‘The Secret Science of Magic’



I’ve spent heaps of time at Melbourne Uni over the years, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it buzz quite like this. Elsie and I step off the tram in front of the main entrance, Rajesh bouncing behind us. Elsie and Raj stand aside, presumably for me to catch my breath, but before I can recover from the press and mash of the tram, I’m smacked in the face by a giant spray of balloons. The colour, the almost TARDIS blue of MU, should probably be comforting, but somehow, it’s anything but.

‘Sorry mate,’ the guy attached to the balloons says. ‘Latex injuries are an occupational hazard.’ He smiles at me, all facial scruff and confidence. Under his jacket he’s wearing a T-shirt with a picture of a pipe and some French words in cursive. My head is light and my French is rusty, but I think the slogan translates as, this is not a hipster shirt. Although the thought of catching the crowded tram again makes me queasy, it takes every bit of my willpower not to bolt back onto the idling behemoth and head home.

Elsie and Raj hover beside me, a Nayer on either side. Balloon-guy’s eyes travel over Elsie’s tiny denim skirt under her black winter coat. ‘Lemme guess, you’re a life-drawing model? Arts building’s thataway,’ he says to her legs.

Raj whistles. Elsie gives balloon-guy a wide, toothy smile, even as her eyes narrow. ‘I’ll keep that in mind,’ she says sweetly, and loudly, in French. ‘If I ever need to brush up on deviant sexuality in film noir, or whatever.’

The guy looks at her blankly. Elsie points to his shirt. ‘Tu ne parles pas français? Sorry, I just assumed that someone with your deductive reasoning skills would understand his own shirt.’

Elsie pulls me away before he has a chance to respond.

‘Remind me again why we have no friends?’ I say, biting back a smile.

Elsie shakes her head with a lopsided grin. ‘Because you’re a socially inept freakazoid, and I think everyone’s annoying. Besides, that doofus looks exactly like someone who’d be buddies with Colin. Pretty sure he took that film noir course last semester, right Raj?’

Raj throws an arm loosely around her shoulder. ‘Does watching Netflix with no pants on count as studying? Dunno whose genes for slothfulness our big brother inherited.’

‘Who even knew it was possible to fail Cultural Studies?’ Elsie says with a laugh.

At a glance, Raj and Toby could easily pass for siblings. They’re both skinny, with skin the same shade of brown, and the same inability to competently kick, hit or throw any kind of sporting projectile. Yet unlike my taciturn brother, Raj has never been anything but warm. He’s always chatty, and, apart from me, he is Elsie’s best friend in the world.

‘Kay, Raj, time to piss off,’ Elsie says. ‘I believe you said you had some books to borrow, and I need a few hours away from your ugly face.’

Raj grins. ‘Sure you don’t want my expertise? Or a chaperone for all those skeezy Engineering dudes? My giant guns gotta come in handy for something.’ He flexes his spindly arms, where no guns of any kind are apparent.

Elsie snorts. ‘Yeah, and if you’d spent your first year here doing anything remotely cool, I might’ve taken you up on that. I’ll call you if we need help finding the “Magic: The Gathering” fan club.’

Raj zips his jacket up to the neck. ‘It’s on the second floor of Union House. But whatevs.’ He drops a fleeting kiss on Elsie’s cheek. ‘Text me when you’re heading back. Have fun, ladies.’

Raj disappears into the crowd and Elsie makes a grandiose gesture towards the entrance. ‘Your future awaits, Sophia! Come on.’

We walk through the tangle of people, grabbing a couple of showbags on our way in. Elsie immediately starts stuffing them with brochures gathered from various stands. Music is booming from somewhere on campus. To me it sounds like it’s coming from every direction at once. As Elsie pauses in front of the Maths building, I resist the urge to cover my ears.

‘So the Augustine’s crew are meeting at the main library. We’re late, but I’m guessing Peterson will still be boring everyone senseless with his complete history of everything. Should we head over?’ She grabs a flyer from a volunteer. ‘Hey, there’s a statistics seminar on soon. Isn’t that, like, crack to you?’

I wrap my scarf around my face, the biting cold numbing my nose. A guy jogs past, followed by an older lady. ‘Most of my subjects will be in here,’ he tells her as he passes. I can’t help but wonder what he’s applying for, what path he has mapped out that lets him move with such conviction.

I have no idea why I let myself get talked into this. ‘Elsie, can’t we just wander around? Just you and me?’

Elsie glances at the building. Her eyes linger on a group of laughing people tossing a frisbee near the doors. She turns to me again and smiles, but I think I also hear her sigh a little bit.

