Swimming in the Dark by Paddy Richardson – Extract

Swimming in the Dark

Part One

1

It was the cold that made her fall. She was going home, cutting across the park and there was still frost on the ground, the grass solid and glistening from that morning and the previous days of icy mornings. Her breath hovered in the air in front of her.

It was nearly five, already getting dark and the fog which had drifted like powdery ash around the town for weeks was down again. She was on her way back from school; late because she’d been in the art room. Her class was making a mural they’d planned together to fill an empty wall of the assembly hall. The general theme was New Zealand, though they’d argued about that, some of the kids wanted it to be about Alexandra while others thought that was way too narrow and boring — not everyone comes from Alex, dickhead — but they’d sorted it and now they were working on what was to be a giant mosaic of paintings and prints and photographs.

Using the words was Serena’s own idea. She could see it in her head; all the words coiling up and across, intersecting the images. She was the one who was putting together the slivers of poems, the fragments of news pulled out from the local paper, the words Miss called colloquialisms, all of them joined and jumbled together with the fonts mixed up so you had something like: ‘sweet-as the something-special smell of you when the sun Big Frost Hurts Clyde Couple Marry cakes the steady drum-roll sound you make when the wind as House Burglary Bungled, Burns drops’.

Like that.

She was walking fast, hunched against the cold, her hands shoved low into her pockets. The words were what she was thinking about: fitting what she already had together, figuring out what she still needed and where she would find it.

Big Frost Hurts. Clyde Couple Marry.

Shit, it was freezing. She already had a cold: her nose was running, her eyes watering. What if you fainted out here or twisted your ankle so you couldn’t move? How long would it be before your snot froze and the tears on your eyelashes turned into little threads of ice? She needed a hat, a woolly knitted hat with stripes of cool colours. Maybe she’d pick one up at the op-shop.

Sweet as. Sweet as.

When the dog came hurtling up at her she was thinking about the words and the cold and the hat. She recognised the dog, just about everyone in the town knew that dog, and while her rational mind understood it had to be a good, well-trained dog that wouldn’t hurt her, the way it careered out of the mist and darkness frightened her and she staggered backwards, slipping on the slithery grass and fell.

Then he was there, taking hold of her arm and helping her up.

She didn’t need him to do that. She felt stupid and embarrassed.

He picked her bag off the ground and handed it to her. ‘You okay?’

‘Uh, yeah. I just kind of skidded.’

He whistled for the dog and clipped the lead onto his collar. ‘Sorry about this fellow. He gets a bit over-excited.’

‘It’s okay.’

He glanced at her as he was turning to go. She saw him hesitate and then he stopped and seemed to be looking at her more closely. ‘Aren’t you one of the Freemans?’ he said.

‘Yep, that’s me,’ she said, ‘just another bloody Freeman.’

She didn’t know why she’d said that. Only, she’d wanted to sound upbeat and confident, not like some little kid who’d been so scared by a dog she’d fallen right over. But now that word, bloody, that had spurted out of her mouth seemed to vibrate uncomfortably in the mist and quiet. He stared at her for a moment and then he grinned. Okay, okay, he understood it was a joke.

‘You’re Lynnie’s sister?’

‘Yeah. Except now we have to call her Lyn-nette.’ She made her voice and face snooty, showing off a bit because he was still grinning like he thought she was funny.

‘Lyn-nette, eh? Is that right? And you are?’

‘Uh.’ She was flustered, couldn’t think what he meant for a minute. ‘Oh. Serena. I’m Serena.’

He looked at his watch, ‘You heading home from school? You’re a bit late, aren’t you?’

She wanted to say it wasn’t against the law but that sounded too cheeky. ‘I’ve been in the art room.’

‘Yeah? What’ve you been doing in the art room?’

So she told him and his eyes didn’t shift away, like he was thinking about something different. He listened like he was really interested. ‘Well, good for you. Nice to meet you, Serena,’ he said. He turned and walked with the dog towards the car with the blue and yellow squares. She hitched her bag up and kept on going.

That was the first time.

2

Just another bloody Freeman.

There was Lynnie and Darryl and Jesse and Todd, then there was Serena. She was the baby of the family. Good thing the bastard left when he did or there would’ve been more of them.

When you read books — novels, Miss always corrects her — where there are families who haven’t got much money, nine times out of ten, they’re special. They’re honest and worthy and inventive and they laugh a lot and love each other and are all so clever that it makes up for them having nothing.

Well, the Freemans were special as well. All the boys had been up in court, driving without a licence, driving under the influence, pinching beer out of the neighbour’s garage, drunk and disorderly. Darryl’d been in more trouble than all the others put together. It was never Darryl’s fault, though, it was always someone picking on him, blaming him when he hadn’t even been there. The cops had it in for him. Yeah, right. Dropkicks; that’s what she called them. The dropkicks.

And just before she ran away, Lynnie’d been caught nicking nail polish at the chemist’s but Mr Johnston who owned the shop had felt so sorry for her he said he wouldn’t press charges. Lynnie said he’d even let her keep the nail polish because he could see she’d learned her lesson and was really sorry. Lynnie could always come up with a good story. She could even cry when she needed to.

All of the Freemans had been in trouble one way or another. All of them except her and she was going to keep it that way.

She’d tried so hard to keep it that way.

The other thing in those novels about poor families is that the mother is especially special. Like sometimes she’s super-talented and writes books or paints amazing pictures or sometimes she’s just really wise and kind. But she’s always beautiful. Despite the lines on her forehead and the little threads of grey in her hair from all the worry, she’s always beautiful.

The especially special thing about Serena’s mum is that she’s always either picking the wrong men or helping herself to the ones who are supposed to belong to other people. Serena’s mum says when it comes to men she just can’t help herself, she just can’t do without her cuddles.

Hence, there are kids at school who don’t talk to Serena because of their dads going around for little visits with her mum. Hence, from time to time, there’s a fair bit of yelling and screaming at their place and the phone ringing with neighbours saying they’re calling the cops. Hence, the occasion of the brick that Mrs Green, alias That Stupid Bitch, chucked through Serena’s mum’s bedroom window.

Hence. She loves that word. Hence, whilst, hitherto, aforementioned.

The Freemans were special, all right. They even got special treatment. Like on the first day, every year at primary school, Serena’s new teacher would be up the front of the room calling out the names on the roll, glancing up and looking over each kid, marking off the name. Then they’d get to her. Serena Freeman? They’d skim their eyes over her, just like they did with all the others. Then it hit them. That name they’d just called out. Freeman, oh shit, a Freeman. Whack! The recognition would hit them and their eyes would start darting and sliding, checking her out as if she had horns growing out the top of her head.

Can this one write its own name yet? Does this one wet its pants in class? Does this one bite? Does this one steal?

You get used to it. Those ‘oh fuck not one of them’ or ‘oh that poor little kiddie’ expressions on teachers’ faces followed by them keeping a close eye. High school was better. More kids. More teachers coming and going. More anonymity.

Tell you what, though, after all those ‘oh fuck, oh that poor wee kiddie’ faces, it was fairly amazing to come across a teacher like Miss who seemed to think she was on the same level as the others. Not only the same level, but someone who had good ideas, someone you might even like to have a chat with. Someone special.

Those afternoons she went to Miss’s house. Three afternoons, only three, but they were special. Coffee and cinnamon smells, cups with pink flowers, a piano, shelves filled with books. And Miss sitting on the wooden chair with the red cushion, leaning forward, listening to her. Really listening. ‘And so, Serena, what did you make of our Mr Pip?’

Don’t get her wrong. She’s not saying what happened was because of Miss, nothing like that. But if it hadn’t been for her she’d have kept her distance. Because she understood he knew all about them, everything: the dropkicks and her mum and the brick and the men. She’d even seen him right outside their house, his car parked on the kerb, talking to Darryl. But the way it was with Miss talking to her and lending her the books, it made her think she was better than that, not just one more of those dodgy kids. Miss liked her, so the fact that she had another adult who seemed to like talking to her as well didn’t seem all that surprising.

Which was why the next time she saw him when she was walking home she stopped and patted the dog. He asked about the mural and she told him about the newspaper headline she’d just found. Most Earthquake Damage Caused By Shaking.

‘Hey,’ he said, laughing. ‘Good one.’

And, yeah, she’d liked talking to him. That time and the time after — that was in the park as well — he’d asked about school and the mural and stuff and they’d kind of chatted a bit with the dog running around, well, he was nice to her, wasn’t he? Then there was the next time when it started to rain while she was walking home and he’d pulled over and said he was going her way, did she want a ride? He never talked much himself, but he listened and he laughed about what she said, like she was really, you know, funny and clever. ‘You’re a bright girl, Serena.’

She didn’t see him all that often so she didn’t think it was weird him taking notice of her. It was only occasionally, never more than once a week. She thought maybe he liked to talk to her so he could find out the kind of stuff that was happening around school.

That’s the way it was. That went on for ages. She’d be walking home and he’d be there.

3

‘You’re a bright girl, Serena.’

She thought — anyway, she hoped — that him turning up more often was a coincidence. Happenstance. That was a word she’d just found. It was happenstance.

It wasn’t that. It couldn’t be. Everyone in the whole town knew who he was. Knew what he was.

She’d had the talks from Lynnie: Guys think they can do anything to us and get away with it because we’re rubbish, so you be careful who you talk to, eh. And don’t you get in anyone’s car, Serena, and if anyone tries to put his fucking hands on you, you yell. Yell hard as you can, right? And if that doesn’t work, kick him in the balls. Don’t trust anyone. Guys, they can’t keep it in their pants. He never did or said anything that felt wrong or scary. Okay, he was a man and yeah, she talked to him. A lot; she’d started talking to him a lot. And, okay, sometimes she got into his car. But how could she say no if he pulled up beside her and said he was going past her street, hop in? Saying no, well it would be kind of embarrassing and rude. Anyway, he was old and he was married. She’d seen his wife heaps of times when she was in the school library helping out with the other volunteers, putting plastic covering on the text books. She’d seen her hands smoothing down the tape, seen all the rings embedded with little diamonds which came right up to the knuckles of her fingers.

‘You’re a bright girl, Serena. Pretty too.’

He’d told her, being in the job he was in, he needed to watch out for kids. He was always at school for the sports days and the interschool matches and prize-givings. She told herself that was what he was doing with her. He was watching out for kids. Maybe, though she didn’t like to think that way, he was watching out that the last of the Freemans didn’t go the same way as the others.

Pretty too.

She thought about talking it over with Miss. Except they never talked about personal stuff, not ever. Miss seemed to Serena to be the kind of person who lived in her head, not that she was cold or unfriendly but she knew a lot and she liked talking about ideas and facts. She wanted Miss to keep on respecting her: Miss treated her as an equal so the thought of saying to her, ‘There’s this man who keeps turning up wherever I am, he’s kind of pestering me’, well, that felt so wrong because maybe Miss would start to see her as this needy kid who couldn’t manage her messy, stupid life.

Guys, they can’t keep it in their pants.

How could she ever talk to Miss about anything related to that? Worst of all, Miss might start asking her questions, might insist she told her who it was and then she’d think she was making it all up. Because how could Miss believe that he would be after her? How could anyone? At prize-giving he sat right up on the stage and he gave out some of the prizes, shaking kids’ hands while Mr Jensen, the principal, stood beside him nodding and smiling. She’d ridden past his house on her bike. It was massive with a three-door garage and a spongy-looking lime-green lawn and his wife’s SUV parked on the tiles outside.

She changed the way she walked home from school, ducking in and out of streets, zig-zagging across parks and tracks until she got there. She stopped going to the pool at night, stopped going to the movies.

Then, over the next week or two, she saw him only a couple of times. Her heart started thudding but he’d just give her a wave, kept on going as he drove past. She’d been crazy. It hadn’t been anything. It had all been in her head.

It was over.


Excerpted from Swimming in the Dark by Paddy Richardson. Copyright © 2014 by Paddy Richardson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight by Jay Barbree – Extract

Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight

One

A WING AND A PRAYER

At daybreak, pilots came onto the deck of the aircraft carrier Essex. Bundled like schoolchildren on a snow day, they waddled to their jet fighters.

One of the first to climb aboard was a young ensign named Neil Armstrong.

His plane’s captain helped Neil into the cockpit—helped him connect his shoulder and lap straps, double-checked his parachute harness, and rechecked his oxygen mask. Last, he made sure Neil’s life raft and radio were ready to go.

Suddenly, flight deck speakers blared, “Prepare to launch aircraft!” The date was September 3, 1951.

Armstrong had turned 21 only four weeks earlier, but despite his age he was suited and ready to fly his seventh combat mission.

“Move jet into position for launching!”

The deck crew inched his Panther onto its catapult, and Neil reminded himself that his first few “hot catapult” launches had taken faith. There was a degree of uncertainty. If for one reason or another the catapult produced a weak shot, he and his Panther could end up in the water. He instinctively rechecked his harnesses and lap belt before resting a gloved hand on the jet’s control stick. His other hand rested on the throttle. He was ready to increase his Panther’s power plant to maximum thrust.

“Launch jet!”

Neil felt himself go rigid. He saw the launch officer whirl one finger above his head and he increased his jet’s thrust to an unbearable roar and waited— waited until the launch officer whirled two fingers then moved instantly to maximum thrust.

The white heat scorched everything nearby and the launch officer’s right hand shot downward. The catapult fired.

Neil felt his weight double. His facial skin stretched from the powerful acceleration. His lips lengthened. His eyes and body slammed against his seat.

Eight tons of jet and pilot were swept down the catapult track, and within one blink of his eyes—less than the length of a football field—Neil’s Panther climbed from its carrier’s deck. Acceleration held him prisoner as one jet fighter and its pilot reached for sky.

Minutes would pass before Neil Armstrong would fly high enough and fast enough to become part of the soul-lifting beauty of quiet flight. It was the perfect escape—streaking ahead so fast that the overwhelming whine of his jet never caught up. It was necessary to capture the moment—to enjoy the single last morsel of time wherein a fighter pilot could relax before sending his 500 pounders under his wings and his 20mm shells from his guns speeding toward their targets.

Neil was aware it was his final moment of sanctuary from those who would be trying to do him harm, and despite his age his older brethren of the air regarded him a competent flyer. He taught himself to focus on the reasonable and the plausible instead of imagined fears.

Neil would never lose sight of the fact he was a small town boy with 15 cents in his pocket. He was thankful he was flying jets for the Navy, thankful he had the get-up-and-go to study what made the machines he flew fly, and the good sense to hit the books until he roped himself acceptance into the Navy’s Aviation Midshipman Program.

He had selected Purdue University. The Navy’s seven-year program called for him to spend two years in the classroom studying aeronautical engineering. Then there would be flight training where he’d get his commission as a Navy ensign followed by active duty before completing classes for his degree.

But it didn’t work out that way. After he had studied for a year-and-a-half the Navy discovered they were short on fighter pilots and Neil was called early to flight training.

He got his wings in August of 1950, two months after the Korean Conflict had begun. Neil was one of those rare birds, a midshipman with wings. He had to wait a few weeks for his ensign bar.

“I asked for the Pacific Fleet and was given the Pacific Fleet,” he would later say. “I was first sent out to a squadron called FASRON, Fleet Air Service Squadron, which was a utility unit where I waited until there was an opening in Fighter Squadron 51 (VF-51). I’d be flying from the deck of the Essex with midshipman wages of 75 dollars a month plus flight pay calculated at 50 percent of my base wage.”

Neil had no regrets as the morning flight continued, suddenly feeling himself enjoying the new day. The sun was peaking over the horizon, spreading its warming rays. He studied the sky filled with VF-51 pilots and their planes. It was a togetherness that brought with it a certain sense of safety.

Better than being alone Neil agreed with himself as he suddenly saw one of nature’s stunning creations, Mount Fuji in the rising sun.

The magnificent volcano’s cone was perfect rising 12,000 feet to poke a hole through the clouds. Just as suddenly as Japan’s most recognized landmark appeared, Neil was aware the peace the great mountain brought with it was about to end.

Dead ahead, across the Sea of Japan, were the mountains of Korea—ugly mountains placed there by some ancient geological event that tortured them into jagged boldness—left them twisted and scattered, presenting no organized or logical face to visitors.

Neil judged them as terrible mountains—mountains of pain and death that ran in crazy directions. Their peaks formed no patterns. Their valleys led nowhere yet somewhere. Hidden from his view were today’s targets.

His group’s assigned duty was to fly into a hot zone naval intelligence called “Green Six.” It was the code name for a valley with gun sites, freight yards and trains, a dam, and one of those ever-loving stubborn bridges.

Neil was comfortable flying the F9F Panther. He thought of it as a very solid airplane—built by the Grumman team, the best airplane builders around. “But in retrospect,” he said, “it didn’t fly well. It didn’t have particularly good handling qualities. Pretty good lateral directional control, but very stiff in pitch. Its performance both in max speed and climb were inferior to the Chinese MIG by a substantial amount.

“I’m sure I would not have enjoyed going against a MIG in my Panther,” he laughed.

 

They crossed the Korean coastline. The guns were waiting. The Essex’s fighters began to descend in swift dips and dives to confuse the antiaircraft. Then John Carpenter, Neil’s group leader, pounced his Panthers upon the heaviest guns with blazing fire, raking the big gun emplacements through grey smoke and bursts of flak as they thundered straight down “Green Six”—lower and lower they charged, releasing their 500-pound bombs as five-inch and three-inch guns, even machine guns, fired at their jets.

Neil was instantly aware that a single shell could pulverize any of them. When he climbed up from the valley, heaviness was upon his legs and his face was drawn down upon his chin. The gravity gods were at work as he kept his Panther snug on John Carpenter’s wing.

Back upstairs Neil could see clearly the targets were essentially demolished with one exception—that damn bridge.

John Carpenter saw it, too, and their leader immediately recognized the job needed to be finished.

Carpenter rolled his Panther left and brought his group down again, jets screaming along the shimmering river. They were roaring toward the bridge like bats out of Hades, thundering straight for the stone and steel spanning the river. Neil quickly noticed it was historic—tall pillars rising above one of North Korea’s major waterways and decidedly vulnerable. Neil activated his nose guns and watched his heavy bullets rip into concrete and stone before releasing his last 500-pound bomb, which exploded, tearing and twisting the bridge into useless steel.

Time to reach for sky again, Neil ordered only himself. He hauled back on the Panther’s stick. Damn! He had only a brief instant to see an antiaircraft cable stretching hundreds of feet from mountain to mountain.

WHOMP!!!!!!

An ugly shock wave shook his fighter from nose to tail.

“If you’re going fast, a cable will make a very good knife,” Neil told me later, remembering how the tightly wrapped strands of steel had sliced through his right wing too swift to be seen. It cut metal, wiring, tubing, and his control connections. Instantly six to eight feet beginning at the wing’s tip was no longer there.

Quickly Neil judged he was about 500 feet from ground; his speed was 350 knots. His damaged Panther was flying at an angle that could aerodynamically compensate for the loss of almost half of his right wing—as long as he held the undamaged aileron on his opposite wing at an extreme that it could compensate. The aileron is the movable surface on an aircraft’s wings that controls roll and the amount of bank needed to work in concert with the rudder to turn the aircraft. Neil had to make rapid judgments. Not only had he lost almost half of his right wing and much of its aileron, his elevators that controlled up and down pitch had become sluggish.

Damn! Neil spat. The ground was coming up, coming up fast, and he had to— Oh, trim! With lagging elevators, trim tabs would boost them so he could climb. As quickly as his thumb could move the “coolie hat” trim toggle atop his control stick he was rolling in trim to bring his jet’s nose up. But nothing was happening! Wait, there it goes! His nose was rising. “Move, move,” he shouted at the forward end of his Panther. And it did, just before he would have clobbered Korean dirt. He was headed back upstairs—a slow, steady climb—and he was instantly aware he was not breathing. He gulped in air. “Armstrong,” he shouted aloud. “20 feet above ground is no place to be at 350 knots.”

If Neil had had time to sweat he would have. Instead, the young fighter pilot radioed John Carpenter, “Hey, boss,” he stammered. “I’ve lost . . . I’ve lost about half of my starboard wing. I’m carrying a lot of aileron to keep from rolling, and if I get too slow she’s gonna’ roll on me.”

“Roger.”

“I’m regaining altitude slowly,” Neil told Carpenter. “I have all the trim back on its heels, and my elevators aren’t much use. I’ll have to make one hot landing.”

“How hot?”

“About one hundred seventy.”

“Too damn hot,” Carpenter shot back, realizing the carrier couldn’t handle 170.

“Yes, sir,” Neil agreed. “But she won’t fly any slower without rolling.”

“Understand.”

“Eject?”

“Eject,” said the group head quietly, “and I’ll stay with you all the way Armstrong.”

The two flyers reflected on the decision they’d just made. Then Carpenter asked, “Think about 14,000 feet will do it?”

“Should,” Neil agreed. “Just want to make sure I’m high enough to have time to complete all those ejection procedures before I hit ground.”

“Good idea,” Carpenter laughed, adding, “The nearest friendly territory is down south. It’s Pohang Airport, K-3.”

“The marines?” Neil questioned.

“That’s the one.”

“That’ll be good,” Neil agreed, adding, “But no bailout over North Korea.” “Yeah, not too many come back.”

“If I miss K-3,” Neil told him, “I’ve always liked water. It’s a softer landing.” “Roger that,” Carpenter agreed as the side-by-side jets climbed from Green

Six located on a narrow valley road south of Majon-ni, west of Wonsan.

Neil wasn’t alone in his thinking. Both he and John Carpenter were aware they were planning what most pilots viewed as one of the most dangerous parts of their job—ejecting at jet speeds. That was the bad news. The good news was Neil had confidence in Carpenter’s judgment. He was an Air Force major, on an exchange with the Navy. He liked the challenges of flying off carriers, and Neil liked flying his wing—liked learning. But there was more—in his brief 21 years Neil had never really thought about bailing out or ejecting from a plane that could still fly. He had not trained to do such a thing. One of his classmates had gone over to parachute school in El Centro, California, for ejection training and had come back and told them how to do it.

That was the extent of Neil’s schooling on ejecting and he began thinking through what he was about to do as the two Panthers continued south. The farther they flew the more the mountains of Korea showed beauty. Gone were the tortured profiles and the senseless chaos of the north. To their right reservoirs glistened like fine pearls holding the hills. To their left snow hung upon the ridgelines. Before them the waters of the Sea of Japan held their carrier. But the ship would not be there for Neil.

He would be ejecting so he studied the hazards. He had a shotgun-shell-powered seat to blow him quickly away from his plane. He would instantly be clear of everything around him, but that instant speed would slam his body with such force he would suddenly weigh 22 times his own weight, or in pilot lingo 22 Gs. Not a lot of tolerance for error! The likelihood of some kind of injury was high—injury to the shoulders, arms, legs, and feet if he was not properly tucked in. He’d best be in the correct position or the ejection could cause him to create a new crater in Korean soil.

John Glenn, a marine fighter pilot flying combat in the Korean theater, tells the story of his famous wingman, baseball slugger Ted Williams. Williams suffered an engine flameout in his F9F Panther and opted, despite that his jet engine might explode, to fly to the nearest alternate landing field. Ted Williams knew of a pilot who ejected and suffered permanent injuries to his feet. Ted Williams vowed to never eject. He feared it would end his baseball career. Famed test pilot Chuck Yeager, the pilot who first broke the sound barrier October 14, 1947, called ejecting from a speeding jet “committing suicide to avoid getting killed.”

Neil smiled. He’d heard it all. But when you are left with one choice, you’re happy to have it.

The science of the day on ejecting made it pretty clear that being shot out of a speeding jet could severely compress your vertebrae. This is why the Navy had put a lifetime limit on the total number of times one of its aviators could eject. Neil had no plans to test the limit. He reached for his ejection seat instructions and began reading carefully:

One: Reduce airspeed if possible. 250! Yep, that’s about as slow as I want to go.

Two: Check that safety belts and harnesses are locked.

