The Invitation

The old man said I could come inside. The stuff on the side of the road was good, but there was heaps more. Everything except what’s in that cabinet, he said. I ran back home to get Jess and Curt and we entered the dusty room. We looked around, our eyes sliding to the cabinet. I walked through into the next room of junk and called the others over. A washing machine sat there, gleaming white with streaks of dust, in the centre of a pile of plastic bags and broken rubbish. You can have that, he said. We decided it was too heavy to carry, and took some cups and an old suitcase instead. But the next day, surrounded by a mountainous aroma of dirty regret, our washing machine broke down.

Microfiction

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Dry Like Tree Bark

I was holding your hand when you passed.

For a long time I could hear you breathing and the machine next to us beeping after each breath. My arm started to ache, then went numb. Your hand was cool and your skin dry like tree bark. I sat in a salmon-pink straight-backed chair with a flat cushion softening the seat. The room we were in was exactly five strides across and six wide. The light on the ceiling was rectangular with a peculiar black dot on the side facing the window, which was precisely above your bed. I could see the red and grey city rooftops outside the window, but your bed faced inside, towards the ward. There were two stark white pillows under your head and two light blue blankets over your sheets — your skin took on the hue of each. This was not the first time I held your hand like that. I held your hand for a long time, but I never told you what I did. There are many ways to leave things too late.

Microfiction

Click/Click/Click

We sit in the lounge room. Me on one end, near the fire, and him on the couch. I’m typing, typing and then quiet, as I read. His mouse button clicks like a threatened gecko and I tense. Do you have to play that so much? I ask. He doesn’t hear me. Staring at the screen, his only response is to let off another round of clicks. Do you have to …? I repeat, tersely. He looks up, barely aware that I’ve spoken, and runs his hands through his hair, back and forth. It looks like he’s had a touch of electricity and I consider telling him this, but refrain. The clicking resumes.

I try and focus on reading something about Art Deco bone china, endless tabs open on my computer, but all I can hear is that incessant click/click/click, freaking click. My nose trembles. My eyebrows rise. It’s 1:43 a.m. and in the next room the bed lies empty and wallowing. The cat curled around me moves, slinky and languid. She stretches, reminding me that I haven’t, drawing my attention down to the ache in my crossed legs. My foot has become an unfeeling block. I stab it with my finger nail, but nothing – this is somehow his fault.

The cat moves towards the door with all the grace of a dancer, then quivers on the threshold, sniffing the suspicious air beyond. She looks back; then when another bout of furious clicking takes hold of him she does a convulsive sideways kick and launches herself across the lounge-room doorway and into the hall. I glance over, but he doesn’t look up. My toes flex as I move the muscles and bones in circular motions, wrinkling the skin into slight folds. Feeling begins to flow back into my foot through tight, buzzing coils.

I slam the laptop screen shut and glare at him as my leg goes weak with the flow of blood making its way into the previously blocked corridors of my arteries. Click. Click. Freaking click. His eyes never leave the screen. I rise from the un-vacuumed carpet, thick with the fur of many nights like this. Do you want a tea, I say to him – twice. He responds the second time with a half-focused answer that I know means he hasn’t heard me.

I stagger towards the brink of the lounge room doorway and the hall – that strange space that cats instinctively know belongs to a dangerous, and not to be trusted, third dimension. The last coils of pain let me go and I straighten up to the sound of clicking. It follows me into the kitchen, where I turn on the kettle and wait to hear the slow, deep rumble of the water. My eyes are unsettled, unfocused … until I see the blinking blue light of the Wi-Fi connection.

First published in Issue 9 of Seizure Online: http://seizureonline.com/clickclickclick/

Reading Time

Martha sat on the concrete wall at school and rested her feet against a wooden block drilled in with nails as she read about another place. Natalie from Mrs Johnson’s class approached her and sat down. Martha tensed and tried to ignore her, but Natalie was sitting very close and she could hear her breathing. What are you reading? She said. Nothing, Martha replied.

Microfiction 

The Train Game

The station was surrounded by big gum trees and wild grass. They stood on the platform as the train left the station and Janet checked the timetable. There was a payphone and an emergency call point on the wall.

‘The next train is in 30 minutes,’ she said.

Janet walked back across the platform to the others and waited, watching until the platform train guard went back inside his room. Then she bent, grasped the side of the platform and twisted her body down onto the gravel. Her feet hit the ground with a crunch. She looked up at the others.

‘Well?’

Pete grinned and jumped down beside her. He held his hand out for Mel and helped her down off the platform. She looked around, nervous.

‘I don’t normally get on the tracks,’ she said, but no one listened.

Ranga looked edgy standing on the platform.

‘Come on, Ranga, jump down before the guard sees you,’ Pete said, in a guttural whisper.

‘Nar, I think you lot are mad crazy. I’m not doing it.’

‘Ranga! Come on! It’s no big deal — are you gonna be a chicken?’

Ranga shrugged and jiggled on the spot. ‘I’m not doing it. I’m going home and you lot are bloody stupid.’

Pete started clucking, but Mel elbowed him in the ribs and shot a nervous look at the guard’s room. Ranga started to walk away, head down and hands in his pockets, and Pete spat in disgust. Janet was walking away down the tracks so Mel ran after her and Pete swore and followed. They heard the sound of a hard crunch on the gravel and turned around.

‘Shit, this better be worth it,’ Ranga said, catching up to them. Pete clapped him on the back.

