Fromelles, 19 July 1916
‘Connor . . .’
The roar of the surf filled his ears as he rode his longboard across the face of a huge, tumbling curler. It was a monster, ten storeys high, terrifying against the clean blue sky.
From up there, he could see the tall pines along the Steyne tossing their heads in a gale that wailed and howled until he could hear it above the crashing surf. He needed to get off the wave, needed to get ashore, needed–
He opened his eyes. The sun was nearly down, and the barrage of guns and mortars was as fierce as ever. Denny was slumped against the other side of the shell hole, his rifle and pack on the ground beside him. He grinned at Connor, his gold tooth glinting oddly against the charred gore of his face. The front of his tunic was dark and wet, and something glistened in the places where it was torn.
‘I thought you were dead . . . lyin’ there like that,’ he said. He dropped his head back against the mud and panted shallowly for a few seconds. Talking was an effort. ‘Y’ been out for ages.’
Heavy boots scraped past the shell hole. A mortar exploded nearby. Denny turned his face away, his eyes tight against the shower of earth. ‘Please, Con, do it now, before someone finds us.’
Connor looked at his brother and his vision swam with tears. Eighteen years of backing each other up, of finishing each other’s sentences, of knowing what the other was thinking . . . But he had no way out. A promise to Denny was a promise to himself.
‘Do it!’ Denny’s voice grated at him, full of mud and bone. ‘Do it, Con.’
Connor Ronan scrambled awkwardly over the lip of the shell hole and joined a thread of men heading towards the enemy trenches. He moved in a daze, oblivious to danger or fear. A machine-gun nest mauled them with a blizzard of metal. Lead scorched his ears and tore apart the soldier to his left. The man on his other side jerked like a marionette, spraying Connor with blood. He tramped on, unharmed.
A short distance in front of the machine gun he dropped and rolled into a hollow in the earth. He drew the pin on a grenade, lobbed it and followed up with a second before the first had even exploded. Dirt, shrapnel and blood blossomed from the nest, men screamed and died and the gun fell silent.
Connor leaped into the trench onto mounds of dead and dying soldiers with his brother’s bayonet in his hands and a red mist in his eyes.
They were almost back to their own lines, hours later, the moon not long set, when the world erupted sideways and Connor fell again. This time he did not dream of a Sydney beach. He lay in the cold, churned earth, paralysed with pain and horror as three soldiers writhed their death throes on top of him, until someone found him moaning beneath their shattered corpses and dragged him back to the trenches.
He woke on a muddy groundsheet between two other broken, groaning bodies.
‘Denny,’ Connor grated through his torn, smashed mouth, ‘Denny . . . we promised.’
Manly, New South Wales; March 2009
‘Oh, you’re here.’ My mother’s stylishly dressed figure decorated the doorway of Connemara like a potted palm. A tall, slim, suspicious one.
‘Hello, Fiona.’ I eased my backpack to the doorstep. ‘Yes, the job wrapped up early so I’m home sooner than I expected.’ My mother stared at me for a moment or two, as if waiting for further reasons why her only child should be darkening her door, then she stepped back. ‘Well, you’d better come in then.’
‘You’re looking well,’ I said, meaning it.
Fiona was sixty-three and looked ten years younger, blessed with great legs, a model’s carriage and a perfect weight. Her trademark glossy auburn hair was carefully cut, the same way she’d had it for as long as I could remember. She was still beautiful and somehow managed to make it all seem effortless.
‘How’s the art business?’ I asked.
She glanced at me to check if I was being facetious, satisfied herself I wasn’t, and sat down in a sigh of expensive leather.
I took the smaller recliner opposite, depositing three or four fancy cushions on the floor first.A small frown creased her face briefly.
‘Business is fine, busy as always. Where were you this time? I know you told me but it’s slipped my mind.’
‘South America – Tierra del Fuego. A dig on a suspected fifteenth-century Chinese site, which turned out to be a Spanish wreck from the eighteenth century and not nearly so exciting.’ ‘Mmm. And how is Jeremy?’ Her face actually softened somewhat.
Mine didn’t. ‘In intensive care if there’s any justice in the world.’