Three: Pull pre-ejection lever inboard and push hard down until locked. This jettisons the canopy, dumps cabin pressure, lowers seat, releases knee braces, and pulls safety pin in seat catapult firing mechanism.

Four: Pull your feet back and place them on their footrests.

Five: Sit erect, head back against the headrest with muscles tensed. Pull face curtain down until fully extended.

Six: After drogue chute opens and seat stabilizes, release the face curtain, cast off harness, and roll forward out of the seat. If altitude permits, delay at least five seconds before pulling the ripcord.

Neil took a deep breath and read a final warning on the instructions. ‘do not pull ripcord while in seat.’

Damn good idea, Neil thought as he moved his eyes from the ejection procedures for a last look outside. His squadron had all come back before with bullet holes in their Panthers. They’d patch them up, covered them with fresh paint, and they looked pretty good. This would be the first time he’d ejected, but with John Carpenter playing nurse on his wing Neil’s confidence grew. He was ready. His calmness was inborn. During his adolescence, he’d had a recurring dream about flying. He would hover in the air and if he held his breath he would never fall.

Silently, across the sky the two jet fighters trekked south side by side. Neil was aware he and Carpenter had never been particularly friendly—their interests and ages varied. They never talked much, but now in the sky with sunlight gleaming on the mountains they seemed like best friends. In his earphones he heard Carpenter open his microphone.

“We’ll make it, Armstrong,” his lead said reassuringly.

“Yeah, no doubt,” Neil quickly agreed, impatient to end any conversation that might prevent his thoughts from focusing on the task ahead.

Carpenter sensed Neil’s unwillingness to break concentration. They moved ahead through the sunny spaces, nursing Neil’s crippled Panther over North Korean villages. From time to time they could see a burst from a gun, and then suddenly they were there, moving over Pohang Airport with the sea in view. Carpenter told him, “Armstrong, make sure your shoulder straps and seat belts are tight.”

“They’re already choking me,” Neil replied.

“Good boy,” acknowledged Carpenter. “You ready to hit every item on your checklist?”

“Roger, I’m ready.”

“You holding 250?”

“Roger.”

“You’d better jettison that canopy right now.”

“Good idea.”

“See you back on ship,” Carpenter said and Neil, with the loud snap of his canopy jettisoning and the blast of outside air whipping across his helmet, pushed as far back in his seat as he could. He firmly placed his feet on their footrests.

Muscles tight, he took a deep breath and shouted aloud his final checklist:

“Pre.” (All was in place.)

“Pos.” (He was in proper position.)

“Ox.” (He’d switched on his small green bottle of oxygen that would keep him breathing on his way to the ground.)

Neil was blessed with the ability to put off fear until the predicament he was in was over. He reached up, grabbed the face curtain that would protect his upper body, shouted “pull,” and with one quick and firm jerk, he pulled the curtain over his helmet and face to the center of his chest.

WHAM!!!!!

He exploded!!!!!

Neil was blown out of his cockpit by a violent crack of thunder as he held the face curtain firmly over his helmet and eyes. The 22 Gs made him feel as if all his body parts had been squeezed into the space the size of a bread box and he felt himself tumbling head over heels backward.

He was aware his seat and his body were rocketing upward. Adrenaline pounded through every muscle. The small drogue parachute popped out and stabilized Neil and his seat in the airflow. He felt the blast of wind and the noise leave, and he was most aware his tailbone was hurting from the ejection’s kick in the ass.

It was time to let the face curtain go. Now he could see sea and sky rapidly vanishing and quickly reappearing again, and he quickly caught his breath as he felt the Gs leaving his body . . . and he was suspended in midair . . . weightless . . . and he felt his seat become more stable. He literally ripped off his harness and rolled forward out of it—suddenly free with his ripcord in his grip. Despite his altitude he counted, “One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four Mississippi, five Mississippi,” and pulled. The chute came streaming out gradually so as not to break his back. Then the best sight Neil had ever seen—a big Day-Glo orange-and-white main parachute blossoming above him. He felt safe, he felt well—he’d survived the high-speed ejection.

It was a great feeling to believe you were home free. Neil was happy to see his ride down was taking him back to land—back to Pohang Airport, K-3, where U.S. marines would have his back.

He floated earthward, swaying back and forth, and as he dropped lower, he could see a rice paddy below. He opened his helmet’s faceplate and quickly disconnected all hoses and snaps. Then he removed his helmet, dropping it to Earth. Neil wanted nothing impeding his hasty exit from his chute just in case there were unfriendlies around.

He braced himself for—

Into the rice paddy he went with a good pop. Certainly not as bad as the kick he had just received ejecting from his Panther. He freed himself from the chute and began running for cover.

He had taken only a few steps when he saw his helmet and its straps. He stopped and picked them up, noticing his helmet was cracked from its fall.

He stood erect, surprised to see an American jeep racing toward him.

There was no doubt he had landed on the marines’ K-3 base—driving the jeep was a face he knew. His smile was suddenly wider than half of Texas. It was one of his roommates from flight school, Goodell Warren.

Warren was now a marine lieutenant operating out of Pohang and he yelled, “Armstrong, what the hell are you doing in my rice paddy?”

“Goodie,” he called smiling from ear to ear. “You never looked so good.”

The two midshipman buddies grabbed each other and Goodell Warren told him the explosions they were hearing out at sea came from the mines in the bay the North Koreans were laying.

Neil suddenly realized if his parachute had not drifted back to land, he might now be afloat in those deadly waters.

But all was well. Lieutenant Warren took care of his friend Neil, taking him to the brass for immediate debriefing.

Neil would only spend one night with Goodell and the marines before being sent back to duty aboard the Essex. There he was greeted with some good-natured ribbing. One of his fellow pilots was John Moore, who would in years to come be elected mayor of Cocoa Beach, Florida, the hometown of the launch site that would send Neil to the moon. Moore insisted that Armstrong pay for the navy property he’d destroyed including the helmet he’d cracked.

Neil had a good laugh, not in the least aware that the gods of providence were saving him for history.


Excerpted from Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight by Jay Barbree. Copyright © 2014 by Jay Barbree.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Love Never Dies by Karina Machado – Extract

Love Never Dies

Introduction

I used to be so scared of dying. My terror took hold in childhood, when I learned that the sun would one day consume the earth, and nothing could prevent it. I’d lie in my little bunk bed at night and try to imagine this world void of life, closing my eyes tight against its unknowable breadth. Only one thing gave me comfort: stories of life after death – of ghosts and wonders and mysteries all around. Buoyed by hope, I flew from fear on the wings of these stories.

All these years later, I’ve arrived here, to tell hope-filled stories of my own – stories of people who’ve sensed the spirit of a person they’ve loved and lost. This is a book about the indestructibility of love.

Some readers will know that it is my third book on the subject of life after death. Yet it was writing about love after death as part of my research for previous books that paved the way for the one you’re reading today. The stories I gathered for Spirit Sisters, and its sequel, Where Spirits Dwell, changed my life. Slowly, I was awakened to mysteries that abound, in suburbia as in the bush, to the extraordinary events experienced by ordinary people from every walk of life, to the mind-bending gamut of phenomena. While some stories were heart-stopping, goosebump-raising chillers, others made my pulse quicken for reasons that were the very opposite of fear.

I learned that some people are haunted by love. And those were the stories that most haunted me.

It’s always an honour and a privilege when I’m gifted a tale, but it was the mothers’ profound stories of loss – and defiant hope – that would not leave me. After meeting these courageous women, I was a different person. One who held her children a little tighter, a little longer; one who found it easier to forgive trifles, to appreciate the goodness in people and to open her heart wider. These were powerful experiences, not only for the women who shared their stories – and in some cases, spirit communication was the only thing that kept a mother from wanting to join her child – but also for the reader, who could take away the bare truth at the heart of each encounter: love, as our late loved ones would have us know, never dies.

That radiant idea, as small as three words, as vast as the sky, inspired this book. Every page, I hope, is a testament to its miraculous power, and to the courage of the 60 or so people from all over Australia who shared their life-changing – sometimes lifesaving – experiences with me: strong as trees, they stand tall in the wake of deepest loss, keen to honour their cherished dead with a tale of love mightier than death. Mired in grief, they struggled to cope in a world emptied of warmth and light. For them, the earth had consumed their sun. Yet, in experiencing the presence of their loved one, each found solace and the path to healing. Children, partners, siblings, parents, friends and extended family, all reaching out to brush away the tears of those left behind with assurances of eternal love.

As you’ll go on to read, these assurances arrive in many ways. A teenage boy appears to his sister on the eve of his funeral, urging her to take care of their mother; in a dream more vivid than life, a young husband returns to his widow in time to prevent another tragedy; a grandmother lovingly settles her lonely daughter’s babies; with a cheeky grin, a son shows himself to his mother as she weeps in her kitchen; a gentle artist who fled life sends his sister exquisite green feathers wherever she goes; a man soothes his broken-hearted brother with an otherworldly embrace . . .

For the receivers of these gifts, these were moments to make them smile through their tears. With eyes smarting and skin tingling, I listened to their stories, marvelling time and again at the healing force of these encounters, at how often they gave way to a feeling of renewal, of darkness lifting – of hope returning.

In the chapters that follow, stories are grouped by the common message or reason for the communication. For instance, in Chapter One, ‘A Time to Heal’, the messages all offer solace to the bereaved. In Chapter Five, ‘Watching Over Us’, deceased loved ones return exactly when we need them most, each story suggesting that though they’re gone from our sides, the departed who’d cared for us in life still do so in death, just as they continue to want to help out during challenging times.

Chapter Seven, ‘Family is Forever’, honours familial bonds, where love flows like a river through multiple generations. Over and over, I was astounded to hear of the vital role long-gone family members, even those we’ve never met, continue to play in our modern lives. Stories from my own family have always played a key part in my life – since childhood, they’ve fed my passion for the unknown and inspired my work. Many years ago, my mother told me of an experience that planted the seed of my fascination for the kinds of stories that fill this book. I’d like to share it with you here.

*

One humid and tear-streaked day in the sunset of 1973, my parents boarded a ferry from Montevideo to Buenos Aires, the first leg of their journey towards new lives in Australia. At the edge of the River Plate, my mother imprinted the city of her birth, its skyline an unfinished poem, onto her dark and solemn eyes. Armed only with one suitcase and a two-year-old me, they were on their way to a country which promised them the world. Dizzy from the churn of the khaki waters and the mingled perfumes of the crowd who pressed kisses on her cheeks and prattled advice and blessings, my mother spotted him among the crowd, spotlit by his height. His hands were slung deep inside his pockets and a black sweater fell across his shoulders. His eyes were pinned on the turgid river, which seemed to have already begun its dirty work of separation. Excitement thrummed in the brackish air, but fear and sorrow, too. My mother will never forget my paternal grandmother squeezing me hard against her chest, howling into my hair.

My mum kept still and silent, until, as if awakening from a spell, she rushed to him, her closest cousin, Roberto, and threw her arms around his neck. ‘Hasta que te vea de nuevo, Roberto!’ Until we meet again! She wore her new high-heeled sandals but still he towered over her. She leaned her head against his chest, breathed in his smell of home and wept.

Of the huge and tangled family she was leaving behind, Roberto was her shadow, closer even than her two brothers. An only child with delicate skin and the whitest teeth, he was usually shy but when he laughed, adorable dimples bloomed. They grew up together, always together – my mum and Roberto, surrounded by the most expensive toys, parents who fawned over him, the best teachers their hard-earned money could buy. In turn, his cousin introduced him to her three scrawny dogs and her boundless imagination, which could turn yesterday’s stale bread into the most scrumptious filet mignon. Sitting side by side in the dirt, though Roberto invariably stained his crisply ironed white shirt, Mum told him about her astral travels, and the family she’d left behind in her past life. Between them, they turned the pages of last Sunday’s newspaper, as Mum taught him to read, succeeding where private school teachers could not. Afterward, as a reward, they’d pore over the obituaries, marvelling, in that morbid way of children, at any familiar names.

Sometimes they’d scamper hand in hand through their grandfather’s vegetable patch scented of parsley and oregano, or naughtily trample his purple geraniums. Roberto let her drive his red ‘Maserati’ (he was the only kid in the whole neighbourhood with his own toy car) and invited her to his spotless home where they’d sip hot chocolate from fine china mugs and share morning tea of orange cake served upon starched napkins. In less elegant moments, my mum, Silvia, who’d long ago read the melancholy in her cousin’s DNA and shielded his soft core from bullies and hardships accordingly, fearlessly defended Roberto in scraps. Then she’d dust herself off and march home, nests of her black hair lost in battle drifting like tumbleweed in her wake.

At the port, he held her tightly as they relived, wordlessly, a lifetime spent side by side. Minutes later, the ferry lifted anchor and we were gone. What my mother could not have known on that vintage December day was that in years to come, it would be Roberto’s turn to say goodbye, and that when that day came, he would find his way to her.

Researching this book, I was struck for the first time by the similarities between the journey taken by spirits we’ve loved and lost, and the act of leaving everything behind and beginning again in an unknown place, as my family and so many others have done. ‘Death is like immigration,’ Ban Guo, whose story of connecting with his father’s spirit appears in Chapter Three, told me during our interview. ‘You move to a new home, but you don’t forget the old place and the old people.’ Ban’s analogy shone in its simplicity. Our loved ones, he reassured me, will love us forever, and not even death can stop them from letting us know it.

Years passed, Roberto married and had children, and in our new home in Sydney, my mother gave birth to my sister, who lamented missing her home in the womb the moment she found her voice. Meanwhile, my homesick mum penned Roberto letters, which she always signed, ‘Your cousin, who loves you’. In one, she described how in immigrating she’d lost much more than she’d gained, how the dreams she’d carried across the seas had never manifested, how sometimes she didn’t know if she was woman or ghost.

And so time turned, arriving at last at one September morning in the mid-1990s. My mother awoke on her side of the bed, the other side long since cold, her pillow drenched in tears. She sat up, still sobbing, and recalled an extraordinarily vivid dream. In it, Roberto held her tight, and emotions – despair, the joy of a reunion and all-encompassing love – swirled around the pair, as palpable as the warm, solid and familiar figure who held her. Once again, she’d rested her head against his chest, felt the scratchy weave of his favourite black pullover, breathed in the tang of a Montevideo summer. Once again, they were children, running amuck through the herb garden in a giggly game of chase. ‘Don’t leave! Don’t you leave!’ she pleaded with him, knowing instinctively, in that magical language of dreams, that this was a final farewell.

‘No,’ he replied gently. ‘I have to go now.’

She looked up to offer a last kiss on his cheek, but found a black abyss where his face should have been. Then he turned and walked away, his tall form fading to nothing.

Afterward, as tears as heavy as pearls slid down her face, she reasoned she’d been neither awake nor asleep during the experience, which had left her deeply unsettled. A few hours later, feeling calmer, she phoned Uruguay and her father told her, in a whisper stinging of horror, that, no, things were not well with them at the moment, since they’d just learned that her cousin Roberto was dead. Yesterday, he’d shot himself through the mouth with his father’s antique shotgun. Her father sighed and it was as if my mother could see him, his green eyes red from weeping, as if thousands of kilometres of land and ocean between them had melted. A part of her knew, too, what he would say next. The gunshot had erased Roberto’s face.

But the violence of his passing played no part in the images that swam before her as she processed the news. Foremost was the child she’d so loved, the dimpled cheeks, his joyous laugh. The day he died, on his teenaged son’s birthday, he was 42, the same age as his father, Americo, when he died from a heart attack, as I’ve described in my first book, Spirit Sisters. A chain of fathers and sons, linked by loss.

What type of mind-boggling and stubborn love could return Roberto to my mother’s arms in a distant country after his death? How was it possible that she should see him so present, so solid and – except for the void where a beloved face should have been – so lifelike? The experience, she says, unfolded within and without her, so that everything – colours, textures, senses and emotions – were sharper and denser than in everyday life.

Roberto said goodbye in a dream, or something like a dream, but as you’ll read in the following pages, our darling dead find so many other ways to send us love letters from heaven. They flutter to earth on butterfly wings, write messages of hope on Scrabble tiles, drift from the ceiling in showers of feathers, help settle our babies, save us from illness and harm, stand whole before us in the garden or at our bedside, and speak to us in voices spun from sky and clouds.

Just as immigration, with its tyranny of distance, cannot sever the bonds between people who care deeply for each other, so it seems relationships continue to grow and thrive, even after death. Roberto continues to visit my mother today, greeting her in that shadowland between the pillow and cherished memories. Her skin announces his arrival, sprouting goosebumps in waves of ice and heat. Death, Mum suggests, is not as final as immigration, because Roberto always returns.

This celebration of the ways our loved ones come back seems the right way for me to conclude the trilogy that began with Spirit Sisters in 2009, though my understanding of the spirit world is still evolving. My childhood fascination with spooky tales has given way to acknowledgment that a spiritual encounter can be much more than a spine-tingling treat, it can offer a lifeline to the bereaved. I’ve always believed in the power of storytelling and the stories in this book offer crucial lessons for us all.

Humility, and the value of keeping an open heart, are high on the list. If a friend tells you they’ve awoken to their late lover’s breath warming their cheek, or that they’ve seen their mother beaming, rosy-cheeked and restored to health, at their bedside, don’t be fast to judge. Rather, rejoice that you’re hearing something precious. As the American writer Willa Cather once said, ‘Where there is great love, there are always miracles.’

1

A time to heal

Piercing the wall of grief

‘There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love.’ —Thornton Wilder

Late one afternoon in 2005, Margaret Marlow looked around in the quiet solitude of her Queensland home and noted all of the paraphernalia of domestic life in its place. Here, the kettle, there the toaster, the shiny kitchen appliances. Everything looked just as it did yesterday, and the day before that. Yet Margaret was not the same. A few months earlier, her son, John, 36, had died in a car crash, and nothing had been the same since. ‘I was having a really bad day,’ she recalls. ‘I’d been crying all day. I was just putting a pot of water on the hotplate and I just felt . . .’

She pauses, searching for the right words.

‘It was a really strange feeling, like there was some presence there, like I could hear a very faint rustling sound in the corner of the room. I jumped before I saw it. Like I really jumped because I knew there was something there! I saw my son’s face, he was only appearing from the waist up and he looked younger. He had the half-grin on his face that he always had. He had a creamy-coloured shirt on – I didn’t recognise what he was wearing – and his skin was really, really clear, like porcelain.’

Although the vision lasted only a few seconds, the effects were profound. After recovering from her initial shock, Margaret felt blessed to have been touched by something wonderful. ‘I felt so privileged, because I thought, how hard must that have been for him to place himself there like that?’ Thinking back to the expression John had on his face, that signature larrikinish grin of his, Margaret believes it meant, ‘Yeah, I get you Mum. I know what you’re going through.’

Empathy radiates from these encounters: for the person in mourning, they offer vital acknowledgment of their pain and the understanding that their loved one, whose return proves they still love them from afar, is doing their best to assuage their sorrow. Margaret, who went on to write a book, I Can See Clearly Now, about her experiences sensing her son’s spirit, is certain John felt her distress on that tear-streaked day, and that’s why he visited: ‘I believe he was there to say, “Mum, it’s okay.”’

Grief is universal and as old as time. The Roman statesman Marcus Cicero, who died in 43 BC, was famously crippled by grief when his daughter Tullia died. Nothing except millennia divides the experiences of Margaret and Cicero, whose sorrow survives in letters of condolence penned by his peers. Yet Tullia herself lives on in the story of the Perpetual Lamp, a potent symbol of life and love everlasting. Legend tells that in the fifteenth century, Tullia’s burial place was discovered in Rome and inside her tomb was a lamp still burning after 1500 years. In 1613, the poet John Donne celebrated the flame of eternal love in ‘Eclogue, 1613. Decemb. 26’:

Now, as in Tullias tombe, one lamp burnt cleare, Unchang’d for fifteen hundred yeare,
May these love-lamps we here enshrine, In warmth, light, lasting, equall the divine

Like Tullia’s lamp, John’s appearance was a testament to the indestructibility of love, lighting Margaret’s path to healing on one of her darkest days. His cherished face returned to her, a celestial offering in the everyday confines of her kitchen. In the knowledge that her son remains present in the daily lives of the family who miss him, Margaret could wipe her eyes and go on, refreshed, into an evening bright with new possibilities.

Spontaneous visits from deceased loved ones are known as after-death communications, or ADCs, as US researchers Bill and Judy Guggenheim first described them. Following interviews with 2000 people for their 1996 book Hello From Heaven!, the Guggenheims estimated that one in five

Americans had experienced an ADC. These phenomena, however, cross barriers of culture, religion, age, gender, socioeconomic background and time – reports of ADCs date back 2000 years. For as long as people have grieved, they have sensed the presence of their departed loved one, and drawn solace from it.

Those we’ve loved and lost find myriad ways to reach out. To name a few, they’ll speak out loud and clear; wrap us in a cloud of their signature scent; stand before us in broad daylight or at our bedsides, looking robust and lit with joy; imbue our spaces with their all-encompassing presence; send their love with butterflies who alight, fearlessly, on our faces and outstretched palms; or hold us tight in vibrant dream visitations that feel more real than life itself.

In 2001, the year after her father died, Jenny Gersekowski, a 58-year-old former farmer and photo-journalist from near Toowoomba, met him again in a powerful dream. Jenny recalls: ‘I could feel his warmth, I could feel his arm. He was dressed in a flannelette shirt. He said to me, “I’m alright. Don’t worry about me, I’m okay, so don’t worry.” I’ll never forget that, it was just extraordinary.’

Eight years later, following the death of her husband of 33 years, Alan, Jenny experienced a different form of ADC: ‘I felt him putting his arms around me in bed. I felt his breath on my neck,’ she remembers. Today, it’s a more subtle hint of Alan’s presence that embraces her all day, every day. ‘I just feel his love. I just feel the unconditional love close to me, though his presence is probably not as strong as it used to be,’ she reflects. ‘I think now he’s actually trying to let me live my own life a bit more.’

Whether the experience is visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, sentient, symbolic or in dreams – among the principle categories identified – the primary purpose of an ADC is to heal. ‘ADCs are essentially expressions of love because they are all about helping each other,’ writes leading grief counsellor Dr Louis LaGrand in his 1999 book Messages and Miracles: Extraordinary Experiences of the Bereaved.

Often, as Margaret’s story above illustrates, an encounter occurs just as the person experiencing it is at their lowest ebb, the communication working like a pick-me-up, buoying the bereaved, giving them the strength to go on.

Sydney talent manager Deb Carr was inconsolable following the suicide of her brother, Gary, aged 34, on 2 November 1998. ‘It was the most horrendous day of my life,’ says Deb, her bluegrey eyes turning stormy at the memory. Three days later, she recalls, ‘I was lying in bed crying, and I was wide awake, wide awake, and I heard him call me. I heard him yell out, “Deb,

I’m okay!” I heard his voice, it was not in my mind, it was his voice,’ she insists. ‘Then I had a vision of him and I was in the vision, too, sitting on a stone bench, crying with my hands on my face, just sobbing uncontrollably, and he came up to me and put his arm around me and he looked just like Gary, scruffy, in a jumper and black jeans. He put his arm around me and he held me and he just winked at me and said, telepathically, “Everything that you believe in life after death is true. I am so happy.”’

As with all the stories in this chapter, and many throughout the book, the experience heralded a turning point in Deb’s healing process. ‘I felt so comforted, because he and I used to talk about what happens when you die,’ she says. They’d always been very close and Gary, a talented artist and cartoonist, used to phone her to chat every day.

Growing up in New Zealand, Deb, Gary and their two brothers used to spend hours scrambling over hedgerows in their huge backyard, lush with plum trees and rambling vines. Her favourite memory is playing ‘clubs’ with the boys, with Deb as secretary and ‘poor Gary the treasurer’, she remembers with a smile. But a shadow fell over their world when Gary turned ten; his grades dropped, he became aggressive and health problems dogged him.

