Celebrated crime writer Dorothy Johnston, author of works such as The Swan Island Connection and Through a Camel's Eye continues her short story 'Crossing The Rip'. Missed the first part? Catch it here! And have you got your entry in for our short story competition yet?
The light was dull, the bay flat and grey, but there was a gap on the horizon, a hole between the clouds, with yellow and pink shining out of it. It seemed to Elspeth, waiting for the ferry, that if she stared long enough at the horizon she might pass right through the hole and out the other side. The girl taking tickets let her on even though she only had three dollars, and this unexpected kindness gave her heart.
Elspeth thought of what she’d learnt in the museum, hugging the knowledge to her sides as though it were her own secret, not just information that had been sitting there waiting for anyone to find. She looked up at the sky again, noting that the tear had widened. Now it seemed as though Simon Bantree might be waiting on the other side. Elspeth wondered if he’d looked up and seen his murderer before he died, and for the first time she felt sorry for him. She also felt so hungry that she began to wonder what the ferry did with its garbage and thought about walking around the cafeteria to see if any food had been left on plates.
A pilot boat passed them, moving swiftly, an orange arrow in the dusk. Elspeth was surprised to realise that she’d been gone all day. She could no longer make out where the water ended and the land began, and thought again of her ancestor crossing in his row boat, in the days when there had been no ferries, no container ships or pilots to guide them. The pilot approached a big ship, orange too, exactly the same colour. The small boat drew right alongside and they stayed like that, fixed like a mother and her baby for such a long time that Elspeth began to believe they would never separate. It disturbed her, like those bridesmaids and their escorts, with their hands flung out in a rhythm.
While they were docking, Elspeth remembered seeing the rug with the blue and purple pattern a second time, in the back of a mini van. There’d been quite a lot of cars in the parking area behind the pier, so that meant it was probably a Saturday or Sunday, but she could not remember which. The mini van had been white, but then they nearly always were.
By the time she left the ferry, it was already practically dark. In fact, it would have seemed dark to a person walking outside from a lighted room. But Elspeth had her night eyes, having stood in mist and drizzle on the upper deck. She walked all the way from the terminal to the parking lot behind the pier, no longer feeling tired or hungry, but filled with a strange inward light. Her hands glowed like those phosphorescent toys that seemed to belong to an age and kind of person she had never been. She recalled feeling envious of a girl who’d brought one to school, and the recollection brought nothing but contempt.
A white mini van was parked under the lighthouse, away from street lights, up against the tea-tree. A man was opening the door. Elspeth stood in the shadows watching.
There was something about the man that she felt she ought to recognise. His shadow was square-shaped. Could it be Mr Mahood? Mr Mahood was short, with broad shoulders and wide hips for a man. But Mr Mahood drove a big Toyota Landcruiser that Billy said was worth sixty thousand dollars. His wife drove a new white Hyundai and as soon as his kids were old enough, Elspeth knew they’d all have cars of their own.
Elspeth drew nearer to the van. She’d thought that she’d been moving silently, but now that she was quite close, the man suddenly straightened up from where he’d been arranging something in the back, and looked her in the face.
It was a stranger, somebody Elspeth had never seen before. His expression was blank underneath a beanie pulled close around his head.
‘Hello,’ he said. ‘Where are you off to?’
‘Nowhere,’ Elspeth said.
The man’s voice was mild, like water flowing from a tap that was neither hot nor cold.
Elspeth thought of the tea-tree all around them, the dark caverns and tunnels. The man was young and not very big.
‘What have you got in your van?’ she asked him, taking a step sideways.
‘Just my fishing gear.’
Elspeth felt soothed by the man’s voice, and very tired. She almost asked if he had anything to eat.
‘Did you catch anything?’ she asked, taking another step.
The man laughed and said in a soft voice, ‘Not yet.’
He took two quick steps towards her. Elspeth dived under the bushes.
She knew the place, having built cubbies there since she was five years old. She knew the steep drop down, where the tea-tree made a roof and where she could run bent double.
Torchlight parted and destroyed the cover of leaves and branches over Elspeth’s head. Down near the ground the undergrowth was thick and the man’s torch scarcely penetrated. Elspeth’s hands glowed. She scurried like a rat.
Dread made her arms and legs so heavy that, after the first rush, she felt that she could scarcely lift them. She knew she should have run back along the road to the nearest house. Her secret way was slow, and even if she yelled her lungs out nobody would hear her. Elspeth sobbed with fear and anger, for having gone anywhere near the van, for choosing the wrong way.
For what seemed like a long time after that, she thought of nothing but running and falling. A branch tore at her mouth and she swallowed blood. But then she was out and there was only the street to cross, and she was she was on the other side and climbing the dark porch of her own house, beating on the door and yelling.
Elspeth ate a bowl of cornflakes, but went on feeling hungry, not only in her stomach, but in every other part as well. She noticed that the policeman had strange-coloured eyes, and that his cheeks hung down as though he expected everyone to disappoint him.
The policeman made phone calls, then asked Elspeth to go back to the beginning and tell him everything again. When she described the tea-tree tunnel, he looked annoyed and frowned.
