Elly McDonald

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Fire Steps (excerpt from the Lenny novel July 2012)

“That’s a Storyteller’s story,” says Chapin admiringly. “Is it yours?”

“Thank you. My mother’s,” I respond.

“You know,” Chapin says, “I don’t think Milos set a trap. I don’t think there are Servants near. I’ve visited him in Fourth Division villages and if that was his plan he could have had Servants take me then.”

“There are four of us now.”

“Yes, but he couldn’t have known that. He only expected me. And the Servants last night had a chopper. If there was still a chopper in the area it’d be on top of us by now.”

We are crouched alongside a rooftop gable, wedged into the cornice, clutching the decorative tiling that lines the gable’s dorsal fin. Roberto and Roman are metres away, pressing back into the elbow of a parallel gable. It’s precarious, but thanks to the tiling being newly installed, and the structures newly built, I’m confident it’ll hold. That might be the only thing I’m confident about.

“Milos is right though. If we go, we’ll die. There’s nothing for us out there.”

Chapin narrows his eyes and shakes his head dismissively.

“Why are buying into what Milos says? You say I was naïve, but there you go buying a story from an amateur. He wants us to believe we have no options.”

“So what are our options now?”

Roberto is listening to every word. Roman is scanning the skies. I note that: not the streets, the skies. Chapin notices too.

“I say we pause here for a short while. Milos wanted to demoralise us. I say we tell stories till we remember who we are.”

“Tell stories?”

“You know, that thing we’ve been doing since before we could crawl? I say we sit here on this roof, with nothing but birds between us and the clouds, and tell stories to the open sky. It’s been years of deep forest and grey woods. I want to tell a story to the sun.”

Roberto breaks into a beaming smile. It’s crazy, but it’s true to us. I like the plan.

“What will your story be about?”

Chapin is smiling too, now. He looks remarkably relaxed. We’re mad, us Storytellers. Mad and dangerous.

“Well, you told a story of water and air. How about my story be fire and earth?”

I nod. “How about it? Go right ahead.”

 *

A warlord had a mighty host. His hall was the biggest hall ever known. The main table on the dais seated one hundred warriors, with one hundred maids in attendance. The length of the hall was filled with tables, and every table was filled with warriors, with a maid to attend each warrior individually. The warlord was wealthy and known to be generous; his fame had drawn warriors from every corner of the world, from the tiger lands to the south, to the dragon lands in the west, the turtle lands to the north and the snake lands in the east.

Their armours were of every type: some were lacquered leather, some buffalo or rhinoceros hide, some were disks of bronze stitched together with leather thongs, and some were made of multiple fine layers of paper, capable of stopping arrows. Each warrior had a weapon of choice. Most had a halberd, a long staff with a spear-tip at one end, a hatchet to one side – a hook on the back of the axe-blade could be used to unseat horsemen. Some had a sabre mounted on a long staff, or simply a sabre. There were longbow archers and crossbow archers and cavalry archers. There were broadswords and the finest weapon of all, the long silky blade forged by the great masters, two softer layers of steel surrounding a hard inner core. The softer outer steel makes for resilience, while the hardness at the centre keeps the edge sharp. All of these weapons are murderous, and all of these warriors deadly.

Every night the warlord and his warriors feasted on game in the great hall. Every day they hunted or played war-games. Other lords petitioned the warlord for the use of his men as mercenaries, so always contingents were coming and going, making war, bringing back the spoils.

One day a man came from the west requesting an audience. He was tall and thin, and around his head, shoulders and upper torso was wrapped a red scarf that covered all his face, except his eyes, which were burnished bronze. The man had no weapon except a knife. His knife attracted great interest: it was long, with a single-edged blade that curved forward, the opposite of a scythe. Like the swords of the masters, it was forged ingeniously, softer steel on its back, for resilience, hard steel on the cutting edge. The hilt was slimmer than the blade and was covered in gold embossed designs, which might have been writing.

“It’s a magi,” the men muttered, but the warlord granted an audience.

“What is it you want?” the warlord asked the magi.

The magi bowed low.

“Great lord,” he said. “I come from a land a long way to the west, but even in our territories your armies are harassing peoples who are under our protection. I ask you to stop.”

“To stop?” said the warlord. He didn’t know which territories the man could mean, or which peoples, but the possibility of simply stopping an offensive action, just for the asking, had never occurred to him.

“Stop,” repeated the magi.

“Why would I do that?” the warlord asked, his combative instincts rising.

“To stop would further your prosperity. To continue will bring you ruin.”

“I cannot believe you are making threats.” The warlord really meant this. “Do you have no understanding of protocol? Do you have no common sense?”

“I understand the protocol of civilised lands. Here, to you, I must speak direct.”

The warlord was incensed. “Seize him!” he yelled to the men nearest the guest.

The men made to rise but as they did, they burst into flame. A roar went up across the hall, but no-one moved. No-one except the human torches, staggering into each other as they burned.

“I will return tomorrow,” the magi said. “Think on my request, and come up with a better answer.”

Then he turned and walked out of the hall, each foot-step marked by a burst of flame.

The hall was in uproar. It took many minutes to restore sufficient order for the warlord to be heard.

“This is outrageous!” he shouted. “Tomorrow when this Fire Steps charlatan returns, we will receive him in the manner he deserves!”

So the warlord and his council made plans for Fire Steps’ return.

Sure enough, part-way through the feast a tall figure stepped through the great double doors. As instructed, the men let him pass.

“Are you ready to accede to my request?” the magi asked. “Will you stop harassing the plains peoples of the west?”

“Absolutely not!” screamed the warlord, and on the word “not” a bank of archers with curved horn-bows amassed to the right of the dais let fly their arrows. But as the arrows reached the peak of their arc they burst into flame, just as the men had. The flaming arrows fell on tables throughout the hall, setting multiple small fires the warriors attempted to douse. Sounds of shouting mixed with maids screaming.

The magi stood motionless, his eyes fixed on the warlord.

“Bring back your hosts from the plains to the west,” he ordered, and everyone present heard it as an order. “I will return tomorrow to hear your answer.”

This time as Fire Steps wheeled around towards the doors, warriors fell upon him, but every weapon turned on Fire Steps burst into flame, causing the warriors to drop their swords and halberds, their sabres and daggers, frantically beating out the fires instead.

“This has to stop,” the warlord growled. The warlord and his generals conferred.

On the third night, the warlord’s warriors had drawn up in battle-lines. The tables – those still intact – had been pushed back against the walls. The women were expelled to the smaller dormitory halls.

“I don’t think this will work,” said a young boy helping fasten the clasps on the warlord’s armour.

“You don’t?” said the warlord. The boy was his grandson, and he liked the lad.

“No,” said the child. “He’s already shown twice over that anything you throw at him will just burst into flames. If we launch a full military action against this man the whole hall will go up.”

“I’ve thought of that,” his grandfather replied, indeed, thoughtfully. “But we can’t let him get away with insulting us – insulting me – in the great hall of power. He must be punished.”