It later emerged that this was when a priest, a family friend, had begun to sexually abuse Gary. The rage that ensnared him and the depression that plagued him in adulthood are the poisonous outcomes of the abuse, says Deb. She tells me about a prophetic artwork of Gary’s that portrays the story of his stolen childhood – and its ultimate outcome. ‘There’s a castle in the background, a demon crouching and a little boy running, he’s got a little schoolbag and he’s put his hand out and a beautiful angel is picking him up and bringing him to heaven.’

Since Gary’s death, Deb receives regular signs of her brother’s steadfast love, such as the meaningful appearance of feathers, and she has also met Gary in her dreams. One poignant dream visitation took place three years after he died. The setting was a funeral at a church, where five coffins were being brought in and Gary stood at the altar, jubilant. ‘He was dancing and putting his arm out, saying, “Bring those coffins up here! You bring them up here, Debbie. You don’t know how happy it is over here! They don’t know what they’re in for.”’ Deb believes the quintet of caskets represented the five living members of their family. ‘In the dream I sat down in a pew next to Dad and he was crying. I held his hand and said, “Dad, what are you crying for? Gary is really, really, really happy.” Then I woke up and my pillow was saturated, saturated with my tears.’

Sustaining Deb is her conviction that Gary is ‘teaching art in heaven’ and her unwavering belief that life, like love, goes on. ‘I’ll be with him again. There’s no doubt about it. When I go, he’ll be there,’ she declares. Until then, the memory of their reunion on the stone bench is always with her, like a treasured photo tucked close to the heart. ‘I think about it all the time –I can still hear him and see exactly what it was like. It told me he was safe. I’d been worried that he was suffering more in the afterlife. I was worried he wasn’t being cared for because of what he’d done, but I think God said to him, “No, darling, it’s time to come home. You’ve done your stuff, it’s time to come home.”’

Communicating with her brother’s spirit also prevented Deb, a divorced mother of two and now aged 51, from succumbing to the same despair. ‘If he hadn’t come to me, I don’t know if I would have not done the same thing myself. It’s kept me going through some tough times,’ she says.

Deb’s belief echoes LaGrand’s assertion in his 2006 book, Love Lives On, that these encounters are ‘major forces that . . . often change the course of one’s life.’ Such events, he writes, ‘bring about healing and expanded consciousness for mourners’.

More than twenty years after he had a gut-wrenchingly vivid dream about his late father, Grant Hyde still looks back on it with wonder: ‘I will live with it in my heart until I’m old and useless,’ he says. A former Sydney Roosters rugby league player, Grant, 44, is now a novelist, personal trainer and father of two. He reveals that the standalone experience was ‘uplifting’ and says, ‘It made me feel really good.’

It was a Sunday afternoon in 1992 and in the bowels of the Sydney Football Stadium, Grant, then 23, sat with his elbows atop his knees and his head bowed. A month earlier, his father, Ray, also a former Roosters player, had died of mesothelioma, aged 62. Though he spoke little of it, Grant was deeply grieving the loss of his ‘best mate’. In minutes, he and his team-mates would take to the field against the Western Suburbs Magpies and the atmosphere crackled with anticipation, testosterone and tension. But Grant’s thoughts lingered on the dream he’d had last night, all night, it seemed. Though ‘dream’ was, perhaps, too measly a word to contain what had happened, because last night, his father returned to his side.

In the dream, Grant recalls, ‘I was on the field standing in the defensive line facing a giant front-rower coming at me. He was a scary-looking bloke with a shaved head. I heard a voice next to me, a young man’s voice, saying, “Here he comes, give it to him for your old man, hey?”

‘I looked to my side and there was my dad. Not as an old, sick man that was so fresh in my memory, but as a young powerful footballer, the likes of which I’d only seen in the scrapbooks. He had thick blond hair and his body was strong and lean. It was definitely my dad, it just felt right. I asked, “What are you doing here, I thought you were gone?” He shook his head and said, “As long as you remember me, son, I’m never gone.”’

In the locker room, Grant smiled to himself and took a deep breath. Thinking about the dream, he felt invigorated, ready to take on his opponents. ‘It was the best I’d felt since my dad died,’ Grant says. ‘I felt like I’d spent the previous night with him, playing the game we both loved.’ When the siren sounded for the match to begin, Grant got to his feet and whispered to his old man, ‘I’ll see you out there, mate.’

Fatherly support also arrived just in time for Sunshine Coast radio presenter Mary-Lou Stephens after her 61-year-old dad, Dick, died from asthma complications in 1987. Mary-Lou was 26 and in the grip of a heroin habit and a destructive relationship. ‘It was Dad’s death that stopped me using. When he died, everything changed and I needed to change with it,’ writes Mary-Lou in her 2013 memoir, Sex, Drugs & Meditation.

But what kept her recovery on track was the way their relationship flourished after his death. Now 52 but with a vibrant personality and girlish voice that makes her seem half that age, Mary-Lou tells me: ‘After my dad died, it really was the only time I felt him loving me.’ She explains how trauma in his own upbringing made him emotionally distant. ‘He was too scared to love, too scared to be himself.’

But after his death, he began again.

Mary-Lou had a benchmark dream that summed up the new way forward for her father: ‘We were sitting in a church, but there was no church service and there were lots of people and we were all reading books. Some people had very small books and others had big books and I looked over to my dad and he was only a quarter of the way through a large book.’ She remembers that, in the dream she sighed with relief, because she knew he wouldn’t be able to leave until ‘he finishes the book’. She understood he’d fulfilled only part of his mission in helping her – there was still a great deal of work to be done.

For the next eighteen months, Mary-Lou felt her dad around ‘very strongly’. ‘Very strongly,’ she reiterates. ‘There was a dramatic feeling of him being free of all that pain – it was phenomenal! I truly felt him with me all the time.’ Knowing she could finally count on her father’s love gave Mary-Lou the courage to triumph over her addiction. ‘I feel like crying when I say this, but he was going to stick around with me, or for me, for that amount of time because that’s what I needed. You know, it probably took me that long to get the heroin out of my system. I couldn’t believe the grip it had on me.’

Yet her father’s love held her even tighter. Mary-Lou describes it as ‘this presence of a loving dad, which I’d never experienced when he was alive, a love like a warm embrace’. She says it helped her to leave drugs behind and pour her energies into her passion for country music (she used to sing and play guitar in a band called, aptly, Chain of Hearts) and land her dream job in radio.

Today, Mary-Lou, who’s found solace and spiritual nourishment in meditation, no longer senses her father’s presence as powerfully, but she’ll never forget how he was there when she needed him. And, many years later, he was there for her again, preventing her from having a car crash (which she describes in Chapter Eight, ‘The Power of Love’). If ever she’s missing him more than usual, she picks up her favourite photo of him, taken on the east coast of Tasmania, and imagines it’s a snapshot of his new life: ‘It’s just him standing in this field with the sea behind him and the sky above and he’s so happy and joyous and free, smiling at the camera.’

As transformative as these ADC experiences are, in many cases they prove to be only the first, as spirit family members and friends find new ways to continue to deliver their message of love. Eileen, a 68-year-old retired occupational therapist, lost her husband Tom to a heart attack in 1988. Tom, a doctor, was only 55 years old and his sudden death left Eileen mired in pain. But just a few days after Tom died, she received a precious love letter from the hereafter.

‘I’d kept his letters to me and I found my letters to him in his drawer,’ says Eileen. ‘I’d read his letters, just as a way of trying to be close to him, and then something made me read my letters to him, too. On the third one, on the back of the envelope, he had written, Stand still to hear me in thine own heart beating, pause to feel my presence in this room, know that when you call me, I am with you.’

Eileen felt the hairs on her arms stand on end.

Decades later, as she reads the words aloud to me from her peaceful home in northern Victoria, where birds sing in the background of our conversation, it happens to us both. The stirring words, which she believes Tom authored, are an apparent testament to love after death. More than that, they are like a poetic instruction manual: the bridge is love, but you must know how to cross it. In our frantic 21st-century lives, it is easy to feel lost in the maelstrom and disconnected from ourselves – finding solitary time for reflection and spirituality is a luxury many of us feel we cannot afford. Tom’s words declare love never dies, but that we must stop – ‘stand still’ – listen, and have faith, to know it.

Reading his words for the first time, his widow felt her loneliness lift. ‘I took that as a message for me,’ she says. ‘I felt very, very happy. Reassured.’

There is another layer to Eileen’s lovely story. Three years before Tom’s death, and before they were married, Eileen, who’s a Christian and a follower of the universal spiritual teachings of the late Indian healer Sathya Sai Baba, went through a time of ‘feeling a lot of despair’. Then one day she opened her Bible at random to look for some sort of guidance – a ritual she hadn’t done since childhood but which had felt right in that moment – and the pages fell open to Psalm 46 of the Old Testament. Eileen recalls: ‘I read down the columns and there didn’t seem to be anything particularly significant, then I came to a couple of lines in bold type, completely different to the other print on the page. It said, “Be still and know that I am God.” I blinked and looked away and looked back again and it was just normal print.’

It’s intriguing that those ancient words, which magically shouted an answer of hope to Eileen, have so much in common with the verse Tom later penned. In solemnity and profundity, in their call for calm and stillness, in the way they worked as a salve for Eileen’s pain, his words echo the biblical passage. How this could be is a mystery Eileen accepts may never be solved, at least, not until she meets her husband again. She knows it is just a matter of time. ‘Tom believed that, too. He believed our loved ones are all waiting for us when we die.’

Sydney novelist Jess Tarn, 23, takes comfort from this, too. Her brother, David, was three years old when he drowned in a swimming pool in Singapore, where her family then lived. It was 1993 and Jess was four, only eighteen months older than David. But since then she has carried the burden of having been the last person who spoke to him, though she was barely more than a toddler herself. Her baby brother’s last moments play on loop inside her head, a movie whose agonising ending she can never rewrite.

Clusters of ex-patriot families surround a public pool in the unrelenting humidity of mid-afternoon in Singapore.

Children squeal and laugh, splash and shout. Small hands slap the surface of the water, cool and blue and benign. Mothers chit-chat.

‘I was holding my mum’s hand and she was talking to someone,’ says Jess. ‘David came up to me and asked me if he could go for a swim. Me being a naïve four-year-old, I said, “Yeah.”’

A tiny boy. Light-brown hair. Eyes like an Australian sky. Ever resourceful, he pulls and tugs at his puffy orange floaties until he is free. The water, so cool and blue, calls him. He jumps.

By the time a passer-by noticed ‘a shadow at the bottom of the pool’ it was too late for David. Jess recalls, ‘One of my mum’s friends dove into the pool, picked him up and they attempted CPR’, but being so young herself at the time, Jess doesn’t remember much. She knows her family, numb with loss, took David home to be buried near his grandfather, in Port Macquarie, New South Wales. She knows Eric Clapton’s ‘Tears in Heaven’ played at his funeral.

For the next ten years, she’d cry whenever she heard that song; yet these were the moments when David seemed closest. Clapton’s lament for his own little boy was vast and deep enough to speak for Jessica, too. The lyrics carried David’s smile, the melody brought his blue-sky eyes within reach. ‘I honestly believe he was around me whenever I was listening to that song or whenever I was upset.’

Few memories remain to fill the David-sized space at her side but all brim with love. ‘He was always cheeky, absolutely beautiful and gorgeous. Mum used to tell me that whenever he was in trouble, he’d always run to me, so I was his second mother,’ says Jess. She laughs as she remembers one of his cutest quirks: ‘Whenever he was taking his pants or undies off, instead of stepping out of them and then picking them up, he’d take one foot out and then kick his little foot up to grab it so he didn’t have to bend down.’

But David was barely more than a baby, so the sweet memories must end almost as soon as they start. For years, Jess struggled with the disparity between the years he lived and the future he was denied – the future they were all denied. ‘He missed out on so much, because he was so little,’ she says with tears in her voice. ‘He is never going to get that first kiss or have a partner, those are the things that I think about. The boy he was. The man he would have been.’

In early 2008, following the death of a beloved great-aunt, Jess had an experience which proved a breakthrough in her healing. ‘I am Catholic, but I hadn’t been to church for ages,’ she explains. ‘I was really upset this day and I went out for a walk. I passed a chapel and went inside. I think I just let everything out, like I just cried over everything, and then it felt like someone was turning my head to the left. There was a picture in stained glass of a little boy who was standing up and an old woman who was kneeling down: Aunty Mary and David.’

The sensation of her head being physically guided towards the image – so representative of her loved ones – was undeniable, Jess stresses. Most important, though, was the instantaneous relief it brought. ‘I felt like the whole weight was lifted off. I knew that they were together and that they were there with me,’ she says, laughing and crying at the same time. ‘And that made me feel so much better. Together, they turned my head.’

David is also a frequent visitor in Jess’s dreams, usually appearing as the toddler he was, with one unforgettable exception: ‘I was dancing in the rain and I was wearing a reddish-purplish dress and, I don’t know, I just felt free,’ reflects Jess. ‘Then all of a sudden, this faceless man comes along and we just start dancing. I think that was David, you know? I felt so happy. I wanted the dream to come true. There was no music, just the sound of the rain . . .’

Joyous as a sun-shower, reassuring as a smile, beguiling as a poem – such is the love that imbues the following stories, too: a soulmate and a husband, no longer by their loved ones’ sides, yet ever a soothing presence in their lives, eager to help mend their broken hearts.

A hand to hold

‘She’s opened up the door for me to find out where she is.’

The first time Vikki saw a photograph of Kelsey, though she’d never met her before, it was like a reunion. Her skin and muscles, her heart and head, all floated, as if magnetised, towards the picture of the statuesque woman with blue eyes and red hair. The newspaper article was about a breeding farm for stallions where Kelsey worked. The photo showed her walking a mare and not even the hosed-down hues of the flimsy newspaper could dim her grace and presence. Or maybe she just shone for Vikki. ‘I don’t really read the newspaper,’ Vikki, now 38, tells me, ‘but for some reason, that day I did.’

Not long afterwards, the pair came face to face. Vikki, a horse trainer, had been working at a horse farm in rural Victoria for three years; she’d taken a couple of months off and when she returned to the farm, in October 2002, her stomach flipped at the sight of her new colleague, Kelsey. But love didn’t bloom straightaway. ‘We didn’t exactly hit it off as friends at first, in fact we didn’t like each other,’ says Vikki, chuckling. Though they soon thawed out – ‘we started to realise we both liked the same things, we were the same person, pretty much’ – and on Kelsey’s birthday in December, they had their first kiss.

Bonded by their love of horses and tastes in music – Melissa Etheridge and the Baby Animals were on high rotation – theirs was a serene and happy partnership built on their mutual appreciation of the simple things: just being together, dreaming big, living life. ‘Kelsey was one of those people that you could always tell when she walked into a room, everyone would look at her,’ Vikki says. ‘She was very bubbly and outgoing, easy to talk to. She used to draw a lot of people to her because she was so easygoing. She would try her hand at absolutely anything. She’d say no to nothing and nothing would frighten her.’

Kelsey wore that fearlessness like armour until two days before her death from ovarian cancer in 2011, aged 33.

Her diagnosis in 2009, Vikki recalls, winded the couple who’d pledged to be together until long after Kelsey’s autumnal hair turned silver. ‘We all thought she was going to pull through,’ says Vikki. ‘We had plans. The minute she got better, we were getting out of Dodge. We were going to bum it for a year or two, no more horses, no more anything.’

Fiercely private, Kelsey eschewed fuss and pity. ‘Her attitude was, “I’ll get over it, so don’t worry about it.” And she fought it for two and a half years,’ says Vikki. ‘She never stopped working. She worked through chemo, feeling sick, radiation therapy. She worked through everything.’

On the morning of Wednesday 7 December 2011, Vikki woke up and ran the bath water for Kelsey, as was their routine. By this stage, Kelsey was receiving palliative care at home and Vikki tended to her with exquisite tenderness, climbing into the tub with her partner every day and sponging her skin, half-blinded by unshed tears. Today Kelsey surprised Vikki by saying she didn’t want her bath, she was too tired, but almost immediately changed her mind and began to get in, even as the bath was still filling.

‘Are you okay?’ asked Vikki, unsettled by Kelsey’s urgency.

‘Yeah, I’m alright.’

‘Well, you didn’t bring your pyjamas in, I’ll just go out and get them.’ Vikki turned to walk towards the bedroom.

‘No, no, get in,’ said Kelsey. ‘This could possibly be our last time we’re going to spend together.’

Vikki obeyed, but after two minutes, Kelsey had had enough. She couldn’t sit up anymore. Vikki lifted her gently out of the bath, dried her and was helping her back to the bedroom when Kelsey stopped and looked into her eyes, a mirror of her own – sea and sky, impossible to know where one ended and the other began.

‘You know you’re my hero for doing all of this,’ said Kelsey. ‘You’re just my hero.’

Sharing this, Vikki’s strong and clear voice trembles and I’m awed by their love.

Kelsey died that evening at 9 pm. In her final hours, she’d slipped in and out of consciousness, with her mum and Vikki by her side, planting gentle kisses on her palms.

Kelsey’s first dream visitation to Vikki had all the hallmarks of their quiet, low-key love. Vikki recounts: ‘In the dream, I remember walking into our bedroom and she was asleep in our bed, facing the other way on her side of the bed. I remember, as vivid as anything, just hopping into bed and touching her on the shoulder and saying, “I love you, honey.” And she rolled over and said, “I love you too.”’

Another ADC seemed less subtle: around five days after Kelsey’s death, Vikki was jolted from a deep sleep by the sudden blaring of one of their favourite songs, ‘Love Takes Over’ by David Guetta, which had played at her funeral. ‘The music was coming from outside of me, from somewhere in the house,’ remembers Vikki, but she could not locate its source. Her mum, who’d been watching the cricket in the lounge room, didn’t hear a sound.

Sometimes, it’s Kelsey’s voice that wakes Vikki, calling her from the corner of the bedroom where Vikki piles up the gifts she buys for Kelsey – anniversary and birthday presents, a card for Valentine’s Day, ‘stuff like that’. Vikki will respond – ‘Yeah honey?’ – even though she’s just woken up from a deep sleep. ‘I know it’s her because it’s her voice and it’s in the room and the voice is talking to me,’ Vikki explains, then pauses. ‘She says my name.’

Just over a week after Kelsey’s death, her brother took Vikki to Noosa for a weekend away, a kind gesture ‘to get me out of the house’, says Vikki. ‘Her family are now my family.’ Walking with him at dusk along the beachfront, Vikki noticed the many couples holding hands as they strolled by. ‘I remember saying to Kelsey in my head, “Well, honey, you and I would have loved to be walking along here, holding hands.” And I felt something touch the inside of my left hand and it made me close my hand as if to say, “We are holding hands.” It was the feeling that she had actually just put her hand in mine.’

Vikki held her hand shut until they arrived at the restaurant and she took her seat at the table.

That’s not the only time Kelsey has laid healing hands on her partner. ‘Once, I was pretty much incapacitated with grief in the middle of a paddock, feeding some horses, and I was hunched over, bawling my eyes out. It had been a very emotional day and I just couldn’t take it anymore. There was no one to hear me out in the middle of 250 acres so I thought I would let it all out, and I swear, I just felt her put her hands on my back and say, “It’s okay.” It just made me feel better straightaway, like that,’ says Vicki, snapping her fingers. ‘The feeling was, it’s going to be okay, and then I stopped crying and said, “Okay, I got it.”’

During the most searing times, when Vikki, who wears around her neck a love heart pendant with Kelsey’s ashes inside, struggles to accept a future which doesn’t include the chance to hold her lover again, to draw a washcloth across her fragrant skin one last time, the only way forward is through Kelsey’s communications: ‘She’s opened up the door for me to find out where she is and what’s going on,’ says Vikki. ‘I look to the sky and the stars but I think she’s right beside me. She’s in the truck next to me when I go to work – we used to go everywhere together. She’s still sitting in the seat sleeping away while I drive somewhere. She’s still there. She’s not getting away that easy.’

Letting in the light

‘I said, “Am I dreaming or am I awake?” He said, “You’re awake. I’m with you.”’

Natasha Ponente stood at the altar of St Dominic’s Church in Melbourne and stared out at 350 faces. Her trembling hand held the eulogy but her throat was as closed as her heart, shut tight against a world that could inflict so much pain. The words she’d written tilted and swayed, became just so many black markings on a page. The quiet roared. She took a breath and turned her head to the right, towards the coffin, counting the roses on its lid in an attempt to calm down. When she looked up again, the pews were empty and she stood alone with the casket full of her future, a beam of sunlight painting it gold and amber.

To Natasha, it was now just the two of them. The doors were shut against the sweltering heat, but a breeze, as gentle as murmurs of love at midnight, found its way to her side, delivering the strength she needed. Natasha found her voice and began to read to her husband, Leigh, who’d exchanged vows with her in this very spot just two years ago. Tenderly, she read him her eulogy, her final love letter.

Exactly two weeks earlier, on 14 December 2012, Leigh had turned 31. Before leaving for her government job, Natasha pounced onto their bed at their Melbourne home and belted out ‘It’s Your Birthday’ in the tinny voice of schoolgirl Lisa, from Leigh’s favourite TV show, The Simpsons.

‘Bubby, you sound like a strangled cat,’ said Leigh, groaning.

Natasha laughed and whacked him with a pillow. ‘Well, here’s hoping I get better over the next 50 years.’

There was much to look forward to in the young couple’s lives. Summer days were long, hot and pulsing with Christmas, and 2013 loomed, with its promise of huge changes ahead for the high-school sweethearts, who planned to buy a house and start a family in the new year. Those dreams, the languid heat and the holiday vibe, the houses strung with lights and baubles – all helped to anchor Natasha when the dread that had been gnawing at her since early November threatened to consume her.

Natasha, now 33, recalls, ‘There were some nights when I would go to bed and say to my husband, “If I’m not up by the time you get up, you have to check on me, and check on me through the night as well.”’

Leigh, who could not stomach the thought of harm coming to his wife, would frown, and reach for her: ‘What’s the matter, Natasha?’

She would just shrug and shake her head, telling him, ‘I’ve just got this bad feeling.’

Before the bottom fell out of Natasha’s world, Leigh, too, had a premonition. One night, his howl of fear speared the black quiet of 3 am. Shuddering and weeping, he reached for Natasha, pulling her close then closer still. To Natasha, her heart racing with fatigue and confusion, it felt as if he wanted to unzip his skin and enfold her safe within. ‘Oh my God, come here,’ he said, his voice small and unfamiliar. His body shook as Natasha asked ‘What’s the matter?’ again and again. In reply, he squeezed her tighter.

Eventually he was able to explain: ‘I just had a dream you died and there was nothing I could do to save you and you left me.’ He was panting with fear. ‘Please, promise me you’ll never die.’

Natasha hushed and soothed him, like a child. ‘I said, “Okay. It’s okay. I’m here.” But he was terrified, like the fear of God was in him, and he said, “There’s nothing I could do. I found you. I found you. I just found you in bed.”’

A week later, Natasha stood at the bathroom mirror, applying makeup and getting ready for work. From the doorway, Leigh chattered away about the day ahead, when suddenly a morbid scene played in her mind. ‘I had this flash of people giving me condolences and me pushing them away,’ she says. It was over in seconds. Baffled, she put it down to subconscious ramblings, her mind revisiting something she’d seen on TV. But she couldn’t help wondering, ‘What was happening to them?’ First, there was her feeling of dread, then Leigh’s dream and now the hint of heartbreak she glimpsed in the bathroom mirror – the sense of foreboding was growing and steering Natasha towards the conviction that her life was in peril.

But today was Leigh’s birthday, and Natasha was determined to peel off the dread she’d been wearing since the last days of spring. Today, she would focus on Leigh and the celebrations planned for the evening. Ostensibly, it was to be a Christmas party thrown by Natasha’s uncle, but it was also a surprise party for Leigh, who, despite his youth and slight physique, would dress up as Santa for the children at the bash.