They walked until their school shoes were covered in a white film from the stones on the tracks. Janet asked where the stones came from and Pete said maybe the quarry.

‘Dad works there. I probably will, too.’ He kicked at a stone.

Mel looked up at the wire fence that surrounded them on both sides now. They’d been walking for a good fifteen minutes and could see the tunnel entrance just in front of them. There wasn’t a lot of room, but when the train came they’d be able to climb up the steep embankment on the other side of the tunnel and flatten themselves against the narrow archway over the top — to feel the power of the engine go past for ages.

Pete raced ahead and reached the tunnel first.

‘COOOOOOHOOOOOOEEEEEEEEEEEE EEEEE EEE.’ He yelled into the tunnel and the sound echoed back at him. The others reached the entrance and they stood there in the sun for a moment before entering the dim light of the tunnel. Inside, the air was cold and damp and smelt of moss.

Water dripped from somewhere on the curved ceiling and Mel squealed when a drop hit her, the sound magnified by the echo. They stayed quiet and only the sound of their breathing followed them as they walked towards the pinprick of light at the other end of the tunnel.

When they burst out into the light they blinked their eyes in the strong sunlight. Mel looked back into the tunnel and shivered. The fence continued on this side, but it was framed by sheer cliffs, cut away to allow the train lines through. The train sleepers sat close to the fence with barely a gap between them and the wire, so that when the trains whooshed past they would hug close to the fence line.

They dumped their school bags next to the fence. Pete shook it and looked up at the steep hill they would have to climb to get on top of the tunnel entrance. The fence came right up to the tunnel entrance.

‘We can’t climb the hill. We’re going to have to jump the fence first,’ he said.

Janet picked up a quarry stone, turning it over and over in her fingers before dropping it and picking up another one. Pete leant back against the wire and stared at Janet. Ranga lay down on the ground and put his ear to one of the train sleepers.

He shrugged.

‘I can’t hear anything.’

‘You’re not listening properly,’ Pete said. He started to roll a cigarette and licked the paper shut, lit it, took a drag and passed it to Janet who passed it straight to Mel. She took a deep drag and giggled, blowing the smoke out in Ranga’s face. He coughed and she held it out to him.

Janet looked at Ranga and said, ‘My mum died of lung cancer.’

He paused and passed the cigarette back to Pete, who dropped it and ground it out on the train sleeper. Mel huffed and squinted down the train line in both directions.

‘How do we know what direction it’s coming in?’ She said.

‘It’s coming from the city side. I checked.’ Janet said.

Ranga looked at Pete. ‘What’s the time?’

‘It’s 3:34.’

‘What time’s it meant to get here?’

‘3:42,’ Janet said.

Mel looked up and down the train line. She pointed to her right.

‘The city’s that way, isn’t it?’

‘Nar, it’s this way.’ Ranga nodded his head to the left.

They looked at Janet and she nodded then leant back on the wire fence and looked up at the sky. Green and brown gum trees grew ragged on the sides of the cliffs and dry brown grass struggled through the fence to tickle her legs, stopping short where the grass met the quarry stone. The others were restless and jittery.

Ranga kept scuffing at the stones and was kicking up a cloud of white dust. Mel took out a packet of lollies and sucked on one, savouring the flavour before reaching her hand in for another. Pete tapped his foot on the train sleeper until Janet looked at him.

‘Stop it. You won’t hear the train.’

Pete stopped. ‘Did your mum smoke for long?’

‘She didn’t smoke.’

‘Right.’

‘Are your parents still together?’ Janet said.

‘How did she get the lung cancer then?’

Janet tossed her hair. ‘Dunno, Dad smokes.’

‘Yeah, my parents fight a lot. So much they might as well not be.’ Pete crossed the sleepers and fell against the fence next to Janet. He took something out of his pocket.

‘Want a mint?’

‘Not be what?’ Janet said.

‘Not be together,’ Pete said, and handed her the mint.

Mel and Ranga had drawn back down the train line a bit and were lowering their ears to the ground on each sleeper then swapping. Ranga ran up against the fence and shook it hard.

‘ARRRRHHH! Where is this fucking train?!’

‘Shut up you idiot.’ Pete lazily checked the time then sat bolt upright and looked at Janet. ‘When did you say it was due?’

‘3:42.’

‘It’s three fucking forty one.’

Mel swore and yelled out to Ranga, ‘Get back here, the train is coming.’

Ranga ran back then stumbled; his foot caught on a sleeper and he fell. He tried to get up, but fell back down clutching his ankle. Mel and Pete ran towards him. They picked him up.

‘Shit, you’re heavy.’ Pete said.

‘Shut up and get him up!’

They dragged Ranga back towards the fence and to Janet, who was looking pale and frozen to the spot.

Pete took one look at her and shook her, ‘Hey. Hey! Snap out of it, the train’s coming.

Are we on the right side of the tracks?’

Ranga bit his lip and hissed.

‘I think my ankle’s fucked.’

Mel put her hand on the nearest sleeper and lowered her ear to the metal. She looked up at them and shrugged.

‘I can’t feel it coming. There’s no vibration. Shouldn’t there be a vibration?’

‘It’s late, it must be,’ Pete said. ‘It’s 3:45 now.’

Ranga maneuvered his ankle. ‘It’s fine. We’ll just wait on the side until it comes. It’s a train. It can’t take up both sides of the track.’

Janet pushed herself off the fence and looked both ways along the tracks. She bit her lip and looked at Pete. ‘I don’t remember.’

