/ Language: English / Genre:sf / Series: Ellie Chronicles

Circle of fight

John Marsden

John Marsden

Circle of fight


You come up the driveway. You’re late, but you knew you were going to be. That’s why you took the ute to school this morning. And told Gavin to catch the bus. He’ll have been back for two hours now. On his own. But you’re not stupid. And he’s not stupid. You both know what to do. He’s been good about it. He takes the precautions. When he gets off the bus he doesn’t just jump on the new fourwheeler and herb straight on up to the homestead.

He knows. And so do you. You detour into the bush, find a spot where you’ve got a good view of the house. You take a look. You watch for hostile visitors, enemy soldiers, an ambush. Even if the house looks OK, you still take care. You approach from a different direction each time. You use your eyes. If it’s Gavin, you can’t use your ears. But you use something else, better still. Your instinct. Your sixth sense.

Gavin knows. He knows that if there’s any sign of trouble, there’s a bolthole the two of you have organised, down near the lagoon.

He knows that if you’re there on your own you go out to feed the chooks and dogs, and check the stock, but you’re careful about it. Change your pattern all the time. Never leave by the same door twice running. Lock the house behind you. Take the rifle.

And you do the same things yourself. Today for example, you don’t go in the main gate. You use the bush gate into the Parklands paddock. You stop behind a couple of trees, get out and take a good look at the house from across the creek. You notice that everything looks fine. Washing on the line, Polaris in the machinery shed, axe stuck in the chopping block where you were splitting wood last night.

Marmie’s still in her run. That’s a bit unusual. Normally Gavin’d let her out. He loves that little dog.

Then you see it. One little thing is wrong. The front door’s wide open. Your heart starts hammering. You get back in the ute. You take off with a clumsy foot dance involving the clutch and the accelerator. You come at the bridge at a bad angle. The bridge is just a couple of logs with planks laid across them, and no railing. You think for a moment that you’re going to roll off it, onto the rocks, into the water. Now your stomach is lurching. But you make it across the bridge.

You forget about security. That bloody Gavin. If he’s just been careless… but what are you thinking? You want him to have been careless. Careless leaves the other option a trillion k’s behind. Oh Gavin, please be careless. You can have both the Kit-Kats after tea tonight if you’ve been careless.

You jam on the brakes and stop the ute right in front of the house. You throw open the car door and jump out. Not for the first time you run into a building that could be full of guns, with death waiting for you. You don’t even think of that until you’re crossing the threshold. It seems like an abstract thought, interesting to a scientist perhaps.

A few metres down the corridor you tread on something. In fact you nearly wrench your ankle. You look down. It’s a spare magazine for a rifle. It looks to be full, loaded with bullets.

Now it’s too late to do anything else, so you go on.

You already know what you’re going to find. Underneath the fear and horror and panic there’s a cold realisation, that Gavin’s body will be somewhere in the house. You can picture what those bullets will have done to his little body. You’ve seen their effect on adult bodies, the men in the barracks, your mother in the kitchen. You go first to his bedroom. His school uniform is there. God, for once he actually changed out of his uniform when he got home. It’s still on the floor, and the shirt’s all scrunched up, but for Gavin that’s what you expect. The rule is that he changes every afternoon, as soon as he gets home. He actually does it about once a week. His Redbacks aren’t there, but he could have left them on the veranda, like he’s meant to do but never does. There’s no sign of a struggle, but most importantly, there’s no sign of the horror that you know awaits you somewhere. The open front door and the magazine full of bullets have told you everything. You run back to the kitchen. Nothing there either, except memories, terrible vivid images.

You go to the TV room. And you see everything, as though you were there when it happened. The chair on its back. Gavin’s favourite chair. The cushions scattered. The television with a hole smashed through it. Sharp glass fragments, milky white, everywhere. It’ll take hours to vacuum every last piece. No Redbacks, but one of his ug boots, the short ones that come up just past the ankle, lying on the floor, between the sofa and the door.

He always wears those after he’s done his jobs.

You run back out through the house. You’re crying, but not much, and there are no tears. You’re saying his name over and over in a kind of weeping way, but there’s no point to that, because he couldn’t hear you anyway.

You stand in the middle of the front drive. You’d make a good target for anyone with a high-powered rifle, for anyone with no conscience, for anyone who takes life because they like it, for anyone who has a particular reason to hate you for what you did during the war.

You see something that you missed before, when you were racing up the driveway in the ute. His other ug boot, about thirty metres away. Your brain clicks a few times as it processes this information. And something deep inside your mind tells you that there’s still hope. Not much, but just a chance that he might be out there somewhere, and alive. But you’re not a blacktracker. Sure, you’ve picked up a few things over the years. Sometimes you’ve been able to follow a cow who’s about to calve, and you’ve found the hidey-hole she’s made. You’ve followed the trail of the motorbike, to find your dad when he was working somewhere in a paddock and you had a message for him from your mum. Sometimes that was ridiculously easy, especially when he was riding through long grass, or a crop.

Not long ago you did follow some of Gavin’s tracks when he nicked off on a motorbike to follow his heroes, Homer and Lee. But with the rain there are so many tracks around the homestead at the moment that maybe even one of the legendary blacktrackers, the Aborigines who can follow a lost child across rocks and sand, would be struggling here.

And now you have a lost child, and he could be one kilometre away, or a hundred, and he could be to the north or the south or the east or the west. And he could be going further away with every minute. This is a big country. You don’t know where to even start your search.

And chances are you’re just searching for a body anyway.


We knew we were a target. We found out in a way that caused me a lot of internal chaos. First, Lee and Homer and Jeremy and Jess had crossed the border on a mission that ended up creating some chaos over there. The idea was that they would stop a group who were going to attack a target on our side of the border. Get them before they get you, the best defence is attack, strike while the iron’s hot, all that kind of stuff. I had no problems with that in principle, especially after what had happened to my parents and Mrs Mackenzie, and to Shannon Young and her family. Not to mention hundreds of other people who’d been wounded, or worse, by visits from an enemy who we weren’t supposed to be fighting any more.

This particular mission had gone wrong, although we got out of it OK in the end. I hadn’t intended to go but I got sucked into it by Gavin, and found myself with the others in a very intense situation. For a while it looked like we’d be getting out of it in body bags.

It was quite a few weeks before we were off on another mission. It was meant to be sooner but they kept putting it off. But this time I volunteered to go, for two opposite reasons: partly because it was meant to be just a little mission without a lot of danger, but partly because I wanted to feel danger again. One of the effects war had on me was that I got bored really easily these days. It was hard to settle down to routine. Brushing your teeth, feeding the dog, studying for a test, these things did not have the gut-grabbing excitement of towing a steel dumpbin through a rain of bullets while you hoped your friends, who were hiding in the dumpbin at the time, didn’t get killed. I didn’t want to be addicted to this kind of stuff, I knew it was unhealthy, but like all addictions it had its hands around my throat before I knew it was there.

Liberation, the organisation that I didn’t even belong to, the organisation that was so secret I knew only a couple of its members, had offered me a new quad bike to replace the one I’d lost when we’d had our deadly rendezvous over the border, but the bike came with a string attached. They made it clear that I was expected to use the bike on a new trip. Pretty long string. But this time I gave in without a fight, for the reasons I said. I tied Gavin to Mrs Yannos with some of the leftover string, not quite literally but almost, and went with Lee and Homer, just the three of us, out into the sweet night air.

‘Your mission, should you choose to accept it…’ The boys told me the night before where we were going and what we’d be doing. It was what you call a sensitive mission. I swore oaths of secrecy and even now can’t say much about it, but it involved meeting someone deep in enemy territory and giving them a parcel. It was a very well-wrapped parcel — seemed like a strong cardboard box with about a hundred metres of tape around it — and none of us had a clue what was in it, but when we met the man he said, ‘Thanks, this will keep quite a few people happy,’ I wondered if it might be drugs. Had Liberation turned me into a drug runner? Maybe I should have thought this through a bit more, and not trusted so much in people I didn’t know. Then the guy smiled at us and said, ‘You seem very young. Do you know how much is in here?’

He seemed so relaxed and his English was almost perfect. I shook my head. He shrugged and said, ‘Well, enough for a luxury car. They must trust you a lot.’

I realised then that it was money, and felt guilty for not trusting the Liberation people. I admit I also thought, ‘Gee, I could have paid off a lot of the farm debts if I’d known that earlier.’

The man gave Homer a packet of papers, a big envelope stuffed with bits and pieces in a pretty messy way, like they’d just been shoved in there. Back we went, as dawn greyed the sky. It was such an easy trip that I wondered if security was getting a bit slacker now. It was difficult at times to remember that if we were caught we would face death. It wasn’t until we were back on our side of the border, the safe side, that I realised we’d been turned, not into drug runners, but into spies. The papers might have looked like a big mess, but I’d say they were pretty hot. The guy we’d met was probably being paid for spying and now we were in the same category as him, even if we were amateurs. Everyone knows the penalty for spying, in pretty much any country. The Americans electrocuted that Jewish couple, the Rosenbergs I think their name was, in the 1950s, because they claimed they were spies for Russia. When it comes to spying, people don’t muck around.

Back home I fed the boys omelettes for breakfast. Homer went off with the envelope full of papers, Lee went to bed, and I went to school. Partly I went because I’d promised Gavin I’d be on the bus, but partly because it amused me to go. I wanted to be able to sit through each class, have recess and lunch like normal, hang out with the usual people, knowing all the time that while they’d spent the night doing homework and watching TV and then going to bed, I’d spent it spearing through the night on the quaddie, in enemy territory, carrying a huge amount of money, meeting a spy, collecting secret documents, risking death. How weird life was. How amazing that an average human like me could be so adaptable. I did fall asleep a couple of times in lessons but the rest of the time I spent wondering how I had ended up in this strange existence.

In the next few days, though, I found myself feeling bugged about the trip. I had the feeling Homer knew something that I didn’t, and apart from Poland China pigs and taking diesel engines apart, that doesn’t happen a lot. If you could see Homer’s school grades you’d have to agree. I like feeling superior to Homer whenever I can, I don’t mind admitting that, because he’s so good at making other people feel inferior, so it was doubly or even triply annoying to think that he was sitting smugly on some secret knowledge. It was my fault because I’d refused to join Liberation, the group which organised these parties. I didn’t even know who was in charge of our local branch, only that it was someone Homer and the others nicknamed the Scarlet Pimple. It could have been Homer himself, or Jeremy, or anyone else for that matter. Could have been any one of half-a-dozen macho young guys in the district. Could have been a girl. Could have been Gavin or Mrs Yannos or Mr Rodd. Chances were that it wasn’t though.

But when I saw the big Greek wombat a couple of times the next day, and the day after that, I had the feeling that more than usual was being kept from me. Like there was a big rock in the middle of our conversations and he kept sailing around it.

I wanted to know about that big rock.

Well, I found out about it, and was sorry I had. No, that’s not true. Knowledge has got to be better than ignorance any day of the week, that’s what I believe anyway. I just wish I could have made better use of the knowledge.

On Thursday afternoon Homer wanted to get off the bus at our place and come home with Gavin and me. His idea was that I’d feed him and then take him home. He’d probably have another meal at home, but that’s Homer for you. Never stand between him and a steak. But it was fine by me and we got off together and opened up the twin-cab, which was parked by a young sugar gum and nice and warm in the spring sun. Apart from anything else, it was good to have Homer to myself for a bit. Well, as much as Gavin would share him. We hadn’t had a decent conversation for ages, just a few words as we rushed past each other in school, or grunts as we fed cattle or serviced machinery together.

‘Place is looking all right,’ he said as we cruised up the driveway.

‘I don’t think Dad would have agreed with you.’

‘Nah, but it’s not bad. Mr Young’s cattle are getting some condition. I had a look at your lot the other day too, and some of them are coming on well.’

‘And some of them aren’t.’

‘Yeah well Miss Queen of Positivity, I’m trying to look on the bright side. If you buy a bunch of skeletons, at the end of the day you might have skeletons with meat but they’ll still be skeletons.’

‘The walking dead.’

‘Yeah exactly.’

‘They weren’t that bad.’

‘Nah, those Poll Herefords aren’t too bad.’

‘They’d want to be for the price I paid for them. Eleven hundred and forty bucks a head.’

‘The way prices are going you could get a grand a head for steers that died of starvation.’

‘That died three weeks ago.’

‘Only three weeks? Sheez, you’d get fifteen hundred if they’d only been dead three weeks. Hey, how about you turn right up there and go across the ford?’

‘Hey, this thing doesn’t have four-wheel-drive.’

‘It’s got four wheels hasn’t it? And they all go round at the same time? I’d call that four-wheel-drive.’

‘Why do you want me to go across the ford?’ But I could tell he was serious so I went right and eased the ute down into the gully, trying not to tear the sump out on the rocks. From the back seat Gavin started squawking in protest. When we didn’t pay him any attention he tried to climb through into the front, to find out what was going on. We shooed him back.

We bumped up the other side. I could almost feel the relief of the suspension as the track flattened out and we accelerated to a dazzling fifteen k’s an hour. We drove along the side of the gully, the nastiest bit of erosion left on the property.

‘You wanna stop here somewhere?’ Homer asked.

Obediently, I stopped. Obedience is not my usual attitude with Homer, but sometimes you have to play along to work out what he’s getting at. We sat looking at the view. We could see the house from here, quiet and comfortable in the afternoon sun. A magpie made a clumsy landing on the front lawn and taxied to a halt near a hydrangea bush. Gavin stirred restlessly in the back seat and poked his head between us.

‘What are you doing?’ he asked. ‘Why are we here?’

I turned a bit so he could see my mouth. ‘Ask Homer,’ I said.

He asked Homer but he didn’t get much joy there. He got more restless and then gave up, opened the back door and got out, announcing, ‘I’m walking home.’

‘Watch out for snakes,’ I said.

Off he went, sliding into the gully, eroding a few more clods along the way. His head disappeared. Homer and I sat there a bit longer. Eventually Gavin reappeared on the far side, climbing busily.

‘There’s a lot of different ways to get to your house,’ Homer said at last.


‘Like, if you go along here a k there’s another ford.’

‘That’s the truth.’

‘It’d be good to take the scenic route more often.’

‘Homer, what the hell is this about?’

‘If you took different routes all the time, it’d be harder for anyone to ambush you.’

He said it so casually that it took me a while to realise how sinister his message was.

‘What the hell are you talking about?’

When he didn’t answer I slowly understood that life was not the way I’d thought, that my life had a different shape to the one I’d imagined. It wasn’t the first time this had happened but it was the first time I’d seen it so clearly. It’s hard for my brain at moments like that. The only way I can describe it is that I had a picture of my life as, say, a farmhouse with a veranda and a large chimney, and then suddenly it metamorphosed into, I don’t know, a stainless steel triangular prism sitting on top of a mountain.

Neither of us spoke for a few minutes. Then, so quietly that I surprised myself, I said, ‘Why?’

He glanced at me, then looked away again, through the windscreen. ‘That raid we went on. To the — ’ I’m not allowed to say the name of the place in case anyone finds this.


‘That envelope of papers he gave me.’

‘Yeah, I remember.’

‘I tipped them out on the floor to sort them out a bit, just, you know, to pack them better, neater.’

‘Cos you’re such a neatness freak.’

‘Well I wanted them in a bigger envelope where they wouldn’t be — ’

‘Yeah yeah I know, I’m just kidding, go on.’

‘OK, well, first thing I see, well not the first thing, but in the middle of them is a map of your place.’

‘My place?’

‘A map of the district, with your place outlined, and the house marked, and a line drawn along the route we take over the border, more or less.’


‘They didn’t have the boundaries of the property even halfway right, but you could see they were picking out your place, the map was to show someone where you live.’

My body prickled like a thousand funnel webs were walking all over me. I felt as though I were rising in my seat even though I was still sitting behind the wheel.

Homer didn’t say anything else, just waited for me to do the figuring-out by myself. It didn’t take me long. My place was being singled out, I was being singled out. I felt a spasm in my stomach, like a violent sickness, but I didn’t do anything as dramatic as vomit, like in novels, where everyone seems to vomit or faint when they hear bad news or cut their little finger.

So they hadn’t finished with us yet. Before I thought to ask Homer the most important question, he gave me the answer anyway. He said quietly, ‘It was dated two weeks ago.’

‘You could read the date?’

I didn’t know what they did about dates in their language, those aliens, those monsters, those horrible people who I suddenly hated with so much passion it scrunched me up inside.

‘It was a computer thing, you know, downloaded from one of those websites where you can get maps of your back yard.’

I sat there, continuing to figure. It was like a sudoku. Mrs Barlow, my English teacher, had been saying the other day how when you write a story you should think sudoku. Give the reader a few bits and they’ll figure the rest out, no problem. She used me as an example. ‘If I say “Ellie got on the tractor” then you can figure Ellie’s on a farm, you don’t need to tell the reader that, they can work it out for themselves.’

‘She could be at a field day,’ Sam Young called out.

I put him and Mrs Barlow out of my mind and tried to concentrate on my own sudoku. ‘So you think they’re coming back here,’ I said. ‘They’ve got unfinished business. How come you didn’t tell me this straightaway? They could have come last night. Or the night before. Gavin and I could have been murdered by now.’

‘We thought we’d wait till the right moment. And Dad and George and I have been hanging round here for a few nights.’


‘You know… with rifles. These raiding parties are always small. We thought we could take care of them. Dad was right into it. Never knew he was so bloodthirsty. Guess that civil war got into his blood.’

I was dumbstruck. My first instinct was to say, ‘I don’t need looking after! How dare you do that without telling me? I don’t like people making decisions on my behalf.’

But I had to recognise the generosity of my neighbours who would put themselves in danger and go without sleep to protect me. I had to recognise the kindness of it. ‘The highest wisdom is kindness.’ Where had I read that?

‘Thanks,’ I said, trying not to choke on the word. ‘Civil war?’

‘Greek Civil War.’

‘Oh. Was there a Greek Civil War?’

‘Ask him, he’ll tell you. For weeks. Anyway, the Scarlet Pimple did a bit of checking around with the experts from the Army and so forth, and they didn’t have any reports of anyone about to launch an attack. So we thought that you’d probably be OK in the short-term. And face it, if you can’t trust an expert, who can you trust?’


My mind was churning now, fit to match my stomach. I was just one big churn. You could have made butter in me, easy.

‘Great,’ I said. ‘The short-term. That’s all there is now, isn’t there? The bloody short-term. In the medium-term they’ll come in here and kill Gavin and me and burn the place down. And in the long-term we’ll be rotting in our graves. Well bury me with my parents, that’s all I ask. And Gavin too thanks.’

Homer didn’t say anything. We sat there looking through the windscreen of the ute at the eroded gully, the ugly evidence of a landscape wrecked by humans.


Before the raid and the conversation with Homer things had actually been going rather well. Maybe the problem is that I don’t touch wood enough. Maybe the problem is that God likes to play with us. Teasing us the way a kid does with a spider, when he harasses it for a while then lets it crawl away into a hidey-hole, and after a few minutes the spider thinks he’s safe and comes out again and there’s the kid, waiting, ready for the next round. And so on and so on until the kid decides that he’s had enough fun now, he’s bored, and he squishes the spider.

We’d been through a terrible experience in Stratton, Gavin and I, which was about as terrible as experiences get. Gavin’s my adopted brother more or less, and when we went looking for his little sister, we found her, but unfortunately the man who had been their stepfather found us first. No-one but Gavin knew the truth about him, that he had murdered Gavin’s mother. And when you’re the only person in the world who knows about a murder, you’re not in a very comfortable position. We found ourselves in a very uncomfortable position, getting wet and bloody, in a fountain in a park, trying to defend ourselves against a knife attack, and not making a very good job of it for a while. We both had the scars to prove that.

What it did lead to was a new experience for both of us, going to court for a criminal trial. It was one of those things where you feel kind of excited, but guilty for feeling excited. Nervous as well of course, definitely nervous. OK, I’ll be honest, scared, but you can’t help having the other feelings as well. The trial was in Stratton. One thing that was good these days was that the legal system had been streamlined under the new constitution so things got dealt with faster. A law student I was talking to at the court said that in the old days it might have been a year before this case got heard.

We stayed with Lee and his siblings again. I wasn’t one hundred percent convinced this was a good idea, given that Lee’s catering depended on how many pies were in the freezer, and his housework depended on whether the path through the lounge room to the front door was still open to traffic. When it was completely blocked he’d schedule a ten minute clean-up.

The filter in the dryer had like three kilos of lint in it. OK I’m exaggerating again, but I don’t think anyone had cleaned it since they bought it. I explained to Lee about the fire hazard but I had the feeling it wasn’t going to make a substantial difference in his life, and I didn’t feel really confident until I’d found Pang, his little sister, and explained it to her. Honestly, without Pang that family would have to call in Meals on Wheels. Lee’s in his own world half the time. Phillip, the nine year old, is a bit obsessive. His three main interests are computer games, footy stats and reading Deltora Quest books. This does not necessarily make for good conversation. I mean, the kid collects light globes. Used ones. He has about twenty of them in a cupboard. Pang showed me.

Paul, who’s seven, is the quiet one, with his nose in a book, quite like Lee in some ways but not as determined. Then every once in a while he just gets the devil in him and goes through the house looking for ways to create havoc. Intira, the smallest, is a four year old with anger-management problems. As all four year olds have anger-management problems I wasn’t too concerned about this, but in a small apartment it’s not so good.

When we got to Stratton for the trial I suddenly thought that I should get them presents, but there wasn’t much time, so I grabbed a box of chocolates at a shop near the station. Stupid really, everything’s so expensive nowadays, and you only get about twenty choccies for thirty bucks. I’d have been better off going for quantity instead of a nice box with lots of packaging inside. Anyway, before anyone else realised, Intira had raided the box and wiped out half the chocs, and if that wasn’t bad enough she then had a monstrous tantrum when Lee took the box away and told her she was a greedy little guinea pig, or words to that effect.

The one thing that didn’t happen while I was staying with Lee was a sudden romantic windstorm that blew us both away. Maybe I’m looking for excuses but I gotta say there’s not a lot of room for romance when five kids are bouncing off the walls of a flat that doesn’t have bounceable walls. That sounds so middle-aged, like a suburban mother in the Women’s Weekly explaining why the romance has gone out of her marriage, but for the first time in my life I had a bit of sympathy for suburban mothers living unromantic lives. Not that I wanted a relationship with Lee any more, now that I had Jeremy, but bloody Lee, something about him, we couldn’t be in the same building without my getting funny feelings inside. They weren’t even necessarily nice feelings — I got sort of squirmy in the stomach, plus my breathing changed — but there was still definitely something smoky about him.

The last thing I wanted him to do was fall on his knees in front of me, red roses in hand, but I thought, without really thinking about it, that life would be more interesting if he did keep after me. I mean, face it, the more guys who are after you the more interesting life is, even if you aren’t totally rapt in some of them, and even if you’re making it hard for other girls by causing a bottleneck in the supply line. I was hardly in that league, but I knew I’d prefer Lee to have me for his first priority than some other girl who wasn’t good enough for him. No other girl would ever be good enough for Lee, in my opinion.

Anyway nothing happened. Well, a lot happened of course. As well as attending the trial Gavin and I witnessed or were involved in Pang slapping Paul when he spilt Pepsi on her homework, Lee trying to make Phillip clean the griller when he left melted cheese all over it after cremating his sandwich, Phillip huddling in the broom cupboard for two hours when Pang said he couldn’t have his move back in a game of chess, kids refusing to go to bed, refusing to get out of bed, refusing to go to school, refusing to leave school in the afternoon, refusing to eat meals, refusing to stop eating junk, refusing to go to the park, refusing to come home from the park… refusing to put new fuses in when the lights went out… in other words refusing to refuse… that was a joke by the way…

It wasn’t all bad though. I mean, Lee would kill me if he read this. They really loved each other and they had a heap of nice moments together. When Paul discovered Phillip having his tantrum in the broom cupboard, he was really sweet, huddling in there with him for ages trying to talk him into coming out. Succeeding too, eventually. Intira and Paul spent many a happy hour at the kitchen table with crayons and coloured pencils and stuff. They had this game where they made up little cartoon creatures with special powers. One had the ability to grow wings and another could change into a worm and another could make himself invisible. I wouldn’t say I found it too exciting but the kids loved it. They were based on stuff they’d seen on TV, I think, and I hadn’t had much time to watch TV lately.

So, action 24/7, but romance, no. If ever there was a moment when something seemed possible it’d be interrupted by a scream from one of the bedrooms or a crying kid demanding justice or a crash from the kitchen. After a few nights of this I realised that my relationship with Lee was still in the deep freeze. As long as I had Jeremy I shouldn’t have worried about that, because I didn’t want to two-time him, but I just wanted to keep a connection open between Lee and me. We stayed at Lee’s three nights and on the last I wrote a letter to Jeremy. Hi, just wanted to tell you how much I’m missing you. It’s a bit of a madhouse here and the trial has been totally nasty so I can’t wait to get home and see you again. We’ve been going to court every day waiting to be called as witnesses and today it finally happened. It was a pretty weird experience but I guess it went all right. Gavin wants to stay and see whether his stepfather gets convicted. I think he hopes the jury will come in with a guilty verdict and then the horrible Mr Manning’ll be taken straight outside and hung from the nearest tree. Come to think of it I wouldn’t be too sorry myself if they did that. I’m crapping myself a bit over the chance that the guy might get off. I know there’s no way in the world he should, but God knows how things happen in courts and everyone keeps telling me stories about criminals who got away with murder, which isn’t very comforting. We’ve seen quite a bit of Rosie, Gavin’s little sister. I don’t know whether you remember but she lives with people called Russell who are really nice, even if Mrs Russell is the main one who tells me about court cases gone wrong. But we took Rosie to the park yesterday and had a game of daylight Capture the Flag, which I made up on the spot. They’re still kind of awkward with each other, Gavin and Rosie I mean, but it’s sweet to see them together and it gets better every time. Rosie’s even bossier than Gavin, if you can believe that, but he’s starting to give her as good as he gets, which I think’s probably a good sign. I’m lonely, Jeremy, and I want to be home and back at Wirrawee High and sitting next to you and listening to your soft voice. You do things to me that I can’t describe, but all I know is that with your arms around me I feel safer than I’ve ever been and I just hope you’re not cheating on me while I’m away, with Jess or anyone else. Just kidding. But think of me all the time, OK. We should be home by the time you get this, so ring me, or I’ll ring you, Lots of love, Ellie.

I posted that on the way to court, but I didn’t know then that we’d be able to go home the same day. Turning up for the last day of the trial was Gavin’s idea. I wouldn’t have come back for any money, now we were no longer needed. When we’d been waiting to be called as witnesses we weren’t allowed to watch any of the case. I think that’s because they don’t want you to hear what the other witnesses are saying in case you change your story. Bit like Mrs Gilchrist when she’s interrogating students to find out who really did assassinate the lollipop lady or rock the roof or get a preview of the questions for the science test.

It was better as a spectator though. The pressure was off us. I soon realised that things were moving faster than I’d expected and the jury was going to be sent on their way pretty soon to decide the result. Mr Manning hadn’t been charged with murder, the murder of Gavin’s mum, because the police said there wasn’t enough evidence. Well, the police said there was enough but the prosecutor apparently disagreed and told the cops they couldn’t run that one, so it was only knifing us that put him in the dock.

I thought that was outrageous, but of course the only evidence about the murder was from Gavin. They’d found a couple of old neighbours who said Mr Manning was violent and a liar, and no-one had seen Gavin’s mum once the war started, but there was nothing else that could pin the actual murder on him. They never found her body. And I could see that Gavin in a witness box wouldn’t necessarily be enough to persuade a court to lock up an adult and throw away the key.

Anyway, this being the last day of the case there were no more witnesses. It was just the lawyers trying to convince the jury. We got there late and it turned out that the prosecutor, whose name was Mr Lucas, had already had his turn and Mr Manning’s lawyer was on the job. He looked like a really nice man, like anyone’s grandfather, kind face, glasses, friendly voice, but I didn’t trust him after the questions he’d asked us. The stuff he told the jury was outrageous, about how Gavin and I had pestered and harassed ‘the defendant’, how we’d exaggerated the whole thing; but as he went on, something told me that his heart wasn’t really in it, and I started to see him differently. Gradually the mask slipped and I saw him as an old guy who had this nasty client who he probably knew was guilty, but he’d been given the job of going through the motions and making sure he seemed to be getting a fair trial. At the end of the day it was pretty hard to argue with the fact that Gavin and I had both been taken to hospital in an ambulance, and it was because we’d been knifed by Mr Manning.

The judge made a speech to the jury, mostly about how in murder you can be convicted if you set out to give someone a severe bashing and they die of it even if you didn’t want that to happen. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you can be convicted of attempted murder if you set out to give someone a severe bashing and they don’t die of it. Or in our case a severe knifing. She said the jury had to be sure that Mr Manning meant to inflict grievous bodily harm on us, and she added, ‘You may well be of the opinion on the evidence you have heard that he did,’ which seemed to me like she was telling them what to think. But even if they agreed with her on that one, by itself it still wasn’t enough. They also had to be sure that he was reckless. ‘You can make up your own minds as to that,’ she said, but it seemed pretty obvious that she’d come to her own conclusion on that as well.

Then she went into a bit of a spiel about ‘present facts’ and ‘future facts’. ‘If someone in a country town batters another person with an axe handle and a bystander calls the town’s only ambulance and the ambulance is involved in an accident on the way to the scene and never arrives, and the victim subsequently dies, then the attacker is guilty of murder. But if the same circumstances occur, and the victim does not die, the attacker is not guilty of attempted murder. He is not expected to know future facts, only present ones. If a person points a gun at the head of another, knowing the gun probably has rounds in one or two of its chambers, and he pulls the trigger and the gun goes off, wounding the victim but not killing him, then the person is guilty of attempted murder, because he had present knowledge and failed to act appropriately in relation to it.’

So apparently if Mr Manning knew that plunging a knife into us was very dangerous, the jury could convict him of attempted murder. I thought the judge was making the whole thing a lot more complicated than it needed to be. But what would I know? And maybe I didn’t understand it properly anyway. I actually thought it was quite interesting and I did listen more attentively than I do at school.

The jury shuffled out, looking a bit embarrassed at all the attention, and I talked to the police prosecutor for a while, who was a really nice guy, and then Gavin and I went for a hot drink. Chocolate in his case, flat white in mine. Mr Lucas said to hang around as he didn’t think the jury would take long, although then he added, ‘I’m usually wrong.’

After an hour nothing had happened so he put us in an office where Gavin could play on a computer and I could read my book, which was called Sing, and Don’t Cry, and which I liked because it took me far away from Stratton and Wirrawee into the exotic world of Mexico, where guys sit in the back of a ute and serenade their women at midnight, playing guitars and singing achingly and lovingly and warmly and mournfully… it made Jeremy look pretty boring.

Then suddenly Mr Lucas put his head in the door and said, ‘They’re coming back’, and Gavin and I joined the little rush of people heading into courtroom number 4.

After that it was pretty much like on TV. The jury came in, and none of them looked at Mr Manning, except one woman who gave him a quick nervous glance, and I knew then that they’d gone for guilty.

They handed a bit of paper to the judge and she read it and said, ‘Is this the verdict of you all?’ and they all nodded, and she then announced that they’d found him guilty of attempted murder and that she agreed with them. She leant forwards and said to him, ‘Mr Manning, you are basically a complete asshole,’ perhaps not quite in those words, but she did let him have a pretty good blast. She said he was a coward and a person of no conscience and no integrity, who was quite prepared to kill children if they got in the way, and who showed absolutely no remorse. She then hit him with ten years on the hard rock pile and they took him away, Gavin and I waiting till he was out of sight before we highfived each other. I hoped they put him in a cell with Sideshow Bob, or with a couple of six foot four, two hundred kilo bikies who found him irresistibly attractive. I hoped they left him there to rot.

For us, it was back to the farm, back to school, and back, I thought, to life as normal.


There are no prizes for guessing what I did when I realised Gavin was missing. Went a little crazy, ran around in circles for a few moments with my hands to my head like I was trying to keep my brains from exploding with all the different thoughts rioting in there, then headed for the phone. I called Homer’s place first and when Homer answered I screeched, ‘Someone’s taken Gavin,’ then hung up. I rang Lee and got Pang, so I asked her to find Lee and have him call me straightaway. I didn’t want to upset Pang. I wasn’t very rational, because I then rang Fi’s boarding house at her school and went through that whole annoying thing of having the phone ring for ages and then a girl answers but she’s kind of lazy and she says, ‘I don’t know where she is,’ and when you say, ‘Oh will you please find her, please, please, it’s really important,’ she says, ‘Oh all right, she might be in the TV Room, I’ll go and have a look there.’ And you wait and wait and you can hear people laughing and talking as they pass the phone and you think you’ve been forgotten until the girl comes back and says, ‘Sorry, can’t find her,’ and you say, ‘Well can you please tell her Ellie rang, and it’s totally important and urgent,’ and you hang up wondering if the message will ever get through.

God, I had an anger-management problem at that point.

I realised I’d rung the old gang first, all except Kevin, and he was still in New Zealand as far as I knew. Old friends are the best friends. But I rang Bronte then. There was something about her calmness and strength that I needed right then. And at least she was home.

‘Have you called the police?’ she asked.

Duh, it hadn’t even crossed my mind. Shows how far I’d come since the war. In other words, nowhere. I still hadn’t adjusted to this world where, if I killed someone, like I’d done at the Youngs’ when enemy raiders attacked them, the police had a major investigation. I was now living in a world where a man who tried to stab Gavin and I to death actually got arrested and put on trial. Where if hostiles grabbed the kid you were meant to be looking after, you could call the cops and they might do something.

So I took a deep breath and called the cops.

The deep breath was because I had a feeling I’d be in for a lot of complicated explaining, namely about my illegal trips across the border, plus something I wasn’t used to: having a problem taken out of my hands and being told to go and sit in the waiting room and ‘We’ll let you know as soon as we hear anything.’

Bronte was right, of course I had to ring them, but I didn’t have a lot of confidence in what they might do.

‘Constable Brickwater.’

Funny name. ‘This is about a kidnapping. The little kid I look after, who lives with me, I think he’s been — ’

‘Whoa, whoa. What’s your name?’

‘Ellie. Ellie Linton.’

‘OK. And where are you from?’

I told him. I realised later how clever he was. He’d taken control of the conversation, and that calmed me down and put everything into some kind of order. Otherwise it would have been a huge mess, with me yelping and stammering and sounding like a whole mob of cockatoos in the last light of day trying to settle in a gum tree.

‘Now who’s been kidnapped?’

‘This little boy, Gavin, he lives with me, he’s lived with me since the war and he’s deaf and this afternoon when I got home from school he’d gone and the TV’s been smashed and there’s a magazine full of bullets in the hallway.’

The bit about the bullets got his attention. ‘They’re not your bullets? They don’t fit any of your weapons?’

‘No way. He’s been abducted or something. We did a lot of stuff during the war, and seems like we’ve been targeted since then. My parents got killed here earlier in the year…’

‘Ah, OK, yes, now I know who you are.’

From then on things went into serious mode. I found myself talking to a detective sergeant and when I got impatient and said, ‘But you should be doing something, they could be a hundred k’s away by now,’ he said, ‘There are three cars on their way out to you,’ and not much more than five minutes later they arrived, pretty much one after another.

In the meantime I made a quick call to Jeremy, and he was home, thank God, and he said he’d be right out here too. That was good. Sometimes I needed a guy with me. And Jeremy was quite a guy. I had big-time feelings for him. I spent most of my spare time at school with him now, and we’d been to two parties and a barbeque. I loved being with him and lit up inside when I saw him at school each day. I scanned the crowd for his face every morning, and felt restless and empty till I found it.

I hung up when I saw the police cars. Coming out of winter there was enough dust for them to raise a bit of a cloud as they came down the driveway. I don’t know if they took any precautions against being ambushed but I didn’t notice any. Homer, Lee and I, coming into a situation like that in cold blood, I think we would have.

There is something stirring and terrible and exciting about having three police cars parked in your front driveway. There were probably more than three when my parents and Mrs Mackenzie were killed, but I was in the kitchen most of that day and don’t remember too many details. Now, seeing them all lined up, with their headlights on and their blue lights slowly turning, the police labels and logos all over them… Gavin would have loved it.

I answered their questions but in a kind of blank state. What could they do? If he was dead, find his body. If he was over the border, they might take a year to get him back. It would all have to be done through official government channels. Investigations, denials, negotiations, I knew that script. I’d read about it in newspapers, with other cases of kidnappings. The man we’d gone over the border to find, Nick Greene, was a typical example. My only chance was for us to do what we had done all through the war, and since the war for that matter. Take charge. Act for ourselves. When the tsunami hit south-east Asia I saw a guy on TV who’d lost his brother. He said to the camera, ‘Where’s the government? The government should be over here looking for him.’ I felt sorry for the guy — and for his brother — but I did think that he was asking too much of the government. If Gavin was dead it didn’t matter who found him, and when and where. If he was alive the person who had the best chance of finding him was standing in the kitchen wasting her time helping the cops to fill in forms. This realisation dawned on me gradually as I answered their endless questions, but after a while I felt an impatience for them to be gone.

Some of the cops had been searching the sheds and the paddocks but as darkness dropped over the house they drifted back in, shaking their heads and shrugging their shoulders. The cop in charge was a guy called Henry, who seemed pretty important. He was quiet but efficient. I think he was an inspector at least. He talked to a circle of other police for a few minutes then came back and sat me down at the kitchen table. In front of him was a little pile of plastic bags. Evidence. The magazine full of bullets, Gavin’s ug boot, a grubby red cap that they thought might have belonged to the terrorists but I knew was an old one of my father’s that Gavin wore occasionally. Henry gave that back to me and dropped the bag in the kitchen waste bin. Then he came back to the table and sat down again.

He went through the options. He thought Gavin was probably alive. ‘If they’d wanted to kill him they’d have done it here.’ I’d already thought that, but it gave me more hope to hear an adult in uniform say it. It was the only encouraging thing he did say though.

‘These acts are nearly always carried out by groups of renegades who, as you know, have no support from their own government. No official support anyway. They have different agendas. Some are just out-and-out bad, men who come here to rape or plunder. Some are politically motivated and they carry out assassinations and terrorist attacks to try to soften us up. Some have personal motivations. I’m guessing that the people who came here might fit into the last group. The only reason I say that is because the attack on your parents didn’t seem to have any obvious motive, and the abduction of a child is unusual too. I believe you published a book about your guerrilla activities during the war?’

I nodded. ‘Three books.’

‘And you described various attacks you and your friends carried out?’

‘Yeah, only a few. But there was a lot of publicity for a while… Some of the other stuff we did got written about in newspapers and magazines. There was some stuff on TV too.’

‘I wonder if someone who read your books or saw you on TV formed the belief that you were responsible for something they felt strongly about. The death of someone they were connected with, for example.’

I nodded again. ‘Probably. I got a tip-off not long ago that we might be a target.’

‘How did you get that tip-off?’

I went red, wondering how much I should say. ‘It’s a bit awkward. It came from over the border. Someone saw a map that had our house marked on it, like they had a special interest in us.’

He frowned. ‘I hope you haven’t been involved in anything you shouldn’t. I hope your guerrilla activities ended when the war did.’

I sat there in silence, wishing I hadn’t started down this path. Guerrillas. All I could think of was an old joke of my father’s. One day when Mum was away we were working in the machinery shed, close to the house, and it was getting quite late. Eventually Dad said he’d go into the house and turn on the griller, to heat it up so we could chuck a couple of steaks on it when we knocked off work. He came back a minute later, looking shaken.

‘That was a close shave,’ he said.

‘What happened?’

‘I nearly turned on the gorilla instead.’

He thought he was so funny. When I groaned he said, ‘It’s no laughing matter. Have you ever been trapped in a kitchen with a turned-on gorilla? It could have been very ugly.’

I wonder if people like Jim Carrey and Glenn Robbins have kids, and whether their kids groan and say, ‘Oh Dad,’ when their fathers make jokes.

But Henry was still frowning and all I could say was, ‘Well, I wasn’t meant to see the map but it did give me the idea that someone might be after us.’

‘If you weren’t meant to see the map, how did you see it?’

‘It’s a bit awkward,’ I said again, going even redder.

‘Do you want to help us or not? Do you want this boy back or don’t you?’

‘I think the Army knows about the map,’ I said. ‘But I can’t really say anything, except that there was one, and I heard about it a couple of weeks ago and it made it seem like we were going to be a target.’

Suddenly he exploded. It was so unexpected. He’d been so nice and mild and calm before that. He leant forward and shouted into my face. ‘You think you’re going to sit there and tell me you’ve got vital evidence but you won’t tell me what it is? Listen, I’ve got no tolerance for people like you who think you can run some kind of amateur war, and then when things go wrong you call in the police and expect us to clean up the mess. And you don’t even tell us what you’re up to!’ He stood up, scraping his chair back. ‘We’re not a taxi service, you know! You don’t just call us in and then send us away when we’ve done what you want. A major crime’s been committed here and it’s my job to deal with it, and if you obstruct me in doing that, then you become part of the crime. Is there anything about that you don’t understand?’

I shook my head. I was too numb to speak.

‘Then where did you see the map? Who had it? Where did it come from?’

His tone had changed again, back to calm and reasonable, so I started to think this was just part of his routine. An act he did when he wanted information. Good cop, bad cop. Maybe he wasn’t too angry at all.

I was trying to weigh up the consequences of betraying Homer and Lee and Liberation but it was so hard to think. All I could do was decide not to betray them right now. I needed time. An hour, a couple of hours. Would that make a huge difference to Gavin’s chances? That was the bit I couldn’t get straight in my head. The possibilities ranged from ‘I’ve just sentenced him to death’ to ‘It won’t make any difference.’

‘I never saw the map. I just heard about it.’

‘Who did you hear about it from? We need to talk to him. Or her. Urgently.’

‘I think it was smuggled over the border. But I don’t know any more than that.’

‘It doesn’t matter if you don’t know any more than that. But the person who told you about it, I want to know what that person knows. I need to know who that person is.’

‘I can’t tell you. Not for now anyway. I need to check up with them.’

That made him mad again. And so it went on for another ten minutes, him getting mad, being calm, getting mad. I was so tired and my head was hurting. I couldn’t make these decisions on my own. I wanted, I don’t know, not a too-hard basket but a too-hard silo.

Then suddenly he stopped.

‘Well,’ he said, shrugging. ‘We’ll do what we can, based on the limited information you’ve given us. When you’re ready to tell me more I suggest you call me, and the sooner the better. I can tell you that if he’s on this side of the border we’ll find him, but if he’s on the other side of the border it becomes a matter for the Department of Internal Security and the Department of Foreign Affairs. We have no jurisdiction there of course. In the meantime, I’ll leave four officers here overnight to protect you, and we’ll resume our search in the morning. I want to put a tap on your phone in case they try to contact you. Based on previous cases, it’s not very likely, but it has happened occasionally.’

He pushed a form across the table at me. ‘That’s a consent form to have your phone line monitored. I suggest you have something to eat and then try to get a good night’s sleep. There’s nothing more you can do. You can leave this to us now.’


Homer arrived, looking frantic. He took me into the study and listened in silence as I told him the story, but he was impatient for me to get to the end. Just as I finished Jeremy arrived and I had to go through it all again. I’d already decided that Liberation was my best hope so I didn’t need much persuading when they said the same thing. Even in the middle of the pain and the fear and the sense that we had to do something right now, I was still curious to know whether one of the two boys in front of me was the Scarlet Pimple, but they weren’t giving anything away.

I told them about Henry, the policeman, and the pressure I was under to tell him about the map. Homer and Jeremy looked at each other. ‘We’d better make a few calls,’ Jeremy said.

‘Not from this phone,’ I said. ‘The cops are listening in.’

They raced back to Homer’s place while I started making tea and coffee for the cops. Two of them were women and although I think I generally get on better with guys I really liked having these two around. They took their mugs outside so they could keep guard and I went out with them and just hung around while I waited for Homer and Jeremy to get back. The two women didn’t talk much but they had a comforting manner, like they knew what they were doing and nothing too bad was going to leap out at me while I was with them.

The only things that did leap out at me were Homer and Jeremy, out of Homer’s old ute. They hurried me into the house. But it turned out they didn’t have much to say.

‘Look,’ said Homer, ‘we’ve talked to a few people. They all say the same thing. Just try to stay calm, and wait at least twenty-four hours. I know this is going to sound cold-blooded, but the way they put it was that if he’s dead, he’s dead. And if they were going to kill him, they would have done that already.’

This was close to what Henry had said, so I nodded and kept my lips firm, and tried not to tremble too much. I noticed Homer was trembling, although he tried to hide it by hugging himself as he talked.

‘There’s no point telling the police any more about the map. They can’t do anything about stuff that’s on the other side of the border, so even if they knew where the map came from they couldn’t go over there and arrest anyone.’

Homer went on. ‘The Liberation guys think that if Gavin’s alive, he’ll be on the other side of the border. They think he almost certainly is alive, and you’ll get a message eventually telling you what they want. I know the cops said differently, but they don’t always get to hear about the messages.’

‘What kind of things would they want?’ I asked, gripping the table with both hands. I was as bad as Homer. It was the only way I could stop the trembles from breaking out all over.

Homer flushed. ‘It could be you,’ he said awkwardly. ‘It could be both of us. It could be the whole group. They probably have quite a high awareness of us.’

‘I suppose so,’ I said miserably. We hadn’t thought about this enough. It certainly hadn’t been part of our consciousness during the war, and only in recent times had I started to realise that yes, actions do have consequences, even actions that seem right and justifiable. I’d done nothing I’d been ashamed of during the war, or after the war for that matter, leaving aside a few personal things, like the party in New Zealand, but even so, I couldn’t expect the enemy to see it that way, and I was starting to realise that they definitely didn’t.

