinterest. With him it was kind of hard to tell.
“That’s okay,” I demurred. Debris lined the walls where the couch and cabinet had stood; all of the collected crap Skye had left behind. “I had a new book to read, but I should probably get busy cleaning. Guess we hadn’t dusted under the furniture for a while. At least I won’t have much to move when the time comes.”
“Come with us.”
“Lauren, I wasn’t invited,” I said.
“Neither are we half the time,” said Nate.
“They love us! Of course they want us there.” Lauren re-emerged from my room and gave her boyfriend the stink eye. She looked better in the black vintage jacket than I ever would, a fact that I chose not to secretly hate her for.
If that didn’t earn me points into heaven then nothing would. Maybe I’d give it to her as a good-bye present before I left. “Come on, Anne,” she said. “Ev won’t mind.”
“Good to go?” Nate jiggled his car keys impatiently. Hanging with rock stars didn’t seem the appropriate response to learning you’d soon be out on the street. Maybe one day when I was at my sparkling, buffed-up best I could strut on by and say hi. That day was not today. Mostly I felt tired, defeated. Given I’d been feeling that way since I turned sixteen, it wasn’t the strongest of excuses. Lauren didn’t need to know that, however.
“Thanks, guys,” I said. “But I only just got home.”
“Um, honey, your home kind of sucks ass right now,”
said Lauren, taking in my dust bunnies and lack of décor with a sweeping glance. “Besides, it’s Friday night. Who sits at home on a Friday night? You wearing your work gear or jumping into jeans? I’d suggest the jeans.”
“No.” Lauren grasped my shoulders and looked me in the eye. “You have been fucked over by a friend. I have no words to tell you how furious that makes me. You’re coming with us. Hide in a corner all night if you want. But you’re not sitting here alone dwelling on that thieving ho. You know I never did like her.” Stupidly, I did. Or had. Whatever.
“Didn’t I say that, Nate?” Nate shrugged and jangled his keys some more.
“Go. Get ready.” Lauren gave me a push in the general direction of my bedroom.
In my current situation, this might be my only opportunity to meet David Ferris. Ev still showed up here now and then, but I’d never seen him, despite occasionally “hanging out” on the steps just in case. He wasn’t my absolute favorite out of the four members of Stage Dive. That honor was reserved for the drummer, Mal Ericson. A few years ago, I’d crushed on him something hard. But still . . . the David Ferris. For the chance to meet even just one of them, I had to go. A few years ago, I’d had a bit of a thing for the band. Nothing to do with their being buff rock gods. No, I was a musical purist. “Alright, give me ten minutes.” It was the absolute minimum time frame within which I could mentally, if not physically, prepare myself to face the rich and famous. Fortunately, my care factor was now dangerously close to fuck-it levels. Tonight would probably be the best time to meet Mr. Ferris. I might actually manage to keep my cool and not be an awestruck waste of space.
“Five minutes,” said Nate. “The game will be starting.”
“Would you relax?” asked Lauren.
“No.” The man made a snapping sound and Lauren giggled. I didn’t look back. I didn’t want to know. The walls here were disgustingly thin so Lauren and Nate’s nocturnal mating habits weren’t much of a secret. Happily, I was usually at work during the day. Those hours were a mystery to me, and not one that I pondered. Oh, alright. Occasionally I pondered because I hadn’t gotten anything non-self-induced in a while. Also, apparently I had some repressed voyeuristic tendencies in need of addressing. Was I really up to a night of watching couples rubbing against one another? I could call Reece, though he’d said he had a date tonight. Of course, he always had a date. Reece was perfect in every way apart from his man-whore tendencies. My best guy friend liked to spread his love around, to put it mildly. He seemed to be on a conjugal-related first-name basis with the better part of the straight Portland female population aged eighteen to forty-eight. Everyone except me, basically. Which was fine. There was nothing wrong with just being friends. Though someday I truly believed we’d make a great couple. He was just so easy to be around. With everything we had in common, we could go the distance. In the meantime, I was content to wait, do my own thing. Not that lately I’d been doing anything or anyone, but you get what I mean. Reece would listen to me whine about Skye. He’d probably even cancel his date, come over, and keep me company while I moped. He would, however, definitely say “I told you so.” When he’d found out I’d been covering for her, he hadn’t been happy. He’d outright accused her of using me. Turned out he’d been 110 percent right on that score. The wound, however, was too raw to be prodded and poked. So . . . no Reece. In all likelihood, Lizzy would give me the exact same ass kicking Reece had. Neither had been a fan of the save Skye plan. Decision made. I’d go to the party and have fun before my world turned to shit. Excellent. I could do this.
I couldn’t do this. David and Ev lived in a luxury condo in the Pearl District. The place was sprawling, taking up half the top floor of a beautiful old brown brick building. It must have been surreal for Ev, going from our poky, drafty, thin-walled building to this sort of splendor. It must have been awesome. Our old apartment building sat on the edge of downtown, close to the university, but David and Ev lived smack-dab in the middle of the very cool and expensive Pearl District. Happily, Ev seemed delighted to see me. One potentially awkward moment negated. Mr. Ev, the rock star, gave me a chin tip in greeting while I did my best not to stare. I itched to ask him to sign something. My forehead would do.
“Help yourself to anything in the kitchen,” said Ev.
“There are plenty of drinks and pizza should be here soon.”
“You live next to Lauren and Nate?” asked David, speaking for the first time. Good lord, his dark hair and sculpted face were breathtaking. People shouldn’t be so greedy; was it not enough that he was insanely talented?
“Yes,” I said. “I used to be Ev’s neighbor and I’m a regular at Ruby’s Café.”
“Every morning without fail,” said Ev with a wink.
“Double shot skinny latte with a hit of caramel coming right up.”
David nodded and seemed to relax. He slipped an arm around his wife’s waist and she grinned up at him. Love looked good on her. I hoped they lasted. I’d loved, really loved, four people in my lifetime. They weren’t all romantic love, of course. But I’d trusted my heart to all of them. Three had failed me. So I figured there was a twenty-five percent chance for success. When David and Ev started sucking face, I took it as my cue to go explore. I grabbed a beer from the kitchen (state of the art and beyond fancy) and faced the big living room with renewed determination. I could totally do this. Socializing and me were about to be best buds. A couple dozen people were scattered around the place. A huge flat screen blared out the game and Nate sat dead center in front of it, enraptured.
There were a few faces amongst the crowd that I recognized; most belonged to people I’d never dare approach. I took a sip of beer to wet my parched throat. Being the odd one out at a party is a unique sort of torture. Given today’s events, I lacked the courage to start a conversation. With my talent for picking who to trust, I’d probably ask the only axe murderer in the room for his sign. Lauren gestured to me to join her right when my cell starting buzzing in my jeans back pocket. My butt cheek vibrated, giving me a thrill. I waved to Lauren and pulled out my cell, walking quickly out onto the balcony to escape the noise and chatter. Reece’s name flashed on the screen as I shut the balcony doors.
“Hey,” I said, smiling. “Date canceled on me.”
“That’s a shame.”
“What are you up to?”
Wind whipped up my hair, making me shiver. Typical weather for Portland at this time of year—October could definitely get cold, wet, dark, and miserable. I huddled down deeper into my blue woolen jacket. “I’m at a party. You’re going to have to entertain yourself. Sorry.”
“A party? What party?” he asked, the interest in his voice moving up a notch.
“One I wasn’t exactly invited to, so I can’t extend the offer to you.”
“Damn.” He yawned. “Never mind. Might get an early night for a change.”
“Good idea.” I wandered over to the railing. Cars rushed by on the street below. The Pearl District was a mecca of bars, cafés, and general coolness. Plenty of people were out and about braving the weather. All around me, the city lights broke up the darkness and the wind howled. It was lovely in a moody, existential-crisis sort of way. No matter the weather, I loved Portland. It was so different from back home in southern California, something I appreciated immensely. Here the houses were built for snow and ice instead of sunshine.
The culture was weirder, more lenient in ways. Or maybe I just had a hard time remembering any of the good regarding my hometown. I’d escaped. That was all that mattered.
“I should go be social, Reece.”
“You sound off. What’s up?”
Groan. “Let’s talk tomorrow at work.”
“Let’s talk now.”
“Later, Reece. I need to put on my happy face and go make Lauren proud.”
“Anne, cut the shit. What’s going on?”
I screwed up my face and took another sip of beer before answering. We’d been working together for almost two years now. Apparently, plenty of time for him to figure out my tells. “Skye’s gone.”
“Good. About time. She pay you back?”
I let my silence do the talking. “Fuuuuck. Anne. Seriously.”
“What did I tell you?” he snarled. “Didn’t I say—”
“Reece, don’t go there. Please. At the time, I thought it was the right thing to do. She was a friend and she needed help. I couldn’t just—”
“Yeah, you could. She was fucking using you!”
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Yes, Skye was fucking using me. You were right, I was wrong.”
He mumbled a long string of expletives while I waited mostly patiently. No wonder I hadn’t wanted to have this conversation. There’d never be a good way to spin such a shitty tale. Frustration boiled up inside of me, warming me against the cold.
“How much do you need?” he asked, voice resigned.
“What? No. I’m not borrowing money off you, Reece.
Getting further into debt is not the answer.” Besides, business owner or not, I wasn’t sure he had it to spare. Reece wasn’t any better at saving than I was. I knew this because of the designer gear he wore to work on a daily basis.
Apparently being Portland’s resident Mr. Lover-Lover required one hell of a wardrobe. To be fair, he wore it extremely well.
He sighed. “You know, for someone who’s always helping others, you’re shit at accepting help yourself.”
“I’ll figure something out.”
Another pained sigh. I leaned over the railing and hung my head, letting the cold, wet wind batter my face. It felt nice, offsetting the tension headache threatening to start up behind my forehead. “I’m going to hang up now, Reece. They have beer and pizza here. I’m pretty sure if I try hard enough I can find my happy place.”
“You’re going to lose the apartment, aren’t you?”
“It’s likely I’ll have to move, yes.”
“Stay with me. You can crash on my sofa.”
“That’s sweet of you.” I tried to laugh, but the noise that came out was more of a strangled cough. My situation sucked too much for humor. Me sleeping on Reece’s couch while he went hard at it in the next room with some stranger. No. Not happening. As it was, I felt small and stupid for letting Skye play me. Bearing witness to Reece’s oh-so-active sex life would be too much.
“Thanks, Reece. But I’m pretty sure you’ve done unspeak-able things to many, many people on that couch. I’m not sure anyone could sleep there.”
“You think it’s haunted by the ghosts of coitus past?”
“It wouldn’t surprise me.”
He snorted. “My gross sofa is there if you need it, okay?”
“Thank you. I mean that.”
“Call me if you need anything.”
“Oh, hey, Anne?”
“Can you work Sunday? Tara’s had something come up.
I told her you’d cover for her.”
“I spend Sundays with Lizzy,” I said carefully. “You know that.” Reece’s answer was silence. I could actually feel the guilt slinking up on me. “What if I do a different shift for her? Is it something she can move?”
“Ah, look, never mind. I’ll deal with it.”
“No problem. Talk to you later.”
And he hung up on me. I put away my cell, took another mouthful of beer, and stared out at the city. Dark clouds drifted across the crescent moon. The air seemed colder now, making my bones ache like I was an old woman. I needed to drink more. That would solve everything, for tonight at least. My beer, however, was almost finished and I hesitated to head back inside.
Ugh. Enough of this. Once the drink was done, my lonely-girl pity party was up. I’d quit lurking in the shadows, pull my head out of my ass, and go back inside. This was an opportunity not to be missed, like I hadn’t wished a million times or more to cross paths with someone from the band. I’d already met David Ferris. So there, wishes could come true. I should put in a request for bigger boobs, a smaller ass, and better taste in friends while I was at it. And money enough to pay for my sister’s college educa-tion and to keep a roof over my head, of course.
“Want another?” a deep voice asked, startling me. My chin jerked up, eyes wide. I’d thought I was alone but a guy sat slouched in the corner. Wavy, shoulder-length blond hair shone dully but the rest of him remained in shadow.
No. It couldn’t be him.
I mean it could be, of course. But it couldn’t be, surely.
Whoever he was, he had to have heard my half of the phone conversation, which was more than enough to mark me out as being one of the great idiots of our time. There was the clink and hiss of a beer being opened then he held it out to me. Light from inside reflected off the perspiration on the bottle, making it gleam.
“Thanks.” I stepped closer, close enough to make him out even with the low lighting, and reached for the beer.
Holy shit. It was him, Malcolm Ericson.
The pinnacle moment of my life was officially upon me.
So I might have had one or two photos of Stage Dive on my bedroom wall when I was a teenager. Fine, maybe there were three. Or twelve. Whatever. The point is there was one poster of the whole band. At least, the photographer probably thought it was of the whole band. Jimmy was out in front, his face contorted as he screamed into the microphone.
To his right, half shrouded in shadow and smoke, was David, smoldering over his guitar. And to the left, toward the front of the stage, stood the bulk that was Ben, playing his bass.
But they didn’t matter. Not really.
Because behind them all, there he was with the lights shining up through his drum kit. Naked from the waist up and dripping sweat, the picture had caught him mid-strike.
His right arm cut across his body, his focus on his target, the cymbal he was about to strike. To smash.
He played with abandon and he looked like a god.
How many times after a day of looking after my mother and sister, working hard and doing the good, responsible thing, had I lay on my bed and looked at that photo. And now here he was.
Our fingers grazed in the way that’s pretty much inevi-table during such a hand over. No way could he have failed to miss the trembling in mine. Thankfully, he didn’t comment. I scurried back to my place by the edge, leaning casually with a beer in hand. Cool people leaned. They looked relaxed. He chuckled softly, letting me know I wasn’t fooling anybody. Then he sat forward, resting his elbows on his knees. His face came fully into the light and I was caught, captivated. My mind blanked. No question about it. It really was most definitely without a doubt him. The man had hooker lips, I shit you not. High cheek-bones and one of those notches in his chin. I’d never understood the appeal of those things before. Now I got it. But it was him as a whole that blew my mind. The parts meant nothing without the amused gleam in his eye and the hint of a smirk. God, I hated people who smirked. Apparently, I also wanted to lick them all over because my mouth started watering.
“I’m Mal,” he said.
“I-I know,” I stuttered.
His smirk heightened. “I know you know.”
Huh. I kept my mouth shut.
“Sounds like someone had a bad day.”
Nope, I still had nothing. A brain-dead stare was the best I could do. Why was he out here in the dark? From all reports, the man was the life of the party. Yet here he was, drinking alone, hiding like me. Slowly, he stretched, rising out of his seat. Thank you, lord. He’d go back inside and I’d be off the hook. I wouldn’t have to try and make conversation. Fortunate, given my sudden bout of starstruck stupidity.
Only he didn’t leave.
Instead, he walked toward me, his lean, muscular frame moving with careless grace. He had maybe five, six inches on me height wise. Enough to intimidate if it was his purpose.
Muscular arms put the sleeves of his shirt to the test.
Drummer’s arms. They were certainly nice as body parts went, covered in ink and bulging in all the right ways. I bet they felt good, too.
And I was so obviously checking him out someone should slap me.
If I kept this up, I would slap me. Hard.
