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Sunlit Shadow Dance

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Sunlit Shadow Dance

 

Crocodile Spirit Dreaming – Book 5

 

 

Graham Wilson

 

 

 

Copyright

Sunlit Shadow Dance

Second Edition

Graham Wilson

Copyright Graham Wilson 2017

Published by BeyondBeyond Books

Shakespir Edition

ISBN

 

 

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or

transmitted in any form without prior approval of the author.

For permission to use contact Graham Wilson by email at [email protected]

 

 

 

Reader Reviews

Great Five Stars – Great end to an outstanding series. But don’t begin here. Begin with the first book, ’Just Visiting’ and see if you can guess where the story goes.

 

I highly recommend this series; if you enjoy suspense novels or reading about Australia and especially both, you’ll be happy you got a hold of this.

 

Exceptional story. Just loved it. The sense of place and aboriginal culture is great too

You must read this series ….. the content is excellent

it’s superb. So sorry to finish it. 

 

I read this series one volume at a time, over the last two years. It’s very entertaining, well-written and really makes you feel like you’re there with the characters. I can’t praise it highly enough!

 

What a good series, so many stories, so many lives, growing darker with a thread of hope

 

A compelling story, told with sincerity. It would make a good plot for a television mini-series![* *]

 

I thoroughly enjoyed this combined series. It is a nicely composed, thrilling script with essentially a fairy tale goodness. With this book I had my virtual tour through Australia.[* *]

 

Author Note

This book series has been a labour of love, assisted by many people along the way. You are too many to name and some do not want to be named, but you know who you are. I thank you all. Telling this story has been a long journey, both for me as for the story. It is both satisfying and sad to be at the end.

For readers who have enjoyed the series, thus far, I thank you for your time spent in reading. Special thanks for those who told me of enjoyment through reviews and other means. I hope this final part lives up to your expectations. For those who have not found it to their liking, and said so, I thank you for this too, both for your time to read and to let me know. In revising these books this feedback, both good and bad, has helped.

Final thanks to so many people from across the place called Australia’s Northern Territory. You, and its vast landscapes in their ever changing hues, have given me the ideas which grew in my mind to become this story.

Special thanks to an unnamed English backpacker, one I met briefly in Cairns and who then came to the Northern Territory for a short stopover to see its remote places. She spent two days travelling with me in Kakadu and Arnhem Land, seeing places similar to those in my book.

None of the awful things of this story happened to her and she returned home to England for a happy and successful life. However, for a brief period she was a delightful travelling companion and her English mannerisms and joie de vie remain burnt brightly in my memory.

From this memory came the kernel of the character who sits at the centre of this story, my imagined Susan. She now lives on in the minds of thousands of readers, having gained her immortality through the medium of this book. It is likely that her memory will continue on long after we are gone. But, without a real person to inspire the idea, she never would have been. So to the real English visitor I say a profound thank you. I am in your debt for giving me a joyful memory as the foundation for this story.

 

 

 

Prologue

It was a small hour of the morning, number around three or four. Her mind was sharply awake in an instant but she did not know where her body was, except that it was in a bed and the bed was unfamiliar.

There was the sound of another human drawing breath, in and out, regular but not loud. She moved her arms around to explore the bed space. There was another body lying not far away, source of breath sounds, it was a hard and angular shaped, a body of elbows and bony protuberances. It must be a man. She had no idea of this man’s name or face. She knew only that she was here and he was there, sharing this time, space and place.

Who and where was she and who was he? Her mind held no image of an identity, hers, his or other. It held no image of a future or any past; she knew only that the present was an unfamiliar place.

And at the farthest edge of her mind and vision she glimpsed another place, a desert landscape of late bright sunlight reflecting off glowing hills. Within this fading light sunlit shadows were dancing. They were shadows in part familiar, as if she should know them but did not. Faint music came from where they were, it seemed that they called to her, but she could discern no voices or meaning, only that they seemed to be calling to her to come and join them, calling with yearning and sadness mixed into bitter sweetness. She knew them not, yet their kinship reached into the very edges of her mind

She willed her return to sleep so as not to have to discover a present reality, feeling hope that she would awake to a new morning reality where memory and perspective again became clear, where knowing was returned.

 

 

 

Chapter 1 – Daybreak

It was early morning when she awoke again. She knew where she was and she knew her name was Jane, she was Jane Bennet. That was the name she had been holding in her hand when she had discovered herself, a person without a past, some months ago. The name was on a baggage label, written in crude marker pen writing. It was attached to the small overnight bag that her hand was grasped around. The bag held a dress, a pair of loose track pants and top, some underwear and canvas shoes. And it held an envelope with cash, Australian dollars to a value of around seven hundred. Her person had no other label; her memory held none and the name Jane seemed to fit. Jane rhymed with plain; plain Jane, an ordinary person. So she took the name and used it.

That first morning of her remembered life she had awoken in a roadside shelter, lying on a bench seat. The shelter was built from four timber posts with corrugated iron on three sides and a roof. The fourth side was open to an empty dirt road which had seen no traffic since she awoke. It looked like a place built by a local farmer to shelter his children from sun and rain while waiting for a school bus to come. Its furniture was two planks of rough-hewn timber, bolted into a seat shape. It stood on four timber legs which rested on bare red dirt. That was it, her temporary home; it had been a place to sleep but it was not a place to stay.

She knew she was in Australia, somewhere. It was not cold so it was probably somewhere in the northern half. And it was not desert as there were good sized trees growing nearby, though the ground was dry and the grass was dead and brown not green. But that was as far as her knowledge and memory could take her, beyond having her own written name which she was determined to hold to. It was the one thing that felt solid.

She looked at herself. There was no mirror so she could not see a face, but she had thin pasty arms and legs, objects long hidden from the sun. Her hands were soft and free of calluses so they must have done little manual work of late. Her hair was shoulder length and, when she pulled it to her face, it appeared to have a dark brown or black color. It smelt unwashed. A loose fitting smock, like any other cheap dress, covered her body in a shapeless manner. It had a pale floral design and was otherwise indistinct. It gave no clues. As she ran her eyes over her dress she saw that her belly protruded greatly. She smoothed her hands over it. The realization came that she was well and truly pregnant, expecting a baby and the baby was not far off.

As she contemplated this new fact, and what it signified, she heard a distant sound. She saw a plume of dust coming towards her, it was a sedan car. As it came close she saw its occupants were an aboriginal woman driver and another aboriginal woman passenger. She waved to the car and it pulled to a stop.

These people evidenced little surprise in seeing her, not a greeting of recognition, but a casual welcome. It seemed this was a place where people came and went. She was but one more.

They spoke in broken English, “You want ride?”

She nodded; then held out her hand, saying “Hello, I am Jane.”

The driver nodded, pointed to herself and said “Me, Rebecca, that one Suzie.” They took her proffered hand in their own. Suzie opened the back door and pushed a dog off the seat to give her a place to sit. After perhaps an hour they came to a place where people lived, other black people. It had a shop, petrol station and signs for a hospital and school. The ladies let her off at the petrol station and waved goodbye before driving on through the town.

Now she had to decide what to do and say. She did not feel lost, she did not feel scared or as if she was running away from something. She just did not know how she came to be here. She had no memories of a life before today. She felt reluctant to say she did not know why she was here or where she came from, it sounded weird to talk that way in plain daylight.

So she found a twenty dollar note in the bag and walked into the petrol station checkout. She purchased a coke and a bag of crisps, then asked for directions to the toilet. In the toilet she washed her face and tidied herself in front of the mirror. Sure enough she had dark brown black hair, with a wavy Mediterranean look, and bright blue eyes in bland but not unattractive face. Her face did not trigger any recognition in her memory, it was a face that could have belonged to a hundred people walking along any city street, a plain Jane face.

She wondered if she had actually been on her way here, offered a job. Maybe she had bumped her head and lost her memory which would return in a day or two. She decided that was the most likely explanation for being in the middle of nowhere on her own. So, perhaps, she should just ask the man behind the counter at the petrol station about any jobs going, say she had been told they were looking for someone to work in the community and she had made her way here in hope that a job was on offer. So she asked the attendant if he knew of any jobs here.

