My father took one hundred and thirty-two minutes to die.
I’m dreaming of the boy in the tree and at…
When it is over, when I’m the last person sitting…
The territory wars have been part of the Jellicoe School’s…
He went missing on one of the prettiest days Narnie…
The boy in the tree in my dreams comes calling…
The next afternoon I walk to Clarence House to find…
She stood at Webb’s door: Tate, with the wild hair…
I’m riding as fast as I can. The faster the…
I’m dreaming. I know I’m dreaming because I’m in a…
It is dark, surreally dark, and I’m hanging upside down…
Over the weekend Ben gets word through Raffaela that the…
Three things happen in the next week that keep us…
The look on the constable’s face said it all to…
It’s peaceful like this, on my back. A loving sun…
By the second day of the holidays everyone has left…
On one of those days during the holidays when they…
On the last day of the holidays, Santangelo sends word…
I go to see Santangelo’s dad at the police station.
Finally we came to an agreement about the Club House…
One day Tate was there, a ghost of Tate, sitting…
Somewhere on the highway to Sydney I begin to cry…
During this time I start to get to know my…
There is a sick feeling in my stomach when we…
Aftermath. Everyone uses it all the time so I get…
And life goes on, which seems kind of strange and…
He sat in the tree, his mind overwhelmed by the…
About the Author
Other Books by Melina Marchetta
About the Publisher
My father took one hundred and thirty-two minutes to die.
It happened on the Jellicoe Road. The prettiest road I’d ever seen, where trees made breezy canopies like a tunnel to Shangri-la. We were going to the ocean, hundreds of miles away, because I wanted to see the ocean and my father said that it was about time the four of us made that journey. I remember asking, “What’s the difference between a trip and a journey?” and my father said, “Narnie, my love, when we get there, you’ll understand,” and that was the last thing he ever said.
We heard her almost straightaway. In the other car, wedged into ours so deep that you couldn’t tell where one began and the other ended. She told us her name was Tate and then she squeezed through the glass and the steel and climbed over her own dead—just to be with Webb and me; to give us her hand so we could clutch it with all our might. And then a kid called Fitz came riding by on a stolen bike and saved our lives.
Someone asked us later, “Didn’t you wonder why no one came across you sooner?”
Did I wonder?
When you see your parents zipped up in black body bags on the Jellicoe Road like they’re some kind of garbage, don’t you know?
—TWENTY-TWO YEARS LATER—
I’m dreaming of the boy in the tree and at the exact moment I’m about to hear the answer that I’ve been waiting for, the flashlights yank me out of what could have been one of those perfect moments of clarity people talk about for the rest of their lives. If I was prone to dramatics, I could imagine my sighs would have been heard from the boundaries of the school to the town down below.
The question begs to be asked, “Why the flashlights?” Turning on the light next to my bed would have been much less conspicuous and dramatic. But if there is something I have learned in the past five years, it’s that melodrama plays a special part in the lives of those at the Jellicoe School. So while the mouths of the year twelves move and their hands threaten, I think back to my dream of the boy, because in it I find solace. I like that word. I’m going to make it my word of the year. There is just something about that boy that makes me feel like I belong. Belong. Long to be. Weird word, but semantics aside, it is up there with solace.
Somewhere in that hazy world of neither here nor there, I’ll be hanging off that tree, legs hooked over the branch, hands splayed, grabbing at air that is intoxicating and perfumed with the sweet smell of oak. Next to me, always, is that boy. I don’t know his name, and I don’t know why he comes calling, but he is there every time, playing the same music on one of those Discmans for tapes from the eighties, a song about flame trees and long-time feelings of friends left behind. The boy lets me join in and I sing the same line each time. His eyes are always watery at that point and it stirs a nostalgia in me that I have no reason to own, but it makes me ache all the same. We never quite get to the end of the song and each time I wake, I remind myself to ask him about those last few bars. But somehow I always forget.
I tell him stories. Lots of them. About the Jellicoe School students and the Townies and the Cadets from a school in Sydney. I tell him about the war between all three of us for territory. And I tell him about Hannah, who lives in the unfinished house by the river at the edge of the Jellicoe School, and of the manuscript of hers I’ve read, with its car wreck. Hannah, who is too young to be hiding away from the world and too smart to be merely organising weekend passes for the kids in my dorm. Hannah, who thinks she has me all worked out. I tell him of the time when I was fourteen, just after the Hermit whispered something in my ear and then shot himself, when I went in search of my mother, but got only halfway there. I tell him that I blame the Cadet for that.
The boy in the tree sobs uncontrollably when I tell him about the Hermit and my mother, yet his eyes light up each time I mention Hannah. And every single time he asks, “Taylor, what about the Brigadier who came searching for you that day? Whatever became of him?” I try to explain that the Brigadier is of no importance to my story, that the Brigadier was just some top brass, high up in the army, who had been invited to train the cadets that year, but the boy always shakes his head as if he knows better.
And there are times, like this time, when he leans forward to remind me of what the Hermit had whispered. He leans so far forward that I catch his scent of tea-tree and sandalwood and I strain my ears to listen so I will never forget. I strain my ears, needing to remember because somehow, for reasons I don’t know, what he says will answer everything. He leans forward, and in my ear he whispers…
I hesitate for a moment or two, just in case the dream is still floating around and I can slip back into it for that crucial moment. But the flashlights hurt my eyes and when I’m able to push them away I can see the ignorant impatience in the faces of the year twelves.
“If you want us to scare you, Taylor Markham, we’ll scare you.”
I climb out of bed and pull on my jumper and boots and grab my inhaler. “You’re wearing flannelette,” I remind them flatly. “How scared should I be?”
They walk me down the corridor, past the senior rooms. I see the other year-eleven girls, my classmates, standing at their door, watching me. Some, like Raffaela, try to catch my eye, but I don’t allow it to hold. Raffaela makes me feel sentimental and there is no place in my life for sentimentality. But for just one moment I think of those first nights in the dorm five years ago, when Raffaela and I lay side by side and she listened to a tale that I have no memory of today about my life in the city. I’ll always remember the look of horror on her face. “Taylor Markham,” she had said, “I’m going to say a prayer for you.” And although I wanted to mock her and explain I didn’t believe in anything or anyone, I realised that no one had ever prayed for me before. So I let her.