“What’s your name?” he asked, joining me at the railing.
God, even his voice felt good. The little hairs on the back of my neck stood on end with delight.
He stood close enough that our elbows bumped. His bare elbow, since he wore only jeans, a pair of Chucks, and a fitted “Queens of the Stone Age” T-shirt. Mal Ericson had touched me. I’d never wash again.
“Yeeeah, your name,” he drawled. “The point of me telling you my name, even when you already knew it, was so you’d give me yours. That’s how these things go.”
“You knew I knew?”
“The crazy eyes kinda gave it away.”
A moment later, he groaned. “Never mind, this is taking too long. I’ll just make one up for you.”
A brilliant grin lit his face. “Anne Rollins. See, that wasn’t so tough.”
I gritted my teeth and tried to smile. Most likely I resem-bled a lunatic. One that had spent way too much time imagining him naked. Good god, the shame.
Gently, he tapped his bottle of beer against mine. “Cheers, Anne. Nice to meet you.”
I took another sip, hoping it would calm the shaking. The booze wasn’t hitting me hard enough fast enough to deal with this. Maybe I should move onto something stronger.
One’s first intimate conversation with a rock star should probably be conducted over hard liquor. Ev was definitely onto something with her tequila-fueled antics in Vegas. And look how well it had worked out for her.
“What brings you here tonight, Anne?”
“I came with Nate and Lauren. They brought me. They’re my neighbors. They live next door.”
He nodded. “You’re friends with Ev?”
“Yeah, I, well . . . I’ve always been friendly with her.
I wouldn’t want to presume . . . I mean, I don’t know that I’d say we were close friends, exactly, but—”
“Yes or no, Anne?”
“Yes,” I answered, then snapped my mouth shut against another outbreak of verbal diarrhea.
“Yeah, Ev’s good people. Davie was lucky to find her.” He stared off at the city lights in silence. The amusement fell from his face and a frown creased his brow. He seemed sad, a little lost, maybe. For certain, his much-vaunted party-rocker personality was nowhere in evidence. I should know better. People had painted Ev to be the next Yoko Ono, riding on David’s coattails, sucking him dry of fame and fortune. I didn’t have to be her BFF to know it couldn’t be further from the truth. Chances were, whoever Mal was had little to do with the nonsense flowing freely on the Internet.
But more important, how badly had I embarrassed myself?
“I didn’t really get a crazy look in my eyes, did I?” I asked, dreading the answer.
“Yeah, you did.”
“So you’re a friend of Ev’s? I mean, you’re not in the music business or anything?” he asked, focusing on me once more. His face had cleared, his mood shifting. I couldn’t keep up. With the flats of his palms he beat out a swift rhythm on the balcony railing.
“No. I work in a bookshop a few blocks from here.”
“Okay.” He gazed down at me, apparently pleased with my answer. “So what was that phone call about?”
“No?” He stepped closer. “What happened to your nose?”
Immediately my hand flew up to block his view of my face. It was only a small bump, but still. “My sister broke it when we were little.”
“Don’t cover it. I think it’s cute.”
“Great.” I lowered my arm. He’d already seen the flaw, so what was the use?
“Why’d she break it?”
“She got mad one day and threw a toy truck at me.”
“Not how. Why?”
I smothered a sigh. “She wanted a kitten and I’m allergic to cats.”
“You couldn’t get a puppy instead?”
“I wanted to but Mom said no. My sister still blamed me.”
He scowled. “So you never had any pets growing up?”
I shook my head.
“That’s fucking terrible. Every kid should get to have a pet.” He appeared sincerely outraged on my behalf.
“Yeah, well, time’s past and I’m kind of over it now.” I frowned and swallowed some more beer. Everything told me I was going to need it. This conversation was just plain weird.
He stood, watching me with his faint smile. Just that easily I was riveted once again. My lips curled into some sort of vaguely hopeful idiotic half grin of their own accord. Mal. Mal Ericson. Damn, he was beautiful. My long-dormant hormones broke into a dance of joy. Something was definitely going on in my pants. Something that hadn’t happened in a very long time.
“There go the crazy eyes again,” he whispered.
“Shit.” I shut my eyes tight. Lizzy walking in on me and my boyfriend seven years ago had been pretty damn embarrassing, especially given that she then ran and told Mom.
Not that Mom had been coherent enough to care. This, however, topped it.
“Your cheeks have gone all rosy. Are you thinking rude thoughts about me, Anne?”
“Liar,” he taunted in a soft voice. “You’re totally thinking of me with no pants on.”
I totally was.
“That’s just gross, dude. A massive invasion of my privacy.” He leaned in closer, his breath warming my ear.
“Whatever you’re imagining, it’s bigger.”
“I’m not imagining anything.”
“I’m serious. It’s basically a monster. I cannot control it.”
“You’re pretty much going to need a whip and chair to tame it, Anne.”
“That okay with you?”
I covered my hot face with my hands. Not giggling. Not even a little, because grown women didn’t do that shit. What was I, sixteen?
Inside the condo, Nate started shouting. The sound was only slightly muted by the sliding glass doors. My eyelids flew open as he hurled abuse at the TV, arms waving madly.
Lauren laughed and my brain came back on line, sending all sorts of emergency signals throughout my body. Like I didn’t already realize I needed to get the hell out of there before I humiliated myself further. Good one, frontal lobe. At least I could think if I didn’t look at Mal directly. This was a brilliant and timely discovery. And it worked right up until he leaned over, getting in my face, making my lungs feel like they were about to explode.
“You have a little gap between your two front teeth,” he informed me, eyes narrowed in perusal. “You know that?”
He studied me like I was an alien species, a curiosity that had been dumped on his doorstep. His gaze slid down my body. It wasn’t as if he could possibly see anything what with me wearing a coat, jeans, and boots. But that knowl-edge didn’t help at all. His lazy, appreciative grin made my knees knock. It took about forever for his gaze to return to my face.
Damn, he was good. I’d been professionally sullied without a single item of clothing removed.
“Your eyes are a pleasing shade of . . . Is that blue?” he asked. “It’s hard to tell in this light.”
I cleared my throat. “Yep, blue. Will you please not do that?”
“What?” he asked, sounding vaguely aggrieved. “What am I doing?”
“You’re staring at me and making me feel all uptight.
I don’t like it.”
“You stared at me first. Besides, you were wired long before you came out here. If I had to guess, I’d say you’re uptight in general. But don’t worry, I’m here to help. Go on; tell Uncle Mal all your troubles.”
“Wow, that’s really kind of you. But I’m good.”
He shuffled closer and I shuffled back. Pity there was nowhere for me to go. “What were you talking about on the phone before, Anne?”
“Oh, you know . . . personal stuff. I don’t really want to discuss it.”
“You were saying your friend ripped you off and you’re going to lose your place, right?”
“Right.” I slumped, my heart hurting. Fucking Skye.
I wasn’t a pleaser, but I did look after the people I loved.
Stupid me, I thought that’s what you did. When Mom got sick, I’d stepped up, done what needed doing. There’d been no other choice. The state of my finances right now, however, would suggest it had become a bit of a bad habit. “Yeah.
That about sums it up.”
His eyes widened in sudden alarm. “Shit. Don’t cry. I’m not Davie. I don’t know how to deal with that.”
“Shut up, I’m not going to cry.” I blinked furiously, turning my face away. “I told you I didn’t want to talk about it.”
“Didn’t think you’d burst into tears. Christ.”
My beer was empty; time to go. Besides, I needed to escape before my watery eyes betrayed me. And Mal had to have better things to do with his time than talking to me.
Teasing me. This had been the most excruciatingly awkward and awesome conversation in my entire life. For a while there, I’d forgotten all about my problems.
He’d made me smile.
“So.” I thrust my hand out for shaking, wanting that final contact, needing to touch him properly just once. He’d been on my bedroom wall back home for years. I’d end meeting him on a high if it killed me. “It’s been lovely to meet you.”
“Are you trying to get rid of me?” he asked, laughing.
“Stop looking over my shoulder, Anne. Look me in the face,” he ordered.
“Are you scared you’re going to make crazy eyes at me again?”
“Yes, probably.” I clicked my tongue, exasperated. “Do you normally taunt your fans like this?”
“No. I never realized it could be this much fun.”
My hand hung in the air between us. I was about to retract it when he grabbed hold. I stared him in the face, determined not to lose it this time. The problem with Mal Ericson was that he was physically flawless. Not a single imperfection marred him, big or small. If he kept riding my ass, though, I’d fix that for him.
“What’s that look mean?” he asked, leaning in. “What are you thinking now?”
My stomach swooped and all thoughts of violence were pushed aside. “Nothing.”
“Hmm. You’re not a very good liar.”
I tried to pull my hand from his grasp. Instead, he held it firmly.
“One last quick question. This shit with your friend, that sort of thing happen often?”
“’Cause when you were on the phone, talking with your other friend, it sounded like it did.” He loomed over me, blocking out the night sky. “It sounded like it was a problem for you, people using you.”
“We don’t need to talk about this.” I twisted my hand, trying to get free. Even with the sweaty palms it was an impossible task.
“Did you notice how your friend asked for a favor even knowing you were all sad faced about this other friend ripping you off? How do you feel about that?”
I yanked on my arm, but he held fast. Seriously, how strong was this bastard?
“Because I think that was kind of a low move. Between you and me, I don’t think you have very good friends, Anne.”
“Hey. I have great friends.”
“Are you fucking kidding me? They rip you off and expect shit from you when you’re down. Seriously, dude.
Only assholes would do that.”
“But what’s worse is that you’re letting them. I don’t get that.”
“I’m not letting them do anything.”
“Yes, you are,” he said, voice rising in volume. “You so are.”
“Good god, do you have a mute switch?”
“It’s appalling! I’m officially appalled,” he yelled, clueing the whole damn neighborhood in on my life. “This must end! I will stand for it no longer. Do you hear me, Portland?”
“Let me go,” I said through gritted teeth.
“You, Miss Rollins, are a doormat.”
“I am not a doormat,” I growled, everything in me rebel-ling at the idea. Either that or running in fear of it. I was so worked up it was hard to tell.
He rolled his eyes. “C’mon, you know you are. It’s right there on your face.”
I shook my head, beyond words.
“So, I’ve given this absolutely no thought and decided that you need boundaries, Anne. Boundaries. Are. Your.
Friends.” Each word was punctuated with his finger tapping the tip of my nose. “Do you hear me? Is this getting through?”
Which is about when I snapped and started screaming.
“You want boundaries? How about getting the hell out of my face! How’s that for a boundary, huh? None of this is any of your damn business, you obnoxious dickhead.”
He opened his mouth to reply but I charged on regardless.
“You don’t know a damn thing about me. And you think you can get in my face and tear my psyche apart for fun? No.
Fuck you, buddy. Fuck you hard.”
Everything went quiet, even the music inside. The most horrible silence reigned supreme. People were watching us through the glass with curious faces. Lauren’s mouth was a perfect O.
“Shit,” I muttered.
What had I done? Lauren had invited me to this nice party and I’d just gone psycho on one of the guests. It was time to wither and die, I could feel it. “Please let my hand go.”
“Anne, look at me.”
“C’mon, gimme your eyes.”
Slowly, wearily, I turned back to him. The slowest of smiles curled his perfect lips. “That was fucking awesome.
I’m so proud of you right now.”
“Yes. You really are.”
“You’re just thinking that now. But give it some time.
Think about what I said.”
I just shook my head in silence.
“It was great to meet you, Anne. We’ll talk again real soon,” he said, pressing a kiss to the back of my hand before releasing it. There was a light in his eyes, one I didn’t want to decipher. One I certainly didn’t trust. “I promise.”
Sometimes life comes crashing down, heavy and cold as a dead-weight. This is how I felt on opening the office door. It had all felt so cozy, so intimate, so mine. Before.
And yet to the naked eye there was no reason for apprehension; everything remained just as I had left it. Shelves crammed with books, bulletin board full of schedules and reminders. Folders, filing cabinets, old playbills, envelopes addressed to me. The calendar frozen two months back, July 1999. Everything stood intact in that space which for fourteen years had been my haven, where semester after semester I’d welcomed countless students lost in doubt or searching for something.The only thing that had changed were the props that supported me. Shattered.
Several minutes went by, perhaps even ten. Sufficient time, in any event, for me to come to a decision. My first order of business was to dial a telephone number. In reply I only got the icy courtesy of a voice mail. Hesitating whether or not to hang up, I decided to leave a message.“Rosalia, it’s Blanca Perea. I have to get out of here, I need your help. I don’t know where I could go; it’s all the same to me. Somewhere I don’t know a soul and no one knows me. I realize it’s the worst timing, with the semester about to begin, but call me as soon as you can, please.”
I felt better after leaving the message. I knew I could trust Rosalia Martin, both her understanding and her goodwill. We had known each other since our early days at the university, when I was a young professor with a meager temporary contract and she was responsible for running a recently established department of international relations. Although our friendship had diluted somewhat with the passing of time, I knew Rosalia’s mettle and was sure that my cry for help would be answered.
Only after the phone call could I muster enough energy to face my duties. My e-mail in-box opened like an overflowing dam of messages, and I dove into its current for a good while, answering some and discarding others that were outdated or of no import. until the telephone interrupted me, and I answered with a curt “Yes . . . ?”
“What’s the matter with you, madwoman? Where do you want to go at this point? And what’s with all the rush?” Rosalia’s impassioned voice brought back the memories of so many shared experiences. Hours on end sitting in front of the black-and-white screen of a prehistoric computer. Shared visits to foreign universities in search of exchange programs and partnerships, double rooms in non descript hotels, dawns spent waiting in empty airports. With the passage of time we’d gone our separate ways, but the traces of an old complicity remained alive, and that is why I told her everything. Without reservation, with brutal honesty. In a couple of minutes she knew all she needed to know. That Alberto had left me. That the assumed solidity of my marriage had vanished during the first days of summer; that my kids had already flown the nest; that I’d spent the last couple of months awkwardly trying to adjust to my new reality. And that now, facing the new semester,I lacked the stamina to stay afloat in the setting I’d lived comfortably in for years, simply latching onto my responsibilities and routines as if my life hadn’t undergone a swift sure gash like a knife through flesh.
With a dose of pragmatism equal to her body’s considerable size, Rosalia immediately absorbed the situation and realized that the last thing I needed was well-meaning sugarcoated advice. So she did not delve into details or offer me her soft shoulder as solace. She only made a comment that, as I might have expected, bordered on bluntness.
“Well, I’m afraid it won’t be that easy for us, honey.” She spoke in the plural, immediately taking on the matter as something we were in together. “The deadlines for interesting things passed months ago,” she added, “and the next fellowship application deadlines are still some months away. But the semester is just beginning, and I don’t know if we’ve received anything new in the last couple of weeks. Give me until the end of the day to see if I can come up with something.”
I spent the rest of the morning wandering around the university. I took care of pending paperwork, returned books to the library, and had coffee afterwards. Nothing sufficient to distract me while waiting for Rosalia’s call. I was overanxious and lacked confidence. At a quarter to two I rapped on her office door, which was ajar. Inside, serene as always, and with violet-tinted hair, Rosalia was busy at work.