‘Sure, Sophia. Let’s just hang out on our own. As always.’ She brightens. ‘Hey, Raj said the Medical Museum’s open. Want to go check out cadavers?’

I dig out the activities program, and reach into the depths of my new drama skills for some sham enthusiasm. ‘There’s food on the South Lawn. And, hey, the clubs and societies tables are there as well. Maybe we can check out the mahjong club or, oh, how about the breakdancing club?’

Elsie barks out a laugh. ‘Sophia, I would happily donate a kidney to see you breakdance.’

We wander towards the South Lawn. The campus is congested with people and marquees, a bandstand in the centre. Behind us, the beautiful Old Arts building looms, its Gothic clock tower completely out of time and place with the smartphone-juggling multitudes.

I pause where the path meets the mushy, crowded lawn. Inadvertently, I have looped my arm through Elsie’s showbag, and I’m holding onto it like it’s a life preserver. I am crap with crowds, and this loud mob is making my stomach twist and tumble.

Elsie looks at me through one narrow eye, like she’s considering me through a microscope. It’s the same look she gave me in grade-four music, when she tiptoed into the corner where I was peacefully hiding and snuck a pair of maracas into my hands. I know how to interpret that look. It means her brain is circling through something that I am not going to appreciate.

‘Okay, Sophia,’ she says slowly. ‘I know you’re not really interested in biology, so I am going to go look at sliced dead people, and you are going to explore and try your best not to have an aneurism.’

I baulk. ‘But Elsie –’

‘Rey, look around! There’s music and food, and, see there, some juggling guys. And have you even noticed that the sky is clear for the first time in ages?’ She plants her hands on her hips. ‘You’re going to be fine. Just breathe. I’ll be half an hour, and then we can find Raj and get those dumplings. But this is important, Sophia.’

My eyes travel frantically over the chaos. ‘Why, Elsie? Because I’m suddenly going to decide that juggling is a skill I need to master?’

‘No. Because I need to know that you’ll be okay on your own after I’m gone.’ Elsie nods decisively. And then she gives me a brief one-armed hug before she takes a few steps away and is lost in the crowd.

Neither one of us is a hugger, nor a crier. But for some reason, Elsie’s fleeting grip makes me want to sit right down on the boggy grass and wail.

Of all my options at this moment, a mental collapse would probably not be the most productive one. I step into the mire and look helplessly around me.

There’s a guy with a beard who’s signing people up for the Juggling Society, and a girl dressed inexplicably in a panda body suit. For a second I’m distracted by a guy standing in front of her. He’s taking in the scene around him with this wide-eyed, out-of-his-depth look that, somehow, I recognise instantly. He’s nice looking, with curly hair and holey canvas shoes. He looks panda-girl up and down, then turns the badge she has flung at him over with a sharp burst of laughter. He shows it to the tall girl tucked beside him and she rolls her eyes, even though she’s smiling. The girl is wearing a dress covered in prints of pink cupcakes, and a red scarf wrapped elaborately around her hair. Even from a distance she projects that tangible confidence that typically makes me shrink. I watch them for a moment. I can’t tell if they’re a couple – unless two people are sucking face I rarely can – but there’s something about the two of them together that makes me feel inexplicably … lonely. I turn away as the girl grabs the curly-haired guy’s hand and tugs him, still chuckling, past the panda.

To my right there’s a line of people waiting for free popcorn, and as I turn, a group with Chinese Student Society jumpers push past, arms laden with pizza boxes.

And there is a boy staring right at me.

I glance over my shoulder. The band is behind me, a crowd milling in front of the stage. I turn back, but it’s not the band he is looking at; he’s staring, unmistakably, at me.

My brain clocks the following:

Tall. Too tall, really, at least six three or four. A battered leather satchel slung over his body, under a blue MU showbag, its flatness indicating that it’s all but empty.

Brown cord pants, long-sleeved blue shirt, grey waistcoat, tweed hat. I’m no fashion expert, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the busker near the supermarket wearing something similar.

I almost don’t recognise him out of uniform. And for a second, I have the strangest suspicion that he is a bit startled. Then he sort-of-but-not-quite smiles. That vaguely familiar half-smile, not directed at anything perceptible in the universe around him.

Elsie and Raj are nowhere to be seen. The indifferent crowd near the stage seems to have decided that this is, in fact, the greatest band in history and should be venerated with frenetic dancing in the mud. When I look back, busker-boy is walking towards me.

Balls balls balls.

