Category Archives: September 2013

The Pregnancy Weight Plan by Melanie McGrice – Extract

The Pregnancy Weight Plan

CHAPTER 1

How your weight affects your fertility and conception

Kathryn came to see me almost two years ago. She’d had numerous in vitro fertilisation or IVF cycles without success, and as she had been diagnosed with hypothyroidism she was referred to see me. She was overweight with a body mass index (BMI) of 42 and had 51 per cent body fat (see Chapter 3 for a full explanation of BMI and body fat percentage), and what was even more difficult for her was that the more IVF hormones she took, the more weight she gained. Although she had lost 3 kilograms before coming in to see me, she found that she just couldn’t lose any more (well, lose it and keep it off, anyway). Kathryn is smart, well educated and had a generally healthy diet, so she was incredibly frustrated at why she couldn’t lose any more weight, or get pregnant.

After taking a comprehensive assessment, I calculated exactly how many serves of carbohydrates, fats and protein Kathryn required each day to optimise her intake. I wrote her a plan, and over the next few consultations, I taught her how to calculate her servings herself.

After losing 17kg, Kathryn finally got pregnant, and as I write this she is now in her third trimester of pregnancy.

One in six couples will struggle to get pregnant. Infertility can be caused by physical or medical conditions such as damage to the fallopian tubes or early menopause; however, nutrition, lifestyle habits and weight play critical roles. Trying to have a baby when you are overweight or have poor nutrition is like trying to grow a plant in a cupboard without any sun – it is just not the right environment for growth.

So, let’s look at why your weight and what you eat are so important for getting pregnant . . .

How being overweight affects your fertility

Research tells us that for every point over a BMI of 29, your chance of falling pregnant decreases by 4 per cent. That means that a healthy woman with a BMI of 45 has 60 per cent less chance of becoming pregnant than if she lost weight and got down to a ‘healthy’ BMI of 25. Furthermore, women who are overweight who undergo IVF have almost double the chance of miscarriage as women with a BMI between 20–25.

But it’s not just women with a high BMI who can have problems conceiving. BMI is only one measure of weight, and it’s not always the best indicator. Many women can have a BMI within the ‘healthy’ weight range but have a high percentage of body fat. So even if you are a size 8, if your percentage of body fat is too high your ability to conceive will be affected. If you are struggling to conceive, ask your GP or dietitian for a referral to have your body composition analysed, and if your percentage of body fat is too high, discuss with your dietitian how to decrease your percentage of body fat without losing any muscle mass.

But how can having too much body fat make it difficult to conceive?

The health of your eggs

If you live in an area where there are no parks or footpaths, iridescent signs beam advertisements for soft drinks whichever way you turn and there’s a takeaway food outlet on every corner, it’s much harder to be healthy than if you live in an area with plenty of green space, walking tracks and fresh food markets. It’s the same for our eggs. Our eggs are produced in our ovaries, and the health and quality of our eggs are dependent upon the environment of our ovaries. Studies show that women who are overweight have abnormally high levels of fat and inflammation in the fluid surrounding their eggs, which affects the developmental potential of their eggs.

Eggs from women with obesity have been found to have ‘disorganised’ DNA, the molecule that contains the genetic code that helps to create new life. As the DNA isn’t in all the positions that it should be, it is believed to be a key reason why it is more difficult for women who are overweight to have their eggs fertilised – even with Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) such as IVF.

The release of your eggs

The menstrual cycle, and the ability to ovulate or produce an egg are regulated by hormones. Oestrogen, luteinising hormone (LH), follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), gonadotropin releasing hormone (GnRH) and progesterone all dance in a finely tuned choreography to create the right environment for conception.

Contrary to what many people think, our stored body fat, or adipose tissue, is actually a metabolically active tissue undertaking many chemical reactions, just like our other tissues, such as our muscles, bones and blood. One role of adipose tissue is the production of oestrogen. If a woman carries too much body fat, the combination of oestrogen produced by the ovaries and oestrogen produced by adipose tissue can result in an overproduction of this hormone.

During menstruation, oestrogen levels are at their lowest. This signals the brain to produce FSH to begin maturing more eggs for ovulation.

If a woman’s oestrogen is chronically high, hormone production becomes out of balance, weakening the signal for the body to commence matur­ation of eggs and thereby affecting her ability to ovulate. As such, women who are overweight or obese are up to three times more likely to experience irregular periods and less regular ovulation, making it much more difficult to conceive. In fact, about 30 per cent of infertility is thought to be caused by oestrogen imbalance.

Insulin resistance

Insulin resistance is another common cause of infertility. It is estimated that 60 per cent of people who are overweight have insulin resistance, although many people go undiagnosed.

Insulin is a hormone that is involved in digestion, among many other important functions. Women who have insulin resistance find excess body fat forms a barrier to insulin trying to get through to the bloodstream, rather like a condom to sperm, so that it can’t get through and work effectively. As a result, women with insulin resistance produce more and more insulin – a condition called hyperinsulinemia – as their body tries to produce enough of it to get it to the glucose calling out for it in the bloodstream. In turn, this imbalance leads to carbo­hydrate cravings and more weight gain. The excess body fat will then produce higher levels of oestrogen, resulting in an increasing spiral of excess insulin production and excess fat deposition, followed by excess oestrogen production.

In addition to affecting oestrogen levels, insulin resistance also impacts the production of progesterone and luteinising hormone, further altering the hormonal environment of the ovaries and impacting fertility.

A landmark study undertaken in 2010 on mice found that the pituitary gland responds to chronically high levels of insulin by triggering a cascade of hormonal changes which impair fertility. Lean mice had six times more successful pregnancies than obese mice. Obese mice which had their pituitary-insulin receptors removed had five times more successful pregnancies than obese mice with their pituitary-insulin receptors intact. What does this tell us? That our hormones have a big impact on our ability to fall pregnant. And our weight has a big impact on our hormones.

Implantation

Even if you are having regular periods and have healthy eggs, to become pregnant you need sperm. And to get sperm inside your vagina, you need to have sex (or Assisted Reproductive Technology). A study by Brody and colleagues found that women who are obese are less likely to have sex with their partners than women who are a healthy weight. It was suggested that their diminished sexual desire may be a result of increased serotonin levels as a result of overeating. The key message here? If you want to have a baby, reduce your portion sizes and enjoy more frequent sex.

Let’s go back to our high school sex education class. After your egg is fertilised by your partner’s sperm in your fallopian tube, it continues to travel down your fallopian tube and implants itself in the lining of your uterus. It is believed that being overweight impacts the environment of the uterus, making it more difficult for your embryo to implant and receive the nourishment that it needs for survival.

Futhermore, being overweight increases the risk of having a mis­carriage by 3 per cent, particularly within the early stages of pregnancy. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that if you are overweight you’re going to have a miscarriage, it’s simply that your risk is higher – which is a good reason to lose weight before conceiving, and to really focus on doing everything that you can for a healthy pregnancy. There have also been suggestions that the genetic profile that increases someone’s risk of being overweight may be linked to the genetic profile that increases that person’s risk of having a miscarriage. We can’t change our genetics, but we can change what we eat.

‘Studies have shown that obesity, particularly in association with PCOS, results in a significant decrease in spontaneous pregnancy rates due to disordered ovulation. As a result, there is an increased need for artificial reproductive technologies, such as ovulation induction and IVF. Even with these techniques, there is a decrease in response to the fertility drugs, a decrease in success rates, increased miscarriage rates and even an increase in the rate of Caesarean section at delivery.’

Assoc Prof Peter Lutjen, National Medical Director, Monash IVF

Your diet affects your fertility

Our diet has a significant impact on our fertility. Research by Harvard Medical School found that women who have a higher ratio of good fats, a higher intake of plant-based protein foods, a diet with a lower glycemic index, a diet which meets recommendations for dairy products, meets iron requirements, those who use vitamin supplements, have a healthy weight and undertake the recommended amounts of exercise each day have the least likelihood of experiencing infertility. Furthermore, those who adopted just five of these lifestyle measures had a 69 per cent reduced infertility rate compared to women who adopted none.

A review by Cetin and colleagues explains that although rates of obesity are increasing, micronutrient intakes such as omega-3 fats, folate and calcium are decreasing, which has a significant impact on rates of fertility. When you stop and think about it, it makes sense really, doesn’t it? The healthier you eat, the better your body is going to function, and the greater chance you have of becoming pregnant. For more details on recommended dietary intakes to optimise your fertility, see Chapter 4.

Weight related medical conditions that may reduce fertility

You may have heard of polycystic ovarian syndrome and diabetes. These medical conditions, among many others, are more common in women who are overweight, and they make conception more challenging. If you’re overweight and struggling to become pregnant, the first step is to have a thorough check-up with your GP or doctor, and test for any medical conditions. Then find a good dietitian who can work with you on your diet and weight to help minimise the effects of any of these medical conditions as much as possible. Common medical conditions to check for include polycystic ovarian syndrome, diabetes, thyroid condi­tions, Cushing’s syndrome and endometriosis.

PCOS

Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) affects 12–21 per cent of women of reproductive age. PCOS is caused by insulin resistance in approxi­mately 80 per cent of women with the condition. In women with PCOS, high insulin levels result in development of cysts on the ovaries. Ovarian cysts produce another hormone called testosterone, which, in excess, has a domino effect on other hormones and results in reducing the body’s ability to ovulate.

As having a high percentage of body fat is one of the main causes of PCOS, weight loss and dietary changes can do wonders for this condi­tion. In our practice, we have seen women with more than 20 ovarian cysts, who, as a result of weight loss, carbohydrate counting, exercise and commitment, decrease to no cysts.

Diabetes

Diabetes is a condition where the body has trouble keeping glucose levels within the recommended ranges in the bloodstream. Women with diabetes have an increased risk of infertility for a number of reasons. They may go through menopause earlier than women who don’t have diabetes. A very high percentage of women with diabetes also have insulin resistance, and those who don’t have well-controlled blood glucose levels have an increased risk of spontaneous abortion, foetal abnormalities and pregnancy complications. If you do have diabetes, it’s essential that you get your blood glucose levels under control to optimise your fertility.

Thyroid conditions

Disorders of the thyroid gland such as hypothyroidism (too little thyroid hormone) or hyperthyroidism (too much thyroid hormone) can disrupt the menstrual cycle and thereby reduce fertility.

Cushing’s syndrome

This is a hormonal condition where the body produces too much cortisol hormone. It also results in rapid weight gain and irregular or non-existent menstrual periods, making it challenging to become pregnant.

Endometriosis

Endometriosis is a condition where the cells lining the uterus grow outside the uterus. Approximately 30–50 per cent of women with endo­metriosis struggle to conceive. Although there are many theories about what causes this condition, the truth is still unknown. Endometriosis does not cause weight gain, nor is it caused by being overweight, but some of the common treatments for endometriosis can result in weight gain as a side effect. Furthermore, research suggests that there may be a link between diet and endometriosis. For example, a study by Britton and colleagues in 2003 found that women who had a high intake of fruit and vegetables were less likely to have endometriosis.

What to do if you’re overweight and struggling to conceive

As I mentioned earlier, the first step is to ask your GP or doctor to give you a health check. Any medical conditions such as PCOS, insulin resistance or diabetes need to be diagnosed and treated. Then you need to make a concerted effort to try to lose weight to help optimise your hormone production. Weight loss can be more difficult in women who have medical conditions such as PCOS or insulin resistance, so be patient. A dietitian will be able to tailor a meal plan to your specific medical and nutritional requirements that also fits your lifestyle. Opti­mising your ratio of carbohydrates, proteins and fats is essential for fertility. (See Chapter 6 for information about nutrition and optimising your weight before pregnancy.)

Being underweight

Being underweight can decrease your fertility as much as being over­weight. When Rita first came to see me she was 32 years of age, and had successfully beaten anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. She was an incredibly strong woman, and had learnt a lot over the years. Her husband, Mark, was a very loving man and a huge support. Now that she was healthier, she desperately wanted a baby, but they’d been trying for a few years and were struggling to conceive.

Although Rita was in control of her eating disorder, her percent­age body fat remained low at 10.5 per cent and she weighed just on 51 kilograms for her 164 centimetre frame. Furthermore, she contin­ued to exercise for over 60 minutes per day, seven days per week. Her doctor had advised her to gain some additional weight to assist with her fertility, but she was having an internal battle about this.

Rita and I discussed why weight gain, and fat gain in particular, is so important for conception. Once she got her head around this, we were able to slowly increase her body fat using healthy fats and larger portions and also reduce the amount of exercise she was undertaking. At 55 kilograms, she became pregnant.

Although being overweight reduces fertility, being underweight also affects the production of hormones, making ovulation more challeng­ing. I often see female athletes, or women who have had previous eating disorders with low levels of body fat, who struggle to get pregnant. Trying to conceive can be an extremely challenging time for these women as although they desperately desire a baby, the need to gain body fat is confronting.

Not all women with a low percentage of body fat have eating dis­orders; some of them simply have a fast metabolism. But whatever the reason, increasing body fat can be important for fertility. Contrary to the images of skinny models that we see in the media, women are designed to have higher levels of body fat than men. We need a bit of extra body fat to protect our reproductive organs, produce oestrogen to regulate our hormones and store energy for breastfeeding. If you have a low percentage of body fat, try to increase it by increasing your portion sizes and your intake of healthy fats such as avocado, nuts and olive oil in your diet. This additional body fat will help to optimise your hormone levels and enable you to ovulate.

To gain additional body fat, start by checking that you are eating adequate amounts of all of the five core food groups: wholegrains, vege­tables, fruit, protein foods and low-fat dairy products. If you struggle to fit all the food in, try eating smaller amounts more frequently. Focus also on increasing your intake of good fats, such as fish, avocado, nuts, seeds and olive oil. Try adding extra olive oil to your evening meal, putting tinned tuna or avocado on dry biscuits for lunch, and a few tablespoons of crushed nuts on your breakfast cereal. You can also swap water for drinks containing more kilojoules, such as freshly squeezed juices or smoothies. You don’t need to gain heaps of extra weight, but eating a healthy diet and a small increase in body fat might be just what your body needs to provide the right environment for you to conceive.

Your partner’s weight and diet is essential too

Not only is your weight and diet essential for optimal fertility, but your partner’s is too. Forty per cent of fertility problems can be traced to our other half. I have never seen someone more ecstatic than Pete when he came into my clinic and told me his wife was pregnant. Pete had struggled with his weight for years after a car accident had caused permanent damage to his back. Before the accident he loved playing sport, but since the accident he could barely walk and the kilos had piled on. As a sporty person, he used to be able to eat whatever he wanted and get away with it – from a weight point of view anyway.

When he first came to see me, Pete was at his wits’ end. Over the subsequent months we worked on changing his diet to reduce the kilo-joules he was eating. Pete confided that losing weight and getting rid of his CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine for his sleep apnoea had done wonders for his confidence and libido. He now has a baby girl, Tracey, with baby number two on the way.

So, what can our partners do to improve their fertility? Research suggests that a man who is just 10 kilograms overweight has a 10 per cent reduction in fertility, and for every three additional BMI points over a BMI of 26, a guy’s fertility is decreased by another 12 per cent. For a man, being overweight impacts fertility in a number of differ­ent ways, including decreasing sperm count, affecting the quality of sperm and decreasing sex drive. Being underweight is also associated with diminished fertility, so now is the time for you both to focus on your weight and health.

Stress

Just as it does for women, stress can decrease male fertility. It can also contribute to weight gain. Stress increases the production of a hormone called cortisol which can increase hunger and also result in accumula­tion of fat around the waist. If stress is a big issue for your partner, sit down together and work out the causes of stress and some practical strategies for decreasing stress in his life. He may consider prioritising more sleep and relaxation time, planning some enjoyable activities or holidays for the two of you, getting more exercise and trying to adjust his social and work commitment schedule to allow for more down time. You could also encourage your partner to consider talking to his GP or a counsellor to help with implementing some stress-busting strategies and get more support.

Key nutrients

Nutrition has a direct impact on the quality of a man’s sperm, so drinking less beer, eating less pizza, and eating more healthy, home-cooked meals will make a positive contribution. I’m sure that you’ve heard the old wives’ tale about oysters being an aphrodisiac – well, there’s actually science behind it to prove it’s true. Oysters are one of the richest sources of zinc, and low zinc levels are renowned for decreasing testosterone and causing a lower sexual appetite.

Zinc is also essential for sperm volume. Zinc deficiency isn’t so common these days, as red meat is also a great source of zinc and, according to research, most men get plenty of it, if not too much. But if your guy is vegetarian, has had some type of gastrointestinal surgery or condition that affects his absorption of nutrients, then it might be worth double-checking that he is meeting his zinc requirements. Unfortunately there are no reliable tests for assessing zinc levels, so make an appointment with a dietitian to add up his daily zinc intake. If everything seems okay, aim for 200–300g (two or three 100g serves) of lean red meat each week to assist with zinc levels and other key nutrients, such as B12, omega-3 oils and protein.

Foods rich in antioxidants such as vitamin C are important to decrease the risk of sperm defects. To increase your partner’s intake of antioxidants, ensure that he is getting a wide variety of fresh fruit and vegies every day. The more different types of fruit and vegies he eats, the greater variety of antioxidants he will get. Stir fries and soups are great for packing in the vegies, so try adding an entrée of vegetable soup before your evening meal or having a side salad with your meal. Because low-starch vegies are so low in kilojoules, you can never have too many.

A low intake of folic acid is also believed to lower sperm count, so ensure that your man is getting plenty of folic acid too by including green leafy vegetables in his diet each day.

Vitamin D is another key nutrient for sperm quality. As the sun is the best source of vitamin D, check that your man is spending enough time outdoors each day. Maybe he could play a round of golf, you could go to an outdoor pool before work each morning together or he could spend some time working in the garden. Vitamin D deficiency is a significant issue in Australia, so I recommend that your partner gets a blood test to check his levels. He may need vitamin D supplements to help him meet his requirements.

It is well known that alcohol and drugs decrease testosterone levels and sperm count, and can increase the number of abnormal sperm. So while the occasional drink is okay, if you’re planning to have a baby this is not the time for too many big nights.

Achieving a healthy weight is not about aesthetics, but is essential for optimising you and your partner’s ability to conceive. I know that maintaining a healthy weight isn’t always easy in our culture of remote controls and fast food outlets, but it can be done – I’ve seen thousands of clients achieve their goals, and you can too. I’ll be here to guide you through every step of the way.


Excerpted from The Pregnancy Weight Plan by Melanie McGrice. Copyright © 2013 by Melanie McGrice.
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.

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Walking Wounded by Brian Freeman – Extract

Walking Wounded

Chapter 1

The Journey To Kokoda

Innisfail looked like a war zone as I drove through it.

Homes had been cleaved in two, household appli­ances and furniture spilling from them like eviscerated guts; roofs had been ripped from buildings around town; and the surrounding banana plantations had been destroyed. It was March 2006 and Tropical Cyclone Larry had smashed this small north Queensland town and the lands around it.

I hadn’t seen destruction on this level since I’d flown into Dili, the capital of East Timor, in 1999 as part of the international peacekeeping force, Interfet. My boss on that deployment was General Peter Cosgrove. I was a lowly captain on the general’s headquarters and, after 20 years serving in a peacetime army, I was on one of the first Australian military aircraft into that shattered country ahead of our largest military deployment since Vietnam.

I was an operations officer and, like everyone who served under General Cosgrove, I had enormous respect for the man. Not only a soldier’s soldier, he was a leader who could communicate with every man and woman under his command in a way that made them feel valued and respected. Now, more than six years after East Timor, I was calling on him for help.

Sheets of dislodged corrugated iron roofing still littered the streets as I pulled up outside the Innisfail Council offices where General Cosgrove, the former chief of the defence force (CDF), was heading up the disaster recovery. I rushed inside for my meeting with him.

‘Thanks for the meeting, General,’ I said as we shook hands. ‘I feel guilty taking up your time, given the job you’ve got on your hands. I’ll only need two minutes.’

That was probably all I was going to get. I had a pres­entation I had prepared on my laptop the night before, but I launched into an impromptu spiel. ‘I’ve had a lot of experience on the Kokoda Track, General, and I’d like to give something back to defence. I’d like to lead a trek for wounded soldiers, those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and close relatives of soldiers killed on active service, to help with their healing.’ I asked the general if he would welcome the boys to Kokoda when they finished the journey and he was instantly onboard.

The 96-kilometre long Kokoda Track holds a signifi­cance for Australians for more than its length or the lofty elevations it traverses. It was here, in 1942 during the Second World War, that Australian soldiers turned the seemingly unstoppable tide of the Japanese military advance through Asia and the Pacific.