“I was just about to call you,” she announced, without even giving me time to greet her. Pointing to the computer screen, she proceeded to reel off what she’d found. “Three things came in during the holidays. They’re not that bad—more than I expected, to tell you the truth. Three universities and three different activities. Lithuania, Portugal, and the united States. California, specifically. None are cushy jobs, mind you, and they all promise to work your ass off without contributing much to your curriculum vitae, but it’s better than nothing, right? Where would you like me to start?”
I shrugged, pursing my lips slightly to stifle a smile: this was my first glimpse of optimism in a long time. In the meantime, Rosalia adjusted her chewing-gum-green glasses and redirected her gaze to the computer, scrutinizing its contents.
“Lithuania, for instance. They’re looking for specialists in linguistic pedagogy for a new teacher training program. Two months. They have a European union subsidy, which requires an international group. And this is in your line of work, right?” Indeed it was. Applied linguistics, language pedagogy, curriculum design. I’d been treading that path for the last two decades of my life. But before succumbing to the first siren’s song, I chose to inquire a bit further.
“University of Espirito Santo, in Sintra. Private, modern, loaded. They’ve put together a master’s program in teaching Spanish as a foreign language, and are looking for experts in methodology. The deadline is this Friday—in other words now. A twelve-week intensive course, with enough teaching hours to choke a horse. The salary isn’t too bad, so I imagine they must have loads of applications. But in your favor you have all those years of slogging away, and we’ve got a wonderful relationship with Espirito Santo, so it might not be too hard for us to get it.”
That offer seemed infinitely more tempting than the Lithuanian one. Sintra, with its forests and palaces, so close to Lisbon, and yet near to home. Rosalia’s voice brought me out of my reverie.
“And lastly, California,” she resumed, without ungluing her eyes from the screen. “I see this possibility as more iffy, but we can take a look at it, just in case. university of Santa Cecilia, north of San Francisco. The information we have is rather scant right now: the proposal has just come in and I haven’t had time to ask for more. At first glance, it seems like a grant financed by a private foundation, although the work will be carried out on campus. The endowment offered is nothing to write home about, but you’d be able to survive.”
“What does the work consist of, basically?”
“It has something to do with the compilation and classification of documents, and they’re looking for someone of Spanish nationality with a PhD in any area of the humanities.” Removing her glasses, she added: “Normally this type of grant goes to people with a lower professional standing than you, so you’d certainly stand out from the rest when it comes to evaluating the candidates. And California, dear, is a real temptation, so, if you wish, I can try to get further information.”
“Sintra,” I insisted, refusing the third offer. Twelve weeks. Perhaps enough time for my wounds to stop stinging. Far enough away to distance me from my immediate reality, close enough for me to return frequently in the event that my situation resolved itself suddenly and everything returned to normal. “Sintra sounds perfect,” I stated categorically. Half an hour later I left Rosalia’s office, the electronic application sent. I had a thousand details in my head, a handful of papers in my hand, and the feeling that perhaps luck, in a haphazard fashion, had finally decided to take my side. The rest of the day went by in a sort of limbo. I ate a grilled vegetable sandwich, without much appetite, in the faculty cafeteria and went on working distractedly all afternoon. At seven I attended the presentation of a new book by a colleague in the Ancient History Department. I tried to get away as soon as it was over, but afterwards a few colleagues dragged me with them in search of a cold beer and I didn’t have the strength to decline. It was close to ten when I finally reached home. In the semidarkness before I turned on the light I could see the answering machine blinking insistently in the far corner of the living room. Then I remembered that I’d turned my cell phone off when the presentation began and had forgotten to switch it back on. The first message was from Pablo, my younger son. Charming, incoherent, and vague, with loud music and laughter in the background. I had difficulty understanding his rushed words.
“Mother, it’s me, where the hell are you? . . . I’ve called your cell phone a bunch of times to tell you . . . I’m not coming back this week either, I’m staying at the beach, and . . . and . . . well, I’ll keep on trying you, okay?”
“Pablo,” I whispered, pausing the machine to search for his face amid the bookshelves. There it was, photographed a dozen times. Sometimes alone but almost always with his older brother, so alike the two of them. The eternal smiles, the black bangs covering the eyes. Rowdy sequences from their twenty-two and twenty-three years of life. Indians, pirates, and Flintstones in school plays, blowing out an ever-increasing number of candles on cakes. Summer camps, Christmas scenes. Fragments printed on Kodak paper, memory cut outs of a close-knit family that, as such, no longer existed. With my son Pablo still lingering in my mind, I pressed the Play button to listen to the next message.
“Uh . . . Blanca, it’s Alberto. You don’t answer your cell phone, I don’t know if you’re home. uh . . . I’m calling you because . . . um . . . to tell you that . . . uh . . . Well, it’s better if I tell you afterwards, when I reach you. I’ll call you later. Good-bye, talk to you later. Bye.”
My husband’s blundering voice left me restless. Or rather, my ex-husband’s. I was clueless as to what he wanted to tell me, but from his tone I hardly expected good news. My first reaction was, as usual, to think that something must have happened to one of my kids. From the previous message I knew that Pablo was fine; I then quickly rescued the cell phone from my bag, switched it on, and called David.
“Are you okay?” I inquired impatiently as soon as I heard his voice.
“Yes, of course I’m okay. How about you?”
He sounded tense. Perhaps it was only a false perception due to the phone connection. Perhaps not.
“Me, well, more or less . . . The thing is that Dad called and—”
“I know,” he interrupted me. “He just called me too. How did you take it?”
“How did I take what?”
“About the kid.”
“The one he’s going to have with Eva.”
Without the power of thought or sight, impenetrable as a marble mausoleum or a sidewalk curb, I remained suspended in a void for an indeterminate time. When I was again conscious of reality, I heard David’s voice screaming from the telephone, which had fallen on my lap. “I’m still here,” I finally answered. And without giving him more time to inquire any further, I ended the conversation. “Everything’s fine; I’ll call you later.”
I sat still on the sofa, gazing into nowhere while trying to digest the news that my husband was going to have a kid with the woman he’d left me for barely two months ago. Alberto’s third kid: that third child he never wanted to have with me despite my long insistence. The one who would be born from a belly that wasn’t mine and in a house that was not our own. I felt anguish rising unchecked from my stomach, announcing waves of nausea and distress. With hurried staggering steps, bumping against the doorway to the hall, I managed to reach the bathroom. I flung myself over the toilet and, down on my knees, began vomiting. I remained kneeling there for a long while, my forehead glued to the wall’s cold tiles as I tried to find a shred of coherence in the midst of the confusion. When I was finally able to stand up, I washed my hands slowly, deliberately, allowing the lathery water to run between my fingers. Then I brushed my teeth methodically, giving my brain time to work in a parallel manner, unhurriedly. Finally I returned to the living room with a clean mouth and hands, an empty stomach, a clear mind, and a numb heart. I found my cell phone on the carpet and dialed a number, but no one answered. Once more, I left my message on the answering machine. “It’s Bianca again, Rosalia. Change of plans. I have to go farther away, longer, immediately. Please find out whatever you can about that California fellowship.”
Nine days later I landed at the San Francisco airport. The abrupt cessation of hammering brought me back to reality. I looked to see what time it was. Noon. Only then was I conscious of the number of hours I had spent rummaging through papers without the slightest idea what to do with them. I rose from the floor with difficulty, noticing that my joints were numb. While dusting off my hands, I stood on tiptoe and peered out the small window close to the ceiling. The only thing I saw was a building under construction and the sturdy boots of a handful of workers bustling about with their lunch pails amid stacks of wooden planks. I felt a sharp pain in my stomach: a mixture of weakness, bewilderment, and hunger. I had reached California the previous evening after three planes and countless hours of flight. After picking up my luggage and feeling momentarily disoriented, I spotted my name written in thick blue letters on a small piece of cardboard. It was held up by a robust woman with a lost look and of indeterminate age, thirty-seven, forty, forty-something, perhaps, with a vanilla-colored dress and a blunt haircut that ended at the jawline. I went up to her, but not even when I was standing in front of her did she seem to notice my presence. “I’m Blanca Perea, I think you’re looking for me.”
I thought I was mistaken: she was not looking for me. Not for me nor for anyone else. She simply remained static and absent, apart from the moving mass, immune to the terminal’s hectic bustle. “Blanca Perea,” I repeated. “Professor Blanca Perea, from Spain.”
She finally reacted, opening and closing her eyes quickly, as if she had just returned hastily from an astral voyage. Extending her hand, she shook mine with an abrupt jolt; then, without a word, she took off without waiting for me while I made an effort to follow, juggling two suitcases, a handbag, and a laptop bag dangling from my shoulder.
The white 4×4 vehicle awaiting us in the parking lot had been parked diagonally, brashly invading two adjacent parking spots. JESUS LOVES YOU could be read on a sticker in the rear window. With a sudden powerful acceleration that belied the stolid appearance of its driver, we headed into the humid night along San Francisco Bay. Destination: Santa Cecilia. She drove glued to the wheel and focused. We hardly spoke during the entire journey; she simply answered my questions with monosyllables and brief scraps of information. All the same, I learned a few things. Her name was Fanny Stern, she worked for the university, and her immediate objective was to drop me off at the apartment that, along with a modest stipend, was part of the fellowship granted to me. I still had only a vague idea of what my new assignment entailed, since the suddenness of my departure had prevented me from obtaining more detailed information. That didn’t worry me, however, for there would be plenty of time to find out. In any case, I expected my job to be neither stimulating nor rewarding. For the time being, I was just happy to be able to flee my reality like a bat out of hell. In spite of my lack of sleep, when the alarm clock surprised me at seven a.m. the next day, I was reasonably awake and clear-minded. I got up and immediately jumped into the shower, preventing the fresh consciousness of morning from revisiting the dark road I’d travelled in recent days. With the sunlight I was able to confirm what I had intuited the previous night: that this nondescript apartment intended for visiting professors would turn out to be a suitable refuge for me. A small living room and basic kitchen were integrated at one end. A bedroom, a plain bathroom. Bare walls, sparse and neutral furniture. An anonymous shelter, but decent. Livable. Acceptable. I roamed the streets in search of a place to have breakfast while absorbing what Santa Cecilia had on display. In the apartment I’d found a folder bearing my name with all the necessary information to help orient me: a map, a pamphlet, a writing pad with the university’s logo.
Nothing else was needed. I found no trace of the Californian scenery familiar from television series and the collective imagination. No coast, no swaying palm trees or mansions with ten bathrooms. That super wealthy California, a paradise of technology, nonconformity, and showbiz, was clearly elsewhere.
Ravenous, I finally sat down at a nearby coffee shop. While devouring a blueberry muffin and drinking a watery cup of coffee, I slowly took in the scenery. There was a large square clotted with trees and surrounded by renovated buildings with an adobe appearance that gave the whiff of a past halfway between America and Mexico, with a residue of something vaguely Spanish. Lined up on the opposite side of the square were a First National Bank branch, a souvenir shop, the all-important post office, and a CVS pharmacy. My next goal was to reach Guevara Hall, where I would find the Modern Languages Department. This was to serve as my work environment for a still undetermined number of months. Whether this interval would turn out to be an effective balm or a simple Band-Aid for my wounds remained to be seen, but in any case I would at least stop feeling trapped. Entering the campus, I remained vigilant so as not to get lost in that maze of paths where throngs of students were making their way by bike or on foot to their classrooms. The noise of the department’s photocopying machine masked the sound of my steps and prevented Fanny, who was working there, from noticing my arrival until I was right beside her. She raised her eyes and stared at me again for several seconds with her inexpressive face. Extending her right arm with an automaton’s precision and pointing to the open door of an office, she announced: “Someone is waiting for you.” Having nothing further to say, she turned and went off with that same dull gait as on the previous evening at the airport.
I took a quick glance at the sign on the door as I entered. Rebecca Cullen, the name on almost all e-mails I’d received prior to departure, finally had a tangible place and presence. In addition to all the files and transcripts in her office were paintings saturated with colour, family pictures, and a bouquet of white lilies. Her greeting was an affectionate, warm handshake. Her clear eyes lit up a pretty face from which the wrinkles did not detract. A large lock of silvery hair fell over her forehead. I figured she was in her sixties, and I had a feeling that she must be one of those indispensable secretaries who, with a third of their superiors’ salaries, are usually three times as competent. “Well, Blanca, finally . . . It’s been a total surprise to learn that we have a visiting researcher this semester. We’re delighted . . .”
To my relief, we were able to communicate without a problem. I had laid the groundwork for my English during stays in the U.K. and had strengthened it through years of study and frequent contact with British universities. However, my experience regarding North America had only been sporadic: a few conferences, a family celebration in New York after my son Pablo passed his university entrance exam, and a brief research stint in Maryland. So I was reassured to confirm that I’d be able to cope on the West Coast without any great language barrier.
“I think I told you in one of my last messages that the head of our department, Dr. Luis Zarate, would be at a conference in Philadelphia, so in the meantime I’ll be the one in charge of orienting you in your work.”
Rebecca Cullen explained in general terms what I more or less knew I was expected to accomplish: to order and assess the legacy of an old faculty member who had died decades earlier. It was financed by SAPAM, the newly created foundation for Scientific Assessment of Philological Academic Manuscripts.
“His name was Andres Fontana and, as you know, he was a Spaniard. He lived in Santa Cecilia until his death in 1969, and was much beloved, but the usual thing happened afterwards. Since he didn’t have any family in this country, no one came forward to claim his things and, awaiting someone to decide what to do, they’ve sat here all these years, stacked in a basement.”
“Nothing has been moved since then?”
“Nothing, until SAPAM finally endowed a grant to carry out this project. To be perfectly honest,” she added in a knowing tone, “I think it’s rather shameful that three decades have already gone by, but that’s how things are: everyone’s always busy, the faculty comes and goes. And of all the people who were familiar with and esteemed Andres Fontana in his day, hardly anyone is left here except a few veterans like myself.”
I made an effort to disguise the fact that, if his own colleagues weren’t interested in that expatriate who had fallen into oblivion, I was even less so. “And now, if it’s okay with you,” she continued, getting back to practical matters, “first I’m going to show you your office and then
the storeroom where all the material is kept. You’ll have to forgive us: the news of your arrival has been rather sudden and we haven’t had a chance to find you a better spot.” I pretended to look in my bag for a tissue to blow my nose, waiting for Rebecca Cullen to change subjects, hoping she’d move on to another matter quickly and not delve into the reasons why a Spanish professor with a secure professional career, an impressive CV, a good salary, family, and contacts had decided so swiftly to pack a couple of suitcases and move to the other end of the world like someone fleeing the plague. My new office turned out to be a remote cubbyhole, with no comforts and a single window—narrow, off to one side, and not too clean overlooking the campus. There was a desk with an old computer and a heavy telephone supported by two sturdy outdated telephone books.
Relics from other times and other hands; decrepit surplus that no one wanted any longer. We’d get along well, I thought. After all, we were both in a state of depreciation.