‘I know you,’ I say quickly, as he nears. ‘Are you here with Mr Peterson? I thought he was with the Specialist Maths group. I haven’t seen you in Specialist, though.’

He doesn’t speak. The silence stretches far enough for the rising warmth in my cheeks to become perceptible, even through the chill. He folds his hands behind his back and does this wriggly manoeuvre, like he’s subtly adjusting his shoulders. He takes a deep breath.

‘Well, I’m barely scraping a passable grade in Further Maths. I mean, science I don’t mind, but I’ve never really had a head for numbers. It’s like, have you ever stared at one of those awesome illusion pictures? You know, you blur your eyes and if you’re lucky, a picture jumps out – a spaceship or the face of Albert Einstein or a dinosaur – but then, you look away for a sec and when you look back there’s nothing but colours again? That’s kinda like me in Maths. An occasional stegosaurus. But mostly, it’s mangled chaos that I’m pretty sure was created by a guy on ’shrooms.’

I stare at him. ‘Right, well,’ I stammer. ‘Don’t let me keep you. I’m just –’

‘– Sophia.’ He takes off the hat and tucks his dark hair behind his ears. ‘You’re Sophia,’ he says, as if this statement holds some significance that I should be aware of. He smiles. ‘I’m Joshua.’



She was waiting for him at the station as he got off the train the following afternoon, standing on the other side of the gate with her schoolbag slung over her shoulder. Roland showed the stationmaster his pass as the man reached up to unhook the stopping-all-stations sign, his pale face smudged with redness in the cold and the whistling wind. He nodded and started sorting through the row of enamelled signs leaning against the wall. Cassie was in her blazer and long winter dress, white socks folded just below the knee.

‘I saw you before, when I was waiting for the train,’ she said to Roland as they went down the ramp. ‘You walked right past me.’

‘Did I? I mustn’t have seen you.’

‘Yeah, I know. It was like you were in a world of your own,’ Cassie said, her voice sing-song and echoing through the dank concrete tunnel. Water was dripping from the ridges of mortar segmenting the ceiling, forming pools in the crum- bling bitumen floor. The children stepped around them. They walked up the lane beside the milk bar and through the carpark to Creek Road, Reg Noble’s face watching them from the back windows.

‘So are you friends with Darren Wilson now?’ Cassie asked Roland.

‘Yeah, we’re pretty good friends.’

Cassie nodded. ‘I thought you might be.’

A bus rumbled past, belching thick exhaust fumes as it went up the hill. It had been washed by the recent rains and its windows and fluted sides gleamed. A girl knocked on the glass and waved. Cassie waved back and turned to Roland, a loose tress flaring at her ear. She brushed it back.

‘Hey, is it true what happened with that Todd guy? And that spastic friend of his? That they scratched up someone’s car or something?’

‘Yeah,’ Roland said. ‘Troy’s car.’

‘Yeah, because they were going around boasting about it to everyone.’


‘Yeah. They’re such idiots.’ ‘Where did you hear about that?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Cassie. ‘Just from people.’

When they came to the Nobles’ house, Cassie invited Roland in. Colleen was lying across the couch in the living room, watching Wheel of Fortune. A half-drunk vodka and orange sat on the coffee table.

‘Hi, Mum,’ Cassie said as they came in.

Colleen replied in a blurred voice. On the screen, the wheel spun, music playing as the moustached host chattered. Smoke curled from the cigarette lying in the ashtray.

They got some Cokes out of the fridge and went up to Cassie’s room. It was exactly as it had been last time Roland was there: immaculate, everything frilly and childish, that same powerful smell of lemon-scented washing detergent coming from the crisp, clean sheets on the freshly made bed. They sat on the carpet.

‘What does Darren think of me anyway?’ Cassie asked Roland.

‘I don’t know.’

‘Hasn’t he said anything about me?’

‘All I can remember is that he told me you got really angry at him once.’

Cassie frowned. ‘When?’

‘After he told Lily off. When he told her to leave him alone.’ ‘Yeah, but that was ages ago. Hasn’t he said anything else

about me?’

‘No. Not that I can remember.’

‘Because I’ve sort of been bugging him,’ said Cassie. ‘I’ve been writing letters to him and leaving them in his letterbox. Just about stuff. About me. I sort of think, “Oh, I might write Darren a letter,” and then I write one even if I don’t have anything to say. I don’t know why. And sometimes I go around to his house when I can’t sleep. I tap on his window and wake him up and stuff. And I’m all sort of, “Hi, I can’t sleep and I’m bored, what are you doing?”’

She was tracing patterns on her lap as she talked.

