Authors: Adrienne Ferreira
A fortnight into Term 1, Dom Best had his routineâ¦
The bell rang, signalling the end of lunch. Dom wasâ¦
Camille smoothed soft plastic over the spine of a newâ¦
Dom's flat was on Riviera Drive. The school had sortedâ¦
My favourite place to draw is under the boat. It'sâ¦
Mira was only a casual at the fruit shop butâ¦
Before bed, I coax the boat story out of myâ¦
Dom sat in the principal's office and listened as Malcolmâ¦
It's Saturday morning and my father and I are atâ¦
Dom was on the veranda steps with his head betweenâ¦
Dom woke on top of apricot chenille in three worldsâ¦
The Rotary Club of Morus met at six o'clock everyâ¦
When I get home from school I am surprised toâ¦
Through the shadowy blur of the propeller I watch theâ¦
Camille couldn't believe how quickly Thursday had come around. Thisâ¦
It is Friday afternoon, the last day of term andâ¦
Just in time for the holidays, down came the rain.
Gerard Roper sped north along the highway. The rain hadâ¦
Eleanor's old green Jag glided slowly through the rain likeâ¦
The visitor's seat in Malcolm's office was piled high withâ¦
My parents have said I should take a rest fromâ¦
I'm sitting in a room at school I never evenâ¦
Eleanor set off early for Sinclair's. They were in theâ¦
For my mother, Helen,
who tells the best stories
Every child is an artist.
The problem is how to remain an artist
once we grow up.
My grandfather was murdered. The river did it. That's the reason you won't catch me swimming in there and why I have to keep a close eye on it.
My mother thinks it was an accident. She says Nonno drowned because the floodwaters were too strong and he was a weak swimmer. Besides, she says, murder is a deliberate act of anger or hatred or revenge, and the river doesn't feel one way or the other but is indifferent like all things in nature. This is what I have to listen to whenever we visit the swimming hole, which is a short walk through the paperbarks at the bottom of our yard. We're down here most afternoons this hot summer. My mother swims, I keep watch. I don't like her going in there on her own.
I climb up on one of the high boulders and pick at the patches of grey and orange lichen while she wades in, her body dissolving like a ghost in the tea-coloured water. Her big bum moons me as she dives under, then she pops up and does some synchronised swimming strokes: fancy freestyle salutes and pointed kicks and seal rolls. To finish she floats on her back, making islands of her boobs and tummy. Her curly hair is an ink spill round her head. She spits water at me like a fountain to prove how nice it is in there and how I'm missing out. There's nothing to be afraid of, she says.
She's wrong. The river has a secret. I know it and Nonno knew it too. And look what happened to him.
So I've been studying the river, doing some investigating, collecting clues. I like collecting. My rock collection fills three shoeboxes now and I have feathers from eight different kinds of birds from the bush around my house. Strips of bark can be interesting, so can seed pods and snake skins and lizard skeletons. My favourites are the hard dribbles of red sap I sometimes find spilling out of trees, devastating insect cities like a lava flow. The little bodies inside are perfectly preserved.
One thing I've noticed is that up in the hills where I live, the Lewis is narrow and fast. It's noisy where it rushes over the rocks, then it creeps along silently in pools like it's sneaking up on someone. Down in town, where the land is flat, the river turns fat and slow and green. It ripples its long muscles as it winds its way around Morus in a big loop, as if it wants to squeeze the place and swallow it whole. Snakes can do that â they dislocate their jaws and gulp down animals much bigger than their own heads. I saw one eat an antelope, even its twirly horns, on the TV once. Every now and then when the rain sets in, the river rises up and swallows things: roads and farms, the caravan park, the football field. Last year it grabbed two sheep and spat them out dead on the beach at Port Torft. They were big and bloated like wet woolly balloons. I had to draw them over and over to get them right.
When I say I have been studying the river, I mean I have been drawing it. Even more than collecting, I like to draw.
Right now we're in the middle of a drought and the river has turned to cold coffee with dark scabs along its banks. It is so shallow and full of algae you could almost feel sorry for it, except for the smell. The river smells bad. It's the breath of all those things it has swallowed â Nonno included â rotting in
its stomach. It might be all shallow and pathetic but the river's breath reminds you that it can't be trusted. It was a thin and hungry snake that ate that antelope on TV.
