Authors: Aoife Clifford
âWith wit and sharp insight, Aoife Clifford delivers a wholly absorbing novel. She illuminates one of the most fraught and exciting periods in a person's life â the leaving of home and the beginning of university â and crafts a story that deftly reveals all of the nuances of that first year on campus. From the friendships and the attractions to the nastiness, and set amidst a semester of simmering crime, this beautifully written tale follows the lives of the innocentÂ .Â .Â . and those not so innocent.'
What Came Before
âA novel of disquieting intimacy and controlled suspense, Clifford deftly tightening the screws until we share the narrator's sense of emotional and physical confinement and the unremitting grip of the past.'
âCombines the thrill of a great crime read with the poignancy of a coming of age novelÂ .Â .Â .
The Secret History
The Year My Voice Broke
All These Perfect Strangers
delivers as a compelling and convincing crime read, but it's the heartbreaking sadness of the story that lingers. Beautifully crafted, it is a remarkable accomplishment from a debut novelist.'
The Dying Beach
All These Perfect Strangers
is a wonderful, gripping and compelling read that lingers long after the book is closed. Aoife Clifford creates a disturbing but compelling cast of characters, leaving the reader constantly guessing what's around the corner, and her cleverly woven plot shines a harsh spotlight on the question of whether the past can ever truly be left behind.'
For Richard, Aidan, Genevieve & Evangeline
With thanks to Garry Disher and the Australian Society of Authors' Mentorship Program supported by the Copyright Agency
âThis is about three deaths. Actually more, if you go back far enough. I say deaths but perhaps all of them were murders. It's a grey area. Murder, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. So let's just call them deaths and say I was involved. This story could be told a hundred different ways.'
I am sitting in the waiting room looking at the painting on the wall. It has different-sized circles splattered all over it, every single one of them red. The first time I saw it I was worried it was one of those inkblots where you have to say whatever comes into your head. Stupid, I know, but I was only fifteen. All I could see was blood, which I knew was not a good answer. I decided if anyone asked me, they would be balloons because no one could make a big deal out of that.
The Rorschach test is what those inkblots are called. I looked that up at the town library straight after my first appointment. The only thing that painting actually reveals is how untalented Frank's wife, Ivy, is. She did it at an adult education class. Frank had an affair with her when his first wife had cancer. The whole town knows that, and they haven't forgotten. Neither has Ivy. That's why she's the receptionist and glares at all his female patients, including me.
Today, Ivy is wearing lipstick the exact same colour as the circles, but her mouth is always a thin straight line. She is making me sit in reception for ages, before letting Frank know I am here because I called her âIvy' instead of âMrs Hennessy'. I wanted to show her that I'm different this time around and I guess she wants to show me that she isn't.
While I'm waiting, I pull out the criminal law textbook from my bag. I'm reading about police cautions today but I'm not really in the mood to take it in. On afternoons this room is chock-full of school kids and parents from all over the district. Mostly anorexic girls. Occasionally you get a gay boy with his mother hoping that it's just a phase.
It is much quieter this morning. Ivy is sorting the mail and there is a farmer with a crumpled brown-paper face, staring into the middle distance. A shotgun accident waiting to happen. His pear-shaped wife, with a tight twisted mouth, almost sits on top of him, worried he might make a bolt for the door. She recognises me and pokes her husband in the ribs, but Frank appears, and I slip the textbook back into my bag without him noticing. That's the sort of thing he'd ask questions about.
Ivy announces, âDoctor will see you now,' as if Frank is a train about to leave the station. Standing by the reception desk, Frank brightens, the way you do when you see a friend, and a smile leaks out of me in return. Frank is thin and wiry. His mouth stretches all over his face, so even a small smile from him is a broad grin. He looks like a farmer, but that's probably because everybody looks like a farmer around here.
âHi, Frank,' I say to wind up Ivy, who insists upon âDoctor'. She opens the next envelope as though she is gutting a fish.
âPenelope,' Frank says in return. He knows what I am up to.
His office has a new plant, but the same old chair. He doesn't have the fancy ones that you lie down on. It was a deliberate choice, he told me when I was fifteen, but now I think they probably cost too much.
âSo, Pen, how are things?' he asks, as he closes the door behind me. Frank never asks âhow are you?' because he says people automatically say âfine', which must be a lie, because you wouldn't be seeing a psychiatrist if everything is fine.
âFine,' I say.
Next to the box of tissues for patients who cry is my file, fatter than I remember it. Frank has the patient file in his office for appointments but usually it's locked away in a cabinet in the kitchen. No one can access it but him, he claims. I don't believe that for one second. I bet Ivy spends every lunchtime reading all about Frank's patients.
Frank opens my file and looks at the first page.
âOctober 1987, not so long ago,' he says.