It was a lively night. Leigh, handsome in the G-Star Raw jeans and T-shirt his wife had bought him for his birthday, was in his element; chatting to everyone, making sure guests were fed and watered, and walking them out with a heartfelt thankyou at the end of the night. By the time he and Natasha got home, it was 2.45 am. Though they were yawning, they perked up when they saw that one of their favourite Christmas movies, The Ref, was about to start on TV. They cuddled up on the couch to watch it and afterwards, dragged themselves to bed. It was almost 7 am before they finally fell asleep.

Before shutting his eyes, Leigh turned to Natasha. ‘Listen, don’t let me sleep too long,’ he said. ‘We’ve got to finish the Christmas shopping.’ Natasha promised not to let him sleep past 2 pm: ‘The last thing I heard was him snoring very, very heavily, then I drifted off to sleep.’

Natasha and Leigh met on 9 October 1995. It was the first day of the last school term and as Natasha waited for the bus, she spotted ‘this little boy with long blond hair just staring at me’. In his slim fingers, the sixteen-year-old future jeweller was buffing a granite rock. ‘He flashed me a big smile and the first thing that came to mind was, “What a weirdo! Who polishes rocks?”’ remembers Natasha. Eventually, he summoned the courage to talk to the striking and confident brunette who was two years his senior and, as tends to happen with a couple who grow up together, the pair forged a loyal and passionate relationship that was not without its volatile moments.

‘Look, we would bicker – our friends gave us the nicknames Ike and Tina Turner – but then five minutes later, it would be over and done with,’ says Natasha. But their love defined them. ‘I once said to him that I felt like when we weren’t together, my heart didn’t beat, and he always said if I died, he wouldn’t live.’ Leigh was Australian, ‘but he was more Italian than I was’, says Natasha. ‘He was what we call “the Albino Gino”.’ The fun-loving prankster struck up an instant rapport with her grandparents, who’d unwaveringly side with Leigh if he went to them with sob stories of how his wife had wronged him. Leigh’s closeness to her family seemed older than it could be, like a remnant from some other time. It was a quality of Natasha and Leigh’s relationship, too. Little things – his relatives had once sold a house to her relatives – linked them, as well as calamities. When Natasha was fifteen, a vivid nightmare that had haunted her for six weeks came true when her brother had a near-fatal car accident and was rushed to hospital. The same night, as it later emerged, Leigh’s family were also there, facing their own heartbreak of a loved one’s life in peril. Two families, then strangers to each other, faced life-changing events together.

Says Natasha, ‘It’s like we really were one person split in two.’ The day after the Christmas/birthday party, 15 December, Natasha opened her eyes to the late morning light. The day was mild, she noted with relief, it would be nowhere near as hot as the previous Saturday, when the temperature had soared to 37 degrees. The time on her iPhone said 10.50 am and she wanted to get started on all the things she had to tick off her to-do list. Closing the bedroom door carefully behind her, she poured herself a glass of orange juice before dumping in a load of laundry. Lunch came and went in a blur of housekeeping and chores. Every time Natasha was about to walk into the room to wake her husband, something would draw her away from the door – her mobile would beep, the washing machine would trill, or her home phone would ring. Looking back, she wonders if the chain of distractions served as warnings, or tactics orchestrated by a higher power to delay the inevitable.

Just after 2.30 pm Natasha realised she’d let Leigh sleep in too long. She bustled into the room and raised the blind, letting afternoon light flood the space. Her mirrored wardrobe doors and dressing table mirror both reflect her bed in the centre of the room and Leigh was facing the mirrors. ‘Come on, wakey wakey,’ she teased his reflection, but then, it was as if her heart was freefalling out of her chest, to land with a thud at her feet.

‘I thought, “Why are you looking at me like that?”’ With a wail she registered he wasn’t breathing. ‘Leigh, Leigh, Leigh,’ she pleaded, bawling, as she began CPR and called the ambulance. ‘It was like slow motion. How I didn’t drop dead, I don’t know. The shock of it . . .’

Leigh’s heart had stopped in his sleep. Though the paramedics restarted it, he’d been deprived of oxygen too long and Natasha held her husband in her arms at the hospital as he slipped away. Only 24 hours earlier, they’d been celebrating his birthday and looking forward to what the dawning year would bring – now, Natasha was left to process this cataclysmic loss.

The pain of it was like nothing she’d known, like being eaten alive from the inside out, but there was Leigh’s funeral to organise and she was determined to see it through with her usual thoroughness and attention to detail. On Monday 17 December, two days after his death, Natasha was searching through his clothes for the suit and tie – his special wedding tie – she wanted him dressed in. She found the garments, as well as her gift of the G-Star T-shirt he’d worn at the party in his final hours. ‘I’m putting this in the laundry,’ she remarked to an aunt who was helping her. ‘I have to wash it because it’s all sweaty. Then I’m going to put this in the coffin with him.’ Four days later, on the Friday, Natasha took the suit to the funeral directors’ premises, where close friends and family lovingly dressed Leigh. In her fog of grief, she’d forgotten the T-shirt she’d wanted to place in the casket. The next day, Natasha returned to her husband’s side. Her hands hungered for the everyday tasks of fixing his collar, taming his hair, adjusting his tie, tugging at a lapel. They sought him out, force of habit, force of love. ‘I was smoothing down his suit and making sure he was all okay, then what do you think I found sitting at his feet?’

It was Leigh’s birthday T-shirt, the one she’d washed to put in his coffin but forgotten about. ‘I got such a fright I squealed,’ says Natasha.

She knew there was no logical explanation for how that T-shirt appeared in the coffin. She certainly hadn’t delivered it to the funeral director since yesterday, and neither had anyone in their family. She rang each of the men who’d dressed Leigh and all confirmed there was no T-shirt. Frantic enquiries then revealed it was listed in the receipt of items that had accompanied Leigh’s body from the hospital to the coroner on Sunday 16 December. But Natasha knew that was impossible. ‘I had that T-shirt with me at home on Monday,’ she says – and her aunt had seen her put it in the laundry that day.

‘It was a sign no one could ignore. That T-shirt was in my possession,’ says Natasha. ‘I took that as a sign that Leigh was with me, a very cheeky sign, as if to say, “You just bought me this. Do you think I’m going to leave it behind?” It was absolutely amazing.’

Welcome though it was, the mind-bending event wasn’t enough to draw Natasha out of her misery. She was alone in a foreign landscape where every signpost had been wrenched out. The successful and vivacious woman was struggling more than she would ever reveal to her friends and family. Rent with grief, incapable of facing a future without her soulmate, she began to plan her own death. She went as far as writing a pros/cons list, and letters – to her parents, her brother – and notice of resignation to her boss. On Friday 2 February 2013, Natasha says, ‘I went to bed and I knew that weekend, it was going to happen. When I set a rule for myself I don’t break it.’

At 4.45 am the next morning, Natasha opened her eyes. As usual, she savoured a few moments’ respite before reality presented itself, mountainous and rude, into the forefront of her mind. This time, though, it was tempered by a jolt of relief that she would soon be joining her love. She fell back asleep and dreamt she was in a large function room filled with computers resembling poker machines. She received an email on her phone, but could not access it, so she tried one of the computers. ‘All of a sudden, Leigh was beside me and he was wearing the G-Star Raw T-shirt and jeans and he looked exactly like he always did. He had his hair the way he always wore it. I could smell his Chanel Egoiste. He was just Leigh, in every way. I turned to him and said, “Am I dreaming or am I awake?” He said, “You’re awake. I’m with you.”’

Natasha now realises those words, Leigh’s words, marked the turning point in her healing – they were the first signpost in her alien world. She recalls their conversation: ‘I said to him, “Do you know how sad and hurt I am?” He said, “Yes, bubby, I know, and I’m so sorry but I’m never far away from you.” I was crying and he was crying and we were just holding one another. I could actually feel his touch on me! I could smell him. We had a full conversation. He said, “I was with you. I know you tried to save me.” I said to him, “What am I going to do?” And he told me that one day we’d be together again, that there are too many things I need to do first, but then he would come and get me. I said, “But when? Just do it now.” He said, “No, I can’t take you yet. You’ll be okay. I’ll never be away from you.”’

Natasha woke up, her pillow ‘absolutely saturated’ in tears and the unmistakable scent of Leigh’s signature aftershave thick in the air. She could feel him brushing her hair with his fingers, as he’d always done when he was drifting off to sleep; it was a physical sensation. ‘I knew in my heart that he was there.’

She is certain the timing of the visitation was no accident. ‘When he came to me that night, I believe he knew what I was planning to do. He was my saviour because no one else would have gotten through to me, and I thank him for that. I honestly do believe that he saved me that night.’

Leigh’s return empowered her to set aside self-destructive thoughts and embrace hope. Now, she’s learning to remember the good times with a smile on her face: the frequent overseas trips, their open affection and deep conversations, their once-in-a-lifetime love. ‘I believe in my heart that a love lost is better than no love at all,’ says Natasha, who senses Leigh around her every day – from smelling his scent in her office to feeling him brush her hair at night and playfully hog the blanket, as he’d always done. ‘I had him for sixteen years and the truth is, if I’d been given a crystal ball to know what was going to happen, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.’

Memories of the bond they shared prop her up during the hardest times. On the day of Leigh’s funeral, after he’d helped her find a way to deliver her eulogy written in tears, an exquisite moment from their wedding day bloomed in her mind. As Leigh’s coffin was carried out of the church, and the soaring strains of ‘The Prayer’, by Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion, filled the cavernous space, Natasha remembered how the song had played during their first wedding dance.

Just as they’d found a way to be alone at the funeral, even as hundreds of mourners wept before them, so it had been at their wedding reception, when they wrapped their arms around each other, murmuring in private, as they slow-danced together, oblivious to their guests. Natasha recalls, ‘When we were dancing, I was crying and he wiped my tears away and said, “I never want you to forget this moment in time, bubby. If anything ever happens to me, just remember that I’m always going to be holding you like I am now.”’

*

Experiences like these are the proverbial gifts that keep on giving. For the people who have shared their stories in this chapter, not only did they draw solace and strength to take that all-important baby step forward in their healing, but in tearstained moments to come they can always cast their minds back to seek sanctuary in their memories of the day their loved one reached out with an offering of hope.

Margaret’s experience of seeing her son’s smiling face lasted only seconds, but it changed her day, her outlook and her future. Life, like love, goes on and acknowledging this shines a ray of hope onto a grey tomorrow. Intercession from the spirit world steered Mary-Lou off a dangerous path, unburdened Jess, rebooted Gary, and gave Vikki and Natasha respite at times when longing for their soulmates threatened to become too much to live with.

We, too, can learn so much from each encounter. Hold your partner long and tight, thank your parents for their guidance and treasure your child’s smile, while you can. David Tweddle, whose 23-year-old son, Gary, died after losing his way in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales in 2013, reminded us all of an often-overlooked truth in a raw and haunting tribute that he posted on Facebook – as widely reported in the media – when it became clear there was no hope of his son’s safe return: ‘Money, possessions and material becomes irrelevant now . . . cherish every second you are fortunate enough to have with the people you love. Waste not one moment, be available and show love at every opportunity . . .’


Excerpted from Love Never Dies by Karina Machado. Copyright © 2014 by Karina Machado.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Good Enough by Dilvin Yasa – Extract

Good Enough

I am consumed with parental guilt 24/7

Another day, another epic parental fail.

Standing in the sweltering courtyard outside my daughter Cella’s ballet class, I am painfully aware that I have once again stuffed up in my role as mummy. Around me, the other mums move gracefully through their choreographed dance of dropping their Lexus keys into their Chanel bags before kneeling on the grass to offer their tutu-clad princesses perfectly cut fruit (in matching Tupperware containers, natch). Me? I just stand there with a half-eaten Babybel cheese in my hand and silently curse myself for my inability to get my shit together. Because today of all days, in 30-plus-degree heat, I have somehow not only forgotten a sun hat and sunscreen, but I’m also sans water bottle for my own little princess. A slight problem considering we always play in the courtyard outside after class finishes.

Not unlike a truffle pig determined to root out the essence of what’s making me feel like crap, Cella chooses this very moment to race screaming out of the dance hall, panting like she’s just trekked across the Mojave Desert. ‘Mummy, I need water! I’m toooo thirsty to dance!’ She looks at me imploringly as her little pigtails shake (with dehydration no doubt). My smile freezes on my face as I notice the other mums looking in our general direction, so instead of giving it to her straight (‘You know how you didn’t tidy your room yesterday? Well, you don’t get any water today’), I make a big show of rummaging through my (non-Chanel) handbag even though I know perfectly well there’s nothing in there.

It’s at that moment I clock a pram in the corner with a bottle of water sticking out of the cup holder. The mother has taken her baby boy with her to the toilet and my primal mothering instincts kick in as I plan my next move. Throwing my bag to the floor, I clutch Cella’s wrist and half-drag her over to the pram with haste, where I quickly open the lid and force her to scull some water. ‘Hurry up!’ I hiss as she downs the liquid in large gulps, her eyes wide with shock. Bottle half empty, I quickly place it back in the cup holder and step the hell away from it. Great. I have just stolen drinking water from a breastfeeding mother.

That evening, as I tell my husband Lee about my latest escapade, he is incredulous. ‘You did WHAT?’ I don’t dare look at him, only continuing to chop carrots for dinner with a flair generally unseen outside an early morning infomercial (see, I can be efficient!). ‘Yes, I know how it sounds,’ I begin, ‘but you know what? This was about survivalism and that woman is just lucky I didn’t stab her in the neck with a biro and wrench the bottle from her lifeless hand because that was Plan B and CELLA NEEDED WATER.’ I have become defensive, and consequently, shrill. Lee looks at me with a mix of horror and fascination. ‘I seeeee . . .’ he says slowly. ‘And so, at no point did it occur to you to perhaps ask one of these mums for a swig of their water? That was never a frontrunner for a Plan A or B?’ ‘NO! I didn’t want them to judge me!’ I shriek, waving a knife around at the room like a swashbuckling musketeer. Or a demented mother sorely in need of a break. ‘Right, well, maybe you need your head read.’ And with that kind and loving piece of character assassination, he glides out of the room and leaves me to my thoughts, that constant inner dialogue that says, ‘Dear Dilvin, you suck at this. Sincerely, Dilvin.’ Christ, when will this maternal guilt go away?

If you’re a mum (and let’s be honest, if you’re reading this book, you probably are and PS: you freakin’ rock!), you’ll know what I’m talking about when I say once you have a baby, it’s as though they insert some kind of guilt chip inside you. Believe me, you can’t have missed this installation – it’s that voice of doom playing in your head telling you you’re doing everything wrong, and possibly, just possibly, that decision you make today to not give them that 90 per cent juice concentrate popper may very well lead them up the thorny garden path to a lifetime of playing bitch to somebody else’s top dog in prison. If you’re feeling the pressure to be ‘the perfect mum’ and suffering huge amounts of anxiety because you’re not, you’re not alone. The truth is, modern motherhood appears to have become a tyrannical state in which women have become slaves to l’enfant roi. This means it’s no longer acceptable to be a good mother anymore: you need to be the best mother around and certainly far better than anyone else in your immediate environment.

To take you back, you’ll probably first become aware of this chip the minute two lines appear on your pregnancy test. Your mum back in her day might have had a quick squeal followed by a victory B&H and shandy then carried on with her regular day-to-day life, but you? You can look forward to running the next nine months like a hardcore boot camp that would make even the toughest of SAS men cry like a little girl. With a stack of parenting tomes by the side of your bed, you will soon realise being a good parent isn’t just about providing love, warmth, food and shelter anymore, but about following each mandate from positive parenting advocates with religious fervour. For the record, you will no longer: eat any food that is likely to give you joy; drink coffee or tea; sleep on your back or right-hand side; enter any body of water warmer than 37.5 degrees; touch a cat, dog or unwashed person; or cry too much or laugh too loud lest the baby gets anxious or confused. You might have a moment when you realise you’ve accidentally eaten a rogue delicatessen olive but after two phone calls to your obstetrician and the poisons information line, they will dispel any fears that you’ve harmed your baby. Oh sure, occasionally you might wonder why it is that French women continue to eat brie, Turkish women continue to eat fetta (and chain-smoke a carton a day) and the Japanese continue to dine on sushi throughout their pregnancies but you just can’t risk it because what happens if your unborn baby contracts listeriosis and dies? That would be entirely your fault. Guilty, guilty, guilty.

Of course, once the baby is actually born, that’s when the fun really begins. You must give birth vaginally and drug-free just so you can tell everyone how awesome you are and how it didn’t even hurt at all. You will buy only environmentally friendly nappies made from recycled elephant dung and breastfeed exclusively until your child comes home from high school one day and insists he is done with it all. If you’re of weak character and choose to introduce solids early, you will only purée and feed organic, fully sustainable products you’ve purchased from a ritzy shop where everything comes in big brown carrier bags and they have a concierge at the door. You will not let your baby self-soothe, but you also won’t be too ‘attachment’. You will not work too much, or too little, and your house shall be impeccable yet not so clean that your little ones can’t build up their immune systems. You will drop the baby weight immediately after birth but you must not attend a gym or class during your child’s waking hours or you’re not being attentive. Any arguments you might have had about personal choice? You’re a mum now, remember? You’ve joined the club so that shit doesn’t fly anymore. Check your brain at the door.

And it’s with this long introduction that I say to you: Welcome to motherhood! Are we having any fun yet?

Right, so how do we stop feeling so damned guilty all the time?

Ever wanted to grab a psychologist by the throat and scream, ‘What the hell is wrong with me?!!’ Happily, there’s no need for violence on anyone’s part, as Jodie Benveniste, psychologist and director of parental advice website Parent Wellbeing (parentwellbeing.com) was only too happy to impart her wisdom on this eternal guilt we call motherhood. ‘Parents can feel guilty about anything and everything!’ she confirms. ‘Not getting to the school play, buying cupcakes from the shop instead of making them at home, pursuing a career, having a lunch with the girls instead of spending more time with the kids, or not really enjoying time at the playground or endless hours of block building – these are just a few examples.’ Sounds familiar, but why do we feel like this ALL THE TIME, and why the hell aren’t our male counterparts buckling under the same weight? According to Jodie, we often feel guilty as parents because we really want to do the best by our children. We want to give them the best opportunities and for them to grow up happy and healthy. Dads, apart from the odd hero we all want to marry, appear to be more pragmatic – ‘In general, they don’t worry about what they haven’t done for their kids, or how they haven’t done enough, they just get on with doing and being with their kids.’ THOSE BASTARDS! Still, they might be onto something because all this crazy mum guilt is helping no one. As Jodie says, ‘Feeling guilt all the time can mean we don’t enjoy and appreciate parenting as much as we’d like, and we don’t acknowledge what we do well with our kids,’ she says. ‘This can affect them in a negative way, if guilt leads to overcompensating. We can be too indulgent with our kids, buying them lots of stuff to make ourselves feel better, or we can be too permissive and fail to set strong enough boundaries.’ Just as I’m about to go outside and slash my wrists (one more thing to be guilty about), Jodie adds, ‘But on the upside, guilt can help you to stop and reflect and decide whether you are being the parent you’d like to be.’

Jodie’s (perfectly legal) top tips on how to keep those guilty feelings at bay

*             Acknowledge the guilt, then let the feeling go. You don’t have to buy into it.

*             If you find yourself feeling guilty about not getting something done, ask yourself: ‘What good things have I achieved today?’

*             If you find yourself feeling guilty about doing something ‘wrong’, ask yourself: ‘What have I done right today?’

*             Remember that you don’t have to be a perfect parent.

You just need to love and nurture your kids.

I have an elective caesarean (and I love it)

I am five years old the day I unintentionally make my first birth plan announcement. It’s a scorching hot day, and my gaggle of girlfriends and I are lying on our backs on the steaming-hot asphalt making pictures of the clouds. The girls have finished arguing over whether Cheer Bear or Love-a-Lot bear is the superior Care Bear (Lovea-Lot, hands down) and have moved on to the more sombre topic of having babies. ‘I’m going to have babies with Troy Cuttleridge when I’m eighteen,’ giggles Brooke, who no doubt thinks having babies is something that happens after you hold hands for an extended period of time. ‘Yuk!’ exclaims Julie. ‘I’m going to have lots of babies by myself and I’m going to have lots of money so I can wear nice perfume!’ (Tragically, little Julie has since realised her dream.) Listening to them talk about having babies, I can’t help but shudder. I’m still far too young to know what a birth plan is. I have no idea hordes of Western women write detailed documents complete with subheads and bullet points explaining how, when and where their babies will be born. But one thing I’m already certain of: there is no way on God’s green Earth that a fully formed human being is ever going to exit my body via my vagina like my mum said they do. I sit up and wipe the gravel from the back of my legs. ‘I’m not going to have babies until I’m thirtytwo,’ I declare, ‘and the baby is not going to come out of my vagina, either; the doctor is going to cut my tummy to pull the baby out while I’m sleeping.’ I don’t know it’s called a C-section but I have a general understanding of how it works, so enthralled am I by my mother’s crazy vertical 70s-style scar and accompanying story of my own birth. The girls look at me, shocked, probably quite unaware until that very moment that babies actually come out of vaginas. Brooke looks like she’s about to cry. ‘But Mum said we hatch from very small eggs.’ Ah, but wouldn’t that be lovely?

My own mother told no such tales of course; she was honest from the get-go. ‘Oh Dilvin, it was horrendous! I was in labour with your brother for twenty-six AGONISING hours before they took pity on my broken body and performed an emergency caesarean on me,’ she would tell me between sips of her black Turkish tea. ‘The experience was so awful, it was like I was dying or being ripped in two by a pack of hungry wolves.’ Yes, yes that does sound bloody awful, I would think, leaning in, fascinated yet crossing my legs and wincing all the same. I noticed that as soon as she moved on to the story of my far less dramatic birth, however, I would instantly relax. ‘With you, it was different – I didn’t feel a thing! They put me to sleep, and when I woke up, you were handed to me all clean and ready to be fed.’ Well, it doesn’t take a genius to work out how I formed my opinions on childbirth. Wow! I thought, imagining being handed a ‘here’s one you prepared earlier’ baby in cute clothes as you tap-dance your way out of hospital. That’s the way to do birth! Of course, what I didn’t know then was that Mum graciously left out the part where she almost died from complications after the fact, so I was convinced this no-pain, civilised birth option was the one for me. Without knowing it, I had created my birth plan, one I would carry in my back pocket well into adulthood.

Twenty-five years later, Lee and I are driving to the hospital in a state of utter tranquillity. ‘This doesn’t feel quite right,’ I say to Lee as I watch our daughter’s feet kick at my incredibly large tummy. ‘I feel like you should be driving erratically at high speeds while I yell at you through gritted teeth or something – isn’t that how it normally works?’ Lee looks over at me somewhat mortified by the idea. ‘Fuck that!’ he says. ‘This is much better. At least we know what’s going to happen next and no one’s freaking out.’ And we’re not. We giggle like excited teenagers all the way to the hospital, repeating, ‘I can’t believe we’re going to finally meet our baby!’ So far, so good, I think.

We arrive at the hospital at 5.30am, and by 6.30am, I’m being calmly wheeled down the corridor towards theatre to deliver our first baby. The operating theatre, I note, is fi with enough people to make up a small music festival. Four men in blue scrubs come over and lift me by the corners of the sheet I’m lying on and shift me over to the operating bed like I’m some kind of beached whale and I groan with horror before breaking into a fi of laughter. Just then I hear the unmistakable first twangs of Duran Duran’s ‘Planet Earth’, and I know everything’s going to be okay (Duran Duran’s greatest hits album Decade was part of my birth plan – because really, how can you not feel happy when ‘Save a Prayer’ is blasting and you’re conjuring the imagery (mental or otherwise) of a team of strapping lads in salmon-hued suits happily cavorting on a sandy beach overloaded with elephants and small Sri Lankan children?) My obstetrician’s head pops up over the sheet they’ve placed across my chest so I can’t see what’s going on at the business end of my body. ‘Don’t get too comfortable,’ he says with a smile. ‘We’re going to have your baby here in fi e minutes.’ He pops back down and I wonder if he’s working extra quickly to get the hell away from my choice of music. I look at the clock and it’s 7.25am. ‘Wow, I can’t believe this is fi y happening,’ I say tearfully to Lee as he sits beside me, clutching my hand. ‘When will you be starting?’ I call down to my obstetrician.