He looked up at her, showing little surprise and was not unfriendly. “Well we are not looking for anyone here right now, but I hear tell the shop just across the road is. They were expecting someone to come from the town the day before yesterday, to do some bookwork and ordering along with stacking shelves, but the lady never showed. Perhaps they got their days mixed up. It may be the job you heard about. So why don’t you head over there and ask about it. The lady in charge’s name is Matilda, maybe she is expecting you.”

She walked across, carrying her overnight bag. An aboriginal lady was serving at the checkout and she asked if she was Matilda. Instead she was directed to a small office at the side. An older aboriginal woman, sitting at a desk, looked up at her with a smile as she came to the door, saying, “Hello.”

Jane introduced herself and said she understood that they were looking for someone to work here doing bookwork and ordering, along with other work, and she hoped they might have a job for her.

Matilda explained that the local employment service in the main town had been seeking a book keeper type person for her. The last one had fallen through, so now the job was hers if she wanted it. It seemed straightforward. There was a detached building, a one bedroom cottage, behind the shop. It went with the position. The salary was $40,000 for working five days a week as a shop assistant book keeper. She agreed and the job was hers.

They would sort out the paperwork later but Matilda was glad to have engaged the services of Jane Bennet. She was shown to a second desk with a computer in the office. It was hers to use along with a set of files to maintain.

Matilda suggested that she go to the cottage, have a shower and a walk around the town to get familiar with her way around, then come back after lunch when she would be taken through their systems for an hour or two before she began proper work tomorrow.

Matilda called out in an unfamiliar language to the lady at the checkout. She brought in a set of keys to the cottage which she handed to Jane.

Since that day almost a year had passed, people called her by the name Jane Bennet, she lived on a small aboriginal community on a place called Cape York in north Queensland. She had two children almost a year of age, delivered in the local hospital with a minimum of fuss, she had given them the official names Anne and David Bennet, children of Jane Bennet, father unknown. She knew Anne and David were their right names, though she had yet to choose middle names. She thought she should know what these were but could not remember.

A year on her new life was beginning to create its own new memories and joys. She was planning a birthday party for her two babies in a month’s time, a time when her extended friends of the community would come and celebrate this landmark with her.

Only occasionally, like last night, did she wake up with fragments of another life somehow running through her mind and body, seeking release. But, as always, with the new day her current and simple reality returned.

It was a reality where hers was the only body alone in the bed, except sometimes when her children cuddled with her. It was a reality where she felt almost no curiosity about what had been before. It was a reality where, if someone had asked her if she was happy, she would have said yes. She could think of nothing else she wanted or of any other place she wanted to be.

 

 

 

Chapter 2- A Gulf Muster

Vic had spent a week mustering on Vanrook Station, way up towards Cape York on the eastern corner of Gulf of Carpentaria in North Queensland. It was a huge block, several adjoining stations under the same management running to over four million hectares with somewhere around a hundred thousand cattle. They had a few dry years but last wet and this had been good and they were now putting together lots of export steers to go out of Karumba for the South-East Asian markets, Indonesia mainly.

It was further east than he knew or had ever worked before, but beggars could not be choosy, he had a big loan to pay back for his new helicopter. So he grabbed at the offer of this block of work, ferrying across from Borroloola after two days of work for Macarthur River Mine, looking at prospective new mineral sites, alongside the NT border. Next week was booked to work in the Barkly Tablelands, the week after Buck had booked him to work in the VRD.

So he had two solid weeks of mustering after this job before he could take a week off to go to Darwin to meet with Anne and Alan and see how the investigation into Susan and the other missing girls was proceeding.

He had flown to Darwin for a week three months before in his helicopter, spending that weekend in the town of for the memorial ceremony for five Lost Girls on a headland looking out over Darwin. It was a peaceful place with a beautiful view, but he found that day was absolutely gut wrenching. Five sets of parents and other friends crying over lost daughters, along with other families searching for missing sons and daughters too. Everyone had their own story of loss, every story told of devastation for those concerned. He felt for them all, pain on pain, though his heart really only had space for one missing person.

It was now about eighteen months since Susan disappeared. He still felt a raw ache in his chest every time he thought of her, one day she was there with him and it was wonderful, the next day gone, just utterly and totally vanished. It felt like a huge piece had been torn from his insides.

In his wildest dreams he could not imagine what had happened to her since that day when she had never come to the hospital, first him ringing Alan and asking him to go and check his flat for her, thinking she would be fine but he was just being safe. But the flat was empty, her few things were still there, but no her. It was like the movie “Gone Girl”

Then, a month later, they had found the pair flat shoes, borrowed from Anne, she had been wearing. They were beside the Mary River billabong, a bare kilometre from where Mark was eaten by that huge crocodile. Anne was sure, or at least as near as she could be sure, that the shoes were her own. If this was right it could only mean that Susan had gone back to the billabong where she killed Mark, a place full of lots of huge crocodiles.

After that discovery, other people said that Susan had deliberately gone there to return to Mark. They thought her body, if any of it remained, was somewhere there. Some thought she had swum out to meet him, some that she had been pulled off the bank. But there was no other trace, no footprints, no scuff or drag marks, just two shoes in a plastic bag lying in the dirt about ten meters from the water’s edge. Some said they should shoot the big local crocodiles and open them up lest her body was inside; some said they should search the bottom of the billabong in the same way they did to find bits of Mark. But as the shoes were found more than a month after she vanished, with no other evidence of her before or after, it had seemed pointless. So that never happened.

Instead Alan brought that old man, Charlie, the one who had first found Mark and had now found the sandals, back to the place and asked him what he thought, whether her body was here too?

Charlie sat by the water, with him, Alan, Sandy, Anne and some others all watching on. After a few minutes he stood up and shook his head. “Maybe, maybe not, She not here now, no crocodile spirit here,” was all he said. When they tried to question him further about what he meant he just shook his head emphatically.

Vic did not know what to think, but he felt a kinship with this old man. A small part of him felt relief Charlie could find no trace of her presence here. Vic could not be sure it was not true, that she had not returned to the crocodiles and Mark, she was pretty messed up from everything that had happened. But in his heart of hearts he refused to believe it and give up hope that he might one day see her again.

He did not really know what love was supposed to feel like, but he had spent four nights holding her body next to his. The wonder of that memory was burnt into his brain. Now there was just a great big empty hole in that memory place. He had been with plenty of girls over the years but it had never been like this. It was both her dependency on him and how her being had gone deep inside him, mind to mind and spirit to spirit, in a way which made him feel whole. It was as if, in the same way their bodies were joined so too were their souls, become a fused person. He had loved her totally; that body, her body, filled with another man’s children; that face with the laughing blue eyes, that smile that could charm angels.

So now, sometimes, he would dream of her but she was fading and it was getting hard to remember. So, mostly, he worked non-stop. Often he would have an extra beer of two to try to sleep and forget. And when he got the chance he would go to Darwin and meet with Sandy and Alan and see if there were any new leads or anything else he could do to help them find her. He would not admit to her being dead, he had rescued her once, he would do so again. But first he had to find her and he had no idea where to look.

No one else had any ideas either, endless dead end sightings. At first all had felt hope when these sightings came in. But soon they realized that these people, who saw a girl in her twenties with dark hair and an Englishy accent and would report this person as a new maybe Susan sighting, were never right. Too many people who looked vaguely like her were walking around the towns and cities of Australia. So, while not instantly dismissed out of hand, it was easier not to keep hoping through these false alarms.

But if Susan was alive she must be somewhere. Vic’s mind refused to contemplate the alternative therefore he must keep trying to find her. So he was looking forward to getting to Darwin even though it was still over two weeks away. The idea of this trip gave him hope and kept him going with all the day to day flying. He planned to finish here this afternoon and ferry home to Borroloola tomorrow before going down to Anthony Lagoon for a daylight start the day after, the beginning of his week of Barkly work.