He's wrong, of course. October 1987 is a lifetime away. Everything has changed since then. For starters, I don't need treatment, not like when I first arrived here. Today's session is about money, a tactic. My lawyer, Bob Cochrane, has arranged it. He's talking about suing everyone, the college, the university and anyone else he can think of. I've been a victim of a terrible crime. All Frank needs to do is write a report demonstrating my pain and suffering and then I'm out of here.
âWhen did I last see you, Pen?' asks Frank, shuffling through the pages. âJuly 1988, just on two years ago. You stopped treatment quite suddenly, if I remember correctly.'
I don't see why we are going over ancient history. None of this is relevant to what we are supposed to be discussing now, so I tell him that actually the last time we saw each other was just before Christmas, when he wrote a reference for my bursary application for college.
He nods his head slowly, like he's taking my point, and then starts with the standard questions and I play along. Am I living back at home? Yes. How am I sleeping? All right. He pauses before asking if I'm taking any medication.
âNo painkillers?' he says, and he gestures towards my face. I have taken the bandage off so he can see the cut. I thought it might be helpful for the report. When I tell him no, he nods his head.
He puts down the notepad, and resettles himself in his chair, like we are in a game show and the next round of questions will be more difficult.
âWe are going to have to discuss those murders at university and your involvement.'
I am surprised by his bluntness. Other than the police, hardly anyone else has tried to talk about it with me, as if it would be bad manners to pry. But that is what psychiatrists do best, find pressure points.
He waits for me to speak, but I can't quite form the words for this conversation, so I look out of the window to avoid his gaze. There is a giftware shop across the lane that Tracey used to steal from. She said it was easy because the owner hated working and never paid attention to the customers. But the owner's mother did and that was the start of the trouble.
After a couple of minutes, Frank says, âPen, by the end of this session, I have to decide if I am the right person to make the assessment your lawyer is asking for.'
I turn away from the window. Frank is the only psychiatrist in my town. Frank is the only psychiatrist in the district.
âI have an arrangement with a colleague who travels to this clinic once a month to seeÂ .Â .Â . particular patients. It may be more appropriate for you to see her.'
I shake my head violently. I don't want anyone else to read my file, to ask me questions, to make judgments.
He leans back on his chair, pressing his fingers together, which he always does when things are serious.
âThen we are going to have to go through what's happened. I understand parts may be difficult to talk about so I am proposing that you write it down.'
âWhat?' I ask.
âI want you to put in writing what happened at university, the events, your thoughts and feelings, so we can discuss it.'
âBut how does that have anything to do with your report?' I try to keep my voice light and conversational, like this is an interesting development, rather than something really annoying.
âBob has asked me to evaluate if I think a return to treatment is warranted. Between that and the report, it's going to take at least a couple of sessions before I'm prepared to make that assessment. It will require your commitment to cooperate. No disappearing acts or long silences this time.'
The only appropriate answer to this is a long silence as I try to work out my strategy. Frank eventually interrupts. âAnd don't worry, I'm sure the university will cover the cost.'
That isn't what I am worried about. I remember what I was reading in my textbook when I was waiting.
You are not obliged to say or do anything unless you wish to do so, but whatever you say or do may be used in evidence. Do you understand?'
The police say it whenever they arrest someone. Three years ago, they said it to me. But what is more interesting was the footnote at the bottom of the page. It cites a study that found, despite the warning, almost no one stays silent. People feel compelled to talk, to excuse, to explain or confess.
I know that is right because I talked last time. I still don't know if I talked too much or not enough.
âIt doesn't have to be anything special,' says Frank. âIt's a technique to assist our discussions. A simple exercise book will do. Bring it along with you and read out what you have written. I don't even need to look at it. It will just be the starting point for each session.'
I wonder if this could be a way I can tell my story and be silent as well. Could I write down â
the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth'
? That phrase isn't in my criminal law book. I expect it's in the evidence textbook, which you don't need until your final year. Telling the whole truth means more than just an absence of lies. It means revealing all the secrets you know. I didn't tell the whole truth when I was sixteen and went to court. I haven't told the whole truth about what happened at uni. Perhaps I could tell it this once and then never again. Write it down but only read out the parts I want Frank to hear.
He must sense my weakening because he makes it a condition of continuing to see me.
âWe will explore what you have written and then you can take the book home with you.'
In other words, Ivy won't get her hands on it.
So I give in.
Â·Â Â Â·Â Â Â·
When I get home, Mum is still at work, so I hunt around for some paper to at least make a token effort because I need that report from him. I'll rewind the clock to six months ago when I left for university and start from there to keep him happy.
Eventually, I find a diary that belongs to Mum. It has a hard blue cover, a day to a page and holidays I've never heard of. Her work gave it to her as a Christmas present last year. She says they're cheapskates and could at least have bought a ham or some chocolates.