I stood and walked up and down the room, hands under my armpits. Jeremy wanted to put his arms around me, but I threw him off. I didn’t want that. I wanted to go and do something. It seemed unforgivable to do nothing. It seemed like a betrayal. The one thing Gavin wouldn’t understand was inaction.

No-one tried to go to bed. No-one tried to sleep. We sat around, even though there wasn’t much point. I know we all dozed at times, because at one point I woke up and Jeremy and Homer were both asleep in their armchairs. One of the women cops came in twice and told me to get to bed, but I shrugged her off too.

At last the room got a little lighter. I went to the kitchen and made more tea and coffee, as well as putting out heaps of cereal and bread and stuff, then asked the cops if they wanted breakfast. They looked grateful.

They had that grey appearance you get when you’ve been up all night, tense, on guard, wondering if that piece of bark flapping in the distance is a human arm or a piece of bark. God I knew how they felt. There had been so many nights like that for me during the war.

Anyway, they came in and hoed into pretty much everything I had. Then Homer and Jeremy wandered in, and by the time they finished I think we’d blown the breakfast budget for the next month and a half. I just had a few slices of toast. I hadn’t felt like eating, but the smell of toast is hard to resist, and I knew I needed to have something.

Henry turned up again at about 7.45 am. He didn’t have any news. They’d brought some dogs, and I went outside and watched as they cast around for a scent. It didn’t work too well, but one of the handlers told me that they hadn’t expected much. ‘There are too many smells around here already,’ he said. ‘Not only the little boy, but other animals, and all the police who’ve been coming and going, as well as your friends.’ More cars arrived even as I was talking to him, and then a police minibus. Out piled a whole bunch of young cops dressed in orange overalls. They didn’t look much older than me. Henry came over and explained that they were cadets from the police academy, and they were going to search the paddocks. He took them away, and half an hour later I saw them in a line, slowly traversing the paddock we call One Tree, eyes down, scanning the ground. I knew that most likely they were looking for a body, so I wished them all bad luck, hoping they’d fail miserably.

The day inched along at a desperately slow speed. To stop myself from going crazy I kept feeding people. Mrs Yannos arrived, and luckily she’d been to the supermarket. Actually it wasn’t luck. It was yet another example of how thoughtful she was, thoughtful in both senses of the word. She’d thought about how we’d need heaps of food to cater for the visitors, and she’d been thoughtful in the sense that she was kind as a saint.

And so it went on. And on. Really, nothing changed for the next couple of days. It was just one long toothache, but the worst toothache I’d ever had. A throbbing intense pain that took all my strength and energy. I could focus on nothing else. Henry tried to persuade me to move into town, but I wouldn’t leave. He kept the patrols going every night, but as he said, he couldn’t do that forever, and sooner or later I had to make a decision about my own security. He was right, but I couldn’t and wouldn’t listen.

Then, like water from a burst dam, everything rushed at me. It was Friday afternoon. I was getting exhausted by the flow of visitors. The full range, from friends to acquaintances to strangers like the police, from adults to kids, from neighbours to teachers to Fi’s mum who drove all the way out from the city. Fi had gone to Japan on a school trip. She wanted to pull out of it when she heard about Gavin but her mum had dragged her kicking and screaming to the airport.

I talked to Lee a few times on the phone, but when he arrived at the house on the Friday afternoon I wasn’t necessarily pleased to see him. Well, I wasn’t unpleased to see him either. He just seemed like another visitor, but more welcome than most. He didn’t waste any time on greetings though. He nodded to the machinery shed, ‘Let’s go look at tractors.’ Those were his opening words. I’d never known that Lee had an interest in tractors, but on the other hand I was getting used to guys taking me away for urgent talks. So I led the way out there without asking any questions.

He jumped up and sat on the workbench while I leant against the front right wheel of the John Deere. ‘The Scarlet Pimple thinks they might know where he is,’ he said, without wasting any more words.

A great flower of something that could be called hope slowly unfurled inside my chest. It didn’t actually blossom, but it did unfurl quite a little way.

‘Where?’ I asked. How difficult it was to keep my voice steady, even though it was only for a one-syllable word.

‘In Havelock.’

‘Havelock? Christ, that’s hundreds of k’s away.’

‘Yes, I know. But it’s quite a reliable report. It may not be him, but it’s the best lead they’ve had.’

‘Why would they take him there? Has someone seen him? Did he look all right? Who saw him?’ I couldn’t get the questions in the right order, and I knew there were hundreds of them queuing up in my brain, jostling to get to the front.

‘No-one knows much about anything,’ he said. ‘But there is a nasty little group of bandits who apparently have their headquarters in Havelock. They’re quite professional at doing border raids, revenge raids. A lot of them are on the government list of war criminals. It’s the sort of game they’d play, grabbing a kid and using him to bargain.’

‘So how do we get him back?’ I asked, forgetting all the other questions, or at least sending them to the back of the queue.

He paused then, for the first time, and frowned, and looked at the ground. I knew these signs as well as I knew Lee. Someone had made a suggestion, someone had a plan even, but it wasn’t Lee’s idea and he didn’t agree with it.

‘Come on, come on,’ I said with teeth clenched.

‘I think it’s crazy. The only part of it I agree with is that the government isn’t going to be able to do anything. Well, if they are, it’s going to take a long time, and bad stuff could happen in the meantime. These guys aren’t interested in negotiating with governments, and their own government can’t control them. I think it’s a situation that probably does call for a bit of individual action.’

‘So what’s the plan?’ I asked, trying not to grind my teeth.

‘It’s not a plan as such,’ he said slowly. ‘It’s just a concept, an idea. The beginning of a plan.’

‘I’ll do it,’ I said.

He grinned then. ‘Yeah, well I kind of expected you’d say that.’ He paused. ‘Like I said, it’s not a plan, in fact it’s not even the beginning of a plan, but there’s quite a large population of expatriates in Havelock.’

‘What are they?’ I asked.

‘People from other countries. A lot of administrative and government stuff happens there. Not that they call it Havelock any more. They’ve given it some new name that I can’t even pronounce. But the United Nations has about a hundred people there, and there are a few consulates setting up. What I’m getting at, or what the Liberation people are getting at, is that someone like you could walk around some areas of Havelock without standing out. Not many areas, but where the consulates are, the locals are used to seeing foreign faces. You’d have to get identity papers, but Liberation could supply those. At least it puts you closer to the action, if that’s where the action really is.’

‘What does the Scarlet Pimple think of all this?’ I asked.

‘Not happy. Bad idea.’


‘Too dangerous, too random. The Scarlet Pimple likes plans and structures and details. Admittedly it’s not the way we worked during the war, but it seems to work pretty well with what Liberation do. I guess they have to be pretty organised, seeing there’s so many different groups, and so many different projects.’

‘How would I get to Havelock?’

‘They’re working on that. And they are producing identity papers right now. Apparently that’s pretty easy.’

‘At least no-one really knows my face,’ I said. ‘Even if the guys who took Gavin read my books, even if they know my name, even if they think they know a lot about me, hardly anyone would know what I look like. Given how many people are living over there now, I’d be pretty unlucky to run into anyone I met during the war.’

‘Yes,’ Lee nodded. ‘That much I agree with.’

‘So what don’t you like about my going there?’

He shocked me by suddenly exploding off the bench, long arms and legs flying. For a moment he looked like a praying mantis who’d been hit in the guts. ‘Because it’s only you,’ he said. I realised that he could almost have been crying. That really frightened me then, frightened me and shocked me. Lee? Emotion? Lee showing emotion?

He went on. ‘They said that you could maybe get away with one new teenage face on the streets of Havelock, but you’d never get away with more than one. If two or three of us turned up, the word would get out within a few hours and there’d be no hope for anyone.’ He gave me a little shaky grin. ‘I kept telling them that I’d go, because I think I could get away with being out on the streets much more easily, but the truth is I knew you’d never let anyone else go.’

I nodded. I’d already thought about the possibility of Lee going with me but realised his little brothers and sisters needed him too badly to risk him on something as deep into enemy territory as this.

He smiled at me again. It was the saddest smile I’d ever seen from him. ‘I know Gavin’s yours, and I know you’ve only got each other, in a family sense anyway. It’s right that you go. That’s assuming anyone goes, and I’m guessing there’s not much chance that you won’t.’

‘You got that right,’ I said, although the unfurling flower in my chest was now growing from a cold, wet black swamp in my stomach.


We walked back to the house. Coincidentally the police were just leaving. Henry was looking for me. He emerged from the kitchen just as we got there. ‘Ah!’ he said. ‘Found you. Now look, Ellie, we can’t keep a police presence here any longer. We haven’t got the resources, and it’s become a pointless exercise, given that we’ve found no trace of the little fellow. But what you have to do, and I’m afraid this is an order, is pack a few things and move into town. This is not a safe place for you to be.’

I surprised him then. ‘OK,’ I said, dropping my eyes.

‘OK?’ he said. ‘Well, I didn’t think it’d be quite that easy. But I’m glad you’re showing some sense. Now, have you got someone you can stay with? My wife said you’re very welcome to — ’

‘No, I’m fine,’ I said. ‘I’ll go back with Lee and stay at his place in Stratton.’

He peered at me more suspiciously. ‘I hope you’re not cooking up any silly plots. You realise there’s nothing you can do to find Gavin?’

‘No, no,’ I said quickly. ‘It’s fine. I really want to get off the place. It’s giving me the heebie-jeebies at the moment.’

He seemed satisfied with that, and five minutes later I was shaking hands with the police, and thanking them, and then waving them goodbye as their cars headed down the driveway.

I went back into the house to start packing. The first things I grabbed were the firearms and all our ammunition, although I didn’t imagine I’d be able to carry them with me to Havelock, if that’s where I was heading. But I wasn’t going to leave them in the house either.

I’d just laid the shotgun on the dining room table when the telephone rang.

Since the kidnapping the ringing of the phone had been the most powerful sound in my life. It tingled through me like I was wired to it and we were both live. And I guess I must be psychic because I knew this was The Call.

I said to Lee, ‘Grab the phone in the kitchen.’ As he headed across there I called after him, ‘We’ll pick them up at the same time.’

He nodded, and when he reached the phone looked back at me. We nodded at each other then, and picked up the phones simultaneously.

‘Hello, Ellie Linton speaking,’ I said.

The line was crackly, and the voice was hoarse and had a heavy accent. It was a guy, probably only twenty or so. I felt I knew everything that he was going to say before he said it. A great heaviness came over me. ‘We have him,’ the man said.

‘Is he all right? Are you looking after him?’ I asked. I wanted to say, ‘I’ll kill you if you don’t get him back here within the next five minutes.’ But I held myself back.

‘He is all right. We don’t want. You have him back.’

For a moment I hoped Gavin had been so obnoxious and difficult that they were desperate to get rid of him. There was a movie where that happened but it was a comedy.

‘Where is he?’ I asked. ‘’I’ll come and get him.’

Lee frowned at me and I realised what a dumb comment I’d just made. No way were they going to let Gavin and me both go if I turned up at someone’s place to pick him up. We’d already discussed this. If they wanted me they’d be delighted to have me arrive at their front door, but there’d be no motivation for them to let Gavin go. The opposite. If they let him go he could give evidence against them.

‘Yeah, you come. We swap. Boy for you. And the other one.’

‘The other one?’

‘The leader. The one cause all trouble. We want him too. We give little boy for you two.’

My head rang like it had suddenly turned into a bell and someone had just smashed it with a sledgehammer. The Scarlet Pimple? They wanted the Scarlet Pimple? I had never thought of that. Judging by the look on Lee’s face he had never thought of it either.

‘But I don’t know who the Scarlet Pimple is,’ I stammered, then thought how stupid the name the Scarlet Pimple sounded. It was just a joke name to us, one we used among ourselves. ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel,’ I corrected myself. ‘The leader.’

‘You know,’ the man said.

‘I don’t, I don’t,’ I said wildly. Of course it was true, I didn’t know who he was, but I was trying to buy time. I could find out who the Scarlet Pimple was easily enough in a situation like this. Hell, by officially joining Liberation I could find out. But I thought that if I could sound convincing then I might be able to get a bit of breathing space while I — we — absorbed this news.

‘They won’t tell me,’ I shouted, trying to sound hysterical. It wasn’t difficult — I had been feeling pretty hysterical for a few days now. ‘I’ve asked a million times. I’ve tried a heap of ways to find out but it’s the biggest secret in Wirrawee. No-one’ll tell me.’

There was a pause on the other end of the line. I felt triumphant. I knew I’d shaken him. It probably wouldn’t be for very long but it was a tiny victory to me. The first one I’d had since this awful thing started.

The victory lasted maybe three seconds. Till he said, ‘You find out. You can find out if you want. You make it your business to find out.’

Then he hung up. I hadn’t expected that. I thought we were in for a fairly long conversation, that he’d start telling me conditions, meeting points, whatever. But I told myself, maybe with more desperation than anything, maybe it was good. It might mean that I had shaken him and left him unable to go on to the next step. I’d wanted to buy time and now it seemed like I had. The only question was what to spend it on.

The call did give me hope that Gavin was alive. And it turned an unknown force into a slightly more known force. I’d started with an equation that read x=a+b+c, but now I knew c was a positive number, somewhere between 0 and a few million, or whatever the population was across the border, so that was a step forwards. Wasn’t it?

If I’d shaken him, he’d shaken Lee. Suddenly Lee went crazy. I was about to sit down and talk this through with him and I wanted to do that, desperately needed to do it. The debriefing. My nerves were quivering from the phone call. My body, my emotions, my whole being, craved this conversation. Instead of which Lee bolted over to where the firearms were sitting on the dining-room table and practically threw the rifle at me.

‘What are you doing?’ I yelled at him. I thought he must want us both to go careering off to Havelock and find the group of terrorists and shoot the lot of them.

‘They’re watching the house,’ he yelled back. ‘They’re out there now.’

I was mystified, but only for a moment. Then I put together the same clues he had. The police had driven away, abandoning their watch on the house. Five minutes later the kidnappers ring me. What were the odds? Either this was an amazing coincidence or they were waiting till the moment when they could make contact and have no fear of the cops getting in their way. Nevertheless I grabbed Lee’s arm to hold him as he headed for the back door with the shotgun. ‘Wait!’ I said. ‘Is this going to help Gavin or make things worse for him?’

When he paused I added, ‘They wouldn’t have Gavin anywhere near here. So there’ll just be a spy or two, probably two, watching us and reporting back to headquarters. If we get lucky and kill them, chances are whoever’s holding Gavin will take it out on him.’

I felt the pressure in Lee’s arm relax a bit, so I let it go. ‘That’s true,’ he said slowly. ‘But if we did get lucky and kill them before they got any message back that we were chasing them, well, what happens then? The rest of their organisation never knows what’s happened to them. They can’t know if they got killed in a car accident or committed suicide or defected or fell in love with you and you’ve all gone off to Fiji together. It’s like us with those New Zealand guys during the war. The ones who were going to take the airport apart. We still don’t know what happened to them.’

‘And,’ I said, feeling an all-too-familiar excitement, an excitement that was not always unwelcome, gathering inside me, ‘if we did get lucky and kill them, it would take quite a long time for their friends to realise that they’d gone missing, and quite a long time for their friends to organise a new way of getting in touch with me. So for that time they’d keep Gavin safe, because he’s their bargaining chip.’

‘We’d probably buy forty-eight hours, maybe quite a bit more,’ Lee said.

His face had hardened and he was inching towards the door again.

‘Better still if we caught them,’ I said. ‘We could hand them over to the police and they could ask them a few questions.’

‘Hand them over to Liberation,’ Lee said grimly. ‘We’d ask them a few questions. We’d get answers too.’

It seemed that we’d made up our minds. We each took a gun, Lee the shotgun and me the. 22-250. I suddenly realised that if they were watching the house closely they’d see us straightaway, armed and dangerous. I ran and grabbed the first thing I could find that looked like it might be big enough to hold two guns. It was a funny old suitcase, long and battered and dusty, which was on top of the wardrobe in my parents’ bedroom. I knew that if there were a couple of terrorists out there and they saw us they’d think this long suitcase was pretty suspicious, but at least they couldn’t be certain of anything. It might confuse them a little, buy us an extra minute or two before they were certain of what we were up to.

We sauntered out to the machinery shed, chatting like old friends, making like we were on our way to the shops to pick up a litre of milk. Again this wouldn’t be very convincing to anyone, considering I’d just had a phone call from kidnappers who’d taken my brother, but anything to slow down their responses, keep them off balance, the way they’d kept me for a couple of days now. If it was theatre for an invisible audience, that was OK, but if it was theatre for an audience that didn’t exist, then we were wasting our time.

Once we got into the machinery shed we stopped acting so casual. ‘Let’s take the ute,’ I said.

‘No, the bikes,’ Lee said. ‘They’re more mobile.’

In a way I think it was a bit of a boy-girl thing, a Lee-Ellie thing. I wanted to be with someone, with him, but he was still like he’d always been — the lone wolf. Lee wanted to ride off on his own and battle the dark forces; I wanted to battle the dark forces too, but with someone I could trust, so we could fight it out together. Lee thought that being on your own made you stronger. He travels fastest who travels alone. I thought that being on your own left you exposed. I would have felt too vulnerable on a motorbike by myself. One for all and all for one, that was my motto.

It made me want to reach out to him and gather him in, not to bring him home and domesticate him, but to try to break through that shell he put around himself. Some people might say it was a hard shell, but I wouldn’t. I’d say it was a powerful one.

Instead I took charge and headed for the ute. This wasn’t something Lee liked but I knew I could get away with it because it was my territory and this was my business. We unpacked the firearms again, loaded both of them, and got in. We didn’t have a plan — I didn’t even know where we were going, let alone what we’d do when we got there — I just figured the best thing was to go for a cruise through the paddocks and see what we could see.

But I did do a bit of thinking as we went. Thinkdriving, there ought to be a law against it. I said to Lee, ‘They’ll be in a place where they’ve got a good view of the property but where the cops didn’t search. Where they’d be pretty confident no-one would bother to search. That could include the whole of Tailor’s Stitch.’

‘Long way away.’

‘It’s not the only place though.’

‘They’ve got to have mobile reception too. That’d rule out some of Tailor’s Stitch.’

‘Yeah, good point, I never thought of that.’

I drove slowly, both of us scanning the hills and paddocks as we strained our brains to be faster and smarter than our eyes. Apart from Tailor’s Stitch there were two places I thought were possible, both within a few kilometres. Of course it was silly to rule out Tailor’s Stitch because it was further away, like the story about the guy who loses his car keys on one side of the street but goes looking for them on the other side because the light there is better. But I hadn’t ruled out Tailor’s Stitch, I just thought it would be smart to check out the easier places first. I did think that the paddock we call One Tree was worth a look. I headed the car up there, going slowly, like we were enjoying a Sunday afternoon drive. I wanted to confuse anyone who was watching. Of course if they’d thought about it for a moment they’d have realised how ridiculous it was that I’d be going for a Sunday afternoon drive just after getting the phone call about Gavin, but this was again about sowing seeds of doubt, buying ourselves a few extra minutes. It did occur to me that if they were hiding close by and had a good shot at us they could kill me nice and easily right now with a well-directed bullet to my head, but then they’d miss the opportunity to get the Pimple.

Unless Lee was the Scarlet Pimple. I gulped at that thought. I’d already decided he wasn’t but I could have been wrong. ‘Lee, you’re not the Scarlet Pimple, are you?’

‘No,’ he said, eyes scanning the paddocks, gun resting across his lap.

We kept going, sticking to the track mostly, going off it only when there was a big mob of cattle ahead. They were heavy and lazy. Hard to believe they had stampeded only a short time ago. All the time we were searching but there was nothing to see. At the top I swung right, along the ridge, looking down on the house and the valley. It was a pretty sight. Hard to believe there’d been violence there too. Not the random violence of a stampede sparked by lightning, but cold, planned violence that had pulled my life out by its roots and thrown it up in the air, to fall where the wind blew it.

Nothing out of the ordinary. Feeling frustrated I swung around and went back along the ridge. This time I passed the top of the track we’d come up but now I kept going out towards Providence Gully Road. We were getting into some thicker bush here.

‘Stop the car,’ Lee said suddenly.

I hit the brakes. He got out, looked at his gun, hesitated, then left it there. He slipped across to the edge of the scrub and walked along the track about ten metres. He was trying to act naturally but not doing a very good job. He bent, picked up something, then came back to the car, got in and closed the door. Then he pulled it out of his pocket and showed me. A disposable cigarette lighter. The writing on the side wasn’t in English, wasn’t even in our alphabet. But I recognised that writing. I’d seen enough of it by now.

‘Gee you’ve got good eyesight,’ I said. ‘So they’ve been up here.’

‘What do you reckon? Where would you camp around here that would keep you out of sight?’

‘There’s nowhere that’d give you a view of the homestead.’

‘We might have been wrong about that. Maybe they had a camp up here and just snuck out to spy on the place when it suited them.’

‘OK, well I’d camp through here a bit further. Where the bush starts to clear again and you get to the boundary of Burnt Hut. That’d give you two ways of spying on the buildings.’

I drove on another fifty metres then pulled over so the ute was in a little clearing on the left, out of sight unless you were quite close to it. We bailed out. We’d done this kind of stuff so often that we didn’t need to say anything to each other. We got our weapons and began to walk along the track, one on each side, sticking to the shelter of the trees and scrub, using our eyes like they were swivelling security cameras, using our other senses too, all of them.

I never know how much attention to pay to my senses but sometimes I think we’d be better off if we did take more notice of them. It’s like they don’t get much of a look-in these days. Poor things. Seems like they always get pushed to the back of the queue. In our society anyway. I bet they didn’t in Aboriginal society, or any of those tribes who had to live in harmony with the environment, who didn’t see the environment as something they had to control or defeat. They would have had their senses working pretty well, I reckon. Too bad if they didn’t. Those crocodiles can have your leg off in no time. Sharks can bite pretty hard. And as for dinosaurs, man, they’d have you for afternoon tea and still complain they were hungry. So what are you going to do? You’re going to develop all your senses to the max, till the faintest change in the environment has your skin prickling and your tongue drying and your brain catching up a split second later and saying, ‘Wait a minute, something’s happening here.’

Then gradually we evolved. I’m not sure why, or when. Maybe it was when the scientists and accountants and schoolteachers came along. Somehow our instincts had to make way for our brain and since then it’s all been ‘Better give it a bit more thought’, ‘Don’t rush into it’, ‘But have you really thought about it?’

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, that’s what they tell you.

I remember hearing how, during World War II, the guy in charge of the SS, the worst of the worst, went to see his soldiers executing Jews and anyone else they’d put on their list — gays, gypsies, people who loved peace — and when he saw all these rows of people being shot in the head and pushed into mass graves he collapsed and was sick and had to be helped back to his car. OK, so wouldn’t you think he’d go home and think, ‘Sheez, something’s wrong here… my instincts are trying to tell me something. Wonder what it could be?’

Instead, he goes back to Berlin, sits down at his desk, and lets his mind take charge again. Forget those dumb instincts, what would they know? He thinks, ‘I can’t let our nice young German soldiers be exposed to that kind of nastiness.’ He draws up plans for a new system that allows people to be killed in a clean, organised, scientific way. He establishes death factories. They’re called concentration camps. He didn’t follow his instincts and six million people paid the price.

The war sure developed my instincts. I definitely got better tuned to what was going on around me. My senses operated much more powerfully away from the distractions of TV and iPods and computers. And I suppose the senses feed the instincts, they give them the raw material they need, so I felt like I was operating on a different level a lot of the time. Growing up on a farm didn’t hurt either. I know farming nowadays is meant to be all science, all breeding blood lines and MYOB and crop rotations, but if you can’t tell when there’s rain on the horizon or the tractor doesn’t quite feel right or there could be a snake under the roofing iron you’re about to pick up, then you might as well sell the farm and become an auditor.

Of course sometimes you can’t trust your instincts. You have to override them. You have to know that even if your senses are feeding you the right info, your instincts mightn’t be processing them properly, and your brain better get involved fast or something tragic might happen. That time, not too long ago, when Gavin was stuck on the cliff face and I thought he was going to fall to his death and take me with him, I had to become a skilled rock climber in a hurry, and that meant ignoring my instincts and facing into the cliff, even though I couldn’t see what I was doing or where I was going.

I guess all those sports like parachuting and abseiling and bungee jumping, even going for a ride on the ferris wheel at the show, they all involve the same struggle between the heart and the mind, and the thrill comes from beating down those ancient feelings just by using the power of your brain.

Anyway, I’m glad I’ve got instincts, and I don’t want to lose them any time in the near future. Because suddenly, as we made our way cautiously along the track, after we’d walked a bit over a k, I either got a flock of spiders crawling all over me or my senses were trying to tell me something. Whichever it was, I thought it was a good idea to stop, and I stopped fast.


One of the things about Lee and me is that we’ve been together so long and been through so much that we’re linked by long cotton threads. When we’re out in the bush or in any situation like this, we not only have our senses working at full pitch but we’re tuned into each other as well. I’m not saying this like we were some kind of heroes. It was just survival. Either you do stuff like that or you’re dead. Pretty simple really.

So the moment I stopped, Lee stopped too. The exact moment. Like he was frozen in midstep. He was for a moment too. Then he put his foot down, watching me for a clue as to what was going on, and at the same time eating and drinking and breathing everything that was going on around him. Right away his gun was at his shoulder and I saw his thumb slide the safety forwards and his finger tighten around the trigger. He was ready.

So was I, even though I didn’t know what we were ready for. I turned a little but the signals weren’t strong behind me. Something was in front of us, something that had those spiders tickling my skin so badly I wanted to scratch myself. The problem was to move forwards in a way that wouldn’t expose us too much and yet would give us a chance to go quietly. The further off the track and into the bush we were, the more we’d be walking on twigs and leaves and bark and noisy stuff. It was all about finding a middle way, as always. I shuffled a bit to the left and started to creep down the road. Across from me Lee was doing the same. We were coming into a little dip. Beyond that the road rose, then levelled and ran in a straight line for about fifty metres before coming to a cattle grid. This was the boundary between One Tree and Burnt Hut.

One Tree had probably been a paddock with only one tree a long time ago. Maybe when my great-grandfather was razing the place with crosscut saws and axes, and when my grandfather joined in with tractors and bulldozers. But then my father came along with his airy-fairy arty-farty greenie ideas and not only let the bush grow back in quite a few places but actually planted trees and restored the lagoon. And so One Tree didn’t really deserve that name any more, but was stuck with it anyway.

Burnt Hut was a nice paddock that at the moment was heavily stocked with Mr Young’s cattle, which I had on agistment. It was my eastern boundary. Next door was Colin McCann’s place. It was my only border with him and I didn’t see much of him but he was a decent bloke and a good neighbour.

I knew that to the left of the dip, on Lee’s side, ahead of us, was a bit of a gully that occasionally ran with water during a wet winter. I realised that if these guys were anywhere around here, this was the place they’d be camping.

I waved to Lee to get him to stay where he was, then I cut back through the bush and went quite a way forwards. I came out near the gate into Burnt Hut, on the other side of the dip, and looked back down the track to pick up Lee again. There he was, a thin dark figure in among the thin dark saplings. I pointed into the gully, to show him what I wanted to do, to have the two of us sneak in there and see what we could see. Then I squatted a little to peer through the trees.

At that moment my head was nearly blasted off my shoulders. My God there is nothing like a rifle shot fired at you from not far away to totally pulverise you, to turn you into mush. And I’m talking about the shots that miss you. Everything turns to liquid. I guess if it had hit me I would have shed quite a lot of liquid too, but either way it’s pretty effective. I froze in mid-crouch. At the same time I realised that the crouch had saved my life. I’d bent just as he fired.

At least my brain started working again, after that moment of paralysis. I dropped further and did a quick slithering crawl into some bracken and grass, hoping no snakes were waking up in the immediate vicinity. My heart was going like an empty jerry can in the back of a ute, a ute being driven on a dirt road at a hundred and twenty k’s. And when I say dirt road, I’m talking a fire trail. I didn’t know if my chest would be able to contain it. I wondered where Lee was, and if the gunman knew he was hanging around. A second shot slammed into a tree behind me, but missed by quite a way compared to the first one. I bolted deeper into the undergrowth then immediately started working my way around to the right in the hope that I’d get a shot at him or them.

I left my safety on because dragging the rifle along in the grass was just too dangerous. Someone started firing pretty much at random, but I thought there was at least a bit of a pattern in where the shots were going, which meant that I could flatten myself as they got closer. I was completely deaf by the time they got to me. One bullet went to my left and another to my right. I’d say the closer one was less than two metres away. By that time I was so flat that you could have put a spirit level on me and the bubble wouldn’t have gone anywhere. I did the echidna thing and writhed myself into the ground, trying to make a depression where no depression existed. But the moment the shots passed me I went at a speed no echidna has ever achieved, heading for the fence line into Burnt Hut.

I knew that the scrub was much lighter there and I’d have a better view. Of course they’d have a better view of me too, but I had to get a look at him or them and see what I was up against.

The shots stopped abruptly. As far as I could tell with my ringing ears there was a complete silence. I could bet that every bird for a couple of k’s would be keeping its beak shut and heading for the hills. The familiar thump thump thump of kangaroos moving at speed could not be heard. No moaning mooing cattle either. Chances were that it was just down to me and Lee and an unknown number of gunmen who wanted to kill us.

I tried to move as quietly as possible, considering that I wouldn’t have heard much noise I made anyway. If I’d screamed at the top of my voice while at the same time jumping up and down on large dead branches… well, I might have heard that, just. But, still on all fours, I wove a way through more bracken and grass, trying to ignore the blackberries I occasionally plonked my hand on, until at last I got to a position where I thought I could risk a peep.

I peeped but I didn’t see anything. I slowly swivelled my head and peeped some more, quite a lot more, still with no result. Again I wondered where Lee was. Then, suddenly, shockingly, as I peeped again, I got a good view of them. Two men, both young, both dressed in camouflage. They were moving slowly down the sides of the road, the exact way Lee and I had been doing. Guess we’d read the same handbook on guerrilla warfare. They had their rifles ready for action and they looked pretty professional. They peered as I peeped.

I carefully moved my rifle up to my shoulder, still trying to make no sound. It occurred to me that they might be pretty deaf themselves after the barrage. I lined them up, but didn’t know what I was going to do. Could I shoot them in cold blood? I didn’t have much compunction about that, seeing how hard they were trying to kill me, but I didn’t know if it was a good tactical move. Could I take them prisoner? I was scared to do that. I know it’s so easy in the movies when they take a prisoner, but in real life all I could see were problems. What if I told them to walk along the road in a certain direction and they just refused? Would I, could I, shoot them?

Damn Lee, where was he? I needed his advice. Someone’s advice, anyone’s advice, but I’d take Lee or Homer above most people, especially in a situation like this.

Then it seemed that they saw Lee, even if I couldn’t. While I was still trying to decide whether to pull the trigger, and if so which one I’d shoot first, they both suddenly tensed. One went a couple of steps to the left, the other to the right. Now they were both out of my sight. But they both fired, in such quick succession that it almost seemed like one shot. There was an answering blast from Lee. He must have had himself fairly well positioned, because he gave them a hot time. He fired again, then a couple more times. He must have reloaded. I could see branches whipping back with the force of shells hitting them. Leaves flew. He forced the men back, I think, because I could hear them well enough now, shouting to each other in their own language. It sounded like they were already twenty metres down the road, nearly at the gate.

I ran around to get a better position. I knew where I could get a view of the fence line. If I could catch them as they went across the cattle grid I’d have them off guard for a couple of moments. It’s difficult to get across those things, especially if you’re trying to concentrate on shooting people at the same time.

By the time I saw them again they were already across it though. That was pretty slick work. They were haring towards a small clump of trees, swerving a bit as they went. Yes, they were professionals all right. Lee came running down the road, panting like he’d just done ten k’s. I came down the fence line taking giant steps to get over logs and rocks and ditches. We met at the gate and without needing to speak raced across the cattle grid. Lee dropped to one knee and lined up a shot, but I could have told him he was wasting his time. When you’ve been running like that and it’s a hot day and you’re in a state of panic, you can’t get your gun steady, you can’t aim properly, sweat gets in your eyes and your hand trembles and the shot goes wide or high or short or whatever. Lee should have known.

It would have been pretty funny if he’d hit one of them after my saying that, but he didn’t. I couldn’t see where the shot went, even though I’d had to pause and wait for him while he took it. I wasn’t going to run on ahead while he amused himself with pot shots from behind me.

‘Come on,’ I said, and he got back to his feet and started out after me.

I realised we were running into a problem. When these guys got into the clump of trees — and nothing we could do was going to stop them — the tables would suddenly be reversed. We were in a big bare part of the paddock. Absolutely no cover. To my left, beyond a dozen very restless and unhappy-looking beasts, was more bush, but it was a long way from us. We would be exposed to withering fire from a couple of professional soldiers who’d be well hidden in good cover. To my right were more cattle and the crest of the hill, my boundary fence with Colin McCann running along the crest of it.

I glanced behind and if I hadn’t been sweating before I did some serious sweating now. Sheez, we’d come a long way. Too far. We were too fast for our own good. The PE department at Wirrawee High School would be proud of us. They could have a ceremony to honour us. Too bad it was going to be posthumous.

‘This way!’ I yelled at Lee. He seemed to be realising the problem at the same time because he was slowing down and looking kind of doubtful. I swung left, ran ten metres at the most, then it was my turn to drop to one knee and raise my rifle. God, my father, Mr Young, forgive me for what I am about to do. As a farmer, this was the worst moment of my career. This was the absolute pits.

It’s impossible to hit a fox when he’s running and you’re out of breath and shaking from the hunt. It’s probably impossible to hit a human being in the same circumstances, although I haven’t had a lot of practice. But it’s all too easy to shoot a couple of steers, especially when they’re standing still and watching you with the gravest suspicion. I got them both through the head and they both dropped pretty much straightaway. The first one fell on his front knees and stayed there for a moment, then slowly rolled over to his left side. The second fell to his side, again to the left. The other cattle bolted.

We sprinted for the nearest dead one. Turned out when we got there that he wasn’t dead, but equally he wasn’t going anywhere. We got there just in time though, as the shooting from the trees started up when we were still a dozen steps away. I don’t think I took those dozen steps, I think I flew them. I seem to remember a long dive that brought me thudding into the heaving side of the dying steer.

God, sometimes you get emotional overload. I lay there feeling (a) terror from being shot at; (b) fury at these guys and a mad desire to kill them; (c)horror at the terrible gasping of the beast who sheltered me, along with; (d) guilt that I’d just shot two beautiful healthy cattle; and (e) thankfulness that I was with Lee, because he and Homer were about the only two people I knew who could help me get out of this alive. If there’d been time I would have had a few feelings about Gavin too, but for this brief period he was completely out of my mind.

‘Barbequed beef for tea tonight,’ Lee said, panting. I immediately added another emotion to my list: hatred of Lee. We were down to (f) now.

‘There won’t be any tea if we’re dead,’ I snarled back.

Half-a-dozen bullets smacked into the great beast and he died without another murmur. The impact of the bullets was frightening. Luckily these cattle were in good condition. A scrawny beast mightn’t have been much protection. Now he was just a carcass though, chopped up as though the world’s roughest butcher had hacked into him with a blunt axe. Chunks of flesh were scattered over a wide area. Lee had blood all down his front and, glancing down, I realised that I was in the same condition. Already a couple of flies were starting to appear.

‘What are we going to do now, genius?’ Lee asked. To be fair to him it wasn’t said in a bad way. He gave me a little crooked smile. I knew deep down that Lee respected the fact that I’d saved his skin a few times. Just as I respected the fact that he’d saved mine.

It was time for the brain to take over. Instinct might help as a back-up, but this was a job for the brain. ‘Why do you think I shot two beasts?’ I asked, but didn’t wait for an answer. The firing had stopped. I wondered if they were running low on ammunition. ‘Cover me,’ I said quickly to Lee and took off for the second of the cattle.

So close and yet so far away. It seemed like I was running and running and not getting anywhere. The breeze was in my face and the mountains seemed near enough to touch and the carcass of the second steer wasn’t getting any closer. I heard Lee’s gun pounding again and again as I ran forever across the paddock. Oh, I didn’t want to do this. The excitement was intense, yes, and I had become addicted to it, yes, and although I loved music and friends and peace, nothing beat the burning agony of mind and body that took me over when my life was on the line, but enough was enough and I wanted to be a human being again. You can’t be a human being in wartime.

A bullet screeched past me, the strange howling sound that resembles nothing else, and then another, even closer. I took another dive, into another dead or dying beast, and cuddled into its warm flanks. If I lived to a ripe old age a lot of animals were going to die, to feed and clothe me, or because I was driving a car, or because I hadn’t protected them from foxes or crows. But not many of them would die so directly at my hands as these two cattle.

I took a quick look at the grove of trees. Again the firing had stopped. I waved to Lee and fired a first shot to give him cover. An answering shot slammed into my steer so hard that the carcass rocked at its impact. But there were no more. I wondered again if they were running out of ammo. I didn’t have much more myself. As Lee left the shelter of the first beast I opened fire though. I had to. No good letting Lee get killed because I was saving ammo for some hypothetical situation later. I aimed at the places where I’d seen the little flashes of fire, not really expecting to hit anyone, but you never know your luck in a big paddock.

Lee arrived unscathed, but panting hard again. ‘What do you reckon?’ he asked between pants.

‘I reckon I haven’t got much ammo left.’

‘Me neither.’

In covering Lee I’d used up another magazine. Now, trying to stop my hands from trembling, I shoved the rest of my bullets in. I didn’t want them piled in there higgledy-piggledy, where they’d jam later.

‘We could aim for the far end of those trees and then do a bit of stalking,’ I said.

Lee licked his lips. ‘I don’t think there’s much point.’ Before I could say anything he added, ‘Looked at from a logical point of view. I mean, we’re trying to get Gavin back. We haven’t hurt them, just given them a fright, so if we quit the fight at this stage they shouldn’t have any hard feelings. They shouldn’t take it out on Gavin.’

‘But then what? We leave them wandering around the place to do what they want? I don’t want to go off to Havelock while these morons are running wherever they like on the property.’

‘We could call the cops in to round them up.’

‘Then we’ve got the same problem, that their mates will hear about it if they’re caught and Gavin could pay the price.’

It was such an urgent conversation and my brain wouldn’t work. I couldn’t think of a solution that would be perfect, and I only wanted perfection.

He said in that cold voice that can turn off sunshine and bring hail: ‘Well then, what we need is to kill them before they contact their base, so their friends never know what’s happened to them.’

It was more or less what we’d agreed back at the house, but somehow it sounded more chilling to hear it out here in the warm paddock, with the two men so close. They were real now, even if we knew nothing about them.

While I searched my mind for the right thing to say Lee suddenly stiffened. It was like a snake had bitten him or he had bull ants climbing his leg.

‘There they go,’ he said.

Sure enough the two men were haring across the paddock, going up the slight rise, heading for the boundary fence. I hadn’t expected that. They were probably low on ammo, but besides that, they might have been a bit spooked by having us chase them across the paddock. They could see that we were in a good position to attack them in their trees, and I suppose the relentlessness of our pursuit could be getting discombobulating. For all they knew we could have unlimited ammunition.

Without a word between us we did chase them. One thing that definitely happens in war situations is that you forget about the value of your life. I knew that feeling well by now. At those times someone in your head switches the brain right off. Yep, they walk up to that switch, the big one with the red warning sign saying Danger: do not touch, and they ignore the words and just pull the switch up and cut all the circuits. I charged across that field like I didn’t care whether I lived or died. And it wasn’t an illusion. I didn’t care. All sensible thoughts were gone, all memories were wiped clean, the future didn’t exist. At those times you can accept the possibility of your own death. When I see people who are grief-stricken because someone they know has died suddenly, I want to say this to them: ‘It’s not so bad for the people who die. When they see it coming and they’ve had no warning, they accept it. In the few moments that they have, they accept it. They give up everything, their obligations, their hopes, their fears, they give them all up without a fight. They tense their body and they take the blow and they don’t have room or time for anything else. They know it has to be and so all the fear leaves them. Believe me, I’ve seen enough people die. Believe me, I’ve been close to death enough times now. This is the way it is.’

The problem isn’t for them, it’s for the people left behind. They have time to think about it all. And they have imagination. I don’t think it’s always a good idea to have both time and imagination. Cos what you do then of course is go over and over what happened, reliving it a hundred or a thousand times, in slow motion, adding a soundtrack and an emotions track. The dead people can’t do that. They got it over and done with in a couple of seconds. You’re stuck with it for fifty years. Or more.

When I write all this down, it makes perfect sense. I just wish I could follow my own advice, especially when it comes to my parents and what happened to them. It’s easier with Robyn because I saw her face as it happened so I don’t have to rely on guesswork so much with her. I saw that acceptance in the second or two before she ceased to be.

So, there I was, sprinting across the paddock like a maniac, in the zone if you want to call it that, chasing two armed men who were just approaching the ridge and the fence line. To my left was Lee, who did his ‘drop to the knee and take a shot’ routine again, with no better result than the first time. I thought we might have a chance as they came up to the fence, no matter how good they were, as it was going to take them quite a few seconds to get through. I planned to take a couple of shots myself at that stage. But they were too professional for me. As they approached the summit one of them turned and raised his rifle, while the other started the struggle to get through the barbed wire. I dropped fast. I could see Lee doing the same. I flattened myself in the grass, shuffling to the right to get behind a little rise. The guy fired one shot but then nothing. I waited a few seconds more then lifted my head. The second soldier was getting through the fence while the first one covered him. They were pretty quick. Lee fired again, then he was on his feet and running forwards once more. He hadn’t hit anyone. But the way Lee ran straight up the hill, he must have been pretty sure that this guy at least didn’t have any ammo. I didn’t want to be outdone, so I got up too. I did the zigzags. The man put his rifle right to his shoulder as if he was going to fire, so we both dropped again. He didn’t shoot though. Lee might have been right. Now that I had a better shot at the two of them I lined up the one on the left and squeezed the trigger. At the very last moment, before I fired, he pulled away and disappeared. I was up again straightaway. The two of us ran the slope hard.

As we approached the fence they were a hundred metres in front of us. But at the same time I could see something lumbering into view from the right. What the hell? For a moment I actually thought it was a large vehicle. The police were here already? Had someone heard the shots and called them? I felt like an idiot when I realised what it was. Colin McCann had put his bull in this paddock. I hadn’t seen the bull for a couple of months. He was a magnificent creature, one of the best in the district. A horned Hereford, and you don’t get those so often these days, dark red, the size of a delivery van, with hindquarters that shouted power, and a proud head. Col never dehorned his bulls. He was a purist, I guess, and liked the natural look. Besides, it was a bloody business, cutting horns off, and the bulls hated it.

Everyone has their own opinion about horns, but my favourite approach was Tammie Murdoch’s, who put tennis balls on her goats’ horns, held with metres of duct tape. It made the goats look pretty funny, like aliens. Goats have a perpetually bewildered expression anyway, which kind of matched the tennis balls.

These days most bulls are reasonably placid, because they’ve been bred that way. Nearly every farmer I know sends aggressive bulls to the abattoir. In fact, even a bull that’s been well behaved for years gets turned into hamburger if he makes a move in the wrong direction. Either that or castrated, if he’s young enough to grow into a good steer. Then he might end up as steaks or sausages instead of hamburgers. This is a much better outcome for the animal, and fills him with pride and joy.

Anyway, the thing is, aggressive bulls are just not worth the risk. They are such massive creatures, killing machines on land that are as efficient as sharks or hippos or crocodiles in water. They weigh tonnes, they’re fast, and although they can’t turn on a five cent piece, they can turn on a five dollar note. And the thing is, you can never trust them. It’s the same with stallions. No matter how long you’ve known them, no matter how pleasant and polite they’ve been, they can go for you. Sometimes the reason is obvious, for example if you take a cow in heat out of the mob, then you can’t expect the bull to like you very much. But sometimes you can’t figure it, although a bull that’s been raised by hand is usually more dangerous, and on the other hand a bull that hasn’t had a lot of human contact is a risk. Horned bulls are more likely to be aggressive than poll bulls. And when they’re out in the paddock, bulls have a flight zone around them, and the size of it varies from beast to beast.

Col’s bull was likely to have a big flight zone, because he was in a big paddock, because he’d been bucket reared, because he didn’t see people much any more. If you get in an animal’s flight zone, the idea is that they’ll turn and run. But it doesn’t always work that way. It does with rabbits and pigeons and usually with snakes. But if they have an aggressive personality, or you’ve caught them on a bad day, or they’ve been out drinking half the night, and you’re in their flight zone, you might be the one who needs to turn and run. And if they’re big, or they’ve got mouthfuls of venom, and what’s worse you’re coming at them in a way that has them feeling threatened, then you might think about checking your life insurance.

The two soldiers probably didn’t know much of that stuff, but they had an extra problem, which was that they hadn’t seen the bull. They were too busy looking back at us. The bull was on their right. I’d guess his flight zone would be around a hundred metres. The soldiers were within thirty metres. This was bad news for them. Even worse news was that the bull showed every sign of being majorly pissed off. He had the head down, was shaking it, was scratching the ground: his whole body was agitated. This was a bull contemplating doing some serious damage. As we approached the fence Lee looked like he was ready to take another shot, but I called to him, fairly softly, ‘Don’t fire, don’t fire.’

He looked perplexed. Amazingly, it seemed like he hadn’t seen the bull either. This two tonne monster had become invisible. I pointed and his eyes widened. We were just reaching the top of the ridge, and looking for a place to cross, but we both stopped. To make matters even worse for himself, one of the soldiers, still looking back at us and trying to get away from the most open part of the paddock, was veering further to the right. The way he was going, the bull would only have to open his mouth and this guy would pop himself in.

At that moment the man on the left saw the problem. He shouted to his friend, who propped and turned around. I couldn’t see his expression, but I’m guessing flabbergasted and panic-stricken would have been among the adjectives jockeying for selection.