Arguably more important than the First World War Gallipoli campaign, where the spirit of Anzac was born, Kokoda saw Australians fighting to protect Australian-controlled territories perilously close to our homeland. Here, an ill-equipped force of citizen soldiers fighting a tenacious retreat over the mountains from Kokoda, and a force of volunteers hastily deployed back to Australia and then New Guinea from the Middle East, was able to halt the Japanese expeditionary force within sight of the lights of Port Moresby and the waters of the Coral Sea, and then force the enemy back in the direction he had come.

In 2006, when I went to visit General Cosgrove with the germ of an idea in my mind, Australia was once more at war and a new generation of Australian soldiers were fighting and dying in Afghanistan.

Australia had mobilised for war in late 2001 in the wake of September 11, when Al Qaeda terrorists flew hijacked passenger jets into New York’s World Trade Center. Our country’s then prime minister, John Howard, had been in the US at the time and had imme­diately pledged his support for America’s newly declared War on Terror.

Australia had deployed a Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) in late 2001, comprising a squadron of the elite Special Air Service (SAS) Regiment, to Afghanistan. The SOTG, working with Americans and other coalition partners, had chalked up some notable successes, including contributing to victories in hard-fought battles in the Tora Bora Mountains, and had earned the respect of their allies.

With a new government under President Hamid Karzai installed in Afghanistan, and Al Qaeda’s foreign terrorist fighters and extremist homegrown Taliban largely routed or forced across the border into neigh­bouring Pakistan, the Australian government judged the SOTG’s mission to be over and the SAS troops were brought home in late 2002. The task group had suffered one fatal casualty, Sergeant Andrew Russell, whose long-range patrol vehicle had hit a landmine.

The prospect of armed conflict loomed large else­where, however, and Australian forces were soon engaged in fighting in the invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Afghanistan went on to the world’s backburner, and that was just fine for the Taliban and other extremist elements. Slowly, but surely, they filtered back into Afghanistan and began escalating their actions against the remnant forces still there.

By 2005, the SOTG was back in Afghanistan, this time augmented with a company from the 4th Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment (4RAR), which at the time was the regular army’s commando battalion. I had served in 4RAR in the late nineties as the adjutant, before being posted to General Cosgrove’s headquarters. In 2006, the mission in Afghanistan was broadened to include a Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force (MRTF), whose role was to train the fledgling Afghan National Army (ANA), help rebuild essential infrastruc­ture and train locals in building and construction trades. Along with the extra boots on the ground came the unfortunate but near inevitable increase in casualties.

I wanted to give something back to the young soldiers who were sacrificing so much to protect Australia. I was running a successful business organising global adven­tures for corporates, companies and charities and I had run so many programs on the Kokoda Track that it seemed it would be easy to organise a trek for wounded soldiers. I had a feeling that men who had been in combat, and suffered as a result, might benefit from training for and attaining a tough physical goal. I also thought a group environment would simulate the best of what the army was supposed to be about, without the regimental requirements and enforced discipline that accompanies military activities.

I had never been to war – East Timor was a peace­keeping operation and more of an armed intervention to restore order – but like a lot of ex-soldiers I wondered what it would be like to be serving in Afghanistan. I didn’t want to be back in the army, but I was pleased I had picked up the skills I had during my time in uniform and I wanted to reconnect in some way. I had missed the camaraderie that soldiers have. I was also confident that the power of adventure, if delivered well, would help in the rehabilitation and recovery of people who have suffered some form of trauma, be it physical or mental. In the past, I had helped people who were not the most physically gifted, or who had obvious disabilities, and worked with them so that they could set themselves goals and then reach these goals through demanding, yet controlled, adventure activities.

A trek across the Kokoda Track, I believed, would be a good thing for wounded soldiers and possibly for the families of soldiers who had been killed in action. It would give them a chance to share the bonds of mateship, to have time to think through whatever issues might be bugging them, and to push themselves, mentally and physically, to achieve an attainable goal in a safe, controlled environment. Tied to all of this, they would be walking in the footsteps of their military ancestors, across ground where ordinary Australians had performed extraordinary feats in the defence of their country.

The program made perfect sense to me and I had the blessing of General Cosgrove – one of Australia’s most well-known and most respected men; certainly our most famous military leader of modern times – but it was another five years before I would be able to see it come to fruition.

My idea was that the wounded soldiers and the fami­lies of fallen soldiers would be able to come on the trek for free, but that meant finding organisations to fund the trip. I approached companies, sporting bodies and even the defence force, with my idea about the trek but nobody seemed interested.

I was starting to feel like I had bitten off more than I could chew. I also had another big project to deal with at this time. Over several years running treks on the Kokoda Track I had developed a particularly close bond with the tiny village of Alola, one of the most remote and inaccessible spots on the track.

It had stemmed from the first trek I led, where my head guide, Eddie, had taken pity on me and invited my clients and me to take shelter in his own home, in Alola, when we were caught out during a tropical storm. Eddie became my main man and something of a mentor. After his death, his son Kila Elave took up Eddie’s mantle and became my local ground handler and head guide in PNG.

One day Kila revealed to me Alola’s greatest secret: the location of a ‘lost’ battlefield, unexplored since the tumultuous days of September 1942. Alola is near Eora Creek, the site of fierce fighting during both the Australian retreat from Kokoda and their subsequent advance as the tide was turned against the Japanese invasion. Most historians and track guides believed the fighting to retake Eora Creek and the Japanese defensive positions above it took place close to the creek itself, but Kila and his people led me to the site of a sprawling battlefield high in the hills above the creek’s crossing point.

It was here that Australian troops had scaled precipi­tous slopes to outflank the Japanese defenders and it was on this site that allied troops witnessed for the first time their hitherto vaunted enemy dropping their weapons and fleeing in retreat. With the help of locals I discov­ered a number of war graves on the battlefield.

The Lost Battlefield kept me busy for several years, yet I did not let go of my dream of taking a group of soldiers over the track. None of the corporate people I had presented my idea to were showing any interest, and defence was still deafeningly silent.

It was hard to blame either party: I had no wounded soldiers rearing to go on this adventure, which would convince corporate businesses to invest; and it would take a huge leap of faith on defence’s part to commit wounded soldiers to an untried program with a private company.

It took me a while to realise that, to paraphrase Kevin Costner from the movie Field of Dreams, I would have to build this thing before the parties would come together to support it.

If you want something built in the army the people to go to are the Royal Australian Corps of Engineers.

It just so happened that the XO (Executive Officer) of the closest army engineer unit to me in Brisbane, the 2nd Combat Engineer Regiment (2CER), was a bloke named Major Brad Skinner, who I had served with many years earlier at the army’s recruit training centre at Kapooka. Brad, like me, had started his army career as a soldier, a digger, and risen through the ranks. He had left the regular army and served for a number of years in the army reserve, but had come back into full-time service as the XO of 2CER when most of the regiment had deployed to Afghanistan.

It was late 2010 by now and Brad’s unit, and the local infantry battalion, 6RAR, co-located with them at Enoggera Barracks in Brisbane, had been very much in the news that year. They had formed the backbone of what was known as Mentoring Task Force 1 (MTF1) in Afghanistan. MTF1 and the Afghan soldiers they were charged with training and mentoring had well and truly taken the fight to the enemy in 2010, pushing deep into Taliban-held country in Uruzgan Province. Working from small, physically remote patrol bases, infantrymen and engineers had done the hard yards, patrolling by foot through villages, fields and mountains to seek out the Taliban and enforce the rule of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

They had paid a price as a result of their proactive patrolling. That year was one of the bloodiest of the war to date. Ten Australian soldiers had been killed and many more wounded.

I happened to be chatting to Brad on the telephone and I explained to him that I’d been trying to get the Soldiers’ Kokoda program, as I’d come to refer to it, off the ground. Somewhat casually, perhaps flippantly, I said to him: ‘You don’t have any wounded, do you, mate?’

Brad paused a second. ‘Have I got wounded, mate? I’ve got heaps of ’em. How many do you want?’

It was the turning point I had been waiting for.

Due to the nature of the war in Afghanistan at the time, the engineers of 2CER were very much in the frontline; in fact, they were the frontline, moving ahead of infantry patrols and armoured convoys to search for the Taliban’s devastatingly effective weapon of choice: the IED. These homemade bombs, made of fertiliser or explosives pinched from old armaments dating back to the Russian invasion, and loaded with homemade shrapnel, were capable of flipping an armoured truck. Their impact on soldiers on foot was horrific.

As the XO of 2CER Brad was responsible for looking after the wounded members of the regiment and the families of the fallen. Consequently, he had a large number of people under his care. I explained a bit more about what I had in mind and Brad said he would discuss it with his commanding officer (CO), Lieutenant Colonel John Carey. Soon after, they invited me to come and meet with them. It would be a real leap of faith by 2CER, by Brad Skinner and John Carey, who Brad assured me was a good bloke, to allow their wounded to attend the program.

It was odd, for me, going back to Enoggera Barracks for the first time in many years. I no longer had an army ID card, so had to sign in as a visitor. There was a section of soldiers practising contact drills on a sports field, running and diving to the ground. There were some things I missed about the army, and others I didn’t.

I met with Brad and John and explained the concept of the Soldiers’ Kokoda program to them. I assured them that the decision on who would attend would be purely up to them. Interestingly, even at that early stage, Brad and John were identifying soldiers who had not been formally diagnosed with PTSD – known in wars gone past as ‘shell shock’ or ‘battle fatigue’ – but who they thought might benefit from some time out on a trip such as the one I was outlining to them.

I was on a roll. I could hardly believe that a casual chat with an old army mate had leapfrogged me over the brick wall I’d been butting my head against for the previous four years. I thought about who else I might know, and asked around.

It turned out that the XO of 6RAR, the infantry battalion at Enoggera that had soldiered with 2CER in Afghanistan, was Major Bob Brown, who I also knew. While I was at it I decided to also call my old commando unit 4RAR now known as the 2nd Commando Regiment (2CDO) at Holsworthy, in Sydney. Since 2CER had already committed to the trip it was easier for the others to say yes. Soldiers’ Kokoda had grown a life of its own and there was no stopping it now.

*

The first time I met the wounded soldiers who were going to come on the Soldiers’ Kokoda trek was at my office and gym, in a building on the Brisbane River at New Farm. The mixed group of engineers and infantrymen from Enoggera came out, in uniform, for a briefing.

I could see a mix of inquiring, doubtful looks on their faces as if this was all too good to be true. Their units were offering to give them leave to go on a free trip to Kokoda with a bunch of civvies. The unspoken question in the room was, ‘What’s the catch?’ There was none, except for the fact that at that time I still didn’t have any sponsors on board to pay the soldiers to do the track. I kept that under my hat.

‘This is not a military event we’re organising,’ I told them. ‘The trek’s going to be run in a low-key environ­ment and I just want you to enjoy it. Also, unlike the army, there’s no rank on this trip.’

Except for one officer, engineer Captain Matthew ‘Middo’ Middleton, the group was made up of privates, the most junior rank in the army; sappers (a sapper is the Royal Australian Engineers equivalent of a private); and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) – corporals and sergeants.

A thin sapper with browny-ginger hair turned to Captain Middleton. ‘You hear that, Middo? No rank.’

The officer grinned back.

There’s a joker in every pack and I’d just found ours; the sapper’s nametag on his camouflage uniform read, ‘Clarke’.

I explained a little more of what the trip would be like, and suggested a training program to get them in shape for the trek.

Some of the soldiers were still nursing quite serious physical wounds. One had suffered two broken legs in an IED blast, another had lost part of his hand, and one sapper had a damaged shoulder as a result of one of the eight bomb blasts that he’d been in or near. Still others appeared to have no impairments other than a dead look in their eyes or a fidgeting hand or limb.

They had all been at their peak physically, until recently, but training would get them back into shape. It would also help by giving them a new goal to work towards.

As word spread through the ranks of 2CER, 6RAR and 2CDO about a free, all-expenses paid trip to PNG, more and more soldiers started putting their hands up to go. Before I knew it I had 21 more than willing volunteers.

I also wanted the trek to include the parents and close relatives of soldiers who had been killed in action, but on this front I was still being met with silence from the Department of Defence. It was understandable – few officers would want to call a bereaved relative to offer a trip to PNG with an unknown private operator.

By pure coincidence, a colleague knew Pam Palmer, the mother of Private Scott Palmer, one of three commandos killed in an horrific helicopter crash in Afghanistan in 2010.

With that, a new and totally unofficial channel opened up between my organisation and the parents of the fallen. Pam passed on the information to her husband, Ray.

Ray Palmer had wanted to walk Kokoda with his son, Scott, but he wasn’t sure about this particular trek. He was in contact with Damien Thomlinson, a commando who had lost both legs when his special reconnaissance vehicle (SRV) hit an IED. Damien had heard about the Kokoda trip via the 2CDO network, but had decided not to go. As well as being mates, Scott Palmer had provided the immediate first aid to Damien that had probably saved his life. Between them, Ray and Damien decided they would, after all, walk the Kokoda Track, and Ray’s wife Pam would fly into Isurava for the planned memorial service.

It was all coming together.

The soldiers who were doing the trek were continuing to show up at the gym. They seemed to enjoy coming to my place to get away from the barracks, and to mix with each other in a non-army environment, while still training hard for a specific goal. Often they would ask me if there was anything they could do to help with the organisation of the trek. Over and over again I told them I was fine, and that everything was OK, but even­tually I decided to use their help.

‘There is something you can do,’ I said to one of the sappers when he again offered to help. ‘Can you build me a bunker?’

‘Sure,’ he said.

The next morning, at 9 am, a camouflage-painted army Land Rover towing a trailer rolled through the gates of the gym car park. The soldiers aboard piled out and started unloading bundles of sandbags, shovels and other gear out of the trailer.

‘You organised that well,’ I said to the young sapper. ‘How on earth did you get approval to use the vehicle so quickly?’

He winked at me. ‘We didn’t. We nicked it.’

With that they swung into action. Stripped to the waist they began filling sandbags from a mound of builders’ sand and hefted them inside the gym and offices in a human chain. From the trailer they took out bulky camou­flage nets and, within a couple of hours, we had a replica of a sandbagged bunker from Afghanistan, with liberal amounts of spare sand spread on the ground in front.

The idea of the bunker had come to me during a conversation with a friend of mine, Peter Huybers. Peter’s a retired advertising executive who had been on previous Kokoda treks with me and I valued his advice. ‘How the fuck am I going to pay for this thing?’ I’d asked him, after telling him of the Soldiers’ Kokoda plan. Peter suggested that short, sharp personalised video messages to some blue-chip corporate people who had accompanied me on previous treks and adventures might be better than sending them emails or written proposals.

We used the bunker as the backdrop to filming those videos, in which I made personal appeals to people to support us. Peter’s idea worked and within a very short time I received pledges of support in the form of funding and commitments to join us on the walk from several CEOs and prominent businesspeople.

Training continued through the three months leading up to our planned departure date in July 2011. The army boys were coming together, though still in their unit groupings, walking up and down Mt Coot-tha near Brisbane; and the civilians joining us from the corporate world were hitting the fire stairs of office buildings.

The trip was growing like Topsy and there were more logistical considerations than usual to think about. The jungle drums were beating through the ranks of the defence force, as well, and as late as 10 days out from departure I was getting interest from wounded soldiers who had heard about the trek and wanted to come along. I could see the sense of purpose that was positively infecting the soldiers during training. They had been what the army referred to as ‘broken soldiers’ – men who, despite their brave service, had almost become surplus to requirements. The pervading feeling I was picking up from them was that the army would have been quite happy if the soldiers had medi­cally discharged themselves, rather than the army having to spend the time, money and effort to fully rehabilitate them. The barracks gyms reminded them of their less than 100 per cent fitness, whereas the training we were conducting made the gym a place to work hard, have a laugh and catch up with old and new mates.

D-Day, departure day, was on us before I knew it.

It was a nerve-racking time, but exciting as well. The trip had gone from an impossible dream to a program that had already captured and rewarded the soldiers’ enthusiasm. Channel 7’s local news in Brisbane had done an item just the night before on the last-minute training at Mt Coot-tha and preparation for the trip by some of the wounded engineer boys from 2CER.

While I was in the car on the way to Brisbane Airport my phone rang. RSL Queensland had seen the story on Channel 7 and wanted to sponsor the soldiers on the trek. I turned around and headed back into the city for an impromptu meeting with the RSL and secured their commitment on the spot. I only just made it to the airport in time to catch my flight. Overnight my staff changed the logo on the T-shirts that trekkers would wear to ‘RSL Soldiers’ Kokoda’.

It was amazing news after years of frustration trying to find sponsors, almost too good to be true but the RSL were serious. The next day when we all arrived at Owers Corner it was time for the first trek to begin.

Owers Corner was the end of the line for Australia in 1942; if the Japanese had got past our 25-pounder field guns here they would have been on a downhill run to Port Moresby and on Australia’s doorstep. I had decided we should do the trek in the direction from Owers Corner to Kokoda because if there were any last-minute problems, or anyone decided they were not up for the challenge, we could quickly evacuate them back to Port Moresby.

I was full of trepidation. I had done the trek many times before and I thought I had planned everything as well as I could, but this trip was different. There was a feeling of raw anticipation and nervous energy. With us were men who had experienced incredible highs and devastating lows in their lives; this was their chance to come back, to be who they were again before the war robbed them of something, be it a limb, inner peace, or innocence.

As well as telling the trekkers to enjoy themselves, and to not dwell on the possibility they might not make it to the finish, I gave them a brief introduction to the Kokoda campaign. In July 1942, General Tomitaro Horii and a force of 6500 landed at Buna and Gona on the north coast of New Guinea. Their aim was to walk across the Owen Stanley Ranges via the primi­tive, narrow Kokoda Track. They had minimal rations and ammunition because recent experience had shown them they were, as a military force, unstop­pable. Facing them was the Australian 39th Battalion consisting of untried militia – citizen soldiers from Australia known to their volunteer comrades in the Australian Imperial Force, the AIF, as Chocos, or chocolate soldiers, because it was thought they would melt in the sun in the face of danger – and a scratch force of local volunteers, black and white. The odds were against the Australians, just as they may have been against us. We set off.

That first day’s walk was supposed to be easy, but it was anything but for Damien Thomlinson. Yet he made it, with Ray carrying one of his legs across his shoulders.

The bugler’s mournful notes brought day one to a close as Ray and Damien came into camp and we sat around the tents in a jungle clearing. We were still sepa­rate tribes – the civilians, the wounded soldiers, and Ray, the only parent I’d been able to find to do the trek. I was confident that as we walked the track the different groups would bond and we would discover more about each other as everyone, especially the wounded soldiers, shared their stories.

However, I don’t think that myself or anyone else involved in the planning of the first trek fully realised just how beneficial or how moving it would be. So successful was that inaugural Soldiers’ Kokoda in 2011 that we organised a second, the following year. Word spread of the experience and our second group included many more parents of fallen soldiers. What follows are the stories of the soldiers, parents, and ordinary Australians who took part in two very extraordinary trips to the mountains of Papua New Guinea.


Excerpted from Walking Wounded by Brian Freeman. Copyright © 2013 by Brian Freeman.
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.

Understanding Alzheimer’s by Professor Ralph Martins – Extract

Understanding Alzheimer's

Introduction

Stephanie J. Fuller and Ralph N. Martins

What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?

When somebody mentions Alzheimer’s disease, for many people this conjures up thoughts of an elderly relative in a nursing home or perhaps a spouse or grandparent whose memory and behaviour have deteriorated over time. People may also have memories of the tension and challenges these problems have created for the rest of the family. The fact that most of us know, or have heard of, somebody with Alzheimer’s disease, shows just how common this condition has become.

Alzheimer’s disease is often called ‘old-timer’s disease’, because it mostly affects the elderly, but despite what many people used to think, it’s not a necessary part of ageing. If your mind and memory are not working quite as quickly or as well as they used to in your 30s, this is no reason to panic – some slowing down of mental capacity will happen to most of us as we age. The fact is, most people won’t get Alzheimer’s disease or any other form of dementia as they get older.

What Is Dementia?

Dementia can be defined as a progressive decline in mental function beyond what is considered a normal part of ageing. It is more formally defined in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (1994) as: ‘The loss of intellectual abilities of sufficient severity to interfere with social or occupational functioning.’ The word ‘dementia’ itself has Latin roots and literally means ‘without mind’. Since this term has Latin roots, this is an obvious clue that dementia is not a new problem – it has been puzzling doctors and scientists for a long time. In fact, mental dysfunction and dementia were described in detail by the Ancient Egyptians and Greeks.

Dementia is not about forgetting where you last left your wallet or keys, or the time of an appointment. Dementia involves the serious loss of several mental faculties. Several different conditions and illnesses can lead to dementia, but different conditions will lead to different sorts of dementia. Generally, though especially in the elderly, most forms of dementia are progressive. In other words, symptoms gradually get worse over time.

In Alzheimer’s disease, dementia develops slowly and includes a wide variety of symptoms such as memory loss, an inability to learn new information, abnormal reasoning, language problems, loss of judgement, disorientation and mood changes. After a few years, the condition finally develops into dementia (see above). Alzheimer’s disease is in fact the most common form of dementia.