“It’s important that you know how to find Fanny Stern: she’ll be in charge of supplying you with any materials you may need,” Rebecca announced, making way for me to navigate the turn that led into Fanny’s working space. On sticking my head in Fanny’s cubicle, I was overcome by a feeling of confusion but one that existed somewhere between tenderness and hilarity. There was not an inch of empty space on the walls, which were covered with playbills, calendars, posters of sunsets among snowy mountaintops, and sugary, optimistic messages like Don’t lose heart, you can make it; The sun always shines after a storm; and There’s always a helping hand nearby. In the middle of all this, beatific and absent, sat Fanny, gobbling up a white chocolate bar as greedily as a five-year-old. Before Fanny managed to finish swallowing and greet us, Rebecca went over to her and stood behind her. Holding Fanny by the shoulders, she gave her an affectionate squeeze. “Fanny, you already know Professor Perea, our visiting researcher, and you know what office we’ve assigned her, right? Remember that you must help her with everything she asks for, okay?”
“Sure, Mrs. Cullen,” she answered with a full mouth. To emphasize her willingness, she nodded several times vigorously. “Fanny is very eager and a hard worker. Her mother was also part of this department for decades.” Rebecca spoke slowly, as if carefully choosing her words. “Darla Stern worked here many years, and for a while she held the position that I later took over. How is your mother, Fanny?” she asked.
“Mother is very well, Mrs. Cullen, thank you,” Fanny replied, nodding once more as she swallowed.
“Give her my regards. And now we’re off: I must show Professor Perea the storeroom,” she concluded. When we left, Fanny was again sinking her teeth into the chocolate bar, surrounded by her blissful posters and perhaps even some devil lurking somewhere in a drawer.
“Before retiring from the dean’s office about four years ago, her mother saw to it that Fanny remained in the department as a kind of inheritance,” Rebecca explained with no trace of irony. “She doesn’t have a great many tasks, because, as you may have noticed, her abilities are somewhat limited. But her responsibilities are well-defined and she manages reasonably well: she hands out the mail, is in charge of making photocopies, organizes supplies, and carries out small errands. She’s an essential part of this house. And she can be counted on whenever you
A labyrinth of hallways and stairs took us to a remote section of the basement. Rebecca, in front, moved about with the familiarity of someone who had trod these floors for ages. I, behind, tried in vain to commit to memory all the twists and turns, anticipating how often I’d get lost before finding my way around. Meanwhile, Rebecca reeled off some facts about the university. More than fourteen thousand students, she said, almost all from out of town. Initially it was a college and eventually evolved into its present-day status of small, somewhat prestigious university. She mentioned that it currently created the most jobs and the greatest revenue of any institution in the community. We reached a narrow hallway flanked by metallic doors. “And this, Bianca, is your storeroom,” she announced, turning the key in one of the locks. When she finally opened it, with some difficulty, she flipped several switches on and the fluorescent lights sputtered to life, blinding us. I saw before me a long, narrow room like the corridor of a train. The cement walls, which had not been painted, were lined with industrial shelving whose contents spoke of dislocation and oblivion. Through two horizontal windows located at a considerable height, some natural light filtered in and the sound of hammering from a nearby construction site could be heard. At first it seemed like a rectangular space; however, after we had taken a few steps forward, I realized that the apparent shape and size were somewhat deceiving. At the back end, to the left, the storehouse had an L-shaped space that unfolded into another room.
“Et voilà, ” she announced, flipping on another switch. “Professor Fontana’s legacy.”
I was filled with such a terrible feeling of discouragement that I was about to tell her not to leave me there, to take me with her, to shelter me in any corner of her hospitable human office, where her calm presence would mitigate my anxiety. Perhaps aware of my thoughts, she tried to rally my spirits. “Daunting, right? But I’m sure you’ll be making your way through it in no time, you’ll see . . .” she said as she took her leave.
My eagerness to flee my domestic demons had led me to imagine that a radical change of work and geography would anchor me. But on seeing that chaos—piles of papers, folders strewn on the floor, and boxes stacked one upon the other without a trace of coherence, I felt I’d made a huge mistake. Even so, there was no turning back. Too late, too many bridges burned. And there I was, marooned in the basement of a campus at the farthest reaches of a foreign country, while thousands of miles away my sons ventured forth alone in the first stretch of their adult lives, and the man who until then had been my husband was about to relive the passionate adventure of paternity with a blond lawyer fifteen years younger than me. I leaned against the wall and covered my face with my hands. Everything seemed to be getting worse and I was running out of strength to endure it. Nothing seemed to be sorting itself out; nothing moved forward. Not even the immense distance had brought me a glimmer of hope. Even though I had promised myself to be strong, to endure courageously and not surrender, I began to notice that salty, murky taste of saliva that precedes weeping. Somehow I was able to hold back, to calm down and thereby halt the threat of succumbing. One step before descending into the void, some mechanism beyond my will kicked in and transported me via memory to a time far in the past. There I was, with the same chestnut-coloured hair, the same slender body, and two dozen fewer years, facing adverse circumstances that were nonetheless unable to knock me down. My promising college studies were truncated in their fourth year by an unexpected pregnancy, intolerant parents who were unable to accept the blow, and a sad emergency wedding. An immature counterpart as a husband. A freezing subterranean apartment as a home. A scrawny baby that cried inconsolably and all the uncertainty of the world before me. Times of mackerel sandwiches for dinner, cigarettes of dark tobacco, and lousy tap water. Poorly paying private classes and translations on the kitchen table seasoned with more imagination than exactitude; days short on sleep with lots of rushing, shortages, anxiety, and confusion. I didn’t have a bank account; all I had was the unconscious strength provided by my twenty-one years, a recently born baby boy, and the closeness of the person I thought was going to be my life mate.
Suddenly, everything had turned upside down and now I was alone, no longer struggling to bring up that skinny crying little kid, nor his brother, who came into the world barely a year and a half later. I no longer had to fight for that young rash marriage to work out, to help my husband in his professional aspirations, to achieve my own career by studying at dawn with borrowed notes and a stove at my feet. To pay for babysitters, day care, baby food, and a third hand Renault 5, to finally move to a rented apartment with central heating and two terraces. To prove to the world that my existence was not a failure. All this had been left behind and in this new chapter only I was left. Impelled by the sudden lucidity that the memories had brought, I removed my hands from my face, and as my eyes grew accustomed to the cold ugly light, I rolled my shirtsleeves up past my elbows.
“Greater heights than this have been scaled,” I whispered.
I had no idea about where to start organizing the disastrous legacy of Professor Andres Fontana, but I rushed headlong to work as if my entire life depended on the task.
Adelaide Airport had grown up while Pip was away. There was a shiny new terminal with air bridges now, and disem-barking the plane had the same generic feel it had worldwide, so she could almost have been anywhere – if not for the unmistakeable line of hills to the east, with the three towers marking the highest point in the Mount Lofty Ranges. That, and the twisting of her gut that told her she was nearly home. Home.
After almost a decade and a half living and working in Sydney and then New York, she wasn’t even sure what that meant any more. Her recently turned on phone burped up the messages that had come in since last checking during her connection in Auckland, and Pip held her breath as she scanned them. She smiled at the ‘Missing you’ message from her friend, Carmen, and frowned at the three from Chad but didn’t bother with those now. She was relieved to see there was nothing from her gran’s nursing home. No news was good news, although it didn’t stop her calling as soon as she was inside the terminal.
‘How is she?’ she asked, to be told there was no change.
She checked the wristwatch she’d already adjusted to Adelaide time and did a mental calculation – one hour at most for the formalities of immigration and customs and to collect the keys to her rental car, and another two for the drive to the town of Kadina – and told them she’d be there by lunch. Easy.
Her business class ticket meant a short queue at immigration, so she beat her luggage to baggage collection, the carousel still stationary. It wouldn’t be long once it did kick into action, she knew, courtesy of the blue priority tag her suitcase was wearing. But still she felt impatient to keep moving, her stomach wringing itself tighter and tighter the longer the wait continued. Needing desperately to see her gran, but knowing that visiting her home town for the first time in almost a decade was going to shake things up, things she’d sooner leave right where they were.
Like questions from the past she didn’t know the answer to. Like other stuff. Like . . . Luke. God, she didn’t want to think about any of that, least of all Luke. That was history. So ancient, it shouldn’t even figure. And then a siren sounded and a light flashed and the carousel kicked slowly into motion. A few bags in, her suitcase appeared through the rubber strips. She almost sighed as she hauled it from the carousel. She’d still be out of here within the hour.
Thank god she had nothing to declare. Another ten minutes or so and finally she’d be free. It was when she turned that she noticed the sniffer dog, trotting its way between legs and luggage. It was a beagle and cute as a button and for the first time in hours she managed a smile. Until it took one sniff in her direction and plonked itself down in front of her, and cute as a button turned into the incoming passenger’s worst nightmare.
‘I don’t understand,’ she pleaded, as the dog’s handler asked to see an incoming passenger card that clearly stated she was carrying nothing that should be of any interest to a sniffer dog or its handler.
‘Are you sure there’s not something in your bag?’ he asked, as curious heads craned towards her. ‘Some food from the plane, perhaps?’
She shook her head, the cold sick fear of what-if curdling the aeroplane breakfast in her stomach. What if someone had stashed something in her luggage en route? What if any one of a thousand other scenarios had happened? But she had done nothing wrong. She knew she had packed nothing that was contraband. She tried to smile. Tried to look confident. Tried, and failed. ‘Nothing. Absolutely nothing.’
Of course, there was nothing else for it but to search her bags. As her hopes of a quick getaway faded, her sigh of exas-peration didn’t win her any friends.
‘This won’t take long,’ said the stony-faced official.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said, trying not to aggravate the man any further. Not that anyone seemed fussed about not aggravating her. ‘It’s just, I’m kind of in a hurry.’ She licked her dry lips and wondered if they’d give her a break if she explained why she needed to get through customs and immigration as quickly as possible. ‘You see, my grandmother’s dying and I promised to be at her bedside by lunch.’
The official paused, latex sheathed hands poised over her suitcase, and for just one moment Pip thought that maybe he might actually let her go. ‘That’s too bad, miss,’ he said, deadpan but with a glimmer in his eye that told Pip she’d probably made the biggest mistake of her life by playing the dying grandmother card. He was sure she was trying to hide something now. ‘And now, if you’ll kindly unzip your bag?’ After twenty minutes of rifling through her things, twenty minutes of excruciating embarrassment as his big hands sorted through her knickers and her bras and the stuff she hid in her toiletries bag specifically so it wouldn’t spill out if her suitcase came undone en route, twenty minutes of questions during which she realised the beagle had likely smelled a banana she’d taken to work in her handbag the day before she’d left, she was free to cram her belongings back in and go hunt down her rental car. She sighed with relief at the agency as she gave her name and the attendant pulled out the paperwork. Finally something was going right. Finally she’d be on her way.
Or not . . .
‘Hang on,’ she said to the car rental agency attendant, who seemed to be having a lot of trouble with her booking. ‘I don’t want a sports car!’
The man rolled his eyes and glanced meaningfully over her shoulder at the queue of mums and dads and kids and luggage already building up behind her. ‘But you booked a cabriolet. It says so right here on the form.’ She shook her head, knowing that the last thing she wanted was a sports car. Her plan was to get in and out of Kadina making as few waves as possible. There was no way on earth she’d have asked for a damned sports car – or for that matter, any car that might draw attention to herself. ‘I want Stone Castles an ordinary car. Something nondescript and plain. Haven’t you got something boring? A Toyota or something?’
The attendant smiled. If you could call it a smile. More a baring of his teeth. ‘That’s actually a little awkward right now. We’re fully booked with the Christmas holidays starting. And after all, you did book the cabriolet.’
Pip sighed. Clearly someone had stuffed up. ‘Martin,’ she said again for good measure. ‘M-A-R-T-I-N. Can you check again please? There must be some mix up.’
‘There is no mix up.’ He didn’t even pretend to smile this time, all attempts at the pleasantries over. ‘This is your name on the rental document, yes?’
She glanced at the papers. ‘Well yes,’ she conceded, ‘but for the last time, I didn’t book –’ And with a cold shiver of realisation, it hit her. She hadn’t booked it at all. While she’d been in a panic about packing, Chad had offered to do it for her, using his firm’s corporate code because it offered a better discount than hers. ‘Just a car,’ she’d told him when he asked what kind she wanted. ‘Any old car.’
Shit . . .
‘Hang on,’ she said, reaching for her phone, scrolling through the messages she’d ignored earlier, clicking on the first.
Figured you would have landed by now.
She deleted that and moved onto the next.
Thought you might be missing me.
Weird. She frowned and sent that one to the trash as well.
It was the third message where she hit paydirt.
So surprise! Enjoy the wheels. Think of me every time you put your foot down.
What the hell? She’d think of him, all right. She’d imagine pushing him under her pedal and pressing her foot down hard. Dammit, why the hell had she ever trusted him with her booking? She sucked in air and looked back at the attendant and gave a weak smile. He had no trouble lobbing a wide one right back, and she knew that whatever expression had been on her face when she’d read those messages might as well have been ringed with neon lights. He was loving every minute of this. ‘All sorted then?’ he asked smugly, and without waiting for the answer pushed the rental agreement closer to her.
‘So maybe we can finish off the paperwork. If you just sign here . . . and here.’
Pip sighed. ‘Okay,’ she conceded, holding up one hand.
‘Apparently someone did book that car in my name. But it was actually a misunderstanding. Are you sure there’s nothing else available? Nothing at all?’
He blew air through his teeth and gestured to the queue behind her that was growing longer by the minute, full of frac-tious kids and their exhausted looking parents. ‘Not a sausage. I’m sorry, these people have booked all our boring cars.’
Ouch! She glanced over to the other agency desks, wondering if she should threaten to take her business else-where, but those desks looked just as crowded.
‘So there’s really no alternative?’
‘There’s always an alternative,’ he told her, and when she looked back at him, halfway interested, he continued. ‘There’s always public transport.’
All the way to the Yorke Peninsula? In what – a bus? And meanwhile she was supposed to be halfway there already, at her gran’s bedside. Oh god, Gran! Two hours after landing she was still stuck here at the airport. ‘Okay,’ she said, scrawling her signature on the paperwork. So much for trying not to be noticed. ‘I’ll take the damned convertible. Please just tell me it’s not red.’
The attendant looked studiously at the papers and didn’t say a word, but still she caught the curve of his lips. She could only hope it was because he was happy to be finally seeing the back of her.
Five minutes later she knew it wasn’t the only reason. She surveyed the car. Her nondescript rental designed to fly under the radar and go unnoticed in her home town. It was all kinds of red. Look-at-me red. Trouble-on-wheels red. Sex-on-wheels red. Enough! Whatever the colour, she would have to deal with it. She would just have to cope. She wrestled her bag into the trunk – boot, she reminded herself – and opened her door, staring blankly for a moment at the missing steering wheel before she realised.
She slammed the door, disgusted with herself as she rounded the car and found the driver’s seat. She was in Australia now. Driving on the other side of the car, and the road. She’d better not forget that again.
A match flares in the dark. It dies a swift, hapless death.
A second, this one shielded by a cupped hand, licks a candlewick until it catches. As a halo of orange illuminates the dugout, a quick, frosty breath snuffs out the match. With strong manicured fingers a man prises open a fob watch, glued shut with grit and sweat: five minutes to five. He slips the watch into his tunic pocket. A second thought. He retrieves it, polishes the casing on his rough woollen sleeve and places it in a small metal trunk on his bed. Every instinct tells him he won’t be needing the watch after this morning. If everything goes as expected, he won’t be needing anything much at all.
