- Published: 2 July 2021
- ISBN: 9781761040931
- Imprint: Vintage Australia
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 336
- RRP: $32.99
The night Charlie Rabbit disappears, Delia thinks of her sister.
Not of the last night she’d seen her, when Bo had smiled at her with tea-stained teeth, her cushiony lips pulled fat across them, nor of Bo’s brittle bones, burning all those months later in the smoky city crematorium. Rather she remembers the sticky summer nights of their childhood spent at the hospital their mother worked at, where they turned old stretchers into tombs and bandaged each other like Egyptian mummies.
That was before video games and mobile phones, before the cocky, parted knees of boys. A time when Delia was still Del, and Bo was still breathing. A time, a world that was just for them, their small children’s bodies contorted into whatever space they’d fit, and their voices lowered, always, because every word felt like a secret and every breath a code. And they’d played, of course they’d played – hopscotch and red rover and tiggy, but nothing more than hide-and-go-seek. Nothing more, because there was nothing Bo was better at than hiding. Folding her body below bed frames and inside vanities, her little feet tucked beneath her, her arms so tightly pressed to her sides she’d seemed like barely a thing at all.
Del was not so good. Del liked to be seen, liked to be found. Liked to catch these moments of discovery, feel her firm skin, hold her own wandering gaze in whatever mirror would have her. She liked to take up space. Of course this meant Bo inevitably found her. You’re no good at this, she’d tell her, loud, accusatory, and Del was inclined to agree.
So it was through some mix of genetics and luck, both good and bad, that Charlie had come out of Delia so much like Bo, her aptitude for hiding appearing in him just like Delia’s green eyes and Ed’s gangly limbs. Charlie could hide before he could sit, stand, run, and Delia spent too many hours of too many days pulling him out from below clothing racks and cabinets, or finding him slipped up inside the roof ’s rafters, his long, skinny legs curled beneath his long, skinny body, his toothy child’s grin a reminder of what she had lost.
And she’d felt it, even then. The fear that he was just like Bo and not like her at all. That he’d leave her, just like Bo had.
It startled her, how much she was afraid of it. Because no matter how often their mother had called that coil of spirit in them wanderlust or walkabout, a pair of nomad feet, a now you see me, they had all known what it really was.
A little disappearing act.
‘Turn to the left. Now back to me. Can you describe who’s sitting beside you?’
A student three rows from the front raises her hand, and Delia tilts her chin just enough to acknowledge her, but she doesn’t call on her. Not yet.
‘Can you tell me the shape of her jaw? The curve of his nose? What colour are the eyes? The lips? The cracked skin between their eyebrows? Can you draw them?’
The hand goes down, and the class titters around her, stifled in the stale summer heat of the lecture theatre. Delia steps forwards, her legs sweating in her sheer, glossy stockings, the hair at the base of her neck curling wet. She can hear a student panting, more than one, their heads lolling, mouths open. This drought has left them all parched, stretched the season thin in an unusual way for Brisbane. They’re so close to the sea that they typically get tropical storms at this time of year, the Shakespearean sort that boil like godly tempers, and without them the dry broil has left the city brittle, stripped back trees to gothic contortions and baked the earth firm.
Even here, in the bowels of the college, the heat finds them.
Delia leans back against her desk, rolling her shoulders in an effort to shift her polyester shirt from her damp skin. The class looks expectantly at her, bleary eyed and slack jawed after the end-of-year break, the room around them musty from months of disuse. She had come in early that morning to wipe the soft coating of dust from the plastic backs of chairs, and she can still feel it on her fingers, soft as the down on a baby’s head.
‘Over the next twelve weeks, we will be exploring interdisciplinary drawing, with a particular focus on life drawing. Pay attention, and you’ll finish the course with a firm understanding of the nature of visual perception, and how that perception translates to a page or a canvas, essential skills for any artist.’
A girl with an oily forehead and freckles on her lips writes this down.
‘Assessment will be folio based, plus a written assignment on the sociocultural history of life drawing, and—’
The far door of the lecture theatre cracks open, throwing light down the linoleum surface of the stairs. A boy walks in, a man, his dark hair tangled, shoulders sloped. He catches her eye and smiles a crooked smile.
And so what if her breath catches? So what if he notices, slinking cat-like into a seat?
