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  • Published: 19 July 2022
  • ISBN: 9781761046100
  • Imprint: Viking
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 352
  • RRP: $32.99

Denizen: Winner of the Penguin Literary Prize

Extract

I was twenty-four when Christian was born, much younger than I’d ever expected to become a father. He slept so soundly that I didn’t see his blue-grey eyes until he was almost a week old. All he did was doze, a little bundle of contentment whose nostrils flared at the pace of a dog’s panting. I beamed with pride when he wrapped a hand around my pinkie finger. No-one had explained newborn reflexes to me.

I was naive. Even when Kelly went into labour, I still hadn’t fully considered the possibilities. I’d forgotten what a child could do. When he began to keep his eyes open, staring up at me with pensive curiosity, I saw more than just my infant son; I saw the past unfurling like a roll of carpet, disappearing into a vast and hypnotic blackness.

They came in fragments at first: a mutilated rabbit, a shattered microwave, a moonlit face refracted through a glass of water. Christian was two weeks old when complete recollections began to surface. He was maroon in the face and screeching, his bunched fists jerking from his blanket, when the show-jumping incident came back to me. I sang, I swayed, I shushed; still, he screamed in unadulterated agony. And I suddenly realised how far apart we were. How unknowable he was.

Of course, that was normal for a newborn; it was just how they experienced the world. So why did it make me sick with fear?

 

The Colladai Showground barely earned its name, a muddy paddock on the edge of town, the smell of hay and horse manure choking even in the off-season. During events its sole grandstand was reserved for competitors and officials, so my father and I stood at the skeletal iron fence to spectate. He was stocky like a bulldog, his hairline beyond the meridian of his pink scalp and shaved to a few silver millimetres. I sat my chin on the fence as wiry girls rode the largest animals I’d ever seen over a series of obstacles, the jump nearest to us four feet high. There was thunder in my chest each time they passed.

It happened late in the day. A speckled grey horse with a junior champion on its back ran a flawless routine until it reached our jump, where it struck a forehoof on the rail. Its rear shot up as though spring-loaded, ejecting the rider in a graceless cartwheel. The crowd gasped as she hit the mud.

The horse snorted, its eyes rolling; it padded the ground, its hind legs rippling with muscle, then launched into a gallop towards us. The murmurs turned to shouts. My father swore and barrelled into me and I screamed, grabbing at air as we fell, the earth rushing towards us —

The horse leapt the boundary fence – a jump higher than the one it had just failed – and galloped into the adjacent car park. My father pulled me to my feet as a pack of officials sprinted after it.

‘What happened?’ I said.

‘It bolted.’ He knocked mud from the seat of his sodden jeans, more animated in his irritation than he’d been all day. The rider, pale with shock, struggled to her feet.

‘Why?’

‘They just do sometimes,’ he said. ‘They go blind and deaf and lose control.’

 

The horse bolted ten days before the car accident. One memory prompted the next.

 

The world appeared as a speck of light beyond the pinhole of my tunnelled vision and expanded until I could identify shapes: a crescent moon in the twilight, the black ridges of distant hills, plains flashing through gaps in the scrub. The car’s engine. A distant voice. Something connected with my left foot, then my right, then my left again, the impact ricocheting up my legs and into my pelvis.

‘Parker, if you don’t stop fucking kicking the seat, I’ll pull over and leave you here —’

Her knuckles glowed white in the light of the speedometer, her fists balled around the wheel. Ahead, the bitumen unspooled in the high beams, the tops of the roadside gums swallowed by night. My awareness expanded with a sudden ferocity, my vision whole, sensation returning to my chest and stomach. I screamed, the pressure unbearable, my muscles seizing, my body contorting; I thrashed my legs and dug gouges from my face and kicked with renewed vigour, and she pushed back in her seat and answered with a screech that grated on my bones.

‘Parker, I’m serious, I’ll pull over and leave you in the scrub to die. You’re the most horrible, ungrateful child God ever put breath into —’

‘I hate you.’

‘I hate you too. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, a mother’s love isn’t unconditional.’

‘I wish you were dead.’

‘You know what, Parker? You might just get your wish. Do you know how many parents with children like you kill themselves?’

And then there was light; more light than my vision could expand to accommodate, so abrupt there was no time to brace before the cataclysmic roar of metal on metal. The seatbelt yanked against my throat and my limbs flailed, my mother’s screams the only human sound in the chaos —

But as quickly as it had started, it was over.