My mother doesn't understand why I won't swim with her. She doesn't understand how I can spend all day drawing, or why I like to be on my own so much. Mum is big â not fat, but forceful and loud and people can't help noticing her. I'm not like that. I like to take up the smallest possible space, which helps when you're an investigator. It's called being
. It means you can make your way unseen into places other people can't. That way you have a better chance of collecting evidence, which is important in cases like this.
Only with the right evidence can you catch a murderer.
A fortnight into Term 1, Dom Best had his routine sorted. The ride to work took ten minutes: out of his rented flat at Camelot Mews, left onto Riviera Drive and across the old bridge, dodging rusty bolts the size of golf balls. Then he could either take the first left onto Vernon Street or continue along the highway, as he did this morning, making his way to school through the centre of town to grab some breakfast.
The bicycle had been unexpected and riding it was a bit of an embarrassment to Dom. The old Corolla he'd inherited from his cousin Ace had delivered him to Morus on the hottest day of the year, but the trip had been too much for it and a day later it had packed it in. Hardly surprising; at twenty-six the car had two years up on him and was held together by bog, and yet Dom couldn't help feeling peeved. Bloody Ace. Given his pay cheques from the school wouldn't start for a while and he didn't want to ask his parents for a loan, there had been no option but to accept the only courtesy vehicle the town mechanic had on hand â a BMX bike his son had outgrown. Not exactly how Dom had pictured himself making an impression as the new teacher on the kids of Morus Primary. It was only marginally better than catching the school bus.
Since he'd arrived the hot weather had persisted and there hadn't been so much as a cloudy day. At least it made for good
riding conditions and Dom was adjusting to the bike now, beginning to appreciate the little details he would have missed from a car. For a start, he knew all the dogs on his route because they faithfully re-introduced themselves when he pedalled past each day. At the childcare centre he noticed when the window display changed; this morning a batch of brightly painted paper hands waved at him, and at the cottage next door the old lady was out on her lawn again in her pink rubber gloves, squirting poison onto ants' nests from an ancient plastic container. He passed the football field, where a lone figure was pumping out squats in the far corner while the usual group of black-headed ibis did their rounds like old-time doctors in white frock-coats. Further along, the CWA hall was open already, its doors flung wide to reveal pensioners gathered at wooden trestles drinking cups of tea, since the crack of dawn, most likely. Turning onto High Street, he left them to it.
Near the shops he slowed, wary of the increasing traffic. Glancing down a side street he noticed that the butcher's back step was host to a motley crew of mutts, licking their gums and waiting impatiently for the stream of pink water to begin its regular morning trickle across the laneway. He was tempted by the bakery's warm smell, promising trays of loaves, sponges and the iced treats that lined the bowels of the community. But even Dom couldn't stomach a custard tart this early. Instead he dumped his bike out the front of the take-away and ordered a bacon and egg roll and while it was cooking he strolled up the street, stopping at a dancing cow painted on the window of the Steak House. He peered in at the darkened tables. A place like this would serve ribs, for sure. Wandering back, he noted that the jewellery shop offered free engraving for purchases over a
hundred dollars, even though the information was of no use to him. Across the road the music shop began playing the Rolling Stones at full volume, the sound penetrating from behind closed doors. He couldn't help giving it a bit of air guitar and when his breakfast was ready, back on the bike, he pedalled to the crunching rhythm of âStart Me Up'.
In the mornings the street outside the school was always chaos, an obstacle course of buses and cars, pedestrians and prams. Dom avoided it by cutting round the back, across the desiccated oval to the bike racks behind the library. He removed his helmet and greeted a few other riders, all children, as they pulled in. He knew quite a lot of names. Pleased with himself, he retrieved the roll from his backpack and scoffed it on his way to the staffroom.
Any free time the kids had at school was taken up with intense play and Dom liked to watch the different groups in the playground, the way they formed and divided and clustered again like cells in a Petri dish. Some slapped balls to each other in the bright quadrangle, bodies all tendon and muscle, moving square to square efficiently to a set of unspoken rules. Others huddled together in oblongs of shade, a bundle of sharp limbs jutting out beneath blue brimmed hats, absorbed in the inspection of some treasure. Marbles were the current craze and Dom felt an odd, time-bending sensation to see how these small objects captivated the kids. Marbles made him feel old.
