"Crossing the Rip" by Dorothy Johnston, Part One

We're in the midst of celebrating the art of the short story with our For Pity Sake Short Story Competition (have you got your entry in yet?).  Here, celebrated crime writer Dorothy Johnston shares a never-before-seen short story, 'Crossing The Rip'. Dorothy has just released 'The Swan Island Connection', the second in her Queenscliff mystery series. The Australian Crime Fiction blog recently said: "There's an excellent balance here between character, setting and plot" and gave a fantastic summary of the book. 

Here's part one of 'Crossing The Rip'.

To Elspeth’s family belonged the distinction of having been the first to bring a dairy cow across the Rip. Her great-great-great grandfather had ferried the cow, whose name was Mrs Collins, in a small boat, together with sacks of flour and rice, her great-great-great grandmother and their four children. The boat had nearly capsized, drowning them all, but it was the cow he was remembered for. Mrs Collins had given birth to twin calves shortly after their arrival and had become a matriarch, outliving many of the human immigrants.

Elspeth had been told more times than she cared to remember that Mrs Collins had been named after the first governor’s wife, the governor who had landed at Sullivan Bay with three hundred convicts, of whom her grandfather with all those greats in front of his name had been the youngest, at nine years old, which happened to be her age right now. He had grown up and been pardoned and had been enterprising enough to realise that the new settlement at Shortland’s Bluff would need fresh milk and had decided that he was the man to provide it.

Within the family, the story was believed to give them a prestige it would have otherwise lacked, and the children of each generation had been schooled in its details. Elspeth was aware of a further unwelcome distinction, and that was her own name. She had tried, during her first three years at school, to comfort herself with the thought that she was different, to believe that her difference provided some sort of balance against the teasing meted out by girls with names like Jenny and Susan, and boys called Jim or Simon. That great-great-great grandmother had been called Elspeth too – no doubt it had been a more common name in her day.  Her mother had taken a more sensible approach with her younger siblings. Her brother, christened William, was known as Billy. Her twin sisters were Margaret and Ann.

Her father had always called his eldest daughter Ellie. But her father was away from home. Her mother, through pre-occupation or a preference for her son had, after saddling her with a dreadful name, ceased to pay her much attention. Elspeth knew there would be no help from that quarter. Even to hint at what she’d done might bring so much trouble down on her head that it would be second only to being sought out by a murderer. Indeed, the one might lead to the other.

Elspeth had often been warned that the gun emplacement wasn’t safe, and already she’d been scolded for getting home after dark.

It was the wedding that had thrown her. But for the wedding, Elspeth would have climbed the steps by the lighthouse and continued on home. She wouldn’t have gone anywhere near the gun emplacement. The sun had been setting and she’d been walking towards the lighthouse looking for cuttlefish, having a bet going with Billy as to who could find the biggest.

She’d looked up and seen a group by the rocks. In light already dimming, they’d appeared from a distance as no more than black shapes. A flash had told her that photographs were being taken, which meant a wedding, though anyone who’d climb down all that way in her wedding dress in order to be photographed had to be nuts.

By the time Elspeth remembered the cuttlefish, she was almost up to the group, now separated into bride and bridegroom, three bridesmaids and their partners, photographer and his assistant. Suddenly all the women jumped into the men’s arms and stayed posed like that, right arms held out and bunches of flowers at the ends of them. The jumping and the staying upset Elspeth in a way she didn’t understand.

The sand had been all churned up with the footprints of people and dogs. In less than an hour, Elspeth knew, the rising tide would wash them away, and the place where the wedding party pranced and laughed would be swept by currents so swift and unpredictable that no one in their right minds would venture near them.

Elspeth looked down and saw deep marks in the sand, as though made by a huge dog such as a Great Dane, or a giant cow.

Feeling restless and upset, she walked along the cliff path as far as the gun emplacement, where she saw a bundle of something wrapped in a rug. Without stopping to think, she walked over and lifted up a corner.

Before she fell asleep at last, Elspeth spent a few moments wondering what it might have been like to be part of that far-off family who’d crossed the Rip, and what that other Elspeth would have done.

