Nicholas Jordan was born, not beneath a starry sky, but in the Edenvale Hospital – a modest red-brick building on the outskirts of a town that had four pubs, no banks, one swimming pool, six service clubs and bitterly resented water restrictions each summer.
The hospital was surrounded by beds of bright pink bougainvillea and rectangles of thirsting lawn, and at the moment of little Nick’s birth, the sky above its hot tin roof was the scorching blue of a southern hemisphere noon in February.
And yet the stars were there. Out beyond the cloudless heat of the troposphere, beyond the stratosphere’s blanket of ozone, beyond the mesosphere and the thermosphere, the ionosphere, the exosphere and the magnetosphere, were the stars. Millions of them, patterning the blackness and orbiting themselves into the precise configuration that would be forever mapped onto the soul of Nicholas Jordan.
Joanna Jordan – Aries, owner-operator of Edenvale’s Uppercut hair salon, the freakishly accurate goal attack for the Edenvale Stars netball team, and a two-time Miss Eden Valley title-holder – did not think of the stars in the hours that followed her son’s birth. Blissed out and dishevelled in the hospital’s sole delivery suite, she only stared into little Nick’s face, and charted influences of a more terrestrial nature.
‘He’s got your nose,’ she murmured to her husband.
And she was quite right. Her baby had a perfect, miniature replica of the nose that she knew and loved on the face of Mark Jordan – Taurus, square-shouldered Australian Rules defender turned polo-shirted financial planner, lover of baked cheesecake and helpless admirer of long-legged women.
‘But your ears,’ Mark said, feeling his hands to be suddenly and gigantically out of scale as he smoothed back a wisp of the dark hair that feathered Nick’s newborn head.
And so, Joanna and Mark looked over their son and traced back to various sources his cheeks, forehead, fingers and toes. The new parents found an echo of Mark’s brother in the wide setting of their baby’s eyes, and a hint of Joanna’s mother in his full and expressive lips.
Nowhere, however, did they find, or even think to look for, the fingerprints of Beta Aquarii, a yellow supergiant burning some 537 light years from Earth. Or the more diffuse touch of the Helix Nebula, or indeed any of the other heavenly bodies that comprised the sprawling constellation of Aquarius, within whose auspices the sun was housed at the time of their baby’s birth.
An astrologer, looking at the pinpricks of destiny as laid out in little Nick’s natal chart, might on the day of his birth have been able to tell you that this child would grow up to be original to the point of slightly eccentric, creative and caring, but with a competitive streak so wide that his siblings would prefer eating Brussels sprouts to playing Monopoly with him. He would love costume parties and have a habit of bringing home any starving dog or flea-ridden cat that crossed his path.
This same astrologer might have allowed themselves a fond smile as they foretold that Nick, from his mid-teens onwards, would be a true believer when it came to the stars. Nick would like the fact that he was an Aquarius – a sign he would associate with innovative and original thinking, as well as summertime, music festivals and hot young hippies who smelled of patchouli and sex.
On the day of Nick’s birth, however, there was no astrologer at hand, and the only person who did make an astrological prediction about baby Nick at that time was Joanna Jordan’s friend Mandy Carmichael. Mandy – Gemini, dimple-cheeked darling of the regional television network’s weather report, radiant newlywed, ABBA fanatic – appeared at the hospital like a good fairy, straight after work. Her face was still thickly plastered with foundation and she teetered on high heels as she balanced in her arms an enormous blue teddy bear and a bunch of supermarket chrysanthemums. Soon the teddy was reclining in a chair, the chrysanthemums were in a Fowlers preserving jar, and Mandy was barefoot beside the bed, cradling her friend’s firstborn with infinite care.
‘A little Aquarius, hm?’ she said, her eyes misting. ‘Don’t expect him to be like you and Mark, will you, JoJo? Aquarians are different. Aren’t you, little one?’
‘Well, he’d better like sport,’ Jo said lightly. ‘Mark’s already bought him a tennis racquet.’
‘Which is why he’ll probably be an artist. Or a dancer. Won’t you, my treasure?’
Mandy slipped her finger into the closing star of baby Nick’s hand, and for a moment she was uncharacteristically speechless. Then she said, ‘Jo, he’s beautiful. Just beautiful.’