‘What do you mean? It’s city side or home side — north or south. Which is it?’

She gave him a panicked stare. ‘I don’t remember checking what time the other train comes.’

Pete swore and spread his arms out. ‘What other train? Shit, Janet, where should we be standing?’

‘I don’t know. I don’t know’

Mel started to cry and Pete shook the fence, checking its strength.

‘We’re going to have to jump the fence right now.’

‘How the hell are we going to do that with Ranga?’ Mel said. ‘Look at him!’

Mel’s chest heaved with each sob. The other three looked at each other, askance. Janet spoke first.

‘I can jump the fence and hold on to the top. You lift him up and I’ll grab his arms and pull. When he’s half over one of you can jump up and help me pull him and catch him on the other side. Okay?’

Ranga broke in, his hand on the track next to his swollen ankle, ‘Hey… hey, I can feel something on the tracks.’

Mel, Pete and Janet looked at Ranga then bent down, each with an ear to the metal.

Pete swore. ‘Fuck. We’ve gotta move. Now!’

‘What about our bags?’ Mel said.

‘Leave them, they’ll be fine!’

Janet and Mel helped Ranga to his feet. He gripped the wire fence, but gasped when he put pressure on his ankle.

‘I can’t do it.’

‘You bloody well will,’ Janet said. ‘Or I’ll tell everyone at school that you’re a pussy.’

Ranga sniffled and grabbed at the fence.

‘It’s too high, you cow. My ankle hurts — I can’t!’

Pete pushed Janet out of the way and grabbed Ranga around the waist. Mel supported his legs and they started to hoist him up. Janet hesitated then began to climb the fence to the sound of Ranga protesting. She reached the top and flipped half over it. They all heard the sound of a train whistle slicing through the air. And then another whistle, sounded from the opposite direction. Ranga stopped protesting and whimpered. He began to help the others push his body up the sagging fence.

Janet lay across the top of the fence and held her arms out to Ranga, talking to him.

‘Come Rang, you can do this. You can get up. Come on! Do it.’

Ranga reached up, grasped Janet’s hand and Mel and Pete pushed hard — arms around his thighs. Janet and Ranga were precariously balanced on the fence, staring at each other.

Ranga held Janet tight.

‘Don’t let me go. Don’t let me go. Don’t let me go.’

‘I won’t.’

The train whistles sounded again and they could all feel the vibrations now. The sleepers made a clanking noise and the wind picked up. Mel ran at the fence, pulled herself up then vaulted clumsily over, landing in the grass on the other side. She jumped up and helped to pull Ranga over. Pete held his legs on the other side and they lowered him head and body first until he collapsed on Mel. The trains were almost on them and they could see one coming around the curve in the cliffs towards the tunnel. The driver saw Pete and began to honk his horn and blow the whistle. The other train turned the corner.

Pete pulled himself up and over, landing on the other side, but Janet was still on the fence, eyes shining brightly, leaning over into the wind kicked up from the advancing trains. Her hair whipped around her face and she raised one leg slightly, as if she were about to jump back on to the tracks. Pete reached up the fence and pulled her down. They landed in a heap together in between the fence and the cliff as the trains whooshed past with deafening horns blaring and a buffet of air that stung their eyes.

Janet leant across to Pete and whispered, ‘Chicken.’

And they all breathed heavily, except for Janet, who was laughing.

Longlisted for the 2014 UTS Writers’ Anthology, ‘Sight Lines’

Finding Home (working title for novella) – excerpt, ‘The Rave’.

Note: this excerpt fits towards the end of the first third of the novella. All the characters on the boat have gotten to know each other, but their secrets are yet to be revealed. Emily rejects Ivar and struggles with memories from her past.

Short synopsis: A young girl, 18, sets out alone on a trip to Europe and experiences a disjointed sense of self and an inability to come to terms with her past (the reason she left home) as she sails around the Croatia islands with a group of strangers. 

***

The Rave (excerpt from Finding Home)

The music drove itself deep into my body. The bass against my bones in a steady rhythm as I danced among the throng of bodies in the pit of the nightclub. I moved within the heart of the rave, feeling as if I were one limb of a writhing monster driven mad by dub step and hard liquor.

June made her way across the dance floor to me, holding above her head two pink plastic cups of gin and tonic, each with a fresh slice of lime. I gestured to the edge of the dance floor and she nodded and followed me. She handed me my drink, rolling her eyes at the scene in front of us.

‘I can’t hear anything!’ She shouted into my ear. I winced.

We stood sipping through straws and looking out over the crowd of backpackers, locals and sailors. Mel and Scott were dancing in a sweaty embrace, he half holding her up against him as she gazed at him with glazed eyes. That game of Kings earlier on had been pretty effective.

The strobe light began to pulse across the dance floor. I felt unsteady as the room took on the swirling qualities of a kaleidoscope. My skin was covered in a sheen of sweat and I felt the heat rising as more bodies packed into the space. Through the haze of the smoke machine I recognised people from the other boats.

‘When do we go back to the boat?’

‘What?’ June yelled into my ear, her body moving to the beat, her eyes flickering across the crowd.

‘The boat. When do we go back?’

‘I don’t know. Where’s Ivar?’

‘I don’t want to look for Ivar,’ I shouted.

‘Why not? He’ll take you back.’

‘Because I don’t.’

‘Hmm,’ June shook her empty glass. ‘Well, I’m getting another drink. Do you want one?’

‘Can we go outside? I feel so hot in here.’