The condition has a slow, subtle onset, and usually affects short-term (recent) memories first. This isn’t always the case though. In some instances, behavioural changes, anxiety and/or depression may occur first or in parallel with memory changes. In most people, however, memory loss is followed several months or sometimes even years later by changes in behaviour and speech, and an inability to deal with normal day-to-day living, and all of these get progressively worse.

It’s very difficult to determine in the early stages if the changes in memory and intellect are just due to ageing, or to a degenerative condition such as Alzheimer’s. Often it will take just one unusual event or lapse of memory to make people aware that something may have been amiss for a long while. Thus, over the course of time, Alzheimer’s disease symptoms become noticeably different from what people normally think of as an age-related slowing of mental and physical abilities. These changes gradually affect daily living tasks and routines. Eventually the deterioration in inde­pendent living skills occurs to such an extent that outside help and supervision are required. By this stage, a diagnosis of early stages of Alzheimer’s disease has usually been made, because close family members or sometimes the person affected will have become very concerned about the changes.

The symptoms and the stages of Alzheimer’s disease are described in detail in Chapter 1, which also includes a chart to help distinguish between normal memory lapses and memory problems that may be associated with Alzheimer’s.

Other types Of Dementia

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia in the elderly, accounting for about 50–70 per cent of dementia cases. Other common causes of dementia include vascular dementia, Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia.

Vascular dementia can be caused by one large stroke, a series of small strokes or by the narrowing of arteries supplying blood to the brain. The common factor is that blood vessels are damaged, which disrupts blood supply, and this means less oxygen and fewer nutrients reach some parts of the brain. If the disruption is severe enough, this can cause permanent damage or death to some brain cells, thus leading to dementia.

The most common vascular dementia is caused by a number of small strokes, called mini-strokes or transient ischaemic attacks (TIAs). This is known as ‘multi-infarct’ dementia (multi = many, infarct = dead tissue due to lack of oxygen). The strokes often reduce blood supply to areas in the cortex of the brain (see Chapter 1) associated with learning, memory, language, vision and movement. These mini-strokes are often a warning sign of an imminent larger stroke, and symptoms can include headache, memory lapses, problems with speech, eyesight and/or reasoning, and some level of paralysis on one side of the body. These symptoms clearly overlap with those of Alzheimer’s disease, but since the treatments for these condi­tions are different, it’s important to obtain a proper diagnosis.

Lewy body dementia has similar symptoms to Alzheimer’s disease, but usually has a more rapid onset. The ‘Lewy bodies’ are abnormal spherical structures that develop inside nerve cells in the brain, and the dementia is caused by the degeneration and death of these cells. Lewy body dementia can also occur in association with Alzheimer’s, or (more commonly) with Parkinson’s disease.

People with Parkinson’s experience physical symptoms such as hand tremor, limb stiffness and general clumsiness long before any symptoms of dementia appear. This reflects the fact that although the brain is also affected in Parkinson’s disease, the part of the brain that is damaged first is responsible for the control of movement. The majority of people with Parkinson’s disease don’t develop dementia, but a significant propor­tion – up to 30 per cent – do. The cause of dementia in people with Parkinson’s disease is quite different from the cause of dementia in Alzheimer’s disease, and different parts of the brain are affected in these two conditions in the early stages. This is partly why there are such large differences in early symptoms of the two conditions.

Another form of dementia, called dementia pugilistica, can be brought on by head injury, especially repeated head injuries over many years. Ex-boxers, ex-wrestlers and some football players, for example, have a high risk of this form of dementia in later life.

Another form of dementia is linked to mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE for short). BSE reached epidemic proportions in cattle in the United Kingdom in the 1980s, and it was found that it could be passed on to humans – although luckily this rarely occurs. More than 4 million cattle in the United Kingdom alone were slaughtered to stop the spread of this condition. In humans it is known as variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, which is completely different from Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s is not transmissible – you can’t catch Alzheimer’s from someone who has it.

Who Does Alzheimer’s Disease Affect?

Alzheimer’s disease can happen to anybody. There is a slightly higher incidence of Alzheimer’s disease among women than among men in any particular age group, but the most important fact is that the risk of dementia increases with age quite dramat­ically once you’re over 65. As mentioned earlier, dementia is not something that will happen to everyone ‘if they get old enough’, as some people believe. Plenty of centenarians will tell you otherwise!

Some eminent and famous people have had Alzheimer’s disease, such as former US president Ronald Reagan, actors Rita Hayworth and Charlton Heston, and Irish writer Iris Murdoch. Hazel Hawke, an Australian former first lady, recently died after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for 10 years. Apart from being a formidable support to Bob Hawke, she strongly promoted welfare, women’s and children’s issues, indigenous Australian issues, conservation of the environment, and the arts. She was also an accomplished pianist, who was once invited to play at the Sydney Opera House. After her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s in 2003, she worked passionately to promote awareness of the condition, to remove the stigma of dementia, and to raise funds for research into Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s disease starts to become common in the 65 and over age group. The incidence goes up almost exponentially as people age – about 6 per cent of people aged 65–74, about 20 per cent of people aged 75–84, and more than 40 per cent of people aged 85 and over have Alzheimer’s disease. Although more than 50 per cent of people in the 85-plus age group won’t have Alzheimer’s disease or any other form of dementia, these statistics are nevertheless worrying for government health departments, given our ageing population. Dementia is currently the second-largest cause of disability burden (a measure of how much a condition deprives the population of healthy years of life during a particular period of time) after depression, and a huge increase in the number of elderly people will also mean a huge rise in the number of people who may get Alzheimer’s disease. The financial burden of caring for the elderly will increase substantially over the next few decades, as caring for people with Alzheimer’s disease often involves many years of care in a nursing home. Alzheimer’s disease indirectly affects the lives of nearly 1 million Australians who are involved in caring for family members or friends living with dementia.

A small number of people who develop Alzheimer’s disease (less than 3 per cent of all cases) inherit it due to a genetic muta­tion. This is known as the ‘early-onset’ form of Alzheimer’s disease. As suggested by the name, people with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease show symptoms much earlier than most, from the ages of 30 to 60. These people also develop a more severe form of the disease. Their symptoms are exactly the same but get worse at a faster rate than in the more common ‘sporadic’ form of the condition that affects older people. Many different mutations have been identified that cause early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. If some of your family members carry such a mutation, it’s highly likely you’re already aware of this – this is because it is very unusual to develop Alzheimer’s at an early age, and once other possible causes of early dementia symptoms have been ruled out, a team of medical specialists will have investigated the possibility of a mutation that causes Alzheimer’s. However, even if someone with a family history of early-onset dementia develops Alzheimer’s under the age of 60, they don’t definitely have an early-onset mutation – it’s just more likely that they do.

People with Down syndrome also get Alzheimer’s disease at an earlier age than most people, due to the extra genes that are the cause of their Down syndrome. If you’re interested in reading and understanding more about the genetics of Alzheimer’s disease, it’s discussed and explained in more detail in Chapter 3.

Apart from the small number of people who will inherit the early-onset form of Alzheimer’s, there is currently no way of telling who will get Alzheimer’s disease and who won’t. Some factors will, however, increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease (see Chapter 4) and there are things you can do to reduce this risk, or at least delay the onset of symp­toms – these are discussed in Chapters 5, 6 and 7. This book has plenty of guidelines and strategies to help you maximise your defence against Alzheimer’s disease.

Some sobering statistics and future projections

In Australia in 2010, there were 269,000 people with dementia. This number is expected to rise to 981,000 by the year 2050 unless there is an amazing medical breakthrough. Each week, 1500 new cases of dementia are diagnosed in Australia. Most of these are Alzheimer’s disease cases. By 2050, this rate is expected to reach 7400 new cases per week. Currently, one in four people over 85 have some form of dementia, and dementia is the third leading cause of death in Australia, after heart disease and stroke.

An increase in dementia cases is expected because the proportion of people aged 65 and over in our population is clearly increasing. The financial and emotional cost to the community is also obviously going to parallel the marked increase in the ageing population. Dementia is often a major factor in the decision to live in some form of residential care. In Australia, about 60 per cent of people living in high-care facilities and 30 per cent of people in low-care facilities have dementia of some sort. The cost to the Australian government in the form of community-care packages and residential-care places was $11.1 billion in 2010. This has been projected to grow to somewhere between $59.6 billion and $94.2 billion by the year 2050.

Family carers currently provide 80 per cent of the value of informal care without compensation, yet this care is likely to decrease. This is partly because our population growth is slowing and partly due to the postwar baby boom: simply, there will be fewer family members available to look after more elderly people. This informal care is also likely to decrease due to changes in our society – people are less willing or able to help elderly relatives themselves, and more likely to resort to residential care. Other indirect costs include loss of earnings from loss of employment or absenteeism, which is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars per annum.

Caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease can be a very emotionally and physically draining experience. Advice concerning the various stages of caring, from coping with the diagnosis to dealing with potential psychological problems, is detailed in Chapter 10. While the afflicted person may benefit greatly from being able to remain in a family home with loved ones caring for them as long as possible, the carers can suffer from the increasing stress involved. There are many support resources that can help such carers on many levels, from providing practical or medical information to respite care and legal advice. These are listed at the end of the book (see ‘Where to get help’).

Alzheimer’s disease is a worldwide problem

Alzheimer’s disease affects a greater proportion of people in developed countries because improved health systems have resulted in longer lifespans. In developing countries, improve­ments in health services are doing wonders for decreasing death caused by diarrhoea and tuberculosis, for example, but unfor­tunately the elderly in these countries are just as susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease as we are in Australia. Around the world in 2008, about 30 million people had dementia. This number is expected to rise to 80 million by 2050. There will be about 4.6 million new cases of dementia each year. Even now, most of the people with dementia live in developing countries. Although the number of people with dementia in developed nations will increase by a factor of two or three over the next 40 years, the number in India, China, South-East Asia and the Western Pacific will increase by a factor of four.

How do you get Alzheimer’s disease?

As mentioned earlier, Alzheimer’s disease is not catching – it’s not a contagious virus or bacterium. The brain damage that occurs in Alzheimer’s disease develops over decades, and is still not completely understood. As we also mentioned earlier, less than 3 per cent of Alzheimer’s cases are due to rare inherited genetic mutations, but this does not apply to the other 97 per cent of cases. The problem for researchers is that the condition develops for many years in the brain without causing any symp­toms, so a lot of research is now being done to ascertain the series of changes that occur before the onset of symptoms. We do know what brain damage will be found by the time somebody shows the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, but the steps and changes that have happened before this are still not properly understood – and these may not be the same from one person to the next. By the time someone is developing Alzheimer’s, they’ve more than likely had one or more other illnesses, conditions, injuries, infections, heart problems, and so on, and been taking associated medications, all of which may have had some effect on their brain function and development of symptoms.

We do know that one or more of the proteins (large biolog­ical molecules you make in your body to carry out specific tasks) in the brain start to behave irregularly in people who are developing Alzheimer’s disease, and most likely do so for many years before symptoms appear. Recent advances in brain-imaging technology have allowed us to recognise these changes up to 20 years before the onset of symptoms, which provides hope for effective early intervention programs in the future. At the start of Alzheimer’s disease, it appears that our normal metabolism ceases to work as it should, and the normally care­fully regulated events in our body go out of balance. This is explained in some detail in Chapter 1. For a brief history of the study of Alzheimer’s, see Chapter 2.

Can Alzheimer’s disease be treated?

Unfortunately there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s disease and, for the moment, there are no treatments for its underlying cause(s). Some treatments can alleviate some of the symptoms for a while – these are described in detail in Chapter 8.

While medications are being developed to treat symp­toms more effectively, many are being tested with the aim of preventing the disease process in the brain, and thus preventing the illness from getting worse, or even from developing in the first place. Many promising drugs and therapies are already in late stages of research and clinical trials, providing promise for the future. These are detailed in Chapter 9.

Can Alzheimer’s disease be prevented?

Genetic studies, laboratory-based studies and long-term studies of ageing people and their diets, levels of exercise, weight, medi­cation and other illnesses have led researchers to identify many factors that influence the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. None of these risk factors means you definitely will or won’t get Alzheimer’s disease, but they do influence the likelihood of developing the disease.

The encouraging news is that we can make changes that will potentially lower our risks. In other words, before Alzheimer’s disease gets a chance to rear its ugly head, and while we wait for the drugs currently being trialled to get onto pharmacy or supermarket shelves, there are tactics that can be adopted right now to help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Lifestyle, diet and exercise (both mental and physical) habits are thought to have a strong influence on the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease, and changes in these habits may help delay disease onset. For strategies to keep your brain as active and as healthy as possible in your later years, read on.

Personal story: Wish you were here

Russell Elsegood

Our daughter’s birthday card to her mother read: ‘Happy birthday, Mum. I wish you were here.’ Tears burned my eyes, for I, too, shared that wish. But my wife is with us physically.

The ‘thief of the mind’, dementia, has progressively over the past 10 years, stolen, first her independence, and then the names and treasured memories she had of her family. Six years ago she lost the power of speech because, according to our young granddaughter, “Someone turned off the ’lectricity in her head”.

In 2006, on my birthday and the first day of my official retirement, my wife was diagnosed with cancer. A week later she suffered the first in a series of grand mal seizures – the first one so severe that it fractured her shoulder in two places. Thanks to the skills and techniques of modern surgery, her cancer was successfully treated. But those skills and techniques cannot restore her memory.

In the quiet, early hours of the morning I question why, of all people, this kind, gentle and generous woman that I have known and loved for 57 of her 67 years should have been treated so.

I find no answers, but what I do know is that her trust, her dignity and her ever-familiar smile bring immense joy (and, yes, the occasional tear) to those who know, love and care for her in the home we have shared since our marriage 45 years ago.

A crisis of care

On first reading this you may think I am pleading for hundreds of millions of dollars to be allocated in future health budgets to find a cure for dementia – or, better still, to prevent it.

I am a realist and know full well that it is not likely in my lifetime (though I wish it were otherwise). It will take a fundamental change in our society and politics for the needs of dementia sufferers and their carers to rate as a national issue. Were we dealing with the theft of property and not the theft of memories, I am certain the issue of dementia would quickly become a political priority.

I regret that in my lifetime our society seems to have become less caring and I fear that we will soon have a crisis of care for the thousands of dementia sufferers – many of whom have early-onset symptoms and will need years of constant care. Already the vast majority of those with dementia are cared for at home by ‘volunteers’ (family members) with the help of dedicated respite carers. For the family volunteers it is a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week commitment of love. But, unless we develop practical ways of encouraging and teaching the majority of our youth to show greater compassion, commitment and care for others – particularly the less able, the disabled and elderly – it seems inevitable that we will have a crisis.

Not just the aged

There are nowhere near enough dementia-specific facilities for the tens of thousands of present-day sufferers – and even fewer designed specifically for younger dementia patients. Contrary to general belief – and I was one of those who believed – it is not confined to the aged. Even those in their 30s can be victims of ‘the thief of the mind’.

An estimated 1500 Australians are diagnosed with dementia each week and, tragically, by the middle of this century it is forecast to be the single largest disability our nation has to contend with – unless our dedicated researchers find a means of treating and, hopefully, curing the disease.

Fleeting moments

I have tried, many times, to put on paper the experiences Ricky and I have shared in the past few years as she has drifted further and further into a space and time that neither I, nor anyone else, can share.

One of her oldest and dearest friends wrote recently to say that it is perhaps fortunate that Ricky does not know what has happened to her. But there are fleeting moments when I believe she does know, and that makes it so much harder for us both. Sometimes I will catch her looking at me and tears well in her eyes, and I am certain that she has had a moment of clarity that kindles a memory. What is even harder for me to bear is that as that moment passes she will smile, as though to reassure me – to say, without words: ‘It’s all right, my darling. Don’t you cry, my tears are enough for both of us.’ The pain that I feel reaches to my very soul, and I wish, once more, to hear her voice; to have her reach for my hand and to press it to her cheek; to have my hug or kiss returned.

Increasingly, I find myself playing, over and over again, snippets of video that I took of Ricky, to hear precious seconds of her voice and to see her so full of life. Many times I have questioned why she, of all people, should have suffered so cruelly – robbed of reliving wonderful memories shared with friends and family, and especially the joy of being surrounded by her grandchildren. But deep in some recess of her mind, I pray that Ricky knows that she is loved.


Excerpted from Understanding Alzheimer’s by Professor Ralph Martins. Copyright © 2013 by Professor Ralph Martins.
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 Damage Done by Warren Fellows – Extract

The Damage Done

1

Chance

My father rode the winner of the Melbourne Cup in 1949. Bill Fellows and Foxzami strode home easily, a few lengths ahead of the field. Things looked good for the family, which at that point consisted of my father, my mother, four-year-old Gary and two-year-old Gail. I was to follow in 1953. But the future of the Fellows family began to collapse before I had even entered it. Six months after my father’s victory, Gail died of a bowel complication. My father never really recovered. He lost interest in competing and, by all accounts, seemed to surrender his spirit. I remember him as a fairly happy person, but I was always aware of a certain sorrowfulness underneath, a discomfort from which he didn’t seem to want to escape.

Nevertheless, he continued working with racehorses and became a very sought-after trainer. Naturally, I spent a lot of my youth around him, at the training sessions and the racetrack. I used to love going to the track with my father. I knew he was an important figure and I enjoyed being a part of the action.

It was at the track where I developed my interest in punting. Like every punter, I loved winning, but I also loved the thrill that came from knowing that I was always close to a catastrophic loss.

This compulsion continued until, 30 years after my father, my picture appeared in the papers too. But I’m not raising a trophy or being congratulated by anyone – I am cowering behind my own hand as 8.5 kilograms of heroin are displayed on a table in front of me.

The story of how I came to be in this picture is a labyrinth of chance meetings and bad decisions. As I have told you, I have always been drawn to a game where a degree of chance is involved. But I believe my turning point, the crossroads where I veered towards my fate, came to me while I was working in a bar in Wynyard, deep in Sydney’s central business district. It was here that I met Richard, a guy who drank in the bar who also seemed to be doing a good deal of SP bookmaking work.

One night, he called me over and asked me a favour – he said he was holding a bit too much money for comfort, and asked if I would please slip around to the TAB to place $500 for him. I was not alarmed at this – through my experience at racetracks, bookmakers were a shady breed who rarely did harm to anyone except themselves, or those who owed them money. I began to run these errands for him regularly. My employer didn’t seem to mind. He’d seen his share of murky behaviour and accepted it as life in public bars.

After a while, Richard and I became good friends. We drank together after hours and got on well. We also shared the same birthdate: September 13.

One night at the bar, Richard asked me if I was interested in a bit of adventure. He said he had a sensational contact who could get us some hashish very cheaply. All we had to do, he said, was travel to India and return to sell the hashish for a sizeable profit.

Until this point, at the age of 21, drugs had played no part in my life. I honestly had no idea what most drugs looked like – they were indulged in by people far from my world and I just wasn’t interested. I had heard a few stories during my time as an apprentice hairdresser, working in the toffee Sydney suburb of Double Bay. Just your usual high-flying tales of indulgence. The question of where these drugs came from had never occurred to me, and the idea that I was close to the traffic, or capable of entering it, or that drugs would change the shape of my life forever, was just unthinkable.

Four years prior to this night, at the age of 18, I had attempted to smoke a cigarette. The room began to spin as if it were mounted on some big wheel, and I was sick before the fag had burned down. This, as unbelievable as it may sound, had been my only experience with drugs before Richard’s India proposal.

Nevertheless, I listened as Richard explained to me that he could get hash for $50 a pound. This meant very little to me as I had no idea of the street value of hashish, but I told him I’d think about it and get back to him soon.

Later that week, I was at a nightclub in the city and ran into a few friends I had known at De La Salle College in Ashfield, where I went to school. We talked for a while, particularly about how I had been nearly expelled for running a betting scam from class. I’d draw up a form guide in my desk, collect bets from interested classmates and run to the TAB at lunchtime. It worked very well for a while – even some of the teachers were having the odd bet – but it was eventually exposed. One day at assembly, in front of every boy in the school, the headmaster declared that a betting scam had been brought to his attention and the boy responsible should step forward. He said that he knew who the boy was and was giving him one last chance to salvage some dignity and own up. Prior to the assembly, I had been tipped off by various students who believed I had been named to the school staff as the ringleader. Nevertheless, I gambled that he was bluffing and silently stood my ground. After a few moments, the headmaster announced: ‘All right, then … Warren Fellows, come forward immediately.’

This would not be the last time in my life that I ignored warning signs and walked into an ambush. No doubt, my old school friends assumed that I had continued along such an outlaw path and, coincidentally enough, asked if I was interested in buying some hash. I told them no, but asked, just out of curiosity, how much a pound of hash would fetch on the market. They suggested $1800 would be about right.

