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Authors: Helen Blackhurst

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BOOK: Swimming on Dry Land
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I stop short of Monica and Mike, taking a moment to catch my breath. You wouldn't believe the things that flash through my mind in the next few seconds. All the horror films I've ever seen rolled into one. I flip a coin in my pocket for a few seconds before I cross the last stretch of scrub. I'm sweating like a spit-fired pig. It's not the heat; it's the pressure that makes my skin drip.

Monica is shaking violently, pressing her hands to her head, really distraught. I'm ready for the worst. Mike tries to calm her down; he clamps his arms around her waist. When I reach them, he signals over to a big clump of scrub grass. All I see at first is the scrub grass. Then I walk around to the other side and there it is, destroyed by flies, open picking for the birds, but still recognisable. My stomach does a U-turn.

‘It's a joey!' I'm so relieved, I burst out laughing. ‘My god, you had me going then. Calm down, Monica. It's only a baby kangaroo.'

She is not the least bit consoled.

Mike more or less spits at me. ‘I'll take her back. Tell the others what happened.'

When he starts to lead Monica away, she breaks free of him and shoots across to the corpse. She plunges to the ground and stretches out beside it, running her hands along the length of its mangy body.

‘Don't touch it!' Mike shouts.

But she presses her head against the animal's open belly. He has to prise her off. Children can be pretty morbid. Mike was the worst; he was always cutting up animals to get a look at their insides.

He leads Monica off, though she keeps pulling back. He has to carry her in the end. She'll be a real stunner when she's older; the same wavy auburn hair as Caroline. I'm so relieved, I actually cry; I cry in the midst of shaking laugher, no doubt owing to lack of sleep.

Systematically, I make my way between each shaft, pulling off the caps, calling down, until the sun disappears. It feels good to be on my own, mostly; now and again I get a bit spooked at the idea of being out here with God knows what on the loose. I know exactly what we're in for. The interviews will start. People will cook up fantastical explanations guaranteed to fuel mass panic. And I'll have to create new tactics to calm the storm. It's like the worst recurring dream. On top of which, it is Georgie.

When I get back to the service station, I wait by the pumps for a while, watching the moon grow in the darkening sky. Nothing will be the same after this. There is no going back to those early days. In four years this town has developed a hunch, and grown as rough as toad skin. We all have.

I'll tell you what I see when I close my eyes; I see this street with its identical houses and pinched together gardens, children climbing lampposts and flying flags that turn into butterfly wings. It's my street. I'm walking up and down, watering the houses as if they were flowers, lifting off the roofs to watch the people inside. My street. I wish Dad was alive to see what I have done.

When I open the sitting-room door, Caroline shoots towards me, stopping mid-stride to look at Monica, who is writhing on the settee, her face wet with sweat. We both watch her until Caroline says, ‘I thought you were the doctor.'

There is so much I could say, so much I want to say, but none of it seems relevant. And so I draw her into the next room where we can be alone. I lift her face towards mine and kiss the tears that roll down her cheeks. Then I unbutton the front of her dress. Just as my mouth reaches her breast, she pulls away.

Mike is studying a map of the old mine, which is pinned to the kitchen wall. It must be close to dawn. He makes pencil marks where we've already searched. Without looking back at me, he asks, ‘Who's Ted Hanson?' The relief, at first, is overwhelming. I can feel the push of it all, like a giant wave, as I get ready to rush the whole thing out. I never meant to hide what happened. As I said, the timing wasn't right.

I drop into a chair at the kitchen table and search the map for a starting point. It's hard to find the right road in. Mike turns around, clutching at his arm below the elbow with his other hand, his shoulders slumped in their usual position. So I begin. ‘Two years ago Ted went missing. It was a Wednesday. He turned up at the mine, left work, and then vanished somewhere between the drop-off point and the street. The men came over the next evening. He hadn't showed and wasn't at home. They thought he might be with me.' I have imagined having this conversation, what I would say, how Mike would react. It wasn't like this. We were in the bar, for a start. The whole thing was more of a sideways comment than an actual conversation: a point of interest, a snippet of information, something Mike could write about if he wanted to. Mike moulds his face into a chipped expression I can't make out, and because he stays silent, I go on.