But now, just as he was fuelling up and getting ready to leave Vanrook and fly to Normanton for the night, on the way home, a telephone call came in asking him to do a job further up the Cape tomorrow; nothing too big. It was an aboriginal station, out along the Staaten River somewhere. It had a few hundred cattle in a back paddock that he needed to put together then bring to the yards for their yearly branding muster, as well as some steers to muster for the boat.

He had been tempted to say no. If he took the job he would miss his day at home and have to ferry straight to Anthony from here. But it was hard to keep up with the bills for his new chopper when most months he took off a week in Darwin to continue the hunt for Susan. He could not afford to lose this chopper, it had been hard enough to get the loan for this new machine when the insurance came up short from the crash in the Fitzmaurice, and flying his chopper was the one thing that kept him sane.

For those few hours each day, when he was working his machine hard, he was too busy to think, living only on his reflexes. Then it was like the bad stuff got pushed away and he felt passion and joy again for a little while.

So he would take the extra day of work and the money even though it meant a whole month when he never got home. There was nothing at his home for him anyway, just a bush timber shanty at the edge of Borroloola, with a view down to the river.

So he accepted the phone call, booked the job and, as they did not seem in a great rush to get started, he told them he would ferry over first thing and be on-site, ready to start, about eight o’clock. Perhaps he would make a stop over there tomorrow night, see what the community, a former mission, offered before he did a long day of ferrying across the Gulf and black soil to Anthony Lagoon for the day after. The station manager, who had just booked him, told him they were having a barbeque tomorrow night and with the job came a bed for him if he wanted to stay on in town that night.

As he put the phone back on the hook one of the ringers came and tapped him on the arm, giving him the drink sign, beers in the station mess hall. So he followed him across and ripped the top off a barbed wire yellow stubby, savouring flavour as beer washed the dust out of his throat.

Next morning, with an edge of a headache, he walked over to his new machine. His leg was paining today, that place where the steel plate was bolted in from when they had cut and re-joined the crooked broken bone.

He felt a niggling resentment at this metal plate, he would rather have been hobbled with a half crippled leg than to have gone to hospital for the operation, only to wake up and find Susan gone. He knew if he had only stayed with her that night then she would still be here now, something bad had happened when he was not there to mind her. She had run off to God knows where. Now his leg was playing up today. It had not done that for a few days. He hoped it did not signify further trouble; it seemed to have a mind of its own and acted something like a barometer of change.

As he roared into the air, his helicopter blowing a huge dust eddy that the south-easterly wind picked up, he felt his mood lift. Today was a chance to see some new country and this country, as vast grass plains rose into the hills of the Cape, was spectacular. It gave him a buzz.

An hour’s ferry saw him at the station. A half white manager, Rick, a man much his own color, greeted him. With him were six aboriginal stockmen who had horses saddled ready. They all sat round a table with a map and in five minutes a plan was agreed. The stockmen rode off, heading towards the back half of the paddock where he would start working, putting the mob together for them to walk back towards the yards.

Vic talked to Rick for a few more minutes as he topped up his fuel before they both headed out, the manager driving a bull catcher. Vic then flew to the south-east corner about ten kilometres away, it was a pretty big paddock and the manager reckoned there should be six of seven hundred cows with calves in it along with their yearling steers. They both figured they would have these cattle yarded up by about eleven and then there were another couple hours of work to be done after lunch help to muster the bullock paddock which had a couple hundred biggish size boat steers. They would join the Vanrook steers on the next cattle boat to Indonesia.

It was after three pm before the boat steers were yarded, and when done Vic knew he still had time to get back to Normanton before dusk. He was restless and was tempted to thank Rick for his hospitality offer and head away, to have a night in the pub at Normanton. But there had been too many of those pub nights lately and they gave little joy, the empty hole remained after a night of drinking, along with a new hangover.

There seemed something kind about these people here in this little place, like they had a sense of family and belonging. It reminded him of Alice Springs, with his aunts, uncles and kids all hanging around, and he felt the loss. Plus he loved the kids here, their chatter as they gathered around the helicopter, asking questions, eyes bright. They made him feel good.

So, what the hell, he would stop here tonight even if he thought this barbeque here would be a tame affair. He could get up early and head off to his next job in the morning.

So he walked over to the yards to watch the activity. They were drafting up the cattle. He climbed onto the top rail, sitting alongside ten or more school children. The excited screams and chatter, as they watched the cattle work, lifted his mood. Vic felt a wave of nostalgia for similar happy times of his own childhood, and with it an even stronger desire to go back to Alice again to see his mother and favourite sister, to play with her children.

One of the children sitting next to him turned around and shouted out. “Miss Bennet, Miss Bennet, Come and see the cattle.”

He assumed Miss Bennet was a school teacher, as school was out. He turned to see who this person was. There was a lady in her mid-twenties, with dark hair tied back, walking towards them along a dusty road. Two toddlers were walking beside her, each holding a hand. Her eyes were blank as she looked towards him but she was so achingly familiar.

Several of the children jumped down from the rail and ran towards her, two bigger ones taking up the two toddlers in their arms. She patted the black heads affectionately as her own children laughed with excitement at their new found playmates.

 

 

 

Chapter 3 – A Mirage

It looked like Susan, the children looked like her children, but her eyes were empty. She looked at him as if he was nobody she knew or had ever known, perhaps with the vaguely curious appraisal which a new visitor to the town would expect, but no flash of recognition or even significant curiosity.

His eyes bored into her, desperately seeking something more. But nothing came back, except perhaps a trace of annoyance at why this stranger was staring so intently at her, as if it was an invasion of her own being.

His feet impelled him; he climbed down off the rail and walked towards her. He tried for a smile but it came out wrong and in return she sent back something, half of smile and half of frowned puzzlement at his interest, not quite unfriendly but guarded. And yet the eyes were blue and they looked just like her eyes except their sparkle in the light and their joy was missing.

Was it Susan? Or was it just a mirage which he, in his desperation to find her, had created, his mind playing tricks?

He walked towards her, hand outstretched. As he drew close she raised her own small hand which he took in his. “Vic Campbell, helicopter pilot,” he said.

A trace of a smile edged her eyes as she surveyed him appraisingly. “Yes I knew you were the pilot but I did not know your name. Hello Vic, welcome to our small community.”

Vic thought it sounded like her voice but was wrong, the intonation was English but curiously flat, missing her Susan’s vibrant sibilance and confident projection, like but not her. Vic waited for something more, Nothing came; he still held her hand and she had not attempted to withdraw it. It even felt like her hand. He searched her eyes again for some pimple of recognition; still nothing. He found his voice again. “And you are?”

It was like his second statement roused her to life. Quickly she withdrew her hand, glanced at her children to check they were OK and then replied, “Jane, I am pleased to meet you Vic.”

Now she turned to the other children were gathered around and spoke to them. “So today is cattle mustering day and you are all here, watching. Would you like me to come over to the yard for a little while and watch with you, before I take my children for a bath?”

“Yes Miss Bennet, come and watch,” they all chanted in sing song voices.

So she walked towards the rails at the edge of the yards, taking care now to keep her two children in hand. The other children all gathered round her, chattering excitedly, half to her, half to each other.

Vic walked along, a couple steps to the side, not really part of the invited group but there anyway, wanting to talk to her, wanting to ask questions but not knowing how to begin.

As she came close to the yards she looked indecisive. Her face seemed to say that holding the two toddlers up to look, together, was going to be difficult. Perhaps she was looking to find one of the older children to come and pick one of her toddlers up, but they had all deserted her for the top rail and a better view.

Vic saw this was his chance. “You look like you have your arms full with two. How about I lift one up to give a view and then you will only have one to worry about.”

She nodded; a grateful half smile.

He picked up the closest, a boy, who looked at him with a curious and slightly cheeky grin. As he looked at Vic with the smile crinkling at the edges of his eyes, there was something that was so like Mark that Vic felt a jolt pass through him. It was as if he had just been taken back in time to when Mark was barely more than a baby and he had just seen him for the first ever time, a time more than twenty years before he had ever met him as a grown man. That look held something distinctive, as if this small boy had later became the man he had known. It was a look-smile which screamed out his past friend’s name. Almost involuntarily he spoke. “God you look like Mark”

The kid stared back, uncertain now, as if he may begin to cry. Vic realized that this Jane person was staring at him intently.