‘I brought flowers over to him the other day. I just started picking flowers from everyone’s gardens on my way home from school, and by the time I got to Darren’s house I had this huge bunch of flowers, but all different flowers and bits of weeds and stuff. It was sort of a mess. So, anyway, I just walked into his backyard and handed them to him.’

Crimson spread across her cheeks as she glanced at Roland, her eyes sparkling. She buried her face in her hands and let out a single, muted shriek.

‘This big messy bunch of flowers. From people’s gardens. And his friends were all sitting there looking at me, prob-   ably thinking, “Who is this weirdo?” I was too embarrassed to say anything so I just sort of ran off. I think he thought I was completely crazy. I think that’s what he thinks about me, that I’m just this weird crazy girl who’s hassling him all the time. Which I am, I suppose.’

She took a sip of her Coke and uncrossed and recrossed her legs.

‘I just really like him,’ she said. ‘I get all hyped up and over- excited. That’s what my mum says all the time. She’s always saying, “Cassie, you’re overexcited, you need to calm down.” I suppose she’s right. I don’t know. I go around to his place and I just talk and talk and talk. And, you know, Darren’s always so cool and everything. I think I sort of freaked him out when I showed him my scars, though. Have I ever shown you my scars?’


‘Do you want to see them?’ ‘Okay.’

Cassie held out her arm, turning it, and showed Roland the crisscrossed rows of raised white lines along the inside.

‘Cool,’ said Roland.

She examined the scars, running her fingers over the pearlescent skin.

‘I did them a while ago,’ she said. ‘I can show you the other ones, like the fresh ones, but you’ll have to trust me.’ ‘Okay.’

She uncrossed her legs and hitched up her skirt, then gath- ered the material and rolled her leg over to reveal the fine red lines and pink welts down the creamy skin of her inner thighs, the freshest of them beaded with dark dry blood.

‘When I was doing it on my arm, my mum said I was just doing it for attention,’ said Cassie. ‘So now I do it there, where no one can see it.’

She pulled her skirt back down, smoothing it over.

‘I’m pretty fucked up,’ she said, her eyes meeting his. She ran her finger along the carpet, picking at it.

‘I don’t know what Darren thinks of me now,’ she said. ‘What do you think?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Roland.

‘Do you think I would have scared him off or anything?’

Roland thought about it. ‘I think what Darren’s really good at is that he sort of understands other people. Sometimes, even if I don’t say anything, he seems to know what I’m feeling anyway.’ Cassie’s face lit up. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘That’s what I think too.

That’s exactly what I think. Sometimes, when we’re talking, I think, “Oh, he actually seems to get me.” Like he really gets who I am and everything.’

She blushed furiously and remembered her Coke, gulping it down. They both stared at the floor in silence.

‘Hey,’ Cassie said finally. ‘Do you want to do Valium and listen to some of my dad’s records?’

‘All right,’ said Roland.

She left the room and came back with a portable record player and a pile of records, a slim box of Valium slipped into her blazer pocket. Roland saw Colleen’s name on it. ‘Won’t your mum know?’ he asked Cassie.

‘She knows anyway,’ said Cassie. ‘My mum was the one who started giving them to me, to calm me down when I get over- excited and stuff. So now I just take them whenever.’

She sat back down on the floor and began flipping through the records.

‘My dad got most of these when he was in the army in Vietnam,’ she said. ‘He was friends with this black American guy who used to get them from America. Whenever my dad went around to see him, he used to go, “Man, you got to dig this.”’

Cassie did the accent, rosiness creeping across her cheeks again. She pulled out one of the records and showed it to Roland. It was a single by The Doors, ‘Riders on the Storm’. Cassie traced her finger over the picture of Jim Morrison, who looked out at the camera from under a shock of thick hair, one hand outstretched and his fingers splayed in a gesture of supplication.

‘I used to be so in love with Jim Morrison,’ said Cassie. ‘I actually used to write him letters as well. Like, a heap of them. And so then I went and asked this teacher at school about him. She’s pretty cool. She’s lived in America and everything. So I asked her if she knew how I could get Jim Morrison’s address. And she said, “Oh, didn’t you know, he’s dead.” And no joke, but I actually burst into tears right there. I’m such a dork.’

She put the album back in the pile and continued shuffling through them.

‘Anyway, so apparently he died years ago. Before I was even born. He’s buried in this cemetery in France, and all these people have written signs in the cemetery that say things like, “Jim is here” and “This way to Jim”, with arrows showing the way to his grave, and people sit around and play his music and stuff. I’m going to go there one day. I’ve got it all planned out.’ She took out another album: Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going


‘This one’s my favourite when I’m on Valium,’ she said to Roland, showing it to him. She took the blister pack out of the Valium box and pushed out six yellow tablets. She handed two to Roland and took four for herself.

