- Published: 2 July 2021
- ISBN: 9781761040634
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 336
- RRP: $32.99
The Missing Girl
Nineteen-ninety, I reflected, was not turning out to be the best of years for me. It was only the fifteenth of January and already I had lost my job, and my partner, Phillip, who was a photojournalist, had taken a posting overseas – just a temporary thing, he’d said. But that depended on the nature of the current emergency, in this case an earthquake and tribal fighting in New Guinea. And now this.
I glared at the phone. If the call had come a week earlier I could truthfully have claimed to be unable to leave Hahndorf. Jobs didn’t grow on trees and mine was vital to the business. Or so I had believed until two days ago when my boss, Gwen Parfell, told me we were closing our doors.
‘It’s over, Meg. We gave it our best shot but I’m skint. Another week and I won’t be able to manage the rent, never mind your wages.’ She had pushed a hand through her coarse, bouffant hair and then pinched tiredly at the bridge of her nose. ‘It’s no good flogging a dead horse. The owners will have to take their stock back and any I’ve been mad enough to buy outright I’ll have to try selling at the markets.’
It had been a shock, though, if I was honest, not totally unexpected. The Christmas crowds hadn’t spent up as much as they normally did but I’d still thought we might hang on and make it through. We’d had slow patches before, after all. ‘What will you do?’ she had asked when I’d stopped protesting. I’d shrugged, for I was fond of her and didn’t wish to add to her worries.
‘Oh, something will turn up, I’m sure. I’m sorry, Gwen, truly. If there were more tourists . . .’
She’d grinned then without mirth, a stocky, fortyish figure with shrewd eyes and unconvincingly blonde hair framing a square-jawed face. ‘Yeah, or if I’d gone in for kitchenware or something else practical rather than arty stuff. It’s something the town’s already got too much of.’
I couldn’t deny it. Hahndorf, with its arts and crafts, little boutiques and expensive cafes, lived off the tourists. Weekenders from Adelaide flocked to the picturesque old German town for the wine and cuisine and its overpriced lodgings in quaint old stone buildings with their history of hardworking German forebears. It was an expensive place to live and I had a moment’s panic at the thought of being jobless there.
Gwen must have seen it for she patted my hand where it lay on the counter. ‘You’ll find something, sweetie. I’ll write you the best reference. Every business in town’ll be fighting for you.’
‘Well, thanks.’ I had forced a smile but reflected now that it made no difference: regardless of prospective employers queuing in the wings, and as little as I wanted to, I knew I’d have to answer the summons I’d had. Phillip’s absence helped in a skewed sort of way because now I truly had nothing to stay for. Of course, his job often took him from me; he was always jetting off to strange places, to document uprisings and famines and refugee camps and natural disasters. He had won prizes and acclamation for his work, but a stranger looking at his rangy form, with its big feet and long sun-bleached locks gathered into a careless pigtail at his nape, would never guess that his rough exterior held the soul of a sensitive artist.
His camera had captured everything from African elephants to Antarctic glaciers calving into an ocean of frigid blue, but his best work, he said, dealt with portraits, and of all those he had taken he most liked the one of me that he’d framed above the fireplace in our living room. I walked across to stare at it now. It had never been a favourite of mine, possibly because I believed it revealed too much of me. It had been taken without my knowledge even though it was a full-face shot, for Phillip was always messing about with his camera.
‘Elf,’ he had said, which was his name for me – vastly preferable to the ‘Midget’ and ‘Shortstuff’ that I had suffered through my school years – ‘when you look like that you make me want to cry.’ He had wrapped his arms around me then and held me close, kissing my hair. ‘If I could take that look away . . . It breaks my heart. It’s a wonderful pic. My best. And I wish it wasn’t so, because your soul is sad, my love, and when I caught you unaware like that, it showed.’
I didn’t know about my soul, I thought, as I studied the likeness I saw every day in the mirror. Short fair hair in a feathery cut about an average-looking face with a straight nose, a small pointed chin and green eyes. My mother’s sullen eyes, I’d been told. My ears were small, but then I was small all over – I barely came to Phillip’s armpit – and the tips of my ears were slightly pointed, which made his sobriquet the more fitting. I wasn’t smiling and my expression in repose looked . . . vulnerable, I decided, perhaps a little lost. Which was quite ridiculous and probably just a trick of the light.
