We named the houses they put us in. We stayed in some for months at a time; other places, it was a few days or a few hours. There was the Bomb-Making House, then the Electric House. After that came the Escape House, a squat concrete building where we’d sometimes hear gunfire outside our windows and sometimes a mother singing nearby to her child, her voice low and sweet. After we escaped the Escape House, we were moved, somewhat frantically, to the Tacky House, into a bedroom with a flowery bedspread and a wooden dresser that held hair sprays and gels laid out in perfect rows, a place where, it was clear from the sound of the angry, put-upon woman jabbering in the kitchen, we were not supposed to be.
When they took us from house to house, it was anxiously and silently and usually in the quietest hours of night. Riding in the backseat of a Suzuki station wagon, we sped over paved roads and swerved onto soft sandy tracks through the desert, past lonely-looking acacia trees and dark villages, never knowing where we were. We passed mosques and night markets strung with lights and men leading camels and groups of boisterous boys, some of them holding machine guns, clustered around bonfires along the side of the road. If anyone had tried to see us, we wouldn’t have registered: We’d been made to wear scarves wrapped around our heads, cloaking our faces the same way our captors cloaked theirs—making it impossible to know who or what any of us were.
For one who spent so much time surrounded by sharp-eyed artists and writers, Mollie Dean would prove a challenge to describe. She was ‘very, very attractive, very beautiful’, thought the painter Colin Colahan, and ‘knew her power with men’. She was ‘not really beautiful but had a certain sultry charm’, countered the playwright Betty Roland, being ‘somewhat sullen-looking with a well-cut sensuous mouth’. Passing moods lit her face from within: one writer thought her ‘plain in repose’; another evoked her ‘dusky glow’. A solitary photograph, widely published, is grainy and flat, lent character only by the eyes’ steady gaze and the jaw’s slight clench. Newspapers made up for its deficiencies with expressive prose: ‘Five feet, six inches [168 cm] in height, dark bobbed hair, dark complexion, well-set determined-looking features, little or no powder on face, slim to medium build’; ‘A good conversationalist, she had a low speaking voice, an excellent thing in a woman. Her avowed preference was for the society of men older than herself – a feeling that inevitably outgrows itself in time.’
It will come as no surprise to Australia’s 24 million sports fans that our sunburnt continent is home to one of the most dominant predators the world has ever seen. In our tropical rainforests, grasslands, eucalyptus forests and dry deserts, bounded by the Indian and Pacific oceans, this predator is king – free to roam without the restrictions that hold back many other species living in this ancient land. That creature, of course, is the Star Athlete.
Star Athletes have always flourished in this country, because they supply the people with the one thing they need to survive: sporting glory.
Some of these athletes enjoy stellar careers and go on to become model citizens. But others are caught in an all-too-familiar cycle of winning, crisis and forgiveness. These athletes are a mutation known as the Good Bloke, a dangerous subspecies of the Star Athlete, much like Indominus rex, the hybrid dinosaur in Jurassic World.
‘By the time you find yourself, there’ll be nobody home!’
That was my father’s verdict when I rang home from Central Station to let my parents know that I’d run away and was catching the train up north. ‘I mean, is that what this is all about? “Finding yourself” on some commune or something?’
I was nearly sixteen and with my bestie. Sarah and I had been best pals all through school and we had saved each other’s sanity on a daily basis. We laughed at the same things, loved the same things, we finished each other’s sentences – hell, we knew what each other was thinking before we’d even thought it.
We’d been together through thick and thin . . . and times had been Ryvita-thin of late. Drug overdoses, unwanted pregnancies, school suspensions, abortions, catfights, beach territorial warfare… Welcome to life in the top Cronulla surfie gang.
My father built the house on Langely Lake for my mother, in the town she grew up in. It was a hundred miles from the glassy skyscrapers my father built in the city, and a world away from the Calloway family name and money and penthouse on the Upper East Side.