Normally, Elspeth liked a foggy morning. She liked rushing ahead of her sisters on the way to school, hearing their shrieks of half-put-on, half-real fear disappear behind her, their voices growing weird and distorted once she could no longer see them. Billy would never admit to being scared of fog, though there’d been a time, not so long ago, when he’d cried and shrieked for her to wait for him as well.

Elspeth felt more or less herself until she’d left the twins behind, and was on the path that followed the line of sandhills. She did not have to pass behind the gun emplacement or the lighthouse. She could turn off before she reached them - that was the most direct route to school – but on foggy mornings she sometimes took the longer way around, in order to come close to the lighthouse and be deafened by the fog horn.

Now, even if she’d wanted to, she could not have heard her sister’s cries. She timed the gaps between each blast of the horn – one thousand, two thousand – and it seemed as though they were growing shorter. Elspeth kept walking, pleased that nobody knew exactly where she was. If she did not show up at school, Meg and Ann would say, ‘Yes Miss Primrose, she went on ahead of us.’

Primrose was a stupid name for a teacher, and Elspeth hated the way her sisters sucked up to her. She turned right and took the steep track that led towards the lighthouse. As a vague idea of wagging school turned into a resolution, she understood that what she wanted most of all was time to think.

Elspeth shivered, spooking herself for a moment by the thought that the body might still be there. But of course it wasn’t. Her mother had put on the news while they were eating their breakfast. The police had found it; they would have taken it away.

Close to the lighthouse there were tunnels underneath the tea-tree, secret places covered in vines where Elspeth had dragged Ann and Margaret on long Sunday afternoons when she’d been deputed to look after them. Billy had been allowed to stay home and help their father, on weekend projects such as carpentry and painting. Elspeth had felt left out until she’d understood that there was something absolute in the division, and that her father loved her in spite of it. He often stood up for her in her fights with her mother. She wished he would come home.

Elspeth was free for a whole day if she chose. Could she claim that she’d stumbled against a tree and been knocked unconscious, only coming to as the bell rang? She crouched down in the darkness. In the tea-tree tunnel, with the fog all round, it was almost as dark as night. At first, she hadn’t recognised Simon Bantree, hadn’t even realised that the shape inside the rug was human. Then – oh, stupidity of all stupidities – the squashed-in head had been right there in front of her, and it belonged to Simon, her worst enemy.

Could the police find out if she had touched the rug? Would her fingerprints be on it?

It was cold underneath the tea-tree. The fog made Elspeth’s hands and face feel clammy, and bits of dirt and twigs stuck to her clothes. She felt cramped and cold and hungry. She hadn’t wanted to sit at the kitchen table eating breakfast. Her mother had shrugged and said, ‘Suit yourself.’ Perhaps this wasn’t such a good place to spend the day after all. Elspeth reasoned that, if she was going to leave, it would be better to do so now, while it was still early.

She crawled out and made her way towards the gun emplacement. To the right, there was nothing but white vapour, though the surf was loud in the gaps between the fog horn blasts. Unless someone saw her going in, it was doubtful they would think to look for her inside the concrete bunker, though it was a place she often visited. On clear days, she liked to look out across the Rip, through the slits where guns had pointed. The concrete was crumbling and falling in on itself, stained almost black in places, with bits of metal poking through. Elspeth liked the way the slits framed the beach and ocean.

She lifted her head at the sound of voices. As the fog began to lift, she saw a line of policemen walking slowly along the clifftop. Elspeth shrank back inside the bunker and crouched down, trying to think of Simon as a person, a boy her own age. She tried to reflect on the fact that he would never grow up, and to count, in her mind, all the kids who might have wanted Simon dead, and one who had actually killed him.

Elspeth remembered that she’d seen the rug before. She’d pushed the memory right down to her toes, but now it came back. It occurred to her that the teacher might not think of her absence as wagging. They might send out a search party. The idea came to her that she would catch the ferry to Sorrento. She wasn’t running away, and had no plan to stay out overnight. But she needed more time, and if the teacher rang the police and the police came looking for her, then she’d have to face their questions.