‘—and an exam.’
Delia clears her throat, turning back to the blackboard and scrawling her name in flaking chalk.
‘My name is Delia Rabbit. I have a master’s degree in fine art from the QCA. I specialise in pencil work and acrylics and, very occasionally, I see the light and return to my Catholic roots with tempera. I like the work of Hilda Rix Nicholas and Thea Proctor. That’s me. Now we’re going to go around the room. I want you to introduce yourself, your preferred medium, and an artist who inspires you. Let’s start at the back.’
Olive’s on her second cigarette by the time Lux Robinson stumbles into the loading bay behind the grocery store, last night’s make-up shadowing her eyes, her uniform reeking of yesterday’s BO, Impulse body spray and vanilla-whipped-cream vape juice.
‘Had a big one?’ Olive asks, casting her an amused look, and Lux flips her off.
If you were to ask Mindy Chan, she’d tell you that Lux is close to an hour late for her shift, something Olive only really knows because of Mindy’s loud ranting earlier, her full, tattooed frame crouched beside Olive’s in the stockroom as they pulled rotten fruit out of hot crates, the pulpy, decomposing bodies of pears and peaches catching beneath their nails.
The coldroom motor had croaked the night before – the third time this summer – leaving Mindy’s jaw clenched and a hot pressure pulsing behind Olive’s eyes. Nothing can beat the heat, she had thought, not even Mindy’s uncanny knack for kicking the fridge motor into working again, and she can still smell it, even now, that potent scent of soured fruit and festering, green-tinged meat, glommed to her pores.
‘Has Frank noticed I’m late?’ Lux asks, and Olive shrugs, flicking the ash from the end of her cigarette.
‘Doubt it, but Mindy did.’
‘Fuck Mindy. She’s such a cunt.’
Olive frowns, which only makes Lux roll her eyes, push out a hip and fumble in her back pocket for her vape pen. She makes a quick motion of the habit, inhales, exhales, the sickly vanilla liquid Olive smelled earlier filling her nose again.
‘She can’t hear us, dipshit,’ Lux says, the smoke still wavering around her stained teeth. She rubs a hand beneath her eyes, smearing her eyeliner into ashy clouds. ‘Jesus, it stinks out here.’
And no shit, Olive thinks. It had taken her and Mindy forever to get all the spoiled fruit and meat from the fridges into the heavy industrial bins behind them: brown mangoes, wrinkled apples, melons with their insides sloshing about within hard, pruned skins. The flies had been a nightmare, the ants racing away in lines with tiny parcels of foul meat perched on their backs. Olive had had to pinch her skin till it bruised to quell her nausea at the sight of it. It had been bad enough in the store itself, but out here it’s worse, without the fans dispersing the putrid scent and with no tart bite of garlic and balsamic olives from the deli to overwhelm it.
‘I don’t smell it,’ Olive says all the same, shrugging. ‘Maybe it’s you.’
Lux replies by pursing her lips in a look that says whatever, smoke pouring out of her nostrils while the obstructed midday light casts a strange, foreign glow at her back. If Olive were perfectly honest, she’d say there is something foreign about Lux Robinson. On paper, she’s a lot like Olive. They’re both unusually tall, blonde by birth – although Lux dyed her hair vein-blue last spring – with the delicate bones you usually only see on models and mannequins. They are sharp edges in starched shirts, talons behind the checkouts, but while Olive’s round cheeks and dollar-coin eyes give her a softer look, Lux is all angles. Fey or alien, depending on who you ask.
‘Don’t be jealous just because I have a life outside this place,’ Lux coos, her tone shifting when she looks back at Olive. ‘You could come with tomorrow night. This kid Dom knows is throwing a party out at Kangaroo Point.’
Lux rolls her eyes at her own words, a mockery of the rich kids with the picturesque city views who live out there, and Olive tilts her feet in, stares at her scuffed shoes, at the tattered, dropped hem of her work pants, and frowns.
‘I don’t know.’ She wipes her sweating palms on her shirt and turns back towards the store. ‘I don’t really like that shit, you know?’
Lux doesn’t let her get far. She springs forwards, her clammy fingers wrapping around Olive’s wrist.
‘Oh, come on, what’s stopping you? I think Jude’s going.’