The house on Langely Lake looked unlike any of the other houses in town, with their graying vinyl siding and slouching carports. No, the house on Langely Lake wasn’t a house at all. It was a fortress three stories tall, built of stone, with a thick fence and impenetrable hedges all the way around.
When I was a little girl, we spent our summers in that fortress. I remember slumber parties in a tent on the back lawn and afternoons spent sunning on the raft just off shore. I remember tall glasses of lemonade sweating on the patio and the sundresses my mother wore and her wide brimmed hats.
Once I thought my father had built that house to keep everyone else out, but then my uncle Hank found the photographs. They were in a shoe box, hidden under a loose floorboard in my parents’ bedroom. They were taken that summer, 2007, a few weeks before my mother disappeared. I saw the photographs and I realized I had been wrong about everything.
Because my father hadn’t built the house on Langely Lake to keep everyone else out. He’d built it to keep us in.
The Right Question
Sigrid Ødegård’s hands rest on the unopened blue folder as she stares out the window of her office. The seal of the Politi is embossed on the front in gold, red and black, meaning that someone decided to break out the good stationery for this one. It displays no author or title but she knows what it contains and she is in no rush to read it. Only two short months ago, in June, the entire city of Oslo, Norway, was trimmed with lilacs. Sigrid’s father had once told her that the early summer flowers were her mother’s favorite, and when the season was at its peak in Hedmark, their farmhouse was filled with them: a bouquet in each bathroom, a vase on the kitchen table. Their errant petals, he said, would drift through the house after her family as they journeyed its hallways stirring them up and scattering them in their wake. This collective movement — this collective memory — however, was thirty-five years ago. Sigrid was five years old when Astrid died. Sigrid wonders, looking out over the park with its August sunbathers and running children, whether those memories are even hers. They might have been given to her by her father. And if the memories are not hers, are they less precious or, perhaps, more?
Staring at the Sun
The day that turns a life upside down usually starts like any other. You open your eyes, swing your body out of bed, eat breakfast, get dressed and leave the house, your mind busy. As you close the front door behind you, rarely is there a tingle of unease that something is off. Later, when the story of what happened next comes to be told, it will start with the day’s deceptive ordinariness, something that will now seem incredible. How could a blindside so momentous have struck on a day that began so unremarkably?
In late 2014, the news media was dominated by two such days, so unimaginable in their endings that they rattled even those of us far removed from the events. On the afternoon of November 25, a sparkling spring day, a young cricketer, Phillip Hughes, was fatally struck by a ball during a game. And on December 15, at morning tea time in a Sydney café, a gunman took eighteen people hostage, two of them – Katrina Dawson and Tori Johnson – killed by the siege’s end.
They must think I don’t have long left, because today they allow the vicar in. Perhaps they are right, although this day feels no different from yesterday, and I imagine tomorrow will go on much the same. The vicar – no, not vicar, he has a different title, I forget – is older than me by a good few years, his hair is grey, and his skin is flaky and red, sore- looking. I didn’t ask for him; what faith I’d once had was tested and found lacking at Lyntons, and before that my church attendance was a habit, a routine for Mother and me to arrange our week around. I know all about routine and habit in this place. It is what we live, and what we die, by.
The vicar, or whatever he is called, is sitting beside my bed with a book on his lap, turning the pages too fast to be reading. When he sees I’m awake he takes my hand, and I’m surprised to find that it is a comfort: a hand in mine. I can’t remember when I was last touched – not the quick wash-over with a warm cloth, or the flick of a comb through my hair, these don’t count. I mean properly touched, held by someone. Peter, possibly. Yes, it must have been Peter. Twenty years ago this August. Twenty years. What else is there to do in this place except count time and remember?
England, June to August 1768
The boy knew danger was coming.
He could hear it, sitting at the prow of his ferryboat on the broad River Thames . . . a deep growl of angry water that grew louder as they neared London Bridge.