I follow the seniors down two flights of stairs to a window that is supposedly the least conspicuous one in the House. I have actually mastered the climb down from my own window but have never dared to tell anyone. It gives me more freedom and means that I don’t have to explain my every move to the year-seven spies in the dorm. I started off as one of those. They hand-pick you young out here.
A thorn presses into my foot through the soft fabric of my boot and I let it for a moment, pausing until they push me forward. I walk ahead, allowing them to play out their roles.
The trail that leads to the meeting hut is only distinguishable in the pitch black by the sensation of soft dirt under my feet. In the darkness, one of the seniors stumbles behind me. But I keep on walking, my eyes closed, my mind focused. Ever since they moved me from the communal dorms to my own room in year seven I have been trained to take over, just like the protégés in the other Houses. Five years is a long time waiting and somehow during that time I got bored. So as we reach the hut and enter and I feel the waves of hostility smack me in the face, I begin to plan my escape from Jellicoe. Except that this time I will not be fourteen and there won’t be a Cadet who tags along. There will just be me. According to Dickens, the first rule of human nature is self-preservation and when I forgive him for writing a character as pathetic as Oliver Twist, I’ll thank him for the advice.
Candles illuminate the canvas-covered dirt floor where the seniors from all the Houses sit with their successors, waiting for the verdict.
“This is officially the passing-on ceremony,” the one-in-charge says. “You keep it simple. It’s not a democracy. Whoever’s in charge rules. They can only be superseded if five of the six House leaders sign a document deeming him or her incompetent. The one-in-charge has final say in what gets traded with the Cadets and the Townies. He or she, only, has the right to surrender to the enemy.”
Richard of Murrumbidgee House makes a sound as if he’s holding back a laugh. I don’t know whether it’s because he’s sure the job is his or because he is laughing at the idea that anyone would ever surrender to the enemy, but the sound grates on me.
“The important thing is to never give anything away,” the one-in-charge continues, “especially not to teachers or dorm staff. Every time your dorm co-ordinator calls a meeting, just sit there and look like you’re taking in every word but don’t let them ever understand what goes on around here after hours.”
“Which is?” Ben Cassidy asks politely.
“I beg your pardon?” says one of his seniors.
“Well, what exactly does go on here after hours?”
“What are you getting at?” the senior persists.
Ben shrugs. “Everyone’s always going on about what goes on after hours but nothing actually seems to go on at all, except maybe meetings like this.”
“Then to begin with,” the one-in-charge says, “don’t discuss these meetings.”
“Well, it’s not as if they don’t know what’s going on,” Ben continues. “This one time I was with Hannah and we were eating her scones and she was asking me one hundred and one questions, as per usual.” He looks around at the other protégés as if we’re interested. “She makes them herself. Hmm hmm. Beautiful. Well, we got to talking and I said, ‘Hannah, you’ve lived in this house ever since I’ve been here and it’s got the best bird’s-eye view of all the Houses, so what do you think goes on here out of school hours?’”
“That’s a great question to be asking someone who’s constantly speaking to the principal,” Richard says. “You’re a stupid prick, Cassidy.”
“We didn’t have much to choose from,” the leader of Clarence House says, sending Ben a scathing look and whacking him across the back of the head. Ben looks resigned. In year seven he got bashed up at least once a month, mostly by his seniors. He’d go visit Hannah, which I found irritating because he had his own adult looking after his House and the one thing I hated in year seven, after living with Hannah in her unfinished house for the whole year before, was sharing her with the rest of the school. The revelation that she’s a question-asker is even more irritating. Hannah never asks me anything.
“What type of scones?” I ask him. He looks up at me, but his senior whacks him again.
“Okay, I’m over this,” Richard says impatiently. “Can we just get to the point?”
Those-in-charge look at one another and then back to us. And then at me.
I hear the curses instantly, the anger, the disbelief, the hiss of venom under the breath of almost everyone in the room except the seniors. I know what is about to be said but I don’t know how I feel. Just numb like always, I guess.
“You’re not a popular choice, Taylor Markham,” the one-in-charge says, cutting through the voices. “You’re too erratic, have a bad track record, and running off with one of the enemy, no matter how young you were, was bad judgement on your part. But you know this place inside out and you’ve been here longer than anyone else and that’s the greatest asset anyone can have.”
One of my seniors nudges me hard in the ribs and I guess I’m supposed to stand up.
“From this point on,” the one-in-charge continues, “we answer no questions and offer no advice, so don’t come to find us. We don’t exist anymore. We go home for study tomorrow and then we’ll be gone and our role here is over. So our question is are you in, or do we give this to our next candidate?”
I didn’t expect a question or an option. I would have preferred if they just told me to take over. There is nothing about this role that I desperately want. Yet being under the control of any of the protégés in this room for even the slightest moment is a nauseating prospect and I know that if I’m not in charge I’ll be spending many a night on surveillance, freezing my bottom off in the middle of the bush.
When I’m ready, I nod, and the one-in-charge hands me a purple notebook and a thick crisply folded piece of paper, which I suspect is the map outlining who owns what in the territory wars. Then the year twelves begin to leave and, like all things insignificant, the moment they’re gone it is like they never existed.
I sit back down and prepare myself for what I know is coming. Five House leaders ready for a battle. One common enemy. Me.
“You don’t want this. You never have.” I think the comment comes from the leader of Murray House, who has never really spoken to me. So the idea that he thinks he knows what I want interests me.
“Step down and the five of us will sign you out,” Richard says, looking around at the others. “You’ll be put out of your misery and we’ll get on with running the underground.”
“Richard’s got some great ideas,” the Hastings House girl explains.
“You don’t have the people skills, Taylor.”
“And you never turn up to meetings.”
“And not once did you gather intelligence against the Cadets last year.”
“You spend too much time in trouble with Hannah. If she’s on your back, she’ll be on ours.”
“You just don’t give a shit about anyone.”
I block them out and try to go back to the boy in the tree….
“Are you even listening to us?”
“Let’s just take a vote.”
“Five says she’s out and she’s out.”
Back to the tree…inhaling the intoxicating perfumed air and listening to a song with no end and to a boy with a story that I need to understand.
“This is the worst decision I’ve ever known them to make.”