The flush finds her cheeks right away, a tension sets her fingers, and god, she’s embarrassing. She blinks hard, swallows the lump in her throat.
‘So?’ she bites, keeping her gaze fixed ahead. ‘You know he couldn’t pick me out of a line-up.’
Behind her, Lux makes a noise like she disagrees, but Olive pretends she doesn’t hear her, taking a little breath to ground herself instead and instantly regretting it when she gets a new whiff of rotten fruit.
‘Mum’s back at work, anyway,’ she adds. ‘I’ve got to look after the boys.’
The excuse is an easy one in no small part because it’s not a lie – something Lux knows pretty much as well as Olive at this point – but the other girl groans anyway and something in Olive lurches. A familiar feeling hooking her chest, dragging her down, down, down, and—
Pull yourself together.
Olive sucks in another lungful of rancid air.
‘Come on. It’ll be fun. You need to have fun, Rabbit. Don’t pretend you don’t.’
Down at the other end of the loading bay, a few of the boys are clocking off from their shifts, one walking backwards while he talks to another, hands high in the air, whether in show or cheer or just to dry the sweat stains at the armpits of his work shirt, Olive can’t be sure. His voice carries though when he says something about cleaning up before the pub, and his mate’s does too when he laughs, tells him he shouldn’t bother, that it’s not the pitstains stopping him from picking up. Olive fixes on their wide, confident gaits and lanky limbs, the parched leaves kicked up in their wake, the dirt so dry it doesn’t cloud around their feet but instead scrapes against the bitumen. The first guy drops one of his arms to shove his friend, and then they’re scrapping, grinning, easy as anything, and before she can stop herself, she wonders if Charlie and Benjamin will be like that when they’re older. If her dad was like that when he was young.
As if to reclaim her attention, Lux suddenly leans forwards and shakes the smoke out of her hair, revealing a glimpse of where fresh blue dye has marked the back of her neck like a bruise.
And maybe it’s that. Maybe it’s the feel of this moment, the promise of Jude, the probability of pills, the heat, or the way the hair dye makes it look as if Lux has been held down. Maybe the look of it makes Olive feel an echo of pressure at her own neck, as if she’s been held down too, but finally she says maybe, and tries to ignore the clench in her belly when Lux cheers in reply.
Benjamin curls his long fingers through the wire of the school fence as Charlie crosses the road towards him, his sagging backpack slung over his shoulder, his hair damp and matted to his forehead.
‘You’re late,’ Benjamin says when Charlie reaches him, but Charlie just rolls his eyes, jerking his head down the fence, towards the entrance of the school grounds. That’s all it takes for Benjamin to scamper, to grab his schoolbag and Spectacular Man figurine and stumble down the playground alongside his brother, the net-thin fence the only thing left between them.
‘I figured you’d still be mucking around with Jodes,’ Charlie says when Benjamin catches up, and the name quickly sours in Benjamin’s head. He shrugs petulantly, his schoolbag riding up his shoulders. It’s answer enough for Charlie, who does a slow whistle, the sort Olive likes to do, and the thought of that only makes Benjamin scowl even harder.
Shepherd Primary School’s playground opens onto the street, and, with the fence between them gone, Charlie and Benjamin start down the winding footpaths leading home. The day is bright, the sun’s glare saturating the afternoon, and Benjamin tugs his wide-brimmed school hat further down to shield his eyes from it.
‘Did you know lightning doesn’t need rain or clouds to strike?’
Benjamin blinks, looking up at his brother. In the last few months, Charlie has grown almost ten whole centimetres. Benjamin knows this because they measured him, just like Charlie measures Benjamin – scribbling the numbers down on post-it notes that he sticks in the scrappy notebook he keeps for these sorts of things. He may have grown, but it’s only to stretch – to make his body something elastic like Mr Fantastic – all the way into adulthood, long, angry red marks appearing on his back as if to prove it. It makes Benjamin feel short and compact beside Charlie’s shadow, his brother’s age only really showing in his thin and sunken chest, and the softness around his jaw.
‘That’s where that expression comes from, a bolt from the blue. Lightning breaking through blue skies. It’s more dangerous that way too because thunderstorms make negative lightning, but blue skies make it positive, and positive lightning carries a higher current, so it hurts more when it hits.’
