Tiptoe . . .
The space between was the worst. Worse than the repetition. Worse than the volume – so loud that she felt it everywhere: in her eyeballs, in her gut, juddering deep in the base of her spine. Worse, even, than the light strobing and blazing and bouncing from the white walls and around her brain, day and night.
Not that day and night meant anything any more. That was the point.
Through the window . . .
For a while she timed the silences. From the final, fading ukulele chord to the opening notes. Eight seconds. Half a second. Twenty-two seconds. No pattern . . . which was also the point.
By the window, that’s where I’ll be . . .
One of the guards had been in earlier. As he opened the cell door, the music stopped.
Black uniform; a face that said nothing. After he’d put her bowl of – what, gruel? Soup? Sludge? – on the table, he told her it’d take three days.
‘Three days?’ Her voice croaked from lack of use.
‘Till we break you.’
‘You won’t break me.’
He smiled, then his boot kicked out at her chair leg. She toppled to the concrete floor, but stopped herself crying out in pain.
‘You always break,’ he said simply, standing over her.
She didn’t move, didn’t speak, trying not to provoke him.
‘You like the song? I picked it for you. Weird bloke: Tiny Tim, apparently. Sings like a girl. You know they used AC/DC in Guantanamo? Old Acca Dacca. Fancy that, eh? But this one? My pick.’
He pressed a remote in his hand and the music restarted as he stepped over her body and strode back out through the door.
Come tiptoe through the tulips with me . . .
The space between was the worst. Or it was the worst . . . until the interrogations began.
‘Disgust is intuitive microbiology’
Steven Pinker, 1997, How the Mind Works
‘I see he’s brought the wife. It’s definitely on then,’ someone behind me said.
‘And he’s lost a few kilos. Dead giveaway,’ another voice responded. Gravelly and male. I looked around – it was Keith, an old-timer in the parliamentary media gallery. He gave me a nod of recognition. No smile. Keith wasn’t one for smiling.
Speaker’s Green had filled up. Journos, press photographers, boom and camera operators, all jostling for prize positions close to the dais. Quite a crowd, and not just local, I realised. I recognised the senior state political journo from the ABC, talking to camera, and wondered if it was going out live nationally. Jack Effenberg always drew attention, even in the other states: down south, they’d shake their heads and murmur, ‘Only in Queensland.’ Not so long ago, I’d have said the same, but by this point I’d gone native.
The lush grass under my sandalled feet still felt cool, although the day’s warmth had long burnt off the morning’s dew – it was going to be another stinking hot one. ‘Another day in paradise,’ they’d say, but I never quite bought it. Hate the heat.
Whoever maintained the lawn took the Green’s name seriously. It was verdant below the parliament building’s pale columns and terraces, stark beneath a sky so blue it looked like a mistake. It’s funny the things you remember. I can still recall the scent of the grass through the thick, humid air. Looking back, this was the day that’s stuck in my mind as when it all began. Not the cats, not the tats and the thetes, not the miscarriages. It was Effenberg’s presser that was the moment for me.
What can I say? I was a political tragic. Still am.
As Effenberg and his wife approached, I checked my phone recorder and shuffled a little closer. Nudging six foot tall in the old money definitely has its advantages and I had a good view, but as the sun beat down I regretted not being able to stand in the shade. I should have brought a hat. He was wearing his, of course. An Akubra, part of the uniform for a politician of his breed, just as Marion’s white twinset signified ever-devoted helpmeet.
Jack Effenberg stood behind the podium, thrust out his chest, and was hit by a fusillade of questions and flashing cameras. He held up his hand for silence, slowly and deliberately removed his Akubra, handed it to his wife, and waited. He was a man not to be rushed, and he knew the power of demonstrating that.
‘I’ll make a short statement, then answer questions.’ He leant forwards, gazed at the journos, and began.
‘I am a proud Queenslander. I am a proud Australian. And I am a proud member of the National Conservative Party. And frankly, it breaks my heart seeing what those clowns down in Canberra are doing to our great state. Like many of you, I’d hoped that Premier Barnes would take the fight up to Canberra, make sure this great state got its due. But you know and I know, good bloke that he is, he hasn’t taken them on and it’s just not working. So I’ve talked it over with Marion and we’ve decided enough’s enough. I am standing here before you today to announce that I have requested a spill of the party leadership and shall be putting myself forwards as premier.’