I was dazzled. The money seemed so good that I can honestly say the consequences didn’t occur to me at all. The chances of being caught were outweighed by the potential for profit. I made up my mind on the spot.

A few days later I saw Richard and told him I was interested. He explained to me that before we did anything we would have to come up with money for our airfares and accommodation, as well as the deal itself. I told him I’d approach another bookmaker I knew who might stretch me a loan. When I asked the bookmaker for the money, I decided to be straight with him and tell him exactly what it was for. To my astonishment, he agreed right away to the loan, adding: ‘I trust you, Warren.’

***

I can still feel India. Maybe no one forgets their first trip overseas, and their first impressions of a new land. If I close my eyes, I can smell that hot stench of poverty. I can hear it: the beggars, the filthy, broken people darting about, whole families living and growing in the streets, people so deformed they looked like their bodies had been melted. I remember seeing one woman who was missing most of the features on her face, with festering craters where the features had been, as if they’d fallen off only a few minutes before. And I can vividly recall my most frequent thought during that first day in Madras: ‘Why am I here, making this trip? Why do I need the money? I’m not doing so badly.’

We soon met Richard’s contact, a man called Rashik, who invited us to stay in his house with his wife and family. He was very accommodating, but, as a drug contact, Rashik proved to be less than sensational after all. When Richard finally mentioned the purpose of our visit, Rashik was horrified. He flatly refused to have anything to do with hashish at this time. Gandhi had declared a national emergency – not an unusual occurrence in India – and the slightest offence carried an immediate two-year jail term. Rashik, a well connected local, was nervous.

For the next few days there was little else for Richard and me to do but move about, pretend to be tourists and keep our ears open. We soon found ourselves drifting south to Bangalore, the nearest city with a racetrack. Here, we met Ronny Monroe, a Corsican hustler in his mid-forties. For reasons I was never to ascertain, he was banned from entering just about every country in the civilised world, and so had made India his home. While not forthcoming with any advice regarding where to obtain hashish, Ronny seemed the sort of person who might put Richard and me in contact with the right people. He invited us to dinner that night, at the Hotel Bangalore International.

Immediately upon leaving the racetrack, Richard and I were stopped by three policemen. They wanted us to tell them our names and the hotel at which we were staying. Foolishly, Richard told them everything.

That night, at around 6pm, there was a knock at the door. I opened it to find the same three policemen who, strangely, walked straight past me and demanded identification from Richard. They then proceeded to search through every piece of luggage Richard owned, while never touching a single thing of mine. As they left, one of them – a captain, I think – smiled at me and said, ‘Goodnight’. I distinctly remember a peculiar feeling I had at that moment – a feeling that I was in the middle of something I didn’t fully understand, and therefore could not be harmed by it. My innocence, I thought, would keep me safe, even when I was guilty.

At dinner that night, Ronny introduced us to many local people. He seemed very well connected.

Midway through the evening, I noticed an Indian man, possibly in his late thirties, slumped on a table in the distance, his head down and his arms outstretched, as if saying a hopeless prayer. Ronny told me his name was Ahma, the owner of the hotel, and soon called him over to our party. Ahma did his best to join our conversation, but seemed very distracted.

All of a sudden, and apparently out of nowhere, the man began to sob. Ronny explained to me that Ahma was heartbroken over a girl who had recently left him. I approached Ahma and tried to offer him the usual sympathy, but he seemed inconsolable. Eventually, I asked him if there was anything I could do to help. He stopped crying, lifted his head and asked me to follow him to the office, where he produced a photo of the girl. Instantly, I understood why Ahma was so devastated.

Her name was Avril. She was astonishingly beautiful, a young French/Indian girl with long black hair and striking blue eyes.

Ahma begged me to go to Avril’s home in nearby Cochin and bring her back to him. He said he would pay both myself and Richard $1000 each, as well as taking care of our airline tickets and accommodation. We would be correcting a terrible wrong, he said, and he would be eternally grateful. The only condition was that at no time was Ahma’s name to be mentioned. If we were to drop any names at all, we could only mention Arthur, a jockey in Bangalore with whom Avril was acquainted.

Ahma’s involvement was to be kept secret from Avril, and we were not to reveal this discussion to anyone else.

I conferred with Richard and we both agreed that it sounded like an interesting diversion. When we accepted Ahma’s offer, he again began to sob, only harder than before.

***

Three days later, Richard and I arrived in Cochin, and spent the morning lazing about in the lush hotel grounds while trying to form some sort of plan. By mid-afternoon we still hadn’t dreamed up anything spectacular, so we decided to go to the address we had been given and just see what unfolded.

Avril’s home was surrounded by a high fence, as if containing something that was not to be seen by ordinary people. I noticed that curiosity had grabbed the better of somebody, for a neat spy-hole had been carved into the woodwork. I peered inside, and gazed upon the reason for both the fence and the spy-hole.

Avril was sitting on the back steps, wearing nothing but a pair of white shorts. She was gently combing her hair, which cascaded like a deep, black waterfall down the entire length of her back. Never before or since have I seen anything so gorgeously exotic. Ahma’s grief was making even more sense to me now, for I was beginning to feel heartbroken myself.

We returned to the front of the house and knocked on the door. Avril’s mother answered, and we explained that we were friends of Arthur’s, who had told us to come and visit Avril while we were holidaying in Cochin. She smiled and invited us in for tea and biscuits.

Avril seemed cautious at first, but, as we spoke, I could see both her and her mother relaxing in our company. I couldn’t take my eyes off Avril, and was working to the point of exhaustion to disguise my every intention. After a time, I nervously asked whether they would both like to accompany Richard and I to dinner that evening. To my surprise, they accepted the offer immediately.

We took them to the finest restaurant we could find and ordered several bottles of champagne. Over the course of the evening, I would sometimes catch Avril’s eye and my heart would thump. I knew then that I was falling for her completely. I was too hypnotised by my own feelings to dare remember that we were drinking Ahma’s champagne.

Later in the night, Avril asked me if I would like to join her for a walk in the gardens. I was so overwhelmed I could scarcely rise from the table. As we walked through the grounds, Avril talked of her dreams of finding a better place for herself and her mother, her desire to escape, her gnawing feelings of confinement. She asked me plenty about myself and what I was doing in Cochin, and I very nearly crumbled under the weight of my own lies. She stopped by a flowerbed, picked one with large white petals, turned and handed it to me. Then we kissed. I was utterly lost to this girl.

Later, back at our hotel, I talked with Richard about what had occurred. He suggested that if anything romantic happened between Avril and me it could be disastrous for both of us – as emotionally broken as he was, Ahma did not seem an unpowerful man. We decided that the safest thing we could do was to return to Bangalore and claim that Avril had refused to come with us.

***

A few moments after entering the foyer of the Hotel Bangalore International, we saw Ahma dashing towards us, a look of desperation in his eyes. Had we succeeded? Where was Avril? As we explained that she had not wanted to return with us, his face sagged with disappointment. He continued to probe for answers, as if not accepting our explanations. Eventually, he requested that I see him alone in his office. Once there, Ahma turned, looked me directly in the eye and declared: ‘I know that you can bring her back. I know that if anyone can bring her back to me, it is you. I need you to return to Cochin.’

There was something new in Ahma’s voice now. He was no longer weakened and insipid, but forceful and determined. I knew there was no way he could have known about what had happened between Avril and me, but something told me he did. What’s more, it seemed that he didn’t care – so long as it brought Avril home to him.

I don’t know if I relented because I felt for him or because of my own feelings for Avril. To this day I don’t know.

Whatever the case, I returned to Cochin two days later. When I arrived at Avril’s house, she ran to the front gate to meet me. She was overjoyed that I had returned and smothered me in affection. For the next few days we were never out of each other’s sight. It was bliss.

One evening, Avril took me out on a motorbike to an old village. It was as if we had been transported back to some primitive age: mud huts for houses, no vehicles or machinery whatsoever, women sitting in their huts grinding grain for bread. In the centre of the village, some bizarre ritual was taking place. I could see a woman writhing in the dirt, throwing up what looked like parts of her internal organs. There was a man dressed in white and draped in many beads, standing over her and chanting things I could not understand. Avril explained to me that voodoo was still practised in Cochin, that this woman was possessed and was about to undergo an exorcism performed by a white witch. At that moment, a woman appeared carrying a live chicken. The man in white chanted some more, then the woman cut off the chicken’s head, causing the headless body to dash crazily about. When it finally came to rest in the dirt, the woman on the ground seemed to relax, as if what had possessed her now possessed the dying body of the chicken.

As I had never seen anything like this before, it naturally disturbed me. Avril, on the other hand, seemed perfectly at ease with it all, as if she was in touch with some other-worldliness that I couldn’t possibly fathom.

***

One night, Avril and I were in my hotel room when the phone rang. It was Ahma. My heart pounded so hard I was sure he could hear it in Bangalore. I had to be shrewd, convincing Ahma I was alone while, at the same

time, disguising the caller’s identity from Avril.

‘Have you seen her?’

‘Yes.’

‘Is she returning with you?’

‘I don’t know yet.’

Avril began to look curious and a little concerned. I smiled at her as I said to Ahma: ‘I’ll call you back when I know.’

As soon as the call was concluded, Avril asked who the caller had been. I told her it was Richard, inquiring as to when I would be returning to Bangalore.

Hearing Ahma’s voice had suddenly reminded me of my real purpose for being in Cochin. In that moment, I might have broken down and told Avril everything, but a strange sense of duty forced me to continue with my deception instead.

I asked Avril if she would consider coming to Bangalore with me, as I could not bear to leave her behind. At first, she said no – she didn’t like Bangalore and, as much as she wanted to be with me, she had no desire to return to that place. I pressed her for an explanation but she simply shook her head. I pleaded with her, promising that I would not leave her side and would return her to Cochin at any time she wished. Finally, she agreed to come with me, but on the condition that we travelled by car. She did not wish to be seen at the airport. This aroused my curiosity, but I decided not to press her further for fear that she may change her mind.

I called Ahma and explained the situation to him. Not surprisingly, he was thrilled. He told me to hire a taxi for the trip – he would pay the driver when we arrived in Bangalore.

The mixed feelings that swam in my head during that journey almost defy description. I was overcome by love for Avril, but driven by a sense of obligation to Ahma. In succeeding for him, I was betraying her. I had no idea what would happen when we arrived, but Avril’s apprehension was beginning to unsettle me. I was caught in the middle of a situation which had no comfortable resolution that I could imagine. By the time we reached the outskirts of Bangalore, I was convinced I had made a dreadful mistake.

As our taxi pulled to a halt outside the Hotel Bangalore International, Avril stiffened and paled with fear. When I asked her what was wrong, she simply shook her head and refused to get out of the vehicle. But it was too late, for Ahma had seen the taxi and was already racing towards us. He was obviously delighted to see Avril. The look on her face, however, was a fusion of terror and defeat. She turned to me as if begging an explanation for why I had betrayed her. I felt sick.

Ahma whisked Avril out of the cab and into the hotel before I could so much as take a breath. I went to my room to think about what had happened and what I was going to do now.

***

The following evening, I went to the bar and inquired after Avril. Nobody seemed to know of her whereabouts, and there was something conspiratorial about the way they all denied knowledge of her existence. Eventually, I spotted Ronny Monroe and told him what had happened. He glared at me with genuine astonishment as I revealed everything – our mission at Ahma’s request, the journey to Cochin, me and Avril. To my horror, Ronny explained how Avril was virtually a prisoner here, that Ahma even had an apartment specially built for her where she remained under armed guard. Each evening, Ahma would escort Avril to the hotel restaurant, where she would play guitar to entertain the guests, then return her to her room at the evening’s end. She had escaped once before and, now that I had brought her back, it was doubtful that Ahma would let her out of his sight again.

I asked Ronny to tell me where the apartment was. He knew instantly what I was thinking and told me I was a fool, that Ahma was not a man to mess with, but I insisted. Quite apart from my feelings for Avril, I knew I would never live with myself if I left without trying to reverse the predicament I had helped engineer for this person. Eventually, Ronny told me that the apartment was on the third floor of the hotel, with two sentries armed with .303 rifles guarding the entrance to the stairway on the ground floor.

Before nightfall, I conducted a basic reconnaissance of the building and found what looked to be a way to the balcony adjoining Avril’s apartment. It was a bit of a heroic long shot but I was determined to give it a try.

The following day, when I heard that Ahma was absent from the hotel, I climbed out of a window on the fourth floor, crept down the sloping roof and swung onto the landing below. I waited outside Avril’s door for a few moments and, when I was sure there was nobody else in the apartment with her, I knocked. Avril answered, pulled me inside and quickly closed the door. Though pleased to see me, she was terrified. She said that if Ahma discovered us together we would both be doomed. As briefly as I could, I explained to her why things had worked out the way they did, how I had betrayed her unwittingly and would do everything I could to help her escape. It was an anxious few minutes. It was also one of the most loving moments of my life. By the time I left Avril’s little prison, we had agreed to be married.

Over the next few days, I desperately tried to find a priest who would marry us so that I could bring Avril back to Australia. But everywhere I went, I was told that I had to wait three months before we could go through the correct legal process in court.

Time was running out for me and Avril. While I’d been concerning myself with her, Ronny had uncovered a contact through whom he could obtain some excellent quality Kashmiri hashish, and Richard had organised somebody who could construct suitcases with false interiors. We would be leaving India in a few days.

Two nights before we left, I returned to see Avril one more time. I explained to her the problem with getting married and told her that, although I had to go, I would come back for her soon. It was an emotional and passionate farewell. Avril asked that I leave her something of mine, something for her to remember me by until I returned. I gave her the only item I had in my pockets – a comb. I told her it was an appropriate gift, as the first time I had seen her she had been combing her hair. We cried together as we embraced, promising each other we’d wait.

***

During the following day, before leaving India, I was strolling down the street when I came across the dwelling of a fortune-teller. I stepped inside and was greeted by a woman so old and frail it seemed she would have enough trouble seeing the present, let alone the future. Nevertheless, I sat opposite her in the darkness, and her opening utterances filled me with a mixture of fascination and dread.

She told me exactly when I was born, to the very time of day, and I had told her nothing. She then went on to tell me that when I turned 25 years old I would enter into ten years of very bad luck, whereupon I would suffer untold loss. In this time, I would be afflicted with a terrible sickness, but it would not kill me. She then revealed that there was a woman in my life of whom I should beware. This woman, she said, was evil, and I was not to let her get any article of my clothing or a single strand of my hair. As I rose to leave, she told me I would never again return to India, and warned that I should be careful at airports.

***

Returning from that first trip to India was almost a catastrophe.

We caught a domestic flight to Madras where we would connect with our flight home to Australia. As we approached the customs bay, with our bags prepacked with hashish, we noticed something that shook us to the core: customs officials were checking every single suitcase or bag that went through the luggage area. They were being very thorough, with every item being ruthlessly scrutinised then marked with a chalk ‘X’ when it had passed inspection. The hash in our suitcases was sufficiently concealed to pass a routine inspection, but there was no way its discovery would go unnoticed here. Richard and I had to think fast. We agreed to pretend that we had lost the keys to the suitcases and engage in a wild argument which, hopefully, would create some kind of diversion.

When the official asked me to open the bags, I turned to Richard and asked for the keys. He replied that he didn’t have them, that I had never given the keys to him at all. So began the mock brawl that culminated in me throwing a phony tantrum and kicking the hell out of the suitcases, as if I wanted to break them open. The officials must have assumed that anyone who would want to break open their suitcases must not be concealing anything illegal inside. He tried to calm me down, told me my anger was unnecessary, marked the bags with an ‘X’ and hurriedly ushered us through.

But we were not out of the soup yet. We had a stopover in Singapore, where we were to change planes and show our inoculation cards and passports. As we reached the authorities, Richard discovered that he had packed his inoculation documents in one of the suitcases. I thought the authorities might let it drift, but they stood firm, saying one of us would have to be escorted down to the luggage area and retrieve the documents from our baggage. Believing myself a better actor than Richard, I volunteered to go. Playing the role of the innocent, jovial angel was an excruciating task as I searched through the suitcases with an armed guard looking over my shoulder. Eventually, I found the relevant papers and we got through Singapore.

While standing at the terminal in Sydney, waiting for our bags to appear on the revolving carousel, it became apparent that I had dealt the suitcases a more brutal thrashing in Madras than they could handle. One of them had split at the seams, and it looked as though the slightest touch would cause it to come completely apart, spilling bags of hashish onto the concourse. For a moment I considered cutting our losses and leaving them on the carousel, but I then realised the authorities would have no difficulty tracing them to Richard and myself. I quickly snatched the bags from the conveyor belt, threw them onto a trolley and made my way through the gates, boldly announcing I had nothing to declare. I was through.

Once again, good fortune seemed to have shielded me from every potentially disastrous onslaught.

***

I was to see Avril once more. Several months later, I was in India on another job. Passing by the Hotel Bangalore International, I caught a glimpse of her, quite a distance away, sitting in the front gardens, her head bowed toward the ground. I was compelled to stop and stare at her for a moment. As if sensing I was there, Avril slowly raised her head and met my gaze. She was still as enchanting as ever, but there was an expression on her face which I had never seen before. It was nothing – no surprise, no love, no hostility, nothing as if she were staring into total darkness.

Then she simply bowed her head toward the ground and continued combing her hair, which cascaded like a deep, black waterfall down the entire length of her back.

I tell this story to show just how reckless I was at this time in my life. The fact is, by the time I returned to India I had found another. She was with me on this occasion when I saw Avril. I was so shortsighted, so easily impressed and distracted that I couldn’t even maintain my own feelings, no matter how deep or intense, for any decent stretch of time.

I was the perfect person to become a drug courier.

***

What followed this tour of India is basically a story of greed. Mine.

But, wherever there is room for greed, there will always be a cast of thousands: people who are crooked. Some have since grown up to become decent members of society, while others, like myself, simply had the crookedness bludgeoned out of us. I don’t wish to expose such people unnecessarily – there can be no future in that for anybody. This is the major reason why many names in this story are changed or deleted entirely.

There are, of course, some people in this story who, to this day, are still crooked. I hear tales of them from time to time, like rumoured sightings of Elvis. For me to name such people outright would be to ensure that I was murdered before you opened your next Christmas present. I won’t be doing it.

In any case, this is the story of what I did, and what became of me because of it. It is not my business to prosecute anyone else, and it’s not my wish to do so either. They can do that themselves. Or leave it to God, or the laws of nature, or mathematics – it doesn’t matter. There are a few notable exceptions, but I’ll tell you about them later.

One of the changes that occurred when I returned to Sydney was that I got married and fathered a child. And that is as much as I wish to say about my wife and son. They have little bearing on this story and I’d much rather leave them be. Today, they have rebuilt their lives and I have no desire to revive the agony they suffered, for the sake of a few colourful mentions in a book. It breaks my heart to think of them. When you incarcerate someone, guilty or not, you incarcerate the innocents who love them, and there are always such people. The most vile murderer of all time had a mother.

For entirely different reasons, there is another person I would like to leave out of this story. I’d like to forget he ever existed. But I cannot forget and cannot leave him out – he is a pivotal player in my life and one of the reasons why I am who I am today, and not who I once was.

His name is William Sinclair. To even mention those two words makes me uneasy, as if the mere utterance will somehow come to life in some ghostly form of the human being. I wish I could tell you why I feel this way about him, but I dare not. I don’t want to utter his name again in this story. I will refer to him from now on as ‘The Old Man’.

I became aware of The Old Man in the bar in Wynyard, where this whole affair began. He used to do a fair amount of punting there, particularly with a guy known as ‘The Bookmaker’. The Old Man called himself a businessman, but never really elaborated on what, exactly, his business was. Sometimes, it was ‘travel consultant’, other times it was ‘finance broker’. It appeared that he was very wealthy. He would wander about introducing himself with this slinky facade of nobility, complete with a phony regal accent. The truth is that he was, in fact, innocent of the particular crime for which he was later incarcerated, but he was certainly no babe in the woods. He was cunning and ruthless and cared about nobody but himself. There was no way I could have known this at first, but I was to learn.

The Old Man had heard of my courier exploits – probably from Richard, with whom I had fallen out over a totally unrelated matter – and began sniffing around. It became obvious to me that he wanted to be part of the action. In order to do so, however, he would have to get rid of The Bookmaker, and he was soon to get his chance.

Over the next few months I began to travel extensively on The Bookmaker’s ticket. I made trips to Hawaii, Los Angeles and various regions in South America to obtain cocaine. During one of these journeys, a contact fled with some of The Bookmaker’s money and never returned with the goods. Everybody knows this is a common occurrence in the drug world, so it was with a fair amount of embarrassment and concern that I phoned The Bookmaker to let him know. To my relief, he accepted my story and told me we’d sort it out when I returned.