“Everyone calm down. We just vote and it’ll be over.”
“She burnt down the bloody laundry when I was in her House. Who can trust her?”
“They were sultana scones.”
The voice slices through the others and I glance up. Ben Cassidy is looking at me. I don’t know what I see in his eyes, but it brings me back to reality.
“What are you doing, Ben?” Richard asks quietly, menacingly.
Ben takes his time, then looks at Richard. “The one-in-charge gave it to her, so we should respect that.”
“We haven’t agreed that she’s the leader.”
“You need five votes against her,” Ben reminds them.
“Murray? Hastings? Darling?” he says to the others in turn. They refuse to look at me and I realise they’ve rehearsed this. “Clarence…”
“Raffaela reckons we need to get the Prayer Tree,” Ben cuts in before Richard can drag him into it. I can tell they haven’t discussed this with him. He’s considered the weakest link. Except when they need his vote. Big mistake.
“That’s all we want back from the Townies,” Ben mutters, not looking at anyone.
Richard glances at Ben in disgust.
“And of course the Club House is a priority.” Ben starts up again, and I can tell he’s enjoying himself.
Silence. Tons of it, and I realise that I have my one vote that will keep me in. For the time being, anyway.
“Who’s in charge of the Townies this year?” I ask.
I’m staring at Richard. He realises that I’m here to stay and despite the look in his eyes that says betrayal, backstabbing, petulance, hatred, revenge, and anything else he’s planning to major in, he lets me have my moment.
“We’ll find out sooner or later,” he says.
But I like this power. “Ben?” I say, still staring at Richard.
“Who’s in charge of the Townies these days?”
“Moderate or fundamentalist?”
“Temperamental, so we need to get on his good side.”
“Townies don’t have a good side,” Richard says.
I ignore him. “Is he going to be difficult?” I ask Ben.
“Always. But he’s not a thug,” Ben says, “unlike the leader of the Cadets.”
“Who?” Richard barks out.
I see Ben almost duck, as if a hand is going to come out and whack him on the back of his head.
“First thing’s first. This year we get the Townies on our side,” I say, ignoring everyone in the room but Ben.
The chorus of disapproval is like those formula songs that seem to hit number one all the time. You know the tune in a moment and it begins to bore you in two.
“We’ve never done that,” Richard snaps.
“And look where it’s got us. In the last few years, we’ve lost a substantial amount of territory. It’s been split up between the Cadets and Townies. We haven’t got much left to lose.”
“What about the Prayer Tree?” Ben asks again.
“The Prayer Tree is not a priority,” I say, standing up.
“Raffaela reckons the trade made three years ago was immoral,” he argues.
I try not to remember that Raffaela, Ben, and I spent most of year seven together hiding out with Hannah. I can’t even remember Ben’s story. Heaps of foster parents, I think. One who put a violin in his hands and changed his life.
“Do me a favour,” I say to him, a tad on the dramatic side. “Don’t ever bring morality into what we do here.”
When it is over, when I’m the last person sitting on the canvas-covered dirt floor, when the candles have burnt out and the sun has come up, I make my way towards Hannah’s house by the river. Hannah’s house has been unfinished ever since I can remember. Deep down I think that’s always been a comfort to me, because people don’t leave unfinished houses.
Working on her house has been my punishment ever since I got to this place six years ago. It’s the punishment for having nowhere else to go in the holidays or breaking curfew or running away with a Cadet in year eight. Sometimes I am so bored that I just go and tell her that I’ve broken curfew and she’ll say, “Well, no Saturday privileges for you, Taylor,” and she’ll make me work all day on the house with her. Sometimes we don’t say a word and other times she talks my ear off about everything and nothing. When that happens, there’s a familiarity between us that tells me she’s not merely my House caretaker. In that role she works out rosters, notifies us of transfers between Houses or exam schedules or study groups or detentions. Sometimes she sits with the younger kids and helps with homework. Or she invites them to her house and makes them afternoon tea and tells them some bad news, like a grandparent being dead or a parent having cancer, or makes up some fantastic story about why someone’s mother or father couldn’t come that weekend.
Absent parents aren’t a rare thing around here, probably because a tenth of the students are state wards. The Jellicoe School is run by the state. It’s not about money or religion but it is selective, so most of us are clever. The rest are a combination of locals or children of alternative environmentalists who believe that educating their children out in the bush is going to instil a love of nature in them. On the contrary, most of the students run off to the city the moment year twelve is over and revel in the rat race, never looking back. Then there are those like Raffaela, who is a Townie and is out here boarding with the rest of us because her parents teach at Jellicoe High School in town and they thought it would be better for her not to have to deal with that. Richard’s parents are embassy staff who live overseas most of the time, but his grandparents live in the outer district of the area so it seemed like the best option for him.
I don’t know where I fit in. One day when I was eleven, my mother drove me out here and while I was in the toilets at the 7-Eleven on the Jellicoe Road, she drove off and left me there. It becomes one of those defining moments in your life, when your mother does that. It’s not as if I don’t forgive her, because I do. It’s like those horror films where the hero gets attacked by the zombie and he has to convince the heroine to shoot him, because in ten seconds’ time he won’t be who he was anymore. He’ll have the same face but no soul. I don’t know who my mother was before the drugs and all the rest, but once in a while during our splintered time together I saw flashes of a passion beyond anything I’ll ever experience. Most other times she was a zombie who would look at me and say things like, “I didn’t name you. You named yourself.” The way I used to see it was that when I was born she didn’t take time even to give me an identity. Of course there’s a story behind it all and she’s not that cut-and-dried evil, but my version keeps me focused. Hannah, of course, knows one of the other versions, but like everything, she keeps it a mystery.
Usually, especially these days, we seem to be angry with each other all the time, and today is no different.
“Transfers,” she says, handing me the sheet. I don’t bother even looking at it.
“My House is full. No more transfers,” I tell her.
“There are some fragile kids on that list.”
“Then why transfer them to me?”
“Because you’ll be here during the holidays.”
“What makes you think I don’t have anywhere to go these holidays?”
“I want you to take them under your wing, Taylor.”
“I don’t have wings, Hannah.”