The man shuffles around the small bolthole, picking up his meagre personal effects and packing them into the trunk. It surprises him how austere the world of even the most cultured man can become. When life is distilled down to its most basic elements, it’s remarkable how little you really need. Some officers like to confect a home away from home, surrounding themselves with familiar comforts: their favourite cologne, a gramophone, coffee-making utensils, their library. He resists the urge. He never wants his lair has been his home since May, through a dysentery-wracked summer and a wretched autumn. Now a sodden winter is smothering his resolve. It snowed last month and an eighteen-year-old sentry was found frozen at his post in the morning. Not how you expect a man, young or old, to die in war.
He has packed the trunk in this way, the same scant items in the same order, eight times since they landed. He could leave it for someone else. For after. But the packing has become something akin to a rite, a ceremonial declaration. Everything is in order. I am ready for the worst. I dare you.
He flicks the pages of his diary, water stained, muddy and precious. He recalls his first entries, considered and self-conscious, every word a labour. Yesterday’s entry – I woke early. Bitterly cold. Reported to colonel. After seven months of suffering, there’s nothing left to say. He wipes the cover with his hand and drops it into the trunk, then places a family photo on top. In his palm he juggles a closed pinecone like a grenade before putting it, too, inside the chest. His shaving bowl, razor and brush follow. He lifts a woman’s scarf up to his nose, breathing in the scent of his wife. Or the memory of her. Who knows for sure anymore? He wraps it around a sheaf of papers – a letter – then drops them into the trunk and closes the lid.
As he moves to the table where his revolver lies, the flickering candlelight catches his epaulettes and the hilt of the sword strapped to his side. He’s a career officer, a major, a forty-seven-year-old man of quiet resolve. Now weary and taut, he is on the brink of ordering yet another pointless assault on the enemy trenches at Gallipoli. He has done this countless times before. But today, inexplicably, it unsettles him.
He knows this attack may well cost him his life. Which is nothing new. Snipers on both sides routinely target officers, to decapitate the lumbering enemy on the charge. Certainly he knows hundreds of his men will perish in the next thirty minutes for no particularly good reason. Whatever scant centimetres they advance this morning will be stolen back by the enemy tomorrow. With all the to-ing and fro-ing at Lone Pine, the front lines haven’t moved for four months.
There was a time when he was disgusted by the profligate waste of life. Now it just exhausts him.
Light filters through the coarse hessian curtain that acts as his door. He hears a guttural cough, a none-too-subtle reminder from his sergeant. He smiles to himself. Hat on, pistol holstered and sword slapping his leg, the officer pushes back the curtain and steps into the pre-dawn light. A rugged face appears before Major Hasan. It is his staff sergeant, Jemal, a weather-beaten lion of a man and a veteran of too many campaigns. He speaks in Turkish, fog on his breath.
Hasan looks past him and down the muddy Ottoman trench at his ragtag army. Whiskered grandfathers stand beside terrified teenagers, farmers beside bank clerks from Stamboul. Some wear full uniform, others are clad in a motley mismatch of civilian clothes tricked up with military-issue jackets, trousers or belts. The Ottoman Government is still recovering from the Balkan War and is desperately low on uniforms and supplies. Many of these conscripts are standing in the clothes of dead men, blood washed away and bullet holes worn as lucky charms.
Surely lightning can’t strike twice. The fortunate wear boots – often salvaged from the feet of fallen comrades – but the rest have wrapped their bare feet in cloth against the cold.
‘Wait for the sun,’ says Hasan with a nod.
Jemal salutes and the message is relayed quietly along the trench with a whispered word or a gesture. Soldiers shake hands and kiss their comrades, fathers or sons on both cheeks. An imam, bearded and solemn, blesses men as they huddle around a brazier; the heat of the flames does little to disperse the frost of mortal fear.
The bone-chillingingly cold air is still. Silent. Jemal supervises as scaling ladders are raised against the trench wall and men line up at their bases. Their tension is palpable. Teeth chatter, not just from the cold. The acrid smell of urine and the stomach-churning sweet tang of the decaying dead in the ghastly stretch of land between the two front lines pollute the morning air.
Hasan spots a young boy, lost in an oversized tunic, his boots on the bottom rung of his ladder. He is determined to be first over the top. As the major strides towards him the boy looks into the mud, deferring to the senior officer.
‘Soldier, what is your name?’ asks Hasan sternly.
‘Yilmaz,’ the boy replies into the dirt, adding, ‘from, Mardin, sir,’ as an afterthought.
‘Fetch my binoculars, Private Yilmaz from Mardin.
They’re in my dugout.’
‘But Commander, I’ll miss –’
‘Do it,’ demands Hasan, cutting him short.
Reluctantly Yilmaz gives up his place at the front of the line and makes his way along the trench. Major Hasan watches the boy disappear and then steps onto his ladder and chances a look over the top of the sandbags at the enemy line. The grim expanse of no-man’s land is dusted with frost; infinitesimally small crystals reflect the first blush of dawn’s pale light. A distant rifle cracks, shattering the unnatural silence, and Hasan ducks automatically. He composes himself and signals to an old bandleader, who is resplendent in his tattered velvet jacket and meticulously waxed handlebar moustache. A handful of drummers and trumpeters gather in a huddle, and the bandmaster thrusts a flag into the air. A trumpet wails and the band strikes up a discordant anthem, the signal to charge. In a chaotic, adrenaline-fuelled scramble, men surge up the ladders and over the trench wall crying, ‘ Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! ’
Hasan has timed the assault perfectly, using the rising Aegean sun to dazzle the enemy as his troops charge across no-man’s land. Hasan climbs over the sandbags, with Jemal puffing beside him like a swimmer coming up for air. Ottoman soldiers cry out at the top of their lungs around them, expelling their fear and anxiety. Those with guns fire blindly into the dawn light before them. The rest brandish farm imple-ments and handmade pikes, waiting for the man beside them to fall so they can seize his rifle and make it their own.
The Australian front line is barely the length of a tennis court away but the ground is sodden and uneven, and punctuated with craters and bloated corpses that form a gruesome obstacle course for the running men. And soldiers do fall, some tangled at the ankles by coils of razor-sharp wire curling out of the mud, others dropping into shell holes filled with a hideous soup of stagnant water and disarticulated body parts.
In the confusion they can hear guns from the enemy trenches spit and buck. The band is charging across the field in a loose formation, still playing its defiant, dissonant song, but now a few instruments short. The bandleader waves the colours of the 47th Battalion like a red rag to a bull. Revolver in hand, Hasan stumbles across no-man’s land, Jemal at his side. At any moment he expects to feel the searing heat of a bullet and the mud in his hair as he is knocked onto his back. He knows his sergeant will be happy if he can just get his cavalier commander to the enemy trench in one piece. He can almost hear Jemal thinking, Why can’t the major be like most men of his rank and stay behind the line? That’s what binoculars are for.
They have caught the Australians off guard with the early hour. Hasan imagines them still huddled under their khaki coats like street children as the Turkish boots drop down beside them, spraying mud. Bayonets make for a rude awakening. In the last assault Hasan watched as most of his men were mown down by snapping machine-gun fire before they took a step. He lost count of how many fell back into the trench, killed before they even cleared the sandbags. Are the Anzacs just waiting, biding their time, before launching an unholy barrage? Ahead, Hasan can see the first wave of his attack nearly at the enemy line, bayonets raised and bellowing at the Australians, daring them to do their worst. And then, through the December mist, it happens.
Suddenly the raging Turks all stop in unison. The sound of gunfire peters out. The yelling subsides as perplexed soldiers stand in silence and look down into the enemy trench.
Jemal nudges soldiers aside as Hasan makes his way through his troops to the edge of the trench. From high up on a sandbag he looks down in disbelief. There is no one there. Hasan, conditioned to always expect the worst, is suspicious.
‘It’s a trap. It must be.’
Jemal shrugs. ‘If it was, we’d know by now.’
Hasan drops into the Anzac trench and Jemal joins him, both wary of booby-traps. Perplexed and confused, the men of the 47th watch on in silence. A sudden blast from a rifle propped on the edge of the trench, and the men dive for cover. Jemal and Hasan barely flinch. The two men examine the unmanned gun, smoke still spiralling from its barrel. Hasan sees that it’s been set up to shoot at the Ottoman front line automatically. The .303 is fired by a clever system of water-filled tin cans punctured so that they empty gradually, until they pull the trigger. He can’t help but admire the ingenuity. Jemal reloads the rifle and unscrews the stopper on his canteen, about to pour water into one of the cans. He pauses, looking down the barrel at a cluster of soldiers watching at the business end of the rifle, and waves them away.
‘Move or be martyred,’ he bellows.
The men have learned that an order from a man as rash as Jemal is ignored at their peril. They scramble out of the way as he empties his canteen into the can tied to the trigger. The gun fires with a loud crack. Jemal nods, impressed. Hasan continues along the trench, passing a table set for a game of chess; one white pawn pushed two squares towards the enemy line. A note in English sits under the piece and reads, ‘Your move, Abdul.’ Hasan gives a wry smile. Another time, another place, he might have enjoyed meeting this chess player. Strange to think that in the midst of the dehumanising chaos of war, an enemy soldier found solace in such a civilised pastime. Jemal appears, wielding a cricket bat like a club.
‘A weapon?’ asks Hasan.
‘I watched them play this pointless game near the beach, between barrages.’ Jemal holds the bat over his shoulder and swings it through the air before studying it intently.
‘Whatever it was, they took it more seriously than the war.’
They are interrupted by a distant cheer, and peer over the sandbags to see the bandleader waving his flag and dancing. He is pointing out to sea. Hasan climbs a ladder and raises his binoculars to see a white wake cutting through the ink-black Aegean and trails of smoke from the departing Anzac troopships as they make a beeline for Greece.
As Hasan’s men realise what has happened, shocked silence gives way to waves of celebration. Just moments before, they had resigned themselves to the inevitability of sudden and violent death. The release of tension ignites the gathered Ottoman troops like a lit fuse. Some men fall to their knees in silent prayer. Others weep and congratu-late their friends for surviving. But most cheer and shoot their guns into the air, crying, ‘ Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!’
Today, Hasan thinks, after months of being a passive bystander, God truly is great. Hasan sits on a sandbag and leans his head back against the trench wall. He takes in the significance of the moment, and doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. After 238 dreadful days of staring at each other across the ditch, strafing each other with machine guns, picking each other off on the way to the latrines, mining each other’s trenches, listening to each other’s wounded bleed out in no-man’s land, and finally tossing gifts of cigarettes and food from trench to trench, the invaders have skulked away in the night. He knew they must, before the winter floods washed them off the cliffs that they had clung to so tenaciously.
This is a good thing; it is what they have been praying for.
But for a moment he feels bereft – cheated. The enemy has defined him, given him his purpose. But now, to a man, they have suddenly stolen away under cover of darkness without giving him the opportunity to salvage anything positive from this cursed morass.
Yilmaz, the boy soldier, appears, running across no-man’s land, out of breath.
‘Sir, your binoculars. I could not find . . .’ He trails off as he spots them hanging around the major’s neck.
With a half-smile Hasan replies, ‘Private Yilmaz from Mardin, today was not your day to be martyred.’
The band launches into a Turkish folk song as soldiers throw down their guns and start singing and dancing.
A man paces across a vast paddock, under a vaulting indigo-blue sky. He performs an oddly choreographed dance; first striding in one direction, then sidling in another; backtracking slowly before turning. From beneath a dusty brim his eyes scan the rust-red soil. He is blind to the beauty of the sunrise as the first long fingers of rose gold stretch across the Mallee plains, glinting off the strands of parched summer grass.
He stops abruptly, and peers down at his clenched hands like a churchgoer who has forgotten the words. How, he wonders, has he just noticed? Knotted, with skin like bark, they are hands much older than his forty-six years.
In each fist he clasps a short length of brass tubing, polished to a warm patina from years of use. A foot-long length of wire bent into an L-shape protrudes from each tube, like grasshoppers’ feelers. As the man moves, the antennae swivel and scout. He follows their lead, weaving across the paddock and watching for the moment when they converge and cross. It will be right there that he will find it, but he never knows how deep down it will be.
Joshua Connor is as tough and unyielding as the land he calls home. Tanned like hide, he is tall with the broad shoulders and well-muscled chest of a man conditioned to long days labouring under the Australian sun. He has neither the time nor the inclination to place any stock in life’s mysteries. To him, water divining is just something he can do – just as it was something his mother could do, and her father before that. Take it back a few generations and they would have been called water witches. A bit further back in time, and most likely they would have been burned at the stake. But here, today, in the dry and unforgiving Australian outback where water is life or death, Connor’s strange gift is as precious as it is inexplicable. Unyielding and irascible, he is not the most popular man in the district but no one would ever deny that Connor’s baffling ability to sense hidden subterranean water has saved many a local family.
Connor pauses and lets the feelers settle, then veers in an arc to his right. His thick-tailed sheepdog shadows him cautiously; he has long since learned to keep a reasonable distance. Any sudden change in Connor’s direction could earn him a kick in the ribs. Their boot and paw prints snake through the red soil behind them like plaits, tracing this strange ritual right across the paddock.
The man points to a lonely cluster of Mallee trees, bloated at the base with thirst like dead sheep in a drought. He talks to his dog as he would to a smart child.‘It’s here somewhere. Those buggers don’t survive on air alone.’
The dog sits patiently in the dust as the sun scales higher above the horizon, the first sting of its rays burning the dawn chill from the air. Connor wipes a bead of sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. You don’t need any special gifts to know today is going to be a scorcher.
‘Let’s get this over and done with, mate.’
Connor studies the wires as they slowly rotate, swinging one way and then the other. They settle, pointing along parallel paths to an outcrop of rocks. ‘See, soil’s different over there. Rocks close to the surface.’
He heads in the direction the wires indicate, adjusting his path as they sway to and fro. Now he takes smaller steps, barely shuffling, until the wires swivelling in the brass tubes converge and settle in a cross. Funny, he thinks to himself, how a cross can mean treasure, salvation or death – it just depends.
Connor marks the spot with his heel, digging into the earth four times – one for each point of the compass. ‘Right there, boy. Stay.’ The dog settles down on his haunches. He’s in for a wait.
Connor begins the punishing walk back to his horse and cart, squinting his blue eyes against the caustic morning light. There is nothing easy about this land. As the ground warms, a raucous insect orchestra strikes up; Connor strides out in time to its beat as the piercing trills cut through the air.
The mare stands patiently in the shade of a ghost gum, stamping her hooves and flicking her ears to ward off the black tide of flies that rises and falls around her. She knows the routine; it’s been a long time since Connor last had to tie her to a hitching rail. She’s not one to wander off. Wander where, anyway? Dry as a temperance meeting, Connor sips from a canteen, jumps onto the seat and takes up the reins.
‘Time to earn your keep, you old nag.’ He pats her rump affectionately and flicks the reins. As the horse begins to move Connor turns her, swivelling the cart around to face the distant spot where the dog stands guard.