I’m numb from the waist down and shivering from the anaesthetic but other than that, I feel great and want to know what the hold-up is. ‘We’ve already started, Dilvin!’ comes back the somewhat muffled voice and I am stunned. Aside from the slightest bit of pushing and pulling, I literally cannot feel a thing. I do see a few bloody instruments about so I can only assume they’re rummaging around my uterus like they’re digging for change in a purse. Lee and I talk softly for a little bit longer and a few minutes later my obstetrician sings out, ‘Here she is!’ He holds up our little baby, perfectly formed and beautiful, but silent and slightly floppy, and quickly whisks her off to get some oxygen. Just as I begin panicking, a large cry breaks through the silence and a beaming Lee pops back over with a super-healthy Cella in his arms. Everything’s perfect and we’re fi y a family. I got the birth I wanted. The problem was I didn’t have the birth everyone else wanted me to have . . .

EIGHT MONTHS EARLIER

Two pink lines are staring back at me from the pregnancy test. You’re pregnant, you fertile fox! it announces, followed by, Prepare yourself for a caesarean! No, it’s not some super-clever device that can accurately predict what’s going to happen down the track (wouldn’t that be awesome?), but at that very moment I am already certain that the only way this baby is coming into the world is by having a pair of middle-aged hands slide on in through my sunroof and pluck her the hell out of my womb. I don’t see a problem with this so I make my intentions clear to everyone from the start – taking extra precautions to impress this nugget of information upon my obstetrician the first chance I get. ‘Doctor Albert, I would like a caesarean please,’ I casually request at my first prenatal appointment, somehow making it sound as though I’m merely choosing a dessert from a menu. Doctor Albert leans back in his chair and looks me over thoughtfully. ‘Hmm, and why is that, Dilvin?’ Taking a deep breath, I launch into a sorry saga about my scoliosis (my spine is bent into an S-shape), the fact that no woman in my family has been able to birth vaginally and just generally, about how terrified I am of the whole freakin’ process (I don’t mention the pack of hungry wolves). ‘I see . . .’ he says as he stares off into the distance pensively like he’s starring in a Rick Astley video. ‘You do know caesarean sections aren’t without risk, don’t you?’ he asks, incredibly serious in his manner. ‘Oh, absolutely!’ I exclaim. ‘I work for a pregnancy magazine – I know everything there is to know about caesareans so believe me when I tell you I’m making an informed choice.’ This is true. I have interviewed every birthing expert in Australia in my time there so it’s not like I’m going into this blindfolded. Doctor Albert studies me for a bit longer but eventually pushes over the consent papers and some information leaflets. ‘I know you’re well versed in what the procedure entails but I think you should take these home and read them anyway.’ I throw them in my bag and nod in agreement as I sign my name on the dotted line. Immediately I feel like a massive weight has been lifted off my shoulders. Phew!

Once I have a date locked in, that’s when I notice the game change. I’ve never been shy about making my birth plan public, but now that it’s real and ‘happening’, every man and his dog wants to weigh in with an opinion about what a horrible, selfish mother I am. ‘I don’t understand what the hell is wrong with you!’ says my brother Dave for the umpteenth time, as he visits one afternoon. ‘As a woman, don’t you want to experience giving birth?’ He is shocked that I would want to miss out on the seemingly fantastic opportunity of squeezing something the size of a watermelon out of something the size of a lemon. Clutching my fists, I stare evenly back at him. ‘I don’t know, Dave, don’t you want to experience having someone hit a rusty nail through your penis to prove to yourself you’re a man?’ I shoot back. The atmosphere is tense that evening but I hear the same sentiments echoed everywhere I go. ‘Oh, I’d do anything for my children, even go through all that pain,’ says one woman at a barbecue, tone implying that I wouldn’t. I just smile tightly and change the subject even though I long to slap her across the face with a pair of leather gloves.

So here’s what I know about caesarean births so far: I know the rate of Australian women having them is skyrocketing – 31.6 per cent in 2010 compared with 25.4 per cent in 2001 (well above the World Health Organization’s recommendations that C-section births should not be higher than 10–15 per cent). It’s more prevalent in private hospitals (27 per cent) than in public (18 per cent) and midwives are quick to blame this erroneously on golf-happy obstetricians keen to schedule in births to keep their private time free. This is not the case – obstetricians just tend to be more risk-averse. And I know that while caesareans enable patients to plan the birth, reduce the risk of injury to pelvic muscles and allow the safe delivery of high-risk babies, the risk of maternal death or injury is also higher, as is the chance your baby will end up in neonatal intensive care with breathing difficulties (but often only if baby is delivered before 39 weeks). I know all of this, but nothing changes the fact I am utterly petrified of giving birth, and cannot – will not – entertain the idea of having this baby any other way. It has nothing to do with desecrating my husband’s much-loved playground (‘I suppose it would be a little like watching your favourite pub burn down,’ concedes Lee when I ask him about it) or being ‘too posh to push’; I am literally struck down with fear and I certainly don’t see my choice as anything to be ashamed of or hide from people. But somehow I get the feeling I should.

While I’d had a clear idea of how I wanted my birth to unfold since the age of five, ie safe and snug in an operating theatre, I’m fairly sure I’m in a different category to what’s become quite a phenomenon among mums-to-be these days. You may have heard of the term ‘birthzilla’. It’s a term that was only coined recently, but it’s a behaviour that’s been around quite a while. The practice of obsessing over a birth plan and identifying ways to make your experience ‘perfect’, or just so much better than everyone else’s, the trend has picked up speed in recent years. Back in our mothers’ day it was all about how much pain you suffered (‘I laboured for five days straight and they wouldn’t give me so much as a Panadol’ and ‘Since I had my baby five years ago, I can’t even wee straight’ – you get the idea). But today? Among the ‘birthzillas’, it’s all a massive competition about how well you coped and how damned wonderful everything was. ‘The baby weighed 4.8kg and I laboured for 32 hours but I made sure I gave birth vaginally with no drugs!’, ‘Oh, giving birth was nothing! It just felt like a bit of faint period pain!’ and ‘I enjoyed giving birth so much, I almost orgasmed with every contraction!’ That’s not me getting all trigger-happy on the exclamation marks, either, this is how they’re often squealed at innocent bystanders (and journalists) by these kinds of women.

I guess it’s to be expected, but celebrities like to weigh in from time to time with their (always wonderful) stories. ‘It didn’t hurt in the slightest,’ revealed model Gisele Bündchen after her eight-hour home birth. ‘It was more like meditation,’ said Jessica Alba of her ‘amazing’ birth. My personal favourite is when Kate Winslet admitted publicly that she had lied to the media about having a vaginal birth with her firstborn because she was so ‘traumatised’ over her caesarean. ‘I’ve never talked about this. I’ve actually gone to great pains to cover it up. But Mia was an emergency C-section. I just said that I had a natural birth because I was so completely traumatised by the fact that I hadn’t given birth. I felt like a complete failure . . . I felt like, in some way that I couldn’t join that “powerful women’s club”.’ Fortunately for Winslet, she gained entry into womanhood some years later when she gave birth again – this time vaginally. ‘It was an amazing feeling having Joe naturally, vaginally. Fourteen hours with no drugs at all, but then I had to have an epidural because I was so tired. I honestly thought I’d never be able to do it. It was an incredible birth. It laid all the ghosts to rest. It was really triumphant.’ Quite. Well thank Christ for that, now we can all sleep better at night.

It often feels like unless you have a perfect, drug-free vaginal birth, you’re not a very accomplished mother. Hell, you’re not even a very good mother. At work whenever I did a callout for mums to email me their birth stories my inbox would be full of women who define themselves by the type of birth they had (evident from their signature or website they’d invariably send me the link to). You know the type – Josie, 34, free-birthed Benjamin, 18 months, and Jupiter, 3. I would have home birthers, calm birthers, active birthers, women with stories about giving birth to ridiculously large babies without the need for pain relief!!!! (their words and punctuation, not mine), but never would I hear from the women who’d had a C-section (unless they’d laboured for 46 hours first and it became an emergency, they would tell me sheepishly, almost embarrassed by their perceived failure). No hands up from women who used every drug under the sun, no epidural stories – nothing. It’s only after I’d do a second callout and change the text to read, ‘looking for women who’ve had a caesarean delivery or had gas, pethidine and epidural or all of the above’ that I would get a response from these women. If I enquired any further, they would respond, ‘I didn’t think you’d want to hear from someone like me.’ Someone like me – seriously. I couldn’t help but notice these women never had a link to their websites, no ‘Catherine, mother of Ruby, via C-section’ in their email signatures. It was almost as though it was their dirty secret to hide, and that their birthing experience wasn’t valid.

But you see, here’s the thing about giving birth: going through hours and hours of prolonged agony doesn’t make you a better mother, nor does having a quick operation; the real trick is what you do with your baby once it gets here. You may feel like you’ve missed out on the experience of birthing vaginally, and while most medical professionals are in favour of everybody having the birth they want (within safe guidelines), it helps to remember that for millions of women around the world, their only birth plan is to not die. So let’s keep some perspective on what a First-World creation this really is and screw the dolphin sounds CDs and ancient singing balls.

In the end, I am really fortunate and recover from my caesarean quickly – I’m up and about the next day, walking from my hospital room to a nearby cafe with Cella to have a well-deserved cup of coffee, and the pain medication stops soon after. I count my lucky stars things have gone so well. I feel so great that by the time I check out, I don’t bother filling the prescription for Panadeine Forte they’ve given me. Just like I’d imagined back when I was five years old, I practically tap-danced out of the hospital with a baby in my hands. I’m not saying this to beat my chest and pass myself off as some kind of hero because I know a lot of women don’t have such a positive experience, but in case you’ve noticed a lack of encouraging caesarean stories out there, I have one and I want people to hear it.

As for what happened next, well, that’s another story . . .

Why do so many women turn into birthzillas?

Q&A with Doctor Gino Pecoraro, Obstetrics & Gynaecology spokesperson for the federal Australian Medical Association.

Why do you think some women feel so traumatised if they have an emergency C-section and miss out on the experience of giving birth?

It’s complicated, but one of the major reasons we know of is that people often find it difficult to relinquish control in a world where you’re taught you must always be in control. The problem here of course is that when it comes to the human body and the process of giving birth, there’s very little you can have any influence over, and that 20-centimetre canal the baby goes down is often described as the most dangerous journey you’ll ever take in your life. Another reason women feel traumatised is they build up how the birth is going to happen in their heads and if they think about it often enough, they’ll eventually come to focus on the journey rather than the outcome.

Taking this into consideration, I often think we’re the victims of our own success – two short generations ago having women and babies die during the birthing process was not at all unusual and women have forgotten this. You’ve got to remember giving birth is not like a movie scene where everyone has a script – your baby certainly hasn’t read it and won’t know how to act accordingly.

Birth plans – are they a waste of time?

It’s always useful to consider how you might like things to go and to spend a lot of time with your obstetrician or midwife posing questions, but it’s never a good idea to set your heart on something. Also, I strongly caution against presenting your birth plan to your obstetrician typed on coloured paper, sprayed with perfume and bound with ribbon like it’s gospel. If you do this, it’s an absolute recipe for disaster because it will often end in disappointment and a sense of feeling cheated. The very best birth plan you can have is to say, ‘I want to know what’s going on, I want to be comfortable and safe, and I want a healthy baby at the end of it.’ That’s all.

Why do you think how you give birth has become such a competitive sport among many mums?

Everything comes down to media influence and the fact that reality has been sacrificed on the altar of reality TV. Women today see one of the Kardashians give birth on Foxtel and think, ‘Gee, that looks nice, I’d love my delivery to be like that,’ but what they don’t realise is that everything has been carefully crafted by a public relations crew! It’s certainly been my experience when looking after high-profile patients that what they put out publicly and what really goes on rarely, if ever, correlates. And if I’m going to be brutally honest, women are also quite competitive by nature so this is just one more avenue where they feel like they can strike blows and claim scalps.

What are some of the pros and cons of C-sections and vaginal births?

Pros of C-sections

*             Control over when the baby arrives and how long the birth will take.

*             No chance of infecting the baby with an STD the mother may have.

*             Safer for the mother when the pregnancy is complicated.

*             Less traumatic for victims of sexual abuse.

*             Alleviation of fear.

*             Less pain during the birth.

Cons of C-sections

*             It’s a real operation with risk of haemorrhaging, complications and problems with anaesthesia.

*             If the surgeon is inexperienced, other risks may include damaging the bowel or bladder during surgery or cutting too deeply and scratching the baby.

*             Post-operative pain and immobility.

*             Respiratory problems can occur with the baby.

Pros of vaginal births

*             It’s the way nature intended and if all goes well, you’ll be up and walking around quickly.

*             A lowered risk of respiratory problems for bub.

*             Your baby will ingest a protective bacteria as they make their way through the birth canal.

Cons of vaginal births

*             It’s painful.

*             Can result in tearing and episiotomies which are also painful.

*             A breech position can cause distress to a baby, and a C-section will often be recommended.

What’s the best advice you could give pregnant women about their birthing choices?

There’s no right or wrong way to give birth – there’s only the way that’s right for you. Do your research early; attend birthing classes so you know what to expect; and talk over your concerns with your doctor, but be flexible and realistic. There’s no use in saying you want a drug-free vaginal delivery if you have placenta praevia, for example. Trust in the people looking after you – your obstetrician will have studied a good 15 years to impart their wisdom and knowledge and a few lines you read on a website is no match for this experience. And if you don’t get the birth you want, that’s okay. Just remember you’re only in labour for one day and that’s no reason to let the disappointment from this affect the rest of your life.


Excerpted from Good Enough by Dilvin Yasa. Copyright © 2014 by Dilvin Yasa.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Family Secrets by Liz Byrski – Extract

Family Secrets

One

Sandy Bay, Tasmania, early February 2012

It begins exactly as Gerald had predicted it would, but much sooner than either of them had anticipated. It begins a few days after the funeral, on the morning of the day they plan to scatter his ashes. Connie, back from her usual early-morning walk, opens the side gate and lets Scooter off his lead. The dog pricks his ears at the sound of voices and darts around the side of the house towards them. Connie pauses to listen; the children are up – Andrew and Kerry, and their respective spouses, Linda and Chris. There is laughter, the chink of crockery, the softer voices of her grandchildren and the thud of a ball against the wall. She hesitates, feeling she should join them but, wanting a little more time to herself, takes a deep breath and slips in through the laundry door and up the stairs.

When she’d called she’d feared that they might not make it in time, that despite what she said about urgency, Gerald had been dying for so long they might think there was time to spare. But they had come at once – Andrew, Linda and Brooke on the first available flight from Melbourne, and Kerry, Chris and the kids driving down from Launceston that same afternoon. They were all there with him at the end and since then they’ve been on their best behaviour; the minor spats and jealousies, the scuffles for supremacy that flare at other times, have been stilled by grief and replaced with meaningful hugs, bursts of crying and conversations scattered with tender reminiscence. Gerald would have been proud of them.

Peeling off her shorts and t-shirt Connie perches uncomfortably on the edge of the bath, remembering conversations she and Gerald had had about the children, their fine qualities and their frequently inexplicable and irritating habits. Then she steps into the shower, turns on the taps and lets the hot water stream over her as though it might wash away more than just the sweat raised on the steep climb back to the house.

Back in the seventies they had chosen the Sandy Bay house for its location, perched high in the hills with unbroken views across the water – Hobart to one side, open water to the other, and the reassuring bulk of Mount Nelson in the background. Andrew had just started school; Kerry was a robust, fractious toddler. The big, two-storey house, white-painted and with curves instead of corners, had been built in the early fifties. The rooms were flooded with daylight from windows that captured every vista, and there were more cupboards than Connie had thought she could ever fill. And up a narrow staircase from the second floor there was a sixth bedroom with its own tiny bathroom. She’d thought it impressive.

‘It looks like it’s meant to belong to important people,’ she’d said, awed by the style and size.

‘It will if we buy it,’ Gerald had said.

And Connie had known then that he wanted it. Important. Gerald was determined to make a name for himself, to stand out from the crowd. That was why he had wanted to come back to Tasmania, where he believed he could become a big fish in a fairly small pool, and do it quickly. The competition in London was fierce, but here his old family connections gave him a head start. Gerald’s parents had moved back home to Hobart from England a few years earlier when his father retired from the Australian diplomatic service. His more than twenty years at the London embassy meant they were financially comfortable and when Gerald had written that he and Connie were thinking of joining them, his father had stumped up a very generous deposit for a house, in a glorious location.

‘You might as well have the money now, when you need it,’ he’d said. ‘No point waiting ’til we’re dead.’

But for Connie, it wasn’t ever about status – she loved the house for itself. It was in many ways an oddity at the time, an impressive, elegant oddity. And she loves it more now because she has made it her own, and among the mix of homes that have sprouted up nearby it seems like a slightly worn but grand old lady; solid, safe, a little run down but still stylish.

Connie wraps herself in a towel and wanders into the bedroom, pausing by the open window to look out across the river glittering in the sharp morning sunlight. The mild air is heavy with the scent of the old roses she planted in her first spring here. Out on the lawn Brooke, elder stateswoman of the grandchildren by six years, is lying in the hammock reading, while her cousins Ryan and Mia argue over a ball. From the paved terrace beneath her window, the raised voices of her two adult children and their spouses drift upwards and Connie, who can hear but not see them, realises they’re talking about her. She leans further over the windowsill to eavesdrop. And so it begins.

‘She’ll need to move of course, she can’t stay here on her own.’

‘Yes, a smaller place, easier to manage.’

‘Has she said that? Have you asked her?’

‘No. Not yet . . . obviously not.’

‘She should move nearer to us,’ Kerry says. ‘She could see more of the kids – in fact she could have them in the holidays and after school.’

‘That’s typical, Kerry,’ Andrew says irritably. ‘Near you! Has it occurred to you that Mum might not fancy Launceston? She loves Melbourne, she’d be better off nearer to us. She could get a little unit in Fitzroy or Carlton.’

‘Your ma loves it here,’ Chris, Connie’s son-in-law, cuts in. ‘She loves this house. Don’t you think she might like to be left alone to do her own thing?’

‘It’s not practical. It’s never been a practical house,’ Kerry says, her voice rising an octave. ‘And anyway, she hasn’t really got a thing. We should talk to her, while we’re all still here.’

‘But do you even know what arrangements Gerald made about the house?’ Chris asks.

‘The house is in Mum’s name,’ Andrew says. ‘Dad told me that years ago.’

‘So Connie could sell it and get one of those places that are going up just near us,’ Linda says. ‘You know, Andrew, those townhouses on the corner. Downsizing at Connie’s age makes a lot of sense for her and, well . . .’ she hesitates, awkwardly, ‘well, for all of us, I mean financially . . .’

Connie hears Kerry give a snort of derision, the one that she seems to save for her sister-in-law. ‘I hardly think a townhouse is the answer,’ she mutters.

‘Nothing wrong with a townhouse,’ Andrew says. ‘We live in one in case you hadn’t noticed.’

‘Oh give me a break! Stairs, Andrew, stairs! Mum’s only a few years off seventy, she shouldn’t be moving to anywhere with stairs.’

‘She’s used to the stairs here,’ Chris points out, ‘and that back-breaking walk up the hill. This is her home and, anyway, she might have plans of her own.’

‘It’s just not practical for her to stay here,’ Kerry snaps back at him. ‘And she won’t have plans, she doesn’t do plans, we’ll have to do them for her. And how come Dad told you about the house, Andrew? Why did he tell you and not me?’

‘I don’t know, Kerry, he just did. It’s not like he made a thing of it, just mentioned it and said he’d done it for tax reasons.’

Connie steps back from the window. So much for peace and goodwill, she thinks, things are back to normal already – Andrew and Kerry, both so strong-minded and opinionated, and Linda too, although her opinions are always identical to Andrew’s. Connie runs her hands through her wet hair and plugs in the dryer. Chris is different though, far more reasonable. Why, she wonders, switching on the hair dryer and drowning out their voices, is her son-in-law the only one who thinks she has a mind of her own?

She has known for years that this time would come but, now that it is here, it feels quite sudden. Three, maybe four years, the consultant had said when he’d delivered his diagnosis of motor neurone disease, but that was nine – almost ten – years ago. He hadn’t counted on Gerald’s legendary tenacity, which, in the last couple of years, had begun to feel more like sheer bloody-mindedness in a man who could do nothing, signal nothing, say nothing, not even blink his eyes in recognition. And so it’s over at last, but Connie has been focused on Gerald for so long that, although there is an element of liberation, she really has very little idea how to use it. What is she supposed to do now? There is just one thing she’s sure of, sure that she will do as soon as she can. And she finishes drying her hair, pulls on her clothes and hurries downstairs to email Flora about it before she starts on breakfast.

*

‘I think it all went very nicely,’ Andrew says as they sit down for lunch later that day after scattering the ashes at Gerald’s favourite spot on Mount Nelson. He strips the gold foil from a bottle of Moët. ‘And isn’t it typical of Dad to want us to celebrate his life rather than mourn, even down to the champagne?’

‘Absolutely typical, he was always so thoughtful,’ Kerry says, her eyes brimming with tears again. ‘You were so lucky, Mum.’

‘I’m sorry?’

‘I said you were so lucky to have married Dad, he was so thoughtful.’

Connie, in whose opinion thoughtfulness had not been particularly high on Gerald’s list of good qualities, wondered why they thought Gerald had decreed the nature of this event when he hadn’t been able to communicate anything to anyone for years.

‘That’s one interpretation,’ Chris murmurs, and Kerry flashes him a warning look.

She’s edgy this morning, Connie thinks, even more so than she has been through the years of watching her father deteriorate. Kerry had idolised Gerald, constantly craved his attention, but too often saw it turned elsewhere: on his work, on her brother, then on his grandchildren, and finally, on nothing at all. So much effort for so little reward.

Andrew fills the last of the adults’ glasses and then pours cordial into two champagne flutes. ‘Come on, kids,’ he calls, ‘come and drink a toast to Granddad.’

The ‘littlies’, as Connie thinks of them, though with Ryan nine and Mia six they aren’t really that little anymore, race towards the promise of something they are not normally allowed, and Brooke sighs, closes Hunger Games and saunters slowly over to join them.

‘Right then,’ Andrew says, ‘on your feet everyone.’

And they push back their chairs and raise their glasses.

‘To Dad,’ he says. ‘The best father in the world. A magnificent life – you’ll always be with us. To Dad!’

And they chorus his words, drink the toast and then fall into awkward silence.

‘Is there cake?’ Mia asks. ‘Did Granddad want us to have cake too?’

‘I’m sure he’d want that, darling,’ Connie says, drawing Mia towards her. ‘There’s a passionfruit cake, but we’ll have lunch first. Come and sit here with me.’ And Mia clambers onto a chair and unfolds a paper napkin.

Connie leans back, watching her children talking together, passing food, clinking glasses, and wishes that she could freeze the moment. Andrew, so much like his father, tall and rangy, the same grey-green eyes and the clear golden skin that both he and Kerry had inherited and which she, with her pale English complexion prone to blushes, has always envied. He leans over to talk to Ryan, heaps some ham onto his nephew’s plate and gives his shoulder an encouraging squeeze. She watches as Chris tops up Linda’s glass, then turns to Kerry, holding the bottle out, gesturing her to hand him her glass. He is such a blessing, Connie thinks, a warm and loving man who thinks the world of Kerry and his children. Kerry pushes her glass towards him; her expression is tense, her manner stroppy – it seems to be her default setting since the early stages of Gerald’s illness, and it’s worsened as time has dragged on. But Connie, exhausted by the task of keeping Gerald alive and as comfortable as possible, has lacked the physical and emotional energy to try to talk to her about it. Kerry has inherited Gerald’s stubbornness, that’s for sure.