Elspeth’s mother stood with crossed arms in the doorway and a face full of spite. The twins half hid behind her in their matching dressing gowns. Only Billy was fully in the room with her. Billy kept his face blank, but when the policeman asked Elspeth something for the third time, he got up and fetched her a glass of water.
‘Why didn’t you tell us about the body straight away?’
‘I was scared.’
Elspeth couldn’t say, everybody knew I hated Simon. She made herself not look at Billy.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said.
The phone rang in the hallway. When their mother came back from answering it, there were red lines along her cheekbones and her eyes looked as though they’d been polished.
The policeman closed his notebook, frowned again and said, ‘That’ll be all for now, young Miss.’
For the rest of that night, Elspeth felt detached from what was going on, from whether the policeman had believed her, and the fact that her mother shut herself in her room and did not come again.
There was a soft knock on her door; Elspeth knew that it was Billy. She rolled over in her narrow bed and squeezed her eyes shut.
In the silence of the house after Billy gave up and went away, between the wood and plaster of its walls, Elspeth returned to her holes and tunnels in the tea-tree, crouching there, cold and hungry and afraid to move. She tried to summon Harry Tregear as a comfort, and went over her discoveries in the museum. Harry had been sentenced and convicted for stealing a rabbit, though he was only nine.
Elspeth felt exhausted, yet afraid to sleep.
The fear didn’t leave her after she got up next morning and went off to school. The past could not be relied on, and she didn’t see how she could prevent herself from repeating her mistakes.
Over the next few days, Elspeth saw quite a lot of the police. She stepped warily around her mother, and was careful not to say anything to set her off.
For a short while, at school, she found herself a heroine, especially among kids like herself, who’d been bullied by Simon. They knew about child molesters. They’d had it all drummed into them. But Simon had seemed indestructible.
They were sober, the children, Elspeth and Billy too, when they heard the driver of the mini van had been arrested. Their small sisters, though conversant with Simon’s cruelty, as well as the dangers of talking to strangers, were content to leave it there, that a menace had been lifted. This relief that the tyrant was dead - none of them dared speak about it to grown-ups - kept the children close, and closely gathered around Elspeth, who was touched by the magic of deliverance. She had run away and then come back. She had had the presence of mind to recall the colours of a rug.
Though Elspeth did not turn away from the attentions of the other children, she did not encourage them.
Billy cornered her in the backyard one afternoon, knowing, with the instinct he had for an advantage, that Elspeth was scared to hide under the fig tree. She was crouched down in the open by the fence.
Billy squatted beside his sister, near enough to touch.
‘What did he look like?’
Elspeth moved away and scratched in the dirt with a stick.
She said without turning round, ‘Did you ever want to kill him?’
Elspeth thought again about how Simon had left Billy alone. ‘What’s Mum doing?’ she asked.
Billy was relaxed. Her questions hadn’t bothered him. Brother and sister sat in a silence which gradually lost its threat.
Finally, Billy said, ‘I wouldn’t have done it.’
‘Picked up the rug and looked.’
Elspeth wanted to ask her brother how he knew what he would, or would not have done. But she understood, even as she began to form the question, that Billy would not have been the least bit bothered by the wedding party; he would not have needed to go and sit by himself near the gun emplacement. The whole chain of events which followed would never have happened to him.
It seemed pointless to say any of this. Elspeth thought of things growing in dark places where she couldn’t see, but where torchlight might pick out her form. She thought of roots grown huge in torchlight, whose sole purpose was to trip her up. It made her sick to think how she’d once played in the bunker, running up and down the filthy steps, how she’d been deaf to the twins calling out to her to come back. She heard their shrieks behind her, then ahead, then knew the shrieks were real, and coming from the house.
Elspeth sighed and wondered for the millionth time why it fell to her to break up her sisters’ fights, when Billy was much better at it.
He confounded her by jumping to his feet in one smooth movement, saying, ‘I’ll go.’
Elspeth looked at her brother with surprise, then sat back and crossed her legs.
After a while, Billy came back to the fence. He didn’t say what he’d done to shut the twins up, and Elspeth didn’t ask. They watched the kitchen light come on behind closed curtains.
‘Dad’s not coming back,’ Elspeth said.
‘How do you know?’
‘I just do.’
Billy was looking at her oddly, not in a Billy way at all. Elspeth realised that this was because he couldn’t dismiss her opinions as easily as he had before.
When he repeated his question, Elspeth said, ‘Mum knows.’
She waited for the words to sink into her own brain as well as Billy’s, who’d never had to think about what it meant to be replaced. And indeed, he might not be. If her father kept in touch with any of them, it would be his son.
‘Why doesn’t she tell us?’
‘She’s scared to.’
‘I’ll find out where Dad is,’ Billy said. ‘I’ll go and bring him home.’
Elspeth would have liked to say, ‘I’ll come too’, but she didn’t. She thought that Billy would have to make his own mistakes.
The two children stood up. Elspeth went to their mother, while Billy waited for a moment then followed her indoors.