“One thing at a time,” said the boy. “If he can’t be punished, he must at least be stopped.”

“Do you have any better ideas?” his grandfather asked.

“Let me try,” said the child. “Before you let loose your armies, let me give it a go.”

So that night when Fire Steps pushed through the great double doors, in front of him he saw the entire forces of the warlord, arrayed as if for battle, and at the very front, standing alone, a boy, unarmed.

“Stop!” said the boy.

The magi stopped.

“That’s a good start,” he conceded, going down on one knee in front of the child. “You have made a reasonable request. Now I make my request of you.”

Turning to where the warlord stood, he asked again, “Will you stop harassing my people?”

“I speak for my lord,” the child said quickly.

“That’s an even better step,” Fire Steps said, approvingly. “Two sensible responses. I am encouraged. But I thought weapons speak for the great lord?”

“Weapons only speak the language of war. It takes a man or a woman to speak words of peace.”

“You are a remarkably wise child,” the magi smiled. “Are you born into the wrong tribe?”

“What will happen if we do not stop?”

The magi barely paused. “I told you. To continue to kill the plains people will bring you only ruin. To attempt to harm me will bring this hall down on your heads.”

The boy turned towards his grandfather. “I think we have no choice but to stop.”

The warlord suppressed a groan. “We cannot stop. We are born to kill. If you don’t understand that, the magi is right: you are no child of mine.”

With that, he motioned to his banner men. “Kill them!” he said.

As he said the words, the arrows flew, the men fell forwards, and the magi scooped the child into his arms. As he did so a halo of fire rose around them. The headscarf unfurled and extended into the long ridged back of a copper-coloured dragon. The magi became a great serpent, its long tail fanning flames that incinerated warriors in its sweep.

“Climb on my back,” the magi instructed the boy. “You won’t be scorched.”

The child climbed onto the dragon’s back and wedged himself between where the ridge of spines started and the base of the serpent’s neck, clutching its flaming mane. As the boy looked at his hands he saw he was glowing like an ember.

The dragon beat its wings and a hundred warriors fell. It threw back its head and breathed fire at the rafters. The great beams collapsed, crushing burning men who milled about below. The dragon rose onto its hind legs and took off through the roof. The sound of fire roared in the boy’s ears. As the dragon took flight the great hall fell, a heap of smouldering charcoal.

“Where are we headed?” the boy yelled into the dragon’s tufted ears.

“Home. The end is always home,” the dragon replied, its great voice husky. “You were born out of place. I came to fetch you.”

“Am I a dragon?” the boy screamed.

“Not yet,” the dragon answered. “But in time you will be. You have good genes, and the capacity to learn. Hold tight now!”

And with that, he wheeled towards the west and burst through the sunset.

 *

“That has to be traditional,” I tell Chapin, laughing. “Or was it your father’s?”

“As a matter of fact,” Chapin grins, “It was. What we need now is a golden eagle or a flaming dragon to lift us from this roof!”

“My turn.” I’m shocked at the sound of Roberto’s voice. Chapin is too. Even Roman, who is deaf, turns in amazement.

“Let me tell my story,” says Roberto, voice husky as a dragon’s, but much softer. “When the fires tore through our home the roof made a sound like breaking ice and I grew deathly cold. The flames lit up the sky, my sisters were ablaze, but I plunged into darkness. The Servants in black were flame illuminated while I receded. I fell through time, through dark and cold and space. I screamed but my voice rang hollow, then silent. I screamed but nothing came out of my mouth. All around me people were killing, dying, running, falling. I ran and ran and I know I was on fire, but the deep chill had me.

“I ran into the deep forest, where no light penetrates and everything is dark. The deep forest is so thick I couldn’t run further. I couldn’t stand up. I fell to a floor of pine needles and I didn’t move. It was so cold I didn’t think I could live, but I have, and I am here. On a rooftop, telling stories. Truly, I am a magi. I am a Storyteller, and I’m still alive.”

The three of us stare at Roberto in wonderment. Here we are telling myths and fables and in front of us sits Roberto, clutching the corrugated tiles that are a dragon’s mane, pressed close against the serpentine line of the gable. He is transformed, and he’s right: we’re still alive.

“Are we ready to continue?” Chapin asks, directly facing Roman.

Roman, who cannot hear, understands at once. He scrambles to his feet and leads the way onwards.

fire-orange-emergency-burning.jpg

 

 


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Visions – homage to The Silver Chair (excerpt from the Lenny novel July 2012)

The vizier’s son was an enigma. He didn’t like to fight up close but he was lethal with a horn-bow. He disdained knives but was an artist with the long blade sword. He designed gardens, and wrote poetry, but was not interested in participating in the lord’s council. In short, he was not rounded. He was, in truth, not balanced – ludicrously skilled in some respects, he abdicated other key tasks.

“What will we do with him?” worried his father. “He’s not suited to service, and he isn’t a conqueror. Poetry is not a way of life.”

“Perhaps an architect?” wondered his mother. “I don’t mean a workman. I mean a master.”

“Does he draw?” asked his father, gloomily.

“’Fraid so,” his mother admitted. “He’s really rather good.”

Her husband glared at her.

“He’s good at lots of things, but that’s no good at all. I need him to be good at what is required of him, to the degree required. No more, no less.”

His wife shrugged sympathetically, and went back to her embroidery.

The boy took to staying out all night, attending long sessions of theatre and dance under the moonlight in the company of expensive women.

“Is he any good at that?” his father snapped.

“Singing? Sings like a bird,” the mother confessed. “The women adore him.”

The boy became a wine connoisseur. The finest foods were prepared for him by the most ambitious chefs, eager for the style-maker to become their patron. He had a palate, but food was not his passion.

“Could he be an orator or a judge?” mused his father.

“They’re rather different functions,” his wife murmured.

“Either. Any. As long as it’s recognised as useful. I can’t have my son spend his life being elegant.”

One day the young man showed up for formal audience with his father.

“I have an announcement,” he said (his name was Caspar). “With all deference due a son to his father, in all humility, I must inform you I have taken a wife.”

“A wife?!” shrilled the vizier. “How dare you? You must realise the son of someone with my prominence is a marketable asset. You don’t dare marry without my permission. You must marry my choice.”

“I’ve married already,” said Caspar, bowing.

“I’ll have her killed!” his father snorted.

“I don’t think so,” Caspar answered, without raising his head.

As he spoke, a young woman slid through the crowd (there was always a crowd for the vizier’s public audiences). She was tall and slim, and wrapped from head to toe in dark green fine fabric.

“I am Serpa,” she said, addressing the vizier. “Caspar has married me.”

The vizier looked her over. His heart was suddenly heavy.

“What are you?” he asked. “Are you a magi? A serpent? A water-dragon?”

“That’s right,” smiled Serpa, her green eyes gleaming through the fine veil.

“That’s right which? All of the above?”

She nodded, and bent to one knee. “All of the above, my lord.”