Impatiently I shook myself from introspection; artists had their fancies. I often couldn’t tell why Phillip would choose one image over another when both looked identical to me, but I had no time to worry about it now. The nursing home, or at least Grandmother Chapman was waiting for my answer. I had not heard a word from her for years – at least nine – but she had plainly kept tabs on me. The phone was in Phillip’s name, the house was his rental not mine, but the receptionist at the nursing home had still addressed me by name.
‘Good morning. I’m calling from Woodfell House. Is that Margaret Morrisey?’
‘Who? Oh, yes, speaking.’ Nobody called me Margaret these days, and hearing it had momentarily thrown me.
‘Ah, good. It’s about your grandmother, Ms Morrisey. She wishes to see you. As soon as possible please. Could you manage tomorrow? I’m afraid she’s not accustomed to waiting, but I expect you know that.’
I had goggled at the handpiece in disbelief. ‘Look, what is this about? Who are you? And why are you calling? My grandmother and I haven’t spoken since . . . You are talking about Ellie Chapman, I take it? Mrs Ellie Chapman?’
‘Yes, indeed. I’m sorry. I didn’t introduce myself.’ She sounded flustered all at once, a condition my grandmother often inspired. ‘I’m Susan Pickering, the manager at Woodfell, Ms Morrisey. We’re a nursing home in Glenfield. I’m sorry, I thought you would’ve known that. Anyway, your grandmother was admitted here straight from the hospital. She’s had her name down with us for years – a good thing under the circumstances, because the doctors weren’t going to let her go home, you see.’
Struggling to keep up with the torrent of information, I said baldly, ‘What’s wrong with her? Is she dying?’
‘Oh, no, don’t worry – nothing like that, but she is rather frail. She broke her hip, you see. She’s been operated on and had it pinned, and had physio, all that. But there’s no denying that it has knocked her about. She can no longer live all alone in that big place of hers, which is why she’s settled in with us. And she needs to see you.’
I interrupted her. ‘Why? We don’t get on. If she’s settled as you say, I don’t see the need. She can hardly claim she’s fond of me!’
My spurt of indignation was tactfully ignored. ‘She is rather an autocrat,’ the woman agreed. ‘But she’s old, Margaret – may I call you Margaret?’ Her voice had softened; she was probably used to coaxing the unwilling, both patients and their relatives, I thought uncharitably, as she carried on her argument. ‘I gather that her need is more for a factotum than anything to do with affection. She’s using a wheelchair, you see. Well,’ she added candidly, ‘she’s refusing the use of the walker. And whilst she’s not dying at present, she’s not immortal either. I have her down as being eighty-eight, and she needs a “younger pair of legs” was how she put it, to see to her affairs. I fancy she means her property, Hunters Reach.’
‘Surely she has a solicitor if she’s thinking of selling up?’ I protested weakly. Already I could see how this would end, and I damned my own weak nature. Why couldn’t I be as ruthless as the old woman was? She had never had any problem ignoring duties she considered tiresome.
‘Apparently she feels it’s more of a family matter. Which is why she’s asked for you. So I can tell her you’ll come?’ Susan Pickering asked hopefully.
‘I don’t know. I’ll think about it,’ I replied with a last attempt at defiance. And now, two days later, everything had conspired against me to make it possible. Really there was no choice. I would have to go.
To make matters worse, there weren’t even many physical tasks to give me an excuse to put it off. Phillip paid the rent and the utilities, the bank collecting them automatically from his account each month. The small garden was really a patio of large pots, each on a timed dripper system, and we had no pets. I informed the neighbour that the house would be empty for the next week – surely whatever the old woman wanted, it wouldn’t take any longer than that – packed my bag, told Gwen what was happening, filled up the little red runabout I drove and was ready to leave. Phillip was probably beyond reach but I contacted his editor with a message, which he promised to forward the moment Phillip got back in touch with the office. And that was everything. Standing next to the carport I took a last look around and sighed. The sooner you start, the sooner it’s over. It wasn’t exactly inspirational but the truth of the maxim had served me often before. Best just get on with it then.
I drove east out of Hahndorf to Nairne, turning north next to find Lobethal and later the little township of Mt Pleasant, where I stopped for a coffee at a bakery-cum-cafe. The prices were far more reasonable than Hahndorf’s and I indulged in a pastie that would do for my lunch. I had driven slowly, chewing over the cud of bitterness that was my past dealings with my grandmother.