Now he felt awkward. He shrugged an apology. “Sorry, your boy looks really like someone I once knew, the similarity startled me. I hope I didn’t frighten him.” Before she could reply he hoisted the boy onto his shoulders, bringing his head was to the same level as the other children on the top rail and giving a full view of the yard. From here the kid chortled with delight and patted his small hands on Vic’s head.

Now this Jane person smiled again at him, almost a full and genuine smile this time, then she also turned back to look at the cattle.

Vic found himself tongue tied, it was hard to think of anything useful to say. Making polite conversation seemed inadequate. So he stood beside her, drinking in this person’s presence, like the scent of a long lost fragrance. He thought he knew her, the age fitted, the looks fitted, the kids fitted, even the mannerisms and voice sort of fitted. She must know him. He could not shake this huge conviction that it really was her.

But yet she did not seem to know him at all, not even the name of Mark had triggered any recognition. He did not think she was trying to hide it; there was no trace of anything evasive like that. Yet she looked at him like he was a total stranger she had only first met a bare five minutes ago.

They stayed like that for five or ten minutes, not talking, just watching the action unfold as cattle were drafted this way and that. Soon the yard nearest them was filled with cows bellowing to be re-united to recently separated calves. Vic found himself transfixed by unspoken communication with a little person who sat behind his head, a small boy who was captivated by the scene before him and who expressed his enthusiasm with whoops, pats on his head and kicks of his little feet.

For a minute he forgot about the woman beside him as her shared this child’s infectious delight. Then he realized that this woman had laid her hand on his forearm and was talking to him.

“I am sorry; I will have to head away now. I have to bathe my children early. I have promised the others to help set up the barbeque. So, if you don’t mind, I will have to retrieve him from you now,” she said pointing to the child on his shoulders.

Vic grinned, “Of course, let me carry him along for you as you walk home for a little way. I think he is enjoying the ride up there.”

Now the lady gave him a genuine smile. “I think you are right about that. Well if you don’t mind, I live about 300 yards down there, behind the shop. Your place for the night is half way there. I will point it out when we get to it. So why don’t you walk along with me, until then. After that I will take them both on home from there.”

They walked along, side by side, kicking little clouds of dust in the dirt street as they walked. Vic asked politely. “What are your children’s names?”

“Oh,” she said, apologetically “they are David and Anne. Sorry I should have introduced them as well.”

All too soon they reached the front of the bunk house where Vic was staying. She reached for David as Vic handed him down.

David shook his head as Vic went to hand him back, “No, not go,” he said. He grabbed onto Vic’s arm tightly and tried to stay with him.

Jane raised her eyes and said, “Well that is unusual, he will almost never let a strange man pick him up. Yet here he is, him not wanting to come back to me. That really is a change. He must like you.”

“Just the view,” said Vic, patting his head with a deprecating smile. Turning to the boy he said, “Well you can ride up there anytime you like. If you want to get a really good view, get your mother to bring you for a ride in my helicopter.”

She laughed in return, “I think he has to grow up a bit before then.”

Vic responded, “I was inviting you too, along with little Annie.”

She replied seriously, seeming to let the humour pass her by. “Well thank you. Not today; perhaps another time. I have things to do now.”

With that she walked off down the street with her two children toddling beside her, each holding a hand.

He watched, unmoving, as she went all the way until where the road turned a corner and she disappeared out of sight. As she passed from view she turned back to smile at him, giving him a little wave, before she vanished.

Vic fought down an overwhelming urge to run after her, to call out the name, “Susan” and see if she turned back. But he could not do that, she surely would not have ignored him if she already knew him. If she knew him when they first met she would have come running, with a bright smile on her face, flung herself at him and hugged herself to him. He knew that was how his Susan was.

So who was she? Was she the wife of another man who lived here and who just happened to be a dead ringer for Susan? Was she just a lookalike who Vic had imagined was Susan in his desperation to find her? Or was she the real Susan, with all her memories and former life turned to dust? Could she just be a mirage that he had imagined out of nothing in his mind, one like those seen far out on the black soil plains and, once he came to where he had first seen her, she would vanish into the air and never be seen again.

He found himself unwilling to move from this place, lest he break the spell, lest he find out it was only a mind dream of a person who no longer walked on solid ground. He felt great dread she had returned to the crocodile spirits so now just a faint essence of her still walked in the world of people. He could not bear it to be so, but he felt no other certainty in his mind.

He could not ask her who she was, he could not tear at broken memory strings, but he must find out about her. Tonight at the barbeque he would try and discover, from others, who she was.

It was still too early to go inside so he turned and walked back to his helicopter. He had a photo of the real Susan in his briefcase. He would get that out and look at it and see if there were any tell-tale clues that either linked her, this Jane, to that picture or made it clear she was someone else.

As he came back to the yards the manager, Rick, was there, standing near his helicopter, with some papers to sign, receipts for fuel used. In Vic’s captivation he had almost forgotten about his regular business, now it came back to mind. He wrote out an invoice for five hours of wet hire for mustering and two hours for fe rrying, with the fuel taken from here deducted. They both countersigned and the bill payment was promised within two weeks.

Then he asked Rick, “Who is that lass with the dark hair and the two small children, she was here at the yards for a bit.”

“Oh, that’s Jane,” Rick replied. “She is an odd fish, isn’t she? She is the bookkeeper at the shop. She has worked her for around a year and a half now. She doesn’t seem to have any other family or friends from outside, she just keeps to herself, apart from going to church and singing in the choir. She is a looker and a few blokes around here fancied to try it on with her. But she never takes any notice, she never seems properly interested in anything or anyone but her two little kids and maybe God. All the rest of the world passes by and she barely seems to notice it. It is like some part is missing inside her head. Still she is sweet and nice in every other way. So we have got used to her now, stopped asking questions.”

Vic went to the helicopter and found the photo of Susan. He showed it to Rick. “Do you think that looks like her?” he asked.

Rick looked at Vic curiously then looked hard at the photo and frowned. “Well yes and no,” he said, “looks wise she is almost a dead ringer even though her hair is cut differently. But the girl in this photo looks so alive. This Jane here, when you look hard at her it is like she is not really alive at all, like you can look straight through her and she is not really there. So it could be her but it is more like two identical sisters, one who is alive and normal and the other was born without a soul, as if someone took it away at birth. So all I can say is, maybe, but I don’t really know for sure.

“But I know you know more about this one,” he said, pointing to the photo. “So, if you tell me the whole story, maybe I can help figure it out.”

Vic looked at him, serious and intent, as if considering. “I would love to tell you. But, as yet, I don’t begin to know what the answer is myself. Once I work it out a bit more I will let you know.

 

 

 

Chapter 4 – Barbeque

The sun was now falling low in the sky and Vic was conscious of his need to spruce himself up if he wanted to make a good impression tonight at this big social event of the town, the barbeque.

He pulled out his overnight bag from behind the helicopter seat, hoping he had something clean amongst the pile of dirty clothes he had been intending to wash once home at Borroloola. He suspected the pickings would be slim, but he wanted to make a good entrance to his next meeting with this girl, Jane, whoever she really was.

He whistled as he walked back to his room, at least she was real, that was what he had got from his conversation with Rick. So now he needed to turn on the charm and find a way to get inside her head, to see what secrets were hidden, even if buried deep.

He showered, shaved, found his cleanest shirt and gave it an iron so it looked almost spick. He checked himself in the mirror. Not perfect but it would do; at least nothing to short-circuit his charm offensive. He saw a monogrammed hanky that his mother had given him; it was sitting inside his bag still, the only article not yet in the dirty clothes pile. That may come in handy if I spill some food or drink, he thought. He tucked it into his pocket.

Someone had said that the barbeque was in the church hall alongside the church. He had seen the church with the cross on the roof as he made a circuit of the town when he first landed. It was at the other end of the town past the shop and petrol station. He stepped out, feeling lightness in his step that had been missing for the last year or more.