‘I’ve built up a tolerance,’ she told him. ‘Two used to be heaps for me, but now I just feel normal unless I take at least four.’

They swallowed them with the metallic dregs of their Cokes. Cassie turned off the lights and put the record on. There was laughter and voices, the wail of a saxophone and the throb of a bass guitar, a voice that was almost tearful. Lying on the carpet with the music playing, the two of them fell asleep like children.




‘From the Wreck’


He felt it first when the horses shifted and cried. They had been muttering among themselves all day, but this was different, a note of panic in it. The horses aren’t yours to care about, George, he reminded himself. He went from cabin to cabin and collected the crockery and cutlery smeared and encrusted with an early dinner, the passengers getting ready for bed.

Jupiter. He’d heard them call the horse Jupiter. He could hear the horses nickering and wondered why it was that everything felt a little off. I’ll leave this cleaning just one moment, he thought, and go below. I’ll just make sure someone is attending to them and then I’ll return to the galley.

‘Jupiter.’ He breathed the name out because there was no one there, only the six horses and George himself. ‘Jupiter,’ but no horse turned his head to look. He didn’t know which among them was the famous racer. They were shuffling still, something anxious about them. He told himself, You know nothing of horses, what do you mean something anxious, how would you know? But he felt his own sweat prick a little.

He sat himself on a flour barrel and watched the horses nudge one another. He may have closed his eyes. He did not think he had. But when he opened them there was another, a woman. She was running her finger around the rim of the horse’s mouth and it stood, death-still, eyelids peeled back and eyes locked on her shadowed face.

She leaned forward out of the darkness and licked the foam from the horse’s quivering muzzle and George could hear the creature breathe, a strange whimper deep in its chest. That did not sound like comfort. ‘Harvesting’ was the word that forced itself to George’s mind.

He stood as slowly and quietly as he could and left the enclosure back-first. The floor creaked but she did not once raise her eyes to him, nor did the horse shift its stare from her face.

He returned to the galley and the cleaning he’d abandoned. There were eighteen women on board and he had served each of them dinner during the evening. That woman had not been among them. But you did not see her face, he reminded himself. And you are only one day out from Port Adelaide — how can you be so sure you know your passengers well enough to recognise one in the darkness, in an unexpected place?

There were steps behind him and a hand sliding into the crack of his arse: Mason, of course. The assistant steward cackled loudly as George turned to flick him with the wet dishcloth.

‘You’ll have a brandy with us, won’t you, Hills? Finish that up and come have a brandy.’

The other stewards and a couple of the able seamen were packed around a table in an empty aft cabin. Mason slid a glass over to him and asked what he thought of the horseflesh.

‘Horseflesh?’ Had someone seen him visiting the horses below?

‘The sheilas, man. Seen a decent set of catheads among ‘em?’ Mason asked.

‘Haven’t seen a one as wouldn’t splinter to bits under the weight of me,’ George said, and it was true: they were a feeble-looking bunch. ‘Still, as long as they could hold it together for the duration, I wouldn’t complain if they expired after.’

Mason cackled – it only took the slightest provocation – and poured him another.

‘There is one up front, though,’ Peters said, ‘much more your style, Georgie. Big, plump pair on her, arse like a pumpkin.’

‘Blonde?’ George asked.

‘Brunette as they come.’

He did like a strong, plump brunette.

‘Big girl, is she?’

‘Ooh, I’ve really caught your attention, haven’t I? Nope, not above five four, I’d say, but plenty of meat on her bones.’

George’s Eliza appeared before him, her shining brown hair and adorable chubby backside, and he reminded her he’d be back to marry her soon, he just had one or two more trips to make, a few more coins to save, another girl or two – adventurous, entangled elsewhere; he didn’t like the lonely types – to tumble.

And though he’d cast her from his mind, he did see her again, fleetingly, that apparition among the horses. Had she been brown-headed? A set of rounded handfuls? All he had left of her was a creeping sense of dread; nothing physical he could call to mind.

‘Ledwith, her name is,’ said Mason. ‘Bridget Ledwith. She was down below, wandering around, and I asked her did she need a helping hand’ – he mimed groping her arse – ‘was she lost, and she told me all chilly that no thank you she was just fine. I followed her back to her cabin anyway, just in case. Got her name off the door.’

‘Down below?’ George asked.