He paused, long enough for the shouted questions to begin again. He nodded at a television journalist whose camera operator was tight on Effenberg.
‘Mr Effenberg, have you got the numbers?’
‘Wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think so, would I?’ He nodded at someone near the front.
‘John Carter, ABC. You’ve said you’ll look after the interests of all Queenslanders, sir. Does that mean you’ve abandoned your fight for the secession of North Queensland from the state?’
‘Ah, now that is a matter for powers far greater than me.’ He paused at that moment, and I wondered if he was going to hand over responsibility for secession to the Almighty. He had form in invoking his deity. But no. ‘That is for the good people of Queensland to decide.’ He clearly enjoyed the little ripple of relief that flowed through the gathering. Effenberg always knew how to play with expectations.
The journo leapt in for a follow-up. ‘So you’ll be holding a referendum?’
‘I haven’t even got the job yet. Baby steps, mate. Baby steps.’ That drew laughter from the gallery and Effenberg smiled modestly.
I saw my chance and plunged. ‘Brigid Bayliss, Brisbane Chronicle. Mr Effenberg, if you become premier, will you and Mrs Effenberg be scaling back your involvement in the Song of Light? Do you see any conflict of interest in your remaining a senior pastor while you’re running Queensland?’
He set his eyes on me, and I watched him deploy added twinkle. ‘Ah, it’s our Girl Reporter.’ He always called me that in a blatant attempt to endear himself. It failed, of course. But what I did think was endearing was that he genuinely seemed to think it would work. Back then, I still thought of him as the eccentric uncle you hid from your friends because you could be certain he’d do something inappropriate but for whom you couldn’t help but have a soft spot. All well and good if you kept him under control on Christmases and birthdays, but as premier of Queensland? I know. Naïve. Weren’t we all. But I did know that God would figure heavily in an Effenberg government, and I knew where the focus of my profile piece would be.
‘I don’t know if you’re a person of faith, Brigid?’ I neither confirmed nor denied. He took that as a ‘no’ and nodded, adding a frown that was more-in-disappointment-than-in-anger. ‘Here’s the thing,’ he continued. ‘You don’t just turn faith on and off. You don’t just leave God out in the foyer when you walk through the doors of parliament. Because you know what that would be, Brigid? That’d be hypocrisy. And Jack Effenberg is no hypocrite.’
Queensland had no constitutional separation of church and state, and my readership – urban, educated – would want to know how much influence the Song of Light New Apostolic Church might have on any government Effenberg led. Said church had never been coy about involvement in politics before, taking conservative public positions on a range of social issues. Now it could well be almost interchangeable with the administration. I had other questions, but I knew Effenberg wouldn’t call on me again. Others asked the obligatory questions about loyalty and backstabbing, and he waved off a query about his association with a controversial Far North Queensland uranium mine lease. Now Marion was being asked about her hopes for renovations of the premier’s official suite in Parliament House.
‘Oh, I think it’s a little early for me to be measuring up for curtains!’ she chortled merrily, but I’d have put good money on her having been at the fabric swatches.
A nod from Effenberg and his staff were moving in. The press conference was ending. The couple sauntered, hand in hand, back into the building, and I checked my recording and swiped the app closed. What I’d love, of course, would be a one-on-one with Effenberg, but that wasn’t going to happen without my pulling more strings than I had hold of at that point. When the interview finally did happen, it was at a time and under circumstances neither of us could have predicted.
I left the electronic media folk to pack up their gear and headed for the gate, which was flanked by a couple of beefy minders. One of them was glaring at me. I knew what was coming.
‘Bloody dyke.’ Sotto voce. I looked at him. He was all body hair and sneer. No neck. I laughed and shook my head, as a half dozen well-rehearsed comebacks ran through my mind. I settled for an icy appraisal of his truncated physique.
‘Yeah, my loss, right? How will I cope?’
I exited with what I hoped was a coolly collected strut and soon enough I’d forgotten about him. I had a deadline to meet and the words were already starting to coalesce.
