Authors: Felicity Pulman
Trying to ignore the butterfly flutters in her stomach, Allie pulled on the goggles, fitted the snorkel into her mouth and carefully lowered her face into the water. What had been a blur suddenly became clear: sand marked by stray rocks, and several small fish even though she was still so close to the shore. She glanced up, reassured by the sight of the serene bay and calm water ahead. Only a small line of foam in the distance marked where waves were breaking on the reef. No harm could possibly come to her here.
As she kicked off and began to dog-paddle deeper, the rocks gave way to fan-shaped plates of brown coral, pink branching antlers, and boulders of what looked like human brains. Multicoloured fish darted into cracks and crannies, and she paused to marvel at the underwater garden spreading before her. If only, she thought, I could see my own life as clearly as I can see everything now. If only I could turn back time …
Memory wrapped its tentacles around her, and with it came a terror that almost overwhelmed her. She gasped for breath, sucking in water as well as air. Fighting panic, she tried to anchor herself on the seabed but could feel only deep water beneath her. She snatched off her mask and snorkel and thrashed towards the shore until she could feel the solid, sandy bottom. Fighting for breath, she raised her face to the sun and tried to stop shaking. It was so long since she’d last been in the sea, but the memory of Jason’s betrayal still haunted her. Even coming here hadn’t made it go away.
I have to forget about it; forget about
Her parents had wanted a sea change, but for Allie, coming to the island was about moving on, looking towards the future.
Or running away?
She made a conscious effort to drag her thoughts back to the present. I’m only sixteen, she told herself. I have my whole life ahead of me. I’m not going to let what happened wreck my life.
She began to wade through the shallows, aware now that several of her classmates were kicking a ball around on the beach and keeping an eye on her at the same time. They must think she was weird, putting her face into the water and swimming out, then snatching off the mask and rushing back to shore. They’d think she was scared of the sea. And they’d be right. Only she hadn’t realised, until the past collided with the present, just how frightened of the water she’d become. She tossed back her hair, lifted her chin and stared defiance
at them. Let them think what they liked. She didn’t have to answer to them. She didn’t have to answer to anyone.
‘Water too cold for you?’
Allie squinted at the speaker, a dark figure against the bright sun. Noah O’Brien. The hottest guy in her year. Tall, with dark curly hair and laughing blue eyes. Irish, she thought, although it must be from way back because he didn’t have an accent. She blinked, suddenly bewildered. Why was she so sure he was Irish? His surname. That must be it.
She gave him an uncertain smile, wishing she wasn’t all wet and bedraggled; wishing also that he hadn’t witnessed her ignominious flight from the sea. ‘Yeah, it’s a bit cold,’ she said, glad of the excuse, even though it was a summer’s day and the sea had been warm enough.
Noah grinned at her. ‘It’s only cold at first. You soon warm up once you get swimming. You can swim, can’t you?’
‘Of course.’ Allie wondered if he was suggesting she should go back in. She shivered at the thought. ‘Some other time,’ she said. ‘I’ve just remembered there’s something I have to do.’
But Noah was leaping to intercept the ball coming his way and no longer listening.
Allie hurried to the grassy hill at the side of the beach where she’d left her towel and clothes. She burrowed into the pocket of her shorts and pulled out her mobile. No messages, even though she’d sent a text to both her schoolmates in Sydney just that morning. What was going on? She’d called her friends several times since arriving on Norfolk Island,
but they always seemed to be in a hurry, always had excuses about not having time to talk to her. They never called back or texted either.
On a sudden impulse, Allie aimed her mobile at the ball players and clicked. She smiled as she looked at the image of Noah. She could forward it to Sara and Steph — maybe that would provoke a reaction? Or she could put the photo up on her Facebook page. No, better not. Someone from the island was sure to see it and she’d never hear the end of it. Besides, if her friends couldn’t be bothered to keep in touch by phone, nothing on Facebook would make any difference.
Fighting tears, she saved the image and pocketed her mobile. She put on her sunnies and the world went dark. Feeling safe behind the shielding lenses, she pulled her clothes on over her wet bikini.