By the time Mandy stepped out of the hospital, dusk had fallen, bringing with it a breeze as softly cool as the wistful mood that settled on her as she cut across the spiky grass – carrying her shoes – to the car park. The western sky was a smoky blue strung with drifts of low, pinkish cloud, but in the east a few eager stars had already burst through the deepening dark. Mandy slipped in behind the wheel of her car and watched those stars for a good long while. The smell of baby was in her nostrils.
The following Friday, at Curlew Court – a cul-de-sac in a newly built part of Edenvale that was full of concrete kerbing and single-storey homes with Colorbond roofs, mown lawns and eucalypt saplings in plastic plant guards – Drew Carmichael flopped onto his back and said, ‘Wow.’
Alongside him, on his next-door neighbour’s trampoline, was an empty bottle of Baileys Irish Cream, two smeary tumblers and his sweaty, smiling, semi-clad wife. Drew – Libra, agricultural consultant, amateur aviation enthusiast, Pink Floyd aficionado and fearsome bedroom-mirror air guitarist – had been home from a two-week business trip for less than an hour, and he had a sense of having been quite deliberately ravished. Drained of his essence, even. Fortunately, the neighbours were on holiday on the Gold Coast.
‘Mmmmmm,’ said Mandy, smiling up into a star-filled sky.
Drew propped himself up on one elbow and looked at his wife. He could see a shadow on her left cheek where it dimpled, and smell the mischief on her damp skin.
‘What was that all about?’ he asked, putting a hand on the soft paleness of her exposed belly. ‘Hm?’
‘Excuse me,’ she said, slapping his hand away but grinning widely, ‘but I’m a married woman. Don’t touch what you can’t afford.’
He tickled her, and she giggled.
‘What are you up to?’
‘Up to?’ she said. ‘Up to? I . . . am looking at the stars.’
Slightly drunk and entirely happy, Drew pillowed his head on folded arms and followed her gaze, up into space.
On that February night, the Carmichaels set in motion a baby girl, who would be born in the early hours of a November morning under the sign of Sagittarius. She would arrive, petite and perfectly formed, with her skull capped in a finer version of the light brown hair that would eventually curl around the sharp contours of her face. Her eyes would be hazel, her chin would be pointed, and her lips – like her mother’s – would form a pronounced Cupid’s bow. Her dark eyebrows would – like her father’s – be straight and almost severe.
An astrologer might have predicted that this baby would grow up to be a straight-shooter; playful, but also something of a perfectionist. She would love words, appear at age nine on a kids’ TV spelling contest (which she would win), and usually have a pen wedged behind her ear. Always her bedside table would groan under its payload of books (read, half read, to read), and there was a good chance that you would find, concealed within this pile of books, a catalogue from Howards Storage World or IKEA, since wardrobe-organisation porn would, for this girl, be a lifelong guilty pleasure. Her memory would be as flawless as a gleaming, stainless steel filing cabinet and even her text messages would be faultlessly formatted and punctuated. It might also have been accurately foretold, with a sorrowful shake of the astrologer’s head, that this child would grow up to have scant regard for the stars. To be frank, she would consider horoscopes to be a crock of implausible hog-shit.
‘Justine,’ Mandy murmured, mostly to herself.
‘What?’ said Drew.
‘Jus-tine,’ Mandy said, more distinctly. ‘Do you like it?’
‘Who’s Justine?’ Drew asked, perplexed.
You’ll see, Mandy thought. You’ll see.
Time passed. Moons orbited planets. Planets did laps around the brightest stars. Galaxies swirled. And, as the years went by, more and more satellites joined in. Then one day, as if by magic, there she was: twenty-six-year-old Justine Carmichael, making her way with an unsteady load of takeaway coffee cups along a leafy suburban street on a Friday morning in March. She wore a cheerful swing dress of green and white polka-dot linen and nearly white sneakers that caught the sunshine and shadow of the light-dappled pavement as she walked.
The street – about two hours east of Edenvale – was Rennie Street, one of the main thoroughfares in the dress circle suburb of Alexandria Park. This was a district of Federation mansions and art deco apartment blocks, flower boutiques and cafes, the sort of place where it was easy to get a Vienna coffee in a tall glass with a long spoon, and where dog groomers specialised in cuts for Maltese and West Highland terriers. Justine’s destination was the headquarters of the Alexandria Park Star, where she worked. Officially, her job description was ‘copy-runner’, although the editor – who was prone to verbal flourishes that in no way resembled the incisive brevity of his journalism – liked to refer to her as ‘our dear, darling cadet-in-waiting’. If he had been writing about her, he’d have called her ‘dogsbody’.