She stares at me. Hannah’s stares are always loaded. A combination of disappointment, resignation, and exasperation. She never looks at anyone else like that, just me. Everyone else gets sultana scones and warm smiles and a plethora of questions, and I get a stare full of grief and anger and pain and something else that I can never work out. Over the years I’ve come to accept that Hannah driving by on the Jellicoe Road five minutes after my mother dumped me was no coincidence. She has never pretended it was, especially during that first year, when I lived with her, before I began high school. In year seven, when I moved into the dorms, I was surprised at how much I missed her. Not living in the unfinished house seemed like a step farther away from understanding anything about my past. Whenever I look for clues, my sleuthing always comes back to one person: Hannah.
I take the list from her, just to get her off my back.
“You’re not sleeping.” Not a question, just a statement. She reaches over and touches my face and I flinch, moving away.
“Go make yourself something to eat and then get to class. You might be able to make second period.”
“I’m thinking of leaving.”
“You leave when you finish school,” she says bluntly.
“No, I leave when I want to leave and you can’t stop me.”
“You stay until the end of next year.”
“You’re not my mother.”
I say that to her every time I want to hurt her and every time I expect her to retaliate.
“No, I’m not.” She sighs. “But for the time being, Taylor, I’m all you have. So let’s just get to the part where I give you something to eat and you go to class.”
At times it’s like sadness has planted itself on her face, refusing to leave, an overwhelming sadness, and sometimes I see despair there, too. Once or twice I’ve seen something totally different. Like when the government sent troops overseas to fight, she was inconsolable. Or when she turned thirty-three. “Same age Christ was when he died,” I joked. But I remember the look on her face. “I’m the same age my father was when he died,” she told me. “I’m older than he will ever be. There’s something unnatural about that.”
Then there was that time in year eight when the Hermit whispered something in my ear and then shot himself and I ran away with that Cadet and the Brigadier brought us back. I remember the Brigadier’s hard face looked as if he was trying with all his might for it to stay hard. Hannah didn’t look at him and I remember it took a great effort for her not to look at him. She just said, “Thanks for bringing her home,” and she let me stay at her unfinished house by the river. She held on to me tight all night because somewhere in the town where the Brigadier found us, two kids had gone missing and Hannah said it could have easily been me and the Cadet. They found those two kids weeks later, shot in the back of the head, and Hannah cried every time it came on the news. I remember telling her that I thought the Brigadier was the serial killer and it was the first time I saw her laugh in ages.
Today there is something going on with her and I can’t quite figure it out. I glance around the room, noticing how tidy it looks. Even her manuscript seems shuffled neatly in a pile in one corner of the table. She’s been writing the same novel ever since I’ve known her. Usually she keeps it hidden, but I know where to find it, like those teenage boys in films who know where to find their father’s porn. I love reading about the kids in the eighties, even though I can’t make head or tail of the story. Hannah hasn’t structured it properly yet. I’ve got so used to reading it out of sequence but one day I’d like to put it in order without worrying that she’ll turn up and catch me with it.
She sees me looking at the pages. “Do you want to read it?” she asks quietly.
“I don’t have time.”
“You’ve wanted to read it for ages, so is it okay to ask why not, now that I’m offering?”
“That’s new,” I say to her.
“You asking me a question.”
She doesn’t respond.
“You never ask me anything,” I accuse.
“Well, what would you like me to ask you today, Taylor?”
I stare and as usual I hate her for not working out what I need from her.
“Do you want me to ask where you’ve been all night? Or do you want me to ask why you always have to be so difficult?”
“I’d prefer that you asked me something more important than that, Hannah!”
Like how am I supposed to lead a community? I want to say. Or what’s going to happen to me this time next year? Am I just going to disappear like our insignificant leaders did last night? And where do I disappear to?
“Ask me what the Hermit whispered in my ear that day.”
I can tell that she’s stunned, her hazel eyes wide with the impact of my request. She takes a moment or two, like she needs to catch her breath.
“Sit down,” she says quietly.
I shake my head and hold up the list she gave me. “Sorry, no time. I’ve got fragile kids to look after.”
When I get back, classes have just finished and everyone’s making their way back into their Houses. Jessa McKenzie is sitting on the verandah steps. Despite her being in year seven and in Hastings House, somewhere in my worst nightmare she’s become surgically attached to me and nothing, not anger, not insults, not the direst cruelty can dislodge her.
“Don’t follow me. I’m busy.” I keep walking. No eye contact because that will encourage her. That someone can want something out of another person who gives absolutely nothing in return astounds me. I want to say to this kid, “Get out of my life, you little retard.” Come to think of it, I have actually said that and back she comes the next day like some crazed masochistic yo-yo.
“They reckon the Cadets are arriving any minute and that this time they mean business.” Jessa McKenzie always speaks in a breathless voice, like she hasn’t stopped speaking long enough to take a breath her entire life.
“I think they meant business last year when they threw every bike in the school over the cliff.”
“I know you’re worried as well. I can tell you are,” she says softly.
My teeth are gritted now. I’m trying not to but they grit all the same.
I get to the front door, dying for an opportunity to shut it in her face, but Jessa McKenzie still follows, like those tenacious fox terriers that grab hold of the bottom of your pants and tug.
“The kids in my old dorm are scared, you know,” she explains. “The year sevens?” As if I’ve asked a question. “It’s because the older kids are going on about the Cadets coming and how bad it is. I think you should speak to them, Taylor. Now that you’re leader”—she leans forward and whispers—“of the Underground Community.”
My hand is on the door, almost there, almost…but then I stop because something lodges itself in my brain like a bullet.
“What do you mean ‘in my old dorm’?”
She’s beaming. Freckles glowing.
I look at the transfer paper in my hands and then back at her. I open it slowly, knowing exactly whose name I’m about to see there, transferred to Lachlan House. My House.
“You have no idea how much I can help,” she says. “Raffaela thinks I’ll be better off in the senior rooms than the dorms.”
“What would Raffaela know?”
“She reckons she can work out where the tunnel is,” I hear Raffaela say behind me.
“My father used to say…”
But I’m not listening to what Jessa McKenzie’s father used to say. I’m sandwiched between my two worst nightmares.
“Congratulations,” Raffaela says, “although I think Richard and the others are already organising a coup.” Raffaela always has this weight-of-the-world, old-woman thing happening.