‘Sure, I’ll meet you out there. Near the tables.’ June walked off, elbowing her way back through the crowd to the bar.

I made my way across the dance floor to the stairs up to the ground level. Outside the air was fresh and a light breeze from a fan cut across the sticky heat of the still night. I wandered over to the balcony and leant against the wooden railing. The moon cut a yellow path through the dark water and I found myself searching for movement in that inky black pool of salt.

Standing looking out at the water reminded me of the time Dad and Mum took us on a holiday to Stradbroke Island when I was a child. David came too, so I must have been very young.

There had been a jetty somewhere on the island near where we were staying and Dad took David and me down there. We collected small pebbles and rocks and walked out to the end of the jetty. I sat sandwiched between Dad and David as they passed me pebbles to throw out into the water. David tried to teach me to skim the pebbles along the surface, but my pebbles just plopped through the water and sank, I imagine, down into its depths for only the fish to discover in the displaced sand. We ate chocolate and hid the wrapper on the way home to Mum. It’s the last happy memory I have of Dad and David together, before the fighting started and everything turned sour. That was the last family holiday we took, as well.

A hand dropped on to my shoulder and I jumped and turned.

‘I looked for you earlier, but you disappeared,’ Ivar said.

‘I went downstairs with June, to dance.’

‘You like to dance?’

‘Not now; it’s too hot down there,’ I said.

He fell silent and we looked out over the ocean together for a while.

‘This party is good, yes?’

‘Yes, I might go and find June.’

‘Why do you avoid me?’

‘I’m not.’

‘I walk up to you — you make excuses. You walk away many times.’

He threw his arms up and his eyes held mine as I looked up at him, startled.

‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to. Just, after the other night I’m not sure what to say.’

‘What is there to say? You like me. I kiss you. Is all good. Simple.’

‘I’m sorry, I was drunk. I didn’t realise what I was doing,’ I said.

There was a pause before he answered. ‘Is okay, no problem. No worry.’ He shrugged and smiled as if he hadn’t heard a word I’d said.

I wondered if I should tell him about Matt. I doubted it would make any difference, but still. The silence between us had become uncomfortable, when I saw June coming up the stairs and waved her over.

‘Hello you two. God, you’re a dreary bunch. What are you doing up here when the party is down there is what I want to know.’ She tottered over to the railing and set her drink down on the flat bar across the top.

‘Ivar, you can take us for a dance later,’ she said.

‘I am just leaving,’ he said and walked away.

‘Who put a bee in his bonnet?’ June leant over the edge of the railing and I pulled her back.

‘He’ll be fine,’ I said, hoping I was right. ‘Let’s sit down.’

I picked a table near the fan and we sat down in the hard-backed chairs. It wasn’t getting any cooler as the night went on and I knew my cabin on the boat would be stuffy and unbearable. It would be nice to sleep out under the stars on one of the deck chairs on the roof of the boat.

‘June, do you ever wonder how things might have been if you’d made just one different decision?’

‘Everyone is so serious tonight.’ She picked up her drink, took a swig and set it down, looking straight at me. ‘Right. There’s no point in thinking like that because once a decision is made and acted on that’s it. There’s nothing else to it.’

‘I guess you’re right.’

‘Of course I’m right. Now kick yourself out of this mood because I’m not ready to go home yet.’

I smiled, ‘Okay, I surrender.’

June pulled her dress away from her skin, fanning herself with the material. ‘It’s this heat. It’s enough to make you turn tail and run back to dreary London.’

‘I’m not ready to go home yet, though I would do anything for air conditioning,’ I said.

‘Let’s go back down and dance.’

‘Really? But it’s so hot down there.’

‘Come on! When’s the next time you’re going to be here? Humour me, please?’ June made a dramatic face and I laughed.

‘Okay, okay! You win.’

‘Awesome! Let’s go, amega.’

‘That’s Spanish,’ I said.

‘Very observant.’

‘Oh, you’re hilarious.’

We pushed back our chairs and walked back to the staircase leading to the dance pit, leaving June’s empty glass behind.

***

It was some early hour of the morning. Really early, if that was a bird I heard. June had lost one of her shoes and walked ahead of me, carrying the lonely survivor in her hand. The air had finally cooled and my skin was pocked with goosebumps. I could smell the fresh scent of flowers and trees releasing their perfume as often happened at the start of day. We walked in relative silence — only the sound of our breathing and the ringing of our steps filling our ears. There is something very solitary about those few moments before dawn. The world begins to awaken and at once you notice how alive everything is. It made me more aware of myself. The tiny hairs rising on the backs of my hands, the blood moving through my veins, the light breeze finally pushing my fringe back from my forehead.

The water was still a dark mass on our left side, boats moored in her depths, silent now, no echo of the parties that had raged mere hours before. Others were making their way back to their boats, like me, I imagined they were intent on sleeping off the party throughout the morning hours. I struggled to see our boat moored in the bay, tied in with the other boats, and had to trust that June knew better than me where it was. I caught up to her and linked my arm through hers.

‘Can you see the boat?’ I said.

‘It’s up here a bit. I’m so ready for bed.’

‘Me too, I hope it’s not so hot tomorrow.’

‘We’re having an afternoon swim, aren’t we?’ June said.

‘I hope so.’

‘Oh look, there’s the boat, I’m sure of it.’ June waved at a dark shape that listed slightly to the right in the water.

‘Yeah that looks like it.’

We walked towards the boat and I took off my shoes to walk across the plank to the mid deck.