The Star’s headquarters were in a gracious, converted weatherboard home that was set back slightly from the road. As Justine turned without pausing through an open front gate, she passed beneath one of Alexandria Park’s most controversial monuments – the star itself. As ugly as it was unmissable, it was a mosaic sculpture the size of a tractor wheel that swung, high and bright, on a post-mounted bracket above the pavement. It was fat and curvy for a star, and its five not-quite-symmetrical points were crudely covered in chips of acid-yellow tiles and the smashings of a tea set patterned with yellow roses.
Thirty years earlier, when the star had first been hoisted into place, the locals had dubbed it the ‘yellow peril’, and they had tried every trick in the municipal council rulebook to have it pulled down. In those days, most of Alexandria Park’s residents regarded the Star as a grubby little street rag, and its young editor, Jeremy Byrne, as a despicable long-haired degenerate. It was their strongly held opinion that Winifred Byrne’s dissolute eldest son had no business installing a muck-raking fish-wrap at his late mother’s elegant Rennie Street address.
But Alexandria Park learned to live with both the publication and its gaudy street-side emblem, and now the Star was a glossy and well-respected magazine of current affairs, sport and the arts. Each month’s new edition was read not only in Alexandria Park, but right through the city and out into the suburbs on the other side. Although Justine’s job was somewhere beneath the very lowest rung of the ladder, there would still have been any number of other bright young journalism graduates who might have seriously considered knee-capping her in order to take her place.
On her first day in the job, Justine had been given a tour of the premises by Jeremy Byrne himself, no longer long-haired but quite bald, and these days a good deal more patrician than peacenik. He had stood her beneath the crazy yellow bulk of the star.
‘I want you to think of it as a talisman of the fearless, fiercely non-partisan journalistic principles upon which our brave little publication was founded,’ he had told her, and Justine had tried not to find it weird and embarrassing when he had spoken about the star’s ‘inspirational rays’, and even mimed them raining down onto her head.
The Star was a great place to work, just as its editor had promised. The staff were hardworking, but not above having some fun. The Christmas parties were Bacchanalian feats of catering, and the quality of reporting in the magazine was high. The trouble for Justine was that the Star was such a great place to work that none of the journalists ever resigned. There were currently three staff writers in the office, and one in Canberra, and they’d all been in their jobs for a decade or more. The copy-runner before Justine had waited three years for a cadetship before giving up and taking a job in public relations.
On that day when Justine had stood pink-cheeked beneath the star with Jeremy Byrne, she had been convinced that her predecessor had done all the waiting for her. A real job, surely, had to be just around the corner. But two years had gone by with no sign of advancement in sight and Justine was beginning to think that her first by-line at the Star would not come until one of the current crew died of old age.
Justine hurried along the lavender-lined path, restacking her jumble of cardboard cups so she had a hand free to collect a bundle of mail lying on the flagstones. At the top of a low flight of steps, she pushed open the front door with her hip. Even before the door had swung closed behind her, a sugar-dusted voice drifted out into the hallway.
‘Justine? Is that you?’
The voice belonged to Barbel Weiss, the advertising manager, who had transformed one of the Star’s two beautiful, bay-windowed front parlours into a space as well groomed and feminine as she was. When Justine stepped into this office, Barbel – in a dusky pink pants suit, and with her blonde hair twisted into an arrangement that looked like it belonged in a German bakery – didn’t get up from her desk, only waved a brochure in the air.
‘Darling, take this down to the art department, will you? Tell them the font I want for the Brassington advertisement is this one. Here. I’ve circled it.’
‘No problem,’ Justine said, manoeuvring herself to the side of the desk so Barbel could add the brochure to her load.
‘Oh,’ said Barbel, registering Justine’s arsenal of coffee cups, and allowing her brow to furrow just a smidge, ‘you’re only just back from Rafaello’s. But you won’t mind popping down there again, will you? I have a client in twenty minutes, and I thought macarons would be nice. Let’s have . . . raspberry. Thanks, Justine. You’re a cherub.’
The parlour on the opposite side of the hallway belonged to the editor, but his office was utterly unlike Barbel’s. It resembled rather the living room of a hoarder, with knee-high piles of foreign newspapers and bookshelves crammed with legal textbooks, political biographies, Wisden Almanacks and books of true crime. Jeremy, wearing a shirt that was mostly business-like but somehow managed to retain the slightest hint of kaftan, was talking on the phone. When Justine ducked in to deliver his soy-milk chai, he held up an open hand to her in a way that meant come back in five minutes. Justine gave an eager smile and nodded.