You can run, but you can’t hide
: where had she heard that expression before? Suddenly fearful, she cast a glance over her shoulder as she left the beach. No one was watching; they were all intent on the game. Feeling lonely and miserable, she set off across the grass.
She turned at the sound of her name, knowing before she saw him that it was Noah calling to her.
He slowed to a stop and gave her another lazy grin. ‘It’s Pont’s birthday today. His parents are throwing a party for him tomorrow night but we thought we’d have the unofficial celebration here tonight, seeing it’s Friday. D’ya wanna come?’
‘Yes!’ Delighted, Allie returned his smile, then felt self-conscious as she realised how eager she’d sounded. ‘Yeah, that’d be great. Thanks for asking me.’
‘No worries. It’s BYO. See ya later.’ And he was gone again, heading back to the group who’d played on without him.
Allie watched them all for a moment, feeling a surge of relief that the islanders were being friendly. Well, Noah at least. So far as she could tell from less than a week at school, he wasn’t with anyone, which was surprising given how popular he seemed to be.
Allie noticed a tall, dark-haired girl among the players. She was watching the ball with fierce concentration and, when it came her way, she shoved another girl aside in her determination to reach it first, then booted it on to Noah.
‘Hey, take it easy, Nat!’ The girl retaliated with a friendly shove.
Allie searched her memory for her name. Fran. That was it. Nat and Fran. They went everywhere together. Both of them seemed to be shadowing Noah, while Nat seemed especially determined to stick close.
I’ll have to be careful tonight, Allie thought.
Even though she’d felt attracted to Noah right from the moment she’d first seen him, she didn’t want to tread on anyone’s toes. But Noah had made a special effort to ask her to come tonight, which might mean that he was interested in her. It would be dark. Would they spend some time together, just the two of them? Would he maybe kiss her? Should she kiss
him back? She felt a sweet, tingling heat at the thought, until it was overturned by another. She didn’t want to get sucked into a relationship she might come to regret. Like she had with Jason the Rat.
With an effort, Allie pulled her thoughts away from her boyfriend. Her ex-boyfriend. He was back home and she was here, trying to make a new life for herself. Time to forget him and move on. Maybe with Noah, maybe not.
Somewhat to her disappointment, Allie found a large crowd gathered around a bonfire on the beach that evening. She’d been looking forward to spending some time alone with Noah and getting to know him a bit better, but he was laughing and talking with a group of guys, the centre of attention as always. She hung around on the edge, hoping that someone would notice her and invite her into their close-knit circle.
One of the girls turned to Allie, drawing her gaze away from Noah. ‘Have you brought something to drink?’
Allie held out a large bottle of Coke and a giant-sized packet of chips.
The girl laughed. ‘Well, at least we won’t go hungry or thirsty,’ she said, her tone sarcastic. ‘Is that all?’
Allie nodded, feeling embarrassed. She hadn’t known what to bring and hadn’t wanted to arrive empty-handed. There was no way she could have got hold of any alcohol, but had thought that on a small island, in a small community, if there was any underage drinking everyone would find out about it. So she’d
decided on the Coke, rationalising that they could always use it as a mixer if there was any alcohol involved.
Allie wished she could remember the girl’s name. She had dark hair, cropped short, and a stocky build. There was a diamond stud in her nose.
The girl shrugged. ‘Ah well, a couple of the guys have managed to smuggle something out. I guess you can share, if you want. But you mustn’t tell.’
‘I won’t say anything. Anyway, the Coke’s fine for me, thanks.’
‘I’m Megan,’ the girl said. ‘Known as Meg. I guess you don’t remember all our names yet.’
She took the bottle and chips from Allie and found a space for them on a trestle table nearby. Allie was resigning herself to standing alone again when, to her relief, Meg returned.
‘So how are ya settling in?’ she asked.
‘You’re from Sydney, aren’t ya?’
Meg whistled. ‘Bit of a difference, you’ll find. Why did you come here anyway?’
‘My dad decided he wanted a break from the city.’
‘And you? How do you feel about living on the island?’
‘Oh — okay.’ Wanting to deflect Meg’s questions, Allie said quickly, ‘One of our ancestors came here during the convict era, so Dad’s interested to find out more about him.’
‘Was he a convict?’