‘Let’s go up on the top deck,’ June said.

We dumped our shoes at the bottom of the ladder and climbed up. The stars were still out, but the sky was getting lighter, turning from inky black to a bluey grey. We lay back in the deck chairs and looked up at the few stars left in the sky.

‘This is so romantic,’ she said. ‘Remind me again why I’m not up here with some sexy man? Preferably sailor.’

‘Because I’m better company.’

‘Really?’

I thumped her and she squealed.

‘Shush!’ I said through giggles. ‘You’ll wake everyone.’

‘I doubt it. They’re all out for the count. Especially Melanie. Did you see how pissed she was after that game of Kings?’

‘She wasn’t very good at it.’

‘Can you be good at Kings?’

‘I guess not. I pretend to drink if it’s just a sip.’

‘Do you? So do I,’ she said.

‘Great minds…’

‘Mmm.’

‘You know,’ I said suddenly, ‘Of all the things I miss from home I think I miss my mother’s cat the most.’

‘Really? How random.’

‘Yes, and every time I see a stray cat about it reminds me of that overfed, bad tempered cat. But I love it regardless.’

‘I’ve always been more of a dog person, myself.’

‘At least you’re not a bird person, those people are weird,’ I said.

June laughed. ‘The sky is getting lighter.’

‘It is.’

‘Hey, what was going on between you and Ivar when I met you on the deck?’

‘I didn’t think you’d noticed that.’

‘There was a distinct feeling of the air being sharp enough to cut.’

‘I just told him I wasn’t interested, that’s all.’

‘Ah, I didn’t realise anything had happened between you.’

‘It didn’t,’ I lied.

‘Good, it’s just, I’m kinda interested in him and if you’re not, then maybe you wouldn’t mind if I gave it a go?’

I didn’t reply straight away. I knew, of course, that June found him attractive. She’d eyed him from that first day we’d hopped on the boat. Instead I looked up at the stars and noticed they had become faint and some had disappeared altogether. I could hear the sounds of people on the other boats waking up and realised that Ivar and the Captain would be up soon.

‘Sure, if that’s what you want,’ I said.

‘Great.’

‘We should go down. People are waking up and we should go to sleep.’

‘Oh, I suppose. Let’s still go for that swim in the afternoon.’

‘Of course.’

We picked up our things at the bottom of the stairs, hugged outside my bedroom, and then June gave me a regal wave and walked away.

Excerpt from novella. 

Finding Home (working title for novella) – excerpt, ‘My Brother’.

Excerpt from work-in-progress novella

Note: this piece is placed in the third half of the novella, when Emily disembarks from her boat trip around the Croatian islands and meets her brother again for the first time in years.  

Short synopsis: A young girl, 18, sets out alone on a trip to Europe and experiences a disjointed sense of self and an inability to come to terms with her past — the reasons she left home. 

***

My Brother

I dragged the last of my bags off the boat with relief and dumped them on the small jetty. I looked around; the bay was surrounded by houses built into the hills and towering walls from the old town. I searched the milling groups of tourists and locals for David’s face. With a sigh I pulled my bags out of the way and dumped them against a low wall where I had a good view of the bay. I sat down on my backpack to wait.

I smoothed out my dress and placed my sandaled feet side by side. Then I smoothed out my dress again. I didn’t have high hopes for my looks after nine days on that travesty of a boat. The men on the docks continued to work around me as I waited. They shouted to each other, hefting large packages onto the boats, probably restocking for the journey back to Split. I saw Ivar and ducked my head down, scooting further up against the wall, but he didn’t seem to see me. He looked focused on loading supplies into the boat.

A small girl walked along the jetty selling wilted roses to tourists. A couple took pity on her and bought a rose, but I could see they felt uncomfortable and didn’t really want it. The heat here was oppressive. The boat had created a breeze when it sliced through the clear blue water.  I pushed my hair back off my forehead and wiped at the sweat. At home in Sydney it would be freezing, probably raining and I’d be complaining of the cold rather than enduring this heat. Dad couldn’t handle the heat. He’d sweat until his shirt was covered by a dark stain and I could smell his musty odour as he walked slowly through the heat or lay in a chair in the shade on the back veranda of Mum’s house.

I shaded my eyes with my hand and squinted as I looked further down the jetty and tried to make out the town. David had said he would be here when the boat docked, but maybe something had happened. I sank back further against the wall, my mouth dry. If only the girl with the roses was selling water.  I contemplated getting up and moving with my bags to one of the stores in the town, but the thought of lifting them in the heat kept me where I was.

As I wondered, not for the first time, what Dad would think of me being here, I saw someone’s brown head bobbing above the crowd of tourists and locals. A tall man, dressed in jeans and a loose, white button-up shirt, searching for someone. I raised my hand, waved and he saw me and smiled.  I stood waiting in the bustling crowd. We stared at each other until he leant forward and enveloped me in his arms. He smelt like Dad. I began to cry and he held me tighter. I sagged against his body and he held me up. David leant back and touched my face. His hand was warm.

‘I’m glad you came,’ he said. ‘Maria is in the car. I thought we should meet first.’

I nodded. ‘Thank you. I— I’m glad I came, too.’

David picked up my bags and carried them through the crowd towards the town. He led us through a winding stone-paved side street with the high walls of houses covered in vines reaching up towards the sky. We came out into what was presumably the town square. Old men sat on deck chairs, smoking and watching the throngs of young people parading up and down. Tourists in sandals, shorts and bright t-shirts wandered around looking up at the old buildings.