What happened next played itself out like a terrible drama with two spectators. Lee and I stayed on our side of the fence, like an audience. Of course if the bull had wanted to smash through the fence he could have done so any time, but luckily nearly all cattle live and die without learning that. It’s like school, most students go from kindergarten to Year 12 without noticing that they could do a fair amount of damage if they wanted to. They stay inside the fence.

Occasionally you get a bull who can’t be contained by fences, and he’ll often get a one-way ticket to the killing floor as his reward. When I was a toddler we had a bull who even learned to get his head under the bottom wire of the fence and rip a string of droppers out of the ground, then lie the fence flat and walk across it, tiptoeing delicately so he didn’t get his hoofs hurt by the nasty barbed wire. I don’t know exactly what happened to him, but I can guess.

The man on the right started running. This was the worst thing he could do. Never turn your back on a bull. His best hope, his only hope, would have been to use his rifle in the same way that I use a cricket bat when I’m dealing with some bulls, to wave around and make myself look bigger and more threatening. Instead of which, this guy dropped his rifle. It seemed like they were both out of ammunition, because his friend didn’t try to shoot, which was good news for the bull.

Lee and I both still had our rifles, and we both still had ammunition. We looked at each other, and without speaking a word we came to the same decision. We turned back to look at the stage, to watch the tragedy.

We did even worse than that. The guy was running almost straight towards us. There was no other fence line near, and no cover, so I suppose he had forgotten about us, or thought we were less of a risk than the bull. Maybe he thought we were nicer than we actually are. They say nice guys finish last. I’d learned during the war that nice guys get killed. So I raised my rifle and pointed it at him, so that even in his terror he would know he was about to be shot.

I wasn’t going to shoot at him, but that’s not because I’m a nice girl. It’s because I was worried that a shot would scare off the bull. That’s how nice I am.

He raised his arms, as if in surrender, or perhaps to plead for his life, and he veered away, to the left, as if circling to get back to his friend. His friend was rooted to the spot. While they were performing their dance, the bull had not stayed still. Almost as soon as the guy started running, the big beast had come after him. Even with a twenty metre start, and even though his semicircle gained him a bit of ground, the man had no chance. This was rage on four legs. This was a huge red tank with the eyes of a pig and a tail sticking out like a rudder. This was murder on the most primitive level. The bull ran him down from behind. Just at the end the man put on a sprint, and again threw up his arms as the animal reached him. There was a flurry of dust and the guy went down. Either I was still pretty deaf, or else he made no sound, because I didn’t hear anything, only a few whoofs from the bull as he made that big body move like a runaway cattle train.

A couple of tonnes of beef thundered over the man’s legs and back and head, and he lay there unmoving with the dust settling around him again. But the bull hadn’t finished yet. Not just one human had invaded his territory. A second trespasser was over there, no doubt looking to take his cows off him, planning to pick up a couple of hot chicks. No way was this bull going to stand by and watch as the best-looking cows in the paddock disappeared down the road to have coffee with a stranger.

Quivering with rage, shaking all over, his little eyes pink, a heat shimmer rising from his back, he eyed the other man. With his right hoof he scraped the ground. It was almost like those little friction cars that you run repeatedly on the carpet before you let them go. He was gaining energy, building up momentum, ready for his next high-speed charge.

Cattle look in the direction they are about to go and this beast was staring at the man so hard that even someone who’d never seen a bull couldn’t help but get the message. The soldier — I don’t know why I call them soldiers, it’s an insult to the genuine ones, like General Finley — had been backing away and now he too turned and ran. He headed for the fence at a different angle, one that would bring him out forty metres to our left. Lee and I both had our weapons ready.

This time we had to use them. When the guy was a dozen steps from the strainer post Lee fired. I don’t know how close he got, but he missed. It wasn’t until afterwards that I realised he’d missed deliberately. The man reacted by swerving away from the fence, putting his head down and sprinting for a tree in the distance. The rumbling of the hoofs behind him must have sounded loud in his head, even if he was half deafened.

How slow the human body seems sometimes. Even if he’d strained every ligament, dislocated every bone, stretched every muscle, he couldn’t have gone any faster. The man got all of a quarter of the way to the tree before he was run down from behind. The giant head tossed and a pair of horns caught him and flung him forwards like he’d been zapped by a million volts. Now he was not a person any more, even though he was still alive. He seemed like a thing, an object, with no mind or heart, and certainly no control over his head or arms or legs. The body hit the ground and the bull was immediately at it again, using his horns as the deadly weapons they were, punching with them, goring the thing, throwing it around, ignoring the blood that started to soak the thing’s clothing and splattered onto the bull’s face and forelegs. I saw the arms and legs flail and I heard one sobbing scream that was all too human, and then I turned away.


Lee, my God he can be cool sometimes. I mean cool as in cold. While it was all happening in front of us, and my mind had stopped working because my senses were getting so much input that everything inside me had to be dedicated to processing it, Lee had been thinking, thinking, thinking.

When it seemed to be over, and the two bodies lay still and broken on the ground, and the bull was still huffing and puffing and snorting and stomping around, Lee turned to me and said, ‘This could work out pretty well.’

I stared at him in disbelief. ‘Don’t you feel anything?’

‘That comes later. And stop doing that “you’re a cold killing machine” routine on me. I’m sick of it.’

‘OK,’ I said meekly. The truth was that I also knew, even while it was happening, that the bull was acting in our best interests. It was just that Lee had taken it further, as he was about to show me.

‘Here’s what we’ve got to do,’ he said. ‘Three things.

Number one, check their bodies and make sure they’ve got no mobile phones or anything else. That way we can be sure they haven’t told their friends that we were chasing them. Number two, take away their rifles. Number three, pick up any empty shells around the place.’

‘Why do we need to pick up the shells?’ I asked slowly.

‘Look,’ he said, ‘in a way we’ve just committed the perfect murders. What happens when the bloke who owns this bull comes to check the paddock? He finds two dead guys, who have obviously been killed by his animal. He’s horrified. He calls the cops. They come out here. They search around and they probably find their campsite, and they realise that they’re members of the gang who kidnapped Gavin, and they’ve been spying on your property. They contact you and say, “We’ve just found two men killed by a wild bull.” And that’s the first you know about it. It’ll never occur to them that we more or less forced the guys into the paddock, or to put it another way, they forced themselves in there. It’ll look like they just went for a nice stroll through the bush and in their ignorance somehow provoked the bull. There’ll be no evidence to suggest anything else. No-one’ll know they’ve just been in a gun battle.’

‘I suppose so.’

‘The only danger is that if they’re found in the next couple of hours, they’ll smell of gunpowder or whatever. But to be brutal about it, once they start rotting, and once the foxes and crows and all the rest of them move in for afternoon tea, that evidence will disappear pretty quickly.’

‘What about the two steers I killed?’ I asked.

‘Yeah, bit of a problem. But they’re out of sight of the bull’s paddock. And again time and foxes’ll help.’

‘Also, they might think the soldiers shot them for food. They’re not going to do major post-mortems on a couple of rotting cattle. The cops are too busy these days.’


I had to admit, it did sound good. And if anyone ever got what they deserved, it was these two. ‘We’d better do your three steps in reverse order,’ I said. ‘Let’s look for shells first. I don’t want to go into that paddock until the bull’s had a good long rest.’

‘I was hoping you’d say that,’ he said. ‘Actually, no, I was hoping you’d volunteer to go in there. But if you’re going to be a wimp about it, we may as well give him five minutes to settle.’

The one thing Lee didn’t have to do was spell out the reasons for covering up our involvement in the deaths of these two men. The way the world worked nowadays, if anyone found out that he and I had been exchanging shots with these guys and they’d been killed as a result of it, we’d be chucked in jail for twelve months while they interrogated us and collected evidence. We wouldn’t be going anywhere. And I’m not exaggerating much. Without knowing a lot about the law, I doubted if we’d be actually locked up, but it was possible, and we’d certainly be spending an awful lot of time talking to lawyers and the police.

We spread out and started looking for empty bullet shells and shotgun cartridges. Some were easy to find. And others we got by diligent searching. Some we found by fluke, others I’m sure we never found. But we figured that if we couldn’t find them, no-one else would either.

What we did find was the campsite. They’d made a clever little shelter, like a cubby, out of sticks and bark and the branches of a low-growing tree, and they’d camouflaged it with more bark and some dead grass. We peered inside. We didn’t want to disturb it in case the cops found it later. But we did see a mobile phone on top of one of the packs. ‘Be funny if it rang,’ Lee said.

Then it was back to the paddock. I was nervous for a couple of reasons, one being that Colin McCann might have come to check on his bull by now. He was a nice guy, but a bit lazy, so he probably only went to the paddock every few days, and even then he might not get up to this boundary. But if we were unlucky, he would be standing there with his own mobile phone, and we would hear the whirring of the police helicopter in the distance.

The other reason I was worried isn’t hard to guess. I didn’t know how long the bull would take to calm down after killing two men, but I figured it could be quite a while. I knew Lee was as nervous as I was, because we kept making jokes to each other as we went back up the slope.

Well, it could have been better and it could have been worse. The bull had moved, but only about a hundred metres. A couple of kilometres would have been more to my liking. He was tearing at the grass, and looking pretty foul tempered. It occurred to me that we had not only caused the deaths of the two men, we had sentenced the bull to death as well. No farmer in the world would keep a bull that had killed people. Not for the first time I had to harden my heart and think ‘One more victim of war’. War discriminates a bit more than a tsunami does, but not by much.

We crept into the paddock, trying to keep a couple of trees between us and the bull. We had our firearms, just in case, but it would have been very complicated if we’d had to shoot the bull. They would have found him with a bullet wound from a gun that didn’t belong to either of the soldiers. Lee started dreaming up some idea about shooting the bull, wiping the weapon clean of our fingerprints, putting the rifle in the hands of one of the dead soldiers and stamping his fingers all over it. I just looked at him. He really was shooting the bull. He must have been watching too many bad American cop shows. No way was I going to let life get that complicated.

It had occurred to me a few times that the guys might not have been dead, but it was a thought I didn’t want to contemplate. My brain said they were dead and my instincts said they were dead. I think I was just trying to scare myself. Anyway, they were dead. One of them had blood from his ears and mouth but no other injuries that I could see. The other had guts hanging out of his stomach where he’d been trampled. It was pretty foul. We took the rifles but we didn’t touch anything else. The magazines were empty, so we were right about their running out of ammunition.

And then back home. We had accomplished nothing. Unless you call the deaths of two people something. Oh yes, I had a grim feeling of revenge, which fitted in nicely with my anger at the people who had committed the kidnapping. I had fantasies about hunting all of them down and killing them one by one, even if it took years. I would be the Avenging Angel. There are horrific crimes and bad crimes and minor crimes, and then there’s overdue library books. Kidnapping Gavin was a terrible thing to do. It could never be justified, never, never, never. So I didn’t shed too many tears over the bodies in the paddock. But at the same time it didn’t get us anywhere. I had been distracted by Lee’s sudden awareness that there must be people spying on the house, and in the excitement of that neither of us had stopped to think that it actually didn’t matter much.

However, Lee did have one bright idea. He said, ‘Is it okay if I ring Liberation? If there’s one thing they’re really good at, it’s gathering intelligence, and if they have a look at those blokes they might be able to work out where they came from.’

I was a bit concerned. ‘I don’t want them hanging a double murder on me. It wouldn’t look good on my school record.’

‘Don’t worry. They take their own view of the law. Nothing we did today will faze them.’

‘Bloodthirsty lot. It’s very convenient though, isn’t it? To decide that you just don’t agree with the law so you’ll follow your own path.’

He gazed at me in that special Lee way.

‘OK, figure this one then. Talking on your mobile phone while you drive is really dangerous, isn’t it? Irresponsible, reckless, and definitely against the law?’

‘Yes, that’s right.’ I said that to humour him, because I was obviously being set up, but I still agreed about the phones anyway.

‘But it’s legal in New Zealand.’

‘Oh.’ I sat there and thought about this. ‘OK. I see what you mean.’

‘In one country you’re an irresponsible, dangerous law-breaker and in the other you’re a respectable lawabiding citizen. I’ll give you another example. Those flashing lights and stuff they put in for all the schools a few years back, so if you’re zooming along at a hundred you have to slow to forty when the kiddies are leaving to go home.’

‘Or arriving at school, yes, that’s right.’

‘One day it was OK to do a hundred and the very next day you’re a law-breaking lunatic. Yet nothing’s changed. You’re the same person driving in the same way as you were the day before. The only thing that’s changed is the law. Suddenly you’re a criminal.’

‘Some things are always wrong though. Murder, rape, the heavy stuff.’

‘In some societies that was part of the social fabric. Or religious fabric, or both. I’ve been reading about the early days of Bora Bora, where if they had a meeting to pay respects to their God, they killed people left, right and centre. They bred slaves especially so they could be human sacrifices. That wasn’t murder, not to them.’

‘But to us…’

‘That’s my point. I don’t think there are any laws that aren’t artificial. They’re just what the society decides they want or don’t want at that particular time. And once they’ve decided what they want, one of the ways to make it all work is to heap abuse on anyone who “breaks the law”, as they call it.’

‘But our laws are based on a principle… a philosophy.’

‘Which is?’

‘I don’t know. Something about respecting each person’s rights. Everybody has a right to live the life they want without interference from others. That sort of stuff.’

‘Oh yeah? Tell that to the refugees who came to Australia before the war. They were here legally but the government wouldn’t follow its own laws. Just locked them up and threw away the keys. Hey, check this out. Not long ago there was this thirteen-year-old kid in New South Wales. His mother was a prostitute and a heroin addict and she abused the kid. He got put in foster care when he was two or some young age like that, then later he got kicked out of multiple schools, then they diagnosed him as having a chromosomal abnormality and being intellectually impaired. Then, when he’s thirteen, he kills a little girl. Really brutally. Horrible stuff. So what does the judge do? Hits the boy with twenty years in prison.’

‘And your point is?’

‘What’s he being punished for? Being a murderer or being an abused child?’

I was silent. Sometimes Lee was way ahead of me. ‘So what should they have done with him?’ I asked finally.

He shrugged. ‘I dunno. Not send him to prison for twenty years though.’

‘If he’d killed Pang you might feel differently.’

‘Yeah, I might. And then you have to decide whether the relatives of victims are the best people to make those calls. I don’t think they are. Chances are they’ll be too blinded by grief and love and rage to see the whole picture.’

‘But as Gavin’s relatives, if that’s what you’d call us, we just went out and executed a couple of guys for what they’ve done to him.’

‘That’s true. And there’s not much I can say about it except that we didn’t make any definite plans to kill them. But yeah, you’re right, we could have stopped it and we didn’t. When the bull was trampling them to death I didn’t actually think about Gavin, I thought about my parents.’

And on that sobering note he went off to ring the Scarlet Pimple or someone else in Liberation. It left me to do the thing I’m worst at, and that was to wait. Once again my life was in other people’s hands and I didn’t like it one bit. I had to wait for the ID documents that I would use on the other side of the border, I had to wait for more information to come from Liberation, I had to wait for transport to get me to Havelock.

I waited also for another phone call from the kidnappers but there was nothing. No news didn’t mean good news for me, it meant no news. It was impossible to know what to read into their silence. It could mean that Gavin was dead, it could mean that their phone had been cut off because they hadn’t paid their bills, it could be that they were confused by the sudden silence of their spies. Most of my friends voted for the last one.

Jeremy sat at the end of my kitchen table and I sat at the corner beside him, sipping on a homemade lemon squash. He said that if Gavin was dead they wouldn’t tell me anyway. ‘Why would they tell you? He’s their bargaining chip. They have to convince you he’s still alive or they won’t get what they want.’

‘Thanks, that’s very comforting.’

He was actually there to coach me in my homework, which was to learn my new identity. I was now Paula McClure, daughter of Mr Jerry McClure and Dr Suzanne Spring. There was a real Paula McClure. She was currently at boarding school in Maryland, in the USA, and her parents were in Havelock as part of a media liaison programme. Don’t ask me what that means. But it took my breath away when I found out that the real Paula’s parents would have no idea that I was in the same city as them, let alone that I was posing as their daughter. For that matter the real Paula would have no idea, but seeing it was a long way to Baltimore it wasn’t so likely that she’d be troubled by having a stunt double in Havelock. Still, it troubled me. If someone impersonated me I’d blow about ten fuses. And what if I ran into someone who knew the real Paula? What if I ran into Mr Jerry McClure and Dr Suzanne Spring? What would I say to them? ‘Oh hi, guys, I’ve been meaning to look you up for ages, I’m your daughter, you know, Paula. So how have you been?’

Jeremy told me to put all those issues out of my head. He was quite… a word I like… curt about it. Curt. I knew a guy called Kurt once, who was anything but curt. And Jeremy was normally so uncurt. But now he was all business. ‘Keep away from those moral dilemmas, Ellie. They’re a waste of energy. You’ve got plenty else to worry about before you worry about that. Now, when’s your birthday?’

‘December 5,’ I replied promptly.

‘Not yours, stupid. Paula’s — the new you. When’s your birthday?’

‘Oh shoot, I knew this… October?’

‘Yeah, October 31.’

‘Oh that’s Halloween. That’s easy to remember. Hope it’s not symbolic of anything.’

‘Parents’ names?’

‘Jerry McClure and Dr Suzanne Spring. Dunnno what she’s a doctor of, though.’

‘Yeah, I can’t believe they left that out of the information. I don’t think it’s medicine or they would have said.’

‘Yeah, or she’d be working as a doctor.’

‘OK, now what’s your mother’s maiden name?’

‘Oh, something funny. I mean complicated. Tennyson-Barnes?’

‘Barnes-Tennyson. What’s your unit number?’

‘One twenty-seven. Block D, UN Staff Residence.’

‘Parents’ place of business?’

‘You mean where do they go to work?’

‘Of course that’s what I mean. Come on, Ellie, wake up.’

‘I am awake. It’s just that you’re so grumpy.’ I moved sideways so that my head was near his shoulder, and then snuggled into him. I needed some warmth. The separation from Gavin had been too long. ‘Come on, tell me, where do my mummy and daddy work?’

‘Have a guess.’

‘The Department of the Inferior?’

‘Very funny. Except it won’t be if you give that answer once you’re over there. Now what’s the telephone number for this Department of the Interior?’

‘444 something. 1725?’

‘Good. What’s your home number?’

‘I just want to get to Havelock as fast as I can and do something. I feel so helpless. During the war we made things happen. We didn’t have to sit around like this waiting for other people to organise stuff for us.’

‘You’re going to have to live with it, I’m afraid. Sounds like it’ll be at least twenty-four hours before they can organise to get you there. That gives you twenty-four hours to know this stuff so thoroughly that you don’t even have to think when someone asks you the questions. Now, what’s your phone number?’

‘Oh God, I can never remember numbers. It starts with 455 I think. I can’t remember the other four. They must have shorter numbers than ours.’

‘1215. The year of the Magna Carta.’

‘Magna what what what?’

‘I knew you’d say that. Do you have any siblings?’

‘Yes, a twenty-four-year-old sister named Laura. But she’s overseas too, doing a postgraduate degree in law at Princeton. She’s a real pain. She always wants the remote control, and she’s so fussy about food and she tries to boss me around when Mum and Dad are out.’

‘Where’d you get all that from?’

‘I just made it up.’

‘OK, but you can’t say “too”.’


‘You said, “She’s overseas too.” You can’t say that. You’re not overseas. You’re in Havelock.’

‘Oh yeah, so I am. Or at least I wish I was. God, you’ve got so much lint in your belly button.’

‘Do you drive your teachers completely and utterly crazy?’

‘Most of the time.’

‘Do you pull up their T-shirts and molest their belly buttons?’

‘Oh yuck, what a gross thought. You’re disgusting. Ask me another question.’

‘No, you don’t know it well enough. Go away and study for a couple more hours and then I’ll test you again. I’m going to Homer’s to use a safe phone. I’ve gotta make some calls.’

‘Oh yes? Anyone I should be jealous of?’

‘No. It’s to try to get you to Havelock faster. Come on, learn that stuff. There won’t be any fifty-fifty or dial a friend if a soldier stops you on the streets of Havelock and starts asking questions about your identity.’

Off he went.

He seemed so detached. He wasn’t acting like a boyfriend. Although he’d just made a joke, it did cross my mind that he didn’t have much sense of humour. On the other hand he was right to insist that this stuff was serious and I had to know it inside out and backwards. Of course I’d already figured that out for myself, but it was so hard to concentrate. It was interesting that he said he would try to get me to Havelock faster. It made me wonder again if he was the Scarlet Pimple.


Stepping out onto the streets of Havelock was not the scariest thing I’d ever done, but it made it through the home and away series and into the finals. It wasn’t the weirdest thing I’d ever done either, but it was definitely a contender for the flag. The only other country I’d been in was New Zealand, and sure, it’s another country, but everything there looks so similar. The people certainly do, and they speak more or less the same language, even if they have trouble with a few vowels and the boys have their teeth soldered together.

Going to Havelock was going to the City of Weird for a few reasons, one being that I was in another country, even though I still thought of it as my country, and even though the landscape was the same. The cityscape was changing, had changed quite a lot, but the landscape was still those smoky blue mountains and green-grey gum leaves and strong hot sky that was the background to my life.

At least I’d had that experience a few times now, from crossing the border, so I was getting more used to it.

The cityscape did come as a shock. I’d never been to Havelock before, so I’m making assumptions, but I don’t think any of our cities or towns had looked like this before the war. Of course the capital cities had their ethnic areas, where you could almost pretend you were in another country, and I loved going there, enjoying the food and the shops and the energy. But when a whole city is different, when you know that block after block, suburb after suburb, will be like this, then you’re in a different headspace. You know that you’re the alien, you’re the outsider, you’re the ethnic. You’re locked into a lot of things in life, but with most of them, like your personality and your feelings and your coolness or lack of coolness, you kid yourself that you can change them at any moment. Even your weight. But you can’t kid yourself about your skin colour or the way your eyes and nose and mouth are shaped and arranged. You’re locked into your body for life. There was some white journalist in America, back in the fifties or whenever, who took chemicals to make his skin go black for a while, and then wrote a book about being a dark-skinned person in a white society. It sold squillions but someone told me the guy died young from the toxic effects of the chemicals. It did strike me as interesting that white people had to have a white guy explain to them what it was like to be black. They couldn’t hear it from a black person.

When I was in Year 9 I got the gig to go to Stratton and sit on a stage with half-a-dozen students from other schools at a conference for school librarians. We were like a panel, and the audience could ask us questions about what we liked in school libraries and what we didn’t like, and what made us go into the library and what drove us away, and our opinions about reading, all that sort of stuff. Well, it went like a bushfire. In fact the session ran twenty minutes overtime and most of the teachers missed their afternoon tea. But all the time, while I was on the stage taking my turn at answering questions, I couldn’t help thinking, ‘Why don’t they ask the kids at their own schools? They could have got the answers to these questions a million years ago. How come they have to put us on a stage before they take us seriously or listen to us?’

People get locked into roles and attitudes. On a normal day at school we are just the sheep, teenagers who get herded around in flocks. But once they put us on that stage we became experts. We were authorities on teenagers and reading. People listened. They wrote down what we said. They applauded as we left.

You’re assigned roles all the time. Baby, girl, rural, child, daughter of the Lintons, teenager, war hero, person who looks after Gavin. White. Or black. Or Asian or Hispanic or Polynesian. When it comes to being assigned roles in life, skin colour’s a biggie. And for me, I was officially white. It’s not even an accurate name, just like black isn’t accurate when you think about it. I mean there are major colour differences between Australian Aborigines and Sudanese and African-Americans and West Indians. Me, on the tanned bits, which are my face, and my arms, because I wear short-sleeved shirts most of the time, I’m a sort of brown-pink, and on the rest, a very light rose pink which does become almost white when you look at it. But then all the veins give a blue-grey background and there’s such a network of them that they make quite a difference too.

I read this book called Hawaii by James Michener. It’s a really seriously very very very long book. More than eleven hundred pages. Now that’s long. Obviously I liked it or I wouldn’t have bothered. Anyway, towards the end he wrote about this idea called ‘The Golden Man’. He wrote this ages ago, so I thought he was being quite prophetic. Hawaii was like a melting pot, and he said a new type of human was emerging there, who was not golden in terms of skin colour, by blending black and white and Asian and Polynesian and whatever else. He said it was entirely to do with the mind, the way you think, so you can be a golden man, or a golden woman, or a golden kid for that matter, even though you’re racially Portuguese or Chinese or Caucasian or Hawaiian. Michener said that the secret is that these people understood the flow of movements around them. They were open to the world, I suppose. And that gave them the ability to be aware of the future, but most importantly it gave them the ability to stand at the place where all the rivers meet. It wasn’t James Michener’s idea really, it came from some university professors after World War II, not that it matters.

So my ambition in life is to be a golden woman. And looking around my friends, I can see that some of them, in fact most of them, are heading that way already. Maybe that’s why they are my friends. I mean who wouldn’t be attracted to people like Bronte and Jeremy and Lee and Fi? Not that Jeremy or Lee are in the running to become golden women. Golden men, definitely. Homer? Yes, and I’m not just saying that because he might read this one day. Even though he’s so sexist and blunt and anti-greenie and all the rest of it, he is very aware of the world. And deep down he’s not prejudiced or anti-conservation. He knows those things are right, it’s just that he would prefer it if they weren’t. They don’t suit his personal convenience. He would love a world where he was serviced by beautiful slave girls all day long, who fed him and massaged him and pampered him — actually, I wouldn’t mind a world like that myself, with slave boys preferably — but he knows it ain’t possible. Homer would love to flatten all the paddocks on their place and just sit on the tractor and go up and down without having to do fancy manoeuvres around clumps of trees. He’d love to leave the TV on all day and take twenty minute showers and drive a Porsche. But he’s smart enough to know that it’d be plain wrong if he did live like that. Occasionally people — new teachers for example — made the mistake of thinking he was just another redneck and they treated him accordingly. He always played right up to it as soon as they started patronising him. Sometimes it took them a long time to realise, and they were always so shocked and off balance when they did.

Anyway, there I was, in the great metropolis of Havelock, feeling shocked and off balance myself, that for the first time in my life I looked completely out of place. Nothing I could do, short of taking chemicals or getting extreme plastic surgery, would make my skin and facial features the same as everybody else’s. My appearance didn’t matter when we were doing raids across the border, because that was hit-and-run stuff, trying to damage them then get out as fast as possible. But now I was part of their society, trying to fit in, and that made all the difference.

The funny thing was that when I looked in the mirror I seemed an alien to myself. I’d had the makeover. Not like in the magazines, to make me into a glamorous supermodel. They would have needed a lot more time to do that. Like, years. But Bronte had suggested I change my appearance as much as I could, to reduce the chances of being recognised. I had to do it quickly so they could take photos of me with my ‘new’ face, to go in the identity papers.

Liberation had done something else as well as Paulaise me. Before I left, Jeremy had pulled a wad of money out of his computer bag and chucked it on the kitchen table. It was like we were doing a drug deal or in a gangster movie or something.

‘What’s this?’ I picked it up. Unlike our currency it was all the same colour. Someone had neatly sorted it into piles of ten notes, with the tenth one folded around the others. There were ten piles. ‘Is this worth anything or is it just Monopoly money?’

‘It’s about two thousand bucks in our money. It’s very popular over there.’

‘Wow. Can I get some DVDs?’

‘I think that if you don’t spend it, they’d like it back. It’s for bribes, basically. And anything else you might need money for.’

I looked at it more closely and realised it was American. Ten dollar bills. ‘Jeremy, are all Liberation groups seriously well organised? Or is it just the one that you guys belong to? Cos they seem to think of everything. And the way they can just cough up a thousand bucks American…’

‘Put it down to leadership,’ Jeremy said.

‘The Scarlet Pimple?’

‘You got it.’ Jeremy’s eyes were suddenly alight. ‘You’ve got no idea, Ellie. The Scarlet Pimple’s amazing. Talk about smart. And like you say, organised. We’re the best Liberation group for hundreds of miles. Everyone knows it, even the Army. But it’s all because of one person.’

I was suddenly jealous of the guy who could inspire that kind of admiration in Jeremy. Jeremy wasn’t easy to impress. And it seemed like either he wasn’t the Scarlet Pimple or else he had a very big head. Enormous.

‘Maybe I should join after this is over,’ I said. ‘I would like to work with someone like that.’

‘Well, you know they’d have you in a moment,’ Jeremy said. ‘You’d be the star signing. The hot new recruit.’

Lee had rushed back to Stratton because Pang had suspected appendicitis, but Bronte turned up a few minutes later. Seemed like she was always there to see me off. Good old Bronte. She was no action-woman but she was calm and reliable. I wondered how she’d handle real pressure. Jess and Jeremy had both come through OK in their first raids over the border, so she probably would too, especially as she was mentally stronger than Jess, I thought. But I couldn’t picture Bronte doing stuff like that. It wasn’t her scene. She was like the CWA ladies who make tea and sandwiches at bushfires, the steady workers who make the foundations strong.

She was going to camp at my place in case there were more phone calls from the kidnappers. It was the kind of thing Bronte was made for. I couldn’t think of anyone I’d rather leave at home to do a job like that.

I’d taken about six hours to get to Havelock. Liberation were confident that I could get away with being on the city streets, but they were equally confident that I’d have no hope if I were seen anywhere else. So they had to get me there without anyone spotting me. Even the first part wasn’t as easy as it used to be. I rode with Homer to the border, but now there was a big wire fence across it, and signs saying No Access in English and more signs in the distance, not in English but somehow they still managed to say No Access.

Despite their famous efficiency Liberation hadn’t given us any warning about a fence. We looked at each other. ‘Now what?’ I asked.

‘I’ve got pliers. I guess we can cut through.’

‘What if it’s wired up to ten thousand volts?’

‘I was just thinking the same thing.’

He pulled out his Leatherman and unfolded the pliers and passed it to me. ‘There you go.’

‘No, no, really, I’m only a girl. This needs a big strong man.’

‘I might wreck my nails. I think you should do it.’

‘Rock paper scissors?’


We both went rock, then I went scissors and he went rock again. Damn. I took the Leatherman and went over to the fence. While I got some leverage on the pliers he did the stalk of grass thing, testing for an electric current. The grass didn’t cry, didn’t scream. It made sense. If it was alive, I would have expected warning signs. What did worry me was that it might be hooked up to some electronic gadget that would warn the authorities we were trying to break through.

Cutting was hard work, because they weren’t proper pliers of course, and I soon had red, sore hands from the pressure I had to apply. Homer took over after a while. Between us we made a hole big enough for the bike. Lucky we’d brought the two-wheeler, not the fourwheeler, or we’d still be there.

We got through and went on our way, much more cautious now. If they’d built a fence, what else might they have done? But we got to the rendezvous OK, about half an hour early in fact. A windmill was the landmark. It was a hundred metres down from an intersection, under the shade of a clump of wattles. ‘You’d better go back as fast as you can,’ I said to Homer. ‘In case anyone’s on their way to check the fence.’

‘Yeah, righto,’ he said. ‘I was just thinking the same thing. Good luck then. Hooroo.’ He started the bike and got on, put it in gear, turned it around, and started off with a quick wave. I watched him go, feeling a bit dismal. If one of us got killed in the near future — and that’d probably be me — those would have been our last words to each other.

I sat staring into a nearby paddock. What hope did I have of finding Gavin? This whole thing was so vague and unplanned. The only reason Liberation and the Scarlet Pimple thought it was worth a chance was — well, there were two reasons really. One was that we had no other avenues, no other hopes. This was Plan A, but

there was no Plan B.

And the other reason was that they thought I could get good intelligence once I was ‘on the ground’. ‘On the ground’ meant, once I was in the heart of Havelock. The message from the Pimple was: ‘These people only trust face to face. They won’t tell us much by phone and they won’t put anything in writing. The group who’s got Gavin seem to be renegades, out-of-control, with no friends. Everyone’s scared of them. But if someone’s there, on the ground, we think people will give you serious information.’

It wasn’t much but it was all I had, and in search of Gavin I would be like those bloodhounds that follow a trail until they die. Literally. They were my role models now. I had such a hunger, such a need to have him back that I didn’t care what the cost might be. I guess a psychologist would say it was because of losing my parents, which is fair enough. I didn’t really care what the reasons were, but this seemed like a different feeling to the one I had about my parents. Feeling? What am I talking about? How can I leave the s off the end when my sadness about my parents included the guilt I felt when I saw people in Pakistan grieving for whole families washed away in a flood, the sense of loss that I had never collected the recipes from my mother because I’d just assumed I would accumulate them as a matter of course, the gratitude for the love and support I got from people like Homer’s parents, the confusion that came from wondering all the time how I could possibly go on, the strength that memories of my parents’ steadiness gave me… The war had hit my mother hard but she slowly put her life together again, put the calcium back in her bones, and she went through a lot of pain doing it, but she was successful, and the days finally came when she could dance to ‘Yellow Submarine’ while she was making the coleslaw and kiss my father with passion and buy bright new clothes and have coffee with old friends in Wirrawee and read difficult books by people who’d won Nobel Prizes, then not long after that, a gang of strangers came into the house and killed her. So yeah, I had strong feelings about the loss of my parents and they were different to the feelings I had now about Gavin, but perhaps it does all amount to the same thing. If you add up 2 and 2 you get 4, but if you add up 3 and 1 you still get 4, so maybe that’s how it was. I was getting the same total.

Dark shapes in the distance moved slowly back and forth. They looked like cattle and I hoped they were and I hoped they hadn’t been trained in surveillance of enemies from over the border. Occasional trucks rumbled past. I didn’t know whether I was expecting a truck or some other vehicle. I could have been waiting for a camel train for all I knew. I didn’t see a single car but there was a motorbike, with two young people, probably men. They didn’t have helmets but they were going fast and they didn’t slow down for me.

I was well hidden, behind a clump of young wattles, safe unless someone came looking for me or unless I was wildly unlucky. But the rendezvous time came and went. I realised a bit too late that I should have made arrangements with Homer for a way to get back if no-one turned up. Maybe we’d both pinned too much faith on the Scarlet Pimple and Liberation. Ten minutes late didn’t bother me, twenty made me a bit uneasy, half an hour was stressful. It was actually an hour and five minutes before an old Acco rumbled to a halt fifty metres before the windmill, and the driver cut the engine. In the silence all I could hear was the squeaking of the old mill. I was dry-throated and straining with all my senses to see and hear what was happening. A minute earlier I’d been thinking about how to get home again. I’d decided I had to wait for a full two hours before I gave up. Too much was at stake. If the guy’d had a flat tyre or something I couldn’t walk away. But I didn’t like the idea of waiting two hours, didn’t like it at all.

When a loud noise stops, the silence gets pretty oppressive. I’d heard the Acco coming for quite a while and the sound had gradually taken over the paddocks. Now there was nothing but a whingeing windmill slowly rotating. Then I heard footsteps from the direction of the truck and a voice calling softly, ‘Hey girl. Hey! You there?’

There wasn’t time for long games of Spotlight. I stepped out onto the road. ‘Here,’ I called. The man immediately turned back to the truck. All the lights were off so I couldn’t see him very well. ‘Quick,’ he called over his shoulder. ‘Very late.’

Well, he didn’t need to tell me that. I jogged down the road after him. I’d only brought a light backpack so it was easy to handle. But when we got to the truck it turned out that I had some hard lifting to do. The truck was stacked with hay bales, the small ones. The guy started unloading. I realised what was going to happen. I’d be hidden in the middle of this mobile haystack. Lucky I’ve never been a hay fever person.

I swung up on the top and started throwing bales off. He stopped and stared at me. I could see his wide eyes. He was middle-aged, with a round face and grey hair cut short. ‘You very strong,’ he said in surprise. I grinned and kept dropping the bales onto the road. There would be strands of it everywhere for a while, if people were looking for evidence of where I’d been. I had to hope a strong wind would take care of them.

I heard a high-pitched grunt to my left and looked across to the paddock. Attracted by the sweet scent of hay the cattle had started lining up along the fence. I nearly got the giggles. If another vehicle came past we were in serious trouble. But now the man seemed satisfied that he’d made a deep enough compartment for me. In I went, with my bag, and he swung the first bale back into place. For a lightly built guy he was pretty strong too. It’s a lot harder throwing bales back up onto the truck than it is dropping them off. Ten times harder.

Quickly the bales piled up and then he pushed a length of poly pipe down to me. I realised it was going to give me air, but I didn’t like the idea much. The man cupped his left hand and showed me how I could breathe through it. ‘Are you sure this is going to work?’ I called up to him and he said, ‘Yeah yeah no problems.’ It wasn’t much reassurance. Before I could ask any more questions he disappeared and a few moments later another bale was thrown across the top, and then another and another until I could see nothing, just hear the thump thump thump of each new brick in my wall. Then silence. Complete silence. Silence like I’ve never experienced before. Silence and darkness. I felt the truck jolt slightly as he got in, then the engine started and a shudder ran through it, ran through me. The vibration was quietly comforting. That was lucky because not much else was comforting. OK I wasn’t allergic to hay but I could have been claustrophobic. There had been a time, oh how long ago, when Corrie and I were children and the world was a different place, and we’d been crawling through gaps in her haystack. We got deep inside there, acting like we were explorers, giggling a lot, with me calling ‘Go right!’ ‘Go left!’ and suddenly Corrie had a panic attack and decided we wouldn’t be able to get out. Deep in the middle of the hay piled inside their huge barn was a bad place to have a panic attack, but she unnerved me too, and I started backing out as fast as I could but it wasn’t fast enough for either of us, and in front of me Corrie was going off her head. She kicked me about eight times as we backed up. By the time she got out she was a complete mess. I was all right, just freaked by her going so quickly from sanity to madness, so we left the barn and went back to the house and watched TV while she calmed down.

Of course I would have to remember that now, when I was inside another haystack, and this time really trapped. No way could I get out of here unless the driver or someone else decided to let me out. It might be possible to use the poly pipe like a didgeridoo and make enough noise to be heard, but I didn’t have a lot of faith in it as a life-saving device. Suppose some sparks flew onto the haystack and it caught fire? No-one would be able to get close enough to hear my didgeridoo. I’d cook. Not just slow roast either. Flambe, that’d be me. Still, better to flambe than to roast. I read somewhere how a Canadian guy proved that lobsters boiled to death don’t feel any pain. Well, hey, who am I to contradict some scientific genius, but I have trouble believing that anything boiled alive isn’t going to suffer.

What if the man forgot I was there or died or something and they left the truck parked in a barn or a garage for a few months before they bothered to unload it? I did an experimental push upwards, using one shoulder then both, and got the result I expected. Nothing. Not a quiver of movement. That pig who built the house out of straw wasn’t so stupid. I would break my shoulders before I could move these bales.

I was getting quite panicky myself, but at the same time I knew I was talking myself into this. It wasn’t serious hysteria like Corrie, just a quiver or two, but it was enough. I decided I’d better get some control of my mind or I could go seriously crazy. I started singing, mumbling really, forcing myself to remember the lyrics of the school musical that Fi had been in two years before.

‘Once again you find me,

The place you always find me,

The very very coolest place in town.

You see the blah blah blah blah blah…’

And then a bit later there was something like:

‘You see the bright lights burning,

A thousand heads are turning…’

But the rest was mostly blahs. I didn’t do very well on that one and I definitely wasn’t in the coolest place in town. Still, it worked as far as distracting me went. I started in on ‘Time of Your Life’, which I knew a lot better, and had the right kind of mood for where I was and what I was doing.

I had to do something. The darkness was so total that I didn’t bother holding my hand up in front of my face. I knew I could stick a finger in my eye socket and I wouldn’t see it. All I had was my mind and I had to keep that busy. I tried naming all the countries in the world. That got too complicated, so I did them in alphabetical order, and got to forty-three, then decided I had to reach fifty. Portugal. Forty-four. Oh, of course, those Pacific islands. Tonga, Fiji, Samoa. Forty-seven. Was New Caledonia a separate country or part of France? I wasn’t sure, so it got disqualified. Malaysia, of course, stoopid me. Forty-eight. Iceland, forty-nine. It took another, I don’t know, six or eight minutes to get to fifty. Time loses meaning when you’re in total darkness with your senses getting almost no input except the vibration of the truck and the sweet smell and prickly feeling of hay. Aaaggghhh Switzerland! I hugged myself with a feeling of triumph. How could I forget Switzerland? Maybe it was because they’d never been in a war. If the history of the world is one long series of wars interrupted by little moments of peace, then that could explain why I’d overlooked Switzerland. Still, a long moment of peace would suit me pretty well right now.

I started working out long complicated maths problems in my head. 316? 8. It’s not so hard. The way I do it is just eight 300s, 2400; eight 10s 80, add them, 2480; eight 6s, 48, add that as well: 2528.

Then I fell asleep.


When I woke the truck had stopped. I didn’t know how long it had been stopped for. Nor why it had stopped. I kept thinking of the Scarlet Pimpernel, the actual book, about as ancient as the Bible. They’d smuggled people out of Paris in carts during the French Revolution, and the soldiers would stop the carts and search them… Was that happening right now?

I was hot and very thirsty, and could smell my own sweat. I longed to stretch out my legs before they cramped. The poly pipe wasn’t much use as a periscope because I couldn’t twist it to get a view. All I saw was the sky. It was still dark outside though. I rubbed the backs of my legs, trying to get some circulation happening. The more I thought about it the worse it got, like with everything. Then I felt the truck shake, as though someone had just got on it.

I could feel the bales being thrown off. It was scary. I didn’t know what I’d see, or who would be there. It was a bit like being born, I guess. I’d been in this little womb a long time and I’d had enough, I wanted to get out, but I had no idea who would be waiting and what the world would be like. Would they hold me upside down and spank me on the bum? Or worse? Anyway, this was a caesarean, not a natural birth. I didn’t have to do anything, just lie there curled up and wait till the doctor opened up a gap.

Cold crept in when the bale above me lifted off, but more like a sweet coolness, a refreshing wave of beautiful air touching me everywhere. It wafted around me, tickling and comforting. God I needed it. I looked up. Just the night sky and a couple of stars. Another bale went. The man was taking them off one by one, completely ignoring me. I climbed out and off the truck but didn’t try to help him this time. Sometimes doing nothing can be exhausting. I’d done nothing for a long time and I was totally stuffed.

We were in some sort of barn and the man was stacking the bales, starting a new pile beside the ones he already had. Probably a thousand bales in the barn altogether and nice stuff too, first-cut lucerne maybe, but you could see plenty of clover in it. He continued to ignore me and I continued to ignore him. I walked around trying to get my legs working, and more importantly trying to get my brain working. It was strange being in a place and having no idea where I was — literally no idea. Farm or city, mountain or desert, coast or inland, heaven or hell, take your pick. We were probably on a farm, obviously, and I don’t think we’d gone up or down a lot of hills, but we might just be in a grain storage place or a feed merchant’s. I drifted towards the door, thinking I’d have a peep outside, but also curious to know whether the man would acknowledge that I existed if I did something a bit more extreme. Sure enough, as soon as I got close to the door he hissed at me like a goose, and gestured for me to get back. I veered away, smiling to myself. It was reassuring to know that I existed, that I had substance, that I could be seen by others. If someone else acknowledges me then I must be real. I am seen, therefore I am.

Someone else existed too apparently — we were not alone in the world — because at that moment I heard a motorbike whirring towards us. It sounded, I don’t know, like a cicada having an orgasm. OK, yes, I’ve never heard a cicada having… but anyway, it was a motorbike that badly needed tuning. I looked at the man, expecting to see him waving wildly at me to take cover, but he carried on throwing bales off the truck. Now that his stack had grown he was trying to land them directly on top of the pile from the tray of the Acco. Obviously the motorbike didn’t represent danger.

It made me nervous though and I stood out of sight behind what looked like a very old threshing machine. The motorbike engine stopped and there was a pause before the door was suddenly thrown open. I could see the grey of first daylight behind the man who came in. He was a big guy, young, and as he took off his helmet I saw a huge row of perfect white teeth and heard a loud laugh. He spoke in another language to the man, but I was willing to bet he said, ‘Where is she?’

The man wasn’t sure himself now and he peered around looking for me. I came out from behind the thresher. The young guy heard me, turned, looked me over, and said in almost perfect English, just a trace of an accent: ‘Oh, nice, we got a good-looking one. About time.’

The older man didn’t react. I gave a weak kind of smile. The motorcyclist said, ‘You should have seen the last female we helped. We nearly turned her over to the police for being so ugly.’

I couldn’t help but give a bigger smile. I’d expected an atmosphere of secrecy and terror and here was another version of Homer, larger than life, outrageous and, to be honest, better looking. And here was the kind of humour I’d grown up with, the humour I was used to, the jokes that, for better or for worse, I’d been hearing all my life. For worse, actually, but that’s another story.

‘Hi,’ he said. ‘I’m Toddy.’

‘Hi. I’m Ellie.’

‘Well, we got no time to waste. Here, we cover your beautiful face with this.’ He handed me a wig of black hair and a white mask, adding, ‘Don’t mind me, you get used to me, everyone does, sooner or later.’

I put the wig on carefully, tucking away any loose strands of my own hair. It came down below my shoulders, quite a long way, about fifteen or twenty centimetres. It felt weird. I’ve never had long hair. But I love black hair and was quite happy to get some suddenly. The mask was one of the ones you see people on TV wearing when there’s a plague, or nurses if they’re in an infectious area. Just a tissue-paper thing with a string. It was a clever disguise. Two items, both so easy to find, and my whole appearance was changed.

Or I assumed it was. I didn’t have a mirror, and although I went around the barn looking for a reflective surface, I didn’t find anything much. It was a pretty dusty old barn, and most of the metal surfaces were blotched and worn. Dust and rust, that was the story of that place.

‘Come on,’ said Toddy, ‘we don’t have time for you to go staring at yourself. You women, all the same, it doesn’t matter what you look like, it’s the personality guys go for, don’t you understand?’