Soon he came alongside a grey haired couple walking steadily along the street. He hailed them as he passed. They returned his greeting, smiled broadly, and introduced themselves, the church pastor, Doug, and his wife, Ruth, out for an evening stroll before they too went to the barbeque.

Vic fell into step with them. As he joined their conversation a sense of courtly manners and wise kindness radiated from them. He found himself telling of how he came to be here, almost by accident and how he had to dig deep into his limited clothes to find something suitable to wear. They had a presence like some of the missionaries he had known as a child, simple good people, and he felt at ease chatting with them.

They told him that, as of today, he was a minor celebrity in the town, the aboriginal helicopter pilot. Now he had half the school children wanting to follow in his career. They told him how their good friend, Jane, and they spoke her name with obvious affection, had told them how he had made a big hit with her toddler, David, who up until then would not let any other men come near him. They all shared a laugh at this. They asked him how long he was staying.

He said he had to fly back to the Northern Territory in the morning; he had a distance of about 800 kilometres to fly before daylight Monday.

The pastor asked, “Would you have time to come to church in the morning before you head away?”

He shrugged and grimaced slightly. “Well you know Pastor, not really my cup of tea, so I better not make any promises, plus I had planned to go early. So I won’t say yes, but stranger things have happened, so you never know.”

Doug and Ruth both smiled and nodded knowingly as the conversation moved on. Vic found himself wondering at his even half agreement, it was more than he had intended, but perhaps he was in the current of something much bigger and he just had to go with the flow.

Soon they came to the church hall and Vic was introduced all around. There were maybe 50 people gathered, a quarter white, three quarters black and a few of in between shades, like himself. They were standing in loose groups, conversations drifting here and there. A gang of children, maybe twenty, ranging from toddlers to ten plus ran around between the adults grabbing handfuls of nibbles, while the grown up’s chatted and drank fruit punch. It was friendly and welcoming. Vic found himself looking for Jane.

Suddenly there she was at his elbow, carrying a platter of savoury pastries which she was offering around. She treated him to her brightest yet smile, not quite Susan like but somehow more familiar and welcoming than before. He thanked her and she moved away, continuing her rounds.

She was dressed simply and plainly, no glamour of make up or hair style. Her clothes were probably op-shop hand me downs, neat but without any concession to fashion. Yet he still thought she looked lovely. He felt a huge compulsion to talk to her, to get to know this reincarnation that looked so like Susan, even if the light at her core was missing.

However that was easier said than done in this busy social gathering. She continued to take a lead in the service of food and he had many people who wanted to talk to him; ask his advice about the cattle work, find out about how he came to be a successful helicopter pilot, trade stories with him of the bush. He enjoyed it and found it engaging, yet part of him wished for a quiet place where there were just two people and they could talk alone.

However he participated with good heart, knowing he must be patient for a chance to come. He found himself seated with a big plate of food, surrounded by several stockman and Rick, all telling stories of cattle work. Jane was seated now at another table talking to the Pastor and his wife. Her two children were like unguided missiles, shooting amongst the floating mass of others, running here and there, sometimes eating, mostly laughing.

He felt something grab his leg. It was David. He hoisted him to his lap and directed pieces of food his way as the conversation continued. David seemed content for a minute just to sit there and gaze around this crowd of men’s faces. After a few minutes he wriggled back down and ran off.

Vic watched him as he hurtled back towards the place where his mother sat. Suddenly a small foot caught a chair leg. Vic watched as he crashed face first into the wooden floor. Vic was up and over to him in a bare second, lifting him up before he could start to cry. He did not begin to understand how his reflexes had moved him so fast.

David had a cut on his lip and looked to be about to burst into a crying fit, but then he saw this man’s face holding him. He took a deep breath as he calmed himself and controlled the tears. There was something so ‘Susan like’ in that little gesture. It shook Vic to the core, that ability for self-control.

He took the hanky from his pocket and dabbed it on the cut, just a smudge of blood. He gently held it there for a minute while the boy remained quiet. He removed the hanky and the lip seemed OK though no doubt it would be swollen in the morning. He returned the boy to the floor, giving him a pat on the head and saying. “You are a brave little fella.”

David toddled off, minor injury forgotten. Vic looked up to see Jane’s eyes on him. They were serious, not smiling but seeking, as if trying to find some tiny fragment of another self. As he caught her eyes she looked away.

It seemed all too soon when the night was ending, no late night revelry here. He had found no chance to talk to her in anything approaching a private setting. Now he saw her walking towards him bringing her two little children, one holding each hand.

She stood before him, in a simple and unassuming manner, saying. “I am sorry, I need to take my children home to bed now, they are both tired. I just wanted to say thank you for minding David, particularly when he fell over.

“I am not sure if you can manage it in the morning, before you leave, but if you can it would be really nice if you could come to church. Service starts at nine o’clock and our choir has been practicing some songs to sing. I would like it if you came.”

He wanted to jump up and escort her home, but something restrained him. He had a sixth sense that he had to take it slowly, allow trust to grow and give her time to open up when she was more comfortable. He still did not know if this lady was Susan or someone else, but it no longer mattered so desperately. He just wanted to know her more, the face of the enigma. So he stilled his impatience and watched her walk out the door, knowing that he was destined to be at church in the morning.

He looked up to see Rick looking at him in an appraising manner, “I don’t pretend to know what is going on inside your head, but there is something happening there. And not just for you, our Jane has shown more animation tonight than in the year and a half she has been here.”

Vic nodded, “You could be right. I promise I will tell you soon. I need to do more work around here, so as to have a reason to make some more visits. Make sure my name gets to the top of the list if you hear of helicopter jobs going, hell I can even drive a bull catcher if it comes to that.”

Rick nodded. “I get it, jobs north, south, east and west of here with ferry stops and overnights here. I might need a commission to act as your local agent, but I will see what I can do.”

 

 

 

Chapter 5 – Monochrome

Jane dreamt of lying in bed, without memory, with the unknown man, again that night.

It was a broken night of sleep. David was restless and irritable with the cut to his lip. In the end, she brought him into bed with her to help him settle and, of course, Anne would not stay alone without her inseparable brother in the crib next to hers. So they both ended up sleeping in her bed; fortunately it was a big double bed so they all had space to stretch out. She put them on the inside where the mattress was hard against the wall. That way she knew they would not fall out of bed and wake up screaming.

So, for a couple hours after she came to bed, she lay there in a restless state, soothing her children until they finally settled. After that she found her own mind was wide awake and active as it relived her remembered life, the almost eighteen months since her memories had begun in April last year, just at the end of the rainy season, with her children born in early May. It was now late September and the nights were getting hot, she could feel sweat on her skin from places where her children were touching her despite the ceiling fan whirring away. The covers, which her children needed to settle, seemed too heavy on her skin and made her hot.

She found herself wondering about David and why he had taken to this strange new man, the one that looked at her with such piercing eyes, as if she should know him, though she had no idea why he thought that.

He was just another stranger who she had seen for the first time earlier today. The funny thing was he had begun to have a color in her imagination this night, a nut brown color, not all of him, but the bare skin on his arms, those strong arms which had effortlessly picked David up and hoisted him into the air, sitting on his shoulders. She found herself smiling as she remembered the way David had chortled as he sat on top, loving the view and patting this man’s head like a pet dog.

Every other time a man had reached for David, to pick him up or restrain him, David had cried out in fear and she needed to take him and comfort him. Even now, after well over a year, he would barely allow Pastor Doug to touch him though he went happily to his wife Ruth and to other children. Yet he had gone straight to this man, Vic, without hesitation. When he offered she had intended to give Anne to Vic to hold, knowing she would be fine. Instead he had picked up David before she had a chance to suggest that.

She felt a small bit of worry about David, Anne was resilient and outgoing but David was very shy and dependent on her and his twin sister. She would have liked him to be a bit more confident. When she was out with other people he mostly just clung to her skirts. Maybe it was a stage he was going through. She had no one else to compare him too. While she loved her importance to him, she wanted him to become braver and less dependent. So yesterday had been a big step forward. She really hoped this man would come to church to see and listen to her sing. Singing was the one time she felt complete, as if she had something of value to give to others.