One man chased a laughing girl, who was wearing nothing but short shorts and a bikini top, down the street and into an ice-cream shop. He picked her up and kissed her, to the cheers of a group of tourists standing nearby. Two old women gossiped at a doorstep across the street. One kept a steely eye on a small child playing at her feet. In the centre of the square a fountain was surrounded by a circular stone bath and a man held a small child up so that she could throw a coin into the fountain. I looked up at David. His face was so familiar and yet so strange. He had flecks of grey in his hair now, but still looked young. I searched for something to say to him.

‘What’s it like during the winter months?’

‘I’m sorry?’

‘The town — what’s it like? There’s so many tourists here now,’ I said.

‘It’s not so busy. The town is closed up, mostly. A lot of the shops are open only in summer.’

‘Don’t people dislike tourists taking over their town every summer?’

‘Yes, of course, but they don’t mind the money.’

I laughed. ‘I guess not.’

‘Were you waiting for long?’

‘No, not really. I was watching all the people so I didn’t mind.’

‘Good. I didn’t want you to wait. Maria takes forever to get ready.’

‘Do you come out to the town much?’ I said.

‘No, not much these days, although Maria does for a prenatal group.’

‘Oh. I didn’t know she was pregnant.’

‘It’s hard to miss.’ He said, with a wink.

He pointed to an ornate old building at the south end of the square. The restaurant’s name was too small to make out.

‘That place has good fish. We’ll take you there one night, I think.’ He glanced at me. ‘You’re not vegetarian?’

‘No, no. I love fish. That would be nice, thanks.’

‘You were always such a fussy eater as a kid. I remember.’

‘I still don’t eat beef,’ I said. ‘Makes me fart.’

He laughed and I relaxed.

David pointed towards the south end of the town square. ‘I parked the car not far from here. Maria’s waiting. She’s looking forward to meeting you.’

I smiled and looked towards the end of the square. My hands fluttered up to my un-made-up sweaty face.

David noticed, ‘You look fine. Don’t worry.’

We reached a wide street at the end of the square. A slim woman in a long yellow cotton dress with a low bump protruding across her belly leaned against a four-wheel drive car. David called out and Maria began to walk towards us, a wide smile across her face.

‘Emily,’ she said. ‘Look at you! You are beautiful and so young. It is so lovely to finally meet you.’

She leant in kiss me, once on each cheek, and I curled my arms up around her and her prominent bump. David patted his wife’s bottom and walked past us with my bags, towards the car.  Maria slid her arm around my waist and we walked together.

‘Maria,’ David said.

He held the car door open for her and she kissed him before he shut the door. I lowered my eyes, opened the back door and slid in. David jumped into the driver’s seat and adjusted the rear-view mirror. With a stutter the engine started.

Maria turned to look at me in the backseat. ‘We are not far from here, perhaps a half-hour drive. The countryside is quite plain, but I think striking. You will see.’

‘Is it hard living so far from the town?’

‘Most people commute into town to work during the summer,’ David said. ‘Besides, the tourists stay mainly on the coastline so I think you will find it very different from what you have experienced so far.’

I nodded. My mind drifted back to the alcohol-fuelled parties held night after night on the boat. I imagined this would be different.

‘It was my idea for you to travel by boat from Split,’ Maria said. ‘We have such a beautiful coastline and perhaps you needed to relax before you got here. I think it has been hard for you after your father died, yes?’

‘Yes,’ I said.

Maria smiled and settled back into her seat. I looked out the window as we drove through the outskirts of the town. Soon the palm trees and close-set terraces gave way to a wide road framed by brown- grassed plains.  Whitewashed houses sat far back from the road. Some were crumbling, surrounded by disarray.

I thought how similar the wide space was to parts of Australia. I wondered if perhaps the roads between all cities were similar, in some way, with their isolation and lack of people. Here in Croatia I looked out at the houses and apartment blocks. Rundown two-story apartment buildings flashed past as the car sped towards David and Maria’s home. This scene bore no resemblance to the neon-crowded tourist traps of the old towns on any of the islands. I wound down the window slightly and felt the hot air buffet my face, drying some of the sweat from my fringe.

David looked at me in the rear-view mirror. ‘What do you think of the islands?’

‘They’re beautiful, but very different to here. To be honest, Croatia has surprised me. It’s not what I expected.’

‘What did you expect?’

‘I’m not sure. I didn’t expect all the tourists, or for Croatian people to be so courteous,’ I said. ‘One old man walked with me for ten minutes when I got lost at the markets and couldn’t find my boat.’

(More discussion here, or description of what’s going on in her head, before they reach the house.)

***

The car crunched up a narrow gravel driveway bordered by poplar trees and lavender fields. David parked in front of the house and I peered out the window at what was to be my home for the next few weeks. The house was different from those I had seen along the road. Although old, its walls were painted an electric yellow and the tiles leading up to the house were terracotta and dotted with pot plants placed in a seemingly random design.

I opened the car door and stepped out onto the gravel drive. A cool breeze brought relief as it ruffled through my lank hair. The lavender fields swayed in a choreographed dance then dropped their heads as the wind calmed. David was getting my bags from the back of the car as Maria gestured for me to come inside.