‘We searched everywhere, went through all the shafts twice, three times, kept thinking we'd missed something. No one leaves this town without being seen. There is only one way out by road, and his car was still here. We'd had no planes, no one driving in or out.'

‘What did the police say?'

‘They wrote a missing person's report. We thought he'd turn up. It wasn't like he was dead.'

‘Did he take clothes? Food?' Mike is growing agitated; his neck is a patchwork of reds. ‘What about friends, relatives?'

‘Nothing. He wasn't married.'

‘You're not married. Would you just up and leave without telling anyone?'

‘Look, Mike, I don't know. It's a different world out here. People get crazy. Maybe he just couldn't hack it and skidaddled. Haven't you ever wanted to disappear?'

Mike stares at me for what feels like a long time, and then he says: ‘We're at least a hundred miles from anywhere. Anyone who tried to leave on foot would die of heat exhaustion if nothing else got them first. People don't just disappear.'

‘I would have told you eventually. You had enough on your plate. Anyway, we know Georgie fell down a shaft. Let's not mix things up.'

‘Why haven't we found her?' He steps forward and grabs the back of the nearest chair. ‘She's not the kind of child to go racing through underground tunnels. Moni said her leg was hurt. She couldn't have gone that far. We've looked within at least a five-mile radius. Where the hell is she?'

I take a steady breath before I say: ‘Ted's not the only one.'

By the blankness on Mike's face, he seems not to have understood. So I explain. ‘Last year a woman went missing: Shena Walker. Last February.
Everyone knew her husband was knocking her about. She'd probably had enough. Only we couldn't figure out how she'd left. Unless she'd hitched a ride with the food truck or the mail plane. I checked both. Denis – you know Denis, our pilot from Wattle Creek – he was in Sydney at the time, so there was no other way out. She didn't take the car, obviously.' Mike puts his hand over his mouth and lets it slide down his chin, and then he brings his fingers back up to his lips. I can't tell if he is mad or just undone. ‘We thought she'd turn up….'

I go on to tell him everything. Well, nearly everything. I leave out the fact that Shena Walker used to clean this house, once a week, on a Friday. She went missing on a Friday. I must have known before anyone else. When she didn't turn up for work, I called down to her house. She'd left the radio on. I knew something was wrong. She wasn't just my cleaning lady; we fooled around – nothing serious, not like Caroline.

I wasn't surprised when her husband arrived the next day. I told him she'd been to clean the house and left at four o'clock as usual. Don't ask me why I lied. Once I'd said it, there was no going back. I didn't want another mystery on my hands, so I carried on as if everything was normal. I kept leaving her envelopes underneath the counter in the shop each Friday, hoping she'd turn up. When her husband left, two weeks later, I gave him all the money. Within a month the bank had repossessed the house.

Mike is shouting. ‘Do you think we'd have let the girls roam around like that if we'd have known? Georgie's four. What chance has she got?'

‘Calm down.'

‘Calm down?'

I understand why he's angry, of course I do, but Mike has never been able to see the bigger picture; he always gets twisted up in some detail.

‘I wanted to tell you when I was over last year, but we were having such a good time, and I just needed to forget the whole thing. I thought the fuss might blow over. And then I finally got you here. I didn't want you turning round and going home.'

Mike puts one of his hands on the top of his head and looks down. When he looks up again, his lips are slightly parted as if he's about to speak. I wait, winding the loose button thread on my shirt around my finger. I pluck at the thread a bit, and then go to the fridge for two beers, one of which I set down in front of him. I pull the damn thread some more as I say: ‘I'm sorry, Mike. I really thought it was all over.'