I laughed. It was hard not to, even in such an unfamiliar and dangerous situation. I picked up my bag and followed him outside, calling out ‘Thank you’ to the older man, and waving. As before he said nothing, didn’t look at me, showed nothing. He was probably keen to wipe me from his memory, as fast as possible. I guess that reminded me just how dangerous everything was, the risks that he and this Toddy guy ran.

It was a cool day, pretty smoggy. We were in a scrapyard of some kind, with a pile of roofing iron on my left and a mountain of bolts and nuts and stuff to my right. Some of them were pretty big. Toddy led me to his bike, which was a Ducati, polished to within an inch of its life. You know, there’s this word, salubrious, and it means attractive or something, but there’s no way it should. Salubrious? Excuse me! Does that sound enchanting and fragrant? It’s gotta mean grey and depressing and gloomy. So as far as I’m concerned, this scrapyard was salubrious, and in that salubrious place the Ducati shone like a butterfly in a butcher’s shop. Pity it sounded so bad. He started it up — after three goes — and I felt like sticking my fingers in my ears and begging him to turn it off.

But instead of doing that I took a peep at myself in the rear-vision mirror. Firstly, without the mask on. It was dramatic. The change was amazing. I looked older and, to be honest, better, I thought. More, I don’t know, sophisticated or something. More like a city girl. Well, that was good. I might have to be a city girl for a while. I slipped on the mask. Unrecognisable. I was lost, gone, my identity removed simply by adding hair and covering my face. But there was still the problem of my eyes. Before I could say anything Toddy handed me a pair of sunglasses. ‘There you go, princess,’ he said. Princess? God, he was worse than Homer. But he’d thought this through. Maybe he did it every day, took girls from our side of the border into these dangerous situations. It’d make for an unusual job.

We rode down a dirt track which was the driveway into the place and turned left. OK, now I had some sense of where I was. City, probably, but on the outskirts. Could well be Havelock. I sure hoped it was. This was the poor side of town though, boring buildings, dull factories, nothing beautiful, no style. I called into Toddy’s ear, ‘Are we in Havelock?’ and he called back, ‘Well it’s not New York.’ Then he added, ‘No more talking.’

I saw the sense in that. You never knew how far your voice might carry, and I didn’t want people to hear voices speaking English as we rode past.

It was cold on the bike and I used Toddy as a windbreak. I had a million questions. Where was he taking me? Did he know anything about Gavin? How were we going to find Gavin? How had all this been arranged? Who was Toddy anyway? Could I trust him? How did I know that? He could be taking me straight to the nearest police station.

Soon, though, I stopped concentrating on those questions as there was just too much else to look at. The traffic was getting heavier and with every block we seemed to be moving towards the centre of town. Seemed like people got to work pretty early around here. There were a lot of motorbikes but I felt quite conspicuous, more and more vulnerable. We stopped at a red light and a moment later another motorbike pulled up beside us. A girl was riding it. She was about one metre away, jammed between two lines of traffic. We could almost have rubbed noses. She stared straight at me. I stared back. Wig, sunglasses, paper mask… that was all I had. Underneath was all Ellie. The light seemed to stay red forever. She never took her eyes off me. With a jerk Toddy’s Ducati moved forwards again. She followed a second after us. For three blocks I knew she was right behind. I didn’t dare look around. Nothing spells guilt louder than looking around. But under the highpitched quivering of the Ducati I could hear her bike. It was a deep and powerful throbbing. Somewhere in the middle of the fourth block it disappeared. Now I looked around. There was no sign of her. I hoped she hadn’t gone straight to the nearest authorities to report the suspicious-looking girl on the shining motorbike.

Travelling openly through a foreign city — because that’s what it was now — felt strange and exciting. I wished I could just be a tourist and walk these streets even more openly. I wished I could travel overseas and go to places with exotic names like Beijing and Uttar Pradesh and Ulan Bator. Oh yeah, Mongolia, that was another country I’d forgotten when I was stuck in the hay bales. That made fifty-one.

If only my mind wasn’t tortured by thoughts of Gavin lying desperate in a cell somewhere. If only I could be sure he wasn’t dead or injured. If only my life wasn’t in constant jeopardy every second I was on this side of the border. Well, if wishes were fishes we’d all cast nets in the sea. Or, as my Stratton grandmother once said, ‘If wishes were dishes we’d all have cupboards full of Royal Doulton.’

‘But you do, Grandma,’ I’d replied, which for possibly the only time ever stopped her in her tracks.

If it wasn’t for my fears for Gavin — and for myself — I could have enjoyed the motorbikes loaded with boxes of electric kettles and cages of chooks and big bottles of water for office workers. The shops bulging with fruit or car parts or shoes or baby clothes. The mess of traffic at every second intersection, the constant honking of car horns, the little stands along the footpaths with people selling food, the kids so neat and pretty on their way to school. But every time I started to relax a little I saw something else, something sinister. Soldiers. Everywhere. Half-a-dozen marching loosely along a footpath, a group standing smoking and talking at an intersection, a truckload in the traffic in front of us. At no stage did we pass a whole army, but by the time we got to Toddy’s place we’d seen a fair part of an army, scattered around a city where there was no escaping them, almost no street or park where they were not in evidence, soldiers, soldiers, soldiers.

And I could see myself in a different city almost, not the open visible one with shops and schools and grandparents and kids and people going about their business, but another city, darker, where criminals crept from place to place and soldiers hunted them, a city which gave no access to help or friendship, but offered only pursuit and vengeance and execution. Like spiderwebs over a garden, almost invisible in the bright light, the people of this other city were connected, but the connections could not survive the attack of a determined and relentless enemy. Soldiers armed with rifles and knives and righteousness could slash through cobwebs. I had a visa into this dark city but the other one would be forever closed to me. The things I had done, the life I’d led, meant that no matter how long I lived I could never be invited into the bright and open city where normal people went about their normal lives.

We reached a different part of Havelock, more open, bigger shops, a couple of parks. A massive church that was probably a cathedral back in the old days. The good old days. I hadn’t left high school and I was already talking about the good old days. For the first time I saw foreigners, people like me. A Saab ahead of us at the lights had a blonde girl in the back seat. Across the road I saw two boys, about thirteen years old, one with red hair and fair skin. To my amazement he was wearing a Fremantle Dockers top. The other one had a Brazilian soccer shirt. The kid with the Brazilian shirt looked like he might be from a meeting of a couple of continents, South America and Asia maybe. They were coming out of a cafe and they just walked on down the street like they were in their hometown. That gave me some confidence. No-one jumped out at them asking for identity papers and wanting to know their mothers’ maiden names. The soldiers ignored them.

There were more street signs in English around this district too, so I figured we were in the part of town where more foreigners hung out, the part Lee had described, where the United Nations had people working.

We arrived in a little courtyard. Toddy jumped off the bike and swung the gate shut so we were protected from the eyes of neighbours. I waited while he did that, then followed him into a narrow high building that could have been a house or an office block. We went up the back stairs and into a little room that had a table and a couple of chairs and a fridge and not much else. Toddy got me a glass of water which I drank in one go. I was insanely thirsty. He filled it again while I reminded myself to take a water bottle with me next time I went riding in the middle of a haystack.

‘OK,’ he said, ‘here’s where you’ll be staying. You can go out in this neighbourhood with no problems as long as you keep to your cover story. You’re Paula, right?’

‘Yep, Paula McClure, daughter of Mr Jerry McClure and Dr Suzanne Spring. I live at Apartment 127 in Block D, at the UN Staff Residence, my birthday is October 31 and I have a sister named Laura.’

‘Let me see your ID.’

I hauled out my old reddish-brown wallet, which had been my mother’s, and gave Toddy my little pass, which wasn’t much bigger than a credit card and had my photo and the usual date of birth and address stuff, along with a lot of writing that I couldn’t read. Toddy inspected it carefully, front and back, then nodded. ‘Yeah, it’s good,’ he said. ‘They do a nice job. It’ll pass OK.’

‘Seems like I’m not the first person he’s seen from Liberation,’ I thought. He held out his hand for the other card, my ‘Permit to Live in Havelock’. It also had a photo of me, with a whole lot of details down the lefthand side, and instructions in French and English about travel limitations and how to get a new card if you were careless enough to lose this one. Toddy approved of that too, although he didn’t look too familiar with it. As a ‘local’ I guess he didn’t need one.

‘Now,’ Toddy continued, ‘like I say, you can go out in the street but you shouldn’t unless it’s necessary. Better stay here, safer. Now, here is the situation. I have contacts who are trying to find where the little boy is. Your arrival here is good, it will put more pressure on them to come up with answers. If we find him and you think you can get him out, well, that’s for you to decide. We will help you so far but no more. We are not soldiers, we are not heroes, we just try to make a living. This is your war, not ours. You want to be Rambo, fine, go ahead, but me, I’m just a simple boy who doesn’t want trouble.’

‘I’m just a simple girl who doesn’t want trouble either. But when people come to my farm and kill my parents and then, as if that isn’t enough, they come back and kidnap my little brother — ’

He held up his hands. ‘All right, all right, I know these are not good things, but in war bad things happen, OK? We better get you some breakfast. I’m a good cook. You tell me what you want, I make it for you.’

I grinned. ‘I didn’t expect someone to be cooking breakfast for me.’

‘Ah, that’s life, huh? Always surprises. You like toast? Eggs?’


Although the stir-crazy feelings I got in this narrow little building were nothing compared to the feelings I’d had in the hay bales, they were still pretty bad. Toddy had gone out nearly four hours earlier, saying not to move till he came back, but at the same time, if a kid with a Fremantle Dockers shirt could walk around this town, surely I could? If I’d brought my Bulldogs top I’d have worn that, cos that’s got to be better than a Dockers top any day, but I didn’t know how aware these people were of the subtleties of football. To be honest I don’t care much about it myself but it had given me a warm and fuzzy feeling to see that purple and green and red, and the white anchor.

I decided to give Toddy the full four hours but when he still hadn’t turned up after four hours and five minutes, I wrote him a note saying 2.05 pm. I figured I’d better not put any details about who I was, or where I was going, in case the wrong person found the note. Then I took a deep breath and went downstairs and through the back door into the courtyard.

A narrow alley got me into the street and as soon as I came into the bright sunlight I did my best to look relaxed and at home, like I walked down this street every second day of my life. Oh yeah, this was Wirrawee, this was Stratton, this is just me everyone, don’t take any notice, it’s just little old Ellie, I mean Paula, off for a stroll.

It worked for about a millisecond.

I turned right, walked about three steps, looked up and around, and nearly panicked. There wasn’t a single other foreigner on the street but there sure were a lot of people who looked right at home. Once upon a time I would have been right at home in this town too, and not so long ago either, but it didn’t seem to count any more.

I forced myself to keep walking, but at the same time wished I were back in the middle of the haystack. My senses felt overwhelmed. The eyes were copping it, through the sight of hundreds of people, all obviously different to me. When we’d arrived the street had been quite calm and peaceful, but things had warmed up now, and the crowds were out and about. My ears copped it from the voices all around me, which sounded harsh and high-pitched, and which talked so fast that I felt like I was in a washing machine of sound. The conversations were punctuated every twenty seconds by a long blast or a series of bips from a car horn, as taxis and cars and motorbikes argued for priority. My nose copped it from a strange, slightly mouldy smell, which could have been a sewerage pipe gone wrong, or could have been just the typical lunch fragrances drifting from the restaurants.

I didn’t know, and in my narrow life I didn’t have enough to compare it with.

At least my sense of taste and my sense of touch were getting off pretty lightly, although people bumped into each other much more than I was used to. The first few times it happened to me I apologised, but no-one else seemed to bother, so I gave up.

People certainly looked at me, but not with the piercing stare of the girl on the motorbike. They glanced, looked away, and then often looked back, not suspiciously I thought, or hoped, but more like they were asking themselves, ‘Hmm, who’s she? Haven’t seen her before.’

Of course that was not the kind of look I wanted to attract. I felt myself going red every time it happened, which meant that I stayed red most of the time, as it happened so often.

My mind was in too much turmoil for me to think. Instead I ploughed on, not yet ready to form opinions as to whether I should keep going or cross the road or go back or jump up on one of the cafe tables on the footpath and dance an Irish jig.

I made myself walk to the end of the block, and cross over at the intersection, then come back on the other side. It took all that time for my heart to beat a little slower, and for my breathing to get a bit steadier. I still felt as though I were the centre of attention, and I wasn’t wrong about that. But so far nothing horrible had happened, and the attention still seemed to be curious, not threatening.

Then something horrible did happen. I was coming towards the open doors of what looked like a supermarket, and I was slowing down, thinking I’d have a look in there, and maybe even try to find the nerve to go in and buy something. Jeremy had said everyone loved American dollars, and I could use them at street stalls even. I thought it would be good for my confidence to go in and get some chewing gum or Pepsi or bananas, anything that was universal and uncomplicated and noncontroversial. Asking what size bottles Absolut vodka came in, for example, wasn’t on my agenda.

As I came to a stop, feeling the money in my pockets with one hand, wondering if I should take the plunge, a couple of young guys in uniform suddenly appeared at my right elbow. I think they had been leaning against the wall of the building, but they had been blocked from my view by a woman selling cigarettes and matches from a little trolley. One of the men clicked his fingers at me and held out his hand. I’d been warned by Jeremy that this might happen, and it was the signal to produce my ID. I let go of the money and fumbled in my other pocket, dragged out my mother’s wallet and showed him the cards that Toddy had already inspected.

There’s something about people in uniform. I don’t know what it is, but it doesn’t just apply to cops and soldiers. With me, it applies to anyone umpiring a game or behind the counter of a shop or driving a bus. I guess it’s one of the reasons companies issue uniforms to their employees. It immediately gives them authority, and makes people like me nervous. I didn’t actually need a lot more to be nervous about. I had enough stuff on my list already. So even though I’d practised in my mind many times, before I left home and during the truck ride and while I was upstairs at Toddy’s place, how I’d handle a situation like this, I couldn’t stay cool and calm and casual while these guys looked me over. I know I went red again; I found it impossible to look at either of them, and my head dropped a little, like I knew I was guilty and was willing to come along quietly to whatever cell they had reserved for me.

They didn’t say a word. One of them, the one who snapped his fingers, just seemed to be reading the data, and very slowly at that. The other one read it as well, over his friend’s shoulder. Around us the pedestrian traffic continued to move, parting like a river does around a rock, but if I was getting curious glances before, I was getting a hundred times more of them now. I suppose when people see someone being stopped or questioned, they immediately assume the person’s committed a couple of murders at least. A lot of time passed. Seemed like years. Another five minutes and I would have reached menopause. The first soldier said something, but I couldn’t understand it. I croaked, ‘What?’ and glanced up at him, our eyes meeting for the first time. I went even redder. He didn’t look much older than me, but he looked very smart, although that could have just been his dark glasses.

‘Where you live, Paula?’ he said.

I understood then why some people confess everything so easily when they get arrested. In answer to his question, I was almost ready to sob, ‘I’m not Paula, you know I’m not, I’m Ellie, and I’m probably on your ten-most-wanted list for all the damage I did during the war and all the soldiers I killed.’

Instead, I found enough sense to croak again, giving him Paula’s address.

The only thought I could summon to my brain was the word ‘Gavin’ and I kept trying to say that to myself to remember why I was here and that I was on the side of good things, positive things, nice things like saving someone who deserved a break for once in his young life. The soldier looked so sceptical when I said my address that I wondered if he knew something I didn’t, like that the house had been pulled down or my street had been wiped out in an earthquake. I had an insane impulse to run, and would have, if I’d been able to think of anywhere to go. As it was I had to push my feet into the ground to make myself stay, and squeeze my fingernails hard into the palm of my hand.

He didn’t say anything for a long time, just stood there tapping my card against his fist and looking at me. Finally, when I was about to burst, he gave me back the pass and said, ‘OK, you go.’

I’d lost interest in shopping. I walked away, trying to keep my head high, hoping I looked calm, from behind at least. I knew I didn’t look calm from in front. Heading towards the next corner I passed Toddy’s place on the other side of the street. There was no way I could go there right now, not with the possibility that two pairs of eyes were boring holes into my back. I came to the corner and randomly turned right. This road was a lot clearer. With a burst of hope I saw the two boys I’d noticed earlier about thirty metres ahead, just hanging out it seemed like. I accelerated and caught them as they rambled along.

‘Hey guys!’ I called.

They turned around. They looked friendly. I hoped I wasn’t going to get them into trouble. ‘Can you do me a huge favour?’

‘Depends,’ the black-haired one said, but he was still being friendly. I had the feeling they were those very cool kind of kids who can be friendly with girls who are older than them and girls who are younger than them and boys who are older and boys who are younger… and old ladies and grandpas and people working in shops and migrants who can’t speak English and teachers and babies… God I love those sorts of kids, who just don’t feel threatened the way someone like Gavin does. Gavin approaches everyone like they’re holding a samurai sword behind their back and they’re about to pull it out and use it on him. Trouble is, in his life, that’s more or less exactly what’s happened.

‘I’m getting hassled by a couple of soldiers back there and I’m worried they might be following me.’ I paused. They looked at each other. ‘I just wondered if you might go and have a look around the corner. See if they’re coming.’

They looked at each other again and the red-haired one shrugged and said, ‘OK.’

It was as easy as that for them. They headed back there with no great fuss, quite quickly. Just as they got to the corner the two soldiers came around it and nearly ran into them.

Were they following me? I think so. I thought so. There was a moment when all five of us were frozen in surprise. The soldiers had to step out onto the road if they were going to get around the boys. The boys had nowhere to go except backwards. I could have gone in any direction but I was meant to be an innocent Paula on a walk through the streets, not a fugitive from justice.

The dark-haired boy swung around and waved to me. ‘Don’t forget to tell Mom,’ he called. Mom? Where were they from? Then he and his friend both moved a little, like they’d planned it, so they were blocking the soldiers. It was a beautiful piece of choreography. The red-haired one folded his arms and said something to the soldiers like he was asking a very serious question. Maybe for directions. That was the last I saw. I waved back to them and walked on quickly. Coming up on the right was a coffee shop. It had a sign in English out the front: American coffee, 20. We take cards. Relax with friend. I dived in there. It was tiny. A very funky young woman with long black hair was sitting at a computer. She stood as I came in. There was a little bar, but I swear, there was room for about four customers. She saw my confusion and pointed to the stairs, which were also very funky, but narrow. Made of stainless steel. ‘Upstairs,’ she said. ‘Coffee upstairs.’

‘Can I use your toilet?’ I asked. I was already heading for a door behind the bar. She blushed and put her hand to her throat. ‘No, is not allowed,’ she said.

‘Sorry, I’m really busting,’ I said. Seemed like Paula had pretty bad manners. I opened the door and slipped through it, closing it behind me. I was in a very narrow corridor, made even narrower by boxes and tins. There was a big stack of Lavazza coffee. They must do good business for a tiny shop. Maybe there was a chain of them and this was the headquarters. I reached the end of the corridor and opened the next door. Behind me the girl opened the first door. I heard her start to say something, but even as she drew breath for the words I was through the next door and closing it again.

Now I was in their sitting room. God this was embarrassing. Another funky-looking girl was there and a thin pale-faced guy who looked British. Who the hell was he? ‘Just looking for the toilet, sorry,’ I said, and went on by while they looked at me like I was a complete freak. This was getting seriously surreal. Down another corridor and at last out into, well, not fresh air, but as close to it as I was likely to find in Havelock.

Their yard was about the same size as their sitting room. I scuttled straight for the back gate and was through it and gone before anyone could follow me from the building. I threw a left and headed down the alley to the street and started a long circumnavigation of the suburb. I couldn’t hear any police sirens or tracker dogs but I was playing it pretty carefully, so I went half-a-dozen blocks further round than I probably needed. My confidence to walk down the main street was gone so I kept to side streets and lanes, although at one point I cut across a big park. The only way to get through this whole thing was to look confident, but I felt like I’d turned into cheese gratings and could melt at any moment.

By the time I got back to Toddy’s he was there and not very happy. When I came through the back door he practically leapt down the whole staircase in one jump and grabbed me with both arms. ‘Where have you been? Are you all right? Did anything happen?’

I told him the whole thing, not feeling very proud of myself, and he wasn’t too happy. ‘Are you sure you weren’t followed?’ he asked me three times, till I got to the point where I wasn’t sure if I had been or not.

Ignoring the fact that he’d told me I’d be safe to walk down the street — but also ignoring the fact that he’d told me not to go out unless it was necessary — I did quite a lot of grovelling. It took us a while to get to the point where we could actually move on. The whole thing was difficult and embarrassing. Toddy now thought I was unreliable, irresponsible. It would be hard to reverse that. It’s like school — so easy to get a bad name, so hard to get your good one back. Homer could testify to that. Quite a few teachers still thought he was a complete idiot, although my books had helped to improve his reputation a bit. Trouble was that he didn’t do much for his own case. Plus so many new teachers kept turning up that there weren’t many left who had actually read the books.

There were some people Toddy wanted me to go meet. He said they had information but were slow to deliver it. He thought my being there might help push them a bit, encourage them. But now he obviously wasn’t sure if I was going to be safe out there or whether I might suddenly start singing ‘Waltzing Matilda’ in the middle of the street.

‘I know I was an idiot to go for a walk,’ I said, feeling more and more aggrieved at having to keep apologising. Funny about that, even when you’re totally in the wrong, after a while you start to resent the person who’s in the right. ‘But what’s the damage? I feel sorry for the real Paula, if those soldiers remember her name from my ID card. They might be round there now checking on her for all I know. But her parents will just have to sort that out for themselves. The worst-case scenario for me, for us, is that if they do go talk to her parents, the cops might be alerted to look out for a teenage girl with false ID papers, and that’s not good, but it’s gotta take a while before all that happens.’

We decided to go ahead with the visit, but not till after dark. That meant fairly late, as the days were getting longer. In the meantime I had nothing to do except hang around the building. I borrowed some paper from Toddy and did some writing. Somehow it calms me down when I put stuff on paper. I got sick of that eventually though, and ended up looking at a copy of a fashion magazine in a language so different to mine that I couldn’t even work out the title.

By then Toddy was like those moths you see in the mornings, the ones who come into the house the night before, while the lights are on, then realise some time after sunrise that they made a bad call, and they spend the rest of their short and tragic lives fluttering against a window trying to get out. Toddy wanted to go, he came into the room a dozen times an hour, but he knew we had to wait.

I tried to ask him questions about his life, but he didn’t like answering them. I especially wanted to know why he did this. Why would he betray his country, help the enemy? For money? I couldn’t imagine that. He seemed like someone who wasn’t too bothered about money, although his motorbike would have cost a bit. Maybe he had some philosophical belief that motivated him, but if that were so, he’d have to agree that the invasion was wrong and they had no business being in places like Havelock. Toddy gave me the impression that he was pretty happy to be in Havelock.

I think he didn’t want to tell me anything personal because he didn’t want me to know too much about him if I got caught. That was fair enough, especially as he now obviously expected me to get myself caught at the first available opportunity, but it was annoying, cos I like to know everything about everyone. Still, I did find out that he had two sisters, both older, and his mother was a tailor. There wasn’t much more than that.

When it got dark enough he came bounding down the stairs. ‘Come on, let’s go,’ he said.

I had thought that we’d be on the motorbike again, with the wig and the sunglasses, but he took me out into the street behind his place and told me to walk ahead of him for three blocks and then turn left, go two and a half blocks, and wait outside a fire hydrant. ‘I’ll go past you then come back then you follow me.’

It took us a while to work out what he meant by fire hydrant, cos he didn’t have the word for it, but eventually I got the message.

I set off. A couple of glances behind showed Toddy at a safe distance. At an extremely safe distance. Like, a hundred and fifty metres behind. I had no illusions. I knew that if I got caught Toddy would become about as solid as an illusion. ‘Ellie? Paula? She said that? Never heard of either of them. C’mon! Man, that’s one crazy girl you’ve got yourself there!’

He’d got me nervous, along with what had happened that afternoon, and now I walked along like I expected to be shot at any moment. Like there’d be snipers in the trees and on the roofs of buildings. He’d sent me down a quiet street, which was fine by me, and I got nearly a full block before I passed anyone. One man, in dark clothes, was walking towards me, but as he approached I became aware that there was a second person coming up behind, walking quite quickly. I risked a glance and saw another man in a dark suit. ‘This is it,’ I thought. ‘This is where the whole game ends.’ I fully expected to be arrested. I took another glance, this time across the street, and thought, ‘I’ll try to make a run for it, if one of them puts his hand on me.’

The man coming towards me seemed to veer a little as he got closer, as though he were getting ready to grab me. Then he straightened up again and went on by. A moment later the man behind overtook me and went on.

Had there been a signal between them? Since the girl on the motorbike that morning I’d felt watched, suspected, threatened.

I kept going, but with my eyes on the man in front as he continued to accelerate. Was he an agent of the police or the government? Or just an office worker making his way home after a late finish? Toddy was a long way back and I felt very alone. I could almost see myself from behind, through his eyes, a solitary figure walking in darkness, occasionally dappled by the dim light from the few street lamps that worked. Walking a little more quickly than normal, my instincts and my body wanting to go faster but my mind keeping on the brakes.

I wanted to get there, I always wanted to get there. And there was always a Toddy in the background, reining me in, and all around me the invisible watchers, saying ‘Hello, who’s she, looks like trouble, stop her, get in her way.’

I turned left, following instructions, and a block later was crossing the main road again. It was still busy. This part was very bright, very commercial. The neon signs were orange, red, blue, yellow, pink. I couldn’t read most of them but some were in English as well as their own language. Best Chinese Food. Handy Supermart. American hamburgers. National Security Bank. Top Indian Food.

It was strange crossing this river of light and cars and colour and people. It seemed a long way from a paddock filled with cattle. A group of four middle-aged women hurried past, no-one talking. They looked like they were too tired to talk. They looked sad. I wondered if one or two of them might be the mothers of the men Lee and I had driven to their deaths at the hands of the bull. At the hooves and horns of the bull. Getting from one side of the street to the other was pretty wild. Traffic rules didn’t seem to matter much. A funny little white taxi zipped around another car, happily going over the double lines to do it. Further up the street a man stood in the middle of a pedestrian crossing waiting for someone to stop or maybe even slow down a little so he could continue his brave journey. The way things looked, he might be there most of the night.

I did me some slipping and some sliding between cars, letting this one go, taking a chance on that one, ducking between those two, and making it onto the footpath with a feeling that wasn’t much different to the feelings I’d had after some of my near-death experiences during the war. I was past the halfway point, with only two blocks and a half to go. No-one seemed to have paid me too much attention in the busy road. Now I plunged back into the quiet semi-darkness of the side street. There was a different smell along here, sweet but not pleasant. The kind of sweetness that makes you feel slightly nauseous. Something fermenting, something on the verge of being rotten. A woman squawked on my left and startled me. The sound had come from one of the houses. She was angry at someone. She rattled off a string of abuse that could have been about the way her husband drank or the way her teenage daughter answered back or the way no-one would take out the garbage and she had to do all the work around here. I hurried on. I passed a church that was closed and dark. A block of flats where a man was pressing numbers into the security pad. A place that sold huge pottery vases, all crammed in together, standing like dull people waiting to be told what to do.

And at last the fire hydrant. I slipped into the shadows, using an overhanging tree for cover. A few minutes later Toddy’s footsteps approached. In real life footsteps are never the way they’re described in books, unless someone’s on a wooden floor maybe. You hear more than the actual feet. You get the sense of a physical presence, with the noises that come from the feet, sure, but the clothing and I suppose the arms as well. There’s an array of sounds coming towards you. Toddy made light sounds considering he was a big guy, and he sounded nervous, but then I’d expect that anyway, given the dangerous place I was in. This was totally a ‘Trust Toddy’ exercise. Trust a complete stranger, someone you met for the first time that very morning. If he was betraying his own country for money, it figured that he’d betray me right back to them for even more money.

He went on by, a dark shape, not looking to right or left. I leant against the wall, waiting for him to come back. I heard a sound above my head and, looking up, saw the shape of a possum outlined against the light from a small block of flats across the road. It was stretching from one branch to another, but the distance was a little too far. ‘Great heavy thing, possum,’ I thought. I’d never seen a squirrel but I imagined they were much more nimble. The possum was in silhouette, but as I watched, it connected with the other branch and hauled itself across. ‘Good job,’ I told it.

I turned my attention back to the street. Someone was approaching from the left, the direction Toddy had gone. I hoped it was him. But the sounds were heavier. An older man walked past slowly, out for his evening walk perhaps. I stayed still, hoping he wouldn’t notice me, but he glanced at me as he went past and I thought I saw a little change in his expression, like he was startled. It was really too dark to tell and I hoped I’d been wrong. It was a bugger that he’d seen me. I must have looked awfully suspicious. Another three or four minutes passed. Where was Toddy? God he was taking his time. Then with a quick light rush of movement he was there.

‘Come on, anyone see you?’

‘Yes, an old man out for a walk. He looked a bit surprised.’

‘Oh damn, couldn’t you stop him?’

I was starting to get irritated by Toddy, the way everything was always my fault. ‘How?’ I asked. ‘Blind him? Kill him? Hypnotise him? “You’re not seeing a girl, you’re seeing a chicken”?’

We were hurrying along the street. Toddy didn’t answer. We reached a block of flats and turned left down a side alley, then hung a sharp right into a foyer. There was a lift but we didn’t take it. We went up a grimy staircase, three levels. I was struggling. Toddy moved fast.

He gave a soft knock on a door marked 31, opened it and went straight in. I just kept following, past a couple of bedrooms, past a tiny kitchen, and into a sitting room.

Three men were sitting there playing cards. They all looked to be in their early twenties. The cards looked a lot older. They were grease-stained and dog-eared. The curtains were drawn and the lighting was dim. Everyone seemed to be smoking and the place stunk of dead cigarettes.

It occurred to me that the people who had kidnapped Gavin wanted me and the Scarlet Pimple in exchange for him and now they had me, possibly. If Toddy had made a mistake here, or worse, if Liberation had been wrong about Toddy, then I was now a prisoner. Very handy for them. They hadn’t lifted a finger. I’d just arrived and handed myself over.

Toddy said a whole lot of stuff to them but they didn’t look particularly interested, just kept playing cards. Occasionally one of them would grunt a comment or an answer. They held the whip hand, that was obvious. Toddy seemed even more nervous. I wondered when my turn would come and whether I would be expected to speak.

Then Toddy turned to me. He cleared his throat. ‘These men know a bit about the group who are holding your brother. They don’t get on with them at the moment. There’s a — I think in New York they would say a “turf war”. These men don’t know who you are or who your brother is but they know there’s a little boy being held as a hostage. But they don’t trust me very much. They think I’m running an operation of my own. I brought you here as proof that I’m not involved in some double-cross or even triple-cross.’

I felt like I was in Sleazeville. The idea of a bribe seemed to have floated in through the door. I didn’t know if this was the right time to do it so I asked Toddy, ‘Should I offer them money?’

‘You have some?’ he asked quickly. He was sure onto that fast.

‘A little,’ I said.

‘No, don’t talk about that yet. Tell them a bit about yourself and why you’re here.’

It was a weird situation. I had to make a speech in a language these guys didn’t know and the life of a child might depend on it. I wasn’t feeling too inspiring in this grotty smoke-filled room with a bunch of guys who were apparently gang members of some kind. But I had to be inspiring. I just started off slow, feeling my way, trying to put some words together. Pausing at the end of each sentence for Toddy to translate was good in one way, bad in another. The good part was that it gave me time to think about what I wanted to say next. The bad part was that I couldn’t get a flow going. It soon became obvious that I wasn’t going to have them swaying in the aisles shouting ‘Halleluiah’ while I inspired them with a sermon about giving their life to the Lord Jesus.

So I told them about Gavin mostly, how Gavin’s stepfather had murdered Gavin’s mother in the last few minutes of the peace or the first few minutes of the war, how Gavin had run off and lived as a street kid in Stratton, seeing other kids coming and going around him, seeing them dying sometimes, of neglect and injuries and in one case at least from being lost in the bush, how I’d found him and kept him with me, and how Gavin’s stepfather had only recently tried to kill the poor kid. I didn’t say much about me because I didn’t want them to guess who I was — assuming they’d heard of me in the first place — but I did say I had no family left and Gavin was now my brother and the only person I had in the whole wide world.

At the end there was a short silence and I said to Toddy, ‘I’ve got a few hundred dollars American, if they want money to tell me where he is.’

‘Just wait,’ he said.

But one of the men had heard the magic word and he looked at me directly for the first time. ‘One thousand dollars,’ he said.

‘I haven’t got that much,’ I lied.

Suddenly they all forgot their card game and everyone was talking at each other. I couldn’t work out what was going on but they were pretty agitated. I looked at Toddy and he gave a little shake of the head. When they kept going hammer and tongs at each other he said quietly to me, ‘They’re arguing about the money. The others don’t like him asking for it.’

The man nearest to me turned around in his chair and looked at me. I hadn’t seen anything much of him before, just the back of his head. Now I realised he was the youngest of them, only about nineteen, and quite goodlooking. He put his cards down on the table where they could all see them. Obviously he wasn’t going to win that hand. ‘We’ll tell you where he is,’ he said. He didn’t speak in English, and to my left Toddy was translating, but I didn’t need the translation. Somehow I knew exactly what the guy was saying. ‘We’ll tell you where he is, but that’s all we’ll do. You’re on your own after that. If you’re going to get him out of there it’s up to you.’

I nodded to thank him. The other men had all gone silent and they’d chucked their cards on the table too. They just watched the young guy like they no longer had anything to do with this. The man glanced at his watch, turned to Toddy, and started talking to him in their own language, pretty fast, Toddy nodding at the end of every sentence. Then it was over. They picked up their cards, the young guy turning back to the table, and Toddy signalled to me that it was time to leave.

‘Thanks very much,’ I said awkwardly to the young guy’s neck. He didn’t respond. I followed Toddy down the corridor, past the bedrooms and through the front door. We continued downstairs without saying a word. Out into the street, towards the bright lights again, walking very fast, this time Toddy right beside me, kind of pulling me along. A hundred metres from the main street he stopped abruptly and dragged me to the right into the grounds of the church.

‘OK,’ he said, ‘listen good. They told me the place and I take you there now. I leave you there and what you do, it’s up to you.’ His English started to collapse under pressure. ‘You live, die, I don’t know, I only Toddy, I no fight. You want little, you take little, I do nothing.’

I realised he meant ‘little boy’, but I didn’t say anything. ‘You get him, you don’t come to my house, you go to place I tell you, if I can find you I help you, OK? You don’t never come to my place, you understand? You never come my place.’

‘All right,’ I said. I resented this, but I could see it from his point of view too. It wasn’t his war. He had to survive. He didn’t want to lose his life for a couple of strangers.

‘All right,’ he echoed me. ‘All right. You stay here. I get motorbike. I bring your stuff. Then you never need my place.’

‘So you’re going to take me to Gavin right now?’

I nearly gagged with the fear of what I was about to do, the situation I was about to enter. ‘Yes, yes,’ he said impatiently. ‘These people, they move all the time. We go fast, before they move again. They move, we never find them.’

‘OK,’ I said. ‘You go get the bike. I’ll wait here.’


Although my feelings about Toddy were now pretty mixed I clung to him as I rode on the back of his motorbike. He might be the last human I ever clung to. The only comment he made when he came back with the bike was, ‘You shouldn’t have said about the money,’ but I didn’t care. Maybe it was a mistake but it had changed the atmosphere in that room and somehow it had made things happen. I think Toddy just liked being in control of the situation, didn’t like that I’d ignored his instructions. Now I didn’t compare him much to Homer at all. Homer had more, I don’t know, well, not more, less… Less vanity, less fear, less ‘I’m in charge here.’

We rode through the sweet cool night air, which made it hard to understand why sweat kept dripping down the back of my neck. Why my face felt so hot. On the edge of town Toddy stopped to show me a hiding place where he said he’d look for me the next day. Me and Gavin, I reminded him, and he was, ‘Oh yeah, that’s right, of course,’ and I realised he was sure he’d never see me again, let alone have the pleasure of meeting Gavin. It made me determined to succeed, if only for the completely stupid reason that I wanted to prove to Toddy that I wasn’t helpless and hopeless.

The hiding place was on the edge of an old cemetery, which seemed appropriate. One way or another it seemed likely I’d end up in a cemetery by the next day. I took a quick look around and then got back on the bike. Away we went, towards an unknown and probably impossible destination. To my surprise we headed back into town. I’d always had a picture of these guys holed up in the countryside somewhere, a remote place where I’d have to sneak across paddocks and in and out of trees to reach them. That was the way we’d operated a lot of the time in the war. But now we rode right towards the CBD, Toddy occasionally pointing out something that would help me navigate back to the cemetery.

Twenty minutes later we were in what must have been one of the oldest parts of Havelock. It was the kind of respectable suburb where prices are high, where dentists and architects live. We rode slowly down a wide street that had a lot of speed bumps and was closed at the far end so nasty noisy old trucks and buses couldn’t disturb the sleep of the dentists. Toddy kept peering at the numbers. Three blocks from the far end he stopped and turned off the motor. ‘Down there,’ he whispered.


‘Number 503.’


‘Good luck.’

I didn’t bother answering, just got off the bike. I think he was feeling a bit embarrassed at dumping me like this. Or maybe he’d always planned to do this. Whatever, he reached into the pannier of the bike and pulled out a leather pouch, unwrapped it and showed me a handgun. Like everything about Toddy it was a little larger than life, with a silver handle and a long barrel.

‘Do you know how to use these?’

I took it from him, slipped the safety off, and checked the breech and then the magazine. It was fully loaded. It was a nice weapon too, a little heavy but beautifully balanced. I was aware that my confidence with it was impressing Toddy and I admit I played up to that a bit. I just wished I could have twirled it around my finger and shot a sparrow a hundred metres away to impress him a bit more, but it didn’t seem like a good idea.

‘Thanks,’ I said gratefully. He hesitated. I think he’d been hoping I’d say I didn’t know how to handle guns or I didn’t want it or something, but now he was committed to giving it to me. He swallowed and said, ‘No problem.’ At least I hadn’t taken his motorbike. Not yet anyway.

‘I’ll bring it back,’ I promised.

Liberation had told me not to bring any weapons because the consequences would be too serious if I were caught. They’d said the people in Havelock would be able to get me something, and now it seemed that they had, at the last minute.

I walked away then, without any sentimental goodbyes. I wasn’t in the mood. I did appreciate Toddy’s help but I had to concentrate on what was coming, and dealing with Toddy seemed to take a lot of energy. I heard the bike start up behind me and I could tell he was wheeling it around and then came the quiet fade-out as he rode away down the street. I wondered if I’d ever see him again.

From 493 on came a row of terrace houses, pretty much like terrace houses everywhere, two or three storeys, with bits added on top of some of them. Each one had its wrought-iron fence and garden about A4 size. Some gardens were neat, some scruffy, and one was a spectacular crop of weeds that would have supported a couple of steers for a week. I guessed that would be Number 503, but of course I was wrong; my houseful of suspected terrorists had the prettiest garden in the block. I walked past. I was still wearing the black wig but not the face mask of course. It wasn’t much of a disguise but at least anyone looking down from a window probably wouldn’t be too alarmed.

I felt dismayed at what I saw on my brief inspection. The way terrace houses are all stuck together means you can’t go sneaking up the side to have a look or to get in a window or to try a side door. I kept on going and went all the way to the corner. At this hour of the night things were really quiet. That was the good news. The only good news. I turned right and went down the road a bit until I came to the lane that ran behind the houses. They had them in Stratton too, these narrow cobbled access lanes that in the old days were used by the nightcart men, the guys who came into your back yard to pick up the bucket of poo and pee from your dunny and take it out to the truck. That would have been a nice job. Especially when you tripped with a full bucket on your shoulder and went sprawling onto the cobblestones. Your social life could be affected for a while every time that happened.

I walked quietly up the lane past the high fences and back gates. You couldn’t see into any of the places but I could tell which one was 503 because 501 had its number painted on the fence in a sloppy mess of yellow. Again I walked past. If they had sentries front and back they’d be starting to wonder about me by now. It was all very peaceful though. I wondered if I’d come to the right house, if those guys had told us the truth, or if Toddy had just mixed the details up. He hadn’t written anything down when the young guy talked to him.

I went up to the next intersection and turned right, then crossed over at the next one into a small park. Christ this was difficult. I didn’t know what to do. Toddy had been adamant that this was my only chance: it was tonight or never. Well, I had to go with that. There was no other advice floating around. No second opinions. Somehow I had to take a crack at that house, and if I failed in the attempt… well, I didn’t need to scare myself with the consequences.

At least it kind of focuses your mind when there’s only one alternative. I sat there, not thinking any more about whether I should do this or whether I should lie low until tomorrow night and try again then. All I had to think about was how to get into a terrace house. And it had to be through the front or the back. Or the roof I suppose, or from underneath, but they didn’t seem viable options. The first thing I thought of was just to walk up and try the front door. There must have been a chance that they didn’t lock it. People do stupid and careless things so easily. If that failed and there was no sentry, then no problem. If there was a sentry, then I might have a very big problem.

I moved to a different position in the park, where I could see 503 more clearly. Maybe someone would go in or out and I’d get a better idea of what was going on. Surveillance, like the cops do.

Another option was to go round the back. I’d have to climb the back fence and I didn’t know what I’d find when I dropped into the courtyard. Could be a nice party of armed guys enjoying a quiet beer. But I could peep through a hole in the fence first. If I did get in there, the back door might be unlocked.

I could walk up to the front door and knock on it and pretend I was collecting for the Red Cross or I was a Jehovah’s Witness… but it was a little late at night. Plus, when you’re the alien you can’t do stuff like that. I shook my head and tried to get back on track.

The front of the house matched the others in the row in lots of ways, like I said. That included having all kinds of bits and pieces stuck on the front of it. Someone had covered in the upstairs veranda for example, and one of the ground-floor windows had been converted with a sort of box arrangement. Plus there was a lot of ivy. As I crouched there I imagined I could see a route going up the front of the building that someone reasonably fit and athletic could climb. And I was the girl who’d got Gavin off the cliff on Tailor’s Stitch, not so long ago. Compared to Tailor’s Stitch this didn’t look too hard. The biggest difference was that on Tailor’s Stitch there were no windows, and so not much chance that someone would lean out a window and calmly shoot me.

I didn’t know what laws were operating in this town. Would they be allowed to shoot me in cold blood if they caught me climbing into their house? Probably. And if not, I guessed they wouldn’t have too much of a problem taking me somewhere quiet out of town and doing the job there.

Occasionally cars went down the street but I hadn’t seen a pedestrian the whole time I’d been there. That meant I should be safe from being caught by a passer-by. The cars were a problem though. They tended to go slowly, because of the speed bumps, and being a deadend street they were people going home, not racing past at a hundred k’s. If they saw me stuck on the front of the house like Spiderman I couldn’t expect much mercy.

By now it was 1.30 am. I thought it was time to do something. If I waited too long I wouldn’t have the strength or energy I was going to need. And if by some crazy fluke I was successful, I needed time to get both Gavin and myself out of town to that cemetery. It had to be an hour’s walk. God knows how we’d do that. I’d have to wait and see.

I left the park and slowly crossed the road, quite a way up the street from the house. I didn’t want some wideawake sentry seeing me heading purposefully towards the place. I wondered again if I had the right house. If I didn’t this could be one of the most embarrassing experiences of my life. Not to mention the fact that I’d be back where I started, with even less hope of rescuing Gavin.

It was about 1.40 when I reached number 503 again. Now I didn’t pretend to be an innocent passer-by. There was no point. It was better to try not to be seen at all. From two houses away I sidled along the fence as quietly as I could. Being quiet wasn’t difficult; I was on a bitumen footpath and there were no dried leaves or twigs or bark, the stuff that makes it so difficult when you’re out in the bush.

At the house I paused for a moment only. It all seemed innocent. I slipped down to the gate and eased it open. Bloody thing, hadn’t they ever heard of lubricating oil? It squeaked like a wounded rabbit. Trying not to breathe I snuck into the pretty little garden. What were my instincts telling me? My basic instincts? Was anyone watching? Was I about to get clobbered? And you know, something funny happened. I didn’t know if I was being watched or not, although I was terrified. I didn’t know if someone was about to jump me. But I suddenly knew with absolute certainty that Gavin was very close. It sent my whole spine tingling, all the way down to my tail bone. This nice suburban house in the middle of Havelock with its daffodils and early rosebuds and a big hydrangea was holding my favourite person in the world. I knew it.

It motivated me. I actually muttered something corny like, ‘OK Gavin kiddo, I’m coming to get you.’ I went to the right-hand corner and took a hold of the wall and searched upwards to see what I would find. My fingers gripped the corner of the top of the window and I got up on the sill. I was going to try to avoid the windows but at least this one had a curtain across it.

From there the climb immediately started getting difficult. I had to rely on the ivy, which I wasn’t too happy about as it didn’t have that great a grip on the wall. It was thick enough and strong enough, cos it had obviously been growing there a long time, but from the start it kept pulling away when I put weight on it. I got above the ground-floor window quite easily, which I was pleased about as it meant I was now up a good way. But I didn’t feel at all safe. I thought my best chance was to get over to that box-window arrangement and from the roof of that use a drainpipe to get to the closed-in veranda.

I started to reach across to the left and at that very moment a car came slowly along the street. I cursed it. Talk about timing. These people were making no effort to help me at all. I waited there, suspended, knowing that if you don’t make a movement you can be amazingly invisible. On the other hand a faint tremor of your eyelashes and you can be spotted a k away. That’s how it worked in the bush anyway, and I had to assume it’d be the same here.

Then the ivy pulled out by the roots and I fell backwards into the garden.