‘Trust you to pick that up, Hills,’ Peters laughed, and George laughed with him, remembering suddenly the mouth on the woman and thinking what she might be able to do with it.

Between them they finished that bottle and then another one and there were only a few more hours until they all had to be back on deck.

‘Enough,’ George said, and Mason agreed. It was a stumbling walk back to their quarters, made longer when George declared he was just going above to piss off the edge.

‘Have one for me,’ Mason said, and veered off towards bed.

Just a small look, George thought to himself. Just a peek. And if she’s worth it, then tomorrow I’ll be all charm. Might even comb the old locks, he thought.

All the stewards knew how to come and go, unobtrusive, so it was nothing for George to gently slide open the door of Miss Ledwith’s cabin, to adjust his eyes to the dark and scan her sleeping form for flaws and favours. There were many points in her advantage, Mason was right, but there was one thing she was not, and that was the woman George had seen below. The shape of her was the same; the colouring too – it all came back to him in a rush. But when he saw her he did not feel death behind him and the cold pit of the sea floor.

It’s the brandy speaking, George, he told himself. Cold pit of the sea floor, indeed. Bed now, and a smidge of sleep, then tomorrow a play for this flossie. But still he couldn’t shake the sight of her, her lips against the horse’s foaming mouth.


He had slept, perhaps, for two hours, then arisen to prepare the ladies’ breakfasts.

At the inquiry, months later, he heard that some time on that first evening one of the horses had fallen, knocked from its feet by the rough seas. The racer’s owner had demanded a shift in course and the captain had turned the prow of the ship into the swell to ease its heaving. Had it brought about the wreck, this shift? Perhaps. It did not occur to George to stand and say that it was something other than the swell that had caused the horses to panic. He didn’t even believe it himself.

Instead he had told the inquiry, blunt but polite, that he did not know the cause, he did not hold blame; that all he could say was eight days, eight nights was too long to spend half-submerged in the freezing Southern Ocean with little food and no water and with the dead and the sharks ever increasing in the bloody waters around. But whose fault was it? He didn’t know. Perhaps the lifeboat could have come sooner: it seemed it had tried. He was thanked and dismissed with no further questions because it was clear to everyone he had nothing more to add.

He had a great deal more to add, and none of it on that particular topic. He would have liked to ask the court how it was possible that the woman Bridget Ledwith had changed her form so utterly from one day to the next. He would have enquired how was it she had seen into every part of him those eight days and eight nights but now he could see nothing of her because she was gone. Vanished. They mentioned her in the course of the hearing, certainly, but as though it was no great mystery for a grown woman to go missing, to disappear entirely from the colony’s face. Privacy, they said, or something; a lady’s right to be left alone.

Also, he would have liked to say, how did such a little wreck, such a gentle wreck, break, ruin and drown the lives of so many? He had not even noticed when the ship first lifted and dropped onto the reef. One drop of coffee had spilled from the pot he was carrying to the ladies’ cabins for breakfast service; he could see, clear in his mind, that drop as it rolled across the timber below his feet and he felt the shuddering mass of the boat slow, settle, creak to a halt.

Why have we stopped? he’d thought. We’ve arrived already?

But before the thought had even completed itself he saw an enormous wave wash over the companionway, taking men, women and children to the bottom with barely a chance to scream.

He couldn’t say for sure that even then he’d realised the ship was sinking. He had dropped the pot and rushed to his cabin to find his savings. Is that something a man does on the brink of death? Perhaps it is. He’d thrust the money in his pocket, and by the time he’d made his way up top, the boat had begun in earnest to tear itself apart.

George had hauled himself over the broken bulwarks, tearing his back to shreds, dodged between the hoofs of maddened race horses stampeding about the deck, scrambled into the rigging of the main mast, where a phenomenal wave washed over the lines where he was clinging, and both he and the mast were swept into the ocean. He could still see, always somewhere behind his eyes, that monstrous wave rushing towards him, its foamy head hanging above him, then the blue-black-green crashing upon him, filling his lungs and mind with blank, white, drowning fear.

God, the despair when his trousers, with his savings in the pocket, were torn from him and swept out to sea. All that bloody stewarding for nothing, he’d thought, forgetting for the moment he would probably be dead before ten minutes was up. All that yes ma’am no ma’am right away ma’am and now I haven’t got a damn bit to show for it and I might as well drown myself this second. Twenty-four bloody years old and nothing at all to show for myself. He was in space, it seemed; flying through space. The bottom of the mast had got stuck in something and now the top, with him attached, was thrashing itself about in the air. George had always hated the circus and this did not strike him as particularly funny.