The vizier stared glumly. Then he motioned to one of his aides to come close. The aide left the room and returned moments later with a good sized gold casket, inlaid with jade.

“Here,” said the vizier. “You see something in him. You’re smarter than I am. Take him as my gift, and take this gift too. See what you can make of him.”

The aide presented the casket to Serpa, who turned her head demurely to the side, a traditional indication of acceptance. The aide raised the casket’s lid.

Inside the golden box was a necklace and earring set. The necklace had multiple strands, the earrings had loops and long dangles. All was green: malachite, jade, emerald, tourmaline. The stones covered every filament of gold.

“Thank you,” said Serpa. “I will treasure your gifts.”

And with that, Caspar and Serpa departed his father’s house.

In a fortress to the east, they set up home in the highest turret. The fortress was home to the snake clan. Here, elegance was a way of life. The snake clan had mastery of long thin blades and poisons, but also poetry, drawing, garden design and calligraphy. They sang epics which lasted nights, sometimes weeks, stories with sinuous plots and exquisite verse structures. The songs of the snake people had multiple voices, some singing harmonies, some singing narrative, some singing wondrous emotional effects. The songs of the snake clan entered the body, infused the bloodstream, pierced the heart.

To experience the song fully, the snake folk nurtured all their senses. Prior to an epic song event, they bathed, for hours, in perfumed waters. They engaged in ceremonial massage. They opened their voices, practising wailing chromatic scales. They performed traditional exercises that lubricated every joint within the body, working sequentially from the toes to the neck. They nibbled at blind-tasting smorgasbords, to tantalise the tongue.

And there were drugs. The snake clan had the most amazing chemistry. They were alchemists who transformed what is outer – what we see, hear, feel, touch and taste out there – into a wealth of inner astonishment. Their drugs created refinements of experience – and elaborations – beyond the imaginings of those who’d never partaken.

“I live life so much more fully now,” sighed Caspar. “My life has expanded.”

One day as Caspar and Serpa walked hand in hand in their garden he looked up into a tree, and saw himself. There he was, a bird sitting on a bough. The bird was red, white and black, with blue eyes. It cocked its head and acknowledged him.

“See that?” said Caspar, speaking as the bird, looking down at his wife in the garden.

His wife Serpa swayed her head slightly, and would have smiled, except that she was a long green snake. Her scales glistened, like cut emerald.

Caspar, back in his human body, was surprised, but not disconcerted. Life with the snake clan was never dull.

From that time, more and more often he looked out at the world through the coloured bird’s eyes. Of course, he was the bird. There was no disjunction. It’s just that it happened so suddenly. One minute he was a young man, the next a flash of red feather on the underside of a wing. More and more often, Serpa elongated and extended, sliding through their quarters as a glorious green snake.

“Are we suited?” he asked her.

“Of course, my love. Bird and snake. We were made for each other.” He had to laugh.

Then she started playing her game. It was fun at first. He’d be in the tree, she’d be kneeling underneath. She would sway and sing, and he’d sing with her. As he sang he’d get drowsy. Eventually he’d slip off his bough, and as he flapped his wings to regain height (that flurry of red as the wings beat upwards), her long neck would strike towards him. Her green eyes would snap and then there she’d be, his Serpa, his beautiful wife, smiling coyly, smiling seductively, her green gems winking in the light.

It happened too often. The thrill was intense, but that moment when snake lashed out at bird had a definite edge. It scared him.

“What kind of child would we have?” he asked Serpa.

“A poet. A singer. A storyteller,” she told him. “Not someone you could trust.”

Caspar remembered how he’d betrayed his father and his blood ran cold. Cold like a snake.

“My father is an administrator,” he said. “Perhaps our child might be a genetic throw-back.”

“Not with the drugs,” Serpa drawled. “The drugs change everything.”

“Drugs are not a way of life,” Caspar frowned.

“No?” said Serpa.

Caspar began to think.

In the fortress of the snake clan, there was little room to move. He and Serpa lived in the highest turret. His way was blocked on every side. There was no way out, if he wanted out. Except above. As a bird, he could fly. Did he want to fly?

“My love,” said Serpa, “You do understand? You are our nourishment. I need you to bring forth what comes next. You are the father of something great, but you won’t survive fatherhood. It’s always that way.”

“Always?” asked Caspar. He wished now he had studied logic.

“Always. For a new story to come forth, we need nutrition. You’re it. You are spectacular, my darling. You are your father’s gift, and you will not be wasted.”

“What will become of me?” Caspar whispered.

“I’ll eat you,” she answered. “Don’t worry, you won’t feel much. It’ll be an adventure. Then I’ll send our offspring back to your father in the gold casket. It will be a boy, and he will spawn countless generations of Storytellers. Your people won’t trust them, but they’ll be fascinated. They’ll pay gold and precious jewels, they’ll stay spell-bound for hours and days, and they’ll make celebrities of our descendents. But you won’t know, my darling, because you’ll be gone.”

As she said “gone”, she licked a few red feathers off her jaw. There was no sign of a bird, no sign of Caspar.

Serpa slid across to a pile of silk cushions and lay on their cool surface. She admired her reflection in the gold casket’s lid. Wide face, narrow chin. Green eyes. Soon she’d send a gift to her father-in-law.

 *

“We have drugs,” says Roberto, brightly.

Chapin reaches into his belt, where the medical hygiene bag is wedged. He pulls it out, unseals it, and passes the bag to Roman. Roman takes a pinch of white powder between thumb and forefinger, and snorts it. Roberto follows. Then Chapin. I look at Chapin and I see Caspar, a red, white and black bird with blue eyes, his head cocked to one side. I do as he did.

“Now,” says Chapin. “Not hungry any more. But let’s find food for later.”GreenSnake+1993-35-b


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Song Bird (excerpt from the Lenny novel July 2012)

There was once a great lady who was beautiful beyond telling. She had sleek black hair, perfect skin, and almond-shaped amber eyes. Her lips were cherry blossoms. She was born into a very great family, and married into another. Both families were thrilled when the lady conceived.

The great lady, whose name was Milk, was very happy for her families. Everything about her had so far pleased them. She hoped her child would not disappoint.

When her time came near, she took to spending hours by the water well in her husband’s family’s private gardens. There she would sit, surrounded by her maid servants, staring into the well and wishing.

“I wish,” thought the lady, “I wish with all my heart that my child is special.”

As soon as the thought occurred she felt abashed. After all, was she not already so blessed? Was she not privileged? She looked into the depths of the mossy green well and saw the surface break up. Bubbles of air clustered on the surface. The water spirit must be laughing.

“I mean it,” she said fiercely, communing with the water spirit. “I really mean it. I want my daughter to be different. And by the way, I want a daughter.”

The bubbles clambered one above the next, creating a crystalline froth. The lady saw it as the head of froth that forms on finest quality whipped tea, the Milky Way, and she dedicated it to her daughter.

The birth was easy. It was almost too smooth. There was no screaming, no crying, no remonstrations or urgent pleading. Instead the great lady delivered with the slightest of sighs. No one at the birthside spoke, and no cry was heard from the child.