‘Intensive – oh.’ She narrowed her eyes at me. ‘What did you do to upset him?’
I struggled to find my self-control switch. ‘Jeremy’s a lying, cheating bastard. Why do you think I upset him?’
Fiona sighed and pursed her lips. ‘If you took more care with your appearance, Catriona . . . You can’t take things for granted with men, you have to work at it.’ She shook her head. ‘If you’d only wear a little make-up, dress up more, these things wouldn’t happen.’
‘You make it sound like it’s a regular occurrence. He cheated on me because he’s a scumbag, not because I wasn’t wearing Armani while I was digging up a 300-year-old boat. He’s a rotten prick, and always will be.’
She winced slightly at the profanity. ‘You’ve always been too critical, Catriona.’
I stared at her. Now there was the pot calling the kettle black. I started to object, then shut my mouth. I was too tired and too dispirited to argue with her. I stood up instead and hoisted my backpack onto my shoulder.
‘Whatever you say. I need a run after that flight. How’s Hattie?’
‘She’s not awake yet.’ Fiona rose from her chair and turned towards the door. ‘I’m off to the gallery. I have an Arts Council dinner this evening so I won’t be back till late. If you’d let me know you were coming . . .’
‘Sorry about that,’ I said. ‘I left in a bit of a hurry. I should have emailed.’
Fiona nodded, not meeting my eyes. ‘Hattie will be pleased you’re back.’
Unlike you, I thought and headed upstairs to my room.
I dumped my bags on the floor and looked around, breathing a sigh of contentment. I might not get home very often, but my room was still my room. I had painted it when I was fourteen, a rich buttery yellow, the same colour my dad had painted my bedroom in our old house in Scotland. The high ceiling was white with its elaborate ceiling roses carefully picked out in yellow and green. Fiona thought it was awful, which probably made me like it even more. Maybe it was awful by some interior decorator’s measure, but it reminded me of my beloved dad and the place I still sometimes thought of as home.
The polished wooden floorboards had aged over a hundred years to a dark honey, and set off a beautiful deep red Turkish rug I’d brought back from my first trip to the Middle East. The double bed was a wonderful old brass frame that I’d rescued from one of the other bedrooms. With some shoring up of the springs, the addition of a decent mattress and a good polish of the brass rails and the blue and white china knobs, it looked fit for the ancestor it had once belonged to.
A picture rail ran around the perimeter of the room, carrying several framed photos and paintings I’d collected over the years. The bookcases were still full of my childhood favourites and my university textbooks and looked in need of a good dusting. An ancient wardrobe, complete with an old-fashioned iron key in the lock, sagged wearily behind the door. Under the window, a scuffed wooden desk still held the treasures of my youth. Like Hattie, my great-aunt, I was a bit of a collector – well, perhaps hoarder was more accurate. There were bits and pieces from my school years, amongst them a box of pencils scarred with initials and doodling, a fish skeleton I’d cleaned and preserved when I was twelve, and a jar full of sand-scoured sea glass. I really should have a good clean-out, I told myself, as I did every time I came home.
I dragged the heavy curtains apart and threw the casement windows open. It was a beautiful March morning and I was keen to get outside and into it. Unpacking and dusting and tossing out could wait. I changed into a T-shirt and shorts, found my running shoes in the backpack, and headed downstairs and out the door. As I jogged slowly down to the start of the best walking path in Sydney, I felt the tensions of the last few months begin to ebb away.
I loved Sydney, but I adored Manly. It had more weird people per square metre than anywhere else in the world, and more generous hearts. It was a village a hundred years ago, and even though it had grown into a busy, touristy, modern seaside town, it somehow managed to retain that village feel. Maybe it was the old pubs, or the occasional crusty old shopfront, or the interesting off beat artwork along the Corso. Or maybe it was the fact that most of the people seemed to be locals: they lived here and shopped here and went to cafes where the barista knew their name and how they liked their coffee.