He could feel it, for the boat began to kick and strain as it caught the edges of the rip, where the pent-up river gushed into narrow channels between the piers.
And then he could see it. A white, foaming cascade as the water swirled through the arches, like a rapids.
Danger. And the boy Isaac knew what he would do.
'The Champion Charlies.'
That was the ACTUAL front-page headline on the local newspaper. In big CAPITAL letters. Right beside a ‘free burger’ coupon.
The page had been plastered onto the school clubroom’s noticeboard since last year. The noticeboard was on the outside wall that faced the football pitch. By now the whole school had seen the article. Charles ‘CJ’ Jackson and Charlotte Alessi were posed in their Jets FC football gear for the photo. The shot was taken after their Grand Finals. CJ’s team had just won their match in a nailbiting finish. Whilst Charlotte’s team had thumped their opposition to claim the title in the girls’ league. They were all smiles. Th ey were CHAMPIONS! They were being peed on by a dog.
‘Garlic!’ laughed Benji Nguyen, as he exited the clubrooms and patted the kelpie on his way past. ‘Your aim is worse than your breath! Get outta here, boy!’
Garlic jumped from the bench and ran off to find his owner, the school gardener, Baldock.
Benji had found what he was looking for in the clubrooms. A megaphone. Holding onto his signature Socceroos cap, Benji sprinted towards the playground beside the clubrooms where CJ was grinning maniacally on top of the monkey bars. CJ and Benji were best friends, both TOP OF THEIR FIELD. CJ was the Jets’ leading goalscorer and Benji was the Jets’ leading mascot. And also the only mascot. Not just for the Jets, but pretty much for the whole Under 11 boys’ league.
The night her mother died, Maggie Rowe drove back through the quiet streets, over the dark river where lights lay untroubled and up the steep hill to her house, and there among the shadows saw a shape squatting on her doorstep.
‘No!’ she cried out against it. Not now! She spun the wheel, reversed without looking, jolted a tyre up over the kerb and clashed through the gears. The car lunged forward. In the rear- vision mirror she saw a glowing pinpoint flare and die.
Not now. After waking to a touch on the arm.
‘She’s gone, darling,’ said the nurse, and stood stroking Maggie’s hair.
I was seven years old the first time my uncle poisoned me.
He served me the toxin in his signature cheese stew. It gave me waves of stomach cramps and hallucinations of every horror my young mind could conjure, but left no lasting damage. I learned that day to trust nothing on my plate or in my cup, not even something prepared by my beloved uncle Etan, my Tashi, the most honored and trusted person in my world. Especially not him.
By ten, I could identify the ingredients in most dishes set before me, from the spicy baked fish served year-round in Sjona’s farms and estates, to the flat black bread cooked in clay ovens in every kitchen in the city, to the delicate cheese-and-honey pastries favored in the highest circles of society. I could detect any of the eleven greater poisons hidden in those dishes. Most by taste, some by smell, and one by its unique mouthfeel. I could also, should the need arise, use them myself.
It was a Monday morning, it was bright, it was warm, too warm for late autumn, and Charlotte Beck was about to experience the one really dramatic thing that would happen to her in her entire life. She wasn’t ready for it. She didn’t feel ready for anything.
She was manoeuvring a chaotic little group up Heath Street, as she did every weekday. She was steering a buggy containing ten-month-old Lulu. On her left side two-and-a-half-year-old Oscar was pushing himself on a little scooter. Round her right wrist was one end of a dog lead and the other end was attached to a black Labrador puppy called Suki. Everything looked like it was in fog, but it wasn’t real fog. It was the fog of tiredness that had hung stolidly over Charlotte’s world for the previous six months. Lulu didn’t sleep at night. She shouted and she screamed and nothing helped, nothing that Charlotte tried, nothing that the experts recommended.
The Second Deal
Friday 4 November 2016
The fifth and final day of Michael Atkins’ evidence opened in spectacular fashion.