In my absence, however, The Old Man had heard of my trouble and seized the opportunity to sully my relationship with The Bookmaker, telling him that I had pocketed the money myself and could not be trusted. The ploy was successful enough, for after my return The Bookmaker began harassing me for the money he now claimed I owed him.

One night at the Wynyard bar, two men who I had never seen before approached me and began to slap me around. They said that I owed somebody money and should pay it or there would be serious trouble. The blows became more and more ferocious until I assured them I’d solve the problem before the end of the week. The following day I approached The Bookmaker who, I immediately assumed, was feigning shock and confusion at my battered appearance. I told him I intended to pay him the money he wanted, but simply did not have such an amount at that time. He was silent for a moment, then dropped the apparent facade, saying he was sorry this had happened to me but, yes, I did owe him money and he would appreciate its return. I do, however, recall that The Bookmaker did seem genuinely sorry and still bewildered by the whole thing.

Later, as I was racking my brain for ways to raise the money, The Old Man appeared and, like some sort of walking coincidence, announced that he could help.


Excerpted from The Damage Done by Warren Fellows. Copyright © 1997 by Warren Fellows.
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 Best Man by Dianne Blacklock – Extract

The Best Man

Madeleine

Finally, landed flickered over on the arrivals board for United flight 839 from LAX. Madeleine let out a little squeal. She looked up at Henry’s impassive face, her eyes shining.

‘Well, aren’t you excited?’ she said.

‘Of course,’ he said calmly.

‘You’d never know it. If I were you I’d be jumping out of my skin.’

‘I am, just on the inside.’

She grinned. ‘You can’t jump out of your skin on the inside. That’s not possible.’

He leant closer. ‘Just between you and me, it’s not possible to jump out of your skin at all.’

Madeleine screwed up her nose at him. ‘Anything’s possible in a metaphor.’

It didn’t matter, she was excited enough for the both of them. She was finally going to meet Henry’s lifelong best friend, Aiden Carmichael. Well, not entirely lifelong – they had been roommates in college back in the States, so it was more like half a lifetime. But Madeleine had never met anyone from Henry’s past. And from all accounts Aiden was going to be a lot more forthcoming than Henry, which wouldn’t be hard, given that Henry was one of the most unforthcoming people Madeleine had ever known. No, that wasn’t fair, that made him sound cold or aloof, and he was neither. He was always calm and supremely patient, while she was generally excitable and terribly impatient, which often provoked the observation ‘You two are so different!’, to which Madeleine wanted to retort, ‘Haven’t you heard that opposites attract?’ But she generally held her tongue these days; she didn’t need to have a comeback for everything, better to let some things just slide. Being with Henry had taught her that. He was the yin to her yang, or the yang to her yin, whichever way it went. All she knew was that Henry centred her, providing much-needed balance in her life, and now she couldn’t imagine a life without him. And that’s why she was going to marry him, in just a few short weeks.

Her phone suddenly started to ring inside her handbag. She used to have the old-fashioned telephone ring, to differentiate it from all the pop tunes everyone else had. But then everyone must have had the same idea, and Madeleine was forever diving into her bag until she realised it wasn’t her phone ringing. So she’d changed her ringtone to a rumba, or a tango, or the Macarena, something like that. And now she felt mortified every time it rang.

‘It’s not work, is it?’ Henry sighed and returned his gaze to the arrivals board as Madeleine rooted around for her phone. Henry hated the thing, and she could hardly blame him; it did go off an awful lot, and the rumba-tango did get pretty annoying. Henry’s phone rarely went off, seeing as she was about the only person who had his number.

She finally plucked it out of her bag and checked the screen. ‘Nope, not work – Mum.’ She flashed Henry a quick, appeasing smile before answering the phone, covering her other ear to block out the surrounding hubbub. ‘Hi, Mum?’

‘Yes, it’s me. How did you know?’

Madeleine had to go over this every second time her mother rang. She really should just answer with her stock greeting, ‘Madeleine Pepper’s phone’, but that usually elic­ited the response, ‘No need to be so formal, it’s only your mum.’

‘Your name comes up on my phone, remember?’ Madeleine explained now.

‘Oh, that’s clever,’ Margaret said. ‘How does it know?’

This was going to turn into one of those conversations if Madeleine didn’t rein it in now. ‘Listen, Mum, I can’t hear you very well, so I better not stay on long. What were you ringing about?’

‘Why can’t you hear me? Are you in the shower?’

‘No, Mum, you can’t take a phone into the shower.’ Madeleine thought it prudent to mention that little safety tip. ‘We’re at the airport, to pick up Henry’s best man, remember?’

‘Yes, I think I remember him. Pleasant-looking fellow, with the wavy brown hair?’

She was describing Henry. ‘No, Mum, you haven’t met Aiden.’

‘Who’s Aiden?’

‘Henry’s best man. His plane just landed. I haven’t even met him yet.’ ‘Well, you’d better get off the phone and go and say hello or else it will look rude.’

‘It’s okay, he’s not through Customs yet.’

‘What was that?’

Madeleine had to put an end to this. ‘You’re right, Mum, I better go say hello. What were you calling about?’ ‘I wasn’t calling you, I was calling your sister.’ ‘Oh, did you ring my number by mistake?’ ‘No, when Genevieve didn’t answer I tried you instead.

I thought you might know where she is.’

Madeleine glanced at her watch. It was just before nine. ‘At this time of the morning she’ll be in a mad panic trying to get the kids out the door for school. I think she’d likely ignore the phone.’

‘But doesn’t she have one of those phones like yours, that tells her who’s calling?’ Of course she did, which explained why she didn’t pick up. ‘Was it important, Mum?’

‘Oh, no, not important . . . I didn’t mean to bother anyone . . .’

‘You’re not bothering anyone,’ Madeleine tried to reassure her. ‘It’s just that Gen’s usually pretty frantic before school. She probably thought she’d let it go to voicemail and then ring back later.’

‘But I didn’t leave a message. How will she know it was me?’

‘The phone will know it was you.’

‘Goodness, it’s a little creepy, isn’t it?’

‘I guess.’

‘Oh, I just realised . . . Is that why they call them smart-phones?’

‘It’s probably one of the reasons,’ said Madeleine. ‘Anyway, if that’s everything, Mum, I better go.’

‘Say goodbye to Henry’s friend for me,’ Margaret said. ‘We’ll see him next time.’

Madeleine decided it wasn’t worth trying to clarify things over again, so she said goodbye and hung up, turning off her phone this time before slipping it back into her bag.

‘Is everything all right?’ Henry asked.

She just gave him a shrug in reply.

Her mother had been like this ever since Madeleine’s dad died. Well, not immediately after; at first she was grief-stricken and wandered around the house in a daze. Madeleine had had to cook and clean, and basically pick up after her as though she was a child. Eventually the fog lifted, but after that she was easily confused, her thoughts scattered, her memory patchy. At Genevieve’s insistence, Madeleine finally took her for tests, but apparently there was nothing wrong with her, she didn’t have Alzheimer’s or dementia. The doctor had explained to Madeleine that as Margaret had always let her husband do the talking, make the decisions and generally deal with everything, she was prob­ably just a little overwhelmed at having to do it for herself. Jonathan Pepper wasn’t authoritarian, not in the least; he was kind and articulate and wise, and they had all deferred to him to varying degrees. So really, Margaret just had to find her own voice. She would be her old self again in time, the doctor assured Madeleine. But nearly ten years had passed, and she was still not her old self. How could she be, when she’d lost her other half?

‘Any sign of him yet?’ Madeleine asked Henry, craning to see between the heads blocking her view.

‘The plane only landed five minutes ago,’ he reminded her. ‘He’ll be a while yet. Do you want to go get a coffee?’

‘No I do not,’ she said, horrified. ‘You can’t say for sure how long it’ll take. What if he was to come down the ramp, searching hopefully among the faces in the crowd, and we weren’t here? It’s unthinkable. We’re not budging from this spot!’

‘All right,’ Henry said, looking bemused. ‘Are you always this anxious waiting at airports?’

She glanced at him sideways. ‘You should see me when I’m waiting for you.’

He smiled, leaning closer to press his lips against her fore­head. ‘We have had some significant moments in airports, haven’t we?’

‘Yes we have.’ Madeleine tucked her arm into his. ‘And this is going to be another. I’m just excited to finally meet someone from your side. It’s a big deal, like meeting family for the first time.’

‘But Aiden’s not family.’

She scanned his face for a hint of sadness, but as usual, Henry wasn’t giving anything away. It was only when they’d started to plan the wedding that Madeleine discovered there was no family on Henry’s side to invite. He’d never talked about his early life much. She knew that he was born in Columbus, Ohio, the only child of older parents who hadn’t been expecting a baby at that stage of their lives. Henry said they didn’t really know what to do with a kid. He was fed and clothed and schooled, but left to his own devices the rest of the time. So from a very young age he’d learnt to occupy himself, which was how his passion for drawing, and later painting, had developed. Madeleine liked to imagine a Robert Louis Stevenson–type scenario, a small, sensi­tive boy tucked away in his bedroom creating stories – or, in Henry’s case, pictures – and later becoming a renowned author and illustrator of children’s books. She wondered why some clever marketing executive hadn’t exploited that image ages ago, but Henry didn’t need it now, his books sold on his name alone.

Sadly, his parents were never to know of his success. His mother died of kidney failure in Henry’s first year away at college, and his father died some time after. Although Henry didn’t say much about it, Madeleine gathered that he and his father hadn’t had a great deal to do with each other in the intervening years. He’d had a grandmother, his mother’s mother, who’d sent him a birthday card every year, with a five-dollar note inside. And each summer he’d made the trek back out to the Midwest to visit her, until she’d died too. He had no other family that he was aware of.

‘Aiden’s the closest thing you’ve got to family,’ Madeleine pointed out. ‘You said he’s like a brother to you.’

‘Yes, but I also told you he’s nothing like me.’

‘Still, he knew you way back, longer than anyone else I’ve met.’

Henry looked at her. ‘Are you hoping to dig up some dirt on me?’

‘I won’t be holding my breath,’ she said drolly. She couldn’t imagine there being any dirt to dig up on Henry, though for some reason he did seem to have mixed feelings about Aiden coming to stay. Madeleine just put that down to the fact that Henry was an intensely private man, but she couldn’t help being curious to meet someone who had shared a little of his past.

‘Look,’ she said, ‘you know all my family, my friends, the people I work with. Don’t you think that gives you a greater understanding of me?’

‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘You’re not much like your mother or Genevieve.’

‘Oh yes I am,’ she begged to differ.

‘All due respect,’ he said, dropping his voice, ‘but they’re both a little crazy.’

Madeleine smiled up at him. ‘Don’t you remember what I was like when we met?’

She often wondered now if she’d been on the verge of some kind of breakdown. Perhaps that was overstating it, but it would certainly not be an overstatement to say that her life had been spiralling out of control. And it had probably been heading that way ever since her dad died. It was a devastating loss for their family, really for anyone who knew Jon Pepper, and there were an awful lot of people who knew and loved him. He’d been a high school English teacher for nearly thirty years, and he should have had many more years ahead of him. The good really do die young – and it wasn’t a cliché if it was true. Madeleine was always being pulled up for her overuse of clichés and metaphors; it was one of the drawbacks of spending your working life surrounded by authors and editors . . .

Anyway, where was she? (She was also frequently accused of losing track of what she was saying. Her mind just went into overdrive sometimes. Okay, often.) After her beloved father died, they’d all had to somehow find a way to go on without him. But Margaret had struggled, so even though Madeleine was twenty-five years old with two degrees under her belt and really should have been off finding her own feet, instead she had to stay around and help her mother find hers. By then Genevieve was already living out of home, and as far as she was concerned, Margaret was primarily Madeleine’s responsi­bility. Especially with the wedding coming up. Genevieve had promptly become engaged to her boyfriend after their father’s death, in a rather impulsive attempt to re-create the family she felt she’d lost, at least that’s how Madeleine read it. What else could explain the sheer madness of organising a wedding when everyone was still in the throes of grief? Madeleine was appointed maid of honour, of course – a dubious honour which apparently gave Genevieve the right to treat her like an indentured servant, but indentured servant of honour didn’t have quite the same ring to it.

Needless to say, the first year was tough. But with Genevieve safely delivered into matrimony, and Margaret becoming a smidge more independent, Madeleine was finally able to start thinking about her own future. Jonathan had instilled a love of literature in both his daughters, and so Madeleine found herself with both a BA and a master’s in English literature and no idea what to do with either of them. After finishing her bachelor’s degree she had only intended to take honours, but then her father got sick and she was incapable of thinking of life beyond his next treatment, his next test result, his dwindling options. So Madeleine stayed at uni, where it was familiar and comfort­able, and her honours thesis developed into a master’s. If her father had lived longer, she may well have ended up with a doctorate.

Jonathan had probably assumed she would follow the family tradition and become a teacher, just as Genevieve had, but the idea left Madeleine cold; the sheer patience required was beyond her. But what else was she going to do? The prac­tical applications of her qualifications were limited, to say the least. Despite her obsession with books, she had no desire to write. Well, the truth was she couldn’t write. She could barely manage a page of so-so, derivative prose before she got bored. What she did love to do was read, and she read fast and prolifi­cally, always impatient to get to the end of the story and start on the next on her to-be-read pile. She didn’t know of any jobs that paid you to do that.

But she had to do something. Eventually she registered with a temp agency so that she could gain some office skills, and after three excruciatingly dull and, frankly, mystifying placements in finance companies, she was sent to Amblin Press, a publishing house! Why hadn’t she thought of this before? Although at her level the work was tiresome and seemed to consist almost entirely of photocopying, she was surrounded by books and manuscripts – so many pages, so many words, so much to read! She was in heaven, and she was in an ideal position to figure out where she could possibly slot into such an establishment.

The role of publisher appealed, naturally – getting to read manuscripts and take authors to lunch, while delegating all the boring stuff. Plus they seemed to be the only ones who had offices with windows. But the other thing Madeleine soon learnt was that to be a publisher you had to work your way up the editorial ladder and earn that office with a window. She could think of nothing more tedious or thankless than combing the pages of manuscripts searching for typos and errors and making corrections and writing tiny little notes on tiny little post-its. Good for them, salt of the earth and all that, books wouldn’t be readable without editors . . . but it just wasn’t for Madeleine. She knew her limitations: she simply did not possess the patience gene, or the focus gene, or the attention-­to-detail gene, for that matter. The more senior editors wielded a broader brush, but to get to that level you still had to do the tedious jobs first. There seemed to be no way to bypass that painstaking route.

Then one day, on another floor, Madeleine discovered the publicity department and had an epiphany. It was just like in the movies when they play that angel-chorus sound effect.

That’s what Madeleine heard when she stepped into the big open-plan office, buzzing with activity. The women–and they were all women – were glamorous and confident and totally out there, and Madeleine was immediately in awe of them. She was seconded a few times to help out in the section, and although the work was boring there too – she was only temping, so it was mostly clipping reviews, answering phones, running errands – Madeleine was entranced just watching the publicists do their thing. It was like being in one of those old Hollywood screwball comedies with smart, sassy, fast-talking women in tight suits and high heels. If they weren’t on the phone, they were rushing off to lunches or launches, or meeting planes and ferrying authors around to ‘it’ restaurants and being on a first-name basis with everyone in the media. And to top it all off, they got to read books – they had to read books, it was part of the job! Madeleine had found her calling, now she just had to find a way in.

She began by dressing the part, transforming her look from ‘student on work experience’ to proper, fully fledged working adult. Considering she had been an adult for some time, that transformation was long overdue. From then on, she put up her hand to work in publicity at every opportunity. If she was working in another section, she would drop by after she was finished to see if they needed a hand with anything, like one of those goody two-shoes, schoolgirl teacher’s pets. Liv, the head publicist, started to notice her, and a kind of informal mentor-ship evolved. They often got to talking, late in the afternoon when no one else was around. Liv was going through a hard time since her marriage had broken down, leaving her holding not one but two babies – twins. They were school age by then and Liv was trying to juggle a demanding full-time job, which she loved, with raising her young sons, whom she loved much more. She constantly worried that she was a bad mother, and then she worried that she wasn’t giving her all to her job. She adored her boys, but she wondered when she would ever get her life back, and then she worried that she was being selfish even having that thought.

Madeleine was horrified that someone as accomplished and amazing and awesome as Liv should be second guessing herself that way. So she told Liv she wasn’t a bad mother at all, that her own sister was a married, stay-at-home mum and yet she, too, was constantly plagued with guilt that she wasn’t a good mother. That it seemed to Madeleine that guilt was the default position for all mothers, and she pondered the now rapidly becoming age-old question of why men didn’t have any guilt about juggling children and work. The two of them became fast friends, and the next time a position came up in the depart­ment Liv decided to give Madeleine the opportunity.

There was no way she was going to let Liv down, so Madeleine had literally thrown herself into the job – okay, not literally, she wouldn’t hear the end of it if she dared to utter that in front of an editor. One could not literally throw oneself into a job, that wasn’t physically possible, she got it. Anyway . . . the job, it consumed her life. It was more than nine to five, more than five days a week. She was on call nights, weekends, for days at a time at festivals, or weeks at a time on author tours, flying around the country, living in hotel rooms. There was one memorable stretch when she didn’t sleep a single night in her own bed for eight weeks. But it was exhilarating and Madeleine thrived on it. She didn’t have time any more to miss her dad, or feel guilty that she wasn’t spending enough time with her mum, or listen to Genevieve telling her that she ought to feel guilty that she wasn’t spending enough time with their mum . . . truth was she didn’t have time to stop and think about much of anything. Certainly not what all of this was doing to her health and general wellbeing. After a few years in the job she was drinking way too much, way too often, but it was difficult to avoid. It was a rare author who didn’t like a drink, and if you were accompanying them to events you had to be sociable. She even took up smoking for a while there; again, a fair proportion of authors liked a smoke, and with all the regulations they could only smoke outside, and Madeleine couldn’t let them stand out there by themselves. She had to go with them, and it was easier just to join them – it made them feel more comfortable, and that was her job, after all.

‘To get lung cancer?’ Margaret cried, the first time she smelt it on Madeleine’s clothes. Her mother was constantly worried about her. But her mother was constantly worried about everything: global warming, boat people, the Greens, bacteria on kitchen benchtops, you name it. She no longer had her husband’s voice of reason to calm her fears, and so they prolifer­ated unchecked, a little like bacteria on kitchen benchtops. Ever since she’d taken to listening to talkback radio – she said it kept her company – Margaret Pepper was frightened of everything.

Madeleine’s lifestyle also provided her sister with endless opportunities to tell her what she was doing wrong with her life. Genevieve had the typical married-with-children mindset: everyone was supposed to settle down, because that’s what adults did, even if it made them miserable. Madeleine had no busi­ness at her age to be out partying and travelling and generally having a good time.

‘How are you ever going to settle down?’ Genevieve would commonly ask.

‘Who said I want to settle down?’ Madeleine would commonly answer.

To which Genevieve would commonly take offence.

Madeleine could never understand why people reacted that way. If you lived your life differently to them it didn’t mean you were casting aspersions on their choices. The logical conclu­sion of that line of thought would have everyone making the same choices, living the same lives. What a boring place the world would be then.

‘You can’t keep living like this, Mad,’ Genevieve would declare loudly down the phone, so that she could be heard over the cacophony produced by three little boys running amok.

‘It’s my job,’ Madeleine would reply.

‘It’s a young person’s job,’ Genevieve would counter. ‘You’re over thirty now, Mad, you’re going to burn out at this rate. You have to start thinking about slowing down, getting into some other line of work.’

Though Madeleine would never have admitted it to Genevieve, she’d started to suspect she might be heading for burnout. She felt as though she was suffering from a perpetual hangover, she had to buy concealer in bulk to hide the dark shadows under her eyes, and she was becoming forgetful and sloppy. She had arrived late for a number of early meetings, wearing clothes she had fished out of a pile on the floor. Liv had started to make the odd pointed comment, and she was a seasoned party girl herself. However, there was an unwritten code in publicity: party as hard as you like, but you must never let it affect your work the next day. Despite having twins to organise, Liv was never late for morning meetings, Madeleine had never noticed dark circles under her eyes, and she would never have been caught dead in the same clothes two days running. Liv had told Madeleine that she had to start looking after herself or she wouldn’t be any use to anyone. Then, with the Sydney Writers’ Festival fast approaching, she was assigned just one, solitary children’s author. Madeleine was dismayed; usually she handled three or four authors, depending on how big they were, if they had come from overseas, and how many sessions they were booked for. But Liv was adamant. Henry Darrow was very important, she explained; he made more money for them than most of the other authors at the festival put together. It was an absolute coup that he was coming at all – he was known to be a bit of a recluse, rarely attending festivals, and yet he was travelling all the way from the States for this.

Yay. A reclusive children’s book author. This’ll be fun, Madeleine had thought wryly.