It was only nine o’clock and the air was balmy. The sun glowed through the towering Norfolk Island pines that lined the Steyne, casting long shadows against the smart apartment blocks facing the Pacific Ocean. It was a calm day – no surf – and a few hardy souls were swimming the length of the beach, barely ruffling the limpid water. I picked up the pace when I reached the path, and loped along the black tarred surface, breathing lightly as I dodged mothers with prams and toddlers on trikes, bare-chested backpackers in shorts improving their tans, and elderly couples in caps and cotton shirts. I sucked in the clean fresh air, a tonic after the long flight from Buenos Aires, and was glad to be home.
Forty minutes later I slowed to a light jog till my breathing returned to normal, then crossed the road to my favourite cafe. Sitting outside in the warm sunlight, a steaming black coffee and the morning paper in front of me, the magnificent Pacific Ocean straight across the road, I breathed my second small sigh of contentment for the day, closed my eyes and thanked whoever for such luxuries.
‘Bella! Bella Caterina! You are here, bambina!’
I blinked as a large moustached face loomed down on mine and kissed me soundly on both cheeks.
‘When you come back? You don’t come to see me, whass goin’ on, eh?’
I stood and was immediately enveloped in a bear hug by the owner of the cafe, Gino Spano.
‘Gino, hello! I only got home this minute, truly!’ I hugged him back and sat down again.
Gino lowered his not inconsiderable bulk into the chair opposite and regarded me severely.
‘Bambina, you not eating, you skinny, look at you.’ He picked up my hand in his large hairy one and felt my forearm with the other. ‘You skin and bone, mamma mia, what we gonna do with you, eh?’
‘I’ve been working in South America – just flew into Sydney this morning, not three hours ago. It’s great to see you, Gino.’
‘It’s always good to have you back home, bella. You gonna stay a while this time?’ He glanced around. ‘Where’s your friend, that loser boy, eh? You get rid of him like I told you?’ I smiled ruefully. ‘I should’ve listened to you, Gino. He was a loser all right. I left him in Ushuaia. How’s Lucia? Any more grandchildren on the way?’
Gino filled me in on the happenings in his family while making me eat a plate of homemade brioche with another coffee. He tossed down a scalding espresso and looked at me speculatively, stroking his thick grey moustache.
‘So, you get rid of this loser boy, eh? He give you trouble? You tell me, I cook his duck for him, no worries, mate!’
‘Goose, Gino, you cook his goose. I don’t think I’ll be seeing him again. I promise, next time I’ll listen to you. Look, I have to get home, but I’ll see you soon. Give my love to Rosa and Lucia, okay?’
‘Tomorrow you come here for lunch and we feed you properly. Rosa, she’s gonna cry when she sees how skinny you got! And bring Hattie with you, eh?’
I jogged gently up the hill back to the house thinking, not for the first time, how odd it was that an Italian family down the road felt more like blood relatives than my own mother. The Spanos came into my life when we first arrived in Manly and I was a pale, skinny eleven year old with black hair scraped back behind my ears, thick-rimmed glasses and a runny nose. I’d only been at the local school a week and it wasn’t going well. I was bored, answered too many questions before the rest of the class, and asked the teacher questions she didn’t know the answers to. There was a dead bird under a bush in the playground and I was poking it with a stick when I was spotted by a teacher who came screaming over and turned me into the weirdo of the week. After school I was surrounded by a dozen jeering kids imitating my broad Scottish accent and trying to make me pick up the dead bird. That was when Lucia muscled in: she swore at them in English, Italian and a few other languages and became my friend for life. Lucia was Gino’s eldest daughter, two years older than me, and she dragged me home with her that day after school to play in their backyard. After that, I spent more afternoons at the Spano house than I ever did in my own.
The Spanos felt sorry for me because I was small and skinny and an only child. And, of course, because my father was dead. They adopted me and I became an honorary Spano, learning to swear in Italian with the rest of the kids, and getting fatter on their mother Rosa’s great cooking.
Fiona sniffed at the ‘immigrant Italian family’ I was so besotted with, but she didn’t try to stop me. Hattie liked the Spanos as much as I did.
‘The Italians are like the Irish – they’re Catholic, they have big noisy families, and they sing,’ she’d say, pouring herself and Rosa another cup of tea in the kitchen while we kids played hide-and-seek through the house after school. The fact that Fiona and I had no siblings and Hattie just the one didn’t seem to count, nor the fact that we weren’t practising Catholics and none of us could sing.