Already the place was growing on him. His expectations had been low at first; new teachers were always assigned to the most unpopular schools. But when he took a look at the tourist brochure the school had included with its letter of welcome, he thought Morus seemed okay. Ignoring the bad graphics
and outdated photographs, he'd concentrated instead on the description:
Nestled on the banks of the beautiful Lewis River and only twenty minutes from the sea, Morus is a small historical township orbited by rural hamlets, farms and natural forest
. His mind had gone skimming up shaded river bends, past quaint old houses, iron-laced pubs and kids fishing off bridges. At his farewell party everyone had offered their condolences and Dom had rolled his eyes too, but quietly he'd been looking forward to the change. He'd never lived in the country, or on a river, or twenty minutes from the sea. Only Ace had said, âIt doesn't matter
, Nicky. You're a teacher now.' Dom had been grateful. His cousin was a good mate, even though he persisted with the childhood nickname that made him feel about eight years old. Then Ace had said, âNow it's time to get out there and spread your wisdom!' and laughed long and hard.
Ace knew the truth of it. Teaching hadn't exactly been a lifelong calling for Dom, but he had to do something. Working for his father's window business after high school had never felt right, despite the security it offered and the fact that he got to hang out with his cousin every day. At night, sleep eluding him, aluminium window frames in all their variations would multiply in the darkness around him, a million portals offering the same future: windows, as far as the eye could see. Increasingly, he'd felt out of place among the guys at the factory. He'd made the decision to cash in his savings and travel to Europe. Ace had gone with him but blew all his money in three months and had to come home early. Dom had stuck it out, done bar work to pay his way and returned a year later to more windows. Ace had been happy to see him; Dom fell into a depression. It was his mother who'd suggested teaching.
For some reason Dom had assumed the course would be easy, but he'd struggled through all the reading, the endless essays and assignments, managing only a couple of shifts at the factory as he scraped in the marks. When he found himself up on stage during the graduation ceremony he could hardly believe he'd made it. He'd stood in the Great Hall waiting to shake the Dean's hand with all the other figures in black gowns and funny hats and felt absurd â who the hell dressed like that? But when he glanced around to share his embarrassment he'd seen only solemnity and pride in his classmates' faces.
Desperately he'd searched the audience until he found them: his mother, father and sister, and his cousin, too, on his day off; out of all of them, only Ace knew just what a slog it had been. They'd looked pleased for him but Dom could tell they felt as out of place as he did. Nobody else in his family had been to university and the grand environment and its protocol were strange.
Above them all, sunlight streamed through a set of stained-glass windows, illuminating a series of tableaux, historic moments from ceremonies past. Dom wondered how those men had felt when they accepted their swords and crosses and visitations from angels. Had they felt prepared? Deserving? He'd stared at the radiant faces but their lead-light expressions gave nothing away.
During the photographs his feeling of uncertainty had sharpened, lodging somewhere below his ribs. It nicked him whenever he thought of the school he would soon enter, whenever he tried to imagine his colleagues; his classroom; his
. Back home after the ceremony, robes returned to the hire place, he'd slipped the crimson ribbon from around his degree, unrolled it and stared at his name. He was a teacher. Here
was an important-looking certificate to prove it. After a while he rolled it back up again, wondering how long it would be before he felt like one.
And then the day had come. He'd packed everything into the Corolla and headed north, nervous but looking forward to arriving in a lush little country town. Along the route, though, everything was bone dry â the bush surviving in its scrappy way but the dams mostly empty, bottoms cracked; cows and horses clumped together under lone trees, noses down; creek beds bare and crumbling. In one stretch of national park a bushfire had broken out and for a while Dom drove along beside it, smoke swirling into the open windows, causing his heart to thump in rising panic. Instinct had urged him to flee, to seek out water, and the fear only subsided once the smouldering embers were far behind him.
After seven sweaty hours driving he saw the sign for Morus, and beside it a government notice announcing the new bypass:
Phase One Commencing November 1995 â A State and Federal Initiative.