Here they all are, her family, unobscured now by the blurring lens of Gerald’s condition. For more than half of Brooke’s life, most of Ryan’s and all of Mia’s, Connie knows she has been a semi-detached grandparent; too exhausted and distracted to participate in their lives in the way she had wanted. Lost years that can never be recaptured. Connie feels a lump in her throat as reality bites. And it’s not just about the grandchildren; Gerald’s illness has driven over all of them like a bulldozer, leaving them crushed and resentful, the family ties fraying and disconnected. Love has been numbed in the face of so many other painful emotions, it has slipped too often between the cracks of time and distance, and the wanting, all of them wanting so much from each other, but unable to give or receive. Time to rebuild all that, she thinks, but I can only start on it once I’ve rebuilt myself. That’s why she needs to be with Flora, the only person still living who can take her back to her youth, to the time before Gerald moved into her life and made it his own. Flora, who can remember who she was and who she might have become.

*

It’s an hour or so later, when they’ve finished lunch on the terrace, that Connie emerges from the kitchen with the coffee pot, that the conversation takes the turn she’s been dreading. ‘We’ve been thinking about you, Mum,’ Kerry says. ‘About your situation. Now that Dad’s . . . well . . . now he’s no longer with us, you’ll need to think about what comes next.’

Connie opens her mouth to speak but Kerry cuts across her.

‘We’ve had a family conference and we all agree . . .’

‘Er, excuse me,’ Chris interrupts. ‘A family conference?’

‘Yes, to decide what’s best for Mum.’

‘Do you mean that brief conversation this morning?’

‘Well, yes, but there was a conference after that.’

‘And who was at this family conference? Not me, for a start,’ Chris continues.

‘Me neither,’ Brooke chips in.

Kerry’s expression is all irritation, she sighs and rolls her eyes. ‘Of course you weren’t there, Brooke, it’s none of your business.’

‘Well, I am part of the family, Auntie Kerry,’ Brooke says. ‘In case you hadn’t noticed.’

‘Brooke, cut it out,’ Andrew says. ‘This is serious.’

‘What about you, Connie?’ Chris asks, turning to her. ‘Were you at this family meeting?’

‘Well, no . . .’

‘So it was just you, Kerry, and Andrew presumably? When you hopped in the car this morning and said you were going to Battery Point for a coffee.’

Andrew nods.

‘And you, Linda? Were you there?’

Linda shakes her head. ‘Um . . . not exactly. I wanted to look in the antique shop so they dropped me off, but Andrew told me what he thinks and I agree entirely.’

‘Right,’ Chris says in a soft and steady voice, turning back to his wife. ‘So just before you go on, Kerry, there was a general conversation this morning while Connie was out walking the dog, and then you and Andrew chewed it over in the café. There hasn’t actually been a family meeting.’

‘For goodness sake, Chris . . .’

‘Well, has there?’

Kerry sighs. ‘I suppose . . . no . . . not exactly . . .’

‘Right, just as long as we’re all clear about that.’

Kerry hesitates and Connie’s stomach clenches. She loathes conflict. As an only child she never had to compete for anything at home, never had to negotiate with siblings, and survived school by keeping a low profile. Politeness, good manners, never putting oneself first, deferring to the opinions of others and never saying outright what you think, had been the ruling code. Once, in anger, she had told Gerald that it was the ideal training for the job of being the wife of a control freak like him.

‘Well, you’re saying what you think now,’ he’d replied.

‘And you simply haven’t a clue how often I hold back.’

Kerry leans forward in her chair, fixing Connie with a steely gaze. ‘Anyway, Mum,’ she begins again, ‘it’s like this, we all . . .’

‘You mean, you and Dad?’ Brooke says.

‘Yes, okay, Brooke,’ Andrew intervenes. ‘Kerry and I think that you should consider moving somewhere smaller, Mum.’

‘You’d enjoy it,’ Kerry says. ‘You can move nearer to us. It’d be lovely. We can help out . . . it’d be more convenient.’

‘D’you mean it’ll be more convenient for us, Kerry?’ Chris says, leaning towards her, putting his hand on her arm. ‘And, Connie, just so as you know, the helping out probably means that you could help us with the children.’

Connie’s throat has gone dry. ‘Look, I don’t . . .’

‘That’s not it at all,’ Andrew says. ‘We all want what’s best for you, Mum. Linda and I think you should come somewhere nearer to us. You know how you love Melbourne.’

‘You should stay here, Nan,’ Brooke cuts in again. ‘It’s where you were with Granddad.’

‘Granddad’s ghost might be here,’ Ryan says, and he begins some ghostly howling.

‘Stop it, Ryan,’ Kerry snaps. Her cheeks are fiery red and Connie is reminded how much her daughter hates the flush that rises when she’s agitated. ‘And, Brooke, this isn’t up to you. Keep out of it.’

‘Actually, Kerry,’ Chris says quietly, leaning across the table, ‘I think it’s up to Connie to decide what to do, and personally I think it’s pretty insensitive to be talking about this right now.’

Kerry shakes her head irritably. ‘We’re just trying to help, Chris, stop being so difficult.’

A great surge of something hot and fierce, something stronger than the anxiety, rears up in Connie and she pushes back her chair and gets to her feet. ‘Stop it, at once, all of you,’ she says, in a voice that sounds entirely unlike her own. ‘We’ve just scattered your father’s ashes, for heaven’s sake. How do you think he’d feel if he could hear you arguing like this? How do you think it makes me feel?’ They’re looking at her now, Kerry and Andrew, visibly shaken and embarrassed, Linda flushed and awkward while Chris studies the tablecloth with a deadpan expression on his face. The silence is deafening.

‘Woohoo, Nan! You rock,’ Brooke says, a huge grin spreading across her face.

‘Shut up, Brooke,’ Linda hisses.

‘No!’ Connie says. ‘Don’t shut up, Brooke dear. I do indeed rock and now I’m going to rock on upstairs for a rest which will give you all time to sort yourselves out and do the washing-up.’

‘We’re just trying to help . . .’ Kerry cuts in, crimson-faced. Connie holds up her hand. ‘Kerry, I said, stop! Stop it now.

If this is your idea of help, I don’t want it. Remember why you’re here.’ And she turns into the house away from the mix of anger and hurt that Kerry has carried with her since childhood and which nothing – not love, or encouragement, success or motherhood – ever seems to resolve.

*

It’s Brooke who wakes her, tapping on the bedroom door. ‘It’s me, Nan, can I come in?’

‘Of course, dear.’ Connie struggles to sit up.

Brooke opens the door and crosses the room clutching a mug. ‘I made you some tea.’ She puts it down on the bedside table and perches on the edge of the bed.

‘Thank you, darling, just what I need.’ Connie yawns, resting her head against the bedhead. ‘I must have fallen asleep. Have they stopped arguing?’

Brooke nods, twisting a strand of hair. ‘Just about.’

‘And have they stopped making plans for me?’

She grins conspiratorially. ‘Not really. They’re so bossy, Dad and Mum and Auntie Kerry.’

‘Except for Chris.’

‘No, but he’s not one of them really, is he? Like he’s not . . .’ she pauses, turning her fingers into inverted commas, ‘not a blood relative, as Dad says.’

‘Your dad said that?’

Brooke nods.

Connie looks at her, searching for something of herself in her granddaughter. Brooke certainly has the Hawkins gene – the height and the strong, rangy build – but her dark hazel eyes belong to neither of her parents nor her grandfather. Those are my eyes, Connie thinks, as she reflects on how surprised she’d been when Brooke had spoken up so bravely during the earlier argument between the adults. She had grown up a lot in recent years; years Connie has largely missed due to nursing Gerald.

‘Anyway, they all reckon they know best. Are you coming down soon?’

‘In a minute. Did you mean what you said – about my staying here?’

‘’Course I did. It’s your home, you wouldn’t like living in a townhouse. It’s like living in a big posh box and everything has to be tidy all the time.’

Connie laughs. ‘Well, I’d be hopeless with the tidy bit, but I think that’s more about who’s living there than the place itself.’

‘Yeah right! Mum and Dad are so anal . . . it’s like they’re always expecting a magazine to turn up and photograph them.’

‘Well, your father’s changed. He was an absolute grub as a kid. I never knew what I’d find when I cleaned under his bed or tried to tidy his cupboard.’

‘Mum’s worse though,’ Brooke says. ‘Anyway, you were cool down there today, Nan. I never saw you do that before, like, tell people off.’

Connie swings her legs off the bed and crosses to the dressing table to brush her hair. ‘I used to do it quite a bit when they were younger,’ she says. ‘I thought I’d lost the knack but perhaps I haven’t. What are Ryan and Mia doing?’ ‘Ryan is in the big tree throwing stuff at Mia, and she’s screeching, but standing right under the branch he’s on and won’t move away.’

‘Oh dear, it never stops, does it?’

‘I’m never going to have children,’ Brooke says. ‘They’re evil.’

‘You’re not,’ Connie says, picking up her tea.

‘Well, I quite often am, really,’ Brooke says, turning to face her. ‘When I’m feeling really, you know, shitty and stuff.’

‘Knowing that is a good thing,’ Connie says, following Brooke out of the bedroom. But then what do I know about it, she thinks, giving in all my life and mostly not minding about it, too comfortable to take a stand, happy to leave everything to Gerald. And she wonders suddenly what her granddaughter really thinks of her.

‘Mum, I’m sorry,’ Andrew says as they reach the kitchen. ‘Really, it was unfair, today of all days.’

‘It was,’ she says, smiling but determined to resist the temptation to tell him it’s okay and not to worry. And she walks on out to the terrace, where Kerry jumps immediately to her feet. ‘Mum,’ she holds out her arms, ‘very bad behaviour, really sorry, you need more time, of course you do. Big hug?’

Connie allows herself to be hugged but refrains from hugging in return. ‘Ryan!’ she calls sharply over Kerry’s shoulder. ‘Come down from that tree immediately. I will not have you throwing things in my garden. Mia, stop snivelling and go and wash your face.’ Mia complies immediately. Connie had forgotten what it was like to have people do as they’re told. How long can she keep up this assertiveness, she wonders. Long enough to tell them about her plans? She has a horrible feeling that they’re not going to like them at all.

*

An hour or so later it’s clear she was right.

‘Going away? But why?’ Kerry says before Connie has begun to explain. And before she has time to answer continues, ‘Shouldn’t you be sorting things out here? Making plans for the future? And why France, why Auntie Flora? Dad didn’t want anything to do with her. I don’t think it’s . . .’ she stops, colours up again and looks away.

‘And after that,’ Connie continues, ignoring her, ‘I’m going to England. I’ve never been back, not since Dad and I moved here.’ She waits, hoping they’ll show an interest, but there is just an awkward silence.

‘So I suppose you’ll be away for about three weeks?’ Andrew asks eventually.

She laughs, irritated, and hurt by their lack of interest in what she wants and needs to do. ‘Oh for goodness sake, you think I’m going to do that horrendous journey, spend time in France with Flora and then go back to places in England that I haven’t seen in decades, and be back here again in three weeks? I’ll be gone a couple of months at least.’

‘Sounds good, Connie,’ Chris says. ‘You need to go back and touch the past. You could go to Ireland too, you’d love the west coast, Galway – I can just see you in Galway.’

‘But you’re not used to doing things alone, Connie,’ Linda says, ‘and that’s a very long time . . .’

‘Far too long,’ Andrew agrees. ‘I think you should . . .’ he stops abruptly. ‘Sorry I . . .’

Connie gives him a long and steady look. ‘I’ve been waiting to go home to England since before you started high school, Andrew. Gerald went back for work but I couldn’t go with him because I couldn’t leave you two. This is my time now and I’ll take as long as I need.’

There is another awkward silence.

‘I can understand that you’d want to go to England,’ Kerry says, ‘but really, Mum, I hope you won’t mind my saying this, but staying with Auntie Flora hardly seems very respectful to Dad considering that he had virtually disowned her.’

‘Is Auntie Flora my auntie?’ Mia asks.

Connie takes a deep breath. ‘She’s your great auntie, Granddad’s sister.’

Chris gets to his feet and takes Mia’s hand. ‘Come on, sweetheart, let’s go and see if the goldfish are awake. You too, Ryan.’ And he leads the children away from the table towards the overgrown pond.

Kerry gets to her feet. ‘Well, I’ll go and make some fresh tea.’

‘Sit down please, Kerry,’ Connie says, struggling to keep her voice low and steady, and she waits until Kerry is back in her seat. ‘First of all, I do mind your saying that, in fact it’s really offensive. Flora and I go back a long way, back to before I met your father; we were at school together. You know nothing about what happened between the two of them, so I suggest you keep your opinions to yourself. I’ve spent years looking after your father with very little help from any of you, and now that it’s over I feel absolutely free to do what I want.’

‘Oh yes, and you were wonderful, Mum,’ Kerry says, ‘we all knew that. I was always saying to Chris how wonderful you were looking after Dad, I . . .’

‘Absolutely,’ Andrew joins in. ‘Kerry’s quite right. We all thought you did an amazing job.’

‘Stoic,’ Linda adds.

And Chris, poised halfway between them and the fishpond, says nothing, just turns to look back at her over his shoulder.

The silence is tense. No one exchanges even a glance. Andrew clears his throat. Kerry’s cheeks flame crimson and she stares down at her feet.

‘So . . . er . . . what about Scooter, while you’re away, Nan?’ Brooke asks.

Connie turns to her. ‘My friend Farah will stay here and look after Scooter. She and her children live in a flat so it’ll be nice for them to have a bit more space for a while.’

Kerry straightens with the sort of bristling energy that Gerald always said reminded him of a fox terrier. ‘Farah? You mean that woman who, the one who . . . ?’

‘Exactly, Kerry, the one who was here, and who did help me, who made it possible for me to have a day to myself sometimes.’

‘But she’s . . .’

Andrew sucks in his breath. ‘Kerry . . .’

But Kerry is quivering now. ‘She’s an illegal, isn’t she? Came in on one of those boats?’

Connie waits, wondering if her daughter is going to dig herself in further or back down. She loves this daughter, loves all of them so much that it hurts, but right now she just wants to smack Kerry, as she had frequently wanted to smack her when she was a troublesome toddler. She wants to tell them all to go home and leave her in peace.

‘Farah’s husband was drowned when the boat they were in sank offshore. They left Afghanistan in fear of their lives, she and her children are refugees.’

Kerry is silent for moment. ‘And she’s . . . well, she’s . . .’

‘A nurse?’ Connie asks, deliberately misinterpreting. ‘Yes of course.’

‘Well, I really don’t think it’s right . . .’ Kerry says. ‘After all . . .’

‘After all what?’

‘Well . . .’ Kerry draws up her shoulders. ‘Well, I just don’t think Dad would’ve liked it, you know . . . being . . . well, she’s not one of us . . .’

Silence. Kerry’s blush deepens and she looks around as if for support. ‘What I mean is, she’s not one of the family.’

Connie pauses, poised between disgust and disbelief. She knows her daughter well enough to know that she is free of racial and religious prejudice, but for some reason Kerry seems determined to win this battle of wills whatever tactics are required. It seems so ridiculous that she throws back her head and bursts into laughter. ‘Well, Kerry,’ she says, ‘Dad was happy to have her sit with him, play chess with him, wash him, shave him and clean him when he soiled himself.

And anyway, I make the decisions about who gets to stay here now, so you’d better get used it.’ She gets to her feet. ‘Would anyone like any more tea? Brooke dear, come and help me fetch that cake, Ryan and Mia must be desperate for it by now.’

Two

Port d’Esprit, Brittany, Northern France, early February 2012

here is a collective sigh of relief from the pews as the priest genuflects, picks up the altar vessels and departs to the sacristy. He is young and inexperienced, a locum filling in for Father Bertrand, who is in hospital in St Malo recovering from a triple by-pass. This one seems barely old enough to be out of high school, let alone ordained. Flora, irritated by his trembling hands on the chalice, the dropped wafers and most of all the torturous fumbling as he lost his way in the litany, waits impatiently for the right moment to leave. It’s not unusual for her to come and sit in the church but it’s a long time since she attended a service. This morning, however, she had come to the six o’clock mass and to her own surprise had taken the sacrament, although she had wondered whether she was entitled to do so after such a long absence. It was thinking about Gerald that made her want to do it, and she’d told herself that God would be more concerned about her intentions than in checking up on her dismal devotional record. She’d thought she’d stay on after the service – make the most of the silence for a while – but the young priest took so long that her time has run out, and now she needs to get back home. Silently Flora slips out of the pew, nods to the altar and walks quickly down the aisle and out into the square, letting the church door swish softly to a close behind her.

It’s daylight now and as she pulls her bike from the rack the market traders are unloading their vans, and a waiter in a long white apron is setting up tables on the pavement outside Café Centrale. Flora weaves her way between the stalls and heads for the tabac, glancing at her watch. The breakfast trade back at the hotel ramps up well before seven as the fishing fleet finish unloading the catch. But while being late is bad, being late without Suzanne’s cigarettes would be a cardinal sin. Flora queues for the cigarettes, then squeezes her way out of the crowded little shop, drops the two packets of Gitanes Bleu into the bike basket and freewheels down the hill to the post office, where she collects the mail from the post box, and doubles back past the square heading for home. Outside the church the young priest, hands tucked nervously into the sleeves of his cassock, is chatting with members of the congregation. Flora flashes him a killer look; she should have stayed home, practised some yoga as usual, before cycling down for the mail.

As she turns the corner onto the quay, the wind whips into her face tugging at her hair and making her eyes water, but she pedals on along the curve of the harbour where the leisure boats are bobbing at anchor on the high water. At nine she had fallen in love with this place, this harbour, the stone houses that line the quay, and behind them the rocky pineclad backdrop of the cape stretching out beyond the curve of the sea wall.

It was the fifties; their first ever visit to France, and her father, who had driven the Morris Oxford confidently onto the ferry at Southampton, suffered an obvious loss of confidence as he steered his way off at St Malo and pulled out onto the street where traffic was hurtling towards them on the wrong side of the road. What should have been a forty minute drive to Port d’Esprit had taken two hours because Flora’s mother had a problem reading the map.

‘For god’s sake, Margaret, give the bloody map to Flora,’ her father had shouted when they found themselves back for the third time at the same roundabout, ‘then we might get there before midnight.’

There were just the three of them that year – Gerald, by then fourteen, had gone with the family of a school friend to Switzerland. Port d’Esprit was smaller in those days, just a neat fishing port with stunning sandy beaches, nothing like the steep and stony ones of the Sussex coast, or the coarse and crowded sands of Southend where the school had once taken them on a day trip. Their father had been posted to London when Flora was five and by the time they made that first trip to France her memories of life in Hobart had all but faded away.

As she cycles on against the wind Flora remembers that first day, more than half a century ago; remembers the moment they pulled up outside the Hotel du Port. She had fallen instantly in love with it, the rough stone walls, the blue shutters and the pavement tables, their blue and white striped sunshades swaying in the wind from the sea. A wave of nostalgia takes her by surprise and she stops abruptly, one foot on the ground, marvelling that despite all that has happened in the intervening years so much about this place remains unchanged.

There are more buildings along the quayside now, several other small hotels, many more leisure boats, a much larger fishing fleet, and both the harbour and the town have been smartened up and their boundaries extended in all directions. But it is still essentially a small fishing port with a good tourist trade in summer. The hotel too has been renovated since the days when Flora and her parents arrived for their holiday and were greeted by Suzanne’s parents. White paint, white linen, pale timber floors and furniture have transformed the bedrooms, and a complete renovation of the café–restaurant has almost doubled its size. While still instantly recognisable from the outside, the interior of the hotel is very different from the dull and poky rooms where she, Suzanne, and in subsequent years Connie too, had played hide and seek in the wardrobes and behind the heavy curtains. Suzanne has lived in this place all her life, helping her parents and eventually, with her husband Jacques, buying them out, taking over the business and moving into the big top floor flat.

Flora takes a deep breath of the salty air and starts pedalling again, along past the seaweed coated steps where she and Suzanne had sat that first summer navigating their way to friendship with Flora’s schoolroom French and Suzanne’s slightly better English. Further on, where the sea wall stretches out away from the land to enclose the port, the fishing boats are returning, the fishers unloading their catch, spreading nets, piling up lobster pots, just as their fathers and grandfathers have done for decades. Fishing has a long and respected tradition along this coast and in this little port, the hotel is part of that. Not simply a haven for holidaymakers, it is also home to fishermen and women, who come here after a night’s work, hosing themselves down at the far end of the quay before heading inside for their breakfast.

As Flora slows her pace outside the hotel and swings into the side alley, she can see through the window that the first of the fleet are already ensconced at the tables waiting for their coffee. Suzanne will be racing frantically between the café and the kitchen, cursing Flora’s lateness. In the backyard, Nico, the baker’s son, is unloading trays of bread, croissants and patisserie from the back of his van. Flora leans the bike against the wall, opens the kitchen door for him, and carries one of the trays into the kitchen.

‘En fin!’ Suzanne is harassed and irritable, her face flushed. She is in that hyperactive state that she thinks is efficiency but actually just makes her short-tempered and accident prone. ‘Problems with the coffee machine, Nico is late, you decide to go to church.’

‘Sorry,’ Flora says, pulling off her jacket. ‘There was a queue at the tabac.’

Suzanne looks up from the tray she is unloading. ‘But you got my cigarettes?’

Flora tosses them to her across the table. ‘I’ll take over here while you get out there.’

‘The German couple from room six are down already,’ Suzanne says, putting four croissants into a small basket and adding it to her serving tray. ‘What is the matter with these people? They’re on their honeymoon but they’re up and dressed before seven.’

Flora shrugs. ‘That’s the master race for you.’

Suzanne balances the tray on the flat of her hand with the ease of one who has grown up waiting tables. It’s an enviable skill that in all the years they have run this place together, Flora has never managed to acquire. She ties on an apron, rinses her hands at the sink and begins to slice the baguettes and place them in baskets for the tables. In winter the breakfast trade is easy – mainly the men and women off the fishing boats – and in the last couple of years they have saved money by managing it themselves, bringing in Gaston the chef and Pierre the kitchen hand at eight to start on the lunches. The tourists begin to arrive at the start of spring and that’s when they need the full staff on duty from six.

Flora makes up more baskets of the still warm bread, decants preserves into dishes, and rolls butter into balls between the old wooden pats that belonged to Suzanne’s grandmother and which she won’t consider replacing. She piles pastries onto a cake stand, replaces its domed glass lid, carries it through to the café, sets it down alongside the coffee machine, and heads back to the pleasant silence of the empty kitchen.

The café is Suzanne’s comfort zone. It’s what she does best, socialising with the locals and the tourists, keeping the coffee coming, pouring shots of cognac for the fishers who have returned on the tide. And it is Suzanne who maintains their relationships with the other harbour traders, and generally keeps them connected to the heart of Port d’Esprit. She is part of the town, more so even since the night of the terrible storm when Jacques went out to help secure the boats and was swept off the sea wall and crushed against it by a boat that had broken free of its moorings. Flora had been here on holiday at the time; the friendship that had begun on that first trip had lasted decades. She was almost fifty-two and had just resigned from her job in the sprawling north London school, where she’d been teaching for years, to accept a cushylooking job as principal of a small, rather posh girls school near Eastbourne. It was the start of the summer holidays and she had planned to spend the first three weeks in France, before going back in time to prepare to take up the new job in the autumn term. But that freak storm came out of nowhere and caught the town by surprise.

‘I’ll stay on for a bit,’ she’d reassured Suzanne in the dark days after Jacques’ death. ‘And I might be able to negotiate something with the school for a couple of extra weeks.’ She had stayed for five weeks and the day before she was due to leave Suzanne had burst into tears.

‘I don’t know how I’ll manage,’ she’d said. ‘I am désolé that you leave. Stay, Flora, please stay. You say always how much you love it here. We can run the hotel à deux.’