When I got back to the house, I went to see Hattie in her rooms. Three years ago, when she reached eighty, she’d decided she’d had enough of stairs and moved into the old cook’s quarters behind the kitchen. Her mother, Bridie, had lived there previously, and some modern renovations had turned them into a pleasant if tiny apartment with its own sitting room and kitchenette.
I found Hattie drowsing over a book in the clear autumn sunlight that streamed through the window.
‘Kat, my love! Come and give your old Hattie a kiss,’ she beamed, holding her arms out for a hug.
I embraced her gently, conscious of the thin shoulders and the slight tremor in her hands. ‘It’s so good to see you, Hattie! How are you?’
‘Oh, I’m fit as a fiddle. Just slowing down a little, that’s all. When did you get back?’
‘Just this morning. I’ve been out for a run and a coffee at Gino’s. I brought you something from South America.’ I handed her a brightly coloured Peruvian shawl.
She turned it over gingerly. ‘Thank God. I thought it was one of those horrible cap things with the earflaps for a minute. Thank you, sweetheart, it’s beautiful.’ She patted the couch beside her. ‘Sit down and tell me all about your trip.’
I briefly described the job and Ushuaia, and the disappointment of the Chinese junk turning out to be a less interesting Spanish wreck.
She listened attentively till I finished, turned a wry face to me and said, ‘You haven’t mentioned what’s-his-name once. Did he come back with you?’
I grinned at her before any other sneaky emotion could slip through. ‘You never did like him, did you? He turned out to be a complete rotter and I ditched him and came home early. Wish I was as good a judge of character as you. You and Gino – he didn’t like him either.’
Hattie patted my arm. ‘Don’t worry, it took till I was about sixty-five before I could work people out.’ She laughed. ‘Apart from my Stan, of course. The best decision I ever made was marrying him, bless his soul. It’s a pity you never met him.’
Stan Denham had died before Fiona and I moved to Australia. There were several framed photographs around the room of a big gentle-looking man smiling at the camera with his arm around Hattie. She was tiny next to him, a bird-like woman with a wide smile and warm blue eyes, her hair still the rich dark brown I recalled from the day I’d arrived at Connemara for the first time. Her hair was silvery white now, cut short and brushed back from her face.
‘The women in our family don’t seem to have much luck with men, do they?’ I said, thinking of my mother too. ‘They get left on their own and stay that way.’
Hattie considered this. ‘Maybe it’s because we pick such good ones. When we lose them, there’s no replacing them. Don’t worry, Kat, you’ll find someone. Well, you might if you stop in one place long enough.’ She smiled at me over her glasses.
I kissed her on the cheek and stood up. ‘I need to do some washing. I’ll see you for lunch, yeah?’
‘That sounds lovely. It’s good to see you home again, Kat.’
I left Hattie to her book and the drowsy sunlight and went upstairs to unpack.
I loved this house. It had been in the family since my great-grandmother was a girl. Brigid Eileen O’Malley – Bridie to her family – had arrived in Sydney with her father and her three older brothers in 1906. Unlike many Irish immigrants, they came with enough capital to buy a business and make a very comfortable living, so much so that, when Bridie married, her father gave her Connemara as a wedding present, on the condition that it always remained Bridie’s property and not her husband’s. It now belonged to Hattie.
It had been a grand two-storey house in its heyday, leaning into the south-easterlies on the high point overlooking Manly Beach, but now it was small and faded, overwhelmed by the stark modern mansions that pressed it against the cliff edge. The upstairs floor consisted of a bathroom and six bedrooms, one of which was used as a storage room and dubbed ‘the attic’. A beautiful old mahogany staircase curved down into a long hallway, with doors opening off it into the formal dining room, the drawing room, a large kitchen, the cook’s quarters where Hattie lived, and a big laundry.