It was funny, but when she had first come to this place she had no real sense of a missing past, just an empty place before her memory started and a new reality began. But she knew there must have been a past somewhere, a man to father her children, a mother and father of her own. She did not miss not knowing them, but she did feel a vague curiosity about who these people were, most particularly her mother.

It had come to her clearly one day when she wanted to know when her babies would be able to walk, people had told her that most children learnt to walk at about a year of age but some learnt early at nine months and some took up to a year and a half. She found herself wondering how old she was when she took her first steps. Then the thought occurred to her that, if she had a mother nearby, then she could ask her. So she wondered what had happened to her own mother so that she did not know her.

Now, as she lay tossing in bed, her mind wandered to another place, thinking affectionately of her best friends the church pastor and his wife, Ruth, who seemed to have adopted her. She remembered them coming to the hospital the day after her babies were born, introducing themselves, and offering to make a prayer for her babies’ health and happiness. She had accepted, thinking this must be the normal thing people did with babies. It had been nice, hearing them say kind words for her and her children.

Then Pastor Doug had suggested she have her babies baptized a few weeks later. She assumed this was also part of what one did so she said ‘Yes’ again. He had asked her if she wanted to invite anyone, like parents or family. She said she did not know where her parents or family were. So he suggested an aboriginal man and woman from the church to stand in as god parents. She accepted that too as they seemed like nice people and they now were also her friends.

As she looked back on her remembered life she thought about another thing she had since discovered about herself which was peculiar. Her life had no colours.

People often talked about the colour of things, the green of trees, the blue of the sky, the brown of the earth. She saw shades which she thought were those colors. But, a few months ago, she had been having a cup of tea at Ruth’s house while her babies played. She was looking at two books on the coffee table there; they both had pictures of people and places. To her the pictures in both books looked much the same, nice but nothing special.

Ruth had come and sat alongside, looking with her. Pointing to one picture, Ruth said, “Isn’t that sky the most beautiful blue colour?”

She had replied, “It looks the same to me as that other picture,” pointing to a picture with sky in the other book.

Ruth said, puzzled, “But that is just a black and white picture, how can you tell they look the same?”

Jane said, as if it was normal, “They both look the same to me.”

So they had turned a few pages of both books together and Ruth had pointed out different colours which all looked the same shade to Jane. Gradually they had both come to realize that Ruth was seeing something that Jane could not, a thing she called colours.

Jane had thought, before, she was seeing colours too. Since then she realized that what she was seeing was shades of grey. It had not seemed a big deal to her, she could see just fine and she could work out what things were from the shades she saw, even if Ruth seemed a bit concerned.

Soon after that she started to go to church each weekend, at first to keep Ruth and Doug happy. But it was nice. Pastor Doug mostly told happy stories which she liked.

But what she discovered, which she most liked at church, was the music. The church had a choir; she really liked listening to the choir. One day the choir sang a new song which she had never heard before. It was an aboriginal song by a blind man called Gurrumul. He lived at a place called Gove; it was somewhere towards Darwin in the part of Australia called the Northern Territory. This day, someone played a new song which Gurrumul sung on CD music player. The church choir sang along.

 

“I was born blind, I don’t know why.

God made me blind, because he loves me so.”

 

As they started to sing, suddenly this beautiful blue colour started to come out of their mouths. She had sat there crying, it was so beautiful. The music was really beautiful; it had the most exquisite notes and melody. And the words were really beautiful, as if they had been written just for her.

She realised that, like this man, Gurrumul, she had a part of her that could not see; she could not see the past and she could not see the colours of the world. But now she knew it really did not matter because God had made it so and he loved her anyway. But what made it so special was that, as Gurrumul sang and the choir sang, and as the words and music came out together, she could see a colour too. It was just one colour but it was the most beautiful blue and, because it was so, so very beautiful, it made her cry.

That day she had joined the choir and loved to sing all the songs, but particularly this song. When she sung the other songs, she felt she could almost see some colour, like the sun trying to break through a thick cloud, when it was raining heavily, and she would see tiny glimpses of colours flash. But when she sang or heard this song, then the purest and most beautiful blue colour came out. She could see it so clearly even if other people did not seem to. That made her feel really, really happy, all over.

Then yesterday, not when she first met him, Vic, but when he picked up her baby, David, and put him on his shoulders, and again after he cut his lip, suddenly Vic had a color too. It was not an all over color but it was a color to his arms where they were wrapped around her baby. It was a rich brown color; she called it nut brown in her mind, it was so real and warm.

If she could see that colour on him then perhaps he would see the blue colour she saw when she sang; she really hoped so. So she had she had invited him to come and hear the singing. It was not something she had ever done before, to invite anyone to anything, though Ruth had organized and invited people to a couple things for her, like the baptism and birthday party of her children. But this time it was she who had wanted him to come and the invitation popped out of her mouth. Now she was glad it had. She hoped he would come to see and hear the singing and that he would like it, his opinion mattered to her.

She was feeling comfortable and happy thinking about this as she finally drifted off to sleep in the late night, with her children’s bodies pressed into her. Then she woke with the dream, like she had before, where there was another body in the bed and she did not know it or anything else. She had felt the shape. I was a hard and angular shaped; a body of elbows and bony protuberances. It must be a man.

This time she really wanted to see it, to see a face and to know who it was. But she was so afraid, afraid to know this person and the story that went with it, lest it tear her apart and destroy her. So her fear had stopped her. Instead she had buried her face in the pillow and tried to hide it from her mind. But, in forcing herself to pull away, she was so lonely, so utterly alone; her insides feel desolate.

Now, as she woke in the morning and as her new memories came back, she knew it was only a dream. Yet the sense of a great loss of something remained. It was a something she must find. But she knew she could only reach it through this dream and this dream caused her terror.

Her children were now stirring. So she washed and fed them then dressed them for church. As she was getting ready to leave her house she heard a roar of something which was flying overhead. David rushed to the window, pointing, making a sound for some unintelligible word. She realised he was trying to say, helicopter, helicopter. She glimpsed it flying away.

She felt sharp disappointment. She had invited the pilot, Vic, to church to hear her music and she thought he would come. He had not said he would come but his demeanour suggested it. Yet he was already taking off and leaving, so he would not be there. The colour in her mind faded back to grey.

 

 

 

Chapter 6 – The Choir

Vic went for an early morning walk in the dawn to still his impatience to see Jane again. He found his mind had given a new identity to this person, the name she wore. Perhaps she was Susan still, but his mind had begun to call her Jane. As he walked he found the surrounding bush with its screeching parrots and the thump of kangaroos, which hopped nervously away as he came into shooting range, helped soothe his jangling nerves. This was like how he felt at the outset of a new romance. He thought of this woman as a blank canvass waiting for the painting to be drawn.

As he walked past the petrol station and shop on his way back to town he could see a light on in her cottage and hear little children noises. It gave him an inner glow of anticipation. He went back to his room and packed up his things and found some breakfast which he ate. As he had nothing more to do he decided to go to his helicopter and do the pre-flight checks. He worked his way through the list. As he did he noticed a small gathering of black bodies, first three then four and soon there were eight. They were watching him with bright eyes and questions.

He found pleasure in their enthusiasm, like when he too was a child at stations around Alice Springs, remembering how these magic machines would come and go. With this came the memory of his first ever helicopter ride as a child of eight, around the age of this little gang. He remembered the way the world below had unfolded, as if seen through the eyes of a bird, a new picture seen from the helicopter that took him into the sky.

He looked at his watch. He had full fuel, more than enough to get to Normanton where he would top up. He had half an hour free before it was time to go to the church. He would treat these kids to the same treat he had been given all those years ago.

“Anyone want to go for a ride?”