It had taken Flora only hours to decide. She did love Port d’Esprit. Gerald and Connie, her only remaining family, were on the other side of the world and she hadn’t seen them for years. Suddenly, taking charge of a school full of assertive, uppity girls and opinionated staff seemed distinctly unattractive. She had withdrawn from her newly signed contract, gone back to London, packed up the contents of her flat and was soon back again, working full-time in the hotel, and sharing the top floor apartment. That was fifteen years ago, and here she still is.

They’ve had their problems, she and Suzanne. Negotiating the boundaries of live-in friendship with a working relationship has taken patience and tolerance. Most of the time it has worked well, but sometimes Flora burns with discomfort at what feels like an imbalance of power. Suzanne depends on her and says she couldn’t run the business without her. She frequently points out that Flora is the one with the freedom to pack her bags and leave. But Flora knows that she has cut off most of her options by staying here. Now in her late sixties and with dwindling savings, starting over is a challenge that she frequently contemplates but may not be able to summon the fortitude to risk. And she often longs for quiet, for solitude, and for a place of her own.

It’s after ten this morning before the breakfast crowd thins out and Flora has a chance to draw breath. By now, Suzanne is at a corner table in the café, meeting with people from the Bastille Day organising committee, among them her late husband’s younger cousin Xavier. Flora, tidying the stack of menus on the bar, watches the animated group from a distance. She sees the way that Suzanne leans slightly towards Xavier, sees him stretch his arm along the back of her chair, sees their thighs pressed close together under the table. Perhaps, Flora thinks, she is not indispensable after all. She turns away into the kitchen where Gaston and his staff are peeling and chopping. In the backyard laundry Prudence has the washing machines on the go and is ironing as if her life depends upon it. Flora heads through to the office, flops into the chair by the desk and switches on the computer. There is the usual mix of advertising material, some email reservations, e-bills and last of all a message from Connie with an attachment, both of which Flora opens first and prints immediately.

The funeral went well, Connie tells her, lots of people, lovely flowers, Andrew and Kerry both spoke very nicely, and the priest, who had been very fond of Gerald, did everything beautifully. Strange that, Flora thinks; they had been brought up Catholic and in his twenties Gerald had been particularly devout, but later he had become a fierce critic of the church. Had that changed, she wonders now, had illness and the proximity of death made him think again, or was he just hedging his bets?

There is a tap at the door. ‘Excusez moi, Flora.’ Gaston sticks his head into the office. ‘The charcuterie, they send the ham and the pâté but no saucisson . . .’ he hesitates. ‘You are all right?’

‘Yes,’ Flora says, looking up. ‘Just thinking. No sausage?’

‘Non. I think if you are going into town you can bring some? If not I send the boy . . .’

Flora sits looking at him, trying to focus her thoughts. ‘I’m not going into town,’ she says, taking Connie’s email from the printer and getting to her feet. ‘By all means send Pierre, he can take my bicycle. I am going out for a while though. When Suzanne’s finished with her meeting, would you tell her I’ll be back later?’

‘Later?’

‘An hour, maybe.’

He looks at her with obvious concern. ‘Vous semblez un peu . . .’

‘I’m fine,’ she says, and she picks up her jacket and heads for the kitchen door. ‘Don’t forget to tell Suzanne.’

‘D’accord! You want I tell her where you go?’

‘No,’ she says. ‘I really don’t want that,’ and closing the door behind her she sets off across the yard where the steam from Prudence’s ironing machine is puffing the scent of freshly laundered linen into the crisp air. It’s a smell that always transports Flora back to childhood, to Mrs Peacock, her mother’s daily help, ironing in the large, rather chilly laundry off the kitchen of the house in Tunbridge Wells, the sheets and tablecloths, and everyone’s clothes, all laid out in neat piles on the long shelf, ready to be returned to the linen cupboard, the bathroom and bedrooms. She pauses, savouring it briefly before opening the back gate and heading briskly along the path that runs the length of the cliff behind the buildings, to the steep track that leads up to the cape.

She presses on up to the first outlook point, putting height as well as distance between her and home, and stopping only briefly to catch her breath before slowing her pace as the climb becomes steeper. When she reaches the final section of rough stone steps cut into the rock face she drags on the hand rail to pull herself to the top, where she stops, doubled over, hands on her knees, lungs bursting, her heart pounding so hard she can feel the blood thumping in her ears. She leans against the signpost that points out the pathways to the various coves along the cape, her head spinning, waiting until her heart slows to a more normal rate. Ignoring the side paths she presses on along the unmade road that leads to the sharp promontory of Cap d’Esprit.

The wind is colder here and stronger, and that’s all she thinks of as she strides on: the fierceness of the wind, the shafts of brilliant sunlight slicing through the pines, the steep drop of the cliffs and, metres below, the surging blue-green waves crashing against the rocks in dazzling bursts of white foam. The fierce beauty of the landscape, the rush and cut of the wind, the roar of the sea below, blot out everything else as she walks on over flattened earth and pine needles and sinks down on the wooden bench that faces across the bay and beyond it to the next headland, carved sharp and clear in the sunlight.

Leaning back Flora closes her eyes, her own heartbeat pounding in her ears beneath the roar of wind and water. Eventually, she straightens up, reaches inside her jacket, takes out the email and begins to read it again.

Gerald’s death hadn’t really come as a surprise but when Connie had called with the news a couple of weeks ago Flora was taken aback by the sudden and intense grief she felt. She’d come to terms with her feelings about Gerald years earlier – laid them to rest for her own peace of mind. He had cut her out of his life and she had decided to cut him out of hers. Her attachment was to Connie, and to the idea of her nephew and niece whom she had known only briefly as children. She and Gerald had fallen out for the first time when, a year after leaving school, she had decided to enter the convent and a year later was expelled before taking her final vows. And they were at loggerheads again in the late sixties when she’d turned her attention away from God and onto the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and announced she was going to India. Gerald had been horrified, angry and disdainful; he called her irresponsible and shallow, and accused her of breaking their parents’ hearts. But two years later she came home to find he’d forgiven her, and she’d surmised that his own happiness about his surprising engagement to Connie, originally Flora’s closest friend, had made him a more generous and forgiving person, although she was far from happy about this proposed marriage. When he and Connie had been back in Tasmania near their parents in the seventies, Gerald had urged her to join them.

‘Come back to Tassie,’ he’d said. ‘Stay with us.’ He’d even sent her money for a ticket. And so she had gone there, to that strange, enticing white house that he and Connie had furnished with second-hand furniture, and some handdowns from the parents, and where every day was tainted by her unease over how much Connie seemed to have changed – she’d abandoned her planned career in the opera, and committed herself to domesticity.

Still, she’d stayed with them for almost a year and it was starting to feel like home again, she was even thinking of settling back permanently in Australia. But then she and Gerald had the row to end all rows, and she’d moved out to a tiny bedsitter in Hobart where she stayed for a few weeks trying to decide what to do. This time there was no generosity or forgiveness; he treated her as an alien, as though she had committed some unspeakable crime, and drew their parents into the argument, so that the whole family – with the exception of Connie – had virtually disowned her. Banned from both houses, and cut out of their parents’ wills, she finally gave up on her family, bought a ticket and headed back to London by sea. By then she was in her thirties and had lived most of her life in England, so she had felt as though she was going home. Only Connie had stayed in touch, their letters, emails and more recently online conversations had been Flora’s only connection to her family. There were many times when Flora found it hard to accept that Connie didn’t put up more of a fight for her and their friendship, that she let Flora’s estrangement from the rest of the family go on for so many years, but despite that they have always been in close touch. And now Gerald is dead.

Flora returns to the email, and the copies of the death notices that Connie has scanned for her, most of them placed by people Flora has never heard of. But she pauses longest at her own. ‘In loving memory of my brother Gerald, who always tried to do his best.’ How ridiculous! How could she have written it? Loving memory, my foot, she thinks now, trying to remember what had been going on in her mind when she filled in the form on the newspaper website, added her credit card details and pressed send. In no way does it represent the utter chaos of her feelings about him that had erupted with the news of his death. Flora sees Gerald now as she did all those years ago, as a ruthless and selfish man who only ever did his best in his own interests.

A biting wind stings the salty tracks of the few tears that have trickled to her cheeks, and wraps itself like an icy scarf around her neck. Flora shivers, turns up the collar of her jacket and returns to the email. They will scatter the ashes later today, Connie writes. Flora glances at her watch – the time difference means they will have done it by now and she pauses, thinking of them somewhere up in those tree-clad slopes on Mount Nelson, standing together, taking turns to send Gerald on to wherever he was destined. She turns back to the email. Connie writes that she needs to get away for a while. Do they have a vacancy at the hotel at the end of March? Flora stuffs the email back into her pocket and gets to her feet. Connie is coming! Connie who goes back to schooldays, to fish and lumpy mash on Fridays, to hopscotch in the playground, to hockey and netball, to grazed knees and learning to use tampons, and whispering over fan letters to Tommy Steele and Adam Faith. Connie, who has for so long been a distant but emotionally reassuring presence in Flora’s life. Connie is coming. And Flora pushes her windswept hair back from her face and sets off along the path and down the steep steps home to tell Suzanne.


Excerpted from Family Secrets by Liz Byrski. Copyright © 2014 by Liz Byrski.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

As Stars Fall by Christie Nieman – Extract

As Stars Fall

disturbance

The light was strange. The darkness was a deep red, and there was a thickness between the stars. And the air was strange too. It had a bitter tang.

The curlew was waiting for her mate. Her hunger was growing. She smelled the air. She fled her feathers over the delicate eggs that lay on the ground beneath her, growing life from her warmth. Shifting her position, she smelled the air again.

The bush around the clearing had gone silent. The sounds of all the other animals had stopped soon after the bitter air came, except for one animal at the other side of the clearing. It made a slight whispering sound – movement, not voice. A daycreature. A human. Just one. It had made a nest out of sticks it carried with it, and a silk sheet-web over the top. It stayed inside its nest all the time. The curlew could hear it breathing. The air began to sting the curlew’s eyes. Her hunger increased. There was a new noise, a roar like a stormy sky but lower down, and there were other sounds in it: a snap, a creak, a groan. She put her head to the side to listen, and blinked her eyes over and over against the stinging air.

The human across the clearing moved inside its nest. She heard the rustling of the nest materials as it tossed and turned inside. She heard the voice of it, low and intense.

The roaring was getting louder. It was getting hard to see. She pushed her throat in and out to pump air over her tongue, prickly as the air was, to try to cool herself down. But the air was too hot. And her nest was too hot. Her eggs were overheating. She stood up from the nest to let the air over them, but the air could not cool them. She spread her wings, her feet still on the ground, touching the eggs.

Something was crawling up a tree – something orange and bright. The stick-nest across the clearing moved suddenly and an opening appeared. The human stumbled out and fell backwards looking at the tree. The bright orange climbed until it reached the leaves and exploded. The human’s web-and-stick nest gathered thick air around it, and then it roared and became bright orange air, sucked into the sky.

*

The woman watched her tent as it blazed and lifted up. She ran to her four-wheel drive, climbed inside, started the engine. From inside the car she saw flames behind her, and turned to see a wall of fire covering the track out of the clearing, blocking her escape.

And she knew that she would die.

The wind roared, shaking the car. Flames rippled sideways through the trees, trickling through the air like water, running up everything they touched. The heat was too much. There was not enough air. Her mind fought – her children still needed her; her son and her daughter, they were not old enough, they shouldn’t be without her yet. But it was a senseless resistance. She was caught in a hostile atmosphere, a strange new planet: a violent elemental world, not meant for her.

She looked away from the blazing world behind her, her futile hands still holding the wheel. She looked forward, helplessly – instinctively – looking for the bird she had been studying, the other sentient thing she knew to be there. And there it was, through all the burning light and smoke, still there, the Bush Stone-curlew, standing at the other side of the clearing on the ground over its nest, head up, eyes alert.

The woman stared at the bird, only at the bird. She would not look away. She would not look at the treetops as they exploded, one by one, over her head. She would not look at the billowing inferno behind her. She would think only of her children, and she would look at the beautiful bird.

The engine cut out, robbed of oxygen. The wall of fire closed in. The smoke loosened her mind from her body, and she held the bird’s gaze. And as the heat in the air drew her life irrevocably away from her, she suffered no pain. She felt nothing of her own. She sensed only the soft inward lifting of the bird as it prepared to fly; only the perfect ability of wings to reach the cool dark sky above. And then, when the curlew finally flapped its wings to escape, the woman went with it. The last spark of her gaze left her eyes. She was drawn up with the bird. Taken away. Brought forever to the stars.

*

The curlew rose from the clearing and circled once. She watched as the bright fire rushed in and the woman’s children lost their mother, and the curlew lost her own children, curled up helpless in their shells below. And then she turned and flew over the stripped and smoking trees, passing out of the bushland and into the open. She landed under trees at the edge of a paddock. There was smoke here too, but no fire. There were humans in the distance, and one nearby. She stood hidden from it against the rough grey of a fallen tree trunk. She called to her mate, her wailing cry growing louder and louder. And then, when there were no calls back, the curlew grew quiet and again spread her wings and flew up into the sky.

She drew a long straight line south.

IMPACT AND AFTERMATH

Monday

Robin

‘Robin? Robin Roberts?’

This is what I imagined was happening in my form room at that moment. I imagined some old-time bespectacled schoolmistress reading my name out over and over from her roll, and in the silence after each call the crickets chirping, the tumbleweed tumbling. I had to imagine it because I wasn’t there. I was lost.

‘Robin Roberts?’

Yes, that really is my name. You’d think that two parents with the surname Roberts would think twice before calling their only daughter Robin, wouldn’t you? You’d reckon. And when you heard that those two parents were Rodney Roberts and Roberta Roberts, you’d think they were just mean – like, if they’d had to suffer all those Rs, then they’d make their kid suffer too. But if you actually knew my parents, you’d get that giving me a Rolls-Royce name was just their cute way of including me in their club: the R&R club. Well, that was their thinking anyway. They were making sure I felt part of the family.

The family. It’s not like there’s much of a family to be part of anymore.

And as for the name itself, Robin, well I blame my dad for that, crazy bird-lover. Then again, I could blame my dad for a lot of things right now . . .

*

Lost, in the first minutes of the first day of my new posh school in the big ugly city. The bell had gone nearly ten minutes earlier, the noisy throng of girls that had crowded all available space had now completely disappeared; and F-block had clearly fallen off the face of the earth. There I was, alone in the echoing hallways, wearing the requisite below-the-knee-length tartan dress, an itchy blazer and – I was sure of it – the wrong shoes. If there is one thing I understand in this world, it is that you will never know the right shoes for a particular school until you’re in it.

I went outside, sat on a step, and put my head on my knees. This school was nothing like my old school. I’d come from a tiny, two-building country high school, only about one hundred and fifty kids in the whole school. And now here I was in a school where there were that many kids in one year level, where corridors disappeared into the distance, and where I was supposed to find my place among hundreds of girls. That’s right. Girls. Enrolling me in a girls’ school was Mum’s bright idea. I don’t know what she was thinking.

The thought of her made me long for her in a way I hadn’t since I was a little kid. She was here, somewhere. Back home in the country she’d taught at the private school in town while I went to the local secondary, but now, in the city, we’d ended up at the same school. It was a good school apparently, a state school with private-school pretensions. And great ‘outcomes’, Mum said. And good for her career.

I could try to find her. But what could she do? She was teaching. I couldn’t waltz into her class in front of all her students and say in my best little-kid voice, ‘Help me, Mummy.’ I lifted my head from my knees, and bloody hell – there, right in front of me, was F-block, squat and smug. Sprinting up two steps at a time, I found F-10 on the third floor, and burst into the room suddenly and loudly. Twenty pairs of eyes turned towards me. The words ‘Mr Krietcher’ were printed on the whiteboard, and from underneath them two small, dark eyes looked me over.

‘And you might be?’

Panting, out of breath, ‘Flame’, I wheezed.

This ‘Mr Krietcher’ just looked at me funny, and then was silent.

Oh God. What had I just done? Flame, short for Flame Robin, is my dad’s pet name for me. I stuttered and scrambled for more words.

‘Ah . . . Robin Roberts, sir.’

He picked up a clipboard from the desk, and scanned the roll. ‘“Flame”, did you say? Is that a nickname? Do you prefer that?’

‘No, no. Robin, please. Robin’s fine. Robin Roberts.’ And with a cheesy flourish of my hand, ‘At your service.’ Oh God.

There was giggling around the room. The teacher raised an eyebrow and the giggling stopped. He carefully marked the page, and placed the pen and the clipboard back onto the desk in front of him.

‘Robin Roberts, I don’t know what your last school was like, but at this school we value punctuality.’

‘I know, oh my God, I’m so sorry, but –’

He cut me off by raising his hand, which I thought was a bit rude, turned back around to the board and continued writing. The minute his back was to us, all the girls in the room turned towards me, getting a good look.

At my old school, where all the teachers knew all the students from the time they were little kids – knew their parents, knew the stupid things they had done when they were six (or sixteen) – there was room for a bit of conversational back and forth, some healthy sparring. The teachers even seemed to enjoy it. So I really didn’t know I was venturing into dangerous territory when I said, ‘But it’s my first day, sir, maybe you could go a bit easy.’

Mistake. I could tell instantly from the way his writing arm froze, and the way all the heads in the room snapped back to look at him, to see what he would do. Shit, was he one of these insecure teachers, the ones that never let their guard down, not for a second? Oh, come on, dude, cut me some slack. He slowly turned around.

‘Robin Roberts, I view it as part of my job to prepare you girls for success in the adult world. And the adult world does not smile upon disorganised and irresponsible people. Now please take a seat.’

So I’m usually a fairly cool and even-tempered person, but light the right fuse and I can go off a little bit. And for me, the right fuse was a sense of injustice. Here he was, on my first day, judging my actual character, based on what? On absolutely nothing.

‘But it wasn’t my fault!’

Mr Krietcher remained calm. ‘The rules are simple. If you are late to my class I will give you detention. Today you are lucky: because it is your first day you only have a warning. But for the future, know that tardiness – and backchat for that matter – is simply unacceptable.’

There’s this thing among teachers, I know about it from my mum. It’s a saying: Don’t smile until Easter. It’s about being a total hard-arse for the first weeks of the year so your students are totally cowed and under control before you get any sort of friendly vibe on. And it’s possible that this guy was doing that. It was possible that he would turn out to be a nice guy, a good teacher. Possible. But it was also possible that he was just an unreasonable jerk. Either way, it made no difference to my reaction. My face grew hot with the unfairness of it all.

‘Dude,’ I said – yes, I actually called him dude – ‘I think you’ve misjudged me, and I think you’re being a bit harsh.’ One girl actually slapped her hand over her mouth, as if she could shut me up by covering her own talking apparatus.

He lifted his chin and looked down his nose at me, truly down his nose. ‘Dude?’ he repeated. ‘Harsh?’ he also repeated. ‘I don’t think I was being harsh. But now, as you have already given me the descriptor, I might as well deserve it. You have worn out my patience and good humour and I would like to see you here, this afternoon, at three-thirty.’

Wow. Was this really happening? In a matter of moments my fi st day had gone from giving me a little bit of shit to becoming a very productive shit farm; it had produced a great quantity of the stuff and sent it very efficiently my way. And, in fact, this was a bit more shit than I was prepared to take. I was really pissed off. Hell, I’d had enough today. I’d tried my best, but now I was going to turn around and stomp out of there, bugger the consequences. But just as I was drawing myself up to a good stalking-off height, a fairly small and abrupt voice said, ‘Excuse me, sir.’

It was a tiny, pale-looking girl sitting up towards the front of the class.

‘Excuse me, Mr Krietcher, but I do think you are being harsh. I’m not entirely sure why you can’t see it for yourself, but I believe Robin Roberts is correct in pointing it out to you, and I believe it is also my duty to speak up, so that you may see and correct the error of your ways.’

There were embarrassed titters and whispers around the room, and also the odd gasp. Clearly this was all quite thrilling. Mr Krietcher slowly pushed his glasses back on his nose, fixing his gaze on the girl.

‘Delia Mann.’ He seemed to consider her for a long time as she sat there with her chin pointed straight at him. She looked fearless. It threw him. He seemed indecisive. Eventually he said, ‘Delia, I’m disappointed. But I suppose I’ll be seeing you at three-thirty as well. Quite the little party. Welcome to year eleven, everybody.’

He went back to writing on the board and, amid whispers and looks, I took the only empty seat in the room, next to Delia.

*

Lunchtime was a trial. Not bold enough yet to try to sit with any of the groups from my classes, I had to eat my lunch quickly and then hide out in the library, pretending I had some pressing research. I found a table in a corner and through the library window I watched the girls in the yard. The tiny year sevens, fresh from primary school, were still playing games, hiding and chasing. I envied them. It’s so much easier to be new all together, especially when you know you won’t get laughed at for suggesting a game. The year twelves were in the library with me, being given a special library induction, and looking stressed. I envied them too; they had an excuse not to be social. Outside the library windows, scattered about the yard, girls from the other year levels sat in their impenetrable social groups: all those relationships already bound tightly together, no gaps. I could see a largish group of girls from my form room. One girl was definitely at the centre of that group; you could tell by the way the other girls sat, slightly angled towards her – Natasha, that was her name. She had honey-streaked light brown hair that clearly did as it was told, falling obediently in an unwavering line down her back. She was obviously popular, but popularity here also seemed to follow strange lines – I couldn’t always pick it just by looking. Many different types of girls seemed popular, for different reasons. Some of the smartest girls in the classes I’d had so far, the ones who tried hard and took it seriously, seemed really popular. That just didn’t happen at my old school. Half the students at my old school didn’t even make it to year twelve. It was all quite disorienting.

Maybe that was what drew my eyes to this particular group of girls clustered around Natasha: there was something familiar about them. They seemed more like the girls from home. They all wore their skirts as short as they possibly could without attracting disciplinary attention, and in class they seemed to be less conscientious than their peers. I knew how to be friends with girls like that.

Maybe tomorrow I would take a breath and plunge in and talk to them, be friendly. But right then I was a big chicken.

And by the end of the day, I was a big, exhausted chicken. It’s tiring, being the new girl. So the last thing I wanted to do was to stay after school.

After everyone else had gone home, we sat in our form room, Delia and I. Mr Krietcher sat at the front of the room reading a newspaper. I was feeling a keen summer-afternoon lethargy, and if I had dared I would have put my head down on the table. Delia was actually doing homework. She was sitting neatly on her chair a few seats away from me, pulled in as close to the desk as she could get, with her maths books open, and she was writing a stream of tidy fives down the side of her page. She didn’t look at all like she was really in year eleven. She didn’t even look like she should be in year ten. She was small for a start. Her school dress was clearly too big – it was way beyond the below-the-knee stipulation; halfway down her calves, in fact. It was practically a frock. Her brown hair was in a primary-school ponytail, tied low at the back with a navy blue scrunchie that had been magically time-portalled onto her head from the 1980s. Her face was pointed and there was a slight rough boyishness around her mouth, but her forehead was baby-smooth, no furrows at all, despite her intense focus on the textbooks in front of her. She looked a lot like a little kid playing grown-ups.

I was leaning back in my chair and doodling with my pen over the front of the new pink exercise book Mum had bought for me the week before. She said there were other colours but she chose the pink because it was so ‘cheery’. I thanked her, but I don’t think I’m really a pink kind of person. My pen was working back and forth over the front of my new pink book, and I was thinking about how this Delia girl had stood up for me. I would never have done something like that for a new girl at my old school. She must be a bit nuts.

I looked up as Mr Krietcher finished the last page of his newspaper, clumsily folding it shut. He gave Delia a hard stare, and then stood up and walked out of the room. Delia looked up as the door slammed, but then went straight back to her work.

I leaned across to her. ‘Thanks for today,’ I said.

‘You’re welcome.’ She didn’t look up from her page, and the figures kept scratching out from her pen.

‘I really appreciate it. I mean, there’s no way –’ ‘Can you please stop talking? It’s quite distracting.’ ‘But he’s gone. You don’t have to –’

‘Shh.’