I headed downstairs again with an armload of dirty clothes and a book. The upstairs bathroom had been modernised by Fiona years before, but I was glad no one had tackled the laundry. It was a huge room at the back of the house and, apart from an automatic washing machine and a dryer, straight out of the 1920s. An old copper boiler and mangle stood alongside a pair of deep concrete washtubs, with drying lines strung above them. Linen cupboards, complete with painted china knobs, lined the inner walls and a well-worn pine table stood next to them for sorting and folding the washing. A modern ironing board leaned against the wall, and an ancient, blackened pot-bellied stove lurked in one corner, some heavy old-fashioned flatirons rusting quietly away on its lid. The centrepiece of the room was a huge enamelled cast-iron bathtub that crouched on four lion’s paws, deep enough to float away most sorrows.
I threw my washing into the machine, started the bath filling with warm water and went into the kitchen, emerging a few minutes later with a mug of tea. A handful of dried lavender, collected during summer by Hattie from the hedge outside the back door, went into the bath, followed by me. Bliss. Nothing was more likely to improve a person’s outlook on life than a warm lavender-scented bath, hot tea and a good book. After fifteen minutes, I even felt capable of not shooting Jeremy the next time I saw him.
‘Will you be here for dinner tonight?’ Fiona asked as she carefully spread butter on her toast the next morning.
‘Yeah, if that’s okay.’ I lowered my teacup and looked at her, but she was intent on applying marmalade thinly and deliberately. ‘Look, I can pay you rent. I–’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. This is your home, and I don’t need your money. Besides, it’s . . . it’s good for Hattie to have you around. She’s been asking after you for the last couple of weeks.’
‘I don’t start my next contract till May so I can spend lots of time with her.’ I reached for the teapot. ‘You know I’d love to,’ I added quietly.
Fiona busied herself cutting her toast into fingers, then poured black coffee from a tall china pot into her cup and sipped it delicately. I noticed her beautifully manicured nails and still flawless skin, and glanced at my own hands. I put them in my lap out of sight.
‘Where’s your next job?’ she asked, brushing an imaginary crumb from her lip.
‘In France, at Fromelles – a First World War battlefield. We’re exhuming and identifying the remains of soldiers buried in mass graves there. The Australian and British governments are financing the dig and the ID work.’
Fiona nodded. ‘There was a feature about it in the Sunday papers a while ago.’ She paused. ‘Will you really be able to identify individual soldiers after all this time?’
‘After ninety-odd years it’ll be challenging. Hopefully there’ll be stuff like military dog tags or personal items that might tell us who someone is, but I don’t think we’ll be able to put names to too many. DNA matching might be possible in some instances.’ I drank some more tea and looked at Fiona. ‘Did we have any relatives die in the First World War?’
‘I have no idea.’ She slid her chair back and stood up. ‘I have to get ready.’ And with a brusque nod and goodbye, she left the room.
Anyone else might have thought there was something odd about Fiona’s manner, but that was how we usually communicated. Short, terse, defensive, rarely making eye contact. I sighed and finished my breakfast, thinking about the Spano family and their raucous, argumentative, joyful mealtimes. If it wasn’t for them, and for Hattie, I’d have believed everyone’s mother behaved like mine.
When I was younger I’d wondered if it was my fault; whether it was something I’d done that had caused us to leave Scotland, our home, my school and my friends. Fiona never spoke about it, and I eventually worked out from Hattie that money was the reason. When my father died, Fiona sent me to a boarding school, but after a couple of years she could no longer afford it on just one salary. So she brought us back to Sydney, to this house and the great-aunt and great-grandmother I didn’t know.
After Fiona had left, I wandered around the house for a while feeling restless. It was good to be home but there was a limit to how long I could watch the ocean or sit around reading. I needed to be doing something, so I rang an old friend in the Sydney Police.
‘Kat, babe! Where are you? Get over here this minute!’
Sally Mason and I went back a long way. Our first meeting was as rookie cop and rookie forensic over a dead body in a morgue. The body was in bad shape, having been found washed up on a beach south of Sydney a few days before. The smell was pretty grim, and after three minutes the only rookies left at the table were Sally and me. The others were outside, comparing their breakfasts. When the examination was over, Sal and I went out for a coffee and had been great friends ever since.