‘I still remember the expression on your face when you were waiting for me at the airport that first time, holding the placard with my name,’ Henry said now. ‘You didn’t look very excited.’

‘I was just having a pout because I was going to miss the festival opening-night party, and I’d never missed a festival opening-night party,’ said Madeleine.

‘Just because I didn’t want to go didn’t mean you couldn’t.’

‘Yes it did. See, it wasn’t just the party, there was the after-party as well, and they go all night, and I had to pick you up at, like, eight in the morning.’

‘I’m sorry I ruined your fun.’

Madeleine grinned up at him. ‘I know, the sacrifices I’ve made.’

She’d had to remain on her best behaviour for the entire festival, which wasn’t too difficult – children’s authors were not exactly party animals, and Henry’s sessions were all sched­uled in the morning. Madeleine offered to take him to lunch the first day, but he politely declined, saying he preferred to go for a walk, explore the city a little. The expression on her face must have given her away, because he quickly added, ‘It’s okay, you don’t have to come with me.’

‘But I do,’ she explained. ‘It’s my job.’

‘You’re not really dressed for walking,’ he said with a glance at her pencil-thin skirt and matching pencil-thin heels. ‘Seriously, Ms Pepper, I don’t need a minder. And I can make my way back to the hotel myself, there’s no need for you to wait around.’

Madeleine was perplexed. Liv would not be happy about this – she should be doing far more to promote him. ‘What if I set up drinks later, after you’ve come back from your walk?’ she suggested.

‘I’m not much of a drinker, I’m afraid.’

‘But there are lots of influential people here, I can arrange for you to meet some of them.’

‘Why?’

‘Well, so you can network, make contacts.’

He took his time to answer, and he seemed self-conscious when he finally did. ‘I don’t know if you’re aware, Ms Pepper, but I’m doing all right. I don’t really need to make “contacts”.’

Madeleine cringed inside. Of course he didn’t. He would be the star attraction at any meet and greet she could throw together, and she could totally understand why he didn’t want to be put through that, considering his shyness.

Though Madeleine wasn’t so sure she would call him shy. He was reserved, or maybe contained was a better word, but he seemed comfortable enough in his own skin. He led his sessions confidently, in a quiet but commanding voice that had his young audiences leaning forward in their seats to catch his every word. Even Madeleine had found herself mesmer­ised, and she was clearly not the only grown-up who was. The mothers lining up at the signings afterwards behaved like schoolgirls, giggling and flirting; one woman even leant right over the signing table to flash her cleavage at him, and she had a four year old with her! Madeleine had felt quite affronted, and then protective, and then outright possessive. Back off, ladies, she felt like saying, he’s mine. Um, as in, he’s my charge . . . my respon­sibility . . . Oh, just back off!

And it wasn’t like he was all smooth and flirty back at them; on the contrary, he often looked abashed, and a little over­whelmed by it all. There was something in that diffidence, in the slight, tentative smiles, that Madeleine found endearing. Or maybe it was his eyes, soft brown eyes you could get quite lost in. Or his dark hair that looked like it was overdue for a cut, and was always a little tousled, which made you want to run your fingers through it to straighten it up, or at least Madeleine did.

Whatever it was, by week’s end she’d decided she could not leave Henry Darrow to wander the streets again all day on his own. It was impolite, if nothing else, and he had shown himself to be polite to a fault. She felt he deserved the same considera­tion in return – indeed, it was her duty as his publicist.

So when she picked him up on the morning of his final session she was dressed in jeans and walking shoes. She noticed a faint flicker of surprise pass across his eyes.

‘I figured you must have walked the entire length and breadth of the city by now and you might want to go further afield,’ she explained, oddly nervous. ‘So after your session this morning, I’ll be at your disposal for the rest of the day. I’ll take you wherever you want to go.’

She was rewarded with a smile for that. Score. ‘That’s very thoughtful of you,’ he said. ‘I appreciate it.’

Of course, not knowing the country, he couldn’t really say where he wanted to go, just that he wanted to go somewhere, anywhere, away from the city, and Madeleine knew just the place. Her father had been a keen bushwalker, and one of his favourite haunts was the Sydney Harbour National Park at North Head. It was just out of Manly, so it wouldn’t take them too long to get there. But it was surprisingly secluded and unspoilt, even rugged in patches, and as a bonus it had fabu­lous views to the city across the water. Henry was suitably impressed, and he seemed to be more at ease out there in the open.

Madeleine would later tell people that this was the day she started to fall in love with Henry Darrow, even though nothing particularly remarkable happened. Mostly they’d just walked and talked. She learnt that he lived in New York, but that he also had a place in the Hamptons – he needed to get out of the city to be able to get inside his head to work. He craved open spaces, which was partly what had prompted him to accept the invitation to Australia, but he was a little disappointed to find that the outback was a long way out back and that Sydney was as bustling and busy as any international city.

As they walked, Madeleine found herself telling him about her life, her family, and especially her dad, something she wasn’t in the habit of doing. Publicists were not particularly prone to talking about themselves, their job was to talk up other people, yet here she was, pouring out her life story to a stranger. But Henry didn’t feel like a stranger. She didn’t know exactly why; maybe it was because he reminded her a little of her dad, espe­cially in that setting.

Perhaps the most surprising part for Madeleine was that they also walked for long stretches and didn’t talk at all, which was a whole new experience for her. But it was okay, she didn’t feel the need to fill up the silence with mindless chatter. And the silence, the stillness, was a revelation, clearing her head, giving her a sense of peace she hadn’t felt in a long time.

That night Madeleine had poured herself a glass of wine and opened the box of Henry’s books she’d brought home from the office. They had won awards in almost every language they had been translated into, but it wasn’t really about the words – the pictures were universal. His books were bought by new parents to be the first books they read to their babies, and they were cherished by those same babies as they grew up. You were unlikely to find Henry Darrow books in secondhand stores – they were kept, destined to become heirlooms.

Madeleine had flicked through them before, of course, but they were picture books, with barely more than a line of text to a page. They could be read in a couple of minutes, so she’d never taken the time to examine them closely. Now she saw that the pictures were exquisite, simple and sophisticated at the same time. Clean, elegant lines and smudges of colour – dappled pink for a child’s cheek, a blot of blue, and there was a baby with wonder in her eyes, so real that Madeleine could almost feel her breathing. On another page was a menacing sky in shades of grey and, unexpectedly, a splash of yellow. Again the colours were smudged on the page, with only a line and a couple of strokes to suggest the land below, or tufts of grass on the horizon. The colours darkened over the page, a storm was brewing, and Madeleine felt cold.

An hour passed, maybe two, and she hadn’t touched her wine. She usually rushed through books, gobbling up the words greedily, but here the words were sparse, every syllable intentional. Madeleine slowed down, savouring the images. They held stories too; she just had to be still and give them time to sink in.

On second thoughts, maybe that was when she fell in love with Henry Darrow.

The following day, Madeleine took Henry to the airport for his flight home. He tried to insist that she drop him off at Departures, but Madeleine wouldn’t hear of it. ‘They make you check in so early for overseas flights, I don’t want you to have to wait on your own all that time.’

‘It’s really okay.’

Madeleine didn’t want to push it. Actually, yes she did. ‘The thing is, I was going to ask you to sign some of your books for me.’

He glanced at the pile on the back seat, then gave her a faint smile. ‘Of course.’

So after he’d checked in, they went to get coffee, and Henry signed the books, and Madeleine waited with him right up until his flight was called. They talked, or they didn’t, either way was fine – she had never felt so comfortable just sitting in silence with another person. Finally, when they stood facing each other at the departure gate, she was overwhelmed by an urge to grab him and hold him close to her, to keep a part of him with her. There was something he had that she wanted to hold on to. Although she had met him only a few days ago, she knew she was going to feel bereft without him. But she had no idea what to do about it; nothing remotely like this had ever happened to her before.

Henry was first to speak. ‘It was good to meet you.’

‘It was?’

He smiled. That smile. ‘Yes,’ he assured her, ‘it was very good to meet you, Madeleine.’

She loved the way he said her name in his soft Midwestern accent. Who knew Americans could be so soft-spoken?

‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘Because I don’t know if I come across all that well.’

‘Why would you say that about yourself?’ he asked kindly.

‘What I mean is,’ Madeleine quickly tried to explain, ‘I talk too much, like I’m going to talk too much now. I’m sure someone like me must grate on someone like you. I mean, you choose your words carefully, and you don’t need to yabber on all the time, whereas I don’t seem to know when to stop – you might have noticed. But I hope I didn’t grate on you, not too much anyway. Because I think . . . I think you’re nice, you’re very nice, and I’ve really enjoyed being your publi­cist, and getting to know you . . . and I really hope I see you again . . . sometime.’

As soon as she managed to get the words out, tears welled up in her eyes. She could not believe this was happening! He was going to think she was no better than a moony adolescent, and she would have to agree. But instead, to her surprise, he took both her hands in his, and Madeleine didn’t feel the jolt of electricity you read about in romance novels, but rather a sense of calm, travelling right up her arms and through her whole body, engulfing her. It was like being wrapped in a warm blanket.

‘I hope I see you again too,’ he said.

Madeleine decided she had to do something to make sure of that. She had no idea what, but she couldn’t let go of the first real connection she had felt to another person since her father had died.

The best she could come up with for now was to send an email, straightaway, so that it would be waiting for him when he arrived home. But when she sat down to write it, she had no idea what to say. They’d only just parted, she had no news to share, and there were only so many ways to ask him if he’d had a good flight home. After discarding too many attempts to count, Madeleine finally decided to be upfront.

When I said I hope to see you again, I wasn’t just being polite. I realise we live on opposite sides of the world, and I don’t even know how it would be possible, but I really do want to see you again.

There, I said it. If you think I’m nuts, just don’t respond to this email.

But he did respond. Anything’s possible, he assured her, if you want it badly enough.

The email conversation continued, and they became virtual best friends over cyberspace. Madeleine babbled about anything and everything; when she had a prickly author to deal with, or a stressful meeting coming up, Henry would always remember to ask her about it afterwards. He wrote to her when he hadn’t talked to anyone else in days. She knew when he’d had a good day working, or a bad day, what the weather was like in the Hamptons, how beautiful the beach was in front of his cottage. She said she would love to see it. He said she should come over.

Madeleine said yes without hesitation; she was prepared to go halfway across the world to be with him even though they had never so much as kissed. It felt romantic and exciting . . . and bloody terrifying. What if she was reading more into it than Henry intended? What if he was only inviting her as a friend? She had gone on and on about New York and the Hamptons, how much she’d always wanted to go – perhaps he’d felt harangued into asking her?

‘Are you kidding me?’ Liv had said in response to Madeleine’s litany of hypotheticals. ‘He didn’t ask you to come to New York – and stay with him – because he wants to give you a cheap holiday and show you the sights. Wake up and smell the bagels, girl.’

She had a point. ‘Okay, but what if it all goes horribly wrong?’ said Madeleine. ‘We haven’t even kissed. What if he’s a terrible kisser? What if I am? You know, at least to him. What I mean is, what if there’s just no chemistry?’

Liv groaned. ‘So far there’s been nothing but chemistry between you two. I don’t think you have to worry about that. You should be more worried you might both spontaneously self-combust on contact, there’s so much bloody chemistry.’

She was probably right, but still there was more turbulence going on inside Madeleine’s head than on the flight over. But she knew what she had to do. She couldn’t stand the uncer­tainty for a moment longer, and she had to leave no room for misinterpretation. So she marched through the barrier at JFK and right up to Henry, threw her arms around him and kissed him soundly. Although he couldn’t have been expecting it, it took him only seconds to catch up, and as he brought his arms around her and held her close, Madeleine had the most over­whelming sensation that she was home – not in America, but with Henry.

They made love as soon as they got back to his apartment, but not urgently or frantically; Madeleine could never imagine Henry doing anything urgently. And she soon discovered to her delight that there was something to be said for non-urgent lovemaking. In fact, a lot to be said.

There followed almost a year of going back and forth between New York and Sydney – Madeleine only the once, she didn’t have the leave or the funds to repeat it, but Henry came out four times. Madeleine had never felt so grounded, and calm, and just happy. Except whenever he had to leave.

The morning of his last flight home, she was lying on the bed watching him pack, already missing him. ‘I wish you didn’t have to go.’

‘Me too.’

She jumped up onto her knees. ‘Then don’t.’

‘What?’

‘I’ll marry you,’ she said. ‘Then you won’t have to go.’

He looked taken aback for a moment, and then he gave her an indulgent smile. ‘That’s not how it works, Madeleine.’

‘Yes it is, you’ll become a citizen automatically.’

‘No, I won’t.’

She looked blankly at him. ‘You won’t?’

‘Citizenship isn’t automatically granted on marriage,’ he said. ‘You still have to go through the whole process of proving your relationship.’

‘Oh. Well, we can do that, can’t we?’

‘It hasn’t been long enough.’

Madeleine’s stomach lurched. She’d put him on the spot. She shouldn’t have said anything about marrying him. What was she thinking? Worse, what was he?

‘So you think it’s too soon?’ she said in a small voice.

‘Not me, the Department of Immigration,’ he said.

‘Oh.’ How should she take that? And how did he know all this? ‘How do you know all this?’ she asked out loud.

‘I’ve looked into it.’

She blinked. ‘You have?’

‘I have.’ Henry closed his suitcase, zipped it all the way around, then lifted it off the bed and set it down on the floor.

‘And?’ Madeleine said impatiently.

‘What?’

‘What did you find out?’

He took a breath. ‘As I’m self-supporting and wouldn’t be expecting to draw any kind of government benefits, and would certainly not be taking anyone else’s job, I can apply for a long-stay visa and simply wait it out a couple of years. Then, on fulfilling a few other conditions, like a health check, I will most likely be granted permanent residency. So we can get married any time we like.’

Madeleine’s eyes widened. ‘Oh …So, um, have you …have you thought about what you might want to do?’

‘I’ve already applied for the visa.’

‘Henry!’ She lunged at him from the bed, throwing her arms around his neck. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’

‘I was going to surprise you,’ he said. ‘But now you’ve stolen all my thunder.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘It’s okay.’ He gave her a quick kiss on the lips. ‘But I’ll have to cancel the skywriter.’

She drew back to look at him. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘It’s just part of the whole big proposal thing I had planned.’

‘There’s no need to tease,’ she said. ‘I was only trying to find a way that you could stay.’

‘So you don’t want me to propose?’

Now she was confused. ‘I didn’t say that . . . I just wasn’t trying to force your hand.’

‘Well,’ he said, ‘it’s ruined now anyway. Shame really, it was going to be pretty amazing.’

Madeleine caught the glint in his eye. She dropped back onto the bed, propping herself on her elbows and looking up at him. ‘Well, a skywriter’s okay, I guess. Is that all you got?’

‘No,’ he said, sitting down beside her. ‘I’ll have to call it off with the zoo as well.’

‘The zoo?’ She raised an eyebrow.

Henry nodded. ‘They’ve been training a seal to balance the ring on his nose and present it to you during the seal show. It would have brought the house down.’

‘Stop it.’

‘You think I’m making this up?’

‘I think this is what I get for falling in love with a children’s author,’ said Madeleine. ‘Fantastical stories about seals deliv­ering rings.’

‘It’s not all “fantastical”, and I’m not even sure that’s a word.’

‘It is so a word. It perfectly describes ridiculous stories made up by boyfriends to tease their girlfriends.’

‘I’m not teasing you.’

‘About the seal?’

‘No, about the ring.’

‘Enough!’

‘You don’t believe me?’

‘I’ll believe it when I see it.’

‘It’s locked in a safety deposit box back home,’ said Henry. ‘I’ll bring it with me next time.’

Madeleine’s heart was racing, but she still didn’t want to fall for it. Though she couldn’t recall Henry ever being such a tease before. She sat up straight, facing him. ‘When did you get it?’

‘Six months ago.’

‘That long?’

‘I’ve known longer than that, but I bought it six months ago.’

Her eyes teared up. ‘You did? You really did? You’re not teasing?’

Henry smiled. ‘I wouldn’t tease you about this.’

‘So what have you been waiting for?’

‘These things take a lot of planning, the seal had to be trained . . .’

‘Henry!’

He took hold of her hands. ‘I’ve been waiting,’ he said, ‘to have the long-stay visa approved, and to come back here and tell you that I love you, and that I want to be with you every day, all the days of my life, for as long as we both shall live. And that’s when I was going to give you the ring.’

Which was exactly what he did, two months later, in the arrivals hall, not far from where they were standing now. He didn’t get down on one knee or anything – Henry wouldn’t want to attract attention – but Madeleine liked it that way anyway. This momentous thing was happening in the middle of all the hubbub, and no one even knew.

‘We have had a lot of significant moments in airports,’ she sighed happily, leaning her head on Henry’s shoulder.

‘Ah, there he is,’ Henry said calmly. ‘Oh, sorry, what did you say?’

Madeleine jerked her head up. ‘No, what did you say?’

‘Aiden,’ he said. ‘He’s walking down the ramp.’

She gasped. ‘Where?’

Henry leant in close to her and raised his arm to point through the mass of people congregating at the base of the ramp. Madeleine’s eyes followed, and the face she had previ­ously seen only in photographs suddenly came into focus. She wondered how she could have missed him; tall and bronzed, with golden-blond hair, he looked like a movie star in the midst of all the rumpled travellers.

‘I don’t think he can see us,’ said Henry.

Madeleine sprang into action. ‘Aiden!’ she cried, waving furiously, before launching herself headlong into the throng. Henry had to grab hold of the back of her jacket to keep up with her. Soon they all arrived at the clearing at the end of the ramp, and there was a moment’s hesitation as they stood smiling expectantly at one another. Someone had to say something.

‘Man, you’ve gotten old, Darrow.’

Henry’s face broke into a wider-than-usual-for-Henry smile. ‘And you haven’t changed at all, Aid.’

Aiden laughed loudly as he shoved his luggage trolley aside and threw his arms around Henry with such exuberance that Madeleine thought Henry’s feet might have left the ground. Aiden eventually released him, turning his sights on her.

‘Madeleine, I presume?’ he said, before sweeping her up in an equally enthusiastic hug; and, because she was shorter and lighter than Henry, her feet actually did leave the ground before he set her down again.

‘You didn’t tell me your wife-to-be was such a knockout,’ he declared.

‘He didn’t?’ said Madeleine. ‘You didn’t?’ She turned to Henry with mock indignation.

Of course Henry didn’t, that wasn’t his way. Aiden was clearly a charmer. Madeleine scrubbed up all right, but she knew she was nothing out of the ordinary. She had never been too hung up on her looks – her dad had always made both her and Genevieve feel like they were the most beau­tiful girls in the world. But he also used to say that looks were a gift you were given, character was a gift you gave to others. Her eyes were her best feature, mostly because they were an unusual shade of green. She had her dad’s eyes, so she was happy to accept compliments for them.

‘I had a feeling you two were going to gang up on me,’ Henry was saying. ‘I just didn’t expect it to start two minutes after you arrived, Aid.’

‘Have you forgotten what a fast worker I am?’ Aiden joked, offering Madeleine his arm. ‘Grab the trolley, would you, Darrow?’

Henry trailed behind them out of the airport as Aiden and Madeleine got acquainted, exchanging all the usual pleasant­ries: How was his flight? Did he manage to get any sleep? How were the wedding preparations coming along? Did she know it wasn’t too late to ditch Henry and run away with him?

‘You know I can hear you, right?’ Henry said from the rear.

It occurred to Madeleine that Henry had also failed to mention quite how breathtakingly good-looking his friend was. But she supposed that was something guys didn’t do. She had seen pictures of Aiden in their college yearbook, but that was a long time ago, when they were both still very boyish-looking – handsome, but with decidedly bad haircuts, and yet to fully grow into their features. Henry didn’t have any other albums, or boxes of old photos; she supposed that was something guys didn’t do either. So Madeleine had had no choice but to Google Aiden. That always made her feel a bit like a stalker, but Liv told her that was nonsense, as she grabbed the keyboard from Madeleine and typed in his name. Unsurprisingly, given his résumé, there was no shortage of images. Aiden set up relief programs across the third world on behalf of a major multi­national, so there were pictures of him standing among groups of shiny black children in Africa, outside humpies with tooth­less old men in Vietnam, surveying the slums of Mexico and India. In the photos he always had a smile on his face, his eyes bright with hope despite the apparent hopelessness of his surroundings. But the energy of the man in the flesh was a whole other thing.

‘Well,gentlemen,’ Madeleine said as they exited the terminal, ‘this is where I must love you and leave you.’

Aiden’s face dropped. ‘What are you talking about? I just got here.’

‘I’m afraid some of us have to work.’

‘I’m crushed!’ he said, holding a hand to his heart. ‘I thought your lives would revolve around me from the moment I deigned to grace you with my presence.’

Madeleine grinned up at him. ‘That’s what you get for arriving on a weekday.’