I sat back in my chair. ‘Jeez. We can hardly get into more trouble.’

She finally looked up – exasperated I think. The kids at this school certainly were conscientious, that was for sure. And then Delia suddenly stopped looking exasperatedly at me.

‘What are those?’ She was looking at the doodles on the front of my book. Only as I looked at them now, I saw they weren’t just doodles. I’d drawn two birds. Long, thin birds. The two of them stood there together, on the pink cover. Delia seemed transfixed.

I looked at them and laughed. Fancy my subconscious pulling them up and drawing them out through my hand.

‘Wow! Ha. I didn’t even mean to draw them.’

‘What are they?’

‘Well . . .’ I was always cautious when revealing my birdy side. ‘They’re these really cool birds from my old home in the country.’

‘What birds?’

How far to go? I assessed that Delia was risk-free: there was no way she could do social damage. ‘They’re called Bush Stone-curlews.’

And then she shot me such a look – God, I have no idea what that look was about. It was like she thought I was telling a lie, it was like, I don’t even know: like I’d lied to her about something important. The door opened. Mr Krietcher came back into the room with Ms Megalos, the vice-principal, in tow.

‘Well, that’s it then,’ he said. ‘Go on – go home.’

We stood and started closing up our folders and pushing them into our bags. Delia was quicker than me and was about to leave when Mr Krietcher said, ‘Delia, can you stay back for a moment? We’d like a word. Robin, when you go, close the door.’

Maybe I had misjudged Delia. Maybe she was a real rebel. Teachers don’t just bring in the vice-principal for nothing. Whatever else she had done, it must have been pretty bad.

*

On the train on the way home I looked out of the window to see if I could see any interesting birds.

So okay, yes, I’m a bird nerd too. I can’t just point at Dad and say ‘crazy bird-lover’ and not fess up to having a twitching eye myself. But when you grow up where I did in the country, it’s hard not to be. Birds are everywhere. And each species of bird has its own way of doing things – its own voice, its own way of flitting about, its own habits. It’s like each species has a personality, and if you’ve grown up with that personality right there, then it’s a kind of friend. I know that sounds stupid, but it’s true. Even when I was out doing stuff by myself, like taking the cows their dinner or locking up the goose shed, if there were birds around, I never felt alone. And there was always someone around: a Grey Fantail, or an Eastern Spinebill, or a Flame Robin.

The flame robins are cool. They’re small and anxious-looking and it’s as if someone has coloured in their chests with orange highlighter – it’s such a crazy fluro colour, only a little bit more crazy and fluro than my own crazy orange-red hair. So you can see where my dad got it from. Robin. Flame Robin. Flame.

But two months ago, when the fire came through, all the birds disappeared. Dad said it was worse than any fire anyone had seen in decades. He said we were lucky that we’d had all our sheep up in the top paddock: we hadn’t lost any, not like some of our neighbours. The fire was fast and hot, which is bad. It killed someone, some woman up in the hills, not a local, right on the fire track where Dad and I used to go to collect wood. It was in all the papers. And the fire stripped so much of the landscape that only days after it went through, there were absolutely no birds left.

I should have seen it as an omen, the birds all leaving like that. They left first, and then Mum and I left for the city a few weeks later. And I haven’t been back since. I don’t even know if any of them have returned.

Sparrows and pigeons, that’s all I saw from the window of the train on my way home from school. And when I got there, the tiny house was quiet as I slipped my key into the lock; no dog leaping about on the other side of the door to welcome me. Mum had got my house key cut from purple paisley metal to make it more fun. Hoping, I suppose, that a ‘fun’ key might stop me comparing this place to my old home, a farmhouse on the side of a hill, surrounded by acres of paddock and bush. We didn’t even lock the doors there.

I turned the key in the lock, and pushed the door inward. The hallway was narrow. As I walked down it my schoolbag scraped one wall and my shoulder the other. The door shut behind me, making the slide-click sound of a deadlock, and the traffic noise of nearby Punt Road became muffled. I dropped my bag on the lounge-room floor and sat on the beanbag next to it, leaning my back up against the wall. We didn’t have a couch yet. Our old one was far too big for this shoebox.

I rested my head against the wall and wished my mother would come home. I needed to talk to someone. Someone who actually knew me. Who knew me and loved me. There didn’t seem to be many of those around anymore. I swallowed the lump that rose in my throat.

The phone rang. Mum. Or Amber, my best friend from back home. I pulled myself up to answer it.

‘Is that Robin?’ It wasn’t my mother. The voice was small and sharp.

‘Yes. Hello?’

‘It’s Delia. Are you free tomorrow after school?’ ‘How did you get my –’

‘Tomorrow. Tuesday. Second day of term. Are you free?’

Of course I was free. Did I know a single person in this city? ‘Yes, but I’ll have to ask Mum. Why?’

‘I’ll show you the parklands.’ The phone clicked in my ear as she hung up abruptly.

The hallway was suddenly silent. It was darker than before. I stood there holding the dead receiver for a moment or two before slowly hanging up. I don’t even know why, but I started to cry.


Excerpted from As Stars Fall by Christie Nieman. Copyright © 2014 by Christie Nieman.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

The Fever by Megan Abbott – Extract

The Fever

Before

“The first time, you can’t believe how much it hurts.”

Deenie’s legs are shaking, but she tries to hide it, pushing her knees together, her hands hot on her thighs.

Six other girls are waiting. A few have done it before, but most are like Deenie.

“I heard you might want to throw up even,” one says. “I knew a girl who passed out. They had to stop in the middle.”

“It just kind of burns,” says another. “You’re sore for a few days. They say by the third time, you don’t even feel it.”

I’m next, Deenie thinks, a few minutes and it’ll be me.

If only she’d gotten it over with a year ago. But she’d heard about how much it hurt and no one else had done it yet, at least not anyone she knew.

Now she’s one of the last ones.

When Lise comes out, her face puckered, holding on to her stomach, she won’t say a word, just sits there with her hand over her mouth.

“It’s nothing to be scared of,” Gabby says, looking at Deenie. “I’m not afraid.”

And she takes Deenie’s hand and grips it, fingers digging into palm, their clasped hands pressing down so Deenie’s legs stop shaking, so she feels okay.

“We’re in it together,” Gabby adds, making Deenie look in her eyes, black and unflinching.

“Right,” Deenie says, nodding. “How bad can it be?” The door opens.

“Deenie Nash,” a voice calls out.

Four minutes later, her thigh stinging, she’s done. It’s over.

Walking back out, shoes catching on the carpet, legs heavy as iron, she feels light-headed, a little drunk.

All the girls look at her, Gabby’s face grave and expectant. “It’s nothing,” Deenie says, grinning. “It’s just . . . nothing.”

1

TUESDAY

At first, Lise’s desk chair just seemed to be rocking. Deenie’s eyes were on it, watching the motion. The rocking of it made her feel a little sick. It reminded her of something.

She wondered if Lise was nervous about the quiz.

The night before, Deenie had prepared a long time, bringing her laptop under her covers, lying there for hours, staring at equations.

She wasn’t sure it was studying, exactly, but it made her feel better, her eyes dry from screen glare, fingers tapping her lower lip. There was an uncomfortable smell from somewhere in her clothes, musky and foreign. She wanted to shower, but her dad might hear and wonder.

Two hours before, she’d been at work, dropping dough balls in a machine and punching them out into square pans slick with oil. Lise and Gabby had come by and ordered the fat pizza sticks, even though Deenie warned them not to. Showed them the plastic tub of melted butter that sat all day by the hot ovens. Showed them how the oven workers stroked the sticks with the butter from that tub and how it looked like soap or old cheese.

As they left, oil-bottomed paper sacks in their hands, she wished she were going with them, wherever they were going. She was glad to see them together. Gabby and Lise were Deenie’s best friends but never really seemed easy with just each other.

By the ovens, Sean Lurie clocked in late. Wielding his long iron grippers like swords, he started teasing her. About the fancy-girl arc of her hand when she’d grab a dough ball, like she was holding a kitten. The way, he said, her tongue stuck out slightly when she stretched the dough.

“Like my little sister,” he teased, “with her Play-Doh.”

He was a senior at Star-of-the-Sea, shaggy black hair, very tall. He never wore his hat, much less the hairnet, and he had a way of smiling lopsided that made her tie her apron strings tighter, made her adjust her cap.

The heat from the ovens made his skin glow.

She didn’t even mind all the sweat. The sweat was part of it.

Like her brother after hockey, his dark hair wet and face sheened over— she’d tease him about it, but it was a look of aliveness you wanted to be around.

How it happened that two hours later she was in Sean Lurie’s car, and a half hour after that they were parked on Montrose, deep in Binnorie Woods, she couldn’t say for sure.

She always heard you looked different, after.

But only the first time, said Gabby, who’d done it just twice herself. To make you remember it, I guess. Deenie had wondered how you could ever forget.

You look in the mirror after, Gabby said, and it’s not even you.

Except Deenie had never really believed it. It seemed like one of those things they told you to make you wait forever for something everyone else was doing anyway. They didn’t want you to be part of the club.

And yet, looking in the bathroom mirror after she got home, she’d realized Gabby was right.

It was partly the eyes— something narrow there, something less bright— but mostly it was the mouth, which looked tender, bruised, and now forever open.

Her hands hooked on the sink ledge, her eyes resting on her dad’s aftershave in the deep green bottle, the same kind he’d used all her life. He’d been on a date too, she realized.

Then, remembering: she hadn’t really been on a date.

 

Now, in class, all these thoughts thudding around, it was hard to concentrate, and even harder given the rocking in Lise’s chair, her whole desk vibrating.

“Lise,” Mrs. Chalmers called out. “You’re bothering everyone else.”

“It’s happening, it’s happening” came a low snarl from Lise’s delicate pink mouth. “Uh-uh-uh.”

Her hands flying up, she grabbed her throat, her body jolting to one side.

Then, in one swoop — as if one of the football players had taken his meaty forearm and hurled it— her desk overturned, clattering to the floor.

And with it Lise. Her head twisting, slamming into the tiles, her bright red face turned up, mouth teeming with froth.

“Lise,” sighed Mrs. Chalmers, too far in front to see. “What is your problem?”

*             *             *

Standing at his locker, late for class, Eli Nash looked at the text for a long time, and at the photo that had come with it. A girl’s bare midriff.

Eli, for you xxxx!

He didn’t recognize the number.

It wasn’t the first time he’d gotten one of these, but they always surprised him. He tried to imagine what she was thinking, this faceless girl. Purple nails touching the tops of her panties, purple too, with large white polka dots.

He had no idea who it was.

Did she want him to text her back, invite her over? To sneak her into his bedroom and nudge her shaky, pliant legs apart until he was through?

A few times he’d done just that. Told them to come by, smuggled them to his room. The last one, a sophomore everyone called Shawty, cried after.

She admitted to drinking four beers before she came on account of nervousness, and even still, had she put her legs where she should? Should she have made more noise?

Secretly, he’d wished she’d made less noise.

Since then, he could only ever think about his sister, one wall away. And how he hoped Deenie never did things like this. With guys like him.

So now, when he got these texts, he didn’t reply.

Except sometimes he felt kind of lonely.

The night before, his friends at a party, he’d stayed home. He imagined maybe a family night of bad TV and board games moldy from the basement. But Deenie wasn’t around, and his dad had his own plans.

“Who is she?” he’d asked, seeing his father wearing his date sweater, the charcoal V-neck of a serious man.

“A nice woman, very smart,” he said. “I hope I can keep up.”

“You will,” Eli said. His dad was the smartest teacher in the school and the smartest guy Eli knew.

After one of those times sneaking a girl out of his room, Eli had gotten caught, sort of. In the upstairs hallway, his dad nearly bumped into her as she hitched her tank-top strap up her shoulder. He’d looked at Eli and then at the girl and she’d looked at him and smiled like the prom queen she was.

“Hey, Mr. Nash,” she cheeped. “Guess what? I got an eighty-five in Chem Two this year.”

“Great, Britt,” he said, his eyes not focusing on hers. “I always knew you could do better. Glad to hear you’re doing me proud.”

After, Eli shut his door and turned his music as loud as he could and hoped his dad wouldn’t come talk to him.

He never did.

*             *             *

Dryden was the cloudiest city in the state, the sky white for much of the year and the rest of the time a kind of molten gray broken up by bright bolts of mysterious sun.

Tom Nash had lived here for twenty years, had moved with Georgia the summer after they’d finished their teaching certificates, and she’d gotten a job starting up the district’s new special-education office.

Like many long-term transplants, he had the uncomplicated pride of a self-proclaimed native, but with the renewing wonder a native never has.

In the deep white empty of February when his students would get that morose look, their faces slightly green like the moss that lined all their basements, he’d tell them that Dryden was special. That he had grown up in Yuma, Arizona, the sunniest city in the United States, and that he’d never really looked up until he went away to summer camp and realized the sky was there after all and filled with mystery.

For Dryden kids, of course, there was no mystery to any of it. They didn’t realize how much it had shaped them, how it had let them retain, long past childhood fairy tales, the opportunity to experience forces beyond their understanding. The way weather tumbled through the town, striking it with hail, lightning, sudden bursts of both clouds and sun, like no other place Tom had ever been. Some days, the winter wind moving fast across the lake’s warm waters, the sun unaccountably piercing everything, students came to school, faces slicked in ice, looking stunned and radiant. As if saying: I’m sixteen and bored and indifferent to life, but my eyes are suddenly open, for a second, to this.

The first year he and Georgia lived here, Dryden had been this puzzle to them both. Coming home at night, the haze of the streetlamps, shaking off the damp, they would look around, their once-copper skin gleaming white, and marvel over it.

Pregnant with Eli and her body changing already, giving her this unearthly beauty, Georgia decided Dryden wasn’t a real place at all but some misty idea of a town. A suburban Brigadoon, she called it.

Eventually— though it felt like suddenly to him— something changed.

One afternoon two years ago, he came home and found her at the dining-room table drinking scotch from a jam jar.

Living here, she said, is like living at the bottom of an old man’s shoe.

Then she looked at him as if hoping he could say something to make it not feel true.

But he couldn’t think of a thing to say.

It wasn’t long after that he found out about the affair, a year along by then, and that she was pregnant. She miscarried three days later and he took her to the hospital, the blood slipping down her leg, her hands tight on him.

Now he saw her maybe four times a year. She’d moved all the way to Merrivale, where Eli and Deenie spent one weekend a month and a full ten days each summer, after which they came back tan and blooming and consumed by guilt the moment they saw him.

In his middle-of-the-night bad thoughts, he now felt sure he’d never really understood his wife, or any woman maybe.

Whenever he thought he understood Deenie, she seemed to change.

Dad, I don’t listen to that kind of music. Dad, I never go to the mall anymore.

Lately, even her face looked different, her baby-doll mouth gone. The daddy’s girl who used to climb his leg, face turned up to his. Who sat in his leather reading chair for hours, head bent over his own childhood books on Greek mythology, then Tudor kings, anything.

“I’m taking the bus,” she’d said that very morning, halfway out the door, those spindle legs of hers swiveling in her sneakers.

“I can drive you,” he’d said. “You’re so early.”

Deenie hadn’t beaten him to breakfast since she was ten, back when she was trying to be grown-up and would make him toaster waffles, with extra syrup he’d be tugging from the roof of his mouth all day.

Eli off to hockey practice at six a.m., Tom liked these drives alone with Deenie, the only time he could peek into the murky teen-girl-ness in her head. And get occasional smiles from her, make bad jokes about her music.

A few times, after dates like the one he’d had the night before— a substitute teacher divorced three months who’d spent most of dinner talking about her dying cat— driving to school with Deenie was the thing that roused him from bed in the morning.

But not this morning.

“I have a test to study for,” she’d said, not even turning her head as she pushed through the door.

Sometimes, during those same bleak middle-of-the-nights, he held secret fears he never said aloud. Demons had come in the dark, come with the famous Dryden fog that rolled through the town, and taken possession of his lovely, smart, kindhearted wife. And next they’d come for his daughter too.

2

Deenie couldn’t get the look on Lise’s face out of her head.

Her eyes had shot open seconds after she fell.

“Why am I here?” she whispered, blinking ferociously, back arched on the floor, her legs turned in funny ways, her skirt flown up to her waist, and Mrs. Chalmers shouting in the hallway for help.

It had taken two boys and Mr. Banasiak from across the hall to get her to her feet.

Deenie watched them steer her down the hall, her head resting on Billy Gaughan’s linebacker shoulder, her long hair thick with floor dust.

“Deenie, no,” Mrs. Chalmers said, taking her firmly by the shoulders. “You stay here.”

But Deenie didn’t want to stay. Didn’t want to join the thrusting clutches of girls whispering behind their lockers, the boys watching Lise turn the corner, her skirt hitched high in the back, her legs bare despite the cold weather, the neon flare of her underpants.

 

After, ducking into the girls’ room, Deenie saw she was still bleeding a little from the night before. When she walked it felt weird, like parts of her insides had shifted. She could never have ridden to school with her dad. What if he saw? She felt like everyone could see. That they knew what she’d done.

As it was happening, it had hurt a lot, and then a sharp look of surprise on Sean Lurie’s face when he realized. When she couldn’t hide what she was, and wasn’t, what she had clearly never done before — thinking of it made her cover her face now, her hand cold and one pinkie shaking.

You should have told me, he’d said.

Told you what.

Swinging open the lavatory door, she began walking quickly down the teeming hall.

“Deenie, I heard something.” It was Gabby, sneaking up behind her in her sparkled low-riders. They never made any noise. “About you.”

Gabby’s face seemed filled with fresh knowledge, but there was no way she could know. Sean Lurie went to Star-of-the-Sea. People couldn’t know.

“Did you hear what just happened to Lise?” Deenie countered, pivoting to look at her. “I was there. I saw it.”

Gabby’s eyebrows lifted and she held her books to her chest. “What do you mean? What do you mean?” she repeated. “Tell me everything.”

 

At first they wouldn’t let her into the nurse’s office.

“Deenie, her mother isn’t even here yet,” snipped Mrs. Harris, the head of something called facilities operations.

“My dad asked me to check on her,” Deenie lied, Gabby nodding next to her.

The ruse worked, though not for Gabby, who, lacking my-father-is-a-teacher privileges, was dispatched immediately to second period.

“Find out everything,” Gabby whispered as Mrs. Harris waved her out.

The nurse’s office door was ajar and Deenie could hear Lise calling her name. Everyone could hear, teachers stopping at their mailboxes.

“Deenie,” Lise cried out. “What did I do? Did I do something? Who saw?”

Peering in the open door, Deenie saw Lise keeling over on the exam table, her lips ribboned with drying froth, one shoe hanging from her foot. She wasn’t wearing any tights, her legs goose-quilled and whiter than the paper sheet.

“She . . . she bit me.” Nurse Tammy was holding her own forearm, which looked wet. She hadn’t been working there long, and rumor was, a senior athlete with a sore knee had scored two Tylenol with codeines from her on her very first day.

“Deenie!” Head whipping around, Lise gripped the table edge beneath her thighs, and Nurse Tammy rushed forward, trying to help her.

“Deenie,” she repeated. “What happened to me? Is everyone talking about it? Did they see what I did?”

Outside the nurse’s office, Mrs. Harris was arguing with someone about something, the assistant principal’s stern jock voice joining in.

“No one saw,” Deenie said. “No way. Are you okay?”

But Lise couldn’t seem to focus, her hands doing some kind of strange wobbling thing in front of her, like she was conducting an invisible concert.

“I . . . I . . .” she stuttered, her eyes panicked. “Are they laughing at me?”

Deenie wanted to say something reassuring. Lise’s mother, vaguely hysterical under the best of circumstances, would be here any second, and she wanted to help while she could.

“No one’s laughing. Everyone saw your Hello Kitty undies, though,” Deenie tried, smiling. “Watch the boys come now.”

 

As Deenie walked out, a coolness began to sink into her. The feeling that something was wrong with Lise, but the wrongness was large and without reference. She’d seen Lise with a hangover, with mono. She’d seen girlfriends throw up behind the loading dock after football games and faint in gym class, their bodies loaded with diet pills and cigarettes. She’d seen Gabby black out in the girls’ room after she gave blood. But those times never felt like this.

Lying on the floor, her mouth open, tongue lolling, Lise hadn’t seemed like a girl at all.

It must have been a trick of the light, she told herself.

But looking down at Lise, lips stretched wide, Deenie thought, for one second, that she saw something hanging inside Lise’s mouth, something black, like a bat flapping.

*             *             *

“Mr. Nash,” piped Brooke Campos, “can I go to the nurse’s office? I’m feeling upset.”

“What are you upset about, Brooke,” Tom replied. There was fidgeting in a dozen seats. Something had happened, and he could see everyone was looking for an advantage in it.

“It’s about Lise. I saw it go down and it’s a lot to take in.”

Two jocks in the back stifled braying laughs. They seemed to go to class solely in the hopes of hearing accidental (or were they?) double entendres from girls like Brooke, girls eternally tanned and bursting from T-shirts so tight they inched up their stomachs all day.

“What about Lise?” Tom asked, setting his chalk down. He’d known Lise Daniels since she was ten years old and first started coming to the house, hovering around Deenie, following her from room to room. Sometimes he swore he could hear her panting like a puppy. That was back when she was a chubby little elfin girl, before that robin’s-breast belly of hers disappeared, and, seemingly overnight, she became overwhelmingly pretty, with big fawn eyes, her mouth forever open.

He never really had a sense of her, knew only that she played the flute, had perpetually skinned knees from soccer, and appeared ever out of place alongside his own brilliant, complicated little girl and her even more complicated friend Gabby.

Four years ago, Gabby’s father, blasted on cocaine, had taken a claw hammer to his wife’s Acura. When Gabby’s mother tried to stop him, his hammer caught her on the downswing, tearing a hole clean through her face and down her throat.

Gabby’s mother recovered, though now all the kids at the community college where she taught called her Scarface behind her back.

Her father had served a seven-month sentence and was now selling real estate in the next county and making occasional, unwelcome reappearances.

In the school’s hallways, Tom could see it: Gabby carried the glamour of experience, like a dark queen with a bloody train trailing behind her.

It was hard to fathom girls like that walking the same corridors as girls like Brooke Campos, thumbs callused from incessant texting, or even girls like downy-cheeked Lise.

“Mr. Nash,” Brooke said, rolling the tip of her pen around in her mouth like it hurt to think about, “it’s so traumatic.”

He tried again. “So what is it that happened to Lise?”

“She had a grand male in Algebra Two,” Brooke announced, eyes popping.

The jocks broke into a fresh round of laughter.

“A grand mal?” he asked, squinting. “A seizure?”

Up front, frantic grade-grubber Jaymie Hurwich squirmed painfully in her seat, hand raised.

“It’s true, Mr. Nash,” she told him. “I didn’t see it, but I heard her mouth was frothing like a dog’s. I had a dog that happened to once.” She paused. “Mr. Nash, he died.”

A hard knock in his chest in spite of himself, he looked at Brooke, at all of them.

He was trying to think of something to say.

“So . . .” Brooke said, rising tentatively in her seat, “can I see the nurse now?”

 

After second period, he found Deenie buried in her locker nearly to her waist, hunting for something.

“Honey, what happened with Lise?” he asked, hand on her back.

She turned slowly, one arm still rooted inside.

“I don’t know, Dad.”

For a second, she wouldn’t look up at him, her eyes darting at the passing kids.

“But you saw it?”

“Dad,” she said, giving him that look that had made his chest ache since she was four years old. “I don’t want to talk now.”

Now meaning here: Not at school, Da-ad.

Meaning he had to just let her go, watch her dark ponytail swinging down the hall, head dipped furtively, that red hoodie hunching up her neck, helping her hide.


Excerpted from The Fever by Megan Abbott. Copyright © 2014 by Megan Abbott.

First published 2014 by Little, Brown and Company, Hachette Book Group, New York.
First published in the UK in paperback 2014 by Picador. This edition published 2014 by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com.
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