“What is it?” asked the lady, as her maid servants drew her up the squat position.

“It’s an egg,” said the doctor.

“An egg?” gasped the lady.

“My lady, you have given birth to an egg. It is soft blue-green, and appears to be fragile. I might need to assist its contents into the world.”

“You mean my baby?” said the lady.

“I mean whatever is inside that egg.” The doctor looked extremely apprehensive.

The lady was standing, supported by her maids. She looked down between her legs as the doctor lifted a medium-sized egg, using both his hands, and raised it to chest level. The doctor and the lady and the maid servants all looked at the egg. The doctor snuck a glance towards the silk curtains, hoping no reports had yet been conveyed to the families. All he had in his favour was that the birth had been so quick, no-one would yet be expecting an outcome.

Vain hope.

The silk curtain was drawn aside abruptly as the father’s father intruded. Close behind him was the lady’s husband, followed by senior advisers, with the grandmothers and sisters and their ladies’ maids crushed towards the fragile egg.

“My baby is different,” faltered Milk. Then she gathered her courage. “My baby is special.”

As she spoke the words, the egg-shell began to crack. First the finest fault-lines, then the smooth carapace fell apart. The shards dropped to the floor, leaving the doctor enfolding in his hands the tiniest child the world has ever seen, a perfect female child, with wings instead of arms.

“My baby,” breathed its mother.

Her husband looked at her helplessly and turned to his father.

“My wife has given birth to a wonder.”

The father’s father was astonished. He stared at his son, then frowned, then laughed.

“It is indeed an age of miracles. My youngest heir is a song-bird.”

So that is what they named her: Song Bird.

Song Bird grew up enclosed in the father’s family home. She never saw beyond its walls, and the people beyond its walls never saw her. But word spread fast about this magic creature, this tiny female with translucent skin, amber-bead eyes, and soft feathered limbs.

She had the range of the gardens and her mother’s apartments. Her mother loved her. It was difficult for Song Bird to learn to walk, as her toes were bent double, like small talons, but she fluttered her tiny wings and stroked the air for momentum. It was difficult for Song Bird to learn to speak. When she opened her mouth, high trills emerged. She loved to explore her vocal range, and the sounds were melodic, but what came out of her mouth did not resemble human speech. Her tiny pursed lips were not formed for that purpose.

Her father worried.

“Song Bird is special, in fact miraculous. But she’s different. You do agree, my dear, she is tremendously odd.”

Milk smiled sweetly. In her heart she thought “Yes! My baby is different.”

The father grew anxious.

“What is the difference between unique and odd? Between magic and monstrous? What will people think? What must they be thinking?”

Milk bent her head meekly. In her heart she thought, “My baby is the gift of the water spirits. She is air and water. She is wondrous beyond words.”

The father grew fearful, and lost patience.

“This cannot continue,” he told his wife. “The doctor advises there are strangers, magic people, who can help us with this problem.”

Milk thought, “What problem? Magic made my baby. Magic is her friend.”

So the families called in the magicians from abroad.

There were three magicians, a woman and two men. They approached the father’s father divan and bowed.

“What is it needs doing?” the woman asked, her voice low and resonant.

“I have a grandchild who is different,” the father’s father pronounced. The assembled courtiers stayed deeply prostrate. “She is different in ways that cannot continue. She has wings. She cannot walk but flutters. She cannot talk but sings. She is tinier than ever a girl should be. We need this fixed.”

“In what ways does the great lord wish his grand-child fixed?”

“We wanted her to be just like her mother,” the patriarch continued, and Milk blushed. “We want her perfect.”

The female magician took a long look at Milk. She stared at her so long the courtiers bent limbs ached.

“As you say, great lord,” the female magi replied. “We shall make it so.”

The father’s father clapped his hands. “Bring the child,” he commanded his senior adviser.

“It is not necessary,” the second magician spoke. “We see the child, and we know its nature.”

“When nightfall comes,” the third magi said, “The child will transform.”

Then the three turned to leave, turning their backs on the great lord, his families and retinues, and made their way out of the audience hall. No-one made to stop them.

The great lord turned to his senior adviser and his son.

“What just happened there?” he asked. But no-one could say.

As twilight drew near, Milk sat in her rooms with her maids and Song Bird. Her husband and his father’s senior adviser sat opposite. The doctor stood to one side.

Song Bird had been chirping all day, but now she fell silent. The tiny creature shivered. She shivered and shook. She seemed to shrink.

Her mother touched the child softly, then picked her up in the palm of her hand. She stroked the child’s wings and sang to her, under her breath. She enclosed Song Bird in her hands and bent in close over her, so that Milk’s fine shawl fell across the child, caressing her and shielding her.

As twilight became dusk, Milk sat there with Song Bird. The others in attendance were mute. Finally shades of purple gave way to darkest blue, and the moon could be seen through the window, rising.

“Night has come,” the child’s father said. “Where is my true child?”

Milk said nothing, but lifted the edge of her shawl. In her lap sat a golden eagle.

“What’s that?” the father squawked.

“It’s a raptor!” exclaimed the doctor, then wished he’d held his tongue.

“A raptor?” said the father.

“A hunting bird. A bird of prey.” The senior adviser was on his feet. Within moments the father’s father would be told.

“She’s an eagle,” said Milk, mildly. “She was born to fly.”

And at that, the great bird winked an amber eye at its mother, and took off, spreading powerful wings. It flew straight out the window, towards the moon. It could not sing – it never sang again – but it flew straight as an arrow, up and up and up, through the night-sky to the heavens. As it flew the moon shuddered, like a pearl pendant on a woman’s breast. As the great bird flew, the Milky Way shattered, scattering diamonds across the cosmos. This is why the foam on the highest class of white tea is known as the Milky Way or Star Flight.

On and on the great bird flew. It flew on endlessly powerful wings, into darkness, and beyond.

They had silenced a fragile song-bird. But what had they let loose?

Fine-art-Birds-Flowers-Chinese-Ink-Brush-Painting


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Death (excerpt from the Lenny novel December 2013)

When did death enter Lenny’s life? When did she slide from the domain of fruit trees and storytelling into the sphere of silence? Did it happen all at once, the night of the killings? Or did death enter stealthily, sliding like a serpent from some moss-covered well, grey and white tessellations camouflaged against the smooth pebbles of the formal rock garden?

Lenny had known death. She’d loitered by death’s door, then crept forward quietly and sat by its bedside. It looked out at her through her grandfather’s eyes, and it fixed her in its gaze. She recognized death for what it was: finality. Death, somehow, misidentified Lenny.

“Edie,” said Death, speaking through her grandfather’s thin, scaly lips.

“I’m here,” she replied, taking Death’s hand. Her grandfather’s fingers were mottled flesh and bone.

“Edie,” the ventriloquist voice of death repeated. “You’re here.”

“Of course I’m here,” said Lenny, holding Death’s gaze, holding her grandfather’s fingers. “Where else would I be?”