“Congratulations from me, too.” Jessa McKenzie is still beaming.
“We’re going to work out where the tunnel is,” Raffaela says, “and get back the Prayer Tree and learn how to…”
I want to be sitting in front of my computer, where you can press a button to block out your junk mail. These two are my junk mail.
“But Taylor,” Jessa continues in that hushed annoying voice of hers. “You have to get to know the kids in your House because Chloe P. says they hardly know you down in the dorms.”
“Incoming!” This comes from one of our guys sitting in the surveillance tree.
Raffaela and I exchange looks before she begins bustling the younger lot into the House.
The Cadets have arrived.
I’m in charge.
The territory wars are about to recommence.
They met Jude Scanlon for the first time exactly one year after the accident. At that time Webb thought nothing would make sense ever again. The pain was worse now because up till then Narnie and Tate and Webb had all just felt numb and if it hadn’t been for Fitz’s spirit blasting them out of their grief, Webb honestly believed that the three of them would have made some crazy suicide pact. But during that year, when they were fourteen years old, the numbness went away, replaced by memories that made Narnie disappear inside herself and him ache. He saw the same in Tate. Despite her ability to enjoy most of their days, sometimes her despair was so great that, in a melancholy moment when she’d allow herself to think of her family, she’d almost stop breathing and he’d hold her and say, “I’m here, Tate. I’m here, Tate. I’m here.” Tate had lost her younger sister as well as her parents in the accident. “We were playing Rock, Paper, Scissors,” she told him once. “I was paper and she was rock so I lived and she died.”
That year, a boys’ school from the city had decided to experiment and send all their students from year eight to eleven on a six-week life-education project as part of the Cadet program. They were to live by the river from mid-September to the week after the October holidays ended.
“We can play skirmish,” Fitz said, clutching his gun, his eyes blazing with the possibilities as the convoy of buses drove into town.
As his Cadet troop jogged along the Jellicoe Road, their boots thumping the ground, eliminating anything in their path, Jude Scanlon noticed the damaged poppies. There seemed to be five, bent out of shape, fragments on the bottom of the boot of the kid in front of him—damaged beyond repair. For reasons he couldn’t understand a sadness came over him and it was then he saw the girl standing on the other side of the dirt road, her eyes pools of absolute sorrow, her light brown hair glowing in the splinters of sunlight that forced their way through the trees. It was as if he had seen a ghost, some kind of apparition, which haunted him through that night. The next day he found himself returning to the very same spot, after hours, with five seeds in his pocket. Then, on his knees, he planted something for the first time in his life.
“They have to go deeper,” he heard a voice say. “Or else the roots won’t take.”
There were four of them. Two boys and two girls. He recognised one of the girls from the day before and something inside him stirred. He could tell the speaker was related to her, his hair was the same golden brown, his eyes, though, were full of life. The girl on the other side of the speaker was smiling gently and then there was a boy with a wicked grin and laughing eyes.
“Tate,” the smiling girl said, extending her hand. “And this is Webb and Fitzy and you kind of met Narnie yesterday.”
“I didn’t…we didn’t mean to…”
The boy, Webb, shook his head. “It always happens.”
“Maybe you should find another spot to plant your flowers.”
“There can be no other spot,” Webb said quietly.
Jude pulled the rest of the seeds from his pocket and they all took one each then side-by-side on the Jellicoe Road they planted the poppies.
Each day, at the same time, Jude would return and each day they would be there, led by Webb, whose life could not have been more different to his. Where Webb’s memories of childhood were idyllic and earthy, Jude’s reeked of indifference. Webb read fantasy; Jude read realism. Webb believed a tree house was the perfect place for gaining a different perspective on the world; whereas Jude saw it as perfect for surveillance and working out who or what was a threat to them. They argued about sports codes and song lyrics. Jude saw the rain-dirty valley; Webb saw Brigadoon. Yet despite all this, they connected, and the nights they spent in the tree house discussing their brave new worlds and not so brave emotions made everything else in their lives insignificant. Somehow the world of Webb and Fitz and Tate and Narnie became the focus of Jude’s life.
The next year, as the Cadet buses drove into Jellicoe, Jude was desperate for a sign. A sign that would tell him that things would be the same as the year before. He’d spent most of the year wondering about them. Had they fallen out of love with one another? Did Narnie still have that half-dead look? Had Fitz got himself into trouble? Had they outgrown him?
But there they were, on the steps of the Jellicoe General Store, where the Cadets always stopped to pick up supplies. Waiting. For him.
“Who are they?” the Cadet sitting next to him asked.
Jude looked at Webb’s face, the grin stretching from ear to ear.
“They’re my best friends. I’m going to know them until the day I die.”
The territory wars have been part of the Jellicoe School’s life ever since I can remember. I don’t know who started them. The Townies say it was the Cadets from the city who have been coming out here for the last twenty or so years. They set up camp right alongside the Jellicoe School for six weeks each September as part of their outdoor education program. We say the Townies started the wars because they think Jellicoe belongs to them, and the Cadets blame us because they say we don’t know how to share land. All I know is that they began sixteen years ago because that’s what the Little Purple Book says. In it the founders wrote down the rules, the maps, the boundaries.
The wars take place only for the six weeks the Cadets are here and mostly they are more of a nuisance than exciting. It takes us double the time to get to town because the Cadets own most of the easy access trails. It’s always around that time that we get pep talks from the teachers and the Principal about getting out there in the fresh air and taking bushwalks. What they don’t know is that most of the House leaders confine their younger students indoors in case they trespass onto enemy territory. That is one thing you don’t want happening. Because after the Cadets are long gone and the Townies are back in their rabbit holes, the real war begins. The Houses are at one another, particularly if one was responsible for losing us territory. When I ran away with the Cadet three years ago, Raffaela and Ben went looking for me and trespassed onto Townie territory. We lost the Prayer Tree because of it. Raffaela and Ben were completely ostracised and when I returned we didn’t talk to each other much. Then we stopped talking altogether. And now here we are leading Houses together and about to fight a war.
There are Cadet sightings on the northern border of our boundaries for a whole week. The area is at least a kilometre away from where they are camped so allowing themselves to be sighted is a deliberate attempt at intimidation. Just between you and me, it works every time. The other House leaders want me to begin acting on the intelligence we’re receiving, but premature action in the past has been the Jellicoe School’s downfall and I’ll be damned if I make the same mistakes the leaders have made in the past.