Aiden turned to Henry. ‘Looks like it’s just you and me, bud,’ he said as he slapped Henry on the back.

‘I’ll be home for dinner, we’ll catch up properly then,’ Madeleine promised. She reached up to give him a hug. ‘I’m so glad you’re here, Aiden.’

‘And I’m glad to be here.’


Excerpted from The Best Man by Dianne Blacklock. Copyright © 2013 by Dianne Blacklock.
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.

Marching Powder by Rusty Young – Extract

Marching Powder

Three days before I was arrested and ordered to leave the Republic of Bolivia, guards at San Pedro prison in La Paz caught me with several micro-cassettes hidden down my pants. I was on my way out of the main gates when they conducted the search. They were looking for cocaine, which is what most visitors smuggled out of San Pedro, and were slightly confused by what they found in its stead.

At the time, I believed I had got away with it by convin­cing the guards that the cassettes were the latest in Western music technology. However, three days later I was arrested on an unrelated charge. To this day, I do not know whether the police had found out about the book I was writing for Thomas McFadden, the prison’s most famous inmate, or whether they thought I was a spy of some description. Either way, they were extremely suspicious as to why a foreign lawyer on a tourist visa had been staying voluntarily in Bolivia’s main penitentiary facility for three months.

During the first month of my stay in the prison I had told the guards at the gate that I was Thomas’s cousin. For the second month, the guards probably assumed I was there in order to do drugs, like the other Western tourists who arrived at San Pedro carrying their guidebooks and departed wearing their sunglasses. By the third month, the guards let me in and out without question. Provided I paid them enough money, they believed whatever I told them.

Then they arrested me. Ironically, the arresting officer chose bribery as the pretext. He was the same major I had been bribing every week since I had been there. I slipped him the customary twenty bolivianos as we shook hands on my way in, but on that occasion he looked at me as if we had never met before.

‘Give me your passport,’ he said, glaring incredulously at the folded note that had appeared in his hand. I did as I was told. ‘Now follow me.’

It was a Saturday morning when they arrested me. They placed me in the police holding cells to stew for a while. Monday was a public holiday. The tourist police would not be able to process my crime until Tuesday, they said. I would have to wait for three days. No, I could not leave my passport as collateral and come back on Tuesday. No, I could not have any food – I was under investigation. No, I could not make a phone call – this was not a Hollywood movie.

Having spent three months in the prison, I wasn’t particularly rattled by any of this. I had been listening to Thomas’s stories about the Bolivian police for long enough to know that it would end up in a bribe. When they asked which hotel I was staying at and hinted that they would search my room and find drugs, I gave them a phoney address. When they left me alone in the cell, I went through my wallet and found the card of the hostel where one of my traveller friends was staying. They would not have needed to plant anything there; he had smuggled ten grams of cocaine out of the prison in a book the day before. I ripped the hostel card to shreds and then chewed it into a soggy ball, just like Thomas had done nearly five years earlier after he was busted at La Paz’s airport with five kilos of cocaine concealed in his luggage.

Four hours later, I heard the police coming for me. I thought about my dead cat in order to induce some tears and continued to pretend not to speak much Spanish. Now that he had ‘cracked’ me, the captain at the police station offered me a deal.

‘You have fallen badly, señor gringo. Bribery is a very serious crime in this country. You will have to pay.’ I nodded solemnly. My tears of ‘fear’ mixed with tears of gratitude and irony, but I tried not to smile.

I managed to bargain the captain down by emptying my pockets and showing him all the money I had on me. The rest of my money was hidden in my socks in three rolls. I knew how much was in each roll in the event that the negotiation skills I had developed while in San Pedro required greater reserves. The captain had one more condition before he would make my charge sheet disappear: I had to agree to leave the country and never return. That would mean the end of work on the book that Thomas and I were writing.

‘If I see you in San Pedro prison again,’ the captain threat­ened, ‘I’ll send you to jail. ¿comprende?

I nodded. Despite its paradoxical phraseology, I knew this threat was serious. The police wanted to scare me off from whatever it was I was doing with the micro-cassettes. I left immediately for the dirty town of Desaguadero, on the Peruvian border. As soon as I arrived, I got stamps in my passport as proof to show the captain that I had at least obeyed the first part of his instructions. Peruvian immigration laws prevented me from officially leaving the country on the same day as I entered it, but that did not stop me from walking back across the border to get a hotel for the night on the Bolivian side, which was cheaper.

I rang Thomas in prison. I had to call his mobile phone, since the inmates in the four-star section of San Pedro where Thomas had his apartment were not allowed land lines. I had not told him about the guards finding the micro-cassettes, which we were using to record our interviews, because I knew he would have been angry.

‘This isn’t a game, Rusty,’ he had lectured me on numerous occasions. ‘This is my life you’re playing with here. These people are not joking, man.’

When he answered the phone, Thomas was unsympathetic.

‘Where were you, man? I waited all day.’

I told him I’d been arrested.

‘Thanks a lot, man. You ruined my life,’ he said, before hanging up on me.

I knew he would want me to call again, so I waited half an hour before buying another phone card. I didn’t even need to say who was calling.

‘You is a stupid kid, Rusty,’ Thomas said, as soon as he picked up the phone. I could tell by his voice that he had taken a few lines of coke. ‘I told you this would happen if you wasn’t careful.’ The coke seemed to have calmed him down a little.

‘So, what am I going to do?’ I asked him.

‘We have to bribe them again. We’ll have to call the governor of the whole prison. That’s going to be an expensive bribe, man.’

When Thomas said ‘we’ in reference to spending money, he always meant that it would be my money we would spend.

I got my Peruvian exit stamp the following morning and then returned to San Pedro prison. Thomas had already arranged for me to bribe the governor. It cost us one hundred US dollars. I continued to make flippant remarks until a week later when the police tortured Thomas’s friend Samir to death, then left him hanging in his prison cell by a bed sheet in order to make it look like suicide. Samir had been threatening to write a letter to parliament exposing high-level corruption in the police force. Imagine if they knew what Thomas and I were doing. I had not taken the danger seriously until then.

The story of Samir’s death was front-page news. When I showed the article to Thomas, he didn’t look at it.

‘I told you these people are not joking, man. You didn’t believe me.’

*****

I had heard about Thomas McFadden long before I met him. A group of Israelis I met while trekking to the ancient Incan ruins of Machu Picchu had spoken of him with reverence. An Austra­lian couple had told me about him during an Amazon jungle tour out of Rurrenabaque. Indeed, his fame had spread all the way along the South American backpacking circuit affectionately dubbed by travellers ‘the gringo trail’, which extends from Tierra del Fuego in Argentina up to Santa Marta in Colombia.

The jail in which Thomas was housed was even more famous than he was. I had heard of it as far back as Mexico, even before I’d heard of Thomas.

‘When you’re in Bolivia, you have to visit the prison,’ a blonde Canadian traveller had advised me in all seriousness.

‘What for?’ I asked.

‘It’s unbelievable. The inmates have jacuzzis and the Internet, and they grow marijuana on the rooftop.’

When I looked at him quizzically, he added, ‘It’s listed in all the guidebooks. Look it up.’

As soon as no one was watching, I pulled out my Lonely Planet guidebook from the bottom of my backpack where it was wrapped in a T-shirt along with my moisturising cream. ‘The prison’ was el Penal de San Pedro; by all accounts, the world’s craziest penitentiary system – where wealthy inmates lived in luxury apartments with their wives and children and ate at restaurants inside the prison. And, as I later learned, Thomas McFadden was its tour guide.

As I approached the city of La Paz, talk of Thomas and San Pedro intensified. There were flyers on the noticeboards in the Hostal Austria and Hotel Torino advertising prison tours. The foreign travellers I met talked of almost nothing else. Among their ranks, the best informed was Uri, a German backpacker with an unkempt beard who had made the dilapi­dated El Carretero hostel his new home.

Uri was an expert on anything to do with South America. His attire was an eclectic assortment of local apparel picked up during his travels: a scarf from Chile, a Peruvian poncho, an imitation Ché Guevara beret and necklaces made from rainforest seeds sold by Brazilian street hippies. He was too tall and skinny for any of it to look right, but somehow he carried it off. The truth was, all these fashion accessories lent him a certain kudos among the other travellers.

When I talked to Uri, the basis of Thomas’s fame became more apparent: not only was he the prison’s tour guide, he was also its resident cocaine dealer.

‘The best coke in the world comes from Bolivia,’ Uri informed me, sitting up on his stained dormitory mattress in order to light his second joint of the morning. He deliberately directed a stream of smoke my way.

‘And the best coke in Bolivia comes from inside San Pedro prison. The inmates manufacture it in laboratories inside.’

The fact that convicted drug traffickers could continue their trade from prison would have struck me as ironical in any other country. In Bolivia, it didn’t warrant comment.

‘So, you know this guy Thomas who does the tours, then?’ I asked.

‘Of course. He’s my main supplier. Why? How much coke do you need?’

I liked the way Uri said need instead of want. ‘So, how do I get to the prison?’ I asked, ignoring his offer. ‘And how do I find Thomas?’

‘just catch a taxi,’ he answered, making his way towards the door that hung tentatively by its remaining hinge. ‘But don’t worry about finding Thomas. He’ll find you.’

*****

I set out that very afternoon. Chilly air blanketed the city of La Paz even though the day was beautifully clear and the sun abnormally brilliant. At three thousand, six hundred metres above sea level, the thinner atmosphere imbued the light with a slightly surreal quality. The sky emanated a rarefied, crystalline blue, and everything looked sharper and more in focus. Above the city basin, the snow-capped peaks of Mount Illimani loomed unrealistically close.

According to the map, the prison was within walking distance, but I hailed a taxi so as to make no mistake.

‘To San Pedro prison,’ I ordered the driver in my best Spanish.

Sí, señor.’ He nodded nonchalantly and headed off into the chaotic La Paz traffic with the obligatory dangling plaster statuette of Jesus swinging erratically from his rearview mirror. I wondered whether I had pronounced the destina­tion correctly. Did he not think it a trifle odd that a foreigner would want to visit the prison?

We crossed the Prado and, almost immediately, found ourselves hemmed in by traffic. My gaze roamed aimlessly out the window and over the scenes in the street where hawkers threaded through rows of cars, offering bananas, cigarettes and fake leather mobile phone covers to motorists. A stout old woman sat on an upturned box beside her hotplate that milked its power from an illegal cable running down a nearby electricity pole. A young indigenous girl was slowly making her way up the steep hill carrying a baby on her back wrapped in colourful cloth. In her arms she held a heavy bundle of potatoes. She was stooped forward with their weight, but didn’t stop to catch her breath. If she lost her momentum, I sensed it might be forever.

Through the other window I saw a malnourished young boy, dressed in dirty jeans and rubber sandals made from old tyres, weaving his way lazily around the maze of traffic, half-heartedly offering to wash windscreens. The drivers ignored him, but before the lights changed, he had tipped dirty detergent water on someone’s window and begun wiping it without being asked. The driver must have felt guilty and started to search for a few coins just as the lights turned green. A dark-skinned police­man blew his whistle, trying to advance the cars, but none of them could move because the front driver was busy looking for coins for the boy. The policeman kept blowing his whistle and commanding the cars forward. Still, nothing happened. By the time the driver had found some coins, the lights were red again. My driver breathed heavily through his nose.

We continued through the traffic. Only a block further up the hill, we rounded a plaza and the driver braked suddenly, interrupting my reverie.

aquí no más,’ he said, pointing to a large metal gate set in a high, yellow wall. It did not look at all like a prison. We were still in the middle of town. There were no bars, no barbed wire and no signs.

‘Are you sure?’ I frowned.

Sí, seguro,’ he replied, pointing once more at the building and then holding out his hand to receive payment. ‘Fifteen bolivianos, please.’ It seemed he now spoke English. I shook my head and smiled to show I had been in the country long enough to know the cost of a taxi ride.

‘Six.’

‘OK. Thirteen.’ Eventually, he dropped his price a further two bolivianos, but he couldn’t go any lower than that. Cost cutting in Bolivian schools has resulted in generations of taxi drivers who do not know the numbers one to ten. They learn to count from eleven upwards. I paid him the correct fare and he laughed good-naturedly and then drove off.

I was still dubious about whether this was the right place. Apart from two uniformed policemen leaning idly against a metal railing, there was no indication that there was a jail behind those walls. Besides, many buildings in La Paz, even apartment blocks and private businesses, could afford to have state-paid policemen stationed outside. As it turned out, the driver was correct; this was the prison.

It was inexplicably situated on prime real estate, occupying an entire block in the city centre and fronting on to the beauti­ful San Pedro Plaza. As I looked up at the enormous walls again, deliberating on my next move, one of the policemen appeared beside me.

‘Tour, yes? You Eengleesh. You American. Prison tour?’ He motioned that I should approach the gates. It seemed I was in the right place. However, I baulked until he said something that caught my attention:

¿necesita a Thomas?

, Thomas,’ I confirmed, still at a safe distance. He became even more excited and beckoned frantically for me to accom­pany him.

Sí. Thomas! No cameras, señor! no fotos,’ he advised, leading me inside.

The outer gateway opened up into a high-ceilinged, spacious passageway and there, directly in front of me, was another set of gates, this one consisting of vertical bars. On my side of the divide was a wooden table manned by several indolent guards in green uniforms. On the other side, pressed tightly against the metal gate, jostling each other and vying for optimal viewing positions, was a sea of expectant Bolivian prisoners.

Scarcely had I time to take in this initial spectacle, before my appearance generated a clamorous uproar. voices bellowed from all directions:

‘Tours!’

‘Mister. Hey mister!’

¡Señor!

‘Cocaine?’

‘Marijuana?’

‘Tour!’

una moneda.

Prisoners also called out from the wings that branched out to the left and right of this main chamber. They were like frenzied monkeys, screeching and rattling their cages and clam­bering over the top of one another to capture my attention. Hands gripped the bars and others extended through them, waving and offering drugs or appealing for coins. I stared back at them. At the same time, my policeman was tugging at my sleeve with his hand out. As I gave him some coins, I heard someone call the name ‘Thomas.’

The speaker this time was a diminutive inmate with dark skin and a shock of white hair at the front. I nodded to him and the din subsided instantly. The other prisoners resumed their intense vigil over the entrance, waiting for the next visitor, while the prisoner who had spoken yelled excitedly, ‘Thomas! Thomas. ¿Quiere que le traiga a Thomas?’ When he smiled, I saw that he was missing a tooth.

I nodded again and he whispered something to one of the officers through the bars. The officer stood up, opened the gate using a set of keys chained to his belt and nodded for me to go through. It was the gateway into the strangest place I have ever visited.

*****

A group of about five or six Westerners was already waiting just inside the gate. A young man of medium height, dressed in a freshly ironed designer shirt and cream-coloured jeans, noticed me looking around uncertainly.

‘Hi. I’m Thomas.’ He smiled warmly, extending his hand to shake mine. He had a chubby face with intelligent eyes that engaged my attention immediately. ‘What’s your name, man?’

‘Rusty,’ I answered hesitantly.

Rusty,’ he said, still clasping my hand between both of his. ‘That is nice name, man. I like a lot. Strong name.’

This was not at all the Thomas I had expected.

First, he was black. Uri had told me Thomas was from Liver­pool, in England, so I had expected him to be white. Second, he was charming and courteous in a way that I would not have expected of a prisoner. When four more tourists arrived, he shook hands with each of them in turn, looking them squarely in the eyes and repeating their names. Over the next hour and a half, he didn’t get a single name wrong.

Thomas had a strange accent for an Englishman. He called everyone ‘man’ and sometimes mixed up his words and tenses. But that didn’t matter. Thomas had a magical way of drawing you right in. He had an energy I have encountered in very few people in the world. There were nine of us in the tour group, but I never doubted for a moment that Thomas was speaking only to me. The tour itself was fascinating, but it did not end there. When the other visitors left, Thomas invited me back to his ‘cell’, which was more like a student room in a fraternity house. He had cable television, a refrigerator and said he had once owned a computer.

Without another word, Thomas produced a small wrap of cocaine and started chopping its contents into lines on a CD case. I looked at the door, which he had locked. Thomas sensed what I was thinking.

‘My prison cell is the safest place in the world to take cocaine,’ he assured me, laughing to himself. ‘I won’t get busted, man. I can have the police fired if they give me any trouble.’

He sniffed a line, slid the CD case over to me and then started talking. Soon, I did not want him to stop.

It is impossible to convey adequately the way in which Thomas related the events of his life to me. He did not simply narrate them; he acted them out as if he were reliving the entire experience. From the moment he started talking, I did not shift from my chair. Thomas, on the other hand, stood or moved around almost the entire time. As new people entered the story, he played their various roles. He imitated their voices, their mannerisms – even their facial expressions. He used objects and furniture in order to tell his stories. He even tapped himself on the shoulder when describing how two policemen had approached him in the customs queue at La Paz’s airport four­-and-a-half years earlier.

Thomas’s experiences in San Pedro and his life beforehand were the stuff of books – the types of true stories that are so bizarre they seem like fiction – and when he finally paused for breath, I told him so. He said that it had always been his inten­tion to write a book, but he was yet to find someone to whom he could entrust the telling of his life story. He did another line of cocaine and then continued his narrative.

I was completely mesmerised for another hour until a bell sounded. All visitors were now supposed to leave. However, there was something the official guidebooks had failed to mention: for a small bribe, tourists could also spend the night in San Pedro.

That evening, Thomas took me into the dangerous sections deep inside the prison. Some of the things I saw there made me cry with laughter; others utterly repulsed me. I saw a side of life that I had never seen before. Many of the inmates were addicted to drugs – some so severely that they cut themselves deliberately in order to come down or because they were paranoid. I even made the acquaintance of a cat that was addicted to smoking cocaine. It was the craziest night of my life and the most fascinating. I do not know what possessed me to take the risks I did. I think it was Thomas. In the few hours since I had met him at the gate, I had come to trust him almost completely. As long as he was there, I felt certain that no harm would come to me in San Pedro.

By the end of the night, I understood why Thomas McFadden was so famous. With Thomas holding court, the entire evening was bathed in magic. It was also powdered with cocaine. However, that was only part of the experience. The coke he dispensed that night was of the quality that Uri, the German backpacker, had boasted, but it was used in the same manner as the furniture and other objects in his room; it was merely another prop to help him narrate. His life story was also as fascinating as the Israelis on the Inca trail had described. But it was not that, either. It was Thomas himself. I had never met anyone like him in my life, and I doubt I ever will again.

Something clicked between us that night. We talked non-stop until daybreak and then I decided to stay another night. Around four o’clock in the morning of the following day, it was decided: I was going to write his book for him. We hugged and Thomas told me I was his white brother. He bought a dozen bottles of beer to celebrate.

The next day I had a hangover and a vague recollection of having made a very serious pact. I was now Thomas’s brother and I had to stick to our agreement. It would be a risky under­taking; if the prison administration or other prisoners were to discover our intention of exposing the corruption in San Pedro, there would be grave repercussions. There was also a catch that Thomas had neglected to mention: I would have to live in San Pedro with him. Otherwise, I would never genu­inely understand what it was like to be a prisoner there.

‘The tourists only see the easy side of prison life for an hour when they do a tour,’ he told me. ‘But there is a lot of suffering here, man. A lot of suffering.’

*****

I went back to Australia for six months in order to work and save up money, before returning to Bolivia. For the next four months, I spent time with Thomas in San Pedro every day. It was not long before I discovered that Thomas was right – it seemed like a relaxed place for a prison, but it was a prison nonetheless. Fortunately, he had obtained permission in writing for me to come and go as I pleased. Unlike the real prisoners, I could take a cheap room in a hotel on the outside for the night whenever things became too much.

In taking on this project, I knew from the outset that Thomas McFadden was no angel. very few foreigners end up in prison in South America for no reason. Thomas was a convicted cocaine trafficker, but he was also one the most magnetic people I have ever met. However, I will allow you to discover that for yourself.

This is Thomas McFadden’s story.


Excerpted from Marching Powder by Rusty Young. Copyright © 2003 by Rusty Young.
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.

Letter to George Clooney by Debra Adelaide – Extract

Letter to George Clooney

The Sleepers in that Quiet Earth

Having formed these beings she did not know what she had done.

— Charlotte Brontë, Preface to Wuthering Heights, 1850

She had planned the story and already written some­thing that could be an opening chapter. From time to time when ideas came she would write them down in a book her mother had given her. It was not the sort of notebook she would have chosen to write in, not stories anyway, but it happened to be there when she needed it. A spiral-bound notebook, the paper rough and absor­bent. The cover was the wrong colour, a fake kind of purple, a purple trying too hard, a purple that didn’t even fool small children. She wondered if it was meant to be a children’s notebook, if her mother, in her frail condition, had bought it without thinking. The card­board cover felt like plastic. Her fountain pen would not work on the paper. She would write the story on her laptop.