Susan Pickering had called her autocratic, which she certainly was, accustomed to instant obedience in those around her, and to having her own way in everything. A thoroughly nasty old woman. She had made a misery of my childhood once I was left in her care and had lost no opportunity to inform me that I was an encumbrance in her life, an unwanted burden. And this despite the fact that her first action after the double funeral of my parents had been to thrust me into a city boarding school, which meant that I only returned to Glenfield for the holidays anyway.
I loitered along half remembered roads, past paddocks of black-faced sheep and chunky black cattle, and still reached the outskirts of Glenfield before dark. It was a large, old country town with solid red-brick municipal buildings: columns on the public library, fancy stone facades on the two large banks and a flight of grandiose steps leading up to the courthouse entrance. There was a school of arts, as well as a quite well-known gallery in the town, a long-established grammar school and an elaborate cenotaph with reams of inscribed names of the fallen guarded by the bronze soldier. A Morrisey was there for the first world war and two more for the second. My father hadn’t gone to war. He’d been the youngest of the brothers by some ten years and even if he’d been older, considering his brothers’ sacrifice and as the only remaining son of a farmer, he would probably have been granted exemption anyway. But not from death, for in his early thirties he and my mother had died in a light plane crash on one of their frequent flying trips.
Just God’s mercy, everyone said, that I hadn’t been with them in the plane. But then I never was. It had puzzled me for years that they had ever bothered having me; neither had space nor time for anyone but each other, and they should surely have shared that knowledge beforehand and remained childless. Their mutual infatuation, bordering almost on obsession, was all consuming. It was obvious, even to the child I had been, that each one’s presence somehow completed the other, and that neither had the emotional room, nor felt the need, for anyone else. They had neither use nor time for friends; each was the other’s best mate. My most excoriating memory of childhood was made on the day when I realised just how little I mattered to them.
We had been on one of our infrequent visits to Hunters Reach and they had been sitting in the garden in the summerhouse where we sometimes ate a picnic lunch. I, a nine-year-old, had come tearing up to them, bursting with excitement over some discovery I wished to share. ‘Mum, Dad!’ I had yelled, beaming with delight and no doubt red-faced from my run. And as I came to a stop with my current treasure held out for inspection, their heads had turned my way and I had seen the identical expression of suppressed annoyance on both faces.
‘Margaret, why must you always interrupt?’ my mother demanded. ‘Run along. Can’t you see we’re busy?’
It wasn’t the first time, just the occasion on which the message had finally sunk in, for the years had been littered with similar incidents. ‘Not now!’ ‘Go away, Margaret.’ ‘Later. Your father and I are talking.’ But that day it had all coalesced in my understanding and I had seen that I was nothing but a nuisance to them. A tiresome duty arising from a decision not properly thought through in the first place.
The sickening wave of humiliation came back to me again, like an echo. I saw my childish self turning away, heated with shame and confusion at my blunder, my heart squeezing with a pain that I couldn’t ease. And a knowledge I was never able to forget.
But that was old news, done and dusted, I told myself, coming back to the present, to the wide traffic-filled streets and colourful shopfronts. I had returned to the place I had escaped from nine years before and now I needed somewhere to stay the night. Cruising slowly down the main street, I tried to remember which turn led directly to the suburb of Burnside. That was where I would find Rose Avenue (named for the town’s founder, not the flower), which had clustered along its length half-a-dozen motels and B&Bs. They couldn’t all have gone out of business since my departure. I would find the cheapest (after all, I was no longer employed) and tomorrow would be soon enough to front my formidable grandmother.
Lyn Portman stood on the front steps of the Tewinga store shading her gaze against the morning sun, and watching with critical eyes the dust cloud that signalled the approach of a traveller.
The letter arrived in my absence. Rose’s birthday was coming up; that’s Rose Buchan, my friend, landlady, surrogate mother and grandmother rolled into one.
The boy gasped for breath, hair in his mouth, before the next wave slammed him back against the bottom. He tumbled, the fizz of bubbles around him.
He opened the new bag of coffee beans and inhaled, relishing the toasted aroma that his favourite brand of arabica gave off.
Discarded medical equipment litters the floor: surgical tools blistered with rust, broken bottles, jars, the scratched spine of an old invalid chair.