On her weekend visit home, I send word through Raffaela to the leader of the Townies that we’d like to make contact. We receive no answer and the cat-and-mouse games begin. Waiting for war is a killer. Not knowing when the first strike will happen, not knowing what the outcome will be. The build-up makes us tense. Sometimes I want to walk right out there and yell, “Bring it on!” just to get the suspense over.
But it’s the home front that’s the worst. The school has always had a policy that the House leaders, with the help of the rest of the seniors, take care of their own Houses with the assistance of an adult. Every student knows that the leader has been chosen in year seven and is groomed for the next five years. But every year we have elections and pretend that the House leaders and School leader have been elected by the people for the people. The teachers fall for it. They’re pretty young and clueless. Most of them only stay three years maximum to fulfil the Board of Education’s employment requirements, so patterns among the students aren’t really picked up. They are diligent, though. Each time a Lachlan student forgets to turn up to a sports training session or music recital or debating practice, I get harassed by the teachers. From the junior dorms on the first floor all the way up to the year-elevens rooms on the third, those in my House drive me insane with their expectations. Questions about television privileges, duty rosters, computer access, and laundry. There are tears and fights and tantrums and anxiety. And Hannah is nowhere to be found. I’m furious that she has let me take care of this all by myself—almost like some kind of payback for the last time I saw her. In the past Hannah spent most of her spare time in Lachlan, helping out the House leader, but now that I’m in charge she’s gone into hiding.
A year-ten girl knocks on my door. “Evie from year seven just got her period.”
“You have to speak to her. She’s crying.”
“Go get Raffaela.”
“She’s not around. Where’s Hannah? How come Ms. Morris is doing roll call?”
“I have no idea where Hannah is.”
I recognise the look on the girl’s face. It’s a do-you-have-any-idea-about-anything look.
“I’ll go get Hannah,” I say finally, just wanting to get away. Except when I go down to her office and turn the handle to walk in I find it locked. In my whole time at the Jellicoe School I don’t ever remember Hannah’s door being locked and I put it down to an extended tantrum, which sits uneasily with me because Hannah never has tantrums. I’m about to head back upstairs but I see Jessa McKenzie coming my way, so I walk out, get on a bike, and ride down to the unfinished house by the river.
At this time of the day our grounds are at their most sinister. I can handle it at night but there’s something about this time, when the sun begins to disappear, that makes me think the grounds have so much to hide. There’s just endless silence. No birds, no crickets. Nothing.
I dump the bike on the ground beside the house and make my way to the front. “Hannah,” I yell out angrily.
But the echo of my voice is the only response.
“Hannah, this isn’t funny!”
I stand in the silence, waiting for something. For her head to appear out the window on the first floor, looking exasperated and saying, “Help me with these skirting boards, Taylor.”
I look around, sensing something…someone. The house has an area around it that Hannah tends and mows. “It’ll be my garden,” she tells me constantly, where she’ll plant lilac and lilies and she’ll sit there, on the front verandah, like in that Yeats poem that she sometimes recites to me:
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there…
But beyond the tamed area there is dense bushland, uncultivated, without even a walking trail. Three kilometres of that is what separates us and the Cadets. Rumour has it they’ve been creating a secret trail for years, which would make getting to us as easy as. The quickest way for them would be via the river, which flows directly behind Hannah’s property. But it belongs to us. Here, near Hannah’s house, the river is at its narrowest and there’s only about twenty metres between the banks. In the last couple of years, because of the drought, the river has been not much more than a trickle. Once in a while, over time, we’ve almost lost it through poor leadership but somehow we’ve always managed to hold on to it and maintain that physical distance between us and them. Today, though, somewhere in that dense uncultivated labyrinth, something or someone is watching. I can feel it with everything I have inside of me that keeps me alert to malevolence.
“Who’s there?” I call out.
I think of the cat. Although Hannah has never claimed him as hers, she feeds him every time he comes into the area. I hate the cat and the cat hates me. He’s feral, with a tail that always looks like it’s been caught in a state of fright, and, like everything to do with Hannah, I fight him for her attention.
“Why does he look like that?” I asked her once.
“Because I think he saw something that scared the hell out of him a very long time ago.”
The cat has been dying for years and sometimes Hannah wants to put him out of his misery, but she doesn’t have the guts. Sometimes, when I get up close to him, I see the suffering in his eyes, but then he’ll scratch me on the face and I am forced to forgo the sympathy.
But whatever is out there now, it’s not the cat.
I shiver. Whoever it is has the advantage of being able to see me when I can’t see them. I decide to turn around and walk away but just as I do, I hear the crunch of footsteps somewhere behind the bushes, moving towards me, slow and measured.
“Jessa McKenzie, is that you?”
If it was Jessa, she’d answer, and there is no answer, just the sound of a presence that keeps me rooted to the spot. I want to walk towards my bike, but I dare not turn my back and I’m too much of a coward to step forward to investigate. So I stay, for what seems like forever, staring at that one spot, frozen like a soldier who’s stepped on a landmine. I don’t move. I try to convince myself that it’s just my imagination. That there’s nothing there but some kind of wildlife with a size-nine foot.
The cold begins to snap at my skin and it’s getting darker. Cautiously I take a step back and then another and another. I can make a dash, grab the bike, get on it, and take off before whoever it is can make it out of those trees, but some kind of eerie fear keeps me transfixed. I count to ten but I reach eleven and count to ten again and reach eleven again. Eleven. Eleven. Eleven. Eleven. Eleven.
I bolt, turning, racing round the back of the house, straight to the bike. My stomach turns. No bike. Any chance of it all being my overactive imagination is quashed when I see that empty space under the tree. I hit the path with all the speed I can muster, my heart thumping like a rampaging jackhammer. The trail is an obstacle course of tangled twigs and assaulting branches, but I’d know this area with my eyes closed. I can hear only two sounds: the pounding of blood in my brain against my temples and the footsteps behind me. One pair. If there were two or more I think I’d be less afraid. I’d just allow myself to be captured and reinforce the rules of the Jellicoe Convention about diplomatic immunity. But one pair means either a rogue operative…or something worse.