I landed on the hydrangea. I don’t mind hydrangeas normally but now I realised just how strong and hard those branches are. Spiky even. The ivy was on top of me and I lay there for a moment too shocked to move. The fall had knocked the wind out of me. I was wondering who’d catch me first, the people in the car or the people in the house. I started to struggle. Humans are so stupid at times like that, well at least I am. Caught between the minor pain of being spiked by the hydrangeas, and the major pain of being splattered into pieces by high-velocity bullets, I was pretty much six of one and half-a-dozen of the other. Cursing the hydrangeas and feeling some really sharp, horrible pain in different places, struggling to get out of the bush, and at the same time listening for an opening door, running footsteps, shouts of alarm, rifles rattling as they were lifted into position… with one eye I was looking at my left arm to see if it was bleeding, with the other I was looking at the house to see if lights were coming on.

The amazing thing was that no-one appeared from any direction, running or walking, questioning or shouting, no-one with guns and no-one without them. The silence of the district continued unbroken. I heard the car going on down the street and a truck changing gears in the distance, and I heard all the little creaks and rustles that hydrangeas probably always make when someone’s fallen into them and is getting out again, but that was it.

It seemed incredible, but I wasted no more time thinking about it and took full advantage of the second chance I’d been given. Trying to ignore the sore bits all over my body I limped to the darkest corner of the little garden and stood there for a moment trying to work out a new plan.

Despite my certainty about Gavin being close, I still did wonder if I’d come to the right house. Where were the sentries? The place seemed so normal, so quiet, so suburban. But one thing I’d learned in the war, if I hadn’t known it already, was that ultimately people always slip up. I’d done it myself often enough. It doesn’t matter how organised you are or how important the situation is. It didn’t matter that my dad had all the joined ewes so neatly separated from the unjoined ones, and that for year after year nothing had ever gone wrong. Sooner or later some idiot slipped up and left a gate open and you had a big problem. I knew that idiot all too well.

Sooner or later a guard goes to sleep or nicks off to have a cigarette or to visit the toilet. Or you forget to have someone on sentry that night. Or you’ve rented a great DVD and everyone wants to watch it and you agree you’ll go back on guard straight afterwards. Or you’re on the phone or you’re with your girlfriend. Or you’re drunk.

They’d had Gavin for a while now and maybe they were getting casual. No human in the history of the planet has stayed alert and focused 24/7, more like, well, I’d guess, about 3/7.

That didn’t help me formulate a plan though. I couldn’t see any way into the house. It was only out of desperation, and a sort of Monty Python sense that anything lunatic is possible, that I did what I’d thought briefly about before. I snuck over to the front door and turned the handle.

It turned smoothly and easily. That still didn’t prove anything. I turned it to its fullest extent and pushed slightly. The seal that a closed door makes with the doorframe pops like a whisper. I heard it and I felt it and in the dim light I even saw it. I still could hardly believe it. Maybe the door was held by a loose kind of lock that would make itself known in the next few centimetres. I pushed a little, to see. Nothing. No resistance at all.

The aches from simultaneous multiple hydrangea pokes dropped away suddenly. My skin felt so hot I thought it might blister. I hoped the door was as smooth as it felt so far, that it wasn’t going to creak and groan as I squeezed it open. I hoped the person in charge of oiling the front gate wasn’t also in charge of this door. I hoped someone oiled this one frequently, like daily. Most of all I hoped there was no-one waiting for me on the other side. I stopped breathing. The door had become my heart. All my energy was now out of me and in it. I pushed it open.

It did go pretty quietly, that was the good news. I got it open to about sixty degrees, and stared down the corridor. It was long, a sort of pale orange with a square wooden table halfway down, and a dim light showing at the far end. Not very attractive I gotta say. The light was coming from somewhere round the corner; the corridor light itself was off. I could see at least two doors, but there might have been a third one. At the end of the corridor you could either turn right or go up a staircase. The good news was that there were no soldiers standing there. There was no-one at all.

I did the only thing I could and went in, closing the door behind me. Jesus, sometimes as I write this stuff the hair on the back of my head stands up like I just had a crewcut. I won’t go on about it but it was not easy for me to go into that house. The hardest thing though was when I closed the door. I had to do it so no-one in the house would feel a draught blowing through the place and get suspicious, but there was a finality about doing it that had me wondering if I were coming to the end of my journey.

The journey of my life that is.

As I went through the door I pulled out the thing that had been a heavy weight in my pocket since I got it from Toddy. I don’t care what anyone says, there are times when a gun is very comforting to have. There is something cold and sinister and cruel about hand guns, but I didn’t want to go through that house without one.

I was half-a-dozen steps down the corridor before I realised something was leaning against the back of the square wooden table. In a way it was a good thing to see, in another way it was the most horrible of sights. There may have been families who liked to have a couple of firearms lying around in their front corridor for the kiddies to play with, but I didn’t think it was very likely. Not a high-powered automatic rifle, so new it looked like it had just been unpacked.

For a moment I debated whether it was best to leave it there or do something with it. Every second that I wasted in the corridor increased the chances of someone finding me. On the other hand, if this thing was loaded and ready for action, it might be in my best interests in the long term to do something about it. So I crouched, put my own gun on the floor and, with the stealthiest movements I could make, eased out the magazine. From the weight of it I’d say it was jampacked. There was nowhere to hide it, so I shoved it down the front of my jeans.

Picking up Toddy’s handgun I went on my merry way. The doors were closed and there was no light underneath them. It was possible Gavin was in one of these rooms, but for some reason I assumed he was upstairs. For the sake of security, surely that would be where you kept a prisoner.

I reached the end of the corridor still not able to see the source of the light coming from the right-hand side. I assumed there would be a kitchen and probably a dining room out there. But I heard the murmur of voices, and the scrape of a chair, so it seemed like people were awake, even at this hour of the night. I had to take the staircase, even though I was scared to do so. I don’t know what it is about staircases, but they always creak, and I knew it would be impossible for me to get to the top without making some noise. But it seemed better than the alternative, of bursting in on a couple of terrorists as they enjoyed their late-night coffee.

So I started up the stairs. I did it really heavily and slowly, putting all my weight on each step, trying to suffocate any noise the steps were tempted to make. That seemed to work OK. There were creaks, but they were reasonably minimal, and I didn’t think they would bring anyone from the kitchen or the back of the house.

It took me about ten minutes to get up that staircase, or that’s what it seemed like. I knew it was important to go slowly, for the sake of silence, but my problem was to make myself move at all. The higher I got, the slower I went, because it became a mental battle to get up to the next step. I’ve never climbed Everest, and don’t have any immediate plans to, but those stories of people battling their way to the summit, metre by weary metre, as blizzards smack their bodies with snow and hail and ice probably go pretty close to what I was feeling. But with me it was all in the mind. There was no blizzard, just the one in my head, bombarding me with fearful advice. Reaching the summit brought no feelings of pride or delight, just made the fear worse, so that I stood on the top step diseased with it. There were no lights up here, but there were too many choices. Another staircase ahead of me led to the next floor, and a staircase behind seemed to go to a couple of rooms at about the same level. But there was also a corridor to the right, which I thought probably went to the next house, as though they were joined. My instinct was to go further up, as far away from the voices below as I could. Trying to put myself into the minds of these guys, and wondering where they would store an abducted kid, I decided going up further was probably the smart thing to do.

It seemed like the staircase behind me was the less important, the less impressive. It was like it went up to a little out-of-the-way corner. Knowing Gavin I figured that they would want him as out of the way as possible, so I took that staircase.

This one was narrower and it creaked badly. The first step screeched and groaned as though it were playing a song from the flames of hell. I nearly bit my lip with the anxiety of trying to stand on it without any sound. I waited a full minute and then tried the second step. It was even worse. My throat was as dry as Antarctica. I couldn’t believe no-one had burst out of the room brandishing a gun and looking for the intruder. I decided to go for the big one and, stretching my right leg as far as I could, which isn’t very far, managed to skip the next two steps and go straight up to the fifth. Landing on it like that made even more noise, but I hoped one huge noise was not as bad as three big ones. I brought my left leg up as well, and stood there trembling, with sweat pouring off me. If only I could have sweated as much on the inside, then my throat might not have felt so parched, and my tongue might not have been sticking to the roof of my mouth.

Still no-one came, and I took the last two steps in another single movement. Well, a double movement by the time I got my left leg up there as well.

The darkness was pretty severe. There was a shape on my right that felt like a large photocopier, which surprised me a bit. I suppose terrorists have to photocopy stuff. On the other hand, maybe it wasn’t a photocopier but a nuclear reactor or a superweapon. I’ve never seen a nuclear reactor, so I wouldn’t know.

On my immediate left was a door, and I thought there were two doors ahead of me, one further up on the left, and one straight in front. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I became more confident about what I was seeing. It was definitely a photocopier.

The difficult part was knowing what to do next. I chose the stupidest way of all, and did ‘eeny meeny, miney mo’. The winner was the door straight in front. So, on tiptoes this time, I went towards it.

I was almost touching the handle when I heard someone coming up the steps. This was another entry on the list of sounds you don’t want to hear. I broke out in a sweat that made my previous efforts seem like a faint mist compared to a torrential downpour. The footsteps were heavy and confident, as though the person had climbed these steps many times and felt right at home. I got down low to my left and squeezed in between the end of the photocopier and the wall, hoping that the person was not planning on running off a few copies of his favourite poem in the middle of the night.

He reached the landing below the one I was on, and paused. I shifted a little, to make myself more comfortable, although that’s a pretty silly word to use, as comfort wasn’t really a factor in my situation. I did want to avoid cramping though.

He turned up the other flight of steps, and as his footsteps started moving away from me, and I realised that I was safe for a few more moments, I peeked out. He opened what was the furthest door from me, although I could not see that until he turned on the light inside the room. From the glimpse I got it looked like a regular bedroom, but with a lot of stuff — just clothes — strewn on the floor. Then he shut the door, and the only light left was the thin ribbon down at carpet level.

I eased myself quietly out from the photocopier and went back to the door behind me. With all the stealth of a burglar I turned the handle, then gently squeezed the door open an inch. Nothing happened, so I pushed it open a little further. The air felt cold and dry. Somehow, although I had never noticed it before or thought about it, the air in a room where someone is sleeping or living or just being is moister. I opened the door further and slipped inside.

Again, the silence and emptiness told me no-one was there. I closed the door behind me, scrabbled for the light switch, turned it on for an instant, then off again. It wasn’t a bedroom at all, but a storage room.

Most storerooms hold, I don’t know, old towels, suitcases, preserved fruit. Piles of paper, your parents’ old tax returns. This one didn’t. What it held got my skin crawling and prickling again. This one held guns, more guns than I’d ever seen in one place. More guns than they’d use in a Hollywood movie even. Most of them in pretty good condition too, I thought, from the quick look I’d allowed myself.

Well, there was no getting away from it now. I’d found the right house. I didn’t know for sure whether Gavin was here, but this was the kind of house where I could expect him to be, and these were the people I needed to interview about him.

At least the knowledge gave me confidence. I went back to the door, eased it open again, and peered down the corridor. Dark and deserted as before. The thin strip of light at the base of the door opposite was no longer there. Either the guy had left the room again or, more likely, he’d gone to bed.

I groped my way to the window and drew the curtains. Then I took off my jacket and laid it along the floor, to block any light going through. Only then did I think it was safe to turn the light back on. There sure were a lot of guns, but I’d been a bit over the top in my first guesses. There were probably forty altogether. More than enough to blow holes in Ellie, Gavin and quite a few others. I wanted to sabotage them in some way but couldn’t think of how to do it. I opened a few cupboards. Ammunition, heaps of that too. It reminded me and I took out the magazine from my jeans and shoved it behind some of the boxes. Then other things, more like you’d expect in a storeroom. Boxes of tinned food. It made me feel very hungry. Slabs of Coke. Coke. A memory came back to me, of putting a tooth in a glass of Coke, years ago, to see if it would rot away like everyone said it would. Then Dad came along and drank the Coke, tooth and all, before I could stop him, so I never found out the result of my experiment. Instead I found myself in a different experiment: observing the effect on your father when you tell him he’s just swallowed one of your baby teeth.

Yes, Coke should do the trick. Fill each barrel and I reckon it would do them terminal damage. I opened a can, took a swig, then went to work.


Mission Coke took quite a while. I gave each weapon a couple of applications. It didn’t necessarily matter that I took a while, because I figured that the longer I stayed in the house the safer I’d be. The later it got the less chance there’d be of people wandering around the corridors. I was hoping the guy I’d seen had gone to bed and that there weren’t too many more after him.

But also I was a little afraid to open the door again. It sounds crazy, but for half an hour or so I felt quite secure. In that short time the room almost became my space. A little world where I could work away secretly, without interruption, and forget what was on the other side of the door, and even forget why I had come to the house in the first place.

Reality’s always waiting for you though. Even when you think you’re hiding from it really cleverly, it still ambushes you sooner or later. The time came when, with a sigh, I turned off the light, opened the curtains and went back to the door. ‘Here we go,’ I thought, except that there was no we, only one poor I. I took a breath, thought of all the people who were sustaining me right now, Bronte and Jeremy and Homer and Lee and Fi and even Jess and probably the spirit of Robyn and Corrie too, and slid out into the corridor again.

There was now a strip of light under a second door, the one next to the guy I’d seen earlier. I ignored that and turned to the door just down a little way and on my right. The thought of opening every door in the house disturbed me, but I couldn’t think of any other way to go about this. I squeezed the handle and nudged it, listening carefully. I decided on the spot that I’d try a new policy. I’d open each door and see if I got a Gavin vibe. If not I’d close it and continue. I just had to trust that when I opened the right door I’d know it.

This room was much darker than the previous one. There was no way I could tell what was in there but I thought that I could probably tell what wasn’t in there, and what wasn’t in this room was Gavin.

I went on up to the only other room at this end of the building. I hoped to God he was in here. I really didn’t want to be in this house much longer. I hoped we weren’t operating on Murphy’s Law, or whoever wrote the law that the last room you look in is the one where they’ve stored the hostage. But this room felt cold, like no-one had been in it for a long time.

Time to go to a different part of the house.

The other light had gone off again. I didn’t feel like exploring those rooms now that I knew at least two of them were occupied, and at least one of those by a non-Gavin. Would have been funny if the guy’s name was Gavin. Funny but irrelevant. I suppressed that thought and moved down the stairs. They seemed to creak more going down than they had going up, and that’s saying something. Again I tried to take big steps, and I waited a long time between each one in the hope that anyone listening might have gone back to sleep before I made another of these awful rusty-hinge noises.

At the intersection I looked down the corridor to the right. Nothing. I got to the three doors up the other steps without too much drama. Those stairs didn’t creak nearly as much. Of course Gavin could easily have been in either of the rooms where I’d seen lights. But I gambled that he wasn’t. I wouldn’t like to share a bedroom with Gavin, and I figured they might be feeling the same way.

That left the door straight in front of me. I put my ear to it for a few moments but could hear nothing. I knew I wouldn’t, but I was trying to delay the awful moment when I would have to open the door. I was much more nervous with this one than I had been with the ones behind me, because I knew the odds of someone being in here were much higher. If two out of three were occupied, it raised the chances for the third one.

My throat was now so dry that I could have driven a Landrover down it. It wasn’t just my throat though, suddenly it was my whole mouth area, from somewhere up in the nostrils, and it went right down into my chest. My tongue felt so huge and thick and heavy that if someone had spoken to me I don’t think I could have answered. I already had one hand on the doorknob, but now I took a firmer grip, turned it and, for the fourth time that evening, squeezed a door open.

Someone was in there. I knew that at once. Mostly it was the feel of the air, which was heavy and humid. The kind of atmosphere that only a human can create. As well, I thought I could hear breathing. But I’m not sure if that was just my sixth sense, which was working pretty hard by then.

Now my problem was even harder. I’d found out that someone was in the room, sure, but I realised that had been the easy part. The real problem was now beginning. Who was it?

I honestly didn’t think it was Gavin. If I was relying on my senses, well, I had to trust them. Somehow the room felt too heavy. A little kid like Gavin — something in me felt that the air, the atmosphere, would be lighter. But I still had to be sure. I didn’t want to have to come to this room a second time. The trouble was that I didn’t trust my instincts enough.

I had no hope of seeing much, as I was now in the stomach of the house, or to be more accurate the chest, and there were no lights anywhere. But it’s amazing how much you can pick up without even knowing you’re doing it. I was sure now I could hear a kind of breathing, and equally sure it was coming from my left. I started to inch over there, using my feet to suss out each bit of floor, at the same time raising an arm in front of my face in case there was a mobile, or some other unexpected obstacle, hanging from the ceiling. My left foot, probing carefully, came into contact with something soft, maybe some clothes, and I did a little detour until I was on clear carpet again.

My stomach was getting pretty queasy, with being in this room, so close to a complete stranger, and for all I knew pushing his underwear around with my toe. But I had to keep going. I felt something with my hand that was a regular shape, not like the soft stuff on the floor. I ran my hand to the left and then the right, and could tell by the different layers that it was a bed, with a mattress, and at least one blanket.

By now I had a little night vision, even in this very dark room, and could make out a shape under the blanket. It looked quite big, but Gavin was getting quite big too, and I started to think it could possibly be him. Now I had to let my fingers do the looking. Leaning forward a little, I forced myself to lift the blanket and wiggle my left hand in. I made it creep across the sheet, until it touched skin. My whole stomach flipped over at that point and I nearly threw up. I even made a retching noise and had to clamp my mouth shut to make sure nothing came out. I realised I was touching a hand, and had the dreadful idea that the man would suddenly grab me and haul me forwards. But it was a man. I was sure of that much. I could feel his thumbnail and knuckle, thumb or finger, I couldn’t be sure which, and they were definitely too big for Gavin.

I retreated the way I’d come, remembering to avoid the pile of soft stuff on the floor. Out in the corridor again, I closed the door behind me. I felt really weak now, and had to lean against the wall for a moment. Those awful minutes in the bedroom had drained me. I knew I couldn’t go through that again in every room of the house.

I was stuck for ideas, but I went along the corridor that seemed to lead into the next building. It was quite long, with no doors or windows, and I was sure that I was now in the house next door. At the T junction I turned left. There were two doors here, one of which looked like a very small room on the right, and another straight ahead, which could have been anything.

But something else was on the left. It was a little ladder. And looking at that, my Gavinometer suddenly started to register. I had the feeling that at last I was close.

I didn’t hesitate, but started up the ladder. I couldn’t see what was at the top, but once I got there I realised it was a funny little alcove, on a landing, and there was a door at an angle, and a smell of fresh sawdust. I found a handle and turned it, as certain as I could be that Gavin was on the other side. But I got no further. It was locked. Of course. It would be. A million curses ran through my head. Then I remembered the obvious, and groped around some more. I let out a sigh of relief as my fingers felt a yale key securely in its lock. I turned the key and turned the handle and pressed the door open.

It was pretty stinky. A wave of smell rolled past me, stinging my eyes. I blinked, then went in. The smell was familiar. Then, standing a metre inside the room, I heard breathing. The sound of people who are asleep must be as distinctive as their voices when they are awake, because I knew that breathing, and I knew that my long journey had resulted in success. Somehow, miraculously, I’d travelled all that way and found, in the attic of this old house, in a city I’d never visited before, in the middle of the night, my little brother.


There was such a fierce joy when I held him. We stayed pressed together, holding each other tightly, rocking and swaying a little and, in my case at least, never wanting to let go of him again.

To be honest I felt like a mother bird who has grabbed her duckling back from the jaws of the fox. I was full of joy at having saved him, disbelief that I could have, and the desire never to see him in danger again.

It was funny, he’d woken the moment I touched him, and seemed to know almost immediately who it was and what was happening. I felt his body stiffen as though a charge of electricity poured through him, and a moment later he flung aside whatever sheets or blankets he had, and we were holding each other as tightly as couple of wrestlers when there’s ten seconds to go and the gold medal’s up for grabs. When Gavin hugs it does tend to be a bit like a wrestler going for the death grip.

The trouble was, we might be lucky to get ten seconds. With so much reluctance that I could hardly bear to do it I finally pushed him away a little. I grabbed his hand and traced on his palm the word ‘go’. I’d communicated with him that way before, and it was the only option I had in this darkness. But I didn’t need to use it for long. He separated himself completely from me, shuffled across towards the door, and a moment later we had full electric light. ‘Gavin!’ I mouthed at him in horror and terror. ‘Turn it off.’

He shrugged and grinned and waved his hands. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ he said. ‘They can’t see it.’

It was true there was no window in the attic, as I realised when I looked around, but I didn’t know how much light would seep under the door. It certainly seemed tight-fitting enough. And maybe Gavin had his light on at all hours of the day and night and they were used to it. I suppose it wouldn’t bother them if he had his light on or off.

I gave up looking around at the room and concentrated on him. He looked terrible. Among the many awful things those bastards had done, putting him in a room without windows probably wasn’t the worst, but it was a pretty foul thing to do. He seemed taller than I remembered, but maybe he was just growing without my noticing it. He was a lot thinner, but the biggest shock was the paleness of his face. It wasn’t like they’d held him prisoner for so long that he’d lost his suntan, but maybe the 24/7 stress of being with them had robbed him of colour, made him whiter. I noticed, too, a twitchiness, a tremor, that I’d never seen before. His lips quivered, his hands jerked a little, his fingers kept crisscrossing nervously. I wondered if they’d broken his spirit. By God, that would have taken some doing. If they’d done that, then they must be experts at their job. I would have put money on Gavin to go through a cyclone on a bicycle, to ride a tsunami wearing floaties, to escape the Titanic paddling in an esky and singing nursery rhymes. But now something about him worried me and I just hoped I could get him out of the building and out of the city without him falling apart.

‘What’s the best thing to do?’ I asked him. ‘What’s the best way to get out of here? Will we go now, like, straightaway?’

He stared back at me dumbly as if he hadn’t understood a word. But I knew that wasn’t the problem. I think he had been there so long that he just couldn’t contemplate taking action. I asked him again, ‘Will we go now?’ but he just trembled and shook his head. So I made the decision for both of us. ‘Let’s go,’ I said.

I switched the light off and eased open the door. It seemed amazing that nothing outside had changed, when inside the room there had been a kind of joyful revolution, but the corridor outside was as still and dark and quiet as it had been when I went up the ladder. I wasted no more time, but started on down. As I got to the bottom it occurred to me that Gavin might not follow, but just as I glanced up I felt the slight jarring caused by someone else starting a descent.

I took a few steps down the corridor, taking my gun out as I did so, then waiting for him to join me. He was there in a moment, but he still looked and felt insubstantial, like he was only a quarter of the person he had been before. I felt very disturbed by this, not only for the obvious reason, but also because if we had to fight our way out of the building I wanted to have someone solid and strong beside me.

Anyway, there was nothing I could do about that. I moved down to the intersection of the corridors, with Gavin following, and turned right, back the way I’d come. We tiptoed along. ‘’Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature did stir, not even a mouse.’

We weren’t too close to Christmas, but the rest seemed to fit.

I blame myself totally for what happened next. I hadn’t paid nearly enough attention to Gavin’s condition. Knowing his toughness and stamina, I hadn’t realised how weak he had become, how desperate, how disorientated and even dizzy he was, how much help he needed. We got to the head of the stairs. I paused, peeping down the stairwell, trying to suss out the situation. Gavin had lagged a few metres back. Now he came up behind me, but caught his toe in a loose edge of carpet. I’d actually caught my own toe in it and stumbled slightly, but hadn’t bothered to guide him around it. He fell forwards, crashing into my back and bum. I fell forwards too, my finger jerking on the trigger of the gun. The world lit up and crashed in all at the same moment. The explosion from the gun made me as deaf as Gavin, but before I could think about that I hit the steps and started sliding down, desperately trying to keep my arms free so that the gun wouldn’t go off again, and at the same time trying to protect myself from getting a fractured skull.

I went down five or six steps, until I hit the landing, still waving my right arm, which held the gun. Although I felt shocked and bruised, and wanted to check to see how many broken bones I had, I knew there wasn’t time for that. I rolled over and staggered up. Above me, Gavin had stopped about halfway down the flight of steps. For a moment I hoped that the people of the house were still heavily asleep, dreaming fond dreams of serial murders, kidnappings and assassinations. But no hope of that. Lights came on above me, below me, and then on the staircase itself, so that we were suddenly as exposed as a spotlit rabbit on a bare hillside. I heard doors slamming, footsteps pounding, men yelling. I waved urgently at Gavin, to get him to follow me. Although he was now standing, he only responded tentatively, putting one foot down to the next step. I started up towards him. As I did two men appeared at the top of the staircase, looking pretty dazed themselves but both holding guns. I glanced down and saw more people at the bottom of the staircase. I wanted to gamble that the guns had been poisoned by Coke, but it was too big a gamble. Carefully I placed my gun on the carpet of the step I was on, and then gave all my energy to holding Gavin, trying to transmit some strength to him.

At first they seemed completely incredulous. Looking at me like I resembled a Tasmanian Tiger or the Tooth Fairy. Then one of them yelled my name, and I knew I was truly busted. In a moment they were all laughing and shouting and my name was getting worn out from being repeated so often. I guess they were just fantastically amused by the fact that I’d walked straight into their head office, so that they no longer had the bother of going all the way to Wirrawee to find me. Obviously it didn’t take much to amuse them. Show them a DVD of Austin Powers and they would have needed hospitalisation.

The laughter soon turned nasty though. One guy walked up, yelled something and slapped me. By then we were at the top of the staircase once more, a place I had hoped never to see again. Once this guy broke the ice, so to speak, by smacking me in the face, the others realised that it was swimming season. Someone kicked me from behind, not a killer kick, but hard enough, to the back of the knees. Then someone else hit me on the top of the head and the first guy got me again, on the other side of the face. I decided I had to make sure that I stayed on my feet; I had a horrible image of myself on the floor, curled up foetally with these guys putting the boots in big-time. I had the feeling that if I went down I mightn’t get up again.

Gavin stirred to life now and tried to stop them, but there wasn’t much fight in him and they had no problem holding him off. Still, his doing that did change the dynamic somehow, and although they kept kicking and smacking at me, they also started moving me along the corridor. One guy held my wrists behind me in a handcufftype grip. I relaxed my arms as much as I could, hoping he would relax too and I’d get a chance to throw him off. He didn’t lighten off for a moment though.

Now I was like a moving target, with three of them driving me along and the others getting in random hits at every chance. Coldly I decided that if I had the chance to kill them I wouldn’t hesitate. It was only the power of that thought which kept me going. I stumbled half-a-dozen times but managed to avoid going down.

It was pretty obvious where we were heading. Back to Gavin’s attic. I realised they were probably not going to kill me straightaway. The most likely scenario was that they’d lock me up for a while at least, in the same little room. I felt despair for myself but even more for Gavin. The time he had spent there already seemed to have affected him so badly. I didn’t like the prospects for either of us though. It wasn’t easy to think while I was being driven along the corridor, getting punched and kicked. But in some small, clear part of my brain I did wonder if we were very close to death. The only reason they had now to keep us alive was as hostages for capturing the Scarlet Pimple. But I thought it was more likely they would get rid of Gavin and me, and then go after the Scarlet Pimple with some new strategy. At least now I could help Gavin a little maybe, give him some strength for whatever lay ahead.

Nevertheless there was no point in staying at the bottom of the ladder getting beaten half to death. Gavin went up it first, followed by one of them, then me. The soldier pushed me into the room, and slammed the door behind me. I heard the key turn in the lock. I switched the light on and gazed glumly at Gavin. He was dry-eyed, but he looked even more frail and trembly. It was like he was fading away in front of my eyes.

I checked out my bruises. At this stage I had mostly red marks and grazes, but I knew I’d soon be an art gallery of red and purple and blue and brown. Lucky the room had no mirror. My body was sore, I was tired and frightened and depressed. I was starting to reach the bottom of my internal reservoir, down among the puddles and weeds, not much left to dredge up.

Somehow, though, I had to find enough to keep us both going.

I figured that Gavin would have searched this room a thousand times looking for ways to escape, but I still had to do it for myself as well, just in case. I ran my hands around the walls, feeling for weak spots. Gavin just shook his head, as if to say, ‘You’re wasting your time.’ I felt the door, jiggling it to see if it could be broken down. Pretty strong, I thought, but not impossible. Gavin on his own would have had no chance, but the two of us might be able to do it some damage.

The only furniture was a folding bed, a small table on wonky legs, and a green stool, quite a tall one. I got up on the stool and pushed at the ceiling, then moved to another spot and tried again. Knowing that Gavin was too short to have done this gave me hope that I might find something he hadn’t. I moved the stool a dozen times, probing different parts of the ceiling. Again, it seemed a long shot, but I thought it was at least possible that we might find a way to break through it.

I got down and said to Gavin, ‘What do they do each day? How often do they come up here?’ I knew the pattern they had followed with him mightn’t be the same as the pattern they would follow now, but knowledge is power and I was coming from a low knowledge base.

I felt sickened by his answers though. If I’d hated and feared these people before, these kidnappers and terrorists, I loathed them now. It seemed that most days Gavin was lucky to get two meals, and the meal deliveries were often the only visits he got. Four times he’d been taken out to the back yard to get some fresh air, but since he’d been delivered to this house that was all the exercise he’d had.

I can understand people killing each other in hot blood, like in a war, when you grab a gun and shoot someone because they’re the enemy or because they’re a threat to you or whatever. I can even understand how in peacetime people kill each other out of jealousy or rage. But I can’t understand how anyone can torture a kid in such a slow-running, day-by-day, drip-by-drip, coldbloodedly cruel way. I remember in a book, I forget its name, this girl who was about my age saying that some of her friends were killing their mothers by slow degrees. These people were killing Gavin, but it was death by a thousand cuts. Putting Gavin in these conditions was like putting a bear in a pen or a rabbit in a box or a cockatoo in a cage. Even Gavin’s cruelty to the cat at Mark’s place was easier for me to understand than the way these guys had abandoned him in the attic.

There was another question that I didn’t want to ask but I had to, and the answer was what I expected. Gavin pointed to a bucket in the corner. I’d already noticed the roll of toilet paper next to it. Apparently they emptied it when they felt like it, but usually when they brought the evening meal. At least at this stage it was empty, but it didn’t stay that way for long, as I was busting. Seemed like Gavin was too, as he followed straight after. To be honest it was embarrassing, even though Gavin and I had been together for so long. But it’s funny, you adjust so quickly to whatever circumstances you’re in. Out in the bush in the middle of a war, when you’re cold and starving, you think nothing of licking up the crumbs in the bottom of your carrier bag. But if you’re in an expensive restaurant I guess you complain if the chips aren’t hot enough. I guess. I’ve never been in an expensive restaurant, like, a really posh one.

So, I got over the toilet thing pretty quickly, although it did help explain why the room was so stinky. Poor Gavin, I couldn’t blame him for that.

But there were more important things to think about. I had to decide whether to launch an all-out assault on the room or to hold off for a while. If I thought they were likely to kill us in the near future, like, that night, I’d be smart to go ahead and do the allout assault thing. There’d be nothing to lose. But if I thought they were likely to keep us alive for a while then it’d be better to wait a bit, spend time on reconnaissance, get energy back, let them start to relax, try to come up with a better plan than just bashing down the door.

I was in a situation where I had to make a guess that could mean life or death for both of us, yet I had way too little evidence to go on. I had to put myself in the minds of people I didn’t know, whose brain functioning was pretty much a mystery to me, and who had knowledge which I didn’t. It was like being given a 600 piece jigsaw with no picture on the box and 590 pieces missing. I sat on the bed in an agony, with Gavin beside me, leaning his head into my shoulder. I had my arm around him but I worried that his trust in me was going to blow up in his face if I made the wrong call. The world was going to blow up in both our faces if I made the wrong call. But perhaps I was making this harder than it needed to be. After all, what were these people going to do with us if not kill us? They couldn’t keep us forever. They couldn’t let us go. Although the ‘I’ll live forever’ part of me, the ‘I’m strong and fit and healthy and young so I couldn’t possibly be about to die’ part of my mind couldn’t face the idea that my life might be about to end, I had to recognise the Uluru of reality in front of me.

A grimness of spirit came over me. I slipped out of Gavin’s arm and got up again. If we were going to take action, I had to start right now and at least try to find a way to break out of this room. I grabbed the green stool and took it to the lowest part of the ceiling. With both arms above my head I hit at the ceiling as hard as I could. But I couldn’t get enough strength. The only power I had was from my arms, as I couldn’t use the weight of my body. Being tired, drained by all the physical and emotional energy I’d spent so recklessly over the previous few hours and days, didn’t help either.

I only had half-a-dozen goes before giving up in frustration. I eyed off the door, but thought I should save that for a last resort, as trying to break that down would make more noise than anything else. I had the horrible feeling it would echo all through the house.

Then Gavin surprised me by reaching under the bed and pulling out a broom. He handed it to me with a look that said, ‘I’m not giving you this so you can do a bit of housework.’ Although it wouldn’t have surprised me if he had. But he glanced from the broom to the ceiling and back to me, and I realised at once what he meant.

I took a big gulp, knowing that this was going to make some serious noise, and then, holding the broom with both hands, near its base, smashed the handle into the ceiling as hard as I could. It did make some serious noise. It echoed around the little room, but I couldn’t tell how far the sound would travel. One thing was obvious though. The ceiling was made from some pretty lightweight stuff. Just cheap masonite or something. I decided to block out any thoughts about noise and attack with all the strength I had. Boom, boom, boom. Then, on about the fifth shot, I was through. I pulled the handle out, leaving a nice round hole, big dents around it. Jumping down, I moved the stool less than a metre, then got up and started again. Four hits and I’d made another hole.

Now I was getting excited. A gleam was in Gavin’s eyes and some life had come into his face. I moved the stool again and started my next onslaught. Sweat was running down my face now and stinging my eyes. I was trying to do this and think ahead at the same time. If I could make a decent hole, then we had to be able to get up through it. And the ceiling had to support our weight. And then we had to get somewhere, to actually find an escape route. My hair was damp with the sweat, and my arms were dropping off. I’d made four holes, in a rough square, and now I could attack the space between two of them, hoping to start punching out the whole piece.

But my arms couldn’t take any more. I dropped them for a minute, and dropped my head, trying to get the strength to continue. If only Gavin were a bit taller and we could take it in turns. Then I heard a kind of scrabbling noise at the door. Gavin turned to it with a kind of wild look and a moment later it burst open. Two of the men came lumbering in, with at least one more behind them, and I realised with fear that our escape attempt was over already.

I got another bashing, and it seemed almost from the start that it was too much. I felt the will to fight flow out of me with every blow. I curled up on the floor in the foetal position I’d imagined earlier, covered my face, and tried to absorb the impacts. I don’t even know what they were hitting me with. I’m not sure where Gavin was but I think one of them was holding him out of the way.

At some stage they left again. It was a long time before I stirred or moved or tried to stand. Gavin was lying on top of me crying, so eventually I got up for his sake. I tried to think back to how this evening had started, with me so optimistic and positive and being the big hero, moving through the house and wrecking their guns and all that stuff. It hadn’t taken long to bring me down to this state. I thought about how the boys wanted me to join Liberation and I thought, ‘Well that’s not going to happen.’ If I survived this, which was looking pretty unlikely, I figured it was time to give up on all this fighting. If only other people would let me.


Time passed. During the bashing at the top of the stairs I’d lost my watch. I could see how quickly Gavin must have gone into a limbo where time had no meaning. If there are no clues as to what time it is, does your body tell you anyway? I think I read somewhere that humans drift into a twenty-six hour cycle if they’re in a world without clocks.

We did have some clues, because when anyone opened the door we got a sense of whether it was daylight or dark. But I was too sore and bruised to take much notice. From time to time I thought briefly about trying to crash the door down, but I figured they might beat me to death if I did, so either for that logical reason, or out of sheer cowardice, I decided to save whatever energy I had for a better opportunity, if one ever came along.

We got a number of meals, but I’m not sure how many. I’d say seven or eight. They were as you’d expect, pretty crappy. Mostly rice, and mostly it was cold and old and evil. Some of it tasted like birdseed. I imagined that when there were some leftovers in the fridge for a few days and no-one was showing any interest in them, one of the men eventually got the bright idea of bringing them upstairs and chucking them into our room. It was hard to believe they took any more trouble than that.

I ate as much as I could. Sometimes it was hard to force my stomach to accept it, but I knew I needed energy from somewhere, and that was one of the few ways it was available. I hurt all over with the bruises, and there were no ice packs. The day after I got bashed for making holes in the roof I saw blood in my urine a couple of times, which scared the piss out of me, so to speak, but it seemed to clear up again.

There wasn’t much left in the room, with both the stool and the broom gone. They even took the legs off the bed so that the base and mattress now rested on the floor. I tried twice to lift Gavin onto my shoulders and get him up there but he was too heavy and the pain was agonising.

When I could make my mind work again we played some stupid games, like I Spy, or animal, vegetable, mineral, but neither of us was too interested. Other games, like hide-and-seek or musical chairs, weren’t really an option. Then I hit on the brilliant idea of making a chess set. I used whatever bits and pieces were still in my pockets, along with other odds and ends from around the room, and torn-up pieces of sheet for the pawns. So the kings were two halves of a hairclip, the queens were rubber bands, and the knights were bits of toilet paper I twisted into the best shape I could. I did have a pen, and I used that to colour the black pieces, the ones that needed colouring. We just drew a board on the floor in the dust. Of course the lines didn’t last long but we could always redraw them.

I’d tried a few times before to get Gavin interested in chess, but without much success. Now, however, he took to it avidly. He beat me a few times while I was sore and tired and distracted, but as I started feeling better I began beating him regularly again, until gradually, after we had played about fifty games, the tide slowly turned. I had to fight really hard to save a couple of games, and then he won a couple again, and then I won a couple back, and then he started beating me eight times out of ten. I didn’t know whether to be annoyed or pleased.

How strange, I thought, to spend our last few days playing chess. But I suppose there were worse ways to finish your life.

When time stopped passing and suddenly became important again, I was to find out that we were in the middle of another night. Two things happened. The first was a moment of realisation. I couldn’t believe I had been too stupid to see it before. We were both on the bed, Gavin asleep, and me wishing I could go to sleep. Without talking about it we had somehow found our own spaces on the mattress, so that we could both be comfortable and yet still be comforted by each other’s warmth. But Gavin was having a bad dream, calling out and twisting around. Suddenly he threw out his right arm and hit me on the cheek, yelled ‘Look out for him!’, and did a kind of sideways somersault, landing on top of me.

As far as I could tell he was still asleep. I managed to extricate myself, then put an arm around him to try to calm him, to help him sleep with at least a slight sense of security. I lay there, drifting in and out of something that had a vague resemblance to sleep. I had a series of thoughts, of images, a kind of dream where the bed had fallen apart when Gavin landed on top of me. It was like an old silent movie playing in my head, where he and I and the bed were all in a heap on the floor. Then an electric shock ran through my brain. I sat upright, or at least as upright as Gavin’s head would let me. The bed! Of course! The bed!

I wriggled out from under Gavin and started pulling him and the mattress off. I wasn’t too worried about disturbing his slumbers now. Anyway, there was always plenty of time to sleep in our little prison cell. He mumbled and whinged and grunted as I slid him onto the floor, so I turned the light on to let him see what I was doing. Inside two minutes I had disassembled the frame of the bed base. Lying flat on the floor were the two ends, which were not much use to me. Then there was a big heavy panel of chipboard, which wasn’t much use either. But the bed irons, they were what I wanted. I had suddenly realised they were the best weapons we had. Apart from fingernails they were also the only weapons we had. They had real potential though. About two metres long, and probably a bit less than fifteen centimetres wide, solid heavy metal, with a ball at each end which fitted into the crosspiece. They would punch holes in the ceiling, no trouble at all. They would probably knock down the door. If these guys came in with guns to shoot us, we might even do a bit of damage to them before we died. That would be nice.

Gavin watched, sulkily at first, then with more interest, and finally with a bit of excitement when I picked up one of the irons and showed him how much force I could get behind it. Apart from beating me at chess, he hadn’t shown much excitement about anything since I’d been caught using the broomstick on the ceiling. I was relieved to see a bit of light back in his eyes.

‘When are we going to use it?’ he said. ‘You don’t want to get caught again.’

‘You got that right,’ I said. ‘I don’t know when the best time is. And I don’t know whether we should try to go through the ceiling or the door.’

I gazed at the ceiling, considering the options. I thought I could now smash a big hole in it in no time at all, say, thirty seconds. But we’d still have to get up there and through the hole. If we put the base on its end and used it as a ladder we could probably do it, even with one of its irons missing. Assuming we did it in the middle of the night, and assuming the noise woke them, we’d still have a couple of minutes before they came after us. When we got to another room we’d have to find a manhole cover or whatever they’re called, open it, and drop down into what could be a hive of armed terrorists. It could be a long drop too, if it was a high-ceilinged room. The whole thing wasn’t a great proposition. For example, it’s hard to run away when you’ve got four broken ankles between the two of you.

The only other option was to go through the door. I figured I could smash it down with half-a-dozen blows, especially if I backed up to the far side of the room and took a run at it. There would be noise, sure, but again the whole thing would be over pretty quickly. Then we’d have to tumble down the ladder and take our chances, making a run for it. The risk was bloodcurdling, but I’d feel more confident running along a corridor than scuttling through a roof.

I explained all this to Gavin, using a combination of language and acting. He watched silently. He didn’t seem very happy. I didn’t blame him for that. At his age he was probably hoping for a bit more out of life than this. Hell, at my age I was hoping for a lot more out of life than this.

‘I guess the door,’ he said finally, looking like a guy who has to choose between the gas chamber and electric chair.

‘OK,’ I said. ‘The door it is then.’

‘Right now?’ he said, starting to look scared.

‘No,’ I said. ‘We’ll wait until we find out the time. We have to try to do it in the middle of the night.’

Just in case we did have to switch to the ceiling though, I gouged some rough holes into the chipboard, so we could use them as toeholds if we needed a ladder. Then I put the bed together, as quickly as I could.

Somehow the discovery of the irons had given us both a great surge of energy. It was a small thing, much too small to pin a lot of hope on, but it gave us the feeling that we were, however slightly, in charge of our own destinies again, or at least able to influence them. I turned the light off and we both got back on the bed, but I could feel Gavin quivering with life.

The funny thing was that the second thing happened only about forty minutes later. The timing was good. Mostly my timing is like, ‘Ready… set… go… oh hi Ellie, you wanna take your tracksuit off then try to catch the others?’ But this night I was on the button. Maybe by finding the bed irons I’d triggered some cosmic force.

No sooner had we both calmed down a bit than I just about lifted off the bed in shock. A wild concert of gunfire suddenly broke out all around us. First came only one shot, but right away a whole lot more started, as though the first one had been the signal, the spark. The time lapse between the first shot and the mad chaos of the rest was about two seconds. After the first one I flew off the bed and ran a complete demented circle. When the full shooting match started, the noise was so loud that even Gavin heard it. He leapt up after me and we threw the bed apart. I had the horrible thought that it might just be a fireworks display for the World Cup or Chinese New Year or something, but I had to take a gamble on that. And anyway, if it was fireworks, at least the people in the house might be distracted by them.

Like always when you’re rushing, you stuff it up. I don’t think I’ll ever learn that lesson properly. I dropped the end of the chipboard on my toe, then couldn’t get the iron out because I was pulling at it too hard. I tried to calm down, to settle, to concentrate. Then at last I had it. It felt heavier than before but I lifted it like it was a javelin and, holding it semi-balanced in one hand, charged straight at the door.

At the last moment I thought, ‘If this door is as hard as old ironbark I’m in big trouble.’ I’d already checked it earlier and it hadn’t seemed too solid. I aimed at the handle and lock area and missed it massively, smacking into a spot to the left that was half on the door frame and half on the wall. ‘Ow,’ I yelled, dropping the bed iron and shaking my hands. But Gavin was there in a moment, picking it up and trying to force it back into my grip. He was right and I was wrong. I didn’t have time to be worried about jarred arms. For us, time was the greatest luxury in the world.

I went to the other side of the room and lined it up again. More like a pole vaulter than a javelin thrower, I ran forward. I tried to focus on the lock area with total intensity. Dear God, I prayed, please don’t let anyone come. Please God, don’t let anyone hear the noise. This time I hit almost perfectly, about a centimetre to the right. The iron went right through, splintering the wood and warping the lock, turning it almost sideways. Gavin rushed in and tried to force the door open but it still wouldn’t go. I figured it needed one more hit. I dragged the bed iron out of the hole and backed up for what I hoped would be the last time. With all the strength I could find I charged at it. It would have been one of those great comedy moments if someone had opened the door just then. They’d have been bored through the stomach. But that didn’t happen. The ball at the end of the iron smashed into the wood, and the door burst open, so hard that it bounced against the wall and nearly slammed shut again. But lucky for us the lock was too wrecked to allow it to close properly. We had our chance. Our last chance.

Now the firing was louder. It was not as intense as that first storm, more sporadic, but quite a few shots flying around. I hardly had time to take that in, though, as I slid down the ladder, Gavin following fast. For two people who’d been starved and beaten and neglected we suddenly seemed to have a lot of energy.

I didn’t know what we were going to find at the bottom of the ladder. What we did find was nothing. For a moment anyway. I’d been expecting all kinds of surprises, so in a way nothing was the biggest surprise of all. But then a guy ran across the intersection of the corridors in front of us. He was carrying a rifle and reloading it as he ran. He didn’t see us. I wondered how many of the rifles in the house still worked. Seemed like some of them still did. What a shame. But I did know that having a gun that worked would be a big bonus for us. I formed the grim determination to get a rifle. The only rifle I’d seen was in the hands of the man who’d just run past, and I assumed it was working, so I decided I’d try to get that one.

I took off after him. It might seem crazy, but I didn’t see how we were going to get out of this house without a weapon. I glanced to the left and saw no-one, so I turned left and went along the corridor, Gavin following. Hanging on the wall was a fire extinguisher. I grabbed that and lifted it off, just as I got to an open door. Holding the extinguisher by the top I peeped into the room. The guy was there all right. He was at the side of the window, peering out, trying to get a sight on someone I guessed, by the way he held the rifle. I figured that not only did I want his gun, but I was happy to help out the people he was trying to shoot. Any enemies of these guys were friends of mine.