Coffee abandoned, office door slammed, Charlie Zinn took the stairs two at a time. She would have sprinted the corridor’s length had a clutch of biology undergrads not been sprawled on the floor with their bags and books, awaiting a prac and picking at their phones with their thumbs. Dodging their legs, she took the corner and she was there, outside Juliette Moreau’s P3 genetics lab, waving her ID across the sensor. The door clicked and she was in. Grabbing the nearest lab coat off the rack, she surveyed the workstations and spotted her colleague. Juliette was scrolling through data, rows of Cs, Gs, As and Ts on the monitor, while around her PhD students pipetted micro-quantities into plastic arrays. Someone’s phone was tinnily playing music, something from the nineties.
‘So?’ Charlie asked, pulling up a stool and catching her breath. ‘Tell me!’
Juliette looked up and paused for dramatic effect, dark eyes gleaming.
‘It’s confirmed the first genomic analysis. We’ve got a strain with some of the unique genetic sequences of each of the known variants of Toxoplasmosis gondii, plus significant novel sequences, including within the plasmid.’
‘We can publish?’
‘We can publish.’
Charlie closed her eyes and breathed deeply. This was easily the best day of her career – and it promised even better days. Their research explained so much. They’d isolated and sequenced the genome of the new Toxoplasmosis, the Cat Plague as the media had labelled it, the disease that was killing cats and tigers and lions worldwide, most to the edge of extinction. The world was hungry for knowledge, for facts, for a cure, and this was a significant step closer.
It hadn’t been easy given that almost all the samples they had contained both variants, so isolation of the DNA had been problematic. Charlie had been the first to describe the leap the parasite had made from cats to humans as its definitive host, the species where it reproduced sexually. Humans were no longer a mere dead end host with no role in its reproduction, as they were for the original organism, Toxoplasmosis gondii; they were now pivotal to its very existence. She’d also led the team that first posited the means by which the mutated protozoan killed cats, shutting down crucial aspects of the felid endocrine system. She’d solidly marked out the pandemic as her turf.
Yet there was so much more to be done and this was just the beginning. Like . . . how did it happen? What were the proteins responsible for the transition? How did it jump the species barrier? It seemed that as the variant of the parasite that killed cats emerged, those individual organisms with the capacity to breed within humans must have prevailed. They’d found their way to reproductive success in the chaos of competition. A perfect storm.
Happenstance, in other words, like all evolution. A genetic mutation that found itself in the right place at the right time. A change that increased the organism’s fitness, allowing it to thrive and prevail.
And the big one. Could they find a cure in time to stop the complete loss of an entire biological family? A world without cats. No lynxes or leopards, bobcats or tabbies. It was beyond comprehension, yet it was so close to reality. Only one in ten thousand domestic cats in Australia seemed to have any form of immunity to the new strain, which was almost invariably fatal. In genetically homogeneous species like cheetahs, their immune systems already ravaged by population isolation and inbreeding, the death rate was close to one hundred per cent.
Juliette was smiling at her, expectantly. Charlie smiled back.
‘So we’ve done it. The consortium said that if we confirmed the original analysis, which we have, we’d have enough to call this a new species. Agreed?’
Juliette nodded, the silver beads threaded onto her box braids clattering together. ‘Definitely,’ she said. ‘The genetic variation and the host switch? What more could you want? It’s speciated.’
‘So send me the new data and I’ll slot it in, and we can send the final draft to Nature this afternoon.’
‘Brilliant. Shoot it to me for a final proofread once you’re done.’
‘I will,’ said Charlie. She perched on the side of the bench. ‘This is so good.’ She rotated her shoulders and rolled her head back, realising only now how tight the muscles had become.
‘Yeah. I’d suggest a glass of champagne, but . . .’
‘I know. There must be rules about submitting to Nature when you’re pissed.’
Juliette laughed. And then: ‘Are we sure about the species name?’ Her expression suggested she was not.
‘Probably too late now. You know the Boston lab loves it.’
‘Toxoplasmosis pestis sounds so . . . melodramatic.’
Pestis. The species name of the Great Plague, Yersinia pestis.
‘And the media will use it to get even more hysterical,’ Charlie said.
Juliette shrugged. ‘I suppose the cats’d think hysteria is warranted. What’s left of them.’
She had a point.