All nodded furiously. He separated them into three groups, two groups of three smaller children and one group of two larger ones. He told them they all had to stay together where he could see them, only those coming for a ride could come closer. He loaded the first three and started up, going skywards with a cloud of dust. Five minutes a trip gave him time to fly over the houses, sweep down along the creek for a mile before coming around over a small hill behind the yards and setting down again. He swapped the children and did it twice more. He checked his watch, realizing he would have to hurry to get to the other end of the town in time for church.

He remembered there was a clear area just next to the church. It would be faster to fly there and it would also speed up his departure. As he came over he saw the figure of a woman with two small children walking along the road, coming towards him, a hundred yards away. He landed and walked to meet them. The greeting was a big smile from one big and two little faces.

Jane looked at him seriously and said, “When I heard your helicopter take off before I thought you had decided not to wait, I am so glad you are still here.”

He shook his head, “No, I just took a few of my local admirers for a joy flight. If you have time I hoped you might come for a quick one too before church begins.”

Her face came alive as she nodded. He brought them over and showed them their seats, strapping David in tight with a belt in the middle while Jane held Annie on her lap. Then he looked across to her asking if she was set. Her face was tense but she gave him a mouthed, “Yes.”

He pulled a straight up climb until they reached a couple hundred feet, the helicopter effortlessly soaring in the cool morning air. He looked across, she was wide eyed with enthusiasm, so like that day more than two years ago when he had soared skywards with Susan and Mark. Just for this instant he had an unshakeable belief that it really was her. He looked at them all questioningly and asked, “Ready?”

“For what?” she asked.

“For the thrill of your life,” he said.

She nodded; eyes serious.

With a flick of his hand he turned the helicopter sideways and plunged towards the ground, like a falcon diving. As the ground rushed towards them he dialled on the power, using all his mustering trick skill to zoom amongst the trees as if chasing a bull. As he raced forward, skimming the ground he pulled the stick up, using power and speed to pull hard into the sky. He felt the weight in his stomach. Then down amongst the trees again as he wove his way along the creek before breaking skyward to come back around over the town and land smoothly alongside the church.

She was breathless and flushed. The children were clapping their hands. He worried he may have scared her. She turned him, eyes glisteningly bright and oh so blue. Her smile was radiant. “I think that was the most exciting thing in my life. Thank you so much.”

Vic took a deep breath to calm his own breathlessness. “When you look at me and smile like that, I think that look in your eyes is far more exciting than a helicopter ride.”

She blushed and looked away, uncertain.

Then she looked at the watch on his wrist. “I must fly,” she said.” The choir needs to do a quick practise before the church service begins.”

Vic walked to the church once had had finished his machine shutdown. The pastor’s wife was waiting for him, minding the two children. She brought him to sit next to her near the front of the church, introducing him as she went and making polite conversation. They sung an introductory hymn and the pastor talked and led some prayers. Then the choir came forward for its performance, Jane standing in the midst of aboriginal women, with men standing behind them.

The first song sounded like a negro spiritual. He did not know it but it was lovely with blending voices, though he could not distinguish any in particular. Then came a song with a familiar sound, he realized it was one of Gurrumul’s songs, sometimes he listened to this lovely voice when feeling a bit low. He looked up, he realized it was not Gurrumul but Jane, singing as the other women hummed.

 

I was born blind, I don’t know why.

God made me blind, because he loves me so.”

 

As she sung he was transfixed by her loveliness. She was glowing, as if with a shimmering light, she was so beautiful. He wondered if she was an angel. She was singing about him and she was singing about her. He knew it was her, his own lost Susan, she had become lost and blind and without her he was lost too. But now it was OK. It did not matter if she knew or remembered him. In her blindness she had found peace and escape and that was enough, it was a complete goodness in its own strange way.

He found her eyes, they had tears and his own eyes had tears too. He did not want the song to end. He just wanted to keep looking at her.

The rest of the service passed in a blur. Then it was time to go and she was walking with him back to the helicopter, her hand resting lightly on his arm. She asked, “Will I see you again?”

He said, “I hope so, I will make it so.”

Then suddenly, he wanted to know, he needed to know. He took the photo of his Susan, taken from before, and showed it to her. He asked her if she knew this person.

She looked at it intently and shook her head. It looks like me but it is not me. She had a different life spirit inside her to that which is inside me. I think that person has gone now and cannot come back. Are you looking for her?

Vic nodded, mutely silent.

She said, “I hope you can find her, but I don’t know if you can ever bring her back.”

She paused, silent for a minute, as if searching for words of comfort, perhaps looking for something buried deep inside herself.

She said, “I think she would want you to look for her, to try to find her, even if she does not know it and may not be able to return, so good luck.”

Suddenly Vic was unsure. Half an hour ago he was sure he had found his Susan and would find a way to bring her back. Now he was unsure on two fronts, whether it was really her and, even if it was, whether he could ever reach her again and bring her back to him and the others who loved her.

He said goodbye. She touched a finger to her lips then to his lips. It felt and tasted of an inexpressibly precious life essence.

Then he took off and flew away, looking back at her as her form dwindled into a miniscule dot and finally vanished into the horizon.

 

 

 

Chapter 7 – Revelation Dilemma

As the tiny person on the horizon faded from view Vic’s thoughts returned to what to do about his discovery of this person, Jane. His gut reaction said she was Susan but his logical mind just did not know. And, even if it was her, he had a whole lot of conflicting things to resolve.

He did not feel he had the right to drag her back into the awful situation she had been in before she vanished. She had fought so hard to hide the other side of Mark to protect her children and also to protect her own sanity which had started to come apart at the seams as it all unfolded. In one of their nights of loving she had told him she was but seconds away from ending it all when he had arrived in court.

This thought had chilled him to the bone then, and it scared him even more now that he had seen her and her children again. He thought this new apparent demeanour of calm vacancy was not real. It was like that thin layer of ice which forms on frozen water in an Alice Springs winter dawn, but where one knock shatters it into fragments which never reform.

It was not her fault that she had ended up in that impossible situation but the thought that it had almost driven her to take her own life and, but for an almost miraculous intervention, she would have succeeded, was horrific to him. He did not think anyone else knew just how close it had come, she may have told Anne. But fate, or God, or something had intervened to keep her alive then. If it had intervened, yet again, to bring her to safety in this place he would allow nothing to threaten that.

And yet her vanishing had torn a hole through the lives of a whole lot of other people, they all had a raw vein of grief running through them too. It was particularly her family and Anne, but others who knew her too were also in that place, particularly Alan and Sandy who had a great sense of guilt for their own role in bringing her to this. So they deserved some light to come from this, if light there was.

His initial inclination, as her saw her face fade from view, was to just find a way to come back here to work, day after day, month after month. As he saw her time after time he would slowly befriend her and then he would win her confidence, maybe even win her heart anew.

He needed so much to have her back in his life and the thought of trying to woo her and win her, when she knew him not, was hugely appealing. He felt he had been given a chance to start all over again with her, as if they were each discovering the other for the first time. In this vision she was for him alone to know and find.

But now, as these thoughts rolled around, he realized that it was too unfair to deny others the knowledge he held if it could ease their own pain. Still, balanced against that, and even more important, was the imperative of protecting her from the hostile outside world which had almost destroyed her once before. Even if that meant he could see her no more, he would choose that so as not let something bad like that happen again. In the end he just did not know what to do.

As these thoughts kept circling around and around inside his head he realized he was approaching Normanton where he had to fuel up for his next leg. He decided to would ring Buck and seek his wise counsel; he was the best friend he had left. He should be at home today at lunch time, it was Sunday after all. So, once he had fuelled up, he pulled out his mobile phone. It had reception at the airport.

Julie, Buck’s wife, picked up on the third ring. He heard her holler for Buck to come to the phone after exchanging a few pleasantries. At first Buck was his usual blunt self, “Why are you ringing me on a Sunday at lunch, just when I have gone for a siesta, barely shut my eyes, can’t it wait till you see me next week?”

Vic gave him back, “Now you are turning into a pussy, a big fat pussycat who needs a midday sleep in the sun. Some boss you!”

Then it all came bubbling out in a rush. “Buck, I think I have found her, Susan, up at a blackfella place on Cape York. It looks like her, it sounds like her, but she does not know who I am and I feel like I am just imagining it. But it fits; she had two kids the right age, named David and Anne. She has taken the name Jane Bennet. I could have sworn it was her until I saw the blank look in her eyes and now I really don’t know.”