I walked calmly towards him, working the pin out of the extinguisher as I did so. I’d only handled a fire extinguisher once before, at a field day, when Rural Firefighting were putting on a display, but they were made for idiots to use, so I figured I should be OK. But the pin was actually quite stiff, and I started to wonder if they’d taken idiots like me into account when they designed them. Then out it came, with a rasping noise.

It was enough to get the guy’s attention. He turned, not yet alarmed I think, just curious. When he saw who it was he reacted pretty fast though. He started swinging around, pulling his rifle back out of the window as he did so. I didn’t wait any longer, just pulled up the lever and let her rip.

I’d forgotten how dramatic fire extinguishers are. Not only do you get an instant result, but you get a powerful one. The white stuff jets out with not much less force than a bullet. It’s a never-ending high-powered blast of chemical, which looks almost solid at the core but with a lot of white mist or gas smoking around it. I couldn’t see the effect on him, because he was instantly obliterated. I saw the rifle, waving wildly as he brought it up, then I saw Gavin, who’d darted around me, come in from the side and wrench it from the guy. The moment he got it he backed off, bringing the rifle up to a firing position, while I kept going with the extinguisher. The guy was coughing and spluttering and yelping, but I don’t think the white stuff was too toxic. I mean, they wouldn’t put stuff in fire extinguishers that was too dangerous, would they? I just think he was taken completely by surprise — having your face and nose and eyes and mouth filled by some white chemical would be totally shocking, for a few moments at least.

He staggered out to the side. I swung the extinguisher around to make sure I kept it on him, but it was getting pretty light and the flow was slowing down. I dropped it and grabbed the rifle from Gavin, checked that the safety was off and backed away, aiming at the guy as he emerged from the fog. He was wiping his eyes and coughing and not even looking up. While he staggered around I had a quick look behind me. Gavin was one jump ahead — he already had a wardrobe door open and was waving at me to put the man in there. I was so relieved to see Gavin showing all this life, considering what he’d been through. It gave me fresh energy. I yelled at the man and he looked up and then got the message that I wanted him to go in the cupboard. He went pretty feebly. We slammed the door and turned the key, but I wasn’t sure that it would hold him for long. I pulled a chair over and wedged it under the handle, then wedged the door as well, with a thin book from the mantelpiece. It wasn’t much but it would have to do. I couldn’t murder the guy in cold blood, although it wouldn’t have taken much for me to put a bullet in him. I thought these people were the worst scum I’d come across.

Anyway, we wouldn’t be in this house for too long, if all went the way I hoped. We still had no idea what was happening, and why there was a gunfight going on. But with Gavin on my heels I ran back down the corridor, holding the rifle in the ready position, so I could fire at a moment’s notice. It was a long way to the top of the staircase. Soon I could see it, though, and then there was this slow-motion moment when we were reaching towards it; I could smell the freedom, I could picture us running down the stairs, and then Gavin yelled something and a man floated into the picture, from beyond the top of the staircase, to my left. He had a gun, I had a gun, we were both ready to shoot without question, so one of us was about to die. I jerked my rifle up fast and pulled the trigger. He was bringing his rifle up a little higher too, and I could see his right hand starting to squeeze as he thought about applying pressure to the trigger. But I was half his age and maybe that made the difference. Kee-raackkk. Is that the sound a rifle makes? I’ve heard enough of them now and that’s the closest I can get to capturing it on paper. His whole body kind of humped, shivered, then he stepped back half a pace, hunched up his shoulders, started moving his hands towards his chest, then fell over sideways, really awkwardly, really clumsily. All in slow motion.

I grabbed his rifle as it fell with him, and gave it to Gavin, which no doubt was one of the bigger thrills of his life. I did think it was possibly the most dangerous thing I’d ever done. The chance of my being shot in the back had suddenly become much higher, but we needed to take many chances if we were going to get out of this place.

Now it was time for the staircase. I gasped a big breath and took the first steps down it. A man appeared at the bottom and I jerked the rifle up again fast and pointed it straight at him. Before I could do anything I heard a shot and he fell backwards, hitting his head on the bottom step with such a crack that if he hadn’t been dead already I think he would have been wiped out by the fall. Killed twice over. You know you’re having a bad night when that happens.

The shot had come from down below us. Someone ran into my field of vision, moving diagonally, like he was doing either a zig or a zag. He had an automatic weapon and he looked totally professional. It wasn’t just the automatic weapon, you could tell from the way he covered that small patch of ground. We were dealing with something new now. Could be good, could be bad, could be on our side, could be hostile. Both Gavin and I swung our rifles around fast and lined him up. Gavin was now down on my step, right beside me. I held my fire, waiting to see what we had. Gavin was not so cautious. He didn’t have the judgement. Before I could stop him he tensed up and pulled the trigger.

‘Gavin!’ I screamed. But there was nothing. Only a wet sort of squelchy noise. Gavin rattled the trigger but nothing happened. I figured this was a rifle that’d been Coked. It was never going to kill anyone. The guy who’d had it mustn’t have tried to fire it or he would have found out for himself. Well, I’d saved someone’s life. Just hoped it wasn’t going to cost us ours.

The soldier at the foot of the stairs was in cover and I couldn’t see him any more. But then I saw his arm waving someone else forward. Another person ran into view. It was Lee.


Gavin and I both screamed ‘Lee!’ He looked up and gave us a big smile, then a quick wave. We started down the steps. Lee yelled something to his right then came running up towards us. The other person came out again and covered Lee, with his back to us. Suddenly, though, Lee’s expression changed. He’d seen something or someone behind us. I whirled around and started dragging Gavin down at the same time. Down to a crouching position I mean, not down the stairs. I figured that was as much as I could cope with, because with my rifle and Gavin’s rifle we had quite a tangled mess. I had to rely on Lee to deal with whatever was behind us, but I did start twisting around and trying to get my rifle into a position where I could use it.

In a situation like a gunfight I think trust in Lee is probably quite a good idea. I just wish I could say the same about him when it came to stuff like relationships and other girls.

He dropped low too, but faster than Gavin and me, and at the same time he straightened up his rifle and fired.

You know you really trust someone when you let him point a rifle just above your head and pull the trigger, especially when he’s facing you at the time. Not that we had any choice. It’s one of many experiences I never want to have again. It wasn’t only the noise and the flash and the weird sensation of the air exploding around us, it was the psychological thing of looking down the barrel of a gun and knowing it’s about to be fired. Sometimes I wonder about people who are shot dead. What do they think when they look at the little hole in the barrel and realise it’s the last thing they’ll ever see, their final view of the world, the last image their eyes will convey to their brain. In the old days people believed that if you were murdered your eyes retained the image of your killer, so to solve the crime they only had to prise your eyes open and they’d see a little photograph of the person who’d done it. Mr Kassar, my old Drama teacher, told me that, so it must be true… on second thoughts, maybe I’d better check it.

If life were fair, the last view you’d have before you die would be fluffy white clouds, a crystal-clear stream, a lamb gambolling in a paddock, or some corny crap like that. But I guess for many people it’s the filthy walls of some derelict building where they’re doing drugs; or a muddy trench with rats running along it, in a battlefield; or the twisted metal and smashed windscreen of a car wreck.

The guy behind us, his last view of life was a staircase, Lee and Gavin and me, and the carpet. And his own blood perhaps. He probably saw some of that as he died. There was plenty of it. I got a look at him just as he fell. He came toppling towards me, trying to hold his throat together, and failing. His body covered half-a-dozen steps because he fell straight down, and I guess he was pretty tall anyway. Then he slid down another two steps and halfway over the top of me. He lay there, the heaviest weight I have ever felt. He wasn’t just heavy because he weighed seventy or eighty kilos. He was heavy because, I don’t know, he was life and death and the whole of humanity, and I felt I couldn’t bear that weight any longer. I think that was the moment when I made some critical decisions, not consciously, but I think inside me a large door closed and a new door began to quietly open.

Of course there was no time for that right then. The scene was one of total chaos. I had blood all over me, and it was still pumping out of the man’s throat as I got myself out from under him. My eyes and ears were still dazzled and shocked by the bullet that had come at me from out of the barrel of Lee’s rifle. Lee had leapt up the steps and was ushering Gavin down them. At the same time he was covering the top of the stairs, by walking down backwards and scanning constantly with his eyes and his rifle. The person at the foot of the stairs who was covering Lee had now moved out of sight again. I could hear heavy pounding from somewhere inside the building, to my left. There were still a few shots from outside in the street. Gradually smoke was drifting up the staircase, also from outside. Not a lot of smoke, not enough to make me think the building was on fire, in fact maybe just the smoke from the gun battle, but it added to my sense of fear and confusion.

The stairs were slippery with blood now, but I navigated that and followed Lee and Gavin as they ran down the passageway. At last I could see light at the end of the tunnel. It was the light from the street outside, not much light because it was apparently the middle of the night, but enough to make me feel that we had a real chance for freedom and fresh air again.

The table I had seen when I first entered the house was now knocked over, and I was pleased to see the automatic rifle lying on the ground. With a bit of luck one of the defenders had tried to use it and found that the magazine was missing. It may have been coincidence, but just past the table was a body, a very lightly built young soldier, lying on his side, his head resting on his outstretched arm as though he were asleep, and just a little blood seeping from underneath him.

As I reached the front door I checked behind me to make sure we were not being followed, but Lee was on the job anyway, kneeling just outside the front door with his rifle trained down the corridor past me, looking for problems. ‘God,’ I thought, ‘he really has turned into the ultimate fighting machine. There’s nothing he doesn’t think of, no options he doesn’t cover.’ He motioned to me to keep going, so I went on out into the street itself, cautiously though, looking left and right and straight ahead, rifle at the ready, not sure what to expect. Someone was ushering Gavin towards a vehicle, so I followed them. The vehicle was an old Volvo, dark green. I figured, well, if you can’t trust a Volvo driver, who can you trust? Then I realised it was Homer at the wheel. I immediately revised my opinion of Volvo drivers.

To my right was the person who had been covering us on the staircase. I realised now, with a shock, that it was a girl. She was standing with her back to me, but at a bit of an angle, so that I could see some of her profile. She was definitely female. A moment after I registered that fact, a guy ran across from the left, in front of me, yelling as he passed her, ‘The area’s secured, Pimple.’

Pimple! I nearly dropped my rifle. The Pimple was a girl? I’d never really seriously considered that possibility. It was funny, the effect on me, in among all that uproar, but it was like dry ice had been poured all through my system and I was suddenly frozen to the spot. Managing to overcome that, I swung right to get a good look at her. In a night of shocks, I then got the biggest one of all. It was Bronte.


‘Who owns all the blood?’ Homer asked as I followed Gavin into the back seat. He was already accelerating as he threw the question back over his shoulder. With Homer’s smart remarks, you always have to translate, and this question, translated, meant, ‘Are you okay? Is it your blood? Because if so, I’ll do something about it.’

Underneath Homer’s big, tough, blokey exterior there is a heart. It’s like with the Earth, first you go through the Rocky Crust, then the Mohorovicic discontinuity, then the Outer Mantle, then the Inner Mantle, then the Gutenberg discontinuity, then you finally get to the hot part, the molten outer core and the inner core. See, I have done some work in Science. By then you’ve travelled over six thousand kilometres, but eventually you do get to the heart. So yeah, it’s a pretty good comparison with Homer.

‘You’re just paid to do the driving,’ I said. ‘So shut up and drive.’

He took me at my word and off we went. He drove straight up over the footpath and into the park, following a concrete path that I guess was designed for council vehicles. He accelerated as soon as we were on it, and within seconds we were flying through the park at a speed that would have been dangerous on a freeway. I glanced out the back window and saw people piling into two other vehicles back outside the house. One of them looked like Lee, but it was getting difficult to see. A moment later the first of the cars started following us. I assumed they were on our side, because Homer seemed quite relaxed, and the words ‘The area’s secured, Pimple,’ had been reassuring for me.

We got to the other side of the park without hitting any fountains, stray dogs or joggers, although joggers wouldn’t have been a big risk at this time of night. But Homer came blasting out of the other side of the park at such a speed that when we tried to take the jump from the footpath to the road, we bottomed out pretty badly. I think the Volvo was kind of low-slung. It didn’t put Homer off one little bit. He did a full racing turn, rocking the thing on its springs so much that I wondered if we might get seasick, but the car did stick to the road well, even if it left most of its rubber on the bitumen. He hit the accelerator again, and the turbo charger kicked in, and away we went, but something was badly wrong underneath, and a horrible clattering, banging, scraping noise had even Gavin looking at me with a puzzled face. I leant across in front of him to see out his window, as the noise seemed to be coming more from his side of the car, and was slightly alarmed to see sparks flying as we raced along at a hundred and something k’s an hour. ‘Homer!’ I yelled, ‘I think you’ve broken something.’

‘I think so too,’ he agreed. He hit the brakes with about as much force as he’d been using on the accelerator. Neither Gavin nor I were wearing safety belts, and we had to grab at the seats in front to avoid going through the windscreen. ‘Let’s abandon this one and hitch a ride,’ Homer suggested, opening his door. We didn’t need a second invitation, but piled out after him and ran back to the next car, which had also stopped. It was a dark blue Holden station wagon. Again Gavin and I got in the back seat, this time with Homer sliding in from the other side. Lee was in the front passenger seat, and who should be driving but my old friend Toddy. That was yet another shock, but only a little one, compared to the sudden appearances of Lee, Homer and, most importantly, Bronte.

‘Hi Ellie,’ Toddy said in a good-natured way, as though we were just passing in the street one Saturday morning as we did our shopping.

‘Hi Toddy,’ I replied, trying to keep the same tone.

Off we went again, and for once I felt more secure with Toddy than I had with Homer. He drove quickly and cleverly, but not outrageously or recklessly. I started to feel a little safer. It would be a long time before I could relax, but I did get the impression that Gavin and I were in pretty good hands. ‘So Bronte’s the Scarlet Pimpernel?’ I asked Homer and Lee.

‘Whatever gave you that idea?’ Homer asked, but Lee just laughed.

I was still in shock about it. ‘But she’s so quiet,’ I said, knowing even as I said it that it was a completely stupid remark.

Homer, who shows no mercy, and takes no prisoners, except when it’s Gavin and me locked in an attic, said, ‘Yes, of course you have to be loud and over the top to be a leader.’

‘How does she do it?’ I asked, which wasn’t much more intelligent than my previous comment.

‘She just wakes up in the morning and there she is,’ Homer said.

This was an old joke of ours that we’d been laughing about for ten years. It was from one of Dad’s books, and it went something like this: A lady asked the General ‘How do you find yourself these cold winter mornings?’

The General replied, ‘I just wake up in the mornings, throw back the sheets, and there I am.’

I know it’s not really all that funny, but for some reason Homer and I found it hilarious and we often dragged it into a conversation.

‘How did you find Gavin and me?’ I asked next, then, to pre-empt Homer, added, ‘I know, I know, you just threw back the sheets and there we were.’

‘Toddy and Bronte are old mates,’ Homer said.

Toddy turned for a moment and flashed a grin over his left shoulder. ‘My father always tells me I should marry Bronte,’ he said.

‘Thanks for finding us,’ I said to Toddy, realising that he must have been a key player in this whole thing.

He gave a little shrug. ‘I watch that house, and I watch and I watch, after you go in, and you never come out!’

I shook my head. Toddy had been so adamant that he wouldn’t have the slightest thing to do with me once I left him at the drop-off point, so many days ago.

We sped on through the city. I didn’t plague them with questions, because I knew that there were other things to worry about, and I really wanted Toddy to concentrate on his driving. Like, I really really wanted Toddy to concentrate on his driving.

On we went. Through the city, through the night. Homer handed me a plastic container. I opened it and found half-a-dozen California rolls. I resisted the temptation to say, ‘Oh no, not more rice’, thinking about the starving prisoners at the end of World War II who within forty-eight hours of getting their freedom were complaining that there was no tomato sauce or that they didn’t like cucumber in their salad sandwiches. Instead I thought how amazing it was that they had remembered a detail like a picnic box in the middle of all the other preparing that they must have done.

Gavin grabbed one greedily. To him, any food was good food, and I have to say I closed my mouth gratefully on one myself. I recognised the slight glugginess and asked Lee, ‘Did you make these?’ Lee was on a quest, in search of the perfect sushi. He wasn’t quite there yet, but I was always happy to sample his latest attempt. I kept telling him to use an electric rice cooker, but he was such a purist that he wouldn’t touch them, even though his parents had used them in the restaurant.

He just nodded in reply.

‘Thanks,’ I said gratefully.

‘Hey, you going to hog all those yourself?’ Homer asked.

‘How long is it since your last good meal?’ I asked him.

‘What are you saying? You been on a diet?’

‘Yeah. Figured it was time I shed a few kilos. Here, you wanna take food out of the mouths of starving babies? I hope you choke on it.’ I handed him a roll. He immediately started eating it, without the slightest sign of guilt.

The energy flowed back into my body as I progressed through the California roll. God, food is good. I should say grace more often. Food is one of God’s better inventions. But remind me to speak to Him about blowflies, mosquitoes and leeches. Not to mention cockroaches.

I looked out the window of the car. I couldn’t believe how secure I felt, when you consider that we were travelling at high speed through a hostile city, and could have been attacked at any moment. But although I hadn’t been taking a lot of notice, I had the feeling that Toddy had taken us on a pretty circuitous route. Right now we seemed to be in a boring street in a boring suburb, going over judder bars every fifty metres or so. I had the feeling that I was looking at my future. At least Toddy slowed down for the judder bars. He seemed like a more responsible, more mature Toddy, now that he was in a group. I know a lot of boys like that. They don’t have confidence when they’re on their own, but they draw it from the group.

We hit a main road about twenty minutes later. By then we were beyond the city limits, and the whiff of freedom was becoming a strong stench. Roll on freedom, I say. Better than food. But my sense of excitement was a bit premature. I don’t know if the roadblock was for the benefit of us or somebody else, or whether it was just a permanent fixture, but I doubt if it was permanent, because it gave Toddy a hell of a fright, and his local knowledge seemed pretty good.

Maybe they were checking people for. 05.

Anyway, suddenly there it was, lighting up the night sky like one of those huge service stations and truck stops combined. That’s what I thought it was at first. But flashing blue and white lights are a bit of a giveaway, in most countries probably. I gripped the back of the seat in front of me and screeched, ‘Toddy!’

He was already slowing. I looked around anxiously, trying to figure out the best escape route, or, if there wasn’t one, the best plan of attack. As I did, Toddy continued to slow. I couldn’t work out why. Then two cars flashed up, one on either side of us. I tensed, thinking it was part of an attack. But one of the passengers was Bronte, and she was easing the barrel of a very large gun out of the window. She didn’t see me. I was amazed to see her in a role that was so different to making scones or sitting under the tree at school.

The two cars converged in front of us. Toddy accelerated again to keep up with them. The lights through our back window made me look around, to see another car behind us. Homer had seen it too, but I assumed from his calmness that this fourth car must be on our side as well. It was nice to be looked after for a change, both nice and unusual. These people seemed so professional. It was embarrassing to think of how clumsily we had operated during the war, compared to this. But we had done OK. Maybe there was still a place for the amateurs.

We were in a two, one, one formation. But suddenly, as though the four cars were dancers and they had a really good choreographer, the two leaders split, one to the left and one to the right; Toddy slowed again, faded left, and the vehicle behind came powering through, like an elephant at the Olympics. I didn’t know what it was but it was military, it was big, it was strong, and it probably should have been drug tested. We other three cars all fell into formation behind it, and I watched with awe as the military-type vehicle smashed everything.

Pieces of the roadblock, including pieces of two cars that were meant to be part of the roadblock, were still flying through the air as we raced through the gap. At high speed we crunched and bumped and lurched and thumped over the debris. I grabbed the car with one hand and Gavin with the other. On my left I saw two guys running away, and two others aiming and firing. I didn’t have time to look out the right-hand side.

Bullets hammered into our car. Some noises are ambiguous. A rifle shot in the distance can sound like a guy chopping wood. Bullets hammering into a car make a sound that can’t be forgotten. The car becomes a little echo chamber, and you feel as though a giant with a sledgehammer is bashing it. You can’t believe that a tiny bullet can do such a thing. The car filled with screams, some of which I have to admit were mine. But then I saw one of the guys who was firing get felled like a giant had just hammered him. I didn’t see what happened next, as already we were fleeing the roadblock at a speed that should have seen Toddy lose his licence for decades into the future.


‘I can’t believe you’re the Scarlet Pimple,’ I said.

‘Believe it, she’s the Scarlet Pimple,’ Homer said. ‘Why am I getting deja vu?’

‘Because it’s the fourth time she’s said it?’ said Jess.

That really got up my nose. Partly because Homer’s joke really didn’t need an interpreter, but with Jess everything has to be spelt out. Forget subtlety when she’s around. She’d make an RG-31 going through a roadblock look subtle.

But also because Jess had known about Bronte being the Scarlet Pimple and I hadn’t. Fair enough, Jess had joined Liberation and I hadn’t. But there were plenty of people in Liberation who didn’t know the identity of the Scarlet Pimple. Anyway, whether it was fair or not didn’t matter. I just felt violently jealous.

I’d learned quite a lot in the last twenty-four hours, including the name of the vehicle that had rammed the roadblock with such frightening force. Gavin was already nagging me to buy an RG-31, and I could see that it would have a thousand and one uses, but even so it wasn’t high on my shopping list. They cost a cool half million or thereabouts, but for that you get a vehicle that can drive over two landmines and live to tell the story.

That piece of information wasn’t all that crucial to me. But some of the other stuff… like the number of off-duty soldiers who had come with the Scarlet Pimple and the others on the raid across the border to get Gavin and me back. The inner workings of Liberation were being laid bare to me. No way in the world could the government or the Army condone or bless what Liberation did, but gee, the amount of unofficial help they gave was pretty spectacular. As Homer said, since the war ended a lot of Army medics had treated a lot of fresh combat wounds, which was funny considering there was meant to be no combat going on. Sometimes soldiers would come back very late from leave and instead of getting into major trouble, like they normally did, they’d just get a nod from their commanding officer, and he might even make the soldier a cup of tea. Rifles and ammo were strictly guarded, but sometimes a door was left open and later a few hundred rounds of ammo would be written off as having been fired on the practice range. A damaged RG-31 with many little dents all over it must have been caught in a hailstorm. Funny kind of storm though, where the hailstones came from the side instead of from above. But nothing was said, and it was just taken quietly into an Army workshop for repairs.

And so it went on. I was living in a country with two levels of government, so it seemed. The stuff we saw on TV and read about in the newspapers, that was one level, and it was all most people ever saw or heard, but on another level was a group of high-powered people who were doing what they thought was best for the rest of us. It made me uneasy. I thought we were meant to be a democracy. Who elected these people? What gave them the right to decide foreign policy for the rest of us? If they read the situation wrongly, if they stuffed everything up, then we would have to wear the consequences, even though we didn’t know they’d been doing it in the first place! Had this happened before the war too? Surely not. But maybe it had?

I started feeling guilty about the stuff I’d done for Liberation. Not a huge amount, but still… I’d never thought it through but then I didn’t know how much of it had been going on, or rather, how unofficially official the whole thing was.

And I didn’t really think it through on that particular day. It wasn’t the time or the place. Gavin and I had been rescued under spectacular circumstances by a whole bunch of people who’d responded to a tip-off from Toddy that something appeared to have gone horribly wrong. It was the time and place for gratitude, gratitude, gratitude. And I gave it out, big time. I had nothing left in me but gratitude, and I was happy to give it. Strength, energy, courage, stamina, determination… I had none of that stuff left. I was gutted. All I could do was thank them over and over.

And then be amazed at the stuff I was learning. Bronte. Of course, Bronte. Of course! The quiet achiever. She was perfectly placed to be the Scarlet Pimple. During this long ‘debrief ’ back at my place she’d mentioned her father three times already. There were a lot of brains behind Liberation and I clearly remembered her father, the lawyer, a major in the Army, and how quiet and efficient and ruthless he had seemed to me. I realised that he was probably a big force in the whole organisation. And another thing about him: he was quite happy to go outside the normal rules, to find other solutions to a problem. He’d even written that to me when I’d been trying to deal with Mr Rodd and Mr Sayle, the horrible pair who wanted to get a guardianship order on me and then steal my land: Forget the legal approach… you know how effective direct action is… use your brains and your imagination and you’ll come up with better solutions…

Damn, I hadn’t even thought about that when I’d been trying to work out the identity of the Scarlet Pimple. Another thing suddenly struck me, another piece of the puzzle dropped into place: the way he’d got that note to me. He’d had Bronte give me all the official stuff, all the official legal advice, and then afterwards she’d slipped me the unsigned note, also from him. I realised how that little transaction summed him up perfectly. Mr Respectable Army Lawyer, working away doing all the regular stuff from 9 to 5, sorry, from 0900 to 1700, and at the same time running a different operation in secret, using his own daughter. Bronte had once called him Major Action Man; that had been another clue I’d missed. He was into action all right. And come to think of it, so was his daughter. I didn’t know how much of this came from her father and how much came from Bronte herself, but I remembered now that she’d told me she was into boxing, and then when I’d complained about Mr Sayle she’d told me to firebomb his office. How on earth had I ever decided she was calm and gentle? Well, OK, she was both of those things too, but just because she was a year behind us at school and because she spoke quietly I’d marked her down as Beth out of Little Women. Couldn’t imagine Beth suggesting firebombing as a solution to a problem, or doing a bit of boxing as an after-school activity.

‘The Scarlet Pimple,’ I said for the fifth time, shaking my head at Bronte, although now I was doing it as much to annoy Jess and Homer as for any other reason.

‘Yes, and I’ve been getting a few lately,’ she said, touching a bit of acne on the left side of her cheek.

‘Very funny.’

Lee and Gavin came in and I got up, pulled out the cutting board and started in on the evening meal. If life were fair both Gavin and I would have had three months off to recover from what we’d been through. However, life has never been fair, is not fair and will never be fair. This is Ellie’s First Law. Ninety percent of the rage in the world is because most people don’t understand that. I don’t know where everyone got the idea that life was meant to be fair, but they sure got a bum deal with that message. Once you know fairness is not required, is not compulsory, and in fact often has nothing to do with anything, you can get on with it.

If life were fair our country would never have been invaded, Lee and Gavin and I would still have parents; Robyn and Corrie and Chris would be alive; and Wirrawee would have beaten Risdon in the last Grand Final of the Wirrawee-Holloway Netball League, instead of being ripped off by an umpire whose seeing-eye dog needed a seeing-eye dog.

So there I was, having to do housework, when I should have been in a tropical resort recuperating after a few of the nastiest days of my life.

Still, I’d trained the boys well over the years and they did useful things like chop onions and peel spuds and shell peas while Gavin set the table. Gavin still looked pale and thin and there were shadows in his eyes that I’d seen before and had always hoped I’d never see again. My biggest worry was that one day those shadows would become permanent.

While I stirred the gravy I thought about the topic that mattered most to Gavin and me now. The future.

I’d come to a decision while I lay under the body of that man on the stairs, but I didn’t know how to communicate it to the others — especially Gavin — or how to go about carrying it out. In the meantime members of Liberation had a twenty-four hour guard on our farm, and people like Toddy kept people like Bronte informed about the state of play in Havelock. So far the state of play was all right, and the word was that the damage done to the particular gang of thugs who’d kidnapped Gavin and me was pretty much terminal. Not many had survived the raid on the house, and the ones who had were now scattered to the four winds. But I wouldn’t like to ask an insurance company for a quote on our long-term safety on the farm. Might as well ask them for a quote on a chicken in a crocodile farm.

But for now we had to keep going. As soon as I could drag my weary body around the farm I’d done a check of the place. Everything about it had particular significance for me now. Of course I’d always valued it. Never taken it for granted. Yet now I noticed stuff almost as if for the first time. The way the wisteria was regrowing after that huge tree branch smashed most of it to pieces. The splatter of paint drops on the concrete outside the machinery shed, where I’d been a bit careless when I was painting it with Dad. A couple of roses Mum had grown from cuttings, down near the shearing shed, at last looking quite healthy, after years of being in the intensive care ward, with most of us giving them no chance. I’d made a joke to Mum once, when I was certain the roses were going to die, a joke about taking flowers to the flowers. You know, like they were in hospital, so you take them flowers… oh forget it.

Anyway, I should have known better about the roses. Whatever Mum planted grew eventually. Take me for instance.

I went down to the lagoon and noticed again the care with which my father had rehabilitated it. Fences and tree guards to protect it, nesting boxes along the banks, the way he’d bulldozed out the whole northern end to make it bigger and more viable. He was a Hall of Fame father. I wondered what he’d think about the things I’d done, the things I was doing, and the thing I was about to do.

I wandered past the tip and wondered if I should have thrown out that armchair. Maybe it would have been worth restoring. And the table from the shearing shed. And all that wire. And the big birdcage, sure it was a mess, but we might need it the next time we got an injured bird, especially if it was a raptor. I did this all the time at the tip. It was the big disadvantage of having your own rubbish dump. You always had the choice of getting something back again. When it was gone forever, out of your life, when you’d kissed it goodbye, when you’d finally achieved closure — well, you knew it was really just over the hill and you could always go and retrieve it if you changed your mind. Gavin was a shocker. Whenever I chucked anything of his out he always, eventually, marched down here and collected it.

This was the spot where Dad had killed the brown snake. Lucky. It had been a bit too close for comfort that time. Brown snakes can be so aggressive, and their poison is deadly. In the world’s top ten, according to Jeremy. We saw heaps of snakes but we only killed them if they were close to the house or the sheds. But we’d lost a few cattle to snakes, and a few sheep. Not to mention the dogs — I couldn’t even remember the name now of that working dog who’d died right in front of me, swelling up like a tyre when air’s being pumped into it. It had been horrible to see, and I had felt so helpless.

Past the machinery shed, where the swallows nested every year. They had created a housing estate now, with their nests and mud and droppings. They were more used to us than they had been at the start. These days they still took off if we got too close, of course, with that sudden silent dash past your ears that was always such a shock, but they tolerated us pretty well. I never got tired of seeing their babies in the nest, then eventually seeing them perched on protuberances nearby, little fluff balls still not big enough to fly.

A farm is just an accumulation of stories really. Same with people. That’s where Dad shot the fox, with the duck still in her mouth. Talk about incriminating evidence. Down to the shearing shed, where we kept the poddy lambs, when we used to have sheep. As a little kid I fed them anything. Watermelon, bread, cake, apricots from the tree, biscuits. They ate it all and seemed to thrive on it. Through Coopers, remembering the musters. Coopers is a difficult paddock, because it doesn’t have a particular shape to it, so there’s no obvious path for the sheep to take. You have to just about do a rollcall, issue a personal invitation to each sheep, collect each one individually. Getting the lambs over the creek really did involve a one-on-one encounter. The best way was simply to throw them, but first you’d have to catch them. One would come scrambling past, all fired up and frantic because of the dogs, and you’d dive and either miss, in which case you’d get another graze or bruise or scratch, or you’d connect with a leg if you were lucky; then you’d drag the lamb in and chuck her over the creek and turn and look for another one.

Up through the paddocks. ‘A farmer’s footsteps are the best fertiliser,’ Dad used to say, which just means that the more you walk around your place the better everything seems to grow and flourish. I was pleased to see that things generally were looking all right. Mr Young’s cattle seemed halfway decent and mine were doing OK. I’d have to do a proper check later, and see if there’d been any casualties while I was locked in an attic in Havelock, but I noticed now that the place had a decent well-looked-after feeling. That made me proud. I’d inherited quite a legacy, and I knew there were ghosts looking over my shoulder. Friendly ghosts, but if I’d been lazy or destructive they would have let me know about it pretty damn quick, and they mightn’t be too friendly then.


‘So how on earth did you get involved in Liberation?’ I asked the Scarlet Pimple as we sat on the grass overlooking the oval, shivering as we ate our lunch. It was one of those grey-blue days, more grey than blue, and the wind wore away our clothes till we might as well have been wearing nothing. I don’t know why we were out there really. To get away from the boys, I suppose. Not to mention the teachers.

She laughed. ‘It wasn’t any deliberate plan. I realised my parents were doing stuff that was clandestine, my father mostly…’

‘What’s clandestine?’ I asked, annoyed that anyone knew a word I didn’t, especially when she was a year below me.

‘Oh, you know. Secret, sneaky, undercover. So naturally I listened and asked questions, started snooping around. It was very exciting to think that my father was some sort of spy. Quite a lot of it got done from home. They’d go for walks in the park next door and sometimes I’d be allowed to go along. The good thing about my parents is that they’ve always trusted me. They know I don’t repeat stuff. And of course as I got to know how this stuff was working, I noticed that most of the people in Liberation weren’t much older than me. The war changed everyone’s ages I think. So after a while I became pretty good friends with some of them, and they talked to me completely openly, because they assumed I knew everything. Then I got asked to do little jobs, like take a message to someone, or pick up a parcel, or meet someone at a coffee shop and look after them until a member of Liberation turned up.

‘And then, drum roll, it all went horribly wrong. My parents were out and I got a phone call at the house from Oliver, this young guy who was in charge of one of the units. They’re never never meant to ring the house, so I knew he must be desperate. I told him to ring back in ten minutes and I raced down to the public telephone at the corner and got the number from that and when he rang again I told him to call that number in five minutes. So I raced back to the public phone and took the call, and when he explained what had gone wrong I gave him some suggestions and then spent the night working the phone, organising a whole lot of people and stuff to help him. My parents were out of mobile range, but by the time they got home, which was 1 am, I was still down at the corner using all the coins I’d found in the house, but everything was under control. I’d fluked a few pretty good outcomes with the suggestions I’d made to Oliver, so I was suddenly flavour of the month. Oliver wanted me as his second in charge and when he moved to Stratton I found myself running the group. It was only a little group, mind you, but then it started growing a lot. My father finds that quite disconcerting. I think he gave in to Oliver and let me do it because he thought he could control the whole thing, but it hasn’t worked out that way. We’ve become one of the biggest units around, and because we’ve been successful at a lot of the stuff we’ve taken on, we keep getting asked to do more. Most of it doesn’t come through my father at all now. It’s exciting but it’s also terrifying.’

She didn’t look at all terrified. I decided it would take a volcanic eruption to scare Bronte, and even then it would have to be in her back yard.

‘Your father’s playing a dangerous game, isn’t he?’ I asked. I was still bothered by this idea of people running a secret war, which could have big consequences for us all, even though we hadn’t voted for it and had no say in it. Like I said, I’d never thought about this before. I don’t think it bothered Bronte though. I guess when it’s your parents you follow them blindly, to some extent anyway. I guess that’s how those Mafia families, where there’s, like, six generations of crims, get to be the way they are.

‘Both of them are.’ She frowned. ‘It’ll all blow up sooner or later and there’ll be a scandal and they’ll have to take early retirement from the Army. But my dad’s prepared for that. It’s already happened to a couple of his friends. He likes the Prime Minister’s attitude though. You never sack anyone, or admit you could possibly be guilty of anything, even if you’ve bashed a baby or hijacked a plane, because by this time next week there’ll be a bushfire, or an old lady’ll win a million bucks in the lottery, or a pig’ll give birth to a twoheaded piglet or something, and it’ll all be forgotten.’

‘Yeah, he’s got that right,’ I couldn’t help but agree.

‘But you know, Ellie,’ she said, looking at me hard over her chicken and avocado sandwich, ‘I don’t think you should join Liberation. The opposite. I think you should take a break from all this stuff. It’s not good for your health. In wartime, pilots are only allowed a certain number of sorties, and then they have to take a rest. I think they do twenty before they get sent for a holiday. And that’s for guys who don’t even see the enemy, most of them anyway. You’ve been doing stuff on the ground, close up, face to face. You’ve seen too much blood.’

I nodded. My eyes filled with tears. That was happening all too easily these days. She patted me then hugged me and we sat in silence for a while. In the distance the bell rang, like it always does sooner or later. She squeezed me and we got up and collected our bits and pieces and headed off, me to English her to PE.

Bronte was an amazing person, not only because she was strong and clever, but because she understood people and she had… I don’t know… I was going to say sympathy, but that seems like a weak word sometimes. I guess compassion is better. I wasn’t sure her father had that. Her mother might have but I’d only met her a couple of times. I reckon you could probably be a really good leader without compassion, as long as you were great at strategy and analysis and all the rest, but to be one of the all-time greats I think you’d have to add compassion to your repertoire.

It’s only imagination, really, when it’s all said and done.

The very next day, in almost exactly the same spot, I had another conversation with another one of my friends, but this one worked out quite differently. It was with Jeremy and it was different to every conversation we’d had before. Pretty early on, ignoring my lunch, which I didn’t feel like eating, I said, ‘Bronte thinks I should take a break from violence for a while.’


‘You know, not join Liberation but go for nice picnics instead. Something like that.’

‘Oh! Yeah, that sounds good. Good advice I mean.’

He didn’t sound very interested, but he did add, ‘Bronte’s amazing.’

I’d heard him on the theme of Bronte before, except that I didn’t know it was Bronte he was talking about, back then. It was just the Scarlet Pimple, whom I’d always thought, in a totally sexist way, was a boy. Now I felt slightly annoyed to hear him talking about Bronte with such feeling. ‘You’re not so unamazing yourself,’ I said, getting closer and using my left hand to tickle and tease him and make him feel good.

I was feeling guilty about Jeremy. I’d hardly seen him since the day of the big rescue. I suppose I was a little pissed, though, that when I did get back, one of the first things he did was to ask me for the money he’d handed me before I left. He’d been so like an accountant for a minute there. Even Jess, who was in my kitchen with us, had said, ‘Geez Jeremy, give her a break, I don’t think that’s the main thing on her mind right now.’

Of course I didn’t have the money. It had disappeared during that first escape attempt, when they’d caught me and bashed me. I wondered if Jeremy would make me fill out a tax form or a receipt or something.

Anyway, on the bank above the oval, he seemed like he was probably still thinking about the money and not about me. Then suddenly he sat up and said, ‘Ellie, there’s something I’ve got to say to you.’

I took my hand away real fast. There are different ways you can say a sentence like that, but when a boy says it in the tone Jeremy used, and when his face is all red and he can’t look at you, you know you’re not about to have a conversation about what a fantastic person you are. And how totally in love he is. Nuh uh. For the first time in our relationship I felt doubt. I looked hard at him, which was easy, because like I said, he wasn’t looking at me, but I had the feeling he knew where my eyes were.

I thought he was going to say that he’d fallen out of love with me, but it was more complicated than that. In a voice I’d never heard him use before, speaking fast and loud, he said, ‘I’m sick of the way you hang around Homer and the way you talk about him and the way you never take your eyes off him and you listen to him more than you listen to me. You’ve got to decide, Ellie. You’re meant to be in love with me but anyone’d think Homer’s the only thing in your life, I mean the only guy. I’ve had enough of it.’

I felt sandbagged. I think that’s the right word. When you feel as though you’ve been clobbered across the head by someone wielding a large and heavy sandbag. I’d been physically beaten not all that long ago and now I was getting beaten up with words and thoughts. I swayed over to one side, like I really had been clobbered.

‘Jeremy!’ I gasped.

‘Well, it’s true. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. You’ve gotta decide who you want to be with. I know he’s your childhood friend and all that, but now I’m on the scene and things are different. Things should be different! Things have got to be different.’

I just kept gaping at him. He was like a whole new person. Before I’d seen someone calm and intelligent and thoughtful and kind of perfect really. Now I saw someone selfish and possessive. It was like I’d put on a new pair of glasses. It wasn’t a black and white thing — I didn’t immediately fall out of love with him and think he was a complete dickhead — but I realised there was much more to him than I’d realised.

‘Jeremy, I don’t know what you’re even talking about. I’m not in love with Homer but I’m not going to change my relationship with him just because you don’t like it. Why should I?’

‘You have to choose,’ he said. ‘I can’t keep going like this.’

‘Like what? Nothing’s changed!’

‘No, except that I’ve started to realise that I’m just number two or three or four on your list. I want to be number one. I want to be the only one. I’m offering you something pretty good Ellie, total love, and that’s not something that comes along too often.’

He started striding up and down in front of me. I stared at him, wondering what had got into him. One thing for sure, I wasn’t about to hand over my life to him. I wasn’t some possession that he’d picked up at the summer sales and from now on was going to be what he wanted me to be. It was the opposite. He’d fallen in love with the person I was, so it’d be more than dumb of him to change me into someone different, and dumb of me to try to change into someone I thought he wanted.

And if he had made a mistake about the person I was, if he’d been seeing someone else every time he looked at me, well, tough toadies for him.

‘Jeremy, the bell’s gonna go in a sec, and I don’t know what to say to you, but my relationship with Homer isn’t something for you to control, and if you think it is, then you don’t understand much about me or about relationships. I’m too upset to talk about this any more, but maybe you better ring me tonight or something.’

And off I went, my head feeling like a shaken-up bottle of Coke had just been opened in it. All I could think was, ‘I hope he doesn’t ring. I don’t think I can cope with any more of that today.’


Am I a lightning rod? Do I attract storms? Are there violent forces of nature zigzagging around the heavens looking for a way to get to earth and then they see me and they go, ‘Oh good, there’s Ellie, now’s our chance.’?

It was only a couple of weeks after we got back from Havelock, bruised and more battered than a piece of fish. I was in the kitchen, making a fruit salad; there was a call on the walkie-talkie from the soldiers down the road — we had the honour of patrols around the district all the time now — and they told me there was a lady from the Department of Something-or-other coming my way.

Now I didn’t think much about that. There were always government departments turning up for one thing or another. Checking the water, checking for GM crops, checking the road, checking our fire precautions and tractor emissions and the way we store our chemicals and whether our rifles and shotguns are in childproof safes… For a long time after the war everything was in chaos and we could do pretty much what we wanted — no, that’s not true, some things, like land redistribution, happened pretty fast — but in most ways it was a land without laws. Sometimes I rather liked it like that, because it meant that as soon as anything went wrong we could all say, ‘Why doesn’t the government do something about it? How come those people can get away with so much?’

But gradually the world began to get organised again and all the official stuff started to happen the way it used to, only worse, because with much less land to go around everyone was more crowded, so there were more regulations and a stronger sense of POS, ‘parent over shoulder’, of being watched and controlled and supervised. Bit by bit, detail by detail.

One part of my life had been completely ignored though, and I didn’t think about it much, didn’t let myself think about it, because I knew that things could get horribly complicated if a government department started snooping around it. So even though the name ‘Department of Social Responsibility’ didn’t mean anything specific to me, I did feel a strange tension in my stomach as I worked away on the fruit salad. I heard the car pull up outside and for a moment didn’t want to go see who it was or what she wanted. But I made myself put down the knife and go to the door.

She’d parked her Falcon next to my ute and was just straightening up from having a peep into the cab of the ute as I opened the kitchen door. She was about thirty, I’d guess, although I’m pretty hopeless at working out people’s ages. She had a face that — I don’t want to be rude, but I will be — was like a particular type of fish, except I don’t know the name of them. Round, with little eyes and a little mouth, and ears that were flat to the sides of her head. On top of that was a heap of blonde curls. She carried a blue folder and she walked towards the house as though she owned it and was about to take charge. I’m not saying all this with hindsight; this is exactly what I thought as I watched her approach. I took an instant dislike to her.

‘Ellie Linton, is it?’ she asked. She didn’t offer to shake hands. ‘Madeleine Randall. I’m from the Department of Social Responsibility. I notice the vehicle’s got its keys in the ignition?’

‘Er, yes, I suppose it has,’ I said, feeling completely off balance. It was as bad as the conversation with Jeremy already. I was totally astonished when she opened her folder and started writing in it, like she was recording the fact that the ute had its keys in it. I didn’t know whether to laugh or crack it with her big time.

She looked around, along the wall of the house. Marmie had done a poo quite a way further down. When Madeleine saw it she frowned and tossed her curls. ‘Dog faeces?’ she asked.

‘What is this?’ I said. ‘What’s it got to do with you whether the dog’s done a crap or not?’

She went a little red and looked at me coldly. ‘We understand that you have a child here who is not under the jurisdiction of his parents.’

‘Oh God,’ I thought. ‘They’ve caught up with us at last.’ It was the one fear that I hadn’t let myself think about. Occasionally I had a flicker of ‘I can’t believe no-one’s ever checked on Gavin’ in my brain, but it was rare.

I couldn’t think of what to say. It was hard to argue with her about Marmie’s bowel movements. I guess I was a little red myself as I stared back. ‘Let’s have a look inside the house,’ she said, starting for the back door.

I wanted to say, ‘What right do you have to march into my home without an invitation?’ but although I had no problem standing up to enemy soldiers, getting involved in gun battles, fighting a guerrilla war, I’d never met anyone as chilling as this lady. So I didn’t say anything, just followed her meekly inside.

At once I could see in painful detail just how unsatisfactory everything was. It was like I was suddenly seeing it through her eyes. And there was no doubt she saw every fault. She gave a running commentary as she walked around the kitchen, but she was writing all the time, and I don’t think she mentioned a lot of stuff that she wrote down. Half the time she was more or less talking to herself. ‘Microwave has food stains… chopping board looks too old to be hygienic…’ She looked into the corner of the pantry and came out muttering about the rat poison I had in a little bowl in there.

‘Gavin’s not stupid enough to help himself to Ratsak,’ I said. Neither was Marmie, although I thought I’d better not mention the possibility of Marmie ever being in the pantry.

She didn’t answer that, but when she went to the door of the fridge and said, ‘Let’s have a look in here,’ I thought I’d blow more than a fuse. Probably an entire transformer.

‘What’s this all about?’ I asked. ‘Have you really got the right to walk into people’s houses and start checking out their fridges?’

‘I’m from the Child Protection Unit,’ she said. ‘We have the right to go into any premises where we have reason to believe that a child is living in unsatisfactory circumstances.’