“I thought you were gone and now you’re here. I still have you.” Death smiled at Lenny.

“I’m always yours,” said Lenny, and now her voice was not her own. “I’m always here.”

The body on the bed was long and lean. If it raised itself up, it could run marathons.

“You’ll never escape me,” it whispered.

“I’ll come to meet you,” Lenny said. Silence smothered the room.

Silence filled the space and squeezed out the air. Lenny couldn’t speak. There was nothing she could say.

“I met you under a plum tree,” the living corpse said suddenly. “You were maybe thirteen. You look just the same.”

The death’s head turned towards her. Its face flushed pink and her grandfather’s eyes animated its eye sockets.

“You are unchanged, Edie,” her grandfather said. “You will always live.”

“Tell me the story, grandfather,” Lenny pleaded. Time stretched forever on that bed but now she felt urgency. Her grandfather was with her.

“You were just thirteen,” he smiled. His tongue moistened his lips. It was not quite blue.

“You stood beneath the plum tree and the petals showered down. You were laughing. You were beautiful and I knew you were the one. The one who would live. The one who would live always.”

“What was I doing, under the plum tree?” Lenny asked.

“Doing? You were being. You were being the eternal one. The one who cannot die.”

“But grandfather,” she said. “I know I must die. I’ve seen it. I’ve dreamed. We will all die. Buildings will burn and my family will be torched. There was blood. Blood everywhere.”

“Petals were falling. Stars burned in the sky.” Her grandfather’s words were suspended in air. His mouth hung open. Lenny was afraid the silence would return.

“You were standing in the moonlight. You shook that tree and its blossoms fell. You laughed at the sky and then you saw me. You put your fingers to your lips and told me ‘Shhh. Don’t tell.’”

“I said that?” Lenny laughed. “A storyteller telling a storyteller to hush? What was I thinking?”

“I have no idea,” her grandfather smiled. “I never understood your stories, Edie. But here’s what I think. I think you knew the end was coming. I think you had dreams. You woke up screaming. But I know you always laughed at death.”

Lenny felt abrupt grief. Her voice fell flat. “How can I laugh, when I’m not allowed to speak? How can I live, when the silence rules?”

The bones entwined in her fingers squeezed lightly. The bones were lightly padded and lightly veined. She could feel their faint warmth, feel their faint pulse.

“You will climb to the heights and hide in the depths. You will cloak yourself in silence. You will learn to use the silence to punctuate your tales. You will bury yourself in your heritage and live forever through it. You know who you are.”

“The one who cannot die.” Lenny breathed the words.

“The one who will not die. The one who refuses.”

“How can you know this?” Lenny demanded. “How can I know who I am? Even you don’t know me, grandfather!”

“Of course I know you, Lenny.” It closed its eyes. “You are the one who evades and confronts. The one who lives.”

Lenny stared at the death’s head and knew her grandfather had gone. Where had he gone, her grandfather and Edie? To what night-land of star-lit plum blossom had their spirits flown?

She let go of the bony hand.

“Grandfather,” she said softly. “Can you hear me? Is it silent where you are?

She paused, and listened. She thought she heard voices, soft murmured voices. She thought she heard laughing.

And she knew. She knew who she was.

“I am a story teller,” she said to the silent room. “I am the one who will not die. I am the one who tells.”

*

Here, in this hole in the ground, she lay in damp mud, a fugitive curled up alongside three survivor comrades.

“Chapin,” She said, grabbing Chapin’s arm. “I’ve dreamed. I know what I need to do now. We need to get out of here.”

Chapin, half asleep, nodded.

“We need to get back into the light to tell our stories. Not the mythic ones. The stories about what happened to us, about the killings, and after.”

She pressed her face close to his. “We’ve been in a hole. We’ve evaded and hidden. Now we need to confront.”

Chapin, now awake, rolled towards his rifle and rose to his knees.

blossoms 2


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Tea (excerpt from the Lenny novel July 2012)

When the war was over the true terror began. It was the time of the Servants. It was hard for those of us who had been child soldiers. The Servants sent us to re-education camps to learn what service means. We learnt the tea ceremony and how to fellate our teachers. We spent dawn hours in the fields and afternoons doing data entry. In the evening we had group sessions to confess our service failures. Then we poured more tea.

I enjoyed the war. I lived in the hills, sometimes with other child soldiers, sometimes alone. When my home was first burned – when my family was burned – I escaped into the forest and lived alone for months. Mostly on raw bats. Bats taste foul but they’re easy to catch. Beetles are OK. You have to find big ones to get any juice, but the crunchy thing satisfies. I dreamt of pumpkin soup.

But I enjoyed it. The war. The way the sky lit up. So frequent yet so unpredictable. I loved those huge chutes of purple and pink. And yellow. And peach. I wanted weapons of my own, but all I had then was a knife. I wanted to find Servants so I could try it out.

Finding Servants is even easier than catching bats. They don’t take a lot care to cover their tracks. They’d say they do. They’d say they wear black and observe vows of silence to be unobtrusive. To be self-effacing. But except during the hours of the Silent Vow they talk all the time. They yell, they shout, they gossip, they grumble. They’re men. They even piss loudly.

That’s how I’d take down my first kills. They were outliers, men who’d left the group to piss or wank or just be alone. Me, I like being alone, but for a Servant it’s a vulnerable place. If you come up with a knife, unobtrusive, you can angle it upwards under their lower ribs and slash the vital organs. Lots of juice there. They generally die silent.

Sometimes they grunt, and once in a while they roar. If they make too much noise other men come running. That’s when it pays to be self-effacing, and it isn’t something I’ve needed to practice. Though as it happens I’ve accumulated experience.

When I was small my sister said I’d be handy in a war zone. And that was before the war. I don’t know if she saw the war coming then – if anyone did – but that’s what she said. It didn’t help her any. I couldn’t help her. When war arrived she died just like the others.

A war arrives like an unwanted guest. You’re going about your business – working or playing, quarrelling or hugging – and suddenly there’s this presence that interrupts everything. Suddenly everything, everyone, is enforced into its servitude.

I served the war for countless months and I mean that. I lost count. I have no idea how long the war went on. It just went on. Raw bats and blood and beetles and knives. Weapons of all kinds and smashed up entrails. Smashed in heads. Shattered hips and crushed legs. Smears of blood with just traces of bodies. It was good up in the hills where it was green and not red, and where the sky lit up like a pageant nightly. Sometimes there were other kids to talk to, and other kids to fight alongside. Sometimes there was food.

In the tea ceremony, we have to pour just so. The tea must reach a certain depth of colour – not lighter, not darker. We use a certain quantity of tea powder and whisk just so. The texture must be entirely light. We pour precisely to a certain level. We serve with a smile.

I don’t know what end purpose we serve here for. When we reach a certain level we are disappeared. The Servants tell us if we fulfil our potential we will be permitted into their community to represent redemption and model service values. I think they kill us.