That explained the diggers gorging on the roadside and the line of concrete pipes trailing into the distance. Soon a dual carriageway would ram right through the forest, but now it was just a raw strip of orange dust with two giant steamrollers busily placating it.
The highway veered west and for a few kilometres he'd travelled through low, cardboard-coloured hills. It felt good to be out of monotonous forest and into farmland again. Dom had let his eyes wander across the open landscape all the way to the horizon and then he'd leaned forward, staring. Was that a storm front rolling in? He'd felt a rush of relief, imagining the change an afternoon storm would bring, until he realised it wasn't clouds at
all, just a distant blue mountain range billowy in the haze. He'd rubbed his eyes. The heat was starting to mess with his head.
Orchards of polka dot green appeared, and a few houses. A minute later the road took him down into a patch of trees and then out onto a high bridge. Iron struts and refracted sunlight flickered. He looked down. There it was, the Lewis. Even though he'd been longing for water, Dom couldn't help feeling disappointed. The river and its township looked smaller and browner than he'd imagined. Nobody was swimming or fishing that he could see. There were certainly no waterskiers. In a few seconds he was across the bridge and down into a line of cheap motor inns jostling each other for attention. Who the hell stayed in these places? he wondered. Secret lovers? Travelling salesmen? He found it hard to imagine there were that many salesmen plying their wares up and down the state.
The town had obviously seen better days, but there was still something pretty about Morus, Dom decided. It was the trees that did it â not the gum trees, the other type that were growing everywhere. Outside the supermarket, he pulled in under the shade of one and bright green leaves hit the windscreen like a splash of water. He opened the door and climbed out, stretching. Here at last was something vigorous, something that hinted at cool shade, damp soil, fresh water running deep. He picked a leaf, large and heart shaped, bigger than his hand. It crackled slightly in his fingers and felt bristly. Studying the crinkly edge and the puckering around its veins, he half recognised it. He wasn't an expert but he knew the difference between a gum and a pine tree. He could spot a palm. Camphor laurels he knew because there had been one in his backyard when he was a kid; they'd had to cut it down because it was releasing some kind of poison into the soil that stopped
anything else from growing. He remembered sitting on the back steps with Ace the weekend his father and uncle dismantled the old tree bit by bit with the chainsaw, inhaling the pungent fumes and watching in morbid fascination as the thick trunk and branches were cut up until nothing remained but sawdust and scattered leaves. There was something satisfying about it. But when he woke the next morning and looked out the window he saw that it wasn't his yard anymore. It seemed foreign and empty. He'd felt the loss.
He looked at the leaf in his hand and squinted down the street. Whatever these trees were, Morus was full of them. They stood weeping in front yards and vacant lots. They invaded the median strips, roots bursting through concrete. He'd noticed some gigantic ones down along the riverbank, too, and lucky someone had planted them, otherwise the place would have been a bit of a hole.
After the aimless drift of years at the factory and all that stumbling around Europe and the Middle East whacked by too much grand history, this was the place he'd ended up. Walking through the school grounds now he took it all in: brick and tin, weatherboard and woodchip, cladding, glass, asphalt and garden beds. Impossible to forecast a future from such a jumble but Morus was where he was meant to be. Dom felt certain of it.
It was a surprise how much he was enjoying the job, especially when he thought back to some of his early conversations at uni. There'd been so many girls in his course; he'd dated a few and they all seemed to have the same reason for being there. âI just love kids,' they'd gush. âI've always wanted to give something back, make a difference. What about you?'
At first Dom could only smile awkwardly in response. He hadn't felt that way at all. His silence didn't put them off, though; these
were confident girls and determined. Plus, given their numbers, he was at a distinct statistical advantage. Eventually, they'd press him for an answer. âSo, why
you want to be a teacher?'
Still Dom had found it hard to know what to say.
I had the marks
didn't go down so well. He learned it was easier to say he loved kids too and it had been like stumbling onto the magic words because usually girls insisted on sleeping with him after that. None of those relationships had lasted; the women he'd met were all goal oriented but immature, assuming that because he was older he'd be cashed up. His lack of money and ambition had made them lose interest pretty quickly but he hadn't really minded. Everyone had been up for a good time at university and Dom had made the most of it, which no doubt contributed to his shabby grades.