Moving up through the ranks of the police force had been a character-moulding experience for Sal, to put it mildly. We had shared many tears and frustrations and revenge-planning over the horrid things her male – and female – co-workers had inflicted on her. But the best form of revenge was success, and Sal had worked harder and smarter than anyone else in her intake. She’d joined the Crime Scenes Operations Branch and was now a detective senior sergeant, which meant she often took charge of the forensic investigation of a crime scene, which also meant that we could talk shop and not bore each other blind.
‘Save all the news for when you get here,’ she told me. ‘I want every gruesome detail. And I’m not talking about work. We’ll go to lunch. Anywhere you’d like to eat?’
‘Anywhere as long as it’s not beef. In Argentina they’d serve it for dessert if they could figure out a recipe.’
She named a restaurant near Circular Quay, and I caught the next ferry into the city. Sal was on the dock waiting for me, stunning as usual in perfectly fitted jeans, gorgeous boots and a soft grey leather jacket. Sal and I were the same age and height, but that was where any similarity ended. Where my hair was straight and dark, her shoulder-length locks were a lovely streaky blonde. She was also more curvaceous than me. I tended more towards a lean, athletic build, but next to Sal I looked almost boyish. When we entered a room together, I didn’t even get a first glance, let alone a second. All eyes would be drawn to the golden nymph with the huge blue eyes, heart-shaped face and legs most women would kill for. Her hair was usually scraped back into a ponytail or pinned up out of the way in a bun, and she preferred almost masculine clothing, but these things did little to camouflage her physical presence. Few men initially saw past the blue eyes, the blonde hair and the breasts – the three Bs of Bamboozlement, as Sal called them.
She wrapped me in a fierce hug. ‘I thought you weren’t due back for at least another month! You look great! And I love the short haircut.’ She stood back and looked at me more critically. ‘Actually, Kittykat, you look skinny. Didn’t they feed you over there?’
I glanced down at myself. Despite the colourful peasant scarf draped across my shoulders, I guessed dark jeans and a thin black woollen sweater didn’t do much to bulk up my frame, and the short spiky hair probably only accentuated the waif-like image.
I smiled ruefully. ‘Ushuaia’s not the place to gain weight unless you’re a complete carnivore. Sal, it’s so good to see you!’ And I hugged her again.
The cafe was nearby and we found a table in the corner. Over a glass of cold white wine, grilled flounder and a huge green salad, I filled her in on the riveting details of my love life and the disappointing dig.
Sal’s love life, unlike mine, had been a calm, steady cruise. She had fallen in love with her partner, Hamish Treloar, ten years earlier and they’d maintained a solid relationship based on separate living arrangements ever since. Hamish was a marathon-running psychologist with a quietly cheerful nature, and he gave Sal all the space and support she needed to survive – and thrive – in her usually frenetic and exhausting career.
‘Sounds like a waste of time in both directions,’ Sal said. ‘So have you heard from this jerk again?’
I shook my head. ‘I don’t want to either. What I wouldn’t mind, Sal, is some casual work. My next contract doesn’t start till early May and I’ll go spare sitting around at home doing nothing. Anything interesting you need a hand with in the very old dead body department?’
Sally considered this over the last of her calamari. ‘We’re flat out with two multiple murder cases right now. Our usual forensic specialists are tied up with those, so if anything new comes up I’ll call you in straight away.’ She looked at me, a little smile playing across her lips although her eyes were serious. ‘So you’re still the cat who walks by herself . . .’
‘Yeah, I know, I know, and all places are alike to me. Rudyard Kipling has a lot to answer for,’ I said. ‘And yes, I still have your cat in my room.’
Sal had given me a silver cat figurine years before, after some breakup or other, when she’d decided the Kipling fable applied to me.
We parted at the Quay after making plans to meet for dinner – Hamish included – the next Friday night, and I took the ferry back to Manly. It was a beautiful day to be out on the water, one of those impossibly blue days you get in Sydney: balmy breeze, a brilliantly blue sky and the harbour the darkest deepest ultramarine, turning the white sails of the Opera House into a glowing Taj Mahal.
Excerpted from Ronan’s Echo by Joanne van Os. Copyright © 2014 by Joanne van Os.
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