The thing is, the Servants have always killed us, and it’s not like they’re dependent on us to serve them tea. They could do their own tea if the tea was what mattered. What matters is the service, which is what they’ve always been about. Once we erase ourselves and are effaced into pure service they’ve made their point; they might as well kill us. Or not. We’ve ceased to exist at that point. But they like to kill, so I think that’s how it ends.

But then again, I like to kill too, and I know who I am. I am a soldier. The more I meditate on serving the more I want to serve, just not quite the way the Servants have in mind. So maybe it’s not over. Did I say the war was over?

*

The tea ceremony? I could perform the tea ceremony with my eyes put out. Maybe some day I will.

These are the elements for the tea ceremony: tea, a small knife, a small mortar and pestle, a tea bowl, a bowl stand, tea cups, a whisk, a low table, a kettle, a kettle stand, a stove (with charcoal), a trainee, a Servant (or several). The teacake is pre-prepared. It’s imported from somewhere, I don’t know where. I believe it grows wild on forested cliffs. It’s white tea, rare and precious. Only the new shoots are picked, when they’re whitish, almost translucent. The shoots are picked at dawn, plump with dew. I’m told they must be picked by long fingernails; finger pads would bruise them.

Who told me this? A girl in the camp. She was a bit older than I am. I only talked with her once, after that she disappeared. I would have liked to ask her more.

The tea leaves are steamed, then crushed, then shaped by a mould into the form of an egg. Why an egg? I don’t know. I think it’s just aesthetically pleasing. Then the tea-egg is dried. It’s wrapped in a very fine tissue, each tea-egg stored in its individual container. The containers are carved from fragrant wood but unembellished. The tea-egg and the containers are smooth.

When I am called to perform the tea ceremony I am required to be washed first. I report to the cleansing studio. In the cleansing studio I am entirely passive: everything is done on my behalf. I am stripped of clothing and my intimate parts are scrubbed using sponges soaked in tepid water. By “my intimate parts”, I mean everywhere there is a hinge joint: between and under my toes, around my ankles, behind my knees, in my groin and where thigh meets hip, under my arms, under my chin, in my elbows, around my wrists, between and around my fingers. Also anywhere there are flesh flaps: my genitals, around my lips, my nostrils, my earlobes, around the top cartilage of my ears, my eyelids.

My scalp is washed. If hair has sprouted, it’s shaved again. It’s important that no blood be spilt so they’re careful not to cut me. The women who prepare me are expert. They do this fast and silently, never making eye contact. When they’re done they step me into a simple undergarment and wrap a large shawl around me. The shawl is fine cotton and feels not unpleasant. The women tuck and fold so the shawl covers me entirely. There’s no risk of it coming undone. I can move my arms and my torso without fearing cloth will fall into the tea bowl.

When I am clad the women paint a single spot on my face, a red dot just below my lower lip. I don’t know what it symbolises but I’m guessing it means something.

The oldest of the women then presents me with a tea-egg container. I am escorted out of the cleansing studio and guided to the tea house. As if I don’t know where it’s located. Tea is only ever served in the tea house. Everything is already set up there. The Servants are waiting.

So when I enter the tea house I see the Servants, sitting cross-legged on cushions alongside a low table. The table is plain and utterly smooth. The Servants wear black, as they always do. For the tea ceremony they wear their indoor robes. The fabrics are fine textured and deepest dark black, but devoid of ornamentation. The Servants’ Silent Vow applies during the tea ceremony, so they do not speak. I keep my eyes down and kneel before the table with the tea-egg container held in front in both hands. I place the tea-egg container on the table, pause, than prostrate myself, forehead to floor. Then I sit back on my heels and pause again.

I open the tea-egg container and lift out the tea-egg in its tissue wrapping. Very gently, I unfold the wrapping so the egg is exposed in my hands. I take the small knife from the table and here I always falter. I am expert with a knife. I can kill with a knife. If I smashed it into an eyeball, or up under a jaw, through the soft part, I could kill at least one Servant. Or through the base of the throat, I’m spoiled for choice. I always look too long at the knife. Then I take it – it’s very small – and ever so carefully shave a tiny piece of tea from the tea-egg. I do this as carefully, as expertly, as the women shaving my body.

Because I shave the tea-egg so carefully the fragment I shave does not break up. I place it in the pestle and crush it with the mortar. I grind for just a moment or two and it becomes fine powder. A kettle has been brewing on the small stove to the side of the room, which is fuelled by charcoal and stoked by the women before I arrived. The kettle is a metal ewer worked in a cylindrical shape – tall, flaring out from a flat small base then narrowing to a small, mouth-like opening. Ovoid,like an elongated egg. The water is boiling now. The water is pure. It’s been sourced from a stream or lake, or so I am told. The higher in the hills the better. I could take the boiling water and fling it in a Servant’s face. There isn’t a large volume of water, just enough for a few tea cups, but hot water stings and I could use that moment to knife a Servant or simply run.

I don’t do that today. Instead I use a section of shawl to wrap my hand and lift the hot kettle from the stove. I pour a small amount into the tea bowl then place the metal ewer back on the stove. Very carefully, I smooth the fine tea powder into the tea bowl with its shallow portion of hot water. This creates a paste. Then I retrieve the kettle with my left hand, wrapped in its shawl, and pick up the wooden whisk with my right hand. I pour and whisk simultaneously, ensuring the paste is diluted only gradually, so that it retains a milky white colour. I rotate the kettle as I pour. As I whisk, using a circular motion, a light head of foam develops. This is known as the Milky Way or Star Flight. It is very important that the Milky Way be frothy yet quite firm, so that it remains in place even as I pour the tea into cups.

The utensils matter. The tea bowl must be thick ceramic, pale duck egg blue. It must be deep, to get a good head of foam, and wide so I can whisk without spillage. The upper lip opens outwards, the texture is entirely smooth. The tea cups are the same duck egg blue, the same smoothness, but thin to the point that to pick them up by hand appears unseemly, even brutal. They look fragile. But so far I have never seen one break, so there must be something in the way they are fired that results in unexpected strength.

I don’t touch them myself. They are arranged on the table and my task is to pour tea. I place the kettle in the kettle stand and the tea bowl in the bowl stand. I bow lightly towards the Servant furthest from me. I say

“May you live in peace.

May you live in harmony.

May the universe shape itself for your comfort.

This is what it is to serve.

You do me honour.”

When the words are said I pour tea for that Servant. He then reaches out and takes his tea cup. The tea should look like cloud against a pale blue sky. Then I turn to the next furthest Servant from me, bow, say the words and pour his tea. Then the next, till however many Servants are present are served.

When the Servants have been served tea they drink in silence. They drink slowly, as tea cannot be rushed. During this time I kneel with my head bent. I do not move until I hear knuckles rapped on the table. This signals that the Servants have completed drinking tea. Now it is time for me to sing. It is always the same song:

“For as long as worlds suffer

I will serve.
For as long as chaos threatens

I will serve.

For as long as darkness rends daylight

I will serve.