The next room along the corridor was occupied by the staff writers. At the sound of Justine’s footfall, Roma Sharples turned from her computer screen and peered over the top of her electric blue-framed spectacles. Famous for being crabby and imperious, she had to be pushing seventy, yet she was showing no signs of retiring.
‘Thank you,’ said Roma, accepting her long black coffee. She peeled a sticky note off the pad on her desk and held it out to Justine.
‘Give this address to Radoslaw, and tell him we have to be there at eleven sharp. And Justine? Bring the car around to the front, will you?’
Justine set down a quarter-strength latte at the empty workstation beside Roma’s. This desk belonged to Jenna Rae, who had presumably been called out on an assignment, and who – being only in her late thirties – offered Justine virtually no hope at all.
The Star’s sports specialist was Martin Oliver, who was in his fifties and probably Justine’s best prospect, given his personal habits. Martin was on the phone and giving off his usual miasma of booze and nicotine as Justine handed him a heavily sugared double strength cappuccino. He tapped her on the elbow. On the pad on his desk, he wrote, Paper jam in p/copier. And then, Computer won’t print PDFs again. Get Anwen.
‘Yeah, well, the selectors are morons. Wouldn’t know a spin bowler from a bowler hat,’ he said into the phone, while underlining the word again so hard that he made a deep gouge in the paper. Justine took up his pen and drew a smiley face beneath his message.
Next along the passageway was a narrow office space that might once have been a closet. Behind the desk sat Natsue Kobayashi, the contributions manager. Natsue was blessed with exquisite taste in clothes and an age-defying complexion that made people surprised to learn that she was old enough to have three grandchildren. Each day, she took precisely forty-five minutes for lunch, and spent the time knitting in luxury yarns – merino, alpaca, possum, camel – for these beloved grandchildren, who lived in Sweden. Natsue also had a preternatural ability to multi-task.
Without pausing from transcribing the letter that was clipped to the document holder beside her computer, she said, ‘Good morning, Justine. Oh, your dress! So cu-u-ute! Kawaii!’
The dress was genuine vintage – it had belonged to Justine’s grandmother.
‘One flat white,’ Justine announced.
Natsue, still typing, said, ‘Bless you. And I see you have the mail? I would be grateful if I could have mine just as soon as you have done the sorting.’
‘Of course,’ Justine said.
Justine found the art room mercifully empty of anyone who could add anything more to her to-do list, so she left the designers a hurried note along with Barbel’s brochure, then made good her escape. Across the corridor in the IT department, the Star’s resident tech angel, Anwen Corbett, appeared to be asleep.
Anwen was partly nocturnal, often coming into the office late at night to tinker with the computers when nobody needed to use them. Now her dreadlocked head, pillowed by a thick computer manual, rested on a desk that was mostly a cluttered disaster of cables, circuit boards and Star Wars action figures.
‘Anwen,’ Justine said. ‘An!’
Anwen jolted her head upright, though her eyes remained closed. ‘Yup, yup. All good. All here.’
‘Martin’s computer’s not printing PDFs again. He wants you to take a look,’ Justine said.
Anwen let her head fall back to her makeshift pillow and groaned. ‘Tell him it’s a PICNIC.’
PICNIC was Anwen’s favourite acronym. Problem In Chair Not In Computer.
‘I have coffee,’ Justine wheedled.
‘You do?’ Anwen said, blinking with puffy eyelids.
‘Long macchiato. Available from my desk just as soon as you’ve taken a look at Martin’s computer.’
‘That’s just cruel.’
Justine grinned. ‘But effective.’
The photography department was the next stop along the hallway. Justine leaned on the doorframe and said, ‘Morning, Radoslaw. Roma said to say that she needs you for an eleven o’clock job. Here’s the address.’
Like a prize-fighting bantam, the Star’s photographer leapt up from behind his vast computer monitor, a can of Red Bull in his hand, and a short-sleeve checked shirt buttoned high under his tidy black beard. Justine glanced at the wastepaper bin, where there were already two blue and white cans, spent.
It was because of Radoslaw’s driving, Justine knew, that Roma had asked her to bring the company car around to the front of the building. Thanks to him, both sides of the Camry were scratched, and white duco could be found in several places along the side-alley fence. Nevertheless, Radoslaw always insisted that he drive to assignments. Not even Roma had been able to overpower him on this point.