Elspeth decided to make her way by stages to the landing bay, keeping to the trees and bushes and avoiding the police. She would have scorned anyone who believed in ghosts, but if Simon’s was anywhere, Elspeth was sure that it was in front of her, where those bridesmaids had jumped with posies on the ends of their arms.

Elspeth made her way along the left-hand side of the road. When a police van passed her, she kept her eyes down. It was then that she remembered seeing the rug in a pile of things on the pier - it must have been the Sunday before last.

She’d been taking some bait out to Mr Mahood and he’d paid her two dollars for it. Mr Mahood only ever came down to fish on Sundays. He and his family had bought a big two storey brick place at the Springs.

She had not seen who the rug belonged to. It was a purple and blue rug, very nice. Elspeth told herself that she would not think of lifting up the corner. Before leaving home, she’d taken the money she’d saved from a box under her bed, and felt the two five dollar notes warming her pocket as she walked.

There were no other foot passengers waiting to board the ferry and only five cars lined up. Elspeth felt conspicuous, especially since the fare was more than she’d expected, seven dollars one way, which meant she wasn’t able to purchase a return. She hesitated and the ticket seller gave her a mean look.

Instead of sitting in the lounge, Elspeth stood at the top of the steep metal staircase leading to the cars, which crossed the Rip in a kind of cargo hold, though a huge and open one. That morning, with the fog still thick over the bay, the cars were invisible except for their outlines and glinting metal here and there. Nobody took any notice of Elspeth, and for some reason, though she shivered with cold, she felt safe. She was alone and on the water. She was going somewhere.

Elspeth remembered how Simon Bantree used to wait for her after school, how he called out from behind the pine trees, ‘Hey Spit! El-spit!’ and how she walked on without turning round, and how the stones followed, while, in the background, other kids, safe from his attentions for the time being, laughed. She remembered the fury she always felt, and how she wished that he would just get sick of it, and how often her mother was annoyed with her for coming home scratched and dirty. Billy had been one of the few boys Simon left alone. How had he managed it?

Elspeth was the first passenger off the boat, jumping down the stairs and then the ramp. She ran along the pier. She wouldn’t think about the three dollars in her pocket, or else she might be tempted to spend it on a bag of chips. The fog was thinning and shredding over the headland as she began the steep climb towards the shops.

The noise of a car engine made her turn her head. In a strong, sudden ray of light, she recognised the driver. It was one of the bridesmaids from the wedding.

Elspeth recognised the bridesmaid’s hair - ‘big hair’ it was called. She had a big build too. She remembered feeling sorry for the man who’d had to hold the bridesmaid up, and how stiff her arm had looked with the flowers like an extra hand.

Elspeth sat on a bench in the Pioneer Gardens, but instead of relaxing, her thoughts returned to home. She wondered what her mother would say when the teacher rang to find out why she wasn’t at school. She worried about her father, who’d been gone too long.

Elspeth stood up and began to walk around the gardens, then read the sign outside the historical museum at one end of it. Free entry it said. She climbed the steps and wandered around looking at old-fashioned clothes in glass cases, and bits of glass and metal that had been washed up from shipwrecks. It was all dusty and boring. In another room was a display of the first settlement at Sullivan Bay.

There was Mr Collins in his soldier’s uniform, a life-sized statue. He had a funny blank face and a red coat. The real Mrs Collins, the one their cow was named after, had stayed behind in England and Mr Collins, Elspeth went on reading with more interest, had taken a second wife from among the convicts. A huge oak barrel was on display. The convicts had sunk it in the sand in order to get drinking water.

Elspeth found a book that listed all the convicts by name, and settled down to go through it, looking for Harry Tregear, the youngest of all, who’d grown up to be her great-great-great grandfather. She wondered what his crime had been and kept looking till she found it.

She stayed in the museum till a woman came to tell her they were closing. She felt terribly thirsty and drank deeply from a fountain in the gardens.


To be continued...


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