‘No, he was in charge here for a few years,’ Allie said, trying to remember what her father had told her during their family conference about the possibility of moving to Norfolk Island.
Meg’s eyes narrowed. ‘You mean you’re related to that bloody old tyrant John Bennett? That’s your name, isn’t it — Bennett?’
Allie nodded. ‘Yeah, that’s right. But he wasn’t a bloody old tyrant!’
What was Meg on about? Her father had said that John Bennett was sent over to Norfolk to restore law and order to the penal settlement after the mismanagement of the previous commandant. Allie remembered her father had sounded quite proud of their ancestor’s achievements.
Meg sniffed. ‘I’d shut up about him, if I were you,’ she advised, and handed Allie a paper cup. ‘Here. You can put a shot in it if you change your mind.’
And she was gone, pushing through the crowd to stand close to the fire, leaving Allie alone once more.
She walked a few paces away, preferring to hide her loneliness among the pine trees that lined the beach. She’d never known such darkness as there was here at night, with no streetlights or any other illumination away from the houses. The sky was luminous with stars; even the brightness of the fire couldn’t dim them. The sea was dark, marked with lines of white froth where the waves crashed across the reef. Allie stole a glance at the group by the fire, willing Noah to come and find her. Nat stood close by him, she noticed, with Fran
beside her. Meg was there too, talking to Fran. Allie wondered if they were discussing her. Noah wasn’t paying the girls any attention, seeming more interested in chatting to his mates. They were drinking beers, laughing and nudging each other and fooling around.
Allie stood watching them for a while, debating whether or not to just slip away and leave them. It was obvious that she didn’t fit into this tight little island community. Why had Noah even asked her to come tonight?
She became aware that the group was fragmenting. The guys had stripped down to their boardies and were heading into the sea. The girls had gone into a huddle and were shedding clothes, revealing their swimmers underneath. They ran down to the water’s edge, squealing as they splashed into the sea. One lone figure stayed behind, looking around. It was Meg, Allie realised, as the girl spotted her and ran over.
‘Allie! Why are you hiding back here?’ Without waiting for a reply, she went on, ‘Are you coming swimming with us?’
Gripped by panic at the thought, Allie shook her head.
‘I s’pose Noah forgot to tell you to wear your swimmers.’ Meg clicked her tongue in annoyance. ‘What an idiot. But listen, it’s pretty dark. Just wear your bra and knickers. No-one will know the difference.’
Allie’s stomach knotted in fear. ‘No! I … I can’t.’
‘But you went swimming this arvo. For about twenty seconds.’
Allie wondered if Meg was having a go at her. ‘I just don’t feel like it,’ she said.
‘What’s the matter? Can’t you swim? You don’t have to go in deep if you don’t want to.’
Meg sounded sympathetic, but Allie hardly knew her. She certainly didn’t know her well enough to confide the real reason for her refusal: that the thought of going swimming in the dark filled her with such fear that she wanted to vomit.
‘Maybe next time,’ she said.
‘Yeah. Thanks for coming to get me though.’
‘Well … okay then. If you’re sure.’
Meg vanished down the beach. Allie could hear the splashes and shrieks of a water fight; saw a disconnected jumble of pale limbs in the starlight, water spraying silver against the darkness. Voices trading friendly insults and the sound of laughter made her feel even more lost and alone.
Instinctively, she grabbed her mobile to call Steph, to make a connection with the familiar world back home. But the battery was dead, she’d forgotten to recharge it. Perfect.
She couldn’t bear to wait here for everyone to come out and the questions to start. Better go now, she thought.
Keeping to the shadows, she headed for the grassy knoll at the side of the beach. She’d already decided to leave the Coke and chips rather than have to explain to her parents why she’d brought them home unopened. On reflection, she realised she’d face even more questions if she came home early. She knew that her parents were worried about how she was settling in on the island. They’d been delighted when she’d told them about the
invitation, even though her father, as the island’s new resident doctor, couldn’t resist a warning about drinking and drugs.
‘Not that it’s likely to be a problem here,’ he’d added, echoing Allie’s own thoughts. ‘Everyone’s bound to know everyone else’s business in a place as small as this.’