The air was cooler in the house. The ceilings were high and arched, wooden beams crisscrossing each other. Colourful woven rugs lay over the cool floors. Maria led me into the kitchen and opened the fridge door. She took out three glasses and a water jug infused with slices of floating lemon. She began to pour the drinks in a measured way, starting slow, then flicking the jug upwards to stop the flow of water. I sat at a wooden table with bench seats and watched her as she moved around the kitchen.

I heard a shuffle of feet and David appeared in the kitchen doorway.

‘I’ve put your bags in your room. Do you want to sleep for a bit? Maria made up a bed for you.’

I nodded; I was tired. I watched David and Maria standing sipping water in the kitchen.

‘I think I will rest, if that’s okay? It’s been a long day.’

‘No problems, we’ll have dinner when you wake,’ David said.

‘I will show you to your room.’ Maria walked past me, deeper into the house and I followed. She walked down three stairs in the hallway, holding the wall for support, to a door at the end. Maria walked through into a bright and simply furnished room with a single bed, woven floor rug and a side table holding a vase filled with lavender, no doubt from the wild fields outside. French doors led onto a small terrace with an expansive view of the blue sky and lavender fields beyond.

‘It’s beautiful!’ I said, leaning up against the door. ‘How long have you lived here?’

Maria joined me, looking out at the view. ‘It was my parents’ home and my grandparents before that.’

‘It survived the war so well.’

‘Yes, we’re lucky the house was spared. There is a basement underneath that we hid in sometimes. I will show you, if you like.’

‘Will you be okay?’ I gestured to her belly.

‘Oh, of course. I will show you, but I won’t go down there. I think you will find it interesting.’

‘I didn’t realise you were pregnant until David told me on the way to the car.’

‘It is hard to miss.’

‘True.’

‘I will tell you a secret. This baby, she is an astonishment. Your brother and I, we are very astonished.’

‘Do you mean a surprise?’

‘Yes,’ Maria winked at me. ‘But I am happy. It is a good time.’

‘When are you due?’

‘In about two months. So much time.’

‘Oh that’s not long at all!’

She rubbed her back. ‘It is long. I assure you. Now I will leave you to sleep.’ She hugged me. ‘We will have dinner when you wake.’

Maria slipped out of the room and shut the door. I lay down on the bed and curled up with my face turned to the open terrace doors. There was no fan in the room, but a cool breeze upset the filmy curtains and swept through the room to curl up against my skin as I lay there, thinking.

***

I fell asleep, waking some time after covered in sweat, my mouth dry and my clothes sticking to my body. Maria had left water on the side table and I drained the glass. It was so hot. I stripped and stood naked in the terrace doorway, although the breeze was all but gone. I stepped out onto the terrace where I was still protected from the sun by the awning, and closed my eyes. I lifted my arms and stretched, my lips opening to drink in the scent of the heady lavender, feeling the close of the day and the luxury of being in my own skin.

‘You must be Emily.’ A smooth male voice shattered my reverie and my eyes flew open in shock. Standing not three metres from me in the shadows of the house was a dark haired man, keeping his eyes firmly fixed on my face. I froze in place then turned and stumbled back into my room. I drew the curtains and grabbed a towel from the end of the bed then leant with my back against the wall, letting out a short gasp of dismay.

‘Oh. My. God,’ I said, barely audibly.  ‘Who the hell was that?’

I dressed and peeked out the terrace door, but the man had disappeared. I slipped on a pair of sandals and shut the terrace door behind me. The sun-bleached grass brushed against my ankles as I walked around the house. I could smell the lavender more now as the sun began to fall in the sky. A small lizard ran over my foot, intent on some destination, and I shivered at the feel of its lithe little body.

I could hear voices speaking in Croatian as I walked around to the front of the house. I slowed and my cheeks flushed hot. I exhaled and brushed the hair away from my face, wishing I had a hair tie, as I rounded the corner of the house. David, Maria and the man who had been sitting outside my room were sitting on wicker chairs under the balcony awning. Grape vines grew around the metal of the awning, their leaves hanging limp in the still day. Maria sat next to a tomato plant that she was easing the dead leaves from, I supposed so that new shoots could come through. David relaxed in his chair, his wide-brimmed hat half covering his face.

‘Ah, Emily, come sit down,’ Maria said. ‘This is my brother, Macan.’

I glanced at him, then looked away, my face burning.

Macan had a shadow of a grin on his lips, his eyes not revealing anything of what had transpired outside my room.

‘Sit next to me.’ Maria patted an empty chair. I sat down and noticed they were all looking at me with interest.

‘Did you sleep well?’ Maria said.

‘Yes, I did. It’s a lovely room. It’s, um, nice to have a door to outside.’ I avoided Macan’s gaze.

David nodded, then rose from his chair and disappeared inside the house.

‘I think later we should go for a walk and a swim in the pool,’ Maria said.

‘Oh, you have a pool? I didn’t see it when we were coming up the drive.’

‘It’s over behind the lavender fields —a small rock pool fed by an underground spring — just a hole in the ground, really. The water is icy.’

David came back from the house with three Karlovacko beers and a mineral water.

‘Do you drink beer?’ he said.

‘I used to steal Dad’s.’

David snorted, ‘So did I!’ Then he seemed uncertain and looked away.

He sat down and we drank, trying to cool down in the heat. It was stifling even under the awning and I could feel sweat trickling down my thighs. I looked out over the fields, trying to catch a glimpse of the pool, but I only saw a haze of lavender heads drooping under the sun. I felt the presence of Macan behind me and it unsettled me. What in the hell was he doing outside my room, anyway?

Macan’s voice broke through my thoughts. ‘How long will you be here, Emily?’