The mare picks up pace, casting a red wake of dust into the clear morning air. Connor enjoys the speed, the cool rush of wind against his face. He looks back – the airborne dust, thick as smoke, obscures their path. The cart clatters and jolts as the contents shift – gnarled branches tied in bundles, heavy ropes, a block and tackle, a square canvas bucket, shovels and a pick.
The dog sees them approaching, shifts nervously. It wouldn’t be the first time he ended up under one of the mare’s hooves. ‘Steady, girl.’ Connor draws the reins up, bringing the cart to a halt. He jumps down and bends to scratch the dog roughly behind the ears.
‘Good boy. No one’ll get past you, will they?’
Connor unloads the cart, carefully placing his equipment in neat piles, stalling. He straddles the marker in the dust and lifts the pickaxe above his head.
‘Let’s hope it’s not too deep this time, eh?’
The dog shifts quickly to the side. Connor brings the iron crashing down into the unyielding ground. The impact jolts him, reverberates up his arms, making his teeth clack together.
Connor lifts the pick again, smashes it down. And again. Begrudgingly the brick-hard earth begins to give; small red clumps shift aside as he drives the pick deeper.
Enough loose soil now for the shovel. Connor plunges the spade into the dirt, ropey muscles along his arms and back tensing as he clears the first bucket of what he knows will be many more. He peers down into the bottom of the shallow hole, anticipating the telltale darkening of the soil, the gradual seep of water into the dust, which he knows will tell him when he’s close. Connor glances at the dog, who sits transfixed as always by his master’s every move.
‘A man can hope, can’t he?’
The sun lifts higher above the endless horizon. Connor feels the rising heat against his skin and the first trail of perspiration running between his shoulder blades, down his back and under his belt.
He bends and lifts the pick again. ‘Best make yourself comfortable. It’s going to be a fight today, mate.’
For Connor the day disappears like a mirage through eyes that sting with salty sweat. Down the hole, he reckons the hours in buckets of dirt, blisters and feet below the surface. One, two, three . . . Each time he emerges from the dark, damp well, blinking like a boobook owl, he tracks the shimmering sun across the sky, sees the shadows lengthening. Fourteen, fifteen . . . Gone is the midday cacophony of parrots and cockatoos as they swoop and soar across the plains. As dusk approaches, Connor is serenaded by the buzz of crickets and the mocking call of a kookaburra perched on a gnarled tree nearby. Night is on the counterattack.
The dog peers down at his master, at work deep beneath the surface now in a neatly excavated hole. The walls of the well are reinforced with a scaffolding of Mallee-scrub branches, interlocked and methodically lashed with rope to hold back the brittle, crumbling earth.
Aching and spent, Connor bends, his large frame restricted by the confines of the well. He winces as he lifts the canvas bucket full of muddy red soil, attaching it to the block and tackle. He climbs up the bracing timbers to the surface and lifts the bucket, hoisting the rope hand over hand, calloused palms raw. Connor empties the cool, damp earth onto the hot dust that still holds the warmth of the sun’s rays.
He pauses, hands on hips, bone tired. Looks down at the dog, now lying on his side, snapping at flies. ‘Don’t want to take over for a spell, do you?’
Connor breathes deeply, clambers back down into the pit. He crouches, feeling the soil between his fingers. It’s wet. No doubt about it. Can’t be far off now. She’s a tease. ‘Time to show it who’s boss,’ he mumbles.
He grabs a long shaft of steel leaning against the wall behind him – almost as long as Connor is tall, and flattened at one end to a chisel-like point. He lifts it above his head and slams it into the mud. The earth yields. A vein of red stone cracks, and water belches out like a busted fountain. Connor raises the steel and strikes again, letting out a conqueror’s roar that is lost on a dog, a horse and a barren and empty landscape. Distracted for a moment, his mind baked, Connor doesn’t notice how quickly the water is rising. Up to his knees already. It never comes this fast.
He grabs for his tools, blind hands fumbling beneath the water. He reaches for the ladder, tossing the shovel, bucket and pick up to the surface. Not far enough – the pick catches on a protruding branch and tumbles back down the shaft into the swirling red water. Could leave it. Should leave it. But how am I going to replace a pick out here in the middle of nowhere? Connor curses and scrambles back down the well. He ducks into the water to retrieve the pick.
As he surfaces again, his eyes stinging with water and silt, Connor stretches, fingers searching for a beam. It doesn’t seem fair that this has happened at the dead end of the day when he is spent. His weary hand grasps a branch and he levers himself upwards. Suddenly the branch shoots clear of the wall, slamming into Connor’s forehead and dazing him. He falls back, grappling desperately for a handhold as the rising water undercuts the scaffolding and the branches tug at him with sirens’ claws.
The dog yaps madly around the collapsing hole. Connor struggles to keep his head above the surging water. White stars exploding in his eyes from the clout to his head, he fights the grey fog that threatens to descend on him. He looks up at a perfect circle of sky, fringed by a ring of twisted branches. As the blood runs from his gouged scalp all he sees is a crown of thorns.
He feels the water cleanse the day’s sweat and dust from his skin. He lets go, a soporific detachment washing over him. He is done fighting. Surrender. He shuts his eyes, accepting the inevitable. And yet. There. The water, rising to the surface, places salvation within reach; the lip of the well is now just above his head. Connor’s survival instinct kicks in. Submission, whether to fate, chance or a higher power, has never come naturally to him. Connor brawls with this mean landscape every day. He reaches out and grabs the edge, hauling himself to safety. He collapses on solid ground with a wet whack. The dog licks his bloodied face, whining, and
Connor shoves him away. ‘Thanks for all your help back there, mate.’
In the early evening light, Connor stands under a make-shift shower in his long johns. From a corrugated-iron tank perched on a stand, a stream of clear, restorative water pours over him. He peels back his sodden underwear and the sun-warmed water turns red as it sluices the dust from his chest and back. He rubs his hair, wincing as his fingers find the jagged wound on his scalp. He picks the dried blood from his hair, not wanting to alarm Eliza.
Behind him a windmill, cobbled together from a cartwheel and flattened kero tins, clanks and murmurs as it pumps water from the deep well below. Connor looks across the yard towards their unassuming home. He built it with the same hands that now struggle to hold a cake of soap and push it round his underarm. He had paced it out, carted the red brick and iron sheeting from Horsham, dug the postholes, split the shingles and papered the walls. He recalls riding all the way to Adelaide to pick out the wood-fired stove. He laboured by day and slept under the stars by night to build this home – all for the family that he had hoped was to come. The home faces north to catch the sun in the depths of winter when chilling winds blow across the plains from the south, and is shielded from the summer sun by a deep verandah.
How many times had Eliza told the boys about the day their father stood back, hands on hips, and judged his work done? He had dressed in his Sunday best, ridden into town and pledged his troth to Eliza, his childhood sweetheart. When she’d seen what he had built her out here in the middle of nowhere, she’d understood how much this hard, bashful man cared for her, and wept. ‘Who . . . Dad?’ the boys laughed.
Connor glances towards the bay window. Eliza stands silhouetted against the lace curtains, backlit by the flickering light of the kerosene lantern, absently picking at tendrils of hair falling around her temples. Connor turns off the shower head, dries himself, and passes along the concrete path past a row of well-tended yellow and red roses. A tyre swing hangs from an ancient peppercorn tree. A colony of boys’ clothing swings in the evening breeze, pegged neatly on the washing line like fruit bats. Shorts, overalls, shirts and socks – some so small it’s impossible to imagine them fitting a human being. Connor tosses his sodden clothes into a copper washtub, grabs a dry outfit off a hook near the flywire door at the back of the house and dresses – slowly and deliberately. He grabs a comb from a chipped enamel mug sitting on the back stoop and runs it through his hair.
There’s a moment of quiet as the day gives way to night, and the water diviner drops his shoulders and exhales for what feels like the first time today. The screen door swings, screeches and slams. ‘Sounds like that hinge could do with some oil. I’ll get onto it tomorrow morning.’
Eliza sits at the table, hunched over and immersed in the job at hand. She tilts her head towards Connor and gives a papery smile. Although she still has the fine complexion and clear green eyes he first fell in love with, the grey streaks in her hair belie her relative youth and signal an advancing frailty. She seems to be disappearing; folding in on herself. The sharp line of her fine nose and dark hollows beneath her jawline become more prominent every day. Where once she had filled her pin-tucked, tightly waisted dresses with womanly curves and soft skin, now she stitches new seams into her clothes to disguise her diminishing frame. When Connor has occasion to embrace her, she feels as insubstantial as an armful of chicken bones. The day is not over for her. She works with brush and cloth to polish a line of schoolboys’ boots to a mirror-like shine, her knuckles stained nugget-brown.
‘Lizzie. . .? Everything all right?’
She doesn’t glance up, trying to avoid his gaze. ‘Dinner’s waiting.’
Connor looks towards the table where a solitary, unin-viting meal sits; cold pressed ox tongue, mustard pickles and some slices of bread. Next to the plate sits a small brown paper–wrapped parcel, opened but face down.
He moves towards the table. ‘Lizzie – what’s this?
Who’s it from?’
Eliza rubs at one small boot and holds it up to the lantern light.
‘For goodness’ sake. Arthur’s worn through the toe of his boot again. What on earth does he do to them?’ Her face softens as she looks up at Connor. ‘The boys are all in bed. They’re waiting for you to read to them.’
‘I’m bone tired, Lizzie.’
‘You mustn’t disappoint them, Joshua. It’s their favourite part of the day. They waited up specially.’
Connor concedes with a resigned nod and drags his waterlogged body down the hall towards the bedroom door. Connor lowers himself carefully onto the end of one of the three single beds. He smiles and takes a small blue leather-bound volume from a bedside table. He opens it and begins to read The Arabian Nights, the boys’ favourite. Prince Hussein called to the man and asked him why the carpet he wished to sell was so expensive, saying, ‘It must be made from something quite extraordinary.’
The Merchant replied, ‘My Prince, your amazement will be all the greater when I tell you that it is enchanted.’
Connor’s voice, honeyed and sure, drifts through the room and down the hall.
‘Whoever sits on this magic carpet and closes his eyes may be transported through the air in an instant to wherever his heart desires to be.’
Connor closes the book and rests his hand on the hollow place in the mattress where his son should lie. Moonlight shines in the window and illuminates the three empty beds, cold and unjumped-on, the white pillows missing sleep-tousled heads, the neatly made starched sheets unrumpled by sweaty slumber. He is alone. After he composes himself Connor slips out of the bedroom, closes the door and makes the desolate walk back to the kitchen table. Eliza sits, arms crossed, her heart burnished raw like the shoes lined up before her. Connor takes the seat opposite, with the small, brown parcel and years of arrested grief perched between them. His dinner sits, untouched, at the other end of the table. Connor has been reading to empty beds now for four years, ever since the first telegram arrived from the army telling them that ‘regrettably’ Henry was missing, presumed dead.
‘Read to him,’ Lizzie beseeched. ‘I’ll close my eyes and imagine him back here safely. He’s just lost. Not dead.’
Connor read to comfort her. It seemed to be the only thing he could do to help. Within a fortnight the second telegram arrived; young Edward had gone missing on the same day as his brother. The message had been lost, sent to a Connor family in Queensland. Connor imagined the relief that family felt when they realised the telegram was not for them. He wanted dearly, desperately to be that Mr Connor of Brisbane. When Lizzie saw the postmaster arriving at the front of the house with a third piece of pink paper clutched solemnly in his hand, she ran out the back door, pulling at Connor’s arm and begging him to hide too.
‘Don’t let him deliver it. If he can’t deliver it it can’t be true.’
All three boys had been lost on the same day. Connor is certain that it was the cruelty of the disjointed arrival of the letters that began to unhinge Lizzie. Each time the couple held one another on the bed. Lizzie wailed until she was hoarse and her eyes were too bruised to cry. He shook uncon-trollably; swallowing his grief and feeling it ricochet through his chest bruising his ribcage from the inside. By the third telegram he was too shell-shocked to grieve properly. He read Arthur’s name with grim resignation, gave one invol-untary guttural cry and waited for the flood of emotion. It did not come. He was cauterised from the inside out. For the next year Lizzie lived in sleepless limbo. ‘I’m presuming they are not dead. That’s what the letters say. Missing. Not dead,’ she would declare whenever he made the mistake of speaking about any of the boys in the past tense.
Initially Connor read to an empty room to offer Lizzie some peace. When he tried to give it away she shrieked at him and accused him of wanting the boys dead. He realised that for her the storytelling had transcended comfort and was now a liturgy, in the same way the shoe polishing had become a ritual. Long after Connor surrendered hope that their sons were still alive, Lizzie maintained her belief. In her troubled mind, to read was a declaration of faith. Connor reaches out, feels the crackle of the wrapping paper and coarse twine and the unmistakable form of a book hidden within. He turns it, glances down and sees the opened end and the all too familiar mark of the Australian Imperial Forces. No. How? Why now after so long? He places it back down on the table, avoiding the subject.
‘So, I hit water at fifteen feet. Bit brackish, but good pressure . . . a bit too much pressure, actually . . .’ Connor looks up, sees tears welling in Eliza’s eyes as she stares at the package.
‘They didn’t even wipe the mud off . . .’
‘Lizzie, it’s been four years . . .’
Her eyes flash. ‘You think you’re so clever. But in the end, it counts for nothing. You find water, but you can’t even find your own children.’
Eliza stands, shoving the chair to one side, toppling it with a crash that echoes through the empty house. ‘Why can’t you find them? You lost them!’
In this forlorn home in the middle of nowhere with the nearest neighbours many miles away, she retreats, sobbing, to the only refuge available to her. The door to their bedroom slams. An all too familiar wave of helplessness washes over Joshua Connor. It’s been a long time since he’s known how to soothe Eliza’s grief. He picks up the parcel on the table and unfolds the paper wrapping. Enclosed within is a muddy, dog-eared diary. Connor gingerly folds back the leather cover and smoothes the brittle pages within. Interleaved between a haphazard collection of handwritten letters, rough sketches, cartoons and maps is a crumpled photograph. A studio shot. Three handsome young men in A.I.F. uniforms, arms proudly draped over each other’s shoulders, smiling broadly. Art, Henry and Ed had been the pride of the district. Tall, long-limbed, blue-eyed, and all handy with a football and a cricket bat. ‘We’re the only three brothers in Australia to score centuries in the same day,’ they boasted, without a skerrick of proof. When challenged Art would retort, ‘Well, I’ve never heard of any others, have you?’ as if that should be verification enough.
In Lizzie’s eyes, her boys died perfect. But Connor prefers to remember them warts and all, and enjoy their imperfections. Arthur, the eldest, would be twenty-five years old now. He inherited his father’s stubbornness and sense of honour along with his mop of brown hair. As his son matured Connor wondered if the boy’s bull- headedness would ever evolve into the kind of perseverance and backbone a Mallee farmer needs. Not that it is of any conse-quence now, but Connor had looked forward to seeing what sort of man Art would become. Henry was two years younger than Art. Sandwiched between his brothers, he’d always fought fiercely for his fair share of attention and approval. More solid and muscular than Art and Edward, Henry was their enforcer on the football field, rushing to his brothers’ defence if they caught a stray elbow or fist from an opponent. He was fearless. Connor would never forget the day he found Henry, aged about twelve, standing on the shed roof preparing to jump down into a dray full of hay. It had to be a twenty-foot drop; at least four times his height.