For as long as time continues and change reigns

I live only to serve.

O teach me to serve.

Let me honour you with service.”

Then the Servant closest to me lifts his tunic and I am required to kneel over his crotch. I am required to serve. I serve each of the Servants in turn, in silence. When each Servant has been served, the final Servant, the one furthest from where I started, raps the table to signal me to leave.

I return unescorted to the cleansing studio where the women await me. The roster of women changes from visit to visit but the women who prepare me are always the same team who debrief me afterwards. First they use a sponge to wipe off the red dot beneath my lower lip, assuming it’s survived. They wipe my lower lip regardless. Then they unrobe me. Naked, I kneel then prostrate myself. Three times I say “I have served. I have served. I have served.” Then I extend myself fully like a snake, belly to ground, face to ground, and I say “I live to serve.” The women pick me up by reaching under my armpits and hauling me to my feet. They hand me back my regular coarse clothes and turn their backs on me. I walk to the door and exit, returning to the afternoon’s data entry, if this had been an afternoon session, or retiring to barracks if an evening session.

Generally I do two sessions a day. Some of us are seldom called but I have much to learn about service. Since I am a slow learner I’m not afraid I’ll be disappeared soon, but eventually I’ll be deemed proficient in the tea ceremony and then my ultimate self-effacement will be imminent. I am planning. I pride myself on being canny at planning, even if my service failures are gross, so with luck I will have a plan that works before I graduate as a tea ceremony adept.

*

I don’t know what you look like but I know one day we’ll meet. There will be an investigator and there will be a witness. I will be that witness. You’ll ask me about the Servants, and I’ll tell you there’s a lot I don’t understand, but this is what I know:

My family were at home watching TV when a newscast came on to say the Ruler for Life had been in a military plane which exploded over the hills. The Storytellers live separate from other Divisions, in villages clustered in the foothills. Somewhere mid-air between take-off from the airport outside the city and the hilltops near our home, the Ruler for Life had been assassinated.

That’s when war broke out. A lot of us didn’t know how to respond to the newscast. We stayed by our TVs and radios to listen for updates. We logged on to the internet. Within hours we were dragged from our homes and slaughtered, our houses set ablaze. The roads were cordoned off and anyone caught trying to escape was killed. I was lucky. I wasn’t caught.

This is when the Servants came into their own. The Servants started as the Ruler for Life’s bodyguards. After the Ruler for Life was killed, their numbers swelled. The Servants became those who serve the memory of the ruler. The killing was an unspeakable act, so the Servants take a vow of silence. They don’t speak between nightfall and breakfast, nor for an hour either side of meals, and they don’t speak during the tea ceremony. They are required to take part in a tea ceremony daily. The Servants take a celibacy vow. That’s OK. What they do in the tea ceremony isn’t sex. The tea ceremony is about service. Anyone can tell you that.

Service is the Servants’ highest value. Art is ornamentation, is embellishment, elaboration, lying. Art is self assertion. To be a Servant is the opposite of being a Story Teller. The mission of the Servants is to stamp out Story Telling.

That is why I am in a re-education camp. I am being trained in service. I might not like the means by which I am being retrained, the medium by which my voice is smothered, but my likes and dislikes are irrelevant. I am irrelevant. That is why once I fully understand, I will be killed.

My mission is to find you, the investigator, and tell my stories before I am killed.

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Roadtrain (1986)

Hugh is getting tired. The more tired he gets, the faster he drives. His eyes are glazed; he should be wearing glasses, but he always manages to leave them behind. Constant small losses; Hugh isn’t thinking about it.

Hugh, in all truth, is trying hard not to think at all. The highway is hypnotic – not winding (no deviation), but occasionally undulating, up and down. Endless white dots are an arrow down the centre, an imperative leading straight to the horizon. Hugh feels as if the white dots power this road. The van is on a conveyor-belt; the white links are the chain on which the mechanism turns. The van rolls forward, propelled by white lines, and to Hugh it seems that speed and destination have been pre-set. A process is in train, and no choice remains but to keep the van on course.

“Where are we heading?” asks Liam, from the back. Part-Irish, part-Aboriginal, Liam is low-voiced and sleepy-eyed. He trusts Hugh.

Hugh does look away from the road. “Wherever the white lines take us”, he says, and Liam, who is used to Hugh’s deadpan humour, nods.

“You’re not still thinking of Jim and Derry?”

Hugh thinks too much. He loves Liam for his intuition; Liam can always tell what’s on Hugh’s mind.

“Naah”, Hugh mumbles, after a pause. He knows he should throw out a throwaway line. Failing anything suitably ironic, he bites his lower lip. Liam leans forward; all he can see of Hugh’s face from behind is the harshness of the ridges marking brow, eye, cheekbone and jaw. Hugh is craggy, closed and worn – sensitive to too-close scrutiny. Right now he feels alone. He can tolerate Liam, but Hugh’s glad the rest of the band is asleep.

The van crests a slight rise. Hugh feels completely disconnected. He imagines he is dreaming, sitting in the care of a long rollercoaster, staring at ground far below. In the dream his hands are off the wheel. He’s waving at the ground, and the expression on his face is amazed.

Over the rise, on the upwards side of an oncoming hill, a roadtrain is ditched. All down both lanes of the bitumen behind it are black and grey skidmarks, coiled tight, doubling back almost over each other. Gouges savage the sides of the road; gravel has thrown up banks, furrowed troughs. As Hugh drives by he stares at the truckie, squatting beside his broken rear axel. The truckie looks scared. Half-blocking the road on the far side of the truck is a long, dented wheatbin. All down the road, twice the roadtrain’s length, are its entrails – spilt wheat, training blood betraying a wound.

Hugh can’t take his eyes off that truck, that wheat, that man. In the late afternoon glare he sees the wheat’s brightness not as gold or blood-red but as flame. He sees Derry and Jim, trapped in the cabin of the roadcrew’s truck: Derry unconscious, barely breathing, Jim screaming, desperately trying to bash through fire. The truck, glowing molten, roars in the heat. It lies on its side, by the side of a highway. Jim can’t get out, and even in his dreams, Hugh can’t reach him. They’ve been trapped there in Hugh’s mind a year now.

“Here”, says Liam, gently. “I’ll drive…”roadtrain2_96694170


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A Story (1984)

“Tell me a story, Bev.”

Bev looked across her bed to Deb’s, and saw her sister as a mountain cat crouched low along a tree limb, eyes burnished by the dark.

“I can’t.”

“Go on, Bev. Do it. Tell me a story.”

No, thought Bev, and rolled over, flat on her back. She placed her hands under the bulb of her skull, and relished the ‘V’ between nape and elbows. Toes pointed, she stretched her feel away from her head. Her body worked – everything in order.

“No”, she said. “I think it’s childish. I can’t just make up nonsense any old time, anyway. It’s bad enough having to share a bedroom, without having to tell you bed-time stories every night. Go to sleep.”

“I can’t”, said her sister. “I feel bad.”