The car creaked and crackled: a trickling somewhere beneath us, a hot tick that might have been the engine. Mere feet from my face was a headlight, its plastic cover shattered, the LandCruiser it belonged to now one with our sedan.

Car doors clicked open. Footsteps hurried towards us.

‘Are you okay?’

My mother’s breath returned with a jagged inhalation. ‘Yes.’ Her voice was uncomfortably loud in the new quiet.

‘Is there anyone else in the car?’

‘My son’s in the back seat.’

A man appeared at my window, illuminated by the Land- Cruiser’s headlight. His face was thick with stubble, his eyebrows flecked with dirt.

‘You right, mate?’

‘Yes.’

‘Tell them there’s a kid,’ he said to someone else. ‘How old are you?’

‘Eight.’

‘And you’re not hurt?’

‘No.’

It was true. My neck burnt where the seatbelt had pulled against it, but I was otherwise unscathed. It was my mother who’d borne the brunt.

‘Well, that’s a fuckin’ miracle,’ he said. He moved to my mother’s door, her side window obliterated. ‘Because your car’s rooted. Mine is too, thanks very much. Jesus Christ, you silly bitch! That was a give way, what were you doin’?’

She didn’t answer. He walked back to his own wreck.

‘Oh God.’ She was slumped against her door, her voice trembling. ‘Oh God, my back.’

I opened my door and tumbled out into long grass; the car had come to rest several metres off the road. When I pulled her handle, she gasped in pain.

‘Don’t move her, mate,’ the man said. ‘Wait till the ambos get here in case she’s hurt her neck.’

I nodded and knelt beside her door, our faces inches apart. Her eyes were squeezed shut, sweat beading on her nose.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said.

She didn’t answer, her face pale, her breathing shallow. I sat with her until the first sirens sounded, red and blue lights strobing the bush as they neared. I climbed into the back of the first ambulance. Two paramedics stretchered her into the second.

The pain and pressure had gone from my body. I was entirely myself again.

Later, I wondered about the odds of the crash happening where it did. It was the only intersection in fifty-four kilometres of road. We rarely even passed another car driving home, let alone had to give way at the crossing.

The ambulances couldn’t navigate the single-lane track at speed, and so the trip back to town took almost an hour. The locum doctor working Colladai’s two-bed emergency department was satisfied I’d escaped intact but wasn’t sure about my mother – the hospital’s medical imaging unit was an ageing X-ray machine no-one on shift could operate. He waited until my father arrived to announce my mother needed a transfer to Sydney.

The ED was no larger than a living room, the plastic cubbies on its walls overflowing with syringes, vomit bags and glove dispensers. My mother lay flat on a bed, her black hair piled over her forehead like a bird’s nest. A padded collar gripped her neck as though trying to choke her, squashing her narrow face. Even then she smelled like lavender, the scent rising above the bleach and cleaning alcohol.

Her eyes remained fixed on the ceiling as my father and I pulled plastic chairs to her bedside.

‘How are you feeling?’ my father asked.

She licked her flaking lips. ‘Awful.’

‘What happened?’

‘Parker.’

‘What did he do?’

‘He was out of control.’ Her words bled into one another.

My father looked at me. ‘So it was your fault?’ I nodded. He turned back to my mother. ‘Have the police talked to you?’

‘Why do the police need to talk to her?’ I said.

‘Because someone could have died.’ My father’s jowls quivered. ‘Your mum could have killed someone and gone to jail. Or she could have been killed herself.’

‘I can’t keep doing this, Parker.’

My father exhaled through his nose. ‘Let’s talk about this later.’

She directed her eyes to me, her head immobilised by the collar. ‘Do you understand?’

‘Yes.’

‘Something is wrong with you.’

Meredith.’ For the first time that evening, there was life in my father’s voice.

We sat in silence until the locum doctor returned and wheeled my mother back to the ambulance bay. Her eyes were closed as he steered her around the corner and out of sight.

 

My father slowed the ute as we approached, the wreck looming from the roadside dark like a twisted monolith. The two cars sat catastrophically intertwined, blue and white police tape flittering in the wind. The glass strewn across the road glittered in the ute’s headlights.

‘Dad,’ I said. ‘You know the horse that bolted?’

He didn’t answer, his eyes on the crash.

Something is wrong with you.

She’d voiced something I’d long suspected, but it was frightening that she now saw it too.

The car accident was five months and nineteen days before the awakening. One memory prompted the next.


Denizen: Winner of the Penguin Literary Prize James McKenzie Watson

A rural thriller from the winner of the 2021 Penguin Literary Prize.

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