‘Don’t be a fool,’ Connor yelled. ‘You’ll break something.’
‘No I won’t,’ Henry cried as he launched himself. ‘I’ve already done it four times!’
He knows it is irrational, but Connor runs his fingers over the photograph, imagining the light stubble on his boys’ cheeks and their coarse hair. He recognises the glint in Edward’s eye, the cheeky little bastard. When he enlisted at seventeen he lied about his age. Lizzie threatened to write to the army and report him but he talked her round.
‘Mum, don’t bother. By the time you write to them and send it, and then they write back, I’ll be eighteen anyhow.’
For Connor age means nothing. Seventeen or seventy, Art, Henry and Ed are still his unruly, wilful, larrikin boys who were going to follow in his footsteps and work this farm. That had been the plan, anyway. Until they were shot dead somewhere called Gallipoli. He has become accustomed to feeling their loss as a sharp pain that pierces his gut. It’s too much to bear. Connor slips the photo back into the body of the diary and turns to the front page. He reads the inscription: Arthur Connor: My Grand Tour, 1915. Connor will never forget waving them off, young bulls in spring, like it was a holiday. A restrained hug, a scant few words and Privates Art, Henry and Edward Connor pushed and shouldered each other as they mounted their horses and then raced each other out of sight and over the horizon, leaving a cloud of dust in their wake. The early diary entries are detailed, expressive. A letter slips from between the pages along with a small photo of a pretty girl with long brown hair, happy eyes and a bright smile. It is Art’s sweetheart, Edith. On the next page, a pressed gum leaf. Connor flicks to the end of the diary. The entries become briefer; cursory. Going through the motions. The page falls open at the final entry.
5 August. Lone Pine. Hot as Hades but maybe worse.
December 8, 1941
‘Men and women of Australia, we are at war with Japan.
That has happened because, in the first instance, Japanese naval and air forces launched an unprovoked attack on British and United States territory; because our vital interests are imperiled and because the rights of free people in the whole Pacific are assailed. As a result, the Australian Government this afternoon took the necessary steps which will mean that a state of war exists between Australia and Japan. Tomorrow, in common with the United Kingdom, the United States of America and the Netherlands East Indies governments, the Australian Government will formal y and solemnly declare the state of war it has striven so sincerely and strenuously to avoid.
Throughout the whole affair, and despite discouragement, the Australian Government and its representatives abroad struggled hard to prevent a breakdown of discussions. Australia encouraged the United States to retain the diplomatic initiative on behalf the democratic powers. We did not want war in the Pacific. The Australian Government has repeatedly made it clear – as have the governments of the United Kingdom, the United States and the Netherlands East Indies – that if war came to the Pacific it would be of Japan’s making . . .’
Donald Macintosh stood with his head bent towards the polished wooden cabinet that housed the radio set. The Australian Prime Minister finished his historic announce-ment and the commentators began their analysis. Donald switched off the radio and stared for a moment out of the library window.
‘Did you hear Curtin’s speech?’ Sarah asked anxiously from the open doorway. His sister looked ashen-faced and he could see she was trembling. ‘Will the Japanese bomb Sydney tonight?’
Donald slumped into a big leather chair. He was in need of a stiff drink. ‘I doubt it. From what I’ve heard they’re still way up north, and their attack on the Yanks at Pearl Harbor will mean that the Americans will send forces to help us repel the Japs before they reach Australia. No doubt Mr Churchill will be celebrating now that the Americans are sure to enter the war. You can rest assured that we are safe, for now.’
‘Do you think David will be returned to Australia now that we are at war with Japan?’ Sarah asked. Donald felt a twinge of envy. His cousin David was serving with an Australian infantry battalion in Syria. Donald had tried to enlist, but his role in industry was deemed too important for him to serve in the armed forces.
He suspected his enlistment had been blocked by his father, Sir George Macintosh. His illness had placed him on the sidelines of his own financial empire but he still held enough power and influence to control his son’s future. As a result, Donald had spent the last two years of the war against Germany and her allies negotiating contracts with the government rather than doing what he saw as his duty, which was fighting for his country, and his work had proved him to be an astute businessman that had pleased his controlling father ‘I doubt that David will be sent home any time soon,’ Donald answered. He knew his sister had a crush on David. For some bizarre reason she seemed to think he was the reincarnation of an obscure ancestor of theirs called Michael Duffy. Perhaps she was as crazy as their father. ‘Churchill will need our divisions in North Africa to fight Rommel’s mob, and I doubt that Curtin will have the guts to insist they come home instead.’ Sarah nodded – he could see she was disappointed – and turned away. Donald rummaged through the cocktail cabinet for a bottle of good Scotch. He poured himself a large drink in a crystal tumbler and resumed his leather chair. His thoughts were not on the consequences of these recent developments in the war on those fighting, but on how this new and perilous situation with Japan might affect the fortunes of the family companies. He had to concede that he was more like his father than he cared to admit.
In Syria, Lieutenant David Macintosh was thinking about how warm it would be back home under the sun of an Australian summer. The weather was freezing here and already the mountains were capped with snow. There was information that a German blitzkrieg was on its way and his platoon were building defences. Explosives were being used to blast trenches and bunkers out of the hillside, while his men worked with picks and shovels to clear away the blasted rock. They looked none too happy about it and David wondered how he could make their job easier. Nothing he could do about the cold, though.
He stamped his feet on the hard earth to keep them from freezing and blew hot air into his gloved hands. ‘Heard the news, old boy?’ came a voice from behind him. David turned to see a fellow platoon commander struggling up the hill to his side. ‘What?’ David countered. ‘Santa Claus can’t make it through the German flak to deliver us beer and women? ‘Lieutenant John Dulley smiled tightly. ‘The Japs have attacked in the Pacific. They bombed the Yanks at Pearl Harbor and are attacking Hong Kong, Malaya and the Philippines. We have a new enemy on the other side of the world. Maybe we might get out of this bloody cold and go home.’
‘Strange to think that the Japanese were our allies in the last war,’ David mused. ‘But it would be good to get away from this Godforsaken bit of land and fight where it’s warmer.’
‘Got to go and find my sergeant,’ Dulley said, thrusting his gloved hands in the pockets of his greatcoat. He stamped away, leaving David to reflect on this terrible development in a war they seemed to be losing against the might of Germany’s forces. Here he was fighting Frenchmen of the Vichy army when he still had fond memories of his days in Paris back in 1936 before he’d left to fight against Franco’s Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. Truth was, he had been fighting for almost six years, with only a short break before he enlisted in the Australian Army two years ago. David knew that he was fortunate to be commissioned as his record of service with the Communist International Brigades was known to the Australian government. Only the influence of his patron, Sean Duffy, a well-known Sydney solicitor and former decorated army officer of the Great War, had made the commission possible. At the start of the year David had led his platoon against the Italians at Bardia in North Africa, and since then had fought in the disastrous Greek campaign against the German Army. Now he found himself fighting Frenchmen allied to Hitler. International politics was a funny thing, David mused as one of the sappers warned of another charge to be detonated. He lay down on the hard cold earth as the explosion rocked the ground. Maybe he would find himself fighting against the Japanese in Asia next. Would there be anyone left he had not fired upon in his young life?
First Lieutenant James Duffy drove his series 90 Cadillac V16 sports car like he flew his fighter plane – fast. The road was slippery with ice as he manoeuvred between the rows of tall bare trees up the driveway of his grandfather’s grand mansion in New Hampshire. James was in his early-twenties and a commissioned officer in the United States Marine Corp air force unit stationed at Quantico, Virginia. He loved flying, as had his father, Matthew Duffy. Both James’s parents were dead, and he and his twin sister had been raised by their maternal grandfather, James Barrington Snr. James, much to his grandfather’s consternation, had adopted his father’s family name and was now known as a Duffy rather than a Barrington. Christmas was not far away and James had been granted leave to return home to enjoy eggnog, logs burning in the huge fireplace in the living room, and the bevy of beautiful debutantes who would be paraded before him by their wealthy families this Yuletide season. He slid the sports car to a halt in front of the imposing steps that led to the grand front entrance and jumped out. His twin sister, Olivia, ran down the steps and hugged him tight. The sun was going down through a grey sky that promised a heavy snowfall.
‘James, have you heard the news?’ she gasped.
‘What news?’ James countered. ‘I’ve been on the road for the last eight hours.’
‘The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor. Mr Roosevelt is sure to announce that we are at war at any moment,’ Olivia exclaimed.
James was shocked. He had many friends at the Ewa base on the island of Oahu just seventeen miles west of Pearl Harbor, and he had been there on flight exercises last year.
He tried to imagine the tranquil tropical island ravaged by bombs, but somehow he could not quite believe in it. It seemed impossible. ‘Oh, dear,’ Olivia said. ‘Does that mean the army will cancel your leave for Christmas?’ she asked.
‘I keep telling you, sis, that I am not in the army. I am a marine,’ James said, correcting his twin. ‘The army is full of knuckle-dragging losers. Anyway, how is Grandfather?’
‘He’s well, and even if he doesn’t express his pleasure at your visit, I know he’s looking forward to seeing you,’ Olivia said, leading her brother up the steps where they were met by the valet, an old black man dressed in a dark suit.
‘Good evening, Lieutenant Barrington,’ he said. James did not correct the old man – he had resigned himself to being a Barrington under his grandfather’s roof. ‘Do you have any luggage?’
‘I have a sea bag in the car, Ronald,’ James answered.
‘How are you?’
‘Very well, Mr Barrington,’ the manservant answered dutifully, bracing himself against the weather to retrieve James’s luggage. ‘I will take your bag up to your room.’
James nodded and stepped inside the great house.
Immediately the winter cold dissipated. Olivia took his hand and led him into the vast living room where James Barrington Snr stood by a fireplace warming his hands. He turned when Olivia called to him and for a brief moment a smile seemed to flash across his face at the sight of his only grandson wearing the uniform of a marine pilot.
‘How are you, sir?’ James asked, walking briskly to shake his grandfather’s extended hand. James Barrington Snr was entering his seventies but he still stood ramrod straight, a tall, patrician-looking man with thick silver hair.
‘I am well and I suppose you have already heard the news about the goddamned Japanese,’ he said, releasing his strong grip on James’s hand. ‘I suppose they will cancel your leave.’
‘I guess they will,’ James answered, gazing into the flick-ering flames of the fire. ‘I only heard the news when Olivia told me, but it was not unexpected. We’ve been on alert for some months now over Japanese intentions in the Pacific.
But I thought they would make a declaration before they started bombing Pearl Harbor.’
‘Both your sister and I feel that you should take a job in Washington,’ Barrington said, bypassing any chitchat. He was a man who had made his fortune in banking with a no-nonsense New England approach to business. During the Great Depression Barrington enterprises had purchased properties and businesses being sold for next to nothing by overstretched entrepreneurs. The Depression had eased and the investments were beginning to pay. ‘You have the experience to work on one of the vital war committees advising Mr Roosevelt. In fact, I discussed the matter with him last month when I was in Washington.’
‘I’m a flyer, Grandfather, just as my father was,’ James said quietly.
‘I wouldn’t be happy working a desk in Washington when my buddies were risking their lives in the skies over the Pacific.’
‘The country will recruit thousands of pilots,’ Barrington snapped, ‘but I have only one grandson to inherit everything that I have built up. If you go off to war, there’s a good chance you will be killed.’
‘Grandfather,’ Olivia broke in gently, ‘I think we should let James thaw out and have dinner before we discuss his future.’
‘Very well,’ Barrington replied gruffly. ‘It’s good to have you home for the holidays, James. I have a case of good Kentucky bourbon for us to try after dinner. We can talk then.’James shrugged. As far as he was concerned, the matter was not up for discussion. He was determined to return to his unit for deployment overseas to fight as his father, Captain Matthew Duffy, had two decades earlier. He thought for a moment about his stepmother. She was a wonderful lady who had married his father only days before his death. The last James had heard from her was a letter from Singapore weeks ago. He needed to find a radio and glean as much as he could about the Japanese attack in the Pacific. God forbid that his stepmother and her four-year-old son, his half-brother, were caught up in the war. The thought horrified him. Diane Duffy did not have to listen to the radio to know that the Japanese imperial forces were attacking Allied-held territories in the Pacific. She was hugging the concrete of the British Royal Air Force airfield on the island of Singapore as Japanese aircraft rained bombs down all around her. Air raid sirens were screaming their banshee wail and Diane could feel the gut-wrenching blasts shake the earth beneath her. She could hardly believe this was happening to her. She had only come to the airstrip to pick up a part for one of her aeroplanes and now she found herself out in the open, without any shelter from the terrifying bombard-ment. Each explosion sent debris flying, and Diane was sure that if a direct hit didn’t kill her, the debris would.
Eventually the bombing stopped and Diane struggled to her feet. Above the loud ringing in her ears she could hear the moans and screams of the wounded, and she could smell the acrid odour of burning aircraft.
Diane stumbled towards her small truck, which she had parked not far from a hangar that housed a mechanics work-shop. The whole building was alight now, but thankfully her truck was still intact. She stumbled past smoking chunks of shrapnel and wondered how she had survived in the open. She knew that other people hadn’t been so lucky, and some of the injured would need help, but right now only one thing mattered to her – the safety of her son. Patrick was staying with her old Canadian engineer, Cyril, and his family in the countryside north of Singapore. ‘Please God, let my boy be safe,’ she begged over and over.
Driving through the streets of the city she could see that bombs had exploded amongst the innocent. Human body parts were scattered everywhere, and badly wounded Chinese and Malay residents staggered around in a daze.
Diane started praying harder. ‘Please God, let Patrick be safe.’
February – July 1942
Early February 1942 and Singapore had become the last bastion against the relentless Japanese drive southwards along the Malay Peninsula. British, Indian and Australian troops had fought their foe along the narrow jungle roads and in the rubber plantations, but had found them-selves rapidly outflanked and cut off in the fighting retreat. The British-controlled forces had inflicted heavy losses on the Japanese, but the enemy was fanatically brave and, undaunted, continued the assault on Singapore. Diane Duffy was many miles north of the island, wading across a jungle stream with her son and a small group of mixed Chinese and Europeans. They were attempting to evade the Japanese. It was the wet season and the rain was belting down. Diane was up to her waist in the rapidly swelling waters; four-year-old Patrick clung tightly around her neck with childish desperation. The fast-flowing muddy waters dragged at Diane and for a moment she stood frozen, overwhelmed with panic. But she knew she must stay in control for Patrick’s sake, so she took a deep breath, steadied herself and carried on through the raging water.
Minutes later Cyril Blacksmith appeared by her side and reached out to take Patrick in his arms. Cyril had been her loyal engineer in her aviation company but had retired to live with his Chinese wife, Po. He was in his early fifties, tough and wiry, but the trek was taking a toll on him, as it was on everyone. Cyril had been able to get his wife and two-year-old daughter, Lan, across the stream and had returned to assist Diane. She was grateful for his help, and the three made it safely to the other side of the jungle creek. The small party struggled on through the dense jungle to the town of Jerantut.