I was on fire inside and struggling not to breathe it out of my mouth. I knew already that if I erupted it would be bad for Gavin. Bad for me. I didn’t want to lose Gavin. I knew it would be unbearable for both of us. I was just glad he was over at Homer’s for the afternoon, but he was due back any time, and if he walked in and realised what this lady was on about, I hated to think what he might do and say.

On the other hand I didn’t know how much longer I could cope with this witch — and I’m not sure if w is the right way of starting that word — without going completely and utterly off my head. But maybe this was part of the test, to see if I was a calm, competent person. I suspected pretty strongly, though, that it didn’t matter much what I did. I was under-age, I had a guardian myself, and there was no way in the world I was going to be allowed to officially take charge of a kid. I could be Mother Teresa or Joan of Arc or the Virgin Mary herself and the Department of Social Responsibility would still knock me over the head with a dozen kilos of documentation and leave me unconscious while they took Gavin off to a foster home or an orphanage or something.

Nevertheless, I stayed as polite as I could while she studied the fridge and sniffed the chicken and pulled out the salad drawers. Then came the dreaded ‘I’d like to see the sleeping arrangements now please.’

‘Well, it’s all a bit of a mess,’ I said nervously, hoping she’d say, ‘Oh well, don’t worry about it for today then, I’ll come back another day when you’ve had a chance to clean up.’

Fat chance. She stood there staring at me, waiting for me to buckle. I buckled and led her down the corridor, cursing myself and Gavin for not taking the time to make the beds or tidy up this morning. Most days we kept it in pretty good shape. Unfortunately this was not one of those days. Gavin’s room had the doona on the floor, about fifteen items of clothing scattered around, along with Lego, half a jigsaw (the other half was in the sitting room), the chain off his bike, a pile of bleached white bones that he was making into the skeleton of some creature of his own invention, and the cover of a violent M15+ DVD called Inn of the Thirteen Corpses or something like that.

I was pleased to see a book next to the bed, opened up and facing down like he was actually reading it. Gavin didn’t read a lot. But this was one I’d liked, Man-Shy, about a cow, and I thought he might get into it, even though it was pretty old. I picked it up and said to Ms Madeleine Randall, ‘I’m always encouraging him to read, to help him with his school work,’ which must have sounded lame.

At that moment I noticed Marmie in the middle of the wreckage that was supposed to resemble Gavin’s bed. She had made a snug little home for herself, using his sheets and the end of his pillow, and was gazing at me with guilty eyes, trying to make herself inconspicuous. She knew I didn’t let her in there but she also knew Gavin smuggled her in every chance he got.

‘I hope the dog doesn’t sleep on the bed,’ said Madeleine, which was one of the stupidest sentences I’ve heard in my whole life, considering that Marmie was lying there in front of us both.

I wanted to say ‘Oh no, that’s just a hologram’, or ‘Do you think that’s a dog?’, or ‘Bed? Is that what you call it down at the Department?’ But I succeeded yet again in biting my tongue, and instead came out with a sentence as stupid as hers.

‘No, no, I don’t know what she’s doing. Marmie! Marmie! Get off there, go on, outside!’

I chased her out of the house and returned to the bedroom. In that short time Madeleine had managed to fill at least a page with more notes. My heart sank further. I didn’t know how much worse this could get. At least she didn’t demand to see my room. I’d been wondering if there were any limits to her rudeness, but maybe we had now reached the outer boundary. Still, we had more areas to explore, starting with the bathroom. If Gavin’s bedroom was a disaster zone, our bathroom was possibly similar to the way the bathrooms on the Titanic would be looking, after sitting on the ocean floor for a hundred or so years.

I didn’t bother to say anything. I couldn’t see the point. And I had enough dignity left to realise that anything I said would sound feeble.

By the time we’d finished the trip through the corridor of horror all I wanted was to see her car go down the driveway so I could try to process what had happened, what was happening. But it wasn’t over yet. When we got back into the kitchen she had the cheek to say, ‘Any chance of a coffee?’

I couldn’t believe it. I gaped at her for a moment, but again reason got the better of me and I thought that if I gave her a coffee she might go easier on us. Or, to put it another way, if I refused to give her a coffee she would probably not react well. So I gaped and stammered and choked, but made her a coffee. Then of course, once she was comfortable, she launched into the kidnapping.

I sat there pale-faced, trying to think of what to say. We’d done a major snow job with the cops when we got back, using what was pretty much a script given to us by Bronte and which I think she’d been given by her father or mother. Basically we said that Gavin had snuck away from the men who’d kidnapped him and been found by a guy who brought him back to the border and helped him get through the fence. Gavin understood the importance of keeping it quiet, because I and the members of Liberation had broken about ten thousand laws, and of course Gavin’s personality meant he was extra good at blocking anyone he wanted to block. His deafness was a bonus. He could talk fairly well when he wanted but he could also make a whole lot of gibberish noises when he wanted. When the police talked to him, as they did three times, he basically just grunted and made vague comments and looked confused.

Henry, the cop who’d been in charge, had visited a couple of times. He didn’t say much, but he always made me nervous when he appeared. He looked at me with his eyebrows lowered, like he knew everything, and I had the feeling that he did know an awful lot, and what he didn’t know he probably guessed. Heaps of people had told me about the two men killed by Col McCann’s bull, but no-one had any suspicions, and no sympathy for them either. Henry talked about them but I couldn’t tell what he thought.

During the last interview he did say to me, ‘People who treat us as fools usually regret it sooner or later.’ I went bright red but said nothing. What could I say? I knew we weren’t being fair to him or the police, but I couldn’t admit to being involved in private wars on both sides of the border. At least I didn’t have any injuries visible to him.

Now I wondered if he’d dobbed us in to the Department. It’d be a pretty fair bet.

I don’t think Ms Randall suspected for a moment that only a few weeks earlier I’d been dragging myself out from under a dead body on a staircase while I tried to rescue Gavin, but she knew of course that he’d been abducted. There wasn’t much I could say to that either. It was true he’d been the victim of a major crime. She was using it to say that he wasn’t safe living with me, that he wasn’t being properly looked after. I suppose it did sound pretty bad. She seemed to think I’d been negligent because I hadn’t arranged counselling and stuff like that for him, but Gavin would never have talked to a counsellor, and to be honest, after all we’d been through, all he’d been through, he didn’t seem like he needed counselling. I was the same. We’d found our own ways to deal with stuff, and we just got on with it, like people have done for thousands of years I suppose. Well, except for the ones who fall to pieces. I’ve got heaps of sympathy for them. It so happened that things didn’t affect Gavin and me that way. Gavin just seemed happy to be back. He did stick even closer to me than normal, especially at night, but he was in good shape.

I don’t think anyone but us and our closest friends could understand how our relationship worked, and how right we were for each other. He needed me and I needed him and we got on in a funny way that we’d sorted out between us and which worked even though I’m sure it broke all the rules. I was certain there was nothing in the handbook of the Department of Social Responsibility which fitted our case. I had to hope they’d make up a new chapter.

‘It’s a completely unsafe environment for him,’ she said, ‘living in a place where your parents were killed and he was kidnapped.’

‘I know that,’ I said. I took a deep breath and told her what I’d decided back there on the staircase in Havelock. She was the first to know. But if I was in for a fight to keep Gavin then this would be the first shot. ‘I’ve decided to sell this place. Then I’ll use the money to buy us a home in town, where he’ll be safe.’


Madeleine Randall would never understand what it cost me to say that to her. How could she? After we got back from Havelock, that day I’d walked all around the property, walking the boundaries, the day I’d stood there looking at the wisteria and the roses, the lagoon and the tip, and the swallows, the day I’d remembered the brown snake and the dog getting bitten and the poddy lambs and mustering Coopers, well, I’d put myself through those memories for a reason. I wanted to stuff my head full of memories so that I could keep them forever. I don’t think it really works that way, at least that’s what the logical part of my brain told me, any more than it would make sense to eat three kilos of sausages because you know you’re going to be starving in a week’s time. My memories were either there already or they weren’t, and overdosing now wasn’t going to make much of a difference.

But it wasn’t just about memories. It was also about getting permission from my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents to sell the property. I needed some sort of peace of mind before I did this thing. It was my family who had created this place, and every fence post, every planted tree, every metre of guttering on every shed, was put there by a member of my family who had spent hours or days or weeks doing it. They’d thought about it, they’d left the house to do it, they’d worked in the hot sun or the cold wind, they’d come in for lunch and then gone out again to continue the job… They’d concentrated on it and given it energy and imagination and skill… and now I was going to throw it all away.

Your family are so much to you. Too much sometimes. They give you roots and they give you wings. Some families give you roots that are too shallow, and some clip your wings. My family had given me roots that went so deep I didn’t know if I could ever pull them out. I suppose in a way that meant they hadn’t given me wings. It was always kind of taken for granted that I’d own the farm one day. If my mum and dad had lived and I’d said at some point that I didn’t want to get into farming, they would have been totally cool about that — depending on what I wanted to do instead of course. Lying in a hammock in Fiji wouldn’t have impressed them much. But if I’d said I wanted to be a doctor or a carpenter or a computer programmer or to start my own business Mum in particular would have been fine about it. Dad would have too, except he would have done a bit of private grieving, shed a tear behind the cattle yards maybe. But he’d never have told me.

I wondered now what would have happened if they’d kept running the place and I’d bailed out when I got to twenty or twenty-five or whatever. It was one thing we never talked about, but I suppose they would have just stayed here until they were tottering around on walking frames and then they would have sold up and moved into Wirrawee. That’s the trouble with only having one kid. You’ve got too much invested in them, and if they don’t come through for you, then you’re stuffed.

So here I was, with dead people controlling my life. That’s putting it brutally, but I had to say stuff like that to myself, to convince myself that it was OK to do this. ‘Tradition is rule by the dead,’ Jeremy had said to me a few months back when we were talking about them bulldozing the gym and the library at Wirrawee High School. I don’t think it was his own original saying, but I remembered it.

At the same time as it didn’t make sense for dead people to control my life, I also wanted to honour and respect those people, the work they’d done, the energy they’d spent, the way they’d made it possible for me to live the life I led. Without them I could have been living in a little suburban house, seeing the neighbours’ wall on one side and the other neighbours’ wall on the other side. The view from my bedroom window could have been bricks and more bricks instead of a huge gum tree and a messy garden bed overflowing with daisies and roses and hollyhocks and evening primrose. I’m not disrespecting people who live in suburbs, because I was about to join them, but I was glad I’d had the chance to experience space and freedom and open fresh air for so many years, and that was only because some people I’d never met, and some people I knew very well indeed, had worked their butts off to make it possible.

One of the hardest things would be telling my friends and neighbours and having to put up with everyone’s comments and advice. But the hardest thing of all would be telling Gavin.

He came home with Homer at about four-thirty. I’d thought about whether I should say anything about Ms Madeleine Randall and had decided that I should. He was going to find out sooner or later anyway, and I’ve never been a big fan of secrets. Fair enough I’d had to keep a lot of secrets during the war and since then, but given a choice I’ll always vote for things to be out in the open. And when Gavin came into the kitchen, with Homer trailing not far behind, I thought it was a good chance to get Homer’s opinion on what we should do.

I started in on the story. When I got to the part about Marmie on the bed, Homer’s face went quite black. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so angry, and that’s saying a lot. Believe me, a very large lot. I was glad for everyone’s sake that Madeleine had left the building. Gavin on the other hand — well, Gavin surprised me. Not for the first time of course. But looking at them I honestly wondered for a moment who was the older. Homer swept a row of stuff off the bench, including the telephone, stomped up and down the kitchen swearing that he’d drop a hand grenade on anyone who tried to take Gavin away. It was quite some tantrum. Finally, though, he threw himself into an old armchair that I’d dragged in for Marmie and said, ‘OK Ellie, come on, time for another brilliant idea.’

I just shrugged, and Homer then came up with his own brilliant idea. ‘Let’s go down into Hell again. We can hide out there for years, like the Hermit. They’ll never find us.’

I assumed this was a joke, although I must admit there were things about it that did appeal to me.

Through all this Gavin had stood there watching Homer and frowning and now he said, ‘That’s no good. We have to tell them Ellie’s good at looking after me. I’ll go and tell them she’s the best.’

Tears filled my eyes. Gavin so rarely said or did anything affectionate, and fought me over so many issues, and complained bitterly that I was unfair and horrible and cruel. Deep down I knew he loved me like I loved him, but it was nice to hear it from him occasionally.

‘Sounds like you better go back to the lawyers,’ Homer said, calming down a bit now he had Gavin as his role model for calmness under pressure.

‘I guess so. God, I had enough of lawyers last time.’

My own guardianship battle had been such an ugly experience. Like I said before, one of the local lawyers, Mr Sayle, had tried to get the right to handle my money, basically so he could steal as much of it as possible. I won that case, and in the end Homer’s parents agreed to be my legal guardians, but I couldn’t ask them to take on Gavin as well. To be honest they weren’t his biggest fans. They were very strict and old-fashioned, and they already had two wild boys. They put up with him for my sake, but every time he went over there they complained about him. The idea of Gavin moving in with them — not to mention me as well — wasn’t a good one.

I’d told them how Ms Randall said it was dangerous for Gavin and me to be living on the property. But I hadn’t told them my answer to that. Now Homer’s mind was ticking over, and he said to me, ‘How are you going to live here safely?’

The way he looked at me, I knew he’d been thinking about it for a while, and more specifically thinking about having this conversation with me. Like, wondering, ‘How can I tell Ellie this isn’t workable any more?’

So I let him off the hook, and took a deep breath, and said, ‘I’m selling up. I’d already decided before she came out here. I’ll use the money to buy a place in town where we can live.’

Homer stopped breathing and just stared at me. Gavin’s head dropped. I fought to stay in control of myself. I knew I was going to have to be pretty strong during the next couple of months. Finally Homer nodded and said, ‘The end of an era.’

Gavin didn’t say another word for the rest of the evening. His head didn’t lift either. Homer left after a quick dinner and Gavin and I both went to bed. Later, as I lay in my room, I heard him sobbing like his heart was broken. But I didn’t go to him. I couldn’t. My emotional bank had been empty for quite a while. I needed some deposits but I didn’t know where they’d be coming from, in the near or distant future.


Department of Social Responsibility



1. The subject is a Caucasian boy (personal details and medical report attached as Appendix 1) but in summary he has severe hearing loss and although currently in good health has a number of scars and marks suggesting both old and more recent injuries. Many of these are of unexplained origin.

2. Since the end of the war Gavin has been residing on a sheep and cattle property near Wirrawee. Initially he was under the care of a Mr and Mrs Linton, whose daughter Ellie Linton became acquainted with Gavin while they were both ‘living rough’ in the Stratton area during the war. After the war the Lintons apparently consented to become foster parents for the boy in a de facto arrangement which was not notified to this department.

3. A terrorist attack on the property subsequently resulted in the deaths of Mr and Mrs Linton, and although the perpetrators of this attack have never been identified (see Police report attached, Appendix 2), it is possible that the attack was a response to the wartime activities of Ellie Linton, as written about by her in several books, which were published and received some publicity.

4. After the deaths of Mr and Mrs Linton, and another adult who resided with them, the two children continued to live at the property on their own, although Ellie Linton eventually came under the jurisdiction of the Court of Protective Services, who assigned her to the guardianship of neighbours, Mr and Mrs Con Yannos (see Court order attached, Appendix 3). However, it seems more than probable that the conditions of the order have not been properly observed, and that the relationship is one of convenience only. My enquiries suggest that the two minors have effectively been living unsupervised, with minimal adult contact.

5. As far as can be ascertained Gavin has no traceable parents. It is believed that his father died in an industrial accident before the war, but it is also alleged that the child’s de facto stepfather murdered his mother in the early days of the war. No charges have been laid in relation to this incident, but the stepfather was convicted of a serious assault on the two minors, Ellie and Gavin, and is currently serving a prison term. He is due for parole in just over seven years (see Appendix 4).

6. As well as the attack by the stepfather, which resulted in knife injuries of some severity to both children, Gavin was recently the subject of an abduction, possibly by a terrorist organisation. He was missing for more than three weeks, during which strenuous efforts were made for his return, but he apparently made his own way back with the assistance of unknown persons. There are serious question marks over this whole matter, with some doubt as to the involvement of Ellie Linton in illegal paramilitary activity across the border (see memo by Inspector Henry Buckland, attached, Appendix 5). Whether this is the case or not, the kidnapping at the very least indicates that Gavin is in a dangerous environment where his safety cannot be guaranteed.

7. There are few details available about Gavin’s lifestyle during the war, but it appears that at no stage was he incarcerated. Instead he appears to have lived the life of a homeless child in the Stratton area, and it can be assumed that he was exposed to the most unfortunate influences, which may well have resulted in serious psychological damage. Post-traumatic-shock syndrome is one condition that should be further investigated and which is most likely to be present in a child such as this.

8. An inspection of Gavin’s present living conditions noted the following defects: Dog faeces found in vicinity of house Inappropriate proximity of dog to sleeping area Unmade beds and general unkempt conditions in bedrooms Bathroom is shared by the two children. Lavatory appeared to be clean but bath and shower area has been neglected for some time. No soap was present in the soap receptacle in the shower Kitchen floor is clean but rodent droppings were observed behind refrigerator Microwave was dirty, and food items in the refrigerator were not properly stored. Uncooked meat products were placed above salad items An inappropriate ratio of soft drink to milk was noted in the refrigerator No fruit was observed, but some vegetables were in a tub in the pantry and in the refrigerator A tin of Milo was open on the bench, with Milo crumbs and some spilt milk around it A wet load of laundry was in the washing machine, and may have been there for some time A DVD with a rating of M15+ was in Gavin’s bedroom. A safety guard had been removed from one of the heaters and was placed on the carpet beside it, leading to a possibly unsafe situation should the radiator be switched on.

Outside: Motor vehicles, both motorbikes and cars, were parked in the machinery shed and in the open, with keys in the ignition A jerry can of fuel was next to a motorbike, in violation of regulations as to the safe storage of chemicals Veranda was unswept A broken window in the dining room had been repaired with masking tape and was in an unsafe condition Further evidence of rodent activity was noted in the ducted heating.

9. Ellie attends Wirrawee High School and Gavin Wirrawee Primary School. Photocopies of school attendance rolls for both children are attached, as well as statements by the principals and, in Gavin’s case, the classroom teacher, Mrs Eleanor Rosedale (Appendix 6). It will be seen that attendance of both children is irregular and unsatisfactory. Further, Gavin’s classroom behaviour is erratic and at times has resulted in disruption and consequences such as detention. His classroom teacher notes that his conduct, whilst appearing to be on the improve several months ago, has now deteriorated again, and that on occasions he has hit other children. He is impulsive and aggressive, with seemingly little ability to restrain himself. Although medication is indicated, there has been no attempt to have him assessed, and it is evident that Ellie Linton lacks the maturity to seek this kind of support.

10. Gavin has a tested IQ on the Stanford-Binet scale of 111, his reading age is only 9.2 on the Neale scale and he has difficulties in all areas of schoolwork except Art and PE. No help has been available for his hearing condition, although it is likely that he had an aide at the school he attended before the war. However, he has refused to divulge the name of this school, for reasons best known to himself, and there have not been the resources available to enable us to go through old records.

11. The children were interviewed separately and both were uncooperative. Ellie Linton has perhaps a greater sense of her own importance than might be expected in a girl of her age, and was quite rude and belligerent at times. She seems to feel she has to answer to no-one but herself, and gave answers that were evasive and misleading, for example in relation to school attendance. In respect of her attitude, it seems reasonable to suppose that she would not be a good role model for Gavin in this regard. Her attitude towards school seemed offhand (‘As far as I can see he learns more at home than he does at school.’) and could be considered detrimental to Gavin’s commitment to his own education. Gavin answered almost no questions. His constant refrain of ‘Can I go now?’ seemed calculated to give offence, and is consistent with his school reports. Both children were defensive to the point of paranoia to the idea that Gavin might be ‘taken away’.


The Protective Services Act of 2007 makes the department responsible for ‘the care, wellbeing, safety and protection of minors, with a special duty to those who are in circumstances which give rise to reasonable concern for their physical, emotional, social or mental health, are at risk of abuse, or are not receiving proper care’. The Act charges us in those situations to act as ‘swiftly and urgently as is deemed to be in the child’s best interests’, and gives us the right to go onto any premises where we have reasonable grounds to consider that a child’s health and wellbeing may be in immediate danger, to remove the child from that danger, and to go before a court at the first available opportunity to seek an order for the child’s continuing protection. We are obliged by the statute to always place the child’s interests first and having done so to give due consideration to other interested parties, in particular parents. In this respect it should be noted that Gavin has a little sister, currently residing with a foster family in Stratton, but he has minimal contact with her, and given constraints of time and resources it was not thought necessary to interview her or her foster family.

In view of the fact that Gavin’s best interests are clearly not being served by his present circumstances, I recommend that the department take immediate action in respect to this child. Ideally he should be placed in a family situation, where he can experience normal life and school attendance would be better monitored. A special school may be indicated. However, given the shortage of foster or adoptive families since the war, and in light of his challenging behaviour and his disability, it is considered unlikely that a foster family will be found in the near future. A better alternative is Holy Cross Children’s Services in Stratton, which operates the old Saint Bede’s Orphanage. This has been refurbished and is now St Bede’s Child Protection Facility. It is a clean, well-managed facility which has been notably successful in dealing with troubled boys of this age. There is a swimming pool, two tennis courts and a football oval, as well as assistance available for children experiencing academic problems. (See Appendix 7 for further information about the facilities on offer.)

It carries with it the added advantage that contact between Gavin and his young sister may be easier and more frequent should he be relocated to Stratton.

Currently there are no deaf boys in residence, but in the past they have had a number of deaf children and they are experienced with this particular disability. Saint Bede’s has eight cottages where children live in a family situation, and although they are extended at the moment as far as resources go, they have indicated that they are willing to take Gavin for a trial period. It is recommended that it is in the best interests of Gavin for this to happen.

I am available to answer further questions with regard to this child.

Madeleine Randall, Investigations Officer


And suddenly they came out of the woodwork. I don’t actually know what that expression means. What come out of the woodwork? Cockroaches maybe. Mice? Are these rhetorical questions, like I just learned about on one of my rare visits to school? Was that a rhetorical question? Is it a paradox when you ask rhetorically if a rhetorical question is a rhetorical question? I think I’d better stop this before I get a headache.

Well, I’ll come back to the woodwork in a minute. So much happened during the next couple of days, the next month, that I felt like I was in a tumble-dryer most of the time and the heat was on high. It was hard to keep control of my own life, impossible at times. The first and worst and least expected thing was the speed of the Department of Social Responsibility. Everyone always says that government departments move slowly, and this one had for many many months, but now, suddenly, they were as fast as a car accident. Two days later a grey Commodore arrived when I was in the machinery shed, out gets Ms Randall as I come out of the building and from the back seat two lanky men who look a bit like the Blues Brothers and are dressed like them too and I suddenly realise what’s happening and I move swiftly for the house thinking, ‘Oh God, Gavin, don’t appear at this moment, see them before they see you, go bush, go to Homer’s, go to Hell, go anywhere’, but Gavin’s timing has never been good and he’s excellent at turning up in the very place I especially don’t want him to be, so I shouldn’t be surprised when he chooses that exact moment to walk out of the house eating an apple and looking like a kid who hasn’t got a care in the world.

And so he got kidnapped for the second time, and in a way I think this was the worse of the two, because it wasn’t done by people who were identifiably ‘baddies’. You couldn’t fight them. Oh we did of course. Gavin struggled and screamed and begged me for help and although my first reaction was to jump at them they held me off pretty easily, and I realised from the babble coming out of Ms Randall’s mouth that she was right, and it would us more harm than good to fight them in this way.

It was the first time that I hadn’t been able to help him.

So I convinced Gavin to calm down. To cooperate with the kidnappers, to allow himself to be led away to a new type of captivity. They let him pack some stuff and they took him away. White and trembling as he was, looking like a statue on a grave at the cemetery, they took him away.

I could barely take in the enormity of what had happened, and although Madeline left an envelope with a whole lot of paper in it and although she wrote some more notes on the outside of the envelope for me and although I tried time and again to read all this after the Commodore had driven away, I couldn’t comprehend it. I sat in the yard, about a metre from where the car had parked, a metre from where I’d said goodbye to him, and that was as far as I could go. It was like they’d succeeded in doing what soldiers and guns and high explosive and prison and murder and beatings had never done, and that was to defeat me.

But that’s what friends are for, I guess, in the words of the old song. It’s such a corny phrase that I’m embarrassed to write it, but I gotta record the facts here, as always, I hope, and the fact is that my friends came out of the woodwork. First one of them, a big ugly Greek guy who lives next door, then another one, a Thai-Vietnamese guy from Stratton, then Bronte the Scarlet Pimple, then Jess, then — and my heart leapt to see her — Fi. Jeremy was still away sulking but when Homer asked where he was — because to Homer it was incomprehensible that when your girlfriend’s in trouble you don’t immediately arrive with everything you can think of, from soup to guns to a Blackberry — Bronte said he was ill and when Homer said, ‘What with?’ she said ‘Depression or something’, which scared me because I didn’t know if I was the cause. I suspected that at some stage I’d have to do something about it. But I knew I couldn’t do anything right then and there, I had an even more urgent problem to work on.

These friends were followed by the adults. Homer’s parents of course — well they were my guardians after all — followed by Fi’s mother and, to my surprise, Bronte’s father. To my greater surprise Rosie’s foster parents drove out from Wirrawee with Rosie. They’d already been out to the farm three or four times and Rosie loved it. But now they were on a serious mission. They couldn’t stay long but I guess they were keen to let me know that they were on our side.

After they’d gone, and the Yannoses too, Fi’s mother and Bronte’s father disappeared into Dad’s old office for a legal conference. The rest of us stayed in the kitchen and talked tactics, but I had the feeling that the two lawyers were the most important people in the house and part of my mind was away with them, wondering what they were talking about, what they’d come up with. It’d need to be good.

Meanwhile, once we got over ideas like using Liberation to storm the offices of the Department and take Madeleine hostage, or plucking Gavin out of their arms in a daring 3 am raid, we got into the serious stuff. I told them that I was going to sell the property. I’d told Mr Young the day before, because even though I knew deep down he was mostly agisting his cattle at my place because he felt he owed me a favour, at the same time he had three hundred head of stock and he’d have to find a new home for them. Depending on who bought my place of course. I’d thought it might be Homer’s parents; he said they wanted it but didn’t think they could afford it. They already carried a lot of debt, as did we all I guess. I know I did.

Then there were the Sandersons, the people who’d been given a part of the place after the war, when all the big properties were broken up by the government. They were making a good go of their farm, unlike the other three families who’d got half the place between them, until we leased it back. But I’d be happy enough for the Sandersons to buy it all. They were nice people, kind, and hard-working, and it’d be a great break for them, if they could raise the money.

But the real issue was what I would do, where I would live, where we would live, me and Gavin hopefully, if we somehow managed to prise him out of the grip of the Department. The obvious thing was to buy a place in Wirrawee, so we could keep going to the same schools and hang out with the same people, etc etc. And that was OK, and I thought I’d be happy enough with that. But deep down inside me something hankered for a bit more. Something different. Something special. A new stage, a new era.

Fi put me through a funny little cross-examination. She must have been learning from her mother.

‘Now Ellie, do you want to keep farming? Cos you could buy a little place, just a few acres maybe.’

‘No, no, I think I actually want a break from it. It does tie you down. If I’m going to leave it I might as well take a complete break.’

‘Do you want to finish this year at school?’

‘Well I guess, except I think I’ve almost left it too late. I’m so far behind and I’ve missed so much…’

‘Claim special circumstances,’ Lee said. ‘I told you that before. I don’t know why you’re so against it.’

‘God I would,’ said Jess. ‘I’d do it in thirty seconds. Just watch me.’

‘Well, maybe I should… I guess I have been a bit stubborn about that.’

‘Ellie? Stubborn? Who said that?’ Homer jumped up, looking around him as if my worst enemy had just come in. ‘Not Ellie, surely! Never!’

Fi ignored him. ‘What do you want to do next year?’

It was hard to concentrate on her questions. I felt like I had a headache even though I didn’t. ‘Oh I don’t know, it seems impossible to think that we could be let loose on the world already. I don’t have the energy for that. I wouldn’t mind crawling back into kinder for a while.’

‘Go to uni?’

‘Well, eventually, maybe. It’s so boring the way everyone does that and it’s just taken for granted that we will. I’d just as rather do something else. Start a business or travel or something.’

‘I’ll come with you,’ Fi said.

‘You can’t travel if you’re looking after Gavin,’ Lee said.

Fi continued. ‘Do you want to live in a city at some stage?’

‘Actually I wouldn’t mind it for a while.’ For the first time the idea did appeal. I felt a kind of stirring of energy within me. Bright lights.

‘We can share a house and share the kids,’ Lee said. ‘Stratton’s not a bad place actually.’

I just laughed but Fi said, ‘You know that’s really quite a good idea.’

‘Wait a minute, have you two been cooking something up?’ I asked, instantly suspicious.

‘No, no,’ Fi said. ‘I never thought of it before. But it could be quite a good solution for both of you. Instant babysitters.’

‘What about Jeremy?’ Homer asked.

‘Yeah, well, I don’t know about Jeremy,’ I answered.

Fi’s mum and Bronte’s dad reappeared, demanding coffee, in the nicest possible way. Major Gisborne asked me if I wanted to talk to them away from the others but I knocked that back so we all sat around the kitchen table.

‘Three things,’ he said. ‘One is that you’ll need a court order to get the boy back. There’s no other way of doing it in the short term, although if the court rejects us we can try enlisting public opinion and putting pressure on them that way.’

‘Which you are better placed than most to do, Ellie,’ Mrs Maxwell said. ‘But it’s messy and it might not work. It could even backfire on you. But if that’s all you’re left with, once the legal options are exhausted, well, it is there as a possibility.’

‘That’s what I thought she should do,’ Homer said.

‘OK, next thing,’ Major Gisborne continued. ‘You’ll need an SC, or QC as they used to be called. It’s no good mucking around with anything less. It’ll cost you an arm and a leg, but if I can get the fellow I want, he might knock a bit off the bill. He owes me a few favours. Even so, you should allow upwards of thirty thousand dollars for this.’

Homer whistled, but the Major ignored him. ‘Now, Bronte tells me you should be pretty well off when you sell this place, but let me know now if that kind of money is going to be a problem.’

I swallowed hard. ‘No, I can sell some of my cattle. I’m going to have to sell them anyway. Only, what’s an SC?’

‘State Counsel. They’re the top guns, barristers who are used for the big cases, the famous cases. And the important cases, like yours. Now, finally, we think you should go for broke and demand the right to be appointed as the boy’s legal guardian.’

That shocked me. I couldn’t see how someone my age would ever get that kind of right from a court. But Mrs Maxwell explained why they thought it might work.

‘For one thing Ellie, if you gave birth yourself, say at sixteen, you would undoubtedly be the mother of the child and no court would take away from you the right to nurture the child and protect him and look after him and make decisions on his behalf. Now these circumstances are different because of Gavin’s age, but we’re both inclined to the view that since the war a number of guardianship orders have been made that would never have been countenanced before the war. For example, you may have seen in the papers, about two months ago, a mentally disabled woman was given the guardianship of a teenager because they were already in that kind of relationship and had been since the war, and it was working well for them. There were various conditions imposed by the court, as to supervision and monitoring and so forth, and if you get an order like this you can expect the same. But we think there is a chance of getting a court to look at your situation with a fresher eye than you could have expected a couple of years ago. That’s the best-case scenario for you and Gavin.’

‘Now the SC might well disagree with us,’ Major Gisborne cut in. ‘But we’ll soon find that out. If you want us to take this path, if you give us permission to go ahead, I’ll ring and see if he’s available. I assume you’ll want us to apply for an urgent hearing.’

‘Yeah, this afternoon would be nice,’ I said.


Mr Neil Blaine, sorry Neil Blaine SC, was quite something. A week later I was in Stratton waiting in a dowdy dark room to meet him. I was shivering with the tension of the past seven days and with the fear of what was to come. If I lost Gavin I would put that down as having lost everything. Of course I still had my friends, and good friends they were, but family are as different from your friends as your dog is from your cat. Families are cats I think.

I’d visited St Bede’s three times, and rung them every day, but of course Gavin couldn’t talk to me on the phone. When I went there he seemed OK, but it was impossible to have a normal time: we were like two polite cousins at a family reunion. Too many other people, staff and kids, hanging around.

Anyway, the pile of tired-looking magazines on Mr Blaine’s table, every one with a doll-like actress on the front and articles inside about how some boring person had switched partners or lost weight or had a fight with another equally boring person, didn’t have a lot of appeal for me. I sat looking at the covers wondering how I could ever have read that crap. Funny, because I am such a magazine person when I’m in the mood.

Then I was taken into a room so thin that some of the anorexic models in the magazines would have felt right at home, and there was this little guy who looked like a jockey bowing and ushering me to a chair. It was hard not to laugh. Here I was expecting a distinguished man with white hair and a bow tie maybe, speaking in slow pompous tones, and instead I get a garden gnome in a T-shirt and shorts.

‘Take a seat, Ms Linton, please,’ he said. ‘I do apologise for my appearance but I wasn’t expecting to be working today, until my very good friend Major Gisborne rang me.’

‘No problem,’ I mumbled. ‘And call me Ellie, please.’

He didn’t answer — he certainly didn’t invite me to call him Neil — but instead sat at his desk for at least five minutes reading a pile of papers from a folder that had been tied with a pink ribbon. It was sweet, all the piles of paper tied with pink ribbons, along one entire side of the room. I sat there with the tension in my tummy feeling like a hard lump of metal that I’d eaten a week ago and was now trying to come out. I kept wondering what was so special about this man that I should give him a huge amount of money. How could anyone be worth so much?

Suddenly he put down the papers and turned to me. ‘What on earth makes you think you and Gavin should live out there on your own without someone responsible to look after you?’

His voice shocked me. It had changed and now it filled the narrow room and made flakes of plaster fall off the ceiling. Well, anyway, it was a big voice. He wasn’t shouting, not at all, quite the opposite, but from somewhere deep inside this little person came such a huge voice. I stared at him then stammered, ‘We are responsible. I am responsible.’ I hadn’t known what to think of him before but now he was quite scary.

‘Oh everybody thinks they’re responsible, everyone tells you how responsible they are, then they go off, kill their best friend in a high-speed car accident, and blow. 15 into the bag.’

‘Well that’s not me,’ I said angrily. ‘I’m running a big property with three hundred and fifty head of cattle. I haven’t got time to be drinking and joy-riding.’

‘You’re a teenager and you don’t drink alcohol?’

‘No, I don’t,’ I said, thinking I’d better not admit to any under-age drinking if I wanted to get Gavin back.

‘Come now, Ellie, are you telling me that no taste of alcohol has ever passed your lips?’

‘No, I wouldn’t say that exactly, just that I don’t drink at all now, and I never did drink much. Not as much as some people out our way.’

‘So you have had alcoholic drinks?’

‘Well, some, of course ages ago, but not now.’

I was floundering. Already he had caught me out in an embarrassing lie. I wondered whose side he was on. He seemed so hostile. I decided I didn’t like him much at all.

‘ Alcoholic drinks,’ he wrote down on a little yellow notepad, saying the words out loud as he wrote them.

‘That’s not fair!’ I said. ‘ I don’t drink. Occasionally before the war and during the war I did some stupid stuff, but that was ages ago. I don’t drink!’

He completely ignored me. ‘How many days off school have you treated yourself and Gavin to this year?’

‘We don’t treat ourselves to days off school. When we can’t get there we can’t get there. And yes, it does happen quite a lot, more than I’d like, but I try my butt off to get us both there. It’s a bit difficult though when the ute won’t start or some cattle have got out and are on the road or the bank manager is coming to have a look at how we’re spending her money.’

‘How many days off school have you and Gavin had this year?’

I realised with further embarrassment the point he was making, that I hadn’t answered the question. I slumped a little and said, ‘Probably about fifteen to twenty each.’

‘The school records show twenty-three for you and twenty-one for Gavin.’

I felt like saying, ‘Well if you knew, why did you ask?’ but if he wanted to beat up on people, that was his problem so I didn’t say anything.

‘Have you ever hit Gavin?’

‘What?’ I sat up again. Now he was going to accuse me of child abuse? Neil Blaine SC was the one inflicting bruises on me!

‘It’s a simple question. Have you ever hit Gavin?’

‘Has he ever hit me, you mean. He beats me up half the time. We play wrestle and stuff like that, just mucking around.’

‘Have you hit him in anger and frustration, when you can’t get him to do what you want, when you’re running late for school and he won’t switch off the television, when he hasn’t fed the dog like you asked him to and he still won’t move although you’ve told him a dozen times, when he’s whingeing and grizzling and picking at you for hour after hour?’

‘God,’ I thought, ‘he’s been talking to Gavin,’ and with even more embarrassment, and thinking that I was going to lose my custody battle before I’d even started, I said, ‘Yes.’

‘How many times?’

‘Well I’m not like a child basher! I just occasionally lose my temper and shake him or smack him on the back of the head or something, but not hard. Or I pull him out of a chair or I push him out the door to make him go and do his jobs.’

‘How many times?’

Oohhh this man was so frustrating.

‘About once in a blue moon. Every couple of months.’

‘About once a week would be more like it, wouldn’t it?’

‘No way!’ Who had he been talking to? Surely Gavin wouldn’t say something like that? ‘Once a month maybe. Not even that. He’s a really annoying kid sometimes, well he can be, but we have a good relationship. It’s true there are times I feel like giving him a good smack, plenty of times, but I know it’d be the worst thing if I did. He’s been smacked around a lot. I want to teach him that there are other ways of solving problems.’

And so it went on. I’d rather have faced a dozen enemy soldiers armed with AK47s than be interviewed by Neil Blaine SC. In the next ten minutes he got me to admit that we sometimes watched M15+ rated DVDs, although I’ve never let Gavin watch an R one; that in the last few months I’d been getting takeaways quite often, bringing them home and reheating them for dinner; that the house was nowhere near as neat and tidy as it had been when my mother was alive, and that Marmie practically lived in Gavin’s bedroom.

By the end of the interview I wouldn’t have entrusted a headless cockroach to my care, let alone an emotionally deprived child.

Then, with no warning, he jumped up and went over to the door, opened it and waited for me to leave. I thought he was giving me the flick, I’d failed the test and he was throwing me out of his office. Or chambers, they call them. But instead, as I got up hesitantly and walked to him, feeling quite ill, he stuck out his hand and said, ‘We’ll get him back from those Rottweilers, Ellie. They get a firm grip but once we start kicking them in the balls they’ll change their minds fast enough.’

I gaped at him. In a flash I saw what he’d been doing. He’d put me through the kind of experience I could expect in court. He was on my side after all. I said in a feeble voice, ‘So you’re going to take the case?’

‘Of course. We’ve got a fight on our hands, but we’re in with a chance. We need to teach the court to be imaginative, and sometimes that’s not as impossible as you might think. I’ll be in touch soon about information I’ll need from you. Goodbye for now, Ellie. You might like to talk to my clerk on the way out about making the first payment. I don’t come cheap you know. Hooroo.’

And I found myself out in the corridor, shellshocked, as the door closed quietly behind me.



Can you state your name and address please, for the records.

Yes, certainly. My name is Madeleine Randall and I am an Investigations Officer for the Department of Social Responsibility. My address is care of the Department, at 249 Russell Street, Stratton.

And how long have you been employed by the Department as an Investigations Officer Ms Randall?

Well, eight months, but before that I was working for the Children’s Court as a Family Liaison Officer, where I had similar duties in many ways, and before the war I was there for two years.

Thank you. Now you’ll help us today if you can confine your answers to the question you were asked, and that’ll save us a lot of time. So you’ve been an Investigations Officer for eight months. Now Ms Randall, it was brought to your attention that there was a child living out on the Holloway Road from Wirrawee who might be in need of your Department’s attention, is that not so?

Yes, that’s correct.

And when were you notified that this child might be living in circumstances which were not desirable?

I’ll just have to look at my notes if I may Your Honour. Ah, it looks like August 11, we had a telephone call from a…

So, August 11. And when did you actually go out and do something about this matter?

Well, October 14 was when I made my visit to the property. We’re like most government departments at the moment, completely overstretched with everything, even vehicles, so although the public might think we’re…

You’ll have to forgive my maths Ms Randall but I think that makes it two months between your being told that there might be a child in grave peril and your taking action on it.

Yes, I agree, well at least I agree with what you’re implying, it’s not an ideal situation but I think ‘grave peril’ is putting it a bit strongly. We have a huge workload and there were other cases where there was a more immediate risk to the child. It’s all a matter of priorities of course.

Yet when you went out there you clearly formed the view that this was a child in grave peril indeed. After two months of being not too concerned about him you had him out of the place and into St Bede’s in 48 hours. You must have been alarmed.

Oh well no, if there was a really serious risk to him I would have waited for him to return to the house and taken him with me of course. There’s no suggestion that he was in an abusive situation for example. This is a case of benign neglect rather than direct abuse. I actually think the young girl has probably done quite a good job considering her age and inexperience.

Where have you said that in your report? Can you point His Honour to the spot?

Well, I don’t think I actually said that anywhere, not in so many words. There’s not really much point.

Well I propose to take you through that report if you don’t mind, Ms Randall. Can you have a look at the document the usher is handing you. Is that your report?

Yes it is.

And would you agree that your report is prejudicial to the two young people involved, not only to Gavin but to Ms Ellie Linton as well?

No I certainly wouldn’t agree to that. I’ve always made a point of being balanced. It’s an important part of our work.

Yet you’ve just told us that Ellie was doing a good job in looking after Gavin. Show us again where you’ve said that in your report.

Well of course, as I said, I haven’t actually said that…

Do you suggest that the scars and bruises you mention in the report might be the result of ill-treatment at the hands of Ellie Linton?

No, no, I’ve got no evidence of that. There were no bruises, but there were an extraordinary number of marks and scars that suggested to me that he had been the recipient of an untoward amount of physical violence. Even the doctor was quite shocked by the…

His stepfather murdered his mother, do you accept that?

Well as I say he’s never been charged with that, but after talking to the police I would have to say yes, I do accept that that’s quite a likely story.

And the same stepfather launched a vicious and cowardly attack on Gavin just a few months ago, do you accept that?

Yes, certainly I do. He’s in prison for that very thing, as I’ve said there.

Could having a murderous stepfather possibly account for some of those scars do you think?

Well yes, but at the same time what is the child doing being placed in a situation where a man can nearly murder him? To my mind that shows he is not being looked after properly.

So are all victims of murderous attacks negligent, is that what you are saying? It is impossible for someone to be attacked unless they have been dreadfully careless?

Well of course I’m not saying that but what we look for is a pattern.

I say no more than that the two young people were walking through a public park on a Saturday morning in broad daylight, so if that is negligent I’m afraid that every time I walk my dog I am inviting a murderous assault. (laughter) I think you are prejudiced Ms Randall, and I will endeavour to show that now. Let me put this to you, are you a psychologist?

No, I’m not, not as such. We all do a training course where we…

You are not a psychologist yet you throw terms like post-traumatic-shock syndrome around, as though you are indeed well versed in such serious conditions. What are the symptoms of post-traumatic-shock syndrome?

Well, inability to sleep properly, general disturbance of behaviour, being overly fearful, not good at social relationships, that sort of thing.

Is hypervigilance a symptom of post-traumatic-shock?

Well, I’m not actually sure what that is.

Are you familiar with the terms intrusive symptoms, arousal symptoms and avoidance symptoms?

Not as such, no.

Is that a yes or a no?

It’s no, I’m not familiar with them. I imagine the last one you said might be something to do with getting away from things that disturb you though. I’m starting to feel a bit like that myself, now, in the witness box.

A dysphoric mood for example, would you consider that to be a symptom of post-traumatic-shock syndrome?

I actually have no idea Mr Blaine.

What percentage of people exposed to violence or other traumas are likely to develop post-traumatic-shock syndrome?

I believe it’s around 20 %.

So you accept the possibility that someone exposed to violence might not necessarily develop the illness? Perhaps 80 % of these people even?


So, a 4 in 5 chance that Gavin would not be suffering from this condition. Let us move on. You say that the two young people were paranoid?

No, I said that they were fearful in a way… I’ll just find it here, here it is, ‘defensive to the point of paranoia to the idea that Gavin might be “taken away”’.

So their defensiveness was paranoia?

Well, I’m not using the word in a strictly medical sense there, more in the everyday way that people use it. You know as well as I do Mr Blaine that people use the word all the time to mean just overreacting, being unduly aggressive or defensive. Technically speaking perhaps I should have found a better word.

I submit that it’s a highly prejudicial word to use in a report that means not much less than life and death to these young people. You are bandying about a word that implies behaviour that fits into the clinical range of schizophrenia. Yet the irony is that their so-called paranoia was completely justified wasn’t it Ms Randall?

I’m not sure what you mean.

You say they were unreasonably fearful that your department would take Gavin away?

(No reply)

Did your department in fact take Gavin away?

Yes, you know we did, and for very good reasons.

So might not what you call paranoia in fact be evidence of their intelligence, that they summed up a complex situation quickly and accurately, and realised that it was in their best interests not to cooperate with the people who were determined to break up the family relationship that they had successfully established?

That’s certainly not the way I see the situation Mr Blaine.

I notice that as you talk to us here today Ms Randall you often put your hand to your mouth in a gesture that might perhaps be a nervous habit.

Do I? I suppose I do. I seem to remember my mother commenting on much the same thing when I was a teenager. Commenting rather frequently actually. (laughter)

It sounds like our mothers came from the same school. (laughter). Gavin is of course profoundly deaf and obtains most of his information by lip-reading. Did it occur to you that what you chose to interpret as lack of cooperation might be a result of his failing to understand you? That you put him in the embarrassing situation of being a lip-reader who was not able to see your lips?

I think he understood my questions perfectly well but he chose not to answer them.