My pulse sped up. ‘A few weeks.’

‘You’re welcome to stay as long as you like,’ Maria said. ‘You’re family.’

‘Thank you, really.’ We fell quiet again.

A languid chirp from a lone insect sounded every few minutes. I wondered if Croatia had cicadas. David tipped his hat forward over his face and placed his empty beer can on the ground. I leant back in my chair and relaxed.

***

My sandals slapped against the dusty track framed by lavender. Maria and Macan walked ahead of David and me, making their way over the uneven ground. Maria wore a large floppy hat. I could feel the burn of the sun on the back of my neck and wished I had one the same as hers to shade my face. The sun felt so much stronger than when I had been on the boat, although still not as bad as some summers up north, at home. David walked beside me, his eyes flickering over the lavender fields. I already felt more comfortable around Maria than him.

‘Do you miss Australia?’ I said.

‘This is home now.’ He glanced at me. ‘Sometimes.’

He bent to pluck one of the lavender stalks and handed it to me. I twirled it between my thumb and forefinger and the crushed flower released its perfume.

‘What did Mum think of you coming over here?’ he said.

‘She thought it would be dangerous. Dad never would have come back here and Mum would only have come with him. I tried to get her to come with me, but she wouldn’t.’ David looked at me and I stuttered. ‘She said it had been too long.’

He nodded and we walked on in silence together, but for the sound of Maria’s laughter and crickets hiding in the lavender.

‘Why didn’t you come back?’ I dared to ask. He didn’t answer straight away, but looked instead at Maria walking ahead of us.

‘Mm. Time has a habit of moving quickly when you’re not keeping track. I travelled for a while around Europe. Then I met Maria. Croatia needed rebuilding after the war and I moved here and I became involved in that, although the pay wasn’t good. But I had the skills, and a lot of young people didn’t.’

‘Surely you could have called, or written?’

‘I did once. The old man hung up on me.’

I fell silent. ‘I didn’t know.’

‘It made me angry, then I didn’t try again. I was angry at Mum, too, because she didn’t fight for me.’ He smiled, ‘I was never mad at you.’

‘I fought.’

‘You cried. I felt terrible for leaving you. You were so small and solemn back then; a skinny little girl with wide eyes.’

‘I wasn’t that skinny.’

‘You were. When I called that time I hoped I could talk to you. But thinking back, you must have been in school.’

‘I was a kid when you left.’

‘Yes.’

‘In all that time, you couldn’t have called again?’

He didn’t answer.

‘I spent weeks, months then years thinking you’d come back. Then I stopped thinking about you, I suppose,’ I said.

‘It’s funny, but eleven years seems a long time when you say it out loud. In reality it moves so swiftly. Australia seemed so far away in my head. It was easier to just keep going with life here. It got harder and harder to think about making a connection again,’ David said.

Maria called to us. I couldn’t hear what she said, but she gestured to us to hurry up.

‘We’re almost there. It’s just beyond that crest,’ David said.

We quickened our pace as Maria and Macan disappeared over the rise in the land. I could smell a cool change in the air as the lavender fields ended and the still water came into view. Maria lay in a two-piece swimsuit on her towel next to the stone-walled pool. Macan smiled when he saw us and took off his shirt and pants, diving into the pool. His body broke through the stillness of the water, ripples creating small waves that broke against the sides of the stone walls.

‘I’ve never seen a pool like this away from the ocean,’ I said.

‘It’s very old. The water flows in from an underground spring and it’s cold all year round. No irrigation system needed.’

‘You should go in, Emily,’ Maria said.

I hesitated, my eyes on Macan floating on his back in the water.

‘Go in,’ She said, urging me forward with vigorous gestures.

I gave in and pulled my dress up over my head. I slipped my sandals from my feet and lay them neatly side by side. I entered the water slowly. The cold water was like ice against my hot skin. The water ebbed against my body now that Macan and I were both in the pool. I felt the blood rushing quicker through my veins as my temperature dropped. David lay down with Maria in the shade of a tree and they talked in low voices. Macan swam towards me.

‘Hello.’ He smiled. I looked at his teeth. They were perfect.

‘Hello,’ I said to his teeth.

‘Can you swim?’

‘Yes, everyone in Australia can.’

‘Everyone, really?’

‘Well, everyone I know. We’re given lessons when we’re young.’ I said.

‘You should come with me to the town one night. I will show around.’

‘Thank you. If we get a chance that would be nice if we all went to the town.’

He floated closer. ‘Just you and me.’

I let out a nervous squeak of laughter. ‘Well, I’m sure Maria or David will want to come. Or both of them. Probably both of them.’

‘It is okay. I can drive us. I will be your personal guide.’

‘Really, it’s okay. I think that I’ll just stay around here for a bit. Go for some walks and speak to David.’

‘Then I will go for walks and show you this countryside. It is very beautiful.’ He smiled.

I gave in. ‘Yes. Well, thanks.’

The water created a thin barrier between us and it was getting thinner as he loomed closer with his insistence on showing me around.

‘I am sorry about before,’ he said.

‘Oh?’

‘Outside your room. I sit there in the shade sometimes. It is the room I sleep in when I stay here. I did not realise you would come out, as you did.’

I sank my body further into the pool until only my head was showing above the water.

‘It’s okay. I suppose you saw nothing.’

‘You are very beautiful.’ He winked and pushed his body away from the wall of the pool. David stood up and helped Maria to stand. They made their way towards us.

***