Benjamin looks sceptically up at the brilliant blue sky above them, his lips pursing.
‘So we could have lightning right now?’
Benjamin scrunches his nose.
‘What’s the point of lightning if it doesn’t mean rain though?’
Charlie doesn’t answer that, which isn’t exactly unusual for Charlie, and Benjamin shifts his focus to the long walk home and what he’ll watch when they get there – Voltron or Avatar or Young Justice or—
There’s a mumble beside him, a mutter, and Benjamin looks back to see that Charlie’s started talking to himself – those weird, rambling sentences that usually mean he’s worrying his way through a theory or a problem or something all in his head. His fingers tap the case in his hands, and Benjamin eyes it carefully.
‘Is there a space thing happening?’ he asks, and Charlie hums a little, picking up his step until Benjamin has to jog to catch up.
‘Kind of. A planetary huddle.’
‘Planetary huddle.’ Charlie holds up three fingers, spreading them wide. ‘It’s when a bunch of planets’ orbits line up closely enough with each other, and then with Earth, that we can see them all at once.’
As he talks, he moves his fingers closer together, until they settle in a neat line. Benjamin digests this information, turns over the importance of such an image, such a spectacle to Charlie’s logical mind, but all he can think of are the interplanetary politics and battles and team-ups that must be involved when aliens are readying themselves for a huddle.
He tells Charlie this, and Charlie laughs, the loud one that Benjamin likes the best.
With his warm summer skin and dark features, and his tangle of chocolate curls, Charlie looks more like their mother than Benjamin and Olive do. His uniform is a little off-colour today, and there’s an old, unfamiliar bruise at his arm, peeking out from the sleeve of his shirt – brown, grey, purple. Charlie quickly covers it, folding his arms across his chest and gripping his biceps, still laughing.
‘You’re a weird kid, you know that, Banjo?’
Benjamin hums, refocusing, and thinks of the games he can play at school tomorrow with this new information about the weird antics of space. Wonders if Jodi Baxter would be willing to don a mask again if it meant saving not just one planet but three.
They stop outside their front gate, and Charlie heaves it open, the rusted hinges whining as he pushes it back against the high and wild grass of their yard. Mum refuses to do a thing about it until Olive mows, but Benjamin knows she never will. Knows that she likes the way the grass takes over, even in this dry, barren summer, and if he’s honest, Benjamin likes it too. Their backyard looks like the jungles in his comic books – thick and mangled and heavy with insects. Sickly weeds coil around the frame of their old, rusted trampoline, and bees try to build a hive in the joints of Charlie’s telescope stand. The narrow path leading up to their house – a Queenslander lurching on its stilts – is nearly engulfed by wilted grass, and by the time the sun sets none of them will be able to walk out here without kicking a broad-faced cane toad or tangling themselves in the silky strings of a spider’s web. Benjamin mostly just hopes for owls, the frog-mouthed ones with beaks like secret keepers, but the wildness of the yard isn’t quite wild enough for them yet.
Heading towards the sagging wooden steps of their house, Benjamin slows to a stop. Charlie isn’t beside him anymore, or even behind him. Rather, he’s stopped in the middle of the yard, his school hat in his hand, the rim darkened with sweat, and his bag dropped to the grass, almost swallowed by the foliage. Charlie looks up, a hand to his forehead, his gaze fixed on something Benjamin cannot see.
‘I’ve got a lot of notes to make, Banjo, if I’m gonna see it.’
Benjamin nods, ignoring the twist of disappointment in his belly at spending the afternoon alone. He’s reaching into the pocket of his pants for his keys when Charlie calls again.
‘You want to grab my post-its and my star wheel and help?’
Benjamin blinks in surprise, and turns to meet Charlie’s toothy smile. He couldn’t say no even if he wanted to.
From the winner of the Penguin Literary Prize and the Kathleen Mitchell Award.A multigenerational family story with a dose of magical realism. It is about family secrets, art, very mild superpowers, loneliness and the strange connections we make in the places we least expect.Buy now
Ethan Salt tip-toed to the very edge of the tenement rooftop, rolling his special poster into a perfect telescope.
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.
As Marie prepared to break into her father’s bedroom, she felt a little pool of guilt well up inside her for betraying him.
It would be easy not to notice him. Just a small thing. Dappled with dried bracken and dirt.