Hurtling through space with a naked arse he looked towards the ship, expecting a laughing crowd arrayed on the deck, and he’d been surprised to see a mess of floating, splintered lumber, a wet and screaming array of bodies, where once his ship had been. He fell back into the water beside one of the bigger chunks.

That young bloke, Soren Holm, just come from Denmark, reached down and pulled him from the water. George was wearing one shoe and a belt. He felt a body pressed beside him, softer than his own. He turned his head and saw it was her, but with a dampness and coldness about her that told him here, at last, was the woman he had seen below. ‘Miss Ledwith,’ he said, though he knew she wasn’t, and he felt her small, clinging hand slip inside his.

The sun was just beginning to rise.


‘The Lone Child’


Neve Ayres pretended she didn’t know the baby strapped to her chest. He was still crying, his thin, newly alive cry. She tried to focus on the metronomic wash of the sea and the pungent blankets of seagrass underfoot. The colours – rust, charcoal and mossy green. But the baby’s cries, caught on a gust, circled her head. Obliterating everything. She stopped, puffing. Damn her widowhood. Maybe widowhood wasn’t quite the right word, but she didn’t know the term for losing a husband who wasn’t yours. That he was alive also made the term slightly inaccurate. However, these last twelve weeks that was definitely how she’d felt: widowed.

Western Port was deserted and the day felt wintry and faintly hostile. The outgoing tide was revealing the rocks, like the surface of an uninhabitable planet. She growled into the wind. As if offended, nearby seabirds flapped into the sky and the baby attached to her chest thrashed. She felt him straining against his sleeping bag which she’d fitted – with the superhuman ingenuity expected of a newborn’s mum – to the harness. His cries mingled with hers. Her breasts were tight with milk and her nipples tingled. The leash she was on was cruelly short, with only two hours separating his feeds. Her routine, which had worked for the first six weeks, had gone to pot these the last two, despite the legion of mothering books she’d brought with her. She stumbled. So much for his sleep and her walk.

The Flinders Jetty was a measly 500 metres to the south but too far for her. There, adults fished peaceably. Until now she’d avoided the locals but today she’d imagined mumbling a greeting as she walked behind their hunched parka-clad backs and their part-filled buckets. She’d been prepared to talk about the weather.

As she turned for home, my butts split. A column of sunlight appeared, bright and wide, and captured a patch of sand by the water’s edge, around 40 metres away. She paused, transfixed by the simple beauty of light. A moment later, a figure danced across the spotlit sand. Bare-legged and tiny. It was draped in ropes of weed and swirling, making the tendrils fly. A lone child: resplendent, ethereal, lit up.

Neve wiped her eyes but the child remained. She scanned the windswept foreshore. Who was responsible for it? Beyond the mounds of seaweed, the sand stretched towards long grass and bracken. Above the beach, a dozen split-level houses were braced into the hill; at the end of the beach, a dirt path led up to the road. The beachscape, including the vast and eclectic balconies of her neighbours’ holiday homes, was empty. Damn, she thought. Not me.

Where the sand met the water, the sunlight disappeared. But, oblivious, the figure danced on. The only real, full-sized children Neve knew lived interstate and were her younger half-sisters’. And she was a shocking aunt, forgetting birthdays, at times names. She had yet to perfect her tone with children; she couldn’t recall the tone her parents used, and she detested the sing-song pitch favoured by so many over-smiling adults. More often than not, she ignored her nieces and nephews and they, her.

She could, she supposed, simply keep walking.

But the child was skipping through the maze of rock pools now. Despite the stretch of beach, only it and birdlife moved. No breathless mother or frazzled father appeared. Nor any dog walkers, or joggers, not even another lonely widow. The day was too cold, my butts too low. It was the Thursday before Easter, the cusp of the school holidays. Everyone else had better things to do.

Her baby’s cries were persisting; perhaps he was overtired, beyond sleep. She sighed. What was required of her, one stranger to another?

The girl bent at the edge of the largest pool and peered in. Seawater sloshed and the time to equivocate evaporated. The rocky platforms were wet and sharp; unsteady, Neve was grateful for her thick-soled boots. Drawing near, she stopped on one side of the rock pool, the girl on the other.

‘Hey there, not so close.’ With the tide going out, the pool didn’t look deep, only a metre or so. But, as the water was thick with seaweed, it was hard to tell.

The girl raised her head. Crouched, she was all arms and knees and bare feet. Poised to spring and dart.

‘Are you out here on your own?’ said Neve.