‘Each day this week, you have stood up and you have faced Her Honour and sworn by almighty God to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, correct?’ Fernandez began.
‘Have you taken the oath that you have made every morning seriously?’
The public gallery leaned forward in their seats. The focus in Fernandez’s voice was razor sharp.
ST. LUCIA, EASTERN CARIBBEAN
March 29, 2007
The blood was a problem.
I knew it as soon as I felt it spit across my face. It streamed from his hairline and ran along his jaw until it dribbled onto the granite bluff, first in sporadic red blots, like the leading raindrops of a coming storm, and then in a continuous stream, as though a spigot had been plugged into the spot on his head where I had struck him and had opened wide. It was an error in judgment and strategy, which was a shame because up to now I had been perfect.
On the first day no one really noticed. Perhaps there was a chuckle among the midwives at the sight of all those babies wrapped in blue blankets, not a pink one in sight. Individual hospitals would’ve thought nothing of it. They wouldn’t have known that this day of blue was only the beginning.
On the second day they frowned, confused, at another twenty-four hours of blue.
How baffling. Still, they assumed it was nothing more than coincidence. The Y chromosome was just making more of an appearance than usual.
On the third day, the media made light of it ‒ It Really Is A Man’s World. That brought the situation to everyone’s attention. Doctors and nurses realized theirs wasn’t the only hospital to go blue. Blue was taking over. Not just entire hospitals, not just entire countries, but the entire world.
Where had the pink gone?
Beyond the Black Stump
The places we are born come back. They disguise themselves as migraines, stomach aches, insomnia. They are the way we sometimes wake falling, fumbling for the bed-side lamp, certain everything we’ve built has gone in the night. We become strangers to the places we are born. They would not recognise us but we will always recognise them. They are marrow to us; they are bred into us. If we were turned inside out there would be maps cut into the wrong side of our skin. Just so we could find our way back. Except, cut wrong side into my skin are not canals and train tracks and a boat, but always: you.
‘Oh, baby,’ I murmur, brushing Luke’s hair away from his forehead as he fights back tears.
He’s still my ‘baby’, even if he is almost fifteen years old.
‘I can’t believe I’m going to be holed up for the rest of the summer,’ he says in a choked voice. ‘And I’m going to miss Angie’s party,’ he realises.
I suspect this fact hurts him even more than his broken ankle.
‘She’ll probably get off with Jake and that’ll be that, then,’ he adds bitterly.
I lean in and squeeze his shoulder. ‘Angela Rakesmith looks at you like the light shines out of your backside,’ I say pointedly. ‘You have nothing to worry about there.’
When Adelaide Nightingale, Louisa Worthington, Maggie O’Connell and Pearl McCleary threw caution to the winds, disgrace was bound to follow. They lived in a time and place peculiar in history on the matter of sex versus gender.
The time was September 1919. The war was over. Everyone who was going to die from the flu had done so.
The place was Prospect, a bustling rural town in southern New South Wales known abroad for its sheep and awful weather but distinguished in its own eyes by the imminent arrival of the railway and the excellence of its general store, Nightingales.
It sounds harmless enough. It wasn’t.
Let me tell you something about trees. They speak to each other. Just think what they must say. What could a tree have to say to a tree? Lots and lots. I bet they could talk for ever. Some of them live for centuries. The things they must see, that must happen around them, the things they must hear. They speak to each other through tunnels that extend from their roots, opened in the earth by fungus, sending their messages cell by cell, with a patience that could only be possessed by a living thing that cannot move. It would be like me telling you a story by saying one word each day. At breakfast I would say it, the word of the story, then I’d kiss you and I’d go to work and you’d go to school and all you’d have of the story is that single word each day and I would give no more until the next day, no matter how you begged. You’ll have to have the patience of a tree, I’d say. Can you imagine how that would be? If a tree is starving, its neighbours will send it food. No one really knows how this can be, but it is. Nutrients will travel in the tunnel made of fungus from the roots of a healthy tree to its starving neighbour, even one of a different species. Trees live, like you and me, long lives, and they know things. They know the rule, the only one that’s real and must be kept. What’s the rule? You know. I’ve told you lots of times before. Be kind. Now sleep, my love, tomorrow will be long.