‘Well, you can tell Roma to fuck off,’ he said, and he made no attempt to keep his voice down. ‘I’ve got a job at the racetrack with Martin this morning. Can’t they fucken talk to each other? Jesus fucken Christ. They work in the same fucken room. Fuck.’
And since this was a fairly normal way for Radoslaw to respond to a message, it was perhaps fortunate that he had never in his life taken a bad picture.
At last, Justine made it to her desk, which was located in a lean-to at the back of the old home. The room’s walls were unlined, though they had been roughly painted. Propped against one of these walls was a bicycle that Martin Oliver had probably last used about seven months ago, which was also the last time he’d felt moved to get some exercise at lunchtime, rather than head down to the Strumpet and Pickle. From between the wheels of the bike there emerged a stained white furry muzzle, then a pair of weepy, deep-brown eyes. These belonged to a small and shaggy Maltese terrier, who was dragging a leopard-print leash.
‘Falafel,’ she said. ‘What are you doing here?’
The dog only wagged his tail, but the answer to Justine’s question was on her desk in the form of a note from the Star’s art director. In his rather over-confident hand, Glynn had written: Don’t suppose you can take F. to the grooming parlour? Due there at 10 am. Groomers will have a fit if he’s late again. Thanks! G.
Falafel trotted up to Justine’s ankles and yapped at her impatiently.
‘Don’t you start,’ she told him.
For a few seconds, Justine stood and breathed, deliberately. There was no point feeling overwhelmed, she told herself. When everyone wanted everything immediately, you simply had to prioritise. She reasoned that even if Jeremy had asked for her in five minutes’ time, and even if he was the boss, he was also a hopeless time fantasist. Five minutes in Jeremy’s world could mean anything from ten minutes to six hours. Therefore, she would sort the mail and deliver Natsue’s at the very least, then duck back to Rafaello’s for Barbel’s biscuits, returning via the grooming parlour where she would drop off Falafel. Then she would fix the paper jam in the photocopier, back the Camry down the driveway and start a fight between Martin and Roma by passing on the general gist, though not the precise wording, of Radoslaw’s message to Roma. Then she –
It was Jeremy, his voice booming cheerfully down the hallway.
‘Be good,’ she said to Falafel. ‘Good.’
Just outside Jeremy’s office, Justine slowed and smoothed her dress. Professional, capable, unflappable, she told herself, then stepped inside.
‘Darl!’ said Jeremy. He smiled, and broken capillaries jostled across his cheeks and nose. ‘Have a seat, have a seat.’
Jeremy was big on the paterfamilias thing, and Justine knew he felt it was his responsibility, as the editor and her self-appointed mentor, to schedule in some regular little chats. He liked to tell her war stories from his glorious and dangerous past, and to orate on subjects such as ethics, due process, jurisprudence and the delicate machinery of the Westminster system.
‘Darl,’ he said, leaning forward to launch into today’s randomly chosen topic, ‘what do you know about the separation of powers?’
‘Well . . .’ Justine began, and that was a mistake. When conversing with Jeremy, it was foolish to begin with a word of extraneous fill.
‘We thank the French Enlightenment,’ he interrupted, ‘for the concept of the separation of powers, which holds that the three branches of government – the executive, the legislative and the judicial . . .’
And so Justine sat across the desk from Jeremy as he monologued for quite some time. Hands in her polka-dot lap, she tried to look as if she were, in fact, listening intently, and learning. And not as if she were thinking of macarons, and the width of the side alley, and Martin’s printing problem, and whether or not Falafel had eaten the packed lunch that was in the bag she’d left, unprotected, near her workstation.
At length, Jeremy’s phone rang and he snatched it up. ‘Harvey!’ he exclaimed. ‘Hold on just a mo, me old chum.’ He put his hand over the receiver and gave Justine a rueful smile. ‘To be continued.’
Dismissed, Justine stepped into the hallway. Immediately, from the noise, she could tell that Radoslaw had not waited for Justine to pass his message on to Roma.
Martin was also yelling. ‘Jus-tine! I need to print something out! This year!’
Justine checked her watch. Falafel was already late for the groomer’s.
Barbel leaned around the door of her office, her beautifully made-up brow creased with anxiety. ‘Where are my macarons?’ she asked, but Justine could offer her nothing more than a weak smile.
It was going to be quite a day.