I flip the beer top and take a swig, throwing the opener down beside his bottle. For a few seconds I glimpse the stubborn fiery bastard Mike used to be, the way his face sets hard.

‘What are we supposed to do?' he asks.

‘We keep looking. I'll see to it those shafts are properly sealed off as soon as we find her. I'll get a fence put up.'

‘A fence?' Mike moves around the table towards me. His face is bright red. ‘A fence?' he repeats.

‘Where are you going?'

He bolts out. I give the shirt thread a final tug and my button falls to the floor.

Susan doesn't comment on the beer in my hand. She drops her doctor's bag so that she can hug me properly.

‘Don't suppose they've found her then?' is what she says. ‘Caroline called. Where are they?' She steps back to take a good look at me. I haven't showered or shaved in two days. ‘What did they say about the others?' She waits for my response. When nothing comes, she says, ‘You
have
told them?'

I nod, directing her towards the sitting room.

Susan is the only person who understands that none of this is my fault. I can still hear Mike, the outrage, as if I'd somehow betrayed him. I haven't betrayed anyone. All the same, I know I made a mistake, but things can still turn around.

Let me tell you a story about my older brother. When he left university, he was the brightest of the bunch, a real star. (I was never much of a scholar.) Mike met Caroline that same year, in Paris I think. She was doing some student exchange, singing in a jazz bar at night. I didn't like her at first. Found her a bit thin, not literally, but she didn't have much zazz. It was only after she had Monica that her singing really took off. She grew on me. I hung around their house in Hendon quite a lot; I had nowhere of my own at the time.

A friend of mine working on the stock exchange gave me a few tips. After a couple of failed attempts, I struck lucky; that was really what set me up. But Mike, he always worked like a dog and kept his head down, just like Dad. Never complained, never asked for anything.
You reap what you sow, and what you don't sow won't grow
. What I envied Mike was that he seemed satisfied. I tried to show him that there was more to life, but in a way he had it all. And I had nothing: money, yes, women galore, but nothing worth dying for.

After Mike had the car accident – he didn't even hit the child – he stopped driving and sort of curled up in a ball. I was amazed. I couldn't believe that the great Mike had fallen flat. I tried everything I could, but he wouldn't shake himself out of it. Next thing, he's working in some back street cinema doing bitty reviews for the local press. I suppose what I'm trying to say is, even the best of us can miss a pitch.

When I get to the sitting room, Monica is asleep again. Caroline and Susan are deep in discussion with Maddie Brenton, a blunt decent woman – knows a nail from a screw. The three of them are clustered together by the window like witches. They stop talking when they see me.

‘Is she alright?' I ask. From their rolled-up faces I can tell they don't know who I'm talking about. ‘Monica – is she alright?'

Susan nods and picks up her bag: ‘She'll have to sleep here for a while. The caravan will be too hot. Keep the air-conditioning on. You know where I am.' She takes leave of the women and smiles briefly as she walks past me. Caroline doesn't look at me as she follows Susan through to the shop.

I drag the camp bed out from under the cabinet. Maddie helps me lift it over to the wall, by the window. ‘Michael's still out, I take it?' I say.

She doesn't answer, just undoes the clip and flips the mattress down. Maddie is broad, big-chested, with a set of biceps that puts me to shame, but she is straight as they come – says what she means. I like that. We arrange the sheets and then I lift Monica off the settee and lay her down carefully on the camp bed. Her breath quickens but she doesn't wake.

‘Thank god for sleep,' Maddie says, staring at Monica with a tired look on her face. ‘We've been trying to work out what the connection between the three of them might be. You any ideas, Mr Harvey?' (She insists on calling me Mr Harvey.) ‘Ted was a pretty happy-go-lucky sort of fella, not an obvious target for anyone. Then Shena. I didn't realise she was pregnant.'

BOOK: Swimming on Dry Land
9.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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