Bev thought this over. It felt bad just to think about Deb’s problem, let alone to have it. She softened. She sat up.

“Are you going to tell Mum?”

“No”, said Deb.

“You could, you know.”

“Yeah.” Deb sighed. “Sure I could tell her. She’d cry and I’d cry and we’d both feel lousy. It wouldn’t change anything. What could she do about it? Why bother hurting her?”

“I guess so”, said Bev, humbled. Somehow it seemed very brave and adult for Deb to refuse to inflict pain.

“She’s got enough to worry about, anyway”, Deb continued, suddenly less generous – even oddly resentful. “It’s hard enough putting us two through school and having to work at that horrible job, without Dad going crazy as well. He really picks his times!”

That’s not fair, though Bev. It’s not as if he had any choice – any more than you did.

“What will they do to him this time?” she said, instead.

“God, I don’t know! Why should we bother? It’s not as if he’s bothered with us for years!” Deb snorted harshly. Then, as if chastened, she added meekly “Put him in a funny farm at last, I guess. Let him draw it out of his system.”

Bev nodded uncertainly. Their father had been a commercial artist, employed to draw fashion designs in dress-pattern catalogues. Always highly stylised, the limbs and faces on the mannequins he sketched had grown longer and more gaunt with every season; their colouring had paled, grown ashen, turned blue. Last catalogue, his folio figures were grotesque: emaciated corpses, stretched as if broken on a rack. Their jaws lolled. Their creator was fired.

“Do you think he’s really crazy, Deb?”

“Yup!” Deb chewed the syllable, then spat it out again. “Yup. I sure do.”

Bev sat back in her blankets and pondered. “If we tell Mum she might tell Dad.”

“No way!” A flat, emphatic statement. “And we’re not going to tell Mum anyway, are we?”

“No”, said Bev, brave and obedient.

 

Last summer Bev and Deb had squandered at the beach. Every weekend, and all the holidays. They even wagged a day from school. With a group of friends they’d caught the train to Geelong, and from there they’d hitchhiked down the coast. Bev had turned fourteen that week. It was the first summer she’d looked good in a bikini, and she’d sauntered around the sands all day, trying out effective hip and leg angles as she walked, as she swam, as she shook out her beach towel.

On the train coming home, an inspector had asked to see their tickets. First the others, then Deb and Bev.

“Names”, he demanded, in a disinterested tone, and not knowing any better, they’d given them.

“Same surname, eh? Sisters?” Not knowing better, the two had nodded.

“How old?” barked the ticket inspector. Deb – who was travelling on a half-fare ticket – dumped fifteen months and answered “Fourteen”.

“You?” the inspector asked Bev, and she – more tall, more solid than her sister – had whispered “Fourteen” too.

“Really?” the ticket inspector sneered. “You can’t both be fourteen, sisters!”

A moment’s awkward silence. Then Bev, the unembarrassed liar, said quickly “I’m adopted”. A self-serving faker, only part way developed.

Bev was growing up, and she learned fast. Deb could trust Bev, and she did.

“I don’t want a baby”, Deb confided.

“You’re not going to have one”, Bev reassured her, adding, confused, “I am mean, you may be going to have one at the moment, but it’s not going to really happen, is it?”

“No”, said Deb, shaking her head slowly. Both lay quiet in the darkened bedroom. Deb, sighing, added the unsaid.

“Rob wants to marry me, Bev. Me, at sixteen, married with a baby! I couldn’t bera it!”

Bev couldn’t bear the thought of it either. Deb didn’t trust Rob, and she didn’t love him. Not like she loved her sister.

“He’s getting really heavy ‘cos I won’t, Bev. He shouts things at me when he sees me at the pub. I can’t hang out with the beach crowd anymore. He’s told them all sorts of lies about me.”

Don’t cry, blossom, Bev consoled mentally. “I don’t like any of them anyway”, she pouted.

“No”, murmured Deb. “Maybe not. But I did.”

“There are lots of better people in the world than that, Deb. There are better parties than the ones they give, and better pubs to go to.”

“Yeah”, Deb agreed. “And there’s more to life than people and parties and pubs and things. I can do better than that.”

Bev remembered the beach last summer. After the pub one night, Rob had thrown a party at his parents’ beach-house. All the local kids had turned up there too. She’d got really drunk on bacardis and coke, and Jamie took her for a ride in his new van. He’d driven up to the look-out on the sand-dunes, and they’d just sat there, saying nothing. She’d had the feeling she should do the talking, and that she should know what to say. But she didn’t, and before long Jamie sighed, and drove her back.

At the house, she felt ill. She wanted to go to bed. Rob had told her she could have the room upstairs, but when she turned the lights on, someone else had already claimed the bed.

“This is my bed”, insisted Bev stoutly, yanking the coverlet towards her. The stranger took no notice.

“All right”, said Bev. “If I can’t get you to move, I’ll just have to get in anyway.”

So she did, and that was that.

“Does it feel good?” the stranger asked.

“Yes”, Bev lied. She would not breathe another word, not then or later. She nearly did, at one point – when he moved on top of her, he hurt so much, and for so long, she was just about to cry out “STOP! Forget it. Pleeease stop!” But then it hurt less, and she was so relieved she really didn’t care that less was still a lot.

She felt she was brave, and adult – like Deb about her baby, or (she imagined) like women giving birth. She felt suitably initiated, as if at last let in on a fundamental secret, and the secret (she believed) was that no matter what they tell you, it’s horrible. It hurts. Reality, she now knew, hurts.

Deb’s baby would soon be a reality, but Bev felt confident that here, reality could be thwarted. Out-manoeuvred. It wasn’t going to happen, was it? Not if Bev or Deb could prevent it. They lay there in darkness, counter-plotting.

On the morning, the two girls wagged school and instead caught a tram to the clinic. They walked in past protesters bearing placards, picketing outside. They walked square-shouldered in private school uniforms. Bev wanted to follow Deb and the woman doctor into the surgery, but the doctor told her to stay in the waiting-room, and so she did.

The uniform made her self-conscious. She placed her feet primly together, and was surprised and impressed by how long her legs had grown, shaven and smoothly brown. She looked across at the wall-mirror: all her limbs were long, straight and gleaming, like her hair. She picked up a magazine and leafed through it. She looked at least as enticing as most of these models, Bev realised, with a thrill tempered by alarm. She’d never before thought of herself as ‘enticing’. ‘Appetising’. ‘Desirable’. Foreign words. Yet she was all this; she could con with the best of them. The thought gave her pleasure, yet it also disturbed her. She put it aside, intending to take it up again later.

Deb and Bev caught a train home from the clinic. Neither had anything much to say.

“Are you okay?” asked Bev, and Deb insisted she was fine. Bev, content to believe her, was massively relieved.

“Here, I’ll tell you a story on the train,” she beamed at her sister, who smiled back wanly. To the station attendant, she held out a handful of silver and said “Two adults, thanks”.

Schoolgirl

Me. (This story is not about me.)