The town was mostly composed of Malays with populations of Chinese and Indians conducting business through their street stalls. There Cyril soon located other European civilians fleeing the Japanese and Diane remained with Po and Lan. Po was a plain woman in her thirties who had met Cyril, almost twice her age, when she had worked as a clerk and interpreter for Diane’s aviation company in Kuala Lumpur. With retirement looming Cyril awkwardly proposed to Po who shyly accepted his offer of marriage.
A baby girl followed and Cyril purchased a small property at the edge of the tiger infested jungle where he intended to grow rubber trees. But the war had come in December to disrupt their happy lives together and they were forced to evacuate their property.
‘I found a few more who are going in the same direction as us,’ he told Diane. ‘They intend to make their way across the mountains to Kuala Lipis. Our only hope of getting to safety is if we can make it to Singapore and hitch a ride out on one of Tyrone’s flying boats.’
‘As far as I know, only two Europeans have ever taken that route before – and that was in the dry season,’ Diane said. ‘Do you think we can make it in the wet season?’
Cyril frowned. ‘I don’t think we have much choice.’
Diane knew Cyril was right. Tyrone McKee had been her best pilot but had resigned from her company to fly the majestic amphibious aircraft that now linked the world. Ty had offered to fly them out to Australia, and given that the ships evacuating civilians were being sunk by the Japanese air force, that seemed the safer option. Truth was, it was their only hope.
‘We walk across the mountains,’ Diane sighed. ‘When do we leave?’
‘This afternoon,’ Cyril said. ‘We will be travelling with a young couple from England, and a Malay policeman to guide us. I’ve arranged to purchase supplies from a local Indian trader.’
Diane glanced up at the sky with the professional eye of an experienced aviatrix. Thunderheads boiled over-head, promising torrential downpours. The journey would be difficult and dangerous. Before them lay mountainous jungle populated with deadly snakes and, lurking in the shadows, tigers. Close behind them, the advancing Japanese army destroyed everything in its path.
Lieutenant David Macintosh was relieved that his company was leaving the snowdrifts behind and travelling to the warmer climes of Palestine. The steam train puffed its signal to the embarking Australian troops in Damas that it was ready to depart and David climbed aboard a carriage designated for officers. He was welcomed by his fellow platoon commander, Lieutenant Peter Herbert, gesturing to him from a bench seat with a silver flask. Beside Herbert was John Dulley and the three men made up the complement of the platoon commanders from one of their battalion’s rifle companies.
‘Kept a seat for you, old chap,’ Herbert said, offering David the flask. ‘Got your boys squared away?’
‘Yeah,’ David answered, taking a swig. ‘They were in good spirits, and the company sergeant major has them under control.’
‘Do you reckon the powers that be are sending us home to face the Japs?’ Dulley asked.
‘Who bloody knows,’ David shrugged. ‘At least we’re getting out of the snow and don’t have to shoot Froggies any more.’
‘I heard we might be going to Burma,’ Herbert said. ‘It seems the Poms are concerned the Japs might use Burma to get to India.’
‘We need to look after our own first,’ Dulley growled as the train lurched into motion with a clanking of metal and hissing of steam.
Silence fell between the three men as the Swiss-built engine pulled its cargo of Australian soldiers south. They passed through spectacularly rugged landscapes, travelling down a narrow cutting into the Yarmak Valley. The engine driver seemed to love pulling on the whistle cord, his train hurtling along the narrow steel track and providing the passengers with a thrilling ride.
As night fell, the three platoon commanders were deep in their own thoughts. David settled into sleep snuggled in his greatcoat and a woollen blanket. His dreams were filled with images of the terrible bloodletting he had witnessed from the craggy hills of Spain to the snow-covered fields of Syria. He twitched and whimpered all night, but he did not disturb his fellow officers. Their dreams, too, were filled with horror.
Sir George Macintosh rarely attended his Sydney office. He and his estranged son Donald had tacitly agreed on a truce for the sake of the family’s vast financial empire. Sir George had even invited his son back into the Macintosh house-hold on the harbour; Donald didn’t need to know it was so Sir George could keep an eye on him. However, their meeting this morning was in the hospital where Sir George was receiving medical treatment for a heart condition brought on by syphilis.
Sir George was propped up in his bed in a private room and he looked at his son with a hint of hostility. Sir George was in his late fifties but the insidious disease made him look much older. His skin had a grey tinge and his hair was thin and faded. In the last two years Sir George had been prone to delusions and hallucinations as the illness ate away at his brain. When he was lucid, however, he retained a sharp mind for business matters, and Donald had enough sense to consult with his father during these periods. All Donald knew about his father’s medical condition was that he had a heart condition. The cause of the heart condition was kept a closely guarded secret.
‘Is your mother still living with that crippled papist Irishman?’ Sir George growled by way of a greeting. Donald felt awkward. The man his father referred to had become a close friend and confidant. Sean Duffy was a well-known Sydney solicitor who had lost his legs fighting in the Great War. He had been decorated for bravery and was highly regarded by all who came in contact with him.
Louise Macintosh, Sir George’s estranged wife, certainly loved Sean, and the two of them lived together in her flat overlooking the city’s beautiful harbour.
‘I believe so,’ Donald answered, pulling up a chair beside his father’s bed. He did not intend to say any more; his mother’s life was none of Sir George’s business. He did not care that his father was obsessed with his mother’s romantic interests. The truce only extended to matters of business as Donald often dined with his mother and Sean at her flat.
‘Your sister was here earlier,’ Sir George said as Donald took a cigarette and lit it. He did not bother to offer his father one. ‘She is complaining that the board members do not take her seriously due to her sex and age.’
‘Sarah is very competent but she lacks experience,’
Donald replied, blowing smoke into the warm air of the hospital room. ‘I am looking after her if you have any worries about her position in the companies.’
‘She seems to have a preoccupation with that Jew, David Macintosh,’ Sir George said, staring past his son. ‘She has some lunatic idea that he is a reincarnation of Michael Duffy.’
‘Did you ever meet Michael Duffy?’ Donald asked, deflecting the conversation away from his cousin.
Sir George did not reply immediately as his thoughts drifted back forty years to the turn of the century. ‘I met the man,’ he finally answered. ‘He was another papist whose only intention was to ruin the Macintosh name.
Your Uncle Alexander spent some time with Duffy up around Glen View when he was young. Alexander was present when Michael Duffy was killed by some wild animal . . . a buffalo, I believe, gored him to death. It was good riddance too.’
Donald did not want to spook his father but had an interest in Michael Duffy. His sister was obsessed by him, to the point of believing David was his reincarnation, despite the fact she had been reared in a strictly Protestant creed which did not accept the philosophy of rebirth.
‘Did this Michael Duffy look anything like David?’
Sir George frowned. ‘From my memory of the man, I suppose you could say that he and your cousin do look alike. I would even venture that they act in similar ways. It was rumoured that Michael Duffy was a soldier of fortune who travelled the world fighting other people’s wars. That made him nothing more than a brutal killer.’
Donald found the subject fascinating as it appeared
Michael Duffy might be his ancestor, despite Sir George’s denials. Sarah had possession of the diary of their great-grandmother, Lady Enid Macintosh, and it made for extremely interesting reading. From her reading, Sarah speculated that Michael Duffy may have been the real father of their own grandfather, Patrick, who had held the Duffy name until his death. Sadly, time had seen the loss of witnesses, so nothing could be proven.
Donald changed the subject and spent the next half-hour discussing various matters concerning the war’s impact on the family enterprises, and his father was able to give sound advice, which Donald heeded.
Eventually Donald rose and gruffly bid his father a good day. The salutation was not returned and Donald closed the door behind him, relieved that the meeting was over.
Many miles north of Sydney on the island of New Britain, Sister Camillus strolled amongst the frangipani bushes skirting the perimeter of the missionary station. Before she had taken her vows of chastity, poverty and obedience and adopted the name of an obscure sixteenth century saint, Sister Camillus had been known as Jessica Duffy. She was the only daughter of the reclusive Queensland millionaire, Tom Duffy, and she had her father’s slim shape and her French mother’s cherubic face. Not that her beauty mattered in the closeted world of the convent.
The mid-morning sun was high over the rainforest-covered mountains that framed the quiet missionary station in its broad green valley, and the local people were long at work in their vegetable gardens. They waved to Jessica when she passed and she called out greetings in the local dialect.
Sister Camillus was popular amongst the people who lived around the mission station. She taught the children in a little hut with open sides, wooden benches and an old chalk board.
She was on her way there when a dark-skinned young man clad only in a pair of trousers ran up her. ‘Sister Camillus, Mother Superior, she want see you at her office.’
Jessica thanked the young man and walked the half-kilometre through the well-tended grounds to the cluster of buildings with corrugated iron roofs that made up the core of the missionary station. As she approached the mother superior’s office, stepping up onto the wide verandah that surrounded the building, she felt sure that she was being called from her teaching duties to answer questions about the views she had expressed yesterday supporting the animistic beliefs of the local people. Perhaps it was because she was part Aboriginal that she empathised with beliefs about ancestor worship, but she knew her opinions shocked the other nuns.
Jessica stood before the mother superior’s office and knocked on the frame of the gauze-covered door.
‘Come in,’ Sister Michael called, and Jessica stepped into the room. It was a warm muggy day and the mother superior had indulged in the luxury of a small hand-held fan to cool herself.
‘Please take a chair, Sister Camillus,’ Sister Michael said wearily as she placed the fan on the small desk before her.
‘I know you have doubts about my faith, Mother Superior,’ Jessica began as she sat down in a chair opposite the desk, but her words were waved aside by the older nun.
‘That is not why I have asked you to come to my office,’ she said. ‘I have just learned that the Japanese are advancing and have massacred Australian soldiers at a plantation not far from here. It appears the Japanese are not recognising the Geneva Convention, and I fear they may commit atroci ties against us when they get here.’ Sister Michael could see the confusion on Jessica’s face. ‘Although you are not the most senior nun here, I wanted you to know – despite our differences on spiritual matters – I have had time to observe that of all my sisters you are the most intelligent and capable. If anything should happen to me, I would like you to assume my duties protecting our congregation and the other sisters.’
‘Mother –’ Jessica began to protest, but was once again cut short by Sister Michael.
‘I know my appointment will not meet with the approval of one or two of the older sisters, but they have taken the vow of obedience – as you have – and will accept the will of God. I have also consulted with the bishop and he agrees with my decision.’
Jessica sat in stunned surprise. She had always felt that Sister Michael disapproved of her, as Jessica had been outspoken on more than one occasion and had been forced to repent through long hours of solitary prayers, kneeling in the chapel before the big wooden cross mounted behind the altar.
The responsibility of being in charge, should anything happen to Sister Michael, fell heavily on Jessica’s shoulders, and the news that the Japanese soldiers were slaughtering captured Australian soldiers was terrifying. How could God allow such a thing?
She could see through the open windows of the office to the blue skies outside. They were filled with a swarm of colourful butterflies, and she could hear the laughter of children making their way towards her classroom. The mission was peaceful now, but evil was on its way.
‘You should go to your children, Sister Camillus,’ the mother superior said gently. ‘It will be up to you to protect them against what may be coming. All we can do now is pray that God will watch over us.’
Outgunned and outnumbered, Sergeant Bruce King of the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles had fought on the beaches around Rabaul alongside the Australian infantry battalion against an overwhelming force of Japanese naval and army invaders. It had been hopeless from the beginning as Japanese fighter planes made strafing raids against the pitiful number of defenders. They had resisted valiantly, knowing that they were alone without hope of help. Now the few survivors fell back into the jungle-clad mountains, determined to fight on against the pursuing Japanese soldiers.
Bruce King was a tough, solidly built man in his late forties with a pleasant suntanned face and curly greying hair.
He had served on the Western Front in the last war and had earned a Distinguished Conduct Medal for bravery. To all criteria set down for enlistment in the army he was too old for this war, but the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles was a self-formed militia unit, composed of local men who were really civilians with weapons. Most had military experience in the Great War and had only weeks earlier been plantation owners and managers, gold miners and civil servants. Bruce King had managed a plantation in New Guinea belonging to a wonderful German woman, Karolina Schumann, and her grandson, David Macintosh. The last war had lived in his nightmares for years and he had just come to a kind of peace when he once again found himself carrying a .303
Lee Enfield rifle. Now he was fighting in a world of dark, humid forests where the sun hardly broke through the tall canopy.
Bruce found it hard to focus on the muddy trail ahead of him as the malaria racked his body. He hardly thought about the fact that he was hungry and could not remember the last time he had eaten.
‘We make a defence here,’ the only surviving officer said, and most of his men, around twenty of them, collapsed gratefully onto the bracken-covered ground.
Bruce King gripped his rifle and gazed around. The officer had not seen combat until the day the Japanese landed on the beaches, and Bruce was concerned this location was ideal for an ambush. He knew that they were north of the Kalai mission station and near the Tol plantation from his scrutiny of maps before the savage fighting on the beach of the Gazelle Peninsula. A place of high mountains and steep slopes with a sandy beach the region was already overrun by the Japanese. He could hear the voices of Japanese soldiers not far from the forlorn position they now occu-pied. Most of the men were suffering dysentery or malaria, and some were suffering both. Exhausted, Bruce listened to the officer argue for surrender and for once he thought the young officer had made the right decision. They were all at the limits of their endurance.
The weary and sick Australian soldiers made their way down to the nearby beach. There they were met with bayonet-tipped rifles and looks of distain. The young officer stepped forward to meet his counterpart and received a withering tirade in Japanese. Bruce had spent time in Japan after the Great War, and from what he could gather, the Japanese officer was speaking of their disgrace in surrendering without fighting to the last man. When Bruce glanced around at the Japanese soldiers guarding them, he noticed their expressions of contempt and he began to feel uneasy.
‘What you think the Nips will do to us, sarge?’ a young soldier asked Bruce nervously.
‘Put us in a prisoner of war camp and give us a good meal of rice and fish,’ Bruce replied reassuringly.
Some of the guards stepped forward with heavy fishing line and began to secure the wrists of the unresisting Australian soldiers. They were directed to march off the beach to labour quarters on what Bruce knew was the Tol plantation, and there they spent the night surrounded by armed guards. No one was fed and the sick suffered. Bruce spent the night alternating between cold and hot fever bouts, but in the morning felt a little better.
The Japanese roused them early and directed them to the plantation house that had become their HQ. The Australians’ army numbers and names were taken and recorded in a book. Next they were ordered to pile their personal possessions and pay books on a table. Afterwards they once again had their hands tied behind their backs and were lined up in groups of ten. Overnight other prisoners had been brought in and Bruce guessed that there were around a hundred men in all. After a period of waiting they were given the order to march into the scrub surrounding the plantation house.
Bruce noticed that the three Japanese guards assigned to his group carried spades and had bayonets fixed on their rifles. He suddenly felt sick with fear. The undergrowth they were moving through was tall and dense and the other groups were breaking away and being taken off out of sight.
Bruce knew he had to act now; he would rather be shot trying to escape than go passively to his execution. When they came to a bend in the track and the overconfident guards lost sight of their line of prisoners, Bruce ducked down and rolled into the bush.
When he came to a halt he lay still and barely breathing until he could hear the party move on, and then slithered, his hands behind his back, through the undergrowth. When the shouting and screaming began, he thanked God that he was not witnessing his comrades’ final moments. The massacre at the Tol plantation had begun.