Did you have an interpreter present when you interviewed him?

No, I didn’t feel that there was any need for that.

Does he use sign language?

I’m not actually sure about that.

You didn’t even find out what language he speaks? Do you accept that Auslan is a language?

Oh yes, certainly. I just can’t recall right now if he…

What steps did you take to establish whether he in fact does have serious psychological damage?

Well, we had him assessed by the experts at Holy Cross Children’s Services, and they agree that he is a child in need of…

Was that before or after you took him from his home?

Well it was after, but a very short time after.

So at the time you took him you had no way of knowing whether he had any psychological condition which would require treatment or justify your removing him. And I might mention, and I’ll come back to this later Your Honour, the Department took no steps to ascertain whether Gavin was in better mental health or worse than he was say three months earlier or six or nine. There is no benchmark. He may well have been improving dramatically under the care of Ms Linton.

There are his school reports.

If misbehaviour at school was a reason for taking a child away from his family environment then your department would be busy indeed Ms Randall. Now, let us go through your report in a little more detail, if I could trouble the Court to look at page 3. You say there were dog faeces near the house. How many piles of dog droppings were there?

Just the one. Well, I only saw the one.

Which could have been deposited two minutes before your arrival?

I didn’t take a close look. (laughter)

‘Inappropriate proximity of dog to sleeping area.’ What does that mean exactly?

A dog was asleep on the boy’s bed when I went into the bedroom.

Do you think that’s a common scenario in family life?

I don’t know about that but it’s certainly an unhealthy one.

You don’t know whether dogs sleeping on beds is common or uncommon, is that what you are asking us to believe?

I haven’t done a survey on it, no. All I know is that it’s unhealthy. I’m not required to make a personal judgement on these things, just to report what I see.

Well, we shall come to that presently. ‘Unmade beds and general unkempt conditions in bedrooms. No fruit was observed. A tin of Milo was open on the bench. A wet load of laundry in the washing machine.’ This might be my house on a busy day Ms Randall. It might be anybody’s house. Are you proposing to come and take my children from me because we had a mouse in the kitchen last night?

It’s the totality we look at.

Because you don’t like the number of cans of Pepsi we have in the fridge? Because I’m in the process of fixing the radiator and I’ve got the safety guard off it while I do so?

No, of course not. But when the overall picture is one of…

‘Lavatory appeared to be clean but bath and shower area has been neglected for some time.’ ‘Appeared to be’, it’s like the rest of your report, ‘it is possible that’, ‘it is more than probable’, ‘it seems reasonable to suppose’… your report is nothing more than a collection of guesses and hypotheses, and I put it to you, a mirror of your own prejudices.

It’s not meant to be… it’s not produced to be analysed in this amount of detail by a barrister, let alone one of your… it’s just for the use of the Department, as a guide to us. We, they, don’t normally get the kind of elaborate scrutiny that you’re…

(His Honour) Come now Ms Randall, that won’t do. I think you know better than that.

I’m sorry Your Honour, it’s just that we see so many cases, and not every report has the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed perhaps. I know Mr Blaine’s very good at his job but to my mind the child’s circumstances, living with someone who’s still a child herself, legally speaking, really, it speaks for itself, and so this report is possibly not as detailed as some that we do…

(His Honour) When we are dealing with the intervention of the State in a child’s life, when we are taking a child out of the conditions to which he has become accustomed and in which he may feel secure and comfortable, I say no more at this stage than that we should be very sure indeed that our i’s are dotted and our t’s crossed, yes, and every other letter carefully formed as well.

(Mr Blaine) I won’t keep you much longer Ms Randall but if you’d like a glass of water…?

No, no it’s all right, go on.

Well, let me put this to you. The Act requires you, does it not, to respond to cases of abuse, it speaks of immediate danger to children, it talks about emotional and physical health and so on…

Yes, that’s correct.

Yet according to your report, and I can see by your face that you know where I’m going with this, Gavin’s situation was merely one of a child whose ‘best interests are clearly not being served by his present circumstances’. That falls quite a long way short of abuse and neglect and danger does it not?

Yes, I must admit that my supervisor did point out last week that it wasn’t very well worded. I’d word that differently if I was doing it now. I’ve been told not to use expressions like that any more.

Because if you concerned yourself with children whose best interests are not being served by their present circumstances you would need a hundred thousand extra staff, would you not?

Well, the fact remains that he is a child who needs to be in a very different environment.

You state that as a fact, but it is not a fact, it is an opinion, and it’s because you hold that opinion but are not able to support it with facts that this child’s life has been disrupted yet again and we are here today. Now let me put a few questions to you and then I’ll be finished. Has Gavin ever committed an act of delinquency?

Not so far as I’m aware, not to my knowledge, no.

So your answer is ‘no’ then?

That’s correct, yes, as far as I know.

Has he a criminal record?

I don’t think so, no, no we checked that of course, no he doesn’t.

Has he ever used drugs?

I’m not aware of that, no.

So I’ll put that down as a ‘no’ again shall I? Has he ever made any call upon the State for assistance of any kind?

Not that I’m aware of, no. Except with the kidnapping of course.

But this orphaned child, profoundly deaf, since he has been living with Ms Linton, has made no application for special assistance of any kind to be provided by the government? No demands upon the State, no request for aid? Under the care of Ms Linton he has been completely self-sufficient?

I don’t know of any requests like the ones you’re talking about. He may have done of course.

My instructions are that he has not. And there have been no previous complaints about him to your department?

We don’t have anything on our files, not so far as I know.

In short, apart from the usual truancies and scuffles that boys get into, it seems that he has led a thoroughly blameless life. All right Ms Randall, if my learned friend has no further questions for you, you can step down thank you.

(Mr Short) No further questions Your Honour.

(His Honour) All right thank you Ms Randall, you may step down now.


A FTER THE SPECTACULAR destruction of Ms Randall in the witness box I felt a whole lot better, but I knew it was only one battle in the war. I almost felt sorry for her as she scurried out of court. She looked shell-shocked. I would have offered her a tissue but I didn’t feel quite sorry enough to do that. The moment Court adjourned for lunch I rushed up to Mr Blaine, but he wouldn’t talk to me. He was as rude as he had been the first time we met. He was a funny guy. I never figured him out. He was like an actor in many ways I think.

It took me a while, though, to recover from his comment that Gavin had led a thoroughly blameless life. Sheez. If anyone ever found out about the terrible thing he and Mark had done to the kitten, that’d be the end of my court application.

In the afternoon a parade through the witness box began and I spent a lot of the time with my head in my hands. I guess it’s only at a funeral that most people hear what others think of them, all the good things anyway.

I’ve always thought it was a shame, and when I read in the paper the other day about a guy who only had a couple of months to live so he organised a kind of funeral party where he could hear all the speeches people were going to make, I gave him a big silent cheer.

But here I was, still young and healthy, and I was getting to hear all this stuff, and it wasn’t exactly a funeral although it would be close enough to one if we lost the case. The idea was that if enough people who knew me stood up in court and said that I was a halfway decent human being, my chances of getting Gavin back would be a lot better. So I sat there and listened to Homer’s mum and dad, to Fi’s mum, to Kevin’s dad, to Mrs Goh and Mrs Barlow from school, Mr Young, and Mrs Salter from down the road, who was looking a lot more confident now that she’d left her husband, all telling the judge how I was possibly the finest human being on the whole planet, I should have my name in that footpath in Hollywood, get an Oscar, a Logie, an Emmy, a Grammy, and a Nobel Prize. And why the Pope hadn’t called me into the Vatican for a quick canonisation was a mystery. Oh yes, that’s right, you have to be dead before that can happen; still, you’d think, after listening to these people, that they should have made an exception for me.

My head’s big enough already, I really didn’t need to hear this stuff. But on the other hand I wasn’t going to miss a word of it.

Gavin’s teacher, Mrs Rosedale, stood up and said that Gavin was a good kid, sure he was mischievous and at times he could be a little unruly, but that was understandable what with one thing and another. I sat there listening and being amazed. It wasn’t like she was there to help me, she didn’t care whether I had Gavin or someone else had him, or at least that was the impression she gave me. Had the nicotine gone to her brain? But it wasn’t just Mrs Rosedale. Why do adults change so much in situations like that? It’s like school reports. Why do they give an A for Always for stuff like ‘Helping Other Class Members’ when you know the kid spends most of his time slumped at his desk dreaming of the good old days in Nazi Germany when people like him were in charge and he had the key to the gun safe? Weird.

Maybe the one who made the biggest impact, though, was General Finley. He came all the way from New Zealand to do it. And to see Jeremy I guess, to be fair. I couldn’t help thinking when I saw him walk in that this guy could have become my father-in-law.

Lee sat next to me, holding my hand when I wasn’t needing it to bury my head in it. I was using both hands quite a lot as the character witnesses came and had their say and left again. Lee kept whispering rude comments about the things they were saying, until Mr Blaine passed a note back saying Don’t talk, don’t show affection for boyfriend, no contact, which was a joke. Lee my boyfriend again? No way thanks. Mr Blaine’s note almost sounded like the rules at Wirrawee High. But I realised what he meant: it was not a good look for the judge to see us acting like teenagers in love. Anyway, God forbid I should be in a relationship. You wouldn’t want to entrust a kid to someone who can feel love, would you?

Anyway, General Finley. He was in full military uniform. He looked pretty damn impressive. Jeremy had told me he was retiring from the Army soon, to go into business, and I figured he’d do well. He was a classy guy.

He took the Bible and said the words that I was becoming very familiar with, after two days in court, about not telling any big fat greasy lies, and then went ahead and told them I was responsible, mature, sensible, brave, etc etc etc. So I figured he’d probably burn in hell for those porkers. He didn’t mention the fact that I’d just broken up with his son, and that might have caused his son to break up completely, but he actually apologised to me afterwards for Jeremy, and said he was taking him back to New Zealand to see a psychiatrist. But I’ll always remember him for his loyalty, in coming all that way.

‘The only true test of friendship is the time your friend spends on you.’ I just made that up. Cos nothing else matters really. People can spend time with you, but that isn’t the same thing. You can spend an awful lot of time with someone and not spend any time on them at all. And for that matter people can spend money on you or give you stuff, but when they actually hand you half an hour or an hour or a whole afternoon of their time and it’s all yours, then, well, that’s some gift.

Meanwhile the case went on and on. And on. I gave evidence, and was glad I’d had the experience of doing it in the trial of Mr Manning, because it did help a bit. Gavin gave evidence but I wasn’t allowed to be in court when he was there, in case I put him off. He had to be free to say whatever horrible, mean and nasty things he wanted about me. I was really regretting the number of times I’d bashed him, and hoping he could still remember the difference between play fighting and real fighting. And that he didn’t hold a grudge for all the times I’d pulled him away from Battle of Titans on the computer.

Then it was all over. Mr Blaine asked the judge if we could have a quick decision as ‘these two young people have been through a great deal in their short lives Your Honour and it would seem cruel to keep them waiting any longer than strictly necessary’. The judge looked irritated and snapped, ‘I’m quite aware that a good deal rides upon this case for them, Mr Blaine, as it does for everyone else who has applications before this court.’

He looked at his calendar and then announced that he’d give his verdict on Monday, which Mr Blaine told me afterwards was very good and unusually quick, and then I went home to wait.


One thing about school, when your life’s going badly you can always hang out there, because so much is happening around you that you can forget your own troubles. Not that it’s my way, to spend all day wallowing in my problems, but there was a lot to worry about. So it was kind of refreshing to arrive at school on Friday and hear a Year 7 girl walking up to her friend and saying in one breath, ‘We get no lunch and we have to pick up papers all lunchtime how badly does that suck?’ which for some reason struck me as very funny.

To be honest, I think I was on the point of being hysterical, so any little thing struck me as crazily funny, and I remember my friends looking at me a bit strangely and saying, ‘Actually that wasn’t especially funny, Ellie,’ when I laughed till I nearly wept over someone dropping the ball in PE.

Wirrawee High School could have been called Wirrawee psychiatric hospital that week I think, because I wasn’t the only one cracking up. The first time I saw Jeremy I made a little noise without meaning to; one of those little ‘Oh’ noises of shock or surprise that only humans seem to make. I’ve never heard any of the cattle make a noise like that when they’re in the paddock chewing the cud and having a yarn to a neighbour about the price of clover and then they turn around and see me. That’s probably one reason other creatures survive better in the wild than we humans. Those little ‘Oh’ noises give us away every time.

Dealing with relationship issues, apart from my relationship with Gavin, was not something I particularly wanted to do right at this point. But I had to do something about Jeremy. I was still bewildered by the complete change in him, the way he’d gone from nice and modest and strong and intelligent to mean and jealous in one conversation.

He frowned at me when I did the ‘Oh’ thing to him, then looked away again. He was in the concrete area near the canteen, outside the boys’ toilets, leaning against a post. He looked terrible, which is why I went ‘Oh’. I don’t know whether it’s possible for a person to lose five kilos in a week, but if it is I want to know about it. I shouldn’t try to be funny, though, because he really looked gaunt. That’s a nice word, gaunt. I don’t think I’ve ever used it before, although there are plenty of times when I could have, during the war. Or even when Gavin and I came home after being locked up in the house in Havelock. I hope we didn’t look as bad as Jeremy, although we probably did. It wasn’t just that he’d lost weight. Jeremy was normally so neat and clean, but now he looked like he’d been lending his clothes to a homeless person and just got them back, and what’s more, he’d run out of shampoo last Christmas and was still waiting to get a new bottle.

I went to him, feeling the anger I’d built up against him leave my body in a rush, because he really didn’t look well. He turned away quickly and made it obvious that he wasn’t hanging out for a long friendly chat.

‘Hi Jeremy.

‘Do you want to talk about the other day?

‘Cos it would be good if we could talk about it.

‘I guess you’re not in a mood to talk, huh.

‘Are you okay?

‘When’s your dad taking you back to New Zealand?

‘I’ll miss you if you go.

‘Your dad was great in the court case. I think he really made a difference. The judge is announcing his decision on Monday. I don’t know what my chances are. And the sale is on tomorrow. I really should be home getting ready for it.’

Well, I got that right. I should have been home preparing for it. But it was too lonely there with Gavin gone. I drifted away from Jeremy, embarrassed that people had been lounging around listening to my attempted conversation and staring at us like we were interesting specimens at the zoo. Instead I went and found Bronte and Homer to see if we could nick off at lunchtime. They had promised to help me do all the last-minute stuff for the sale, but Homer wanted to go to Maths after lunch, so I went with him and then wished I hadn’t because it just reminded me of how far behind I was and how little I understood. I was really down to two choices now with school: either repeat or seek special consideration. Or drop out, I guess that was the third choice.

Back on the farm, down in the old farmyard, Bronte and I started with a swift gardening job while Homer vacuumed the house. It was an honour to be weeding with the Scarlet Pimple. I told her that and then asked her about Jeremy.

‘I don’t think he’s too well,’ she said. ‘He’s cutting a lot of classes and not talking to anyone. Not even you by the sound of it. Poor guy.’

‘What do you think’s going on?’

‘I don’t know. I guess he’s depressed. There’s a lot of it going around. Highly infectious apparently. You should have worn a mask while you were talking to him.’

‘Ha ha very funny,’ I said automatically.

‘How come you didn’t get depressed with all the stuff that’s happened to you?’ she asked.

‘Are you kidding? I got depressed all right. I’m depressed at the moment about Gavin. But no, I know what you mean, I never get it the way some people get it. It’d be terrible to have what Jeremy’s got. I don’t know why I don’t. Some people are made that way and some people aren’t, I guess.’

‘There must be more to it than that.’

‘Yes… well I suppose my parents gave me really strong foundations. I’ve always thought I could cope with everything that came along, eventually. Like, sure there’s the short-term pain, the short-term agony even, but I always feel like I’ll come through it.’

‘Light at the end of the tunnel.’

‘Yeah, corny, but that’s it. Let’s do the circular garden now.’

As we picked up the little forks and took our gloves off I continued the conversation. ‘I talked to this girl once about Tao, that was good.’

‘Yeah, you told me about that. I meant to look it up but I forgot.’

‘And I do know that emotions always change sooner or later, so I use that a lot when I’m feeling depressed.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘Well, you can’t tell the future with emotions, that’s another way of putting it. So if it’s five o’clock Friday, which it is, and I’m going for a run at six o’clock which I wouldn’t mind doing by the way, if you’re up for it, it’s a waste of time for me to moon around now saying, “Oh I hate the idea of going for a run, I’m so tired and it’ll be so hard,” because I don’t know how I’ll feel at six o’clock. At one minute to six I may get a sudden rush of energy and think there’s no better idea in the universe than going for a run.’

‘But you may feel totally exhausted at one minute to six and think it’s the last thing you want to do.’

‘Oh sure. And in that case I probably won’t go. Or I will if I think I really need to. Which I do. So sometimes emotions clash with your duty or your logic or what you know you really need to do. I’ll give you a better example. The sale is at three o’clock tomorrow, and right now I could feel really depressed about it. But I tell myself, “Well Ellie, as you have no idea how you’re going to feel when it actually happens, why not wait till then before you get depressed?”’

‘But you must know some experiences are more likely to get you down than others,’ Bronte said. ‘I mean, I don’t want to depress you now but the chances of your feeling wildly happy tomorrow probably aren’t too good.’

‘Well you know, I’m not so sure about that,’ I said. ‘Great though the wisdom of the Scarlet Pimple undoubtedly is, she’s not always right. I’ve actually been getting the feeling that it might almost be a relief. I’m just too young to run this place. It’s not that I make a lot of mistakes, everyone does that, even Dad did, and I haven’t made any terminal ones. I’ve probably done an OK job, considering. But I don’t have the emotional something for it yet. Like I said, my parents gave me strong foundations and life’s added quite a bit to that, but there’s something I still don’t have. I can’t even name it. Being able to carry a whole big thing on your own for a long time, that’s what it’s about. I can carry a lot, and I can carry big stuff for a short time, but to do it on your own, for years and years, I’m not ready for that yet. I will be some day, and if I win the court case I’ll have to do it with Gavin, and I’m a bit scared of that to be honest, but I can’t imagine we’ll win the case anyway, so it mightn’t be a problem.’

We weeded on in silence for a while, after my long speech. Then we took the piles of thistles and sorrel and God knows what else to the dump, in the back of the ute. It’d be someone else’s dump after tomorrow. Someone else would see the discarded packing of our lives. As I swept the last bits out of the back Bronte propped herself on a rake and looked at me.

‘Are you still in love with Jeremy?’ she asked.

‘No, I don’t think so. Not because he’s got mental problems. I don’t know. I don’t think I was ever that in love with him in the first place.’

‘But you are in love.’

I paused. Yes I was. And always had been. I just hadn’t noticed for a while. Trust Bronte. She was the cleverest person I’d ever met. She knew everything.

‘He loves you too,’ she said.

‘Do you think so?’

‘I know it.’

‘Has he said something to you?’

‘Not specifically. Not that. But when he talks about you, especially when he talks about what you went through during the war, it’s like he’s bursting with love. He adores you.’

‘Wow. Wow. Are you sure? Oh wow.’

We got in the car and drove back. Luckily the ute knew the way to the house without my having to do anything. If I’d needed to navigate we might have ended up at Uluru.


I was up bright and early. Well, early anyway. Bronte had stayed the night and Lee turned up for breakfast, along with Homer. Fi arrived about ten, so we had a good chance to get a lot done, although there were heaps of interruptions. I knew that no matter how much work we did, the place wasn’t going to be perfect, so I just had to accept that.

Fi brought a lot of flowers with her, because there weren’t too many in our garden compared to when my mother looked after it, so she started putting those in vases all through the house. Homer and Lee got stuck into the machinery shed, tidying it up a bit more, and Bronte and I cleaned away breakfast. Then I did a mow while Bronte cut back the grass around the dog pens. Fi started baking scones, so there’d be a nice smell through the house for the final inspection. Not everyone can cope with our stove but Fi handled it with ease.

Marmie ran around and got in everyone’s way, while I tried to check that she wasn’t doing a dump anywhere.

After Madeleine’s report I was very self-conscious about dogs doing stuff they weren’t meant to. Well, doing it in places they weren’t meant to, anyway.

At least the auction and all the preparations were taking my mind off Gavin. I hadn’t seen him since Thursday and I’d told him I probably wouldn’t be able to visit today, although maybe I’d get there if the sale was over quickly. The cottage he was in didn’t look too bad and he said the other kids were OK, but they were all older than him, and I noticed he didn’t mix with them. He said the food was crap, but Gavin always says that, even about the meals I make sometimes. Which admittedly aren’t always perfect.

We’d already had a couple of open days for buyers to come and have a look, plus Jerry Parsons had been bringing people for private inspections almost every day, so the place wasn’t really too messy. At one-thirty they were allowed to poke around again, so we had to be done by then. It was such a violation, having all these strangers trample around making loud comments on the way you do things, but that’s the way it was and if all went well I wouldn’t have to worry about it again after today.

Mr Parsons was good, he got there at about noon, with his son and daughter, who came along for the ride. They even brought their own lunch. I knew Justin from school. He was a good kid who was into outdoors stuff and wanted to be a farmer. They pitched in and helped too, moving a pile of roofing iron which we hadn’t had time to move ourselves. Don’t know how many snakes they found under it but I reckon there would have been one or two. The crowd started coming in early, about one-fifteen. Jerry Parsons had an assistant at the front gate, and they were in contact by walkie-talkie, but it got to the point where he said he couldn’t hold them much longer, so in they stampeded. It was like an endless convoy coming up the driveway. I didn’t know there were that many people in Wirrawee. But there’s nothing like an auction to get people out and about. Everyone loves an auction, except when it’s your own I guess, cos I wasn’t too much in love with this one.

I was glad Gavin wasn’t there to see it. His bedroom was the neatest it had ever been, thanks to Fi, but he wouldn’t have recognised it. There could have been three hundred people go through it during the afternoon. As Homer said, I wish I’d sold tickets. Homer was great and I stuck close to him. Lee kept a low profile. This kind of thing wasn’t his scene.

I saw people I hadn’t seen in years, along with all the old familiar faces of course. Homer’s parents were there, being potential bidders, not to mention being my guardians. But really, it was like Ms Randall had picked up on, they didn’t often waste too much time with that. There were all the other neighbours: the Youngs, whom I’d grown to love like they were a second family; the Lucases; the Nelsons, who were as bad as Mr Rodd. Mrs Rowntree, from Tara, with her new husband, a horse trainer. They were turning their place into a horse stud. Young Tammie Murdoch, who was as wild as her grandmother, and had inherited the family property just the other day. Jodie Lewis, from Wirrawee, who’d been run over ages ago, and was in hospital for ages, and she still wasn’t right, even though she was walking again. The McPhails and Randall, the big lout, still living at home and sponging off his parents. Col McCann. I felt so guilty about his bull. I wondered if he’d sent it to the abattoir. He’d never mentioned the two dead men to me, but I hadn’t asked either. Mr Roxburgh, from Gowan Brae, one of the best farmers in the district; Mrs Leung, who’d lost her husband in the war; and Mr Jay, who must have been ninety-five but hadn’t aged a day in the last five years and who I was now convinced would live forever. Sal Grinaldi was there, wanting to tell me a joke, and Mr George, and Morrie Cavendish complaining about rainfall, and my good mate Jack Edgecombe. Even the Kings came down from the hills.

At the same time, though, there were so many people I didn’t know, most of the crowd in fact, that it made me realise even more forcefully how things were changing. The old days were gone, that was for sure, and after today they’d be a bit more gone.

I don’t know how many people were actually thinking of buying the place. Could have been none. It wouldn’t have surprised me. No, the Linton place was the main tourist attraction in the Wirrawee district this weekend and everyone had turned up for the free entertainment.

The CWA were doing a sausage sizzle so we got our lunch from them. At least they didn’t charge me.

The auction started about ten minutes late, out the front. Jerry Parsons said to wait inside the house but I couldn’t, so I perched on the lowest branch of the old oak tree on the other side of the driveway, the tree I had spent so many hours in as a kid, and, with a hand on Homer’s head below me, tightly watched and listened as Mr Parsons started firing up the crowd.

I can’t remember everything he said, but there was a lot of stuff about this being a famous property, one of the best in the district, ‘lovingly developed and maintained by successive generations of the Linton family’, with improvements including ‘this gracious home behind me, which I’m sure you’ve all had a good chance to look through by now, and the very spacious machinery shed, along with the shearing shed which is one of the oldest in the district and has been recognised by the National Trust as being of historic significance, and most recently a fine new set of cattle yards which have just been completed’. He read a lot of that stuff off the brochure.

But eventually the time came. The knot in my stomach tightened. I really had no idea how many people might be bidding. Jerry Parsons said there were four people who’d had at least three looks at the place, and then of course there were some of the neighbours who would have only needed to see it once, if at all. But Jerry also said that there mightn’t be a single bid. ‘You just never know,’ he said. ‘I always tell people not to get their hopes up.’

A large part of me would have been quite happy to get no bids, and then I could stay on living here, but I knew that wasn’t a good idea. Besides, I’d made my mind up to leave, and I guess that meant I’d said goodbye to the place in my head. And my heart. Once you’ve done that it’s hard to go back.

‘Now it’s time for you to do what you’ve come here today to do,’ Mr Parsons shouted. He was getting good and worked up. ‘And that’s to put your hand up if you want to give yourself a chance of becoming the new owner of this magnificent property. The first new owner in nearly a century. A property like this only comes along about once in a century.’

‘That’s what he says every week,’ whispered Polly Addams, to my right, and a few people laughed. I kept my head down.

‘When you bid, bid good. Don’t be bashful about it.

Stick your hand up where we can see it. And now I’m asking for a bid to get me started. What’ll it be, ladies and gentlemen? How much will you give me for this wonderful property and all its improvements? Who’ll get me started? Come on now, is there a million? Will you say a million? There must be a million, surely?’

The suspense was terrible. Everyone was looking at the ground, except the kids, who were staring in every direction, hoping to see a hand wave. Maybe the adults were afraid to make eye contact with any of the auctioneer’s staff in case it was taken as a bid.

I didn’t see anyone move or hear anyone but then Jerry Parsons suddenly said, ‘Eight hundred is it? All right, I’ll take eight hundred, to get me started. It’s very low but I’ll take it. Now we’re here today to sell, ladies and gentlemen, so don’t be shy. Do I have eight fifty? Yes I do, to my right there.’

‘Nine hundred,’ someone near me yelled and we were away.

‘That was Mr Rodd,’ Homer whispered. My face burned. ‘No way!’ There was no way in the world I would sell the place to Mr Rodd!

But the auction was galloping and bids were coming from left, right and centre, literally. They raced to 1.2 million, then slowed down, until only three people were bidding, it seemed to me. It was very hard to tell what was happening. You must need eyes in the back of your head to be an auctioneer. Then one person dropped out and the bidding suddenly slowed to a dawdle. They started going up by $25,000 at a time, then by tens. ‘You’re going to be a millionaire,’ Homer muttered.

‘The bank takes most of it. Are your parents bidding?’

‘I’ve been watching them. Dad waved his hand a couple of times but they only saw him once, I think. It’s too rich for us now.’

We were up to 1.38 million. A man in a brown jacket and a blue tie was one of the bidders, and the other was a guy wearing a suit, on the far side of the crowd. I didn’t know either of them, but I suddenly realised Don Murray was standing next to the man in the suit, like he was advising him. I wondered then if the man was the plastic surgeon Don managed Blackwood Springs for. He’d have a few bob.

Jerry had told me that 1.5 million would be a good result, and to sell if we got 1.4, so it looked like the place was going to go.

Homer said suddenly, ‘I’m glad we’re not buying it. It would have felt weird. It’s your place. I’d feel bad trampling all over it.’

I didn’t answer because I didn’t know what to say to that. Finally I said, ‘I’m just glad Mr Rodd’s dropped out.’

The winner seemed to be 1.38. Jerry Parsons was waving his arm around like a badly balanced windmill, and saying, ‘I give you fair warning, if there’s no more bids I’m going to knock it down to the gentleman under the walnut tree, I’m selling for the first time, for the second time now, I’m going to sell it, fair warning, ladies and gentlemen, for the third time and sol-’

‘One point four,’called Mr Rodd.

The hammer stopped in midair. Mr Parsons looked at him and said, ‘Your timing’s pretty tight there, Max,’ then he went straight back into normal auctioneer mode, yelling, ‘I’ve got 1.4 now, ladies and gentlemen, that’s more like it, new bidder at one million four hundred thousand, and I’ll take fives, what about you sir, just another five thousand could be enough to secure this magnificent property, in prime condition but still plenty of room for improvement, it’d make a superb bed and breakfast or guesthouse…’ and on and on, but I felt the heat had gone out of it and Mr Rodd was going to get it. I felt sick. Could I withdraw the property from the auction just because I didn’t like Mr Rodd? But if I did, the move to town with Gavin would be delayed even further. Which was more important, Gavin or the property? I’d already answered that question.

I slipped down from the tree and walked away, not wanting to look at anyone, revolted by the thought of Mr Rodd walking through our house, sitting in our kitchen, sleeping in my parents’ bedroom. I felt like I’d swallowed a large amount of wet cow manure.

Taking a few more steps I reached the sundial and looked out across the garden to the paddocks beyond. I guess on most properties you have the kind of line that we had on ours, where the neat, civilised garden, full of hollyhocks and roses and hydrangeas, ends and the bare Australian countryside begins. It’s a bit funny really, the way the gardens are. The line is so definite. First one, then the other. Like you’re in a house, only one without walls, then suddenly you’re outside, facing the cracked ground and the yellow and brown grass and the slightly washed-out-looking gum trees and the ochrered cattle. For a moment I tried to ask my parents what I should do. I wanted a psychic vision: I begged them to appear from across the valley and float towards me, speaking words of wisdom ‘Let it be, let it be.’ Wait a minute, that wasn’t my parents. That was the song. But at the same time I realised I didn’t really need my parents because the answer was already in my own head. Courtesy of the Beatles. It would have been nice if my parents had appeared and said those words, sure, but I knew what I wanted them to say. ‘Let it be, let it go, let it pass, this phase of your life is over, face the next stage now, go on into the future.’

I became dimly aware that Jerry was still shouting away behind me. It seemed that the auction wasn’t over yet. I turned around and walked back to the edge of the arena. ‘One and a half,’ Mr Parsons yelled, ‘One and a half. Is there anything else you want to say to me? If there is, let’s hear it. I’m going to sell, I’m going to sell it, for the first time, for the second time, don’t walk away from here filled with regret, ladies and gentlemen, last chance, third time, fair warning, I’m selling’, and down came the hammer.

‘Sold for one and a half million dollars, and congratulations, you’ve acquired a very fine property, and thank you everybody for coming here today…’

As he wound up with a free ad for his next auction I looked around desperately. Where was Homer? Fi? Bronte? Lee? I couldn’t ask anyone else the big question: who’d bought the place? I’d feel too stupid. I started walking towards the house and then ran into Bronte. I clutched at her. ‘Who bought it? Who bought it?’

‘God, I don’t know, how would I know? I don’t know anyone’s names.’

‘Where’s Homer?’

‘I’m not sure. Wait, there’s Lee.’

Lee came over and I took both his hands with mine. ‘Who bought it, do you know?’

‘Yeah, it was the twins’ dad. Mr Young.’

‘Oh thank God. Are you sure?’

‘Yeah, that other guy, Rodd, he went for it pretty hard but Mr Young just kept nodding away like he didn’t care how much he paid for it, and eventually Rodd gave up.’

‘Oh that’s such a relief.’ I let go a little, let myself mould in with Lee, felt him tense against me before he too started to relax. A sudden delight ran through us both — I felt it as much in him as I did in myself. He hugged me. His passion, which had smouldered for so long, was ready to burst into wild flames and when it came to Lee I was totally combustible. ‘Hey, careful you two,’ Bronte said. ‘Here comes Homer.’

I grinned at her. ‘So?’

‘Well you know, the one you’re in love with? The one who’s in love with you?’

‘Homer? You’ve got to be kidding. Is that who you were talking about? Homer!’

I couldn’t believe the Scarlet Pimple had got it so wrong.

‘Bronte! Are you crazy? I’m in love with Lee!’




The appellant in this matter asks for an order that would give her the guardianship of another even though she is herself under a guardianship order and even though she is a minor. Such an application raises obvious issues of maturity and responsibility, which the appellant has sought to answer in three ways. Firstly, she argues that her age is irrelevant and that the Court is entitled to consider her suitability on her merits. In making this argument she has relied considerably on Grant v Breadsell, where the High Court found that leaving a sixteen year old in charge of a creche was not in itself proof of negligence, on Ruppy v Dalby University, where the university was compelled by the Supreme Court to admit a fourteen year old to its medical faculty, and, since the war, on two cases decided by this court, namely Macalister and David, where adoptions by under-age parents were permitted.

However, in Macalister the appellant was the aunt of the child, and in David the older brother of the fifteen-year-old mother who had died. Further, in the first of these cases the child was four months old; in the second, ten months.

Counsel for the present appellant makes much of the remarks by Justice O’Massey in Grant v Breadsell where that distinguished jurist said that ‘sometimes the age of a litigant can be the least relevant measure for assessing maturity, and indeed relying upon chronological age can amount to discrimination’. Further, in David, Justice Chen said she was satisfied that the seventeen-year-old brother showed considerably more maturity in court than the maternal grandparents, to whom the Department of Social Responsibility had originally granted custody, and that ‘there is no reason to suppose that age always confers wisdom; a sense of responsibility is not the exclusive province of those over the age of eighteen, and a judge is entitled to draw upon her own experience of life in recognising that youth alone does not prevent the practice of good parenting’.

Secondly, the appellant here argues that the new flexibility exercised by the courts since the war in such matters as these ought to be extended to her, and that the other options for the child who is the subject of these proceedings are of such poor standard as to entitle her to be considered the better alternative.

It is certainly true that a new creativity and flexibility has been needed by many courts if not all, since the war, and the decisions in Macalister and David reflect that. There were a great many orphans created by the war, and the sharp rises in the cost of living, along with the smaller amount of living space available to most people, have placed tremendous pressure on the adoption and fostering agencies. The courts have, in the view of this court at least, responded both appropriately and imaginatively. Although the various options provided by the State to children who cannot be placed in families might not, in the appellant’s view, be satisfactory, they nonetheless are subject to the most stringent regulations, they are frequently and regularly inspected, and they offer the great advantage that the children in their care are in a transparent situation where they are, it is hoped, free from abuse, whilst at the same time their physical and mental health are properly supported and monitored. There is much to be said for such arrangements, and it is unfair to the institutions concerned to be compared to the conditions of a different era. Oliver Twist and Little Orphan Annie are where they should be, on the fiction shelves of libraries, and not to be compared to the current conditions for State-managed children in this country.

Thirdly, the appellant asks the Court to take into account her unusual life experience, her remarkable range of abilities gathered from her farming background as well as her wartime activity, and her personal strengths and attributes. Further, she argues that the circumstances in which she and the child in this case met created a special bond which places her in a unique relationship to him and that this uniquely qualifies her to take on the role of parent to him.

The Court has heard from a number of witnesses, including General Eric Finley of the New Zealand Army, as to the character of Ellie Linton, and is in no doubt that she is an exceptional young woman who has carried herself with great distinction through the war and subsequently in coping with the appalling murder of her parents. Further her care of the child in this case has been to the best of her ability, and the Court is satisfied that the child has suffered no neglect at her hands. There is good reason to suppose that she has helped him in many ways, and that he may have been much worse off had she not devoted so much time and energy to his cause. The relationship between them, unusual as it is, and perhaps the kind of thing which is only found in times of special exigency such as war, appears to be a genuinely strong and loving one.

I come now to the issue of the appellant’s own guardianship order. Having read the Protective Services Act of 2007, I agree with both counsel that nothing in the legislation touches upon this issue. Perhaps surprisingly, those who drafted the statute did not envisage such a situation as I have before me now. At first sight, however, it is sensible and reasonable to argue, as counsel for the Department has done, that one who is the subject of a guardianship order cannot herself be a guardian for others. The essence of such an order is that its subject is presumed to be incapable, for whatever reasons, of taking care of herself, and therefore cannot be expected to be capable of taking care of others.

At the same time the Court must recognise the realities of life. One such reality is that young people who are under guardianship orders for no other reason than that of age may, as they approach 18, be acknowledged as reaching a stage of life where it is appropriate to treat them in a more adult manner. It may, in such situations, well be appropriate to recognise their greater independence and maturity. The department can hardly be unaware that guardianship orders relating to young people who are 16 or 17 years old, and who are not disabled, often have little practical meaning, except where trust funds are concerned.

I am aware that the decision I make today may well be cited as a precedent should a similar action come before the courts at a future time, but I am satisfied that due to the maturity of the appellant in this case, her own guardianship order need be no impediment to her being granted the custody of this child, with all the responsibilities which that necessarily involves.

Having considered carefully then all the issues raised in this case, I propose to make an order which may excite some public surprise and debate, but I have sat in this courtroom for nearly three days and heard a great deal of evidence. Counsel for the appellant has argued in his usual forceful and cogent way that courts must not be constrained by inflexible and old-fashioned approaches to family groupings, and that the intervention of the war must of necessity result in judicial recognition of new configurations that would not have been contemplated before the war. I have already made some reference to this earlier. I am convinced that this is a case where an imaginative approach to the welfare of a young boy who has no living relatives bar an infant sister living in a foster family is justified.

After all, what is the purpose of the law? It is a means by which we can live together. Nothing more than that. The young and the old, the rich and the poor, people of different skin colours, male and female: the law enables all of us to experience our lives without yielding to primitive impulses of greed and fear and prejudice, and without being subject to the primitive impulses of others. It seeks to prevent problems, or, if they have already occurred, to resolve them with fairness to all. It recognises that the past can only be visited; it cannot be changed. But insofar as is possible the law seeks to restore us all to the positions we were in before change was unfairly inflicted on us.

This young lad cannot be restored to his parents but he has found a family relationship by himself which suits him, which is apparently doing him no harm, and may well, according to the evidence of many witnesses I have listened to in this courtroom, be doing him some good. He and his mentor are no burden on society, rather they are useful contributors to it. The household which they have established, although located in an area made dangerous by terrorist activity, appears to be a successful one and they have been living in it without disturbance to their neighbours. And I use the word ‘neighbours’ in an abstract sense as well as a literal one.

I therefore make the following findings and orders: that both parents of this child are deceased, that in the absence of other relatives or appropriate persons his care now becomes a matter for the State, that the State will be properly carrying out its responsibilities for him by appointing the present appellant as his foster mother, and that this order will remain in effect until the appellant turns twenty-one, at which time she may apply for it to become a permanent adoption if she so wishes and if it is found to be an appropriate course at that time. I further order that the appellant agree and submit to the following conditions: firstly, that the environment in which the child is raised be so far as possible a safe one, and that to this end she ceases to live upon the farm property from which the child was kidnapped, and that she moves into Wirrawee or Stratton, as the appellant has indicated that she intends to do. This must be done within ninety days of this order being given. Secondly, that officers from the Department of Social Responsibility visit the family regularly for the purpose of inspecting the living conditions in which the child is kept, and that such inspections shall be at least once weekly for the first six months, and providing that the result of these inspections is satisfactory that they then be reduced in frequency to once a fortnight for the following six months, and thereafter at the Department’s discretion but not less than once every two months until the appellant turns 21. Thirdly, that the appellant so far as is within her powers ensures a satisfactory school attendance record for the child, and that she notifies the Department by 10 am on each and every day that the child is not attending school, and as to the reasons for his absence. And finally, that the appellant notifies the Department immediately of any change in the circumstances of her and/or the child, which might materially affect their welfare. So given, Stratton Court of Protective Services, order to take effect immediately.

Now, Miss Linton, do you understand what this means?

Someone get her a glass of water.

We’ll wait until you are able to compose yourself, Ellie. Take your time.

All right, now do you understand what this order means?

(Linton) Yes I think so Your Honour.

Well, your counsel will explain it all to you I am sure. But I am giving you custody of Gavin so long as you move into town and allow the officers from the Department to come and visit you every week. That’s for the first six months, but after that if things are going well you’ll see less of them.

Thank you sir, I mean Your Honour, thank you very much.

I’m sure you will do a very good job, as long as you comply with the conditions of the Court that I have set out today. And I’m sure you’ll find the people from the Department very helpful and nice to work with. You need have no fear of them.

Yes Your Honour, thank you Your Honour.

Well, good luck to you both. I hope things go better for you from now on. Court is now adjourned.

Court adjourned at 2.44 pm.


I’m outside the gates of St Bede’s. There’s a big sign, shabby, saying ‘Holy Cross Children’s Services’ and a whole lot of other stuff. Someone has tried to scratch out ‘Holy’ and write ‘Very’ on the sign but they didn’t do much of a job: it just looks like a lot of random scratches.

Lee and Pang and Phillip and Paul and Intira — they wanted to come too. They figure if we’re going to be living together in Stratton, one big happy family, they should be here now, but we’ll meet them at Maccas later. This is between me and Gavin.

The driveway is white gravel. All the kids in this place have jobs, and one of Gavin’s is to rake the drive every afternoon, to keep it clean. It looks like he hasn’t done it in a fortnight at least.

On previous visits I’ve left the ute outside and walked up the drive and today I’m doing the same thing. But this time the driveway seems impossibly long. I can’t bear to put off the reunion any longer, so I break into a jog.

Approaching the administration building I can see the usual activity, just like on the other visits. An old man mowing the lawn; his name is Bert, I think. A couple of boys playing soccer, using a rubbish bin as a goal. A man and woman waiting on the veranda: they’re dressed in their best gear. They could be parents of one of the kids here, or applying for a job or something. Who knows?

I avoid the office, even though you’re meant to check in there. Panting a little from the run up the drive I look around for Gavin. A boy named Morris, about the only kid Gavin has been friendly with, sees me and waves. ‘He’s around the back of the kitchen I think,’ he calls.

I wave back in thanks and hurry to the kitchen block. Trust Gavin to stay near the food, even if he does complain about the quality. But he’s nowhere to be seen and I start zigzagging around the shrubs, looking for him.

No luck. It’s so frustrating. All I want to do is rush up to him and tell him the news and then march away, the two of us together, towards freedom and a new life. But it’s a bit hard to do that when there’s only one of me. I’m torn, not knowing whether to continue searching or go to the office like I should have done in the first place.

I do one last big sweep around the front of the cabins and then go up the rise towards the boundary fence. And there’s a little figure sitting on a swing, with his back to me, the swing just drifting backwards and forwards, as he drags his feet in the dirt. My eyes fill for a moment at the loneliness of him. But there is one person who can help him a little bit, maybe, with his loneliness, and so I run up the slope. No use calling his name, and I don’t want to startle him by rushing up behind him with no warning so I do a bit of a circuit that brings me into his circle of flight. He’s always had great peripheral vision. He lifts his head and looks at me, then cocks his head to one side. ‘What’s going on?’ I know he’s asking himself. ‘This is a strange time for her to be here.’

He gets up slowly. He looks vaguely pleased, a slow half-smile. He’ll never give himself away by leaping at me in delight. Gavin’s subtle. Most of the time I have to take it on faith that he loves me, because if I relied on getting day-to-day hugs and warm fuzzy comments, my life would feel like a very long drought.

I slow to a walk and keep coming towards him trying not to smile too much, trying to be cool, trying not to get too mushy and girly, knowing how much he hates that stuff. His grin gets a little wider. ‘We won?’ he asks. He’s figured it out already. My heart leaps at the word ‘we’. Such a simple word but it says everything.

‘I lost,’ I say.

But before the alarm that leaps into his eyes has established itself I add, ‘Yep, I’m a loser. I’m stuck with you permanently.’

He digests that, then finally says, ‘Hey, that makes you a big winner.’

Then he does something he’s never ever done. He throws himself onto me and gives me the biggest hug I’ve had in my whole damn life. From Gavin! Gavin! I mean, this is the kid who wouldn’t give me CPR if I were hauled out of the dam unconscious. He’d be worried about catching girl germs.

When the hug is over the two of us hurry back to his cottage. He can’t wait to get out of the place. I help him pack his stuff. It doesn’t take long because his houseparents have forced him to be fairly neat since he’s been here. I joke about how I’ll make him keep his things equally neat when we move in with Lee, but he’s had enough of jokes now, one was all he could cope with, he’s too fragile, so I remind myself not to make any more for a day or two.

At the office there’s a problem. They tell me they’ve had no paperwork yet. He’ll have to stay another night, maybe longer, until they get the clearance from the Department. Gavin looks utterly devastated. Ashen. I argue until the woman behind the counter gets cranky and I realise she’s become deaf herself, deaf to me. I start to turn away, defeated. And then I think it through. If I walk out of the place with him, then what are they going to do? They’re not going to chase us, because they know I’ve got the decision from the court, she’s already admitted that, so they’d hardly send the cops to track us down. It mightn’t impress the department too much, when they hear about it — I’ll be off to a bad start with them — but why should I wait, why should Gavin be put through any more suffering, just because they aren’t better organised? So I nerve myself and write down my address and push it across the counter to the woman.

‘I’m actually taking him away now,’ I say.

She looks totally shocked and says, ‘You’ll be in trouble if you try that.’

‘No, you will be,’ I say, ‘because I’ve got the legal right to custody of him, and if you try to stop me you’ll be breaching the court order.’

While she stands there trying to think of what to do I say to Gavin, ‘Come on, let’s go, we’re out of here.’

And away we go. She doesn’t say anything, but she heads for a phone. I grin at Gavin. ‘Don’t run, or they’ll chase us. We’ll just walk quickly down the drive. As soon as we’re out of sight we’ll run.’

He grins back. He’s loving this. There’s life in his face again. It occurs to me that this is the best thing I could have done, it’s actually a great way to leave, because it’s giving Gavin the message that we haven’t been defeated, we are up for it, we’re young, we’re in control of our lives again, we can charge into the future with confidence. When we round the corner of the driveway I take his hand and we run down to the gate together.