But the purple notebook contained a list of recent contact details, and Dove had brought it into bed with her one evening along with the phone. She reached for the notebook early the next morning. She’d had a restless night and had woken several times, then again before five. For ten minutes or so she lay there, seeing the story in her head, the story she would write, she could write, when she had emptied her mind: that day’s work, then the bills and emails that needed attending to, calls she would have to make before the end of the day. Her mother’s caseworker had left three messages, of increasing frustration and, she suspected, hostility.

Yet her mind seemed unusually focused on the story already. She wrote down the ideas that had awoken her, then showered and dressed, but she continued to see it unfolding. Unlike in a dream, she could see details of the clothes her character was wearing, the colours of the houses and the lawns she was passing, then the bus she was riding, and where she sat on it, three seats behind two women with rose-tinted hair and string shopping bags. The bus was almost empty.

As she made her breakfast and put a load in the washing machine, she continued to see her character and hear her voice. The cat butted at her ankles, wailing. She bent down to the floor with its bowl. ‘Here you go, puss cat.’ She rarely used its name. The cat pushed its face into the biscuits and Dove ran her hand along its back. It could eat and purr at the same time, or maybe that was a growl. Dove had little affection for it, but it had had nowhere else to go. The mewling wail barely abated as it chewed its food then sat to lick its chest. But even the cat could not block out the sound of her own story in her ears as she tidied her breakfast things and went to the bathroom.

‘See you, puss.’ By the time she grabbed her bag and keys and shut the front door, the whole story was clear already, again, clearer than a dream. She even knew the weather that day, could see the sky with its shredded-tissue clouds, on that warm day in the suburbs. It was midmorning, a Tuesday. Her character’s name, Ellis, was unusual for a woman.

*****

Ellis was visiting her father, in his home in Ashfield. Riding the bus, Ellis thought about the names of these suburbs, on this summer’s day when men like her father were busy in their gardens. Ashfield, Haberfield, Strathfield. She thought, as she pushed open the window of the bus to let in more air, how odd a name like Ashfield was, how the negative connotation of the first syllable contrasted with the romantic one of the last. How the place was, in its orderly suburban way, filled with houses and parks, cabbage tree palms and eucalypts and camphor laurels – so unlike an ashy field – but that once it must have been something like a wasteland, to gain the name. On this particular day the air smelled like a field, a great one, of hay perhaps, or wheat, recently mown. As if all its men had conspired to cut their front lawns that morning, infusing the warm air with the smell of freshly sliced grass, which Ellis breathed in as she pushed her face up to the window of the bus. She wondered if the inhabitants of Ashfield, so comfortable and untroubled, ever thought the name Ashfield odd, discordant.

It was a slow journey, but once they had turned off Parramatta Road, she didn’t mind. At this time it was a pleasant way to travel, if you were not in a hurry, though at other times the buses could be frustrating. Into town, for instance, where the journey past Railway Square and down George Street was always slow. She had not yet learned to drive, although she thought she would. Vince had urged it, especially now, but she had not been keen for her husband to teach her. She suspected that his amiable nature would change once she slid behind the wheel of his Valiant. Her father, who rarely went out these days but who held strong opinions, thought Annandale, where she and Vince lived, a lowly, seedy suburb with too many migrants and not enough foot­paths, and that if she at least drove she could get away more. But Ellis’s father had never gone all the way down to the waterside and seen the gardens, the massive homes on the escarpment, and experienced the grandeur of the place. He equated Annandale with the grimy strip of shops on Parramatta Road, the crowded terraces closer to Glebe, the motor workshop on the main road, where Vince worked. Ellis suspected he had never dwelled on the name, Annandale.

*****

Dove did not know why her character’s name was Ellis, but as she saw her alight that bus, at the stop before the gate of her father’s house, she knew without any doubt that this was her name. Lately she had been reading Wuthering Heights. It was possible that the name Ellis Bell had stuck in her mind, although every way she examined it, she could find no connection between her character, a young woman in suburban Sydney some time in the late 1960s, and that of the novel or its author or the author’s pseudonym. She was only aware that she liked names commencing with E and with the El sound especially. They seemed natural, mellifluous (a mellifluous word itself), and rolled pleasingly across the tongue and out through the lips. Eliza, Ellis, Ellen, Elizabeth, Eleanor. If she were going to have a char­acter in a novel – and it seemed that this might be the case – she would want to utter that character’s name over and over, at least in her mind, to roll it around, easy and smooth, a sweet lozenge.

At what point she knew that Ellis had a baby she could not say. But the baby must have been there all along.

Reviewing the scenes she had already visualised – it was like pausing and replaying a film in her head – Dove now saw Ellis well before she reached the bus stop where she would alight. She saw her shifting the baby on her lap. The rose-tinted elderly women had cooed at him as Ellis had boarded and made her way past them to her seat. But after she had passed them, what Ellis did not see, preoc­cupied with propping the collapsible pram against her seat so it would not roll away, and settling the baby in her lap, was these two women whispering something disap­proving about babies needing to wear more than singlets even if the weather was warm. One of them remarked on the absence of his sunhat, but Ellis had removed this and placed it in her shoulder bag before boarding the bus, since he was prone to flinging it off. Her father had given her the hat, and she would place it on the baby’s head again before she walked through her father’s front gate. It would make him glad to see his grandson wearing it. He was so very happy to have a grandson.

*****

During her lunch break, Dove phoned her mother’s caseworker, then the hospital ward manager, and finally the care facility ten minutes’ drive from her home. She had been ringing every day lately.

‘Good news,’ said the Grange’s residential services officer. ‘We can take your mother soon. Possibly even next Monday.’

If there are no further hitches, Dove thought. Instead she said, ‘Wonderful. I’ve been waiting for ages. We’ve been waiting.’ Then, in case this was construed as a complaint of sorts, ‘It’s such a relief. Mum will be so much better off with you.’

She tried not to think about why the room, which last week was only a possibility, was now available.

‘And,’ he said with finality, ‘we won’t be able to . . . accommodate any other changes. Again.’

‘I realise that,’ Dove said. She would try to discuss it tonight, though her mother could only speak with great effort, rationing her words out one or two at a time. Her lucid periods were mainly in the early evenings. A month or so ago she had breathed the words, ‘Nursing home, Dove. Less trouble,’ into her daughter’s ear and reached for her hand and pressed it. Dove had spent considerable time at work on the phone, and later at home in the evenings sending emails. Except on the designated day of the move, having taken the morning off work, she had arrived at the hospital to find her mother sitting up in bed, preternaturally alert.

‘I’m going back home,’ she had declared with unusual clarity.

‘Mum, you can’t . . .’

‘Viv will be missing me.’

‘But the Grange, they’re expecting you. It’s all arranged.’

Her mother had stared as if she’d never heard of such a place.

‘He needs me,’ she said.

Dove had folded her lips together then and not reminded her mother that the cat had not lived there for two months, that her flat was on the second floor, and that managing stairs had long been out of the question. Instead she had sat down and rearranged the reading glasses and tube of hand cream on the bedside table, until her mother lay back on her pillows and closed her eyes. Her mother had spoken three languages and played principal violin with a symphony orchestra. She had given music lessons and translated documents to put her daughter through university. Dove placed her hand on her mother’s cheek, kissed her on the nose, and returned to work.

Now as she put down the phone she hoped the new arrangements would not be undone again. Perhaps she should visit straight from work. It would mean not getting home until after seven and by then the cat would be hysterical. It was slight and fussy and had cost her mother a small fortune over the years in vet’s fees. How long did Burmese cats live? She had thought about smuggling it into the hospital but had visions of it leaping out of its basket and running through the wards, the kitchens, snarling in some corner of a closet, or worse, an operating theatre, bright and sterile, ready for surgery.

But then, it was possible the cat would snuggle into her mother’s neck, as it had every night of its life, and sleep. And her mother might relax, without her medica­tion, sleep more deeply, or for longer. Or forever. Dove wondered if the prospect she had had in her mind from time to time, of the two sleepers together, slipping quietly into death, was such a bad thing. The cat was stricken enough as it was. When she had first grabbed it at her mother’s place, it had wailed and scratched her. Her mother had been lying on the kitchen floor since the night before, unable to move. Dove didn’t want to think of the cat leaping across her mother’s legs and kneading her chest in its anguish. Her mother had still been playing the violin when she bought the cat. She would remark on the cat’s peculiar attentiveness. ‘If cats could play a musical instrument,’ she once said, ‘it would be the violin.’

Tonight, they might have a conversation of sorts. Her mother might ask about her writing. But probably Dove would just read to her again. At first she wasn’t sure if her mother was paying attention, or even enjoying being read to, but she never complained and was always quiet. Sometimes she lay there awake, saying nothing at all, and Dove would put the book down, say goodbye and leave as her mother stared into a distance no one else could see. And sometimes she simply closed her eyes and drifted into sleep.

*****

Dove was surprised to discover her character was so stable and dependable. Ellis had developed into a good wife, a fond mother, a devoted daughter. There was no evidence of the sadness of her early years, of the great hole in her life. At sixteen, she had returned to Ashfield from boarding school, and gone to secretarial college. It was when she had commenced working in the garage on Parramatta Road, typing invoices and managing orders, that she had met Vince. She took another stenography course at night school and had just completed it when she became pregnant. Dove suspected Ellis was a little too dependable, and wondered if she was even boring or unexciting. But then she knew about Ellis’s deep and terrible fears. Sometimes these fears manifested them­selves in dreams so strong they woke Ellis, and she would sit up in bed sweating and clutching her chest. Or worse, so strong that she did not wake even though she struggled violently to do so. Many of these dreams were about entrapment. Ellis would cry with all the might of her chest to be let out of some dark and stifling place, but her cries were mute, her struggles impotent. Though if Vince had woken and watched her as she slept beside him dreaming these terrifying dreams, he would have thought her sleep was benign, as peaceful as the slumbers of the dead in the quiet earth.

One of these recurring dreams involved Ellis on a hospital bed in an operating theatre. She was anaesthe­tised to the point where she was incapable of making a sound or a movement and yet her mind was awake and alert and she knew that the operation about to be performed was all wrong, that her organs were perfectly healthy, and that the doctors had to stop. Stop, stop, stop. She always tried to yell this, tried to claw her way through the fog of the anaesthetic, but there were no exclamation marks in her speech. She mouthed the words, and there was no noise. She tried to lift her arms and form fists but could only look at her hands lying useless and heavy like sandbags on either side of her body. Although she was surrounded by lights and covered in sheets she felt as if she had been nailed into a coffin and lowered into the ground. She wept dry, unformed tears as she realised how she was going to sink back into the fate of being sliced open and violated, and how no one would hear her, and no one would ever know. The unfairness of it. And they would never know how hard she had fought, to stay alive.

*****

Dove sat upright in bed as she held her hands out to Ellis and lifted her free of the dream, just in time. She herself was sweating, almost gasping with the effort. The cat was pinning down the bedcovers. She nudged it aside and got out of bed. It was the early morning, when dreams were at their most powerful. She had never felt more connected to someone, more concerned on their behalf, and yet Ellis was only a character, in a story that had barely begun to be written. The cat followed her as she went down to the kitchen for a glass of water. Standing at the sink, she felt a strange urge to get dressed and drive to the hospital. At four am no one would notice or care if she slipped in. She could perhaps take the cat. If her mother was asleep she could just sit there and read.

They had chosen Wuthering Heights because it was shorter than Jane Eyre. She had read the novel, several times, but as Dove had sat beside her mother’s hospital bed in the evenings or on a Sunday afternoon, she had begun to entertain doubts about this. The story was far more complex and surprising than she had imagined. She was not sure if her mother had taken any of it in, but she had lain there for a half or an entire hour, day after day, as Dove read, neither objecting nor expressing interest in the story. Sometimes she fell asleep, and Dove would keep reading aloud until the end of a chapter. On the following visit, her mother would murmur assent if Dove offered to read and, if she suggested something else, would just shake her head and almost smile.

*****

As she thought about it more, she became aware that she had not so much dreamed this character with the curious name Ellis, as rescued her from the soil of her imagination. Ellis Bell – the name ringing, alive with possibilities – was on the 1847 facsimile title page of the novel, reproduced in her Penguin English Library edition. It was there in the biographical notice by the author’s sister Charlotte, also included in her paperback edition and marked in her own hand, proof that she had indeed read it, and read it attentively, even though she seemed to remember a different novel altogether. And the more she considered it, the more she felt she had read the name Ellis often enough so that it had lodged in her mind like a speck of grit, eventually turning into something hard and polished.

Except her character was nothing like a pearl, waiting to be plucked from its shell. Ellis was unformed, limp. She was more like an abandoned creature that Dove had found somewhere, beside a remote road, leading nowhere. Sometimes she would lie half awake in the early mornings, feeling the cold autumn air, listening to the clock’s gentle pip pip pipping, the alarm set for six-thirty, and think of this character whom she may have dreamed up, or who may have been someone she knew, from her past, but had forgotten, or had met once, on a bus or in a shop, or was somehow connected with a novel written over a hundred and fifty years ago.

She dragged this mute creature back into being, and it was a physical effort, as hard as pulling oneself awake when one knows one is not yet there at the crack of wakefulness. It was like dragging her out of the ground itself, the soil clinging to her, damp and cold. She sat her there, in a ditch, and watched the rise and fall of her chest, and knew she would live. It was half light, barely dawn. Why had she been beside the road? Had she fallen, or been pushed from a vehicle? There was nothing else about, no cars, no people, no buildings. There was not even a sound, or any trees. The road emerged from a scrubby background and curved to the same drab vanishing point. Ellis was clad in ordinary clothes, pedal pushers and a boat-neck knit sweater, striped orange and cream. Her hair was half across her face, tangled and dirty, but recognisable as a pageboy style. It was reddish brown. But her body was half coated in black soil and her legs were oddly straight from being dragged into the light, her bare feet – her shoes were lost – pointing back towards the ditch, and rolling beyond that, the landscape disappearing in a black-green cloud.

But even as Dove dragged her from the oblivion of unconsciousness, as she heaved and struggled and swore for those last crucial metres in order to get the limp form away from where the cold earth and the dark scrub conspired to hold Ellis back, she was also seeing Ellis, in the story in her mind, in another place altogether. In the suburbs, in fact, in Ashfield, juggling her baby and stroller on that bus. It was re-running in her mind but it was not the same scene replayed, rather the same scene viewed from a different angle, and she noted new things: Ellis holding out a coin, the driver jerking the bus away from the stop, Ellis careful not to fall, sliding into the red seat halfway along, on the left, the baby on her lap. He was called Charlie. The women three seats in front, having discussed the absence of his sunhat with muted disapproval, were now holding their heads up high, gazing this way and that in the anxious manner of old people, looking out for their stop at the corner store.

Then Ellis was walking down that street in Ashfield. It was wide, lined with cabbage tree palms. She was walking along the warm concrete footpath, smelling again the scent of grass, and of dust, of boiled onion and meat dinners, from the houses she passed. Brick homes, most of them, neat, silent and unwelcoming, their front gardens fenced, with hydrangeas, lassiandra and plum­bago – why were the flowers all blue and purple? – her father’s place no exception.

She had reached the front gate, she was through it, and had then turned to push it shut, listening for the latch’s oiled snick on the green wire gate, before walking up the path, when Dove realised Ellis had forgotten to replace Charlie’s sunhat, as she had meant to before she met her father, and there was nothing she could do about it.

*****

The images in her head refused to emerge from the pages. Cathy racing barefoot across the moors. Heathcliff beside her, both yelling with delight. Wuthering Heights was not about wild free childhood at all. It was barely even Cathy’s story. Instead it was the story of a servant, the housekeeper, the only one of her generation to survive. It was orderly, controlled, quiet. The novel had been swept and folded and locked. All the interesting, passionate characters were dead and buried before their time.

How had this happened? How had its author, Emily Jane Brontë – Ellis Bell – so independent and stubborn, let this maddening, self-righteous housekeeper, this character who pretended to be much older than she was, steal the narrative like that? Dove recalled wisps of stories about the author of Wuthering Heights. Her potent imaginary world. How she refused social obli­gations. The visions she saw on the moors behind the parsonage at Haworth. How she once took a poker from the fire and scorched the bite of a rabid dog on her forearm. Her refusal to accept medical attention, until the hour before her death. You can send for a doctor if you like. How she then turned her face to the wall and closed her eyes forever.

As Dove read the final chapter, where a woman sat in the kitchen sewing while her young charges played with words in books, she marvelled at its author. Emily Brontë had been brave as well as stubborn. She had permitted her story to be rewritten. She had abandoned it to the control of its readers. Although she conceived it, wrote it, published it – with a dodgy publisher, against the advice of her sister Charlotte – she had then let it go, entirely. It was no longer her story. She had created a magnificent illusion. Dove thought about why she had never realised this before, and why her reading of the novel was now so different.

‘“. . . and wondered,”’ Dove read, ‘“how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers, for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”’

She closed the book and stared at her mother, whose eyes were shut. It was so simple, but it did not occur to her until she was placing the book in her bag to take home. It was not just that she had read the novel at the bedside of her dying mother. She had, for the first time, read the words aloud.

*****

When she abandoned the purple notebook and began to steal a half-hour in the morning before work, or ate instant noodles at the computer in the evening, she wrote with a sense of compulsion, almost peril. She dreaded interruption. The phone would ring. Someone might knock on the door. She feared the story would slither off and disappear like a snake into the bush. Or that she might just grab it by its tail and pick it up, only to see it transform into something quite unlike the story that had brought her awake those weeks back, awake with such clarity and urgency that she had reached for the notebook and scribbled pages of draft scenes before getting out of bed.

As her mother began to be less agitated, more compliant, the phone calls, the meetings, the arrange­ments, began to dwindle. Dove rang the Grange for the last time.

‘I’m sorry,’ and even as she said it she wondered why she was apologising. ‘But my mother won’t be leaving the neurological ward.’

The residential services officer cancelled the booking with cool efficiency. ‘We can refund your interim deposit,’ he said, making it seem like a very special favour when Dove knew the waiting list was long. ‘But you’ll need to invoice us.’

Back in the hospital, the staff began answering her questions with increasing vagueness. The evening nurse smiled and said, ‘Your mother isn’t suffering. Don’t worry, we’re monitoring her every day.’

Dove asked the resident outright, ‘Will she die soon?’

The resident cocked her head and shifted her folder to another arm.

‘The important thing is that she’s remaining stable. And we’re doing all we can to keep her comfortable.’

And Dove had to concur. Her mother was at peace, lying back on clean linen, her white hair, her white skin, smoothed and thin, exposing the bones of her face. Sometimes she would accept a few mouthfuls of soup or ice cream, a cup of tea. Other times she wanted nothing, waved her daughter away, her hand stiff like a dry leaf.

Dove had by then written enough of her story to begin revising it, and so she sat beside her mother’s bed with her laptop. A structure emerged. As she worked she learned to block out the noises of the hospital. And she began to understand how to suspend work, quickly if necessary, hitting the save key and closing the computer if her mother called out, or if one of the nurses came by. She began to trust that the story would stay with her, and that her character, if she were strong enough, would remain in her imagination. And it was true that just as Ellis had lain on the earth choking for air, her breathing becoming less ragged, more regular, and as she had survived the ordeal of the nightmare operation, she would survive being tucked into a corner of Dove’s life as she waited at the bedside of her dying mother.

Now that Ellis continued to live in the story that was still being written, Dove wondered at her fluidity, how she could be there in the ditch in the growing dawn, gasping and leaning on her elbows, struggling to sit up, crushed and exhausted yet clearly, undeniably, alive, and yet at the same time be walking to her father’s house. Her mother coughed softly beside her.

As she saw Ellis at that gate, Dove wondered why she was even making this visit at all, but having watched her place Charlie on the path where he would take his first unassisted baby steps and then hold her hand out and take him further up to the front door which was now being opened by her father – who was saying ‘Hi-dee-hi’ as he had for as long as Ellis could remember – she knew why Ellis was here, on the same day each week that she always visited. She knew that knowing this could be painful, and that she would have to be brave with her story just as Emily Brontë had been brave, and follow it where it had to go and then let it run ahead of her, alone. Ellis was here because her own mother was not and had not been for a long time, not since she was a baby. Dove finally understood this, and she typed this in between paragraphs, just a note in case she forgot, as her mother began to cough slightly again, a noise more like a groan. And now that Ellis was a parent, she came to prepare meals and clean the house for her father, with his only grandson. Charlie was beaming, arms out, tightrope walking, wobbling as he stepped forward, once, twice, three times, as Ellis laughed, reached out and grabbed him just in time before he fell, and swung him up to her delighted father on the front step. Dove’s mother coughed once more. She wished she had brought the cat in after all.


Excerpted from Letter to George Clooney by Debra Adelaide. Copyright © 2013 by Debra Adelaide.
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