When I reach the clearing that leads to the Houses and I see the lit path in front of me, there’s no sense of relief. My lungs are bursting and every part of me aches. I just want to reach that door and the closer I get to it the farther away it feels.
Then I’m there, flying through it, slamming the door shut, locking it. Only then do I lean against it, sliding to the floor, taking deep gulps of air, slowing down my heart rate, pushing my perspiration-matted hair off my face, and bending my head between my legs, feeling for the reassuring shape of my inhaler….
Three year-seven girls are standing in front of me, Jessa McKenzie in the middle of them.
“Someone used up all the water,” Chloe P. tells me.
“Celia’s got matches,” the other one, whose name I don’t know, says in a hushed voice.
I get up slowly, ignoring them, dragging my body up the stairs, but they are still there beside me.
I stop and look into Jessa McKenzie’s eyes and suddenly I see someone…something that I have seen before. I feel an anxiety I can’t explain.
I push past them and escape to my room and when it’s securely locked, I walk to the basin and lean over it, nausea rising in me.
I want to see Hannah. I’m not sure why but I find myself repeating the need over and over again. Because it’s like a voice whispering in my head telling me that there is something so unnatural about her absence. It’s like the last line of Hannah’s Yeats poem.
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
At lunch I’m forced to sit with the other House leaders in the food hall as part of our “official” prefect initiation. The Principal makes a speech about unity while Richard whispers to the leader of Hastings. She giggles at something he says and they look at me until she passes it on to the person next to her. Richard has the rest of the House leaders eating out of his hand, except for Ben who is hoeing into his lasagne with a passion. I know that I need to act quickly before there’s a coup and as I glance around the table I realise, once again, that my only potential ally is a drop-kick moron with tomato sauce all over his face.
“Ben, make contact with the Cadets. Tell them I’m ready to make a deal.”
Ben looks up, in the middle of wiping the plate with his bread, his eyes wide with shock.
“Him?” Richard exchanges glances with the others.
“You,” I say.
“What are you doing, Taylor?” Richard asks in that voice of his with the warning in it.
“I’m asking my deputy to do what deputies do. To negotiate,” I say politely, standing up.
Ben mouths deputy to me like it’s a dirty word and then Raffaela walks by and he mouths deputy to her as well and even she looks a bit worried.
“And by the way, Murrumbidgee and Hastings House,” I say, looking at both the girl and Richard. “I read the Little Purple Book last night. Written in 1986 by the first of the UCs. The leader, I think, referred to himself as Chairman Meow. Pretty bad handwriting, but it’s all there, including the fact that no House leaders can fraternise with each other in a romantic sense. Don’t know why but probably because it takes away the competitive edge.” I look at Ben. “Let’s go.”
Raffaela follows us as well. I don’t say a word until we get outside.
“Where were you last night?” I ask her.
“I got town privileges. My best friend’s brother’s best friend’s teammate—”
“Get to the point.”
“—had a message for me. The Townies are ready to meet us. Tonight.”
The halfway hut where negotiations take place with the Townies is dark and musty. The flashlights offer little light and no one dares sit down for fear of sitting on the unknown. In front of us there are three Townies. I only recognise Chaz Santangelo, far too handsome for his own good, but at least he doesn’t have that mean, hard, feral look that Townie leaders from the past have had. Santangelo’s sidekicks are typical hoons. Is there a manual out there that says Townies have to have mullets? Raffaela beside me is fidgety and I figure that they are all waiting for me to begin negotiations.
“So let’s make a deal,” I say.
“What makes you think we’re here to make a deal?” Santangelo asks.
“Because river rats don’t usually warn us that they’re coming up to see us. They usually cruise around the place and create havoc and then expect us to negotiate just to stop the mayhem.”
“I don’t operate that way…we don’t operate that way.”
Judging by his sidekicks I’m not too sure.
“Well then, Santangelo. Is that what I should call him?” I turn to ask Raffaela. She doesn’t answer. She’s still fidgeting.
“Chaz,” he answers for her.
“Santangelo…Chaz, whatever they call you down there, let’s make a deal.”
“Then you start. Tell us what you want.”
First rule of negotiation: never let them think you want something.
“We want access to the Prayer Tree,” Raffaela blurts out.
Raffaela failed negotiating class in year eight. The seniors in our House once had her in mind for leadership after I went through my arsonist stage and burnt half of the oval. We have a collection of arsonists at our school. There are at least two in year seven in my House who are going to set fire to us in our beds one day.
“We want access to the Club House,” Santangelo states bluntly, looking at me and not her.
“Club House isn’t ours. It belongs to the Cadets.”
“Yeah, but it’s a massive hike for them unless you let them use the river. They want access to the path that leads to it, and you’ve got that.”
“Why the Club House?” Ben asks.
“Limited options. We can’t get into any of the pubs, so it’s hanging out at the Seven-Eleven at night or the car park at Coles. We’re looking for peaceful coexistence, here. One night a week, Saturday night, maybe even two.”
“You’re talking to the wrong people. The Cadets will never allow you in.”
“They might if you give them access to the path.”
I shake my head. “The path is too close to the school boundaries.”
“And the problem is?” he asks.
“We have junior girls,” Raffaela says. “We don’t want strangers that close to our boundaries.”
“Why? Because last time the Cadets got that close you ran off with one of them?” The three Townies exchange looks and I am suddenly suspicious.
“You don’t know who you ran off with, do you?” one of the Mullets says, stepping towards me. “You are one stupid—”
“Is this the best you can do?” Raffaela snaps at Santangelo, pointing to his morons, her finger almost an inch away from the bigger Mullet. He growls and makes a bite for it and Ben drags her back.
Still nothing from Santangelo and then I realise he’s deliberately ignoring her and that they have some kind of history.
“You two know each other well, I presume.”
Just a sigh and pursed lips from her and a hellish scowl from him.
“This is ridiculous,” I say, walking to the door.
“No it’s not. It’s called coexistence.” Santangelo blocks my exit. “Once you and the Cadets get it right, we might even try to sell the idea to the Israelis and Palestinians. What do you reckon?”
“You haven’t told us what you have to offer us yet,” I say.
“The Prayer Tree,” Raffaela says immediately.
“I’m not negotiating with her.”