The child propped a limp curl behind an ear, revealing a tiny silver stud, and stood.

Struck by the girl’s otherness, Neve hesitated. Most of the children she noticed on this beach, in autumn, had ruddy cheeks and wore downy jackets. Leather boots made in Italy or Spain, like her nieces and nephews. They wore jumpers like her baby’s sleeping bag, made of merino. This child was hip-high, bone-thin and drained of colour. Beneath feather boas of seaweed were a stained, cream t-shirt and patched, fraying denim shorts. Despite the weather, a faded windcheater was tied around her waist. While the whites of the girl’s hazel eyes were blanched, her under-eyes were startlingly blue against her cheeks; the blue smudges the only vivid colour in her face. She was very young, say four, but the unfortunate grot seemed ageless: even old.

The girl shivered, her eyes flicking between Neve and the agitated baby. She coughed, a long, phlegmy rattle.

‘Where’s your mum or dad?’

The girl rolled one shoulder, then crouched again to pull a mussel from the wet. Neve waited, with the wind biting her cheeks. She jiggled her baby in his sling, more out of habit than hope.

‘Do you live around here?’ Despite holidaying at this spot for over a decade, Neve knew few, if any, actual locals.

The girl tried to prise the shell open with chalky fingertips, but it wouldn’t give. Neve regarded the hill and road: no one was descending, no car parking. But, that morning, she’d dozed off on the toilet; for weeks, she’d been living in the twilight between wakefulness and sleep. Perhaps she was delirious. If she walked away, would the girl vanish? She began to slink backwards, like a cat, as the child gave up on the tight-lipped mussel and tossed it across the rock pool. The mollusc hit the water with a hearty splash. Neve stopped. She squinted longingly towards the distant pier and those peaceful fisherfolk.

The girl hunched lower on the edge of the pool. Her toes curled around the rock, the tips of her hair brushing the water. She was leaning in, one hand scrabbling beneath the surface, possibly for a more obliging mussel. Her rear end was raised, wobbling.

‘Hey,’ said Neve, ‘don’t do that.’

The girl held for the merest second, then shifted her right foot and unbalanced. With limbs flailing, she rolled in. Seaweed and bubbles dappled the water’s surface. Neve clambered across the rocks to where the child had been. For a moment, she feared the water had swallowed the girl whole and she was gone. The irrational, childlike fear held Neve in its grip. Until, a metre away, the girl bobbed up. Out of her depth, the girl was running in the water, tangling in weed, her mouth clamped shut. She was running towards the centre of the pool. As she ran, she sank and bobbed, sank and bobbed.

‘This way,’ said Neve. ‘Back here!’

Neve tossed off her cardigan and wrestled with the sling. It had taken her ten minutes and a mirror to get the thing on. When the girl went under again, Neve gave up on trying to unfasten it. She leant over. Her baby’s weight and position made the manoeuvre ridiculously precarious.

‘Take my hand!’

The child bobbled, her head swivelling until her eyes locked on Neve’s. At first, Neve feared the girl didn’t understand, couldn’t hear. But then nail-bitten fingers snaked out of the water. The gap between the two of them was more than half a metre. As Neve strained, the girl’s panicked face sank under the weeds again. Long seconds passed. This time, the girl did not resurface. Neve did the only thing she could. With her left arm, she clamped her baby to her chest then stepped over the edge. The water was icy and the shock of it squeezed out her breath. But her feet found the soft sandy bottom. The weedy water was only waist deep. She lunged to the girl and swept her up with her free hand. The girl’s heart was thumping in its narrow cage. ‘You’re okay,’ Neve croaked. Her maternity dress billowed in the water, like a collapsed parachute.

She carried the child to the rocky edge and sat her down. The girl spluttered and coughed, ropes of seagrass trailing from her. Her face was ghoulishly white, her lips tingeing blue to match her under-eyes. All of her was dripping. But she was alive. For the first time in weeks, Neve felt something resembling joy.

‘My god,’ she said, plonking herself down beside the girl. ‘Don’t try that again.’

The child bowed her head and tried to catch her breath. Neve braced herself. Children today, at least the ones she’d observed, were capable of spectacular dramatics. But the eruption didn’t come. The wind dug its teeth into Neve’s bones, and she remembered her baby. The foot of his bag was soaked – his toes would be wet and quite likely his legs – but otherwise he was alert and warm. The child’s gaze slanted his way.

‘He’s okay,’ said Neve, ‘We’re all okay.’ She laughed. She hadn’t felt so awake in weeks. And her baby, her unsettled baby, was silent.