How often have I heard those words spoken by people who have discovered that I am writing a biography of Germaine Greer. They are speaking not of her, but of me.
I am not especially brave, but nor am I afraid of Germaine Greer. Well, maybe just a little bit. In 2015, when I embarked on the project, my knowledge of her personal life was sketchy. I did not know how opposed she was to the idea of anyone writing a biography of her. She had sold her archive to the University of Melbourne by that time, and it seemed reasonable – even obvious – to me that the archive should be used as a biographical source. I had read and enjoyed Christine Wallace’s 1997 biography Untamed Shrew, but it was not until I was well advanced into my research that I discovered the full extent of Greer’s opposition to that book, and was shocked by her venomous attacks on its author. By then I had found a publisher and it was too late to go back. Not that I would have anyway, for Germaine’s life was proving much too interesting.
I woke up and the world was gone.
All was silent, all was black, the darkness so complete that it was as if all light had been drained from the world.
The dust was everywhere. The air was thick with it – hot and filthy, the dust of a freshly dug grave. And a strange rain was falling – a rain made of rocks and stones, the fragments and remains of smashed and broken things that I could not name. The destruction was every where, in my eyes, my mouth, my nose and the back of my throat.
I was flat on my back and suddenly the devastation was choking me.
I pushed myself up, coughing up the strange dust, feeling it on my hands and my face.
I stared into the pitch-black silence and felt a stab of pure terror because for the first time I was aware of the heat. There was a great fire nearby. I looked around and suddenly I saw it, blazing and flaring, the only light in the darkness. The heat increased. The fire was getting closer.
Move or die. These are your choices now.
The real trouble came at midnight.
Martin Askin had arrived in Cairns at five o’clock in the afternoon and checked into room 607, dumping his bags on the floor and marching to the windows to yank down the blinds. He’d stood in the room in the dim light, surveying the crisply made bed and the desk neatly arranged with the room service menu, daring there to be some sign of trouble. A forgotten bar of soap in the immaculate bathroom. An unemptied bin.
His plane had sat inexplicably on the tarmac at LAX for forty-five minutes before take-off, and again for half an hour at Sydney airport, adding more than an hour onto an already seventeen-hour haul in economy. A flight attendant had spilled hot tea in his lap somewhere over the Pacific, and the plane’s toilets had been malfunctioning, filling the back half of the plane with a wretched stench. His taxi driver from Cairns airport had got lost for ten minutes on the drive to the hotel, and at the reception desk the computer had frozen just before his key could be assigned.
If one more thing went wrong, Martin Askin was going to lose it.
The Call came on a sunny afternoon in spring. Every parent dreads The Call, a sombre voice informing you that something unspeakable has happened to the precious being you’ve used your every trick to protect since they were just a clump of multiplying cells. But when your child has told you countless times that she wants to die, and on several occasions has very nearly made that happen, I think you dread it more.
I was already on my mobile, chatting to a friend, out in our unruly backyard. Thirty years before, when John and I jauntily referred to ourselves as ‘young homebuyers on the march’, we were thrilled to find this big block with its many trees and a house full of light, in a little suburb called Oak Park in the northern suburbs of Melbourne.
The friend I was listening to was deeply upset about a row she’d had with another friend of ours, and she needed to vent. So I stood out there beside my veggie garden, occasionally voicing a courtesy ‘hmmm’, while gazing with frustration at the yellowing snow pea vine and the gangly tomato plants. Despite having grown up on an Iowa farm, I hadn’t inherited the knack of coaxing salad from the soil. Herbs were a more satisfying story. The chocolate mint was shining with health, sending out exuberant tendrils from its corner of the bed.