I glare at Raffaela. Personally, I’m not interested in the Prayer Tree. I’m curious about what they’re going to use as a bargaining tool.
“I’ve got information,” he says to me, “that you might want.”
No answer, and for a moment I think we’re dealing with an amateur who has come with nothing to offer.
“What?” Ben asks.
I glance at Santangelo and I get a gut feeling that it’s not about the territory wars or the Club House.
“We have a map that could possibly be the draft for a tunnel,” he says, suddenly focusing on Raffaela and Ben.
A ploy. Doesn’t mean the map is non-existent but he’s holding back and I want to know why.
“Means absolutely nothing to us because they never finished it beyond your school boundaries,” he continues. “But it might be important to you.”
“The tunnel’s a myth.”
“Are you calling him a liar?”
The Mullets are angry. Their teeth are showing again and they almost back us into the door. Ben tries to stand between us but they shove him out of the way.
“Set up a meeting with the Cadets and maybe we’ll talk again,” I say.
“That might be hard,” Santangelo says.
“Make it easy, then.”
“I don’t think you understand. My father was the cop who dragged you back when you ran away a couple of years ago.”
I chance a glance at him again. He knows something about me; that I can tell. Being the son of the cop in charge would mean he knows a lot about most people around here.
“Well, you just make sure you thank him for me and tell him I said hi,” I say with mock sweetness, although I do remember the cop’s face, kind in a stressed-worried-angry way. The Brigadier, though, was a different story. Cold and tense.
“I don’t think you’re getting my drift. The guy my father and that Brigadier dragged back with you? Remember him? Well, he’s in charge of the Cadets now and rumour has it that none of us want to be dealing with him.”
I can’t believe what I’m hearing. The Mullet Brothers are smirking. Raffaela and Ben look confused.
“Griggs?” I ask, feigning indifference.
Chaz Santangelo nods. “Jonah Griggs.”
Not just a name but a state of mind I never want to revisit, although I do keep him at the back of my mind for those times I get my hopes raised about something. So then I can slap myself into reality and remind myself of what happens when you let someone into your sacred space. Jonah Griggs is my second reminder to never ever trust another human being. My mother was the first and these days I feel like Hannah might have joined that small and intimate group of traitors.
Raffaela and Ben haven’t said a word, but I can hear what they’re thinking as they follow me out into the clearing. I want to tell their brains to shut the hell up but I know the only way to do that is to speak and I can’t.
The lights of the Houses beam through the bush and mark out the path. Finally, after fifteen minutes, silence takes its toll.
“Did you make contact with the Cadets, Ben?” I say finally.
“Me?” is Ben’s standard response to everything.
“Ben Cassidy, could you please tell the class why crossing the Rubicon was considered the catalyst for the fall of the Roman Republic?”
“Ben Cassidy, someone’s on the phone for you.”
“Ben Cassidy, I think one of the Darling girls has a crush on you.”
“Ben Cassidy, who’s the biggest loser in the Western World?”
He’d have that “is this a trick question?” look on his face.
“Seeing as Raffaela made contact with the Townies, you can make contact with the Cadets,” I tell him now.
“I think that Cadet might want to talk to you, Taylor.”
I stop and he walks into me. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Ben shuffles for a moment, looking at his feet, before he dares look at me. “Well, rumour has it he’s not the easiest person to speak to and seeing you guys have a history it might make some sense….”
“Do you know what a history is? It’s what Raffaela and Chaz Santangelo have. Lots of stories to tell, lots of anger to vent, lots of baggage to check into I-Don’t-Give-a-Shit Airline. The Cadet and me? Nothing to tell. I ran away one day. He was running in the same direction. We ended up on the same train in the same carriage. The train derailed, we walked the same road and hitched a ride with the same postman in Yass. We got caught because the Cadet got scared and rang the powers that be. We came home in Santangelo’s father’s paddy wagon. End of story. No history. No sequel. Nothing.”
I can’t see their faces because it’s too dark but they know I’m lying. I lie all the time about those three days. Probably because I can’t explain it. It reeks of supernatural bullshit and hunches. It stars the boy in the tree in my dreams who took me by the hand and made me stand on a branch and asked, “What can you see?”
“Nothing,” I had said.
“Know what I can see? From this distance, everything is so bloody perfect.”
And I looked harder into the distance and what I saw was my mother. There was a radiance about her that I had never seen before. So I went looking for her and in that dream I found her soul, but when I woke up in the morning, I knew that I had to go looking for the rest of her.
That’s when I first saw the Cadet, on the platform of the Jellicoe Station. I knew who he was in an instant. It’s not every day that you hear a story about a boy who killed his father. That was the rumour, anyway. Standing on the platform alongside him, I believed every word of it. There was a caged fury to him. A feralness that seeped out of every pore.
“Do you know when the next train to Yass is coming?” I had asked.
“Go to hell,” he said, but there was a desolate fear in his eyes and I couldn’t look away.
“Been there. Trust me. It’s so overrated.”
And for reasons I will never understand, I received a smile from Jonah Griggs, and there was a yearning in it, touching a nerve inside me that still freaks me out to this day. On that train something was unleashed in both of us. He didn’t say much about himself except that it was his first time away from his mother and brother and he had a desperate need to know that they were all right without him. And I told him everything. About my first memory, sitting on the shoulders of a giant who I know can only be my father. Of touching the sky. Of lying between two people who read me stories of wild things and journeys with dragons, the soft hum of their voices speaking of love and serenity. See, I remember love. That’s what people don’t understand. And what I also remember is that in telling that tale to the Cadet on the train I got a glimpse of peace.
When the train derailed and we decided to hike, there was never a question that we wouldn’t stick together and find my mother. Except on the third night he had a dream and betrayed us.
“What do I say to him?” Ben asks, bringing me back to the real world.
What should he say to the Cadet? Ask him why he called his school to come and get us when we were so close to wherever both of us wanted to be. Ask him why he had made that call when he knew I was two hours away from my mother.
“Tell him we want to make a deal.”
I walk past the year-seven and-eight dorms, where Jessa McKenzie has already taken over. The others hang off her every word and I haven’t seen them this animated…actually ever. The Lachlan House leaders were always strict. Commandments number one to ten ranged from No Fun to No Fun. But d