Buck said, “Whoa there, slow down, too much information all at once. Start again from the beginning.”

So slowly and carefully he told the full story and this time all Buck could say was “Jesus, Well I be fucked.”

Then Buck’s rational brain took over. “Where are you and what are your movements? I think you and I need to get to Darwin pronto and talk to Alan and Sandy. I know they won’t spill the beans and we’ll all need our thinking caps on for this one.”

Vic filled him in on the rest of the details. Buck told him to stand by in Normanton while he sorted out arrangements. Soon Buck had it organized, cover for Vic’s job tomorrow at Anthony’s Lagoon Station. As he organized this he had Julie on the computer looking up a flight for Vic from Cairns to Darwin. On a second phone Buck confirmed it all with Alan, he and Sandy were available tonight.

Vic could hear Buck talking on the other line, Buck did not tell Alan the content that Vic had relayed, just that something of critical importance about Susan had come up and they all needed to talk tonight.

Soon Vic was on his way for a five hour flight helicopter flight back to Cairns, from where he was booked on a late flight to Darwin this evening. Buck and Julie would take the station plane to Darwin this afternoon. Vic’s flight arrived about nine in the evening and they would all meet soon after at Alan’s flat.

It was after 9:30 that night when Vic arrived and the others were seated out on the verandah around a big table. He was surprised to see three extra people and felt apprehensive at seeing them, Susan’s mother, father and Anne. Alan broached it directly with Vic.

“Mate, I am sorry to put you on the spot like this, but these others are flying out in the morning, returning to the UK after meetings over the last week with the police and coroner. We promised each other to immediately share any leads we get, no matter how small or inconsequential. Plus we all have exactly the same interest, to find Susan and help her anyway we can.

“Buck has been tight lipped about what you know but I can read between the lines and I know it has to be significant. You would not have flown half way across the country and them up from VRD at the drop of a hat, not unless it was really important.

“I don’t want to have to relay what you say, so it just seemed the best solution was for you to tell your story to us all at once. We have already agreed in advance that nothing you say will leave this room and none of us will take any action on it without your agreement.”

Vic felt pressured; he really just wanted a frank one on one chat with Alan and Buck, to toss around what it all meant and what should be done. But he took on board what Alan had said; they all had the same right to know, he could not bear the idea that someone else would have held back from him news this significant.

So he nodded and took a deep breath. Buck and Julie were nodding too.

“I think I saw Susan yesterday and again this morning. But she did not show any sign of knowing me and I really am not sure about it,” he begun.

Vic saw the shocked and dazed looks on people’s faces, struggling to take in this naked fact and make sense of it.

Buck put his hand on Vic’s shoulder. “Mate, you should just start at very beginning and tell it as you saw it, not what you think now.”

Vic nodded and the others nodded. So he began again. He told the story of his week, deciding to leave out the exact location. He told of mustering in Queensland, then about the booking to muster the aboriginal station. He told them about him standing by the yards, thinking he might head away, but how he enjoyed chatting to the local kids; then how they called out, “Miss Bennet, come and see the cattle.”

He told how he looked around to see who this Miss Bennet was and how his heart almost stopped when he looked up and saw someone who looked just like Susan walking towards him. This person was holding a toddler with each hand, a boy and girl who walked at each side of her.

He told of the excruciating moment when he searched her eyes for a sign of recognition and found none. Then he told of the barbeque and the singing in the church, and finally how he showed her the photo and she said it looked like her but it was someone else who was no longer there. He told them how he asked others about her and found out she had first come there around the time Susan vanished and that her children were the right age, sex and names, that her name was Jane Bennet fitting the Mark identity.

He finished by saying. ”My mind says it is Susan, my heart so wants it to be Susan, and yet I really don’t know.

“When I asked Rick, the station manager, about her he said she seemed like someone who was nobody, a person you could look through and see no one there, a person without a soul. I don’t think that is right, but if it is her, she is not the person she used to be. I don’t think she remembers anything from when we knew her before. The minister’s wife, who is her friend, said that once Jane asked her how old own children were when they first walked. She said she would have asked her mother how old she was when she first walked but did not know where her mother was.

“So my best guess it is Susan. But if you go there expecting to find the person you once knew she is no longer there. The best way I can describe her now is she has a calm flat surface, as if she is happy and at peace. But it is like the surface of a frozen pond, a thin shiny layer which covers something else underneath which she cannot see. And, if you look hard, you start to see cracks running through everywhere, just below the surface. It is like, if someone broke the ice on a pond, and smashed it into a hundred pieces. Then the bits of ice refroze and made a new surface, but underneath are all the broken bits. With the cracks running all through it you can no longer see anything reflected in it properly, just mixed up bits. It has shapes that look familiar but with most bits from before jumbled and gone.

“So now there is this person who looks like Susan and who sounds like Susan, but it isn’t really the Susan that any of us knew. And this new Susan is like a piece of ice that is really thin. One tiny knock could break it all apart and then there would be nothing left that we know.

“So, before I tell any of you where she was when I found her, I need you all to promise you won’t rush off to see her and make her try to remember and you will not let anyone else know where she is unless we all agree.”

Vic looked at the stunned faces one by one, all struggling to come to grips with this new information, hope and heartbreak in equal parts. One by one they met his eyes and nodded. So he finished the story with the where.

When he stopped talking Susan’s mother came over and sat by him, taking his hand. Her shoulders were shaking with emotion as she said, “Thank you so much for rushing back to tell us all, it means so much to me that there is hope that my daughter is still alive no matter how broken she may be inside. And not only that, but perhaps we have grand children, a double blessing. I will trust you to tell us when you think it is safe for us to go and see her. When you next see her could you please take a picture of her with her children so that we will have that to remember her by?”

Vic had never really talked to Susan’s mother before apart from the cursory greetings. But now, as she talked earnestly, he could see Susan’s mannerisms and personality in reflection. He felt a flood of warmth for her. He started to talk to her about the children, how the boy had sat on his shoulders and patted his head like a dog, how the lady, Jane, had told him. “David has never willingly gone to another man before.” He told of how David had fallen and cut his lip at the barbeque and how he had picked the boy up and taken out his hanky to dab the blood from his cut, and then, once done, the boy had pushed away his tears and gone back to play. He said how this seemed to have happened in another life and it was hard to believe it was only last night.

Sandy was sitting next to Susan’s mother, talking quietly to Anne. She must have caught the edge of their conversation. Now she turned to Vic and said, “Did you say you have a hanky with the David’s blood on it?”

Vic frowned, needing to think what he had done with it. All his dirty clothes had been put in his bag in his helicopter. Then he had left them at a laundry in Cairns to collect on his return, except the clothes he was wearing now, the same ones he had worn last night. He had figured on buying another set or two of clothes in Darwin tomorrow, before he returned. He felt in his pockets. Sure enough the hanky was there with a small dark spot of blood in one corner.

Sandy reached over and took it, looking closely. “That’s more than enough for what we need,” she said.

Others looked at her, puzzled. They asked, “For what?”

“To know who she is,” Sandy answered. David’s DNA is there, we have both Susan’s and Mark’s on file, and we have Mark’s uncle’s DNA on file too. We could even get yours if we needed,” she said, indicating to Susan’s mother and father.

“So we can match this DNA to any of those other people’s and we will know whether this boy is related. It appears that there is no dispute that he is this woman’s child. So, if his DNA matches our record for Susan, or matches any of the others then we will have confirmation of the identity of the mother as Susan. If it doesn’t we will know it is not her. I am assuming we all really want to know, right?”

Sandy looked from person to person. All thought for a minute and then nodded.

Only Alan shook his head. “We need to think carefully before we go there. If we submit an official sample and it comes back positive, what do we do then and can we withhold the information? Both Sandy and I are officers of the crown. We will be obliged to report our findings and act on them, not to mention that these samples will have to be logged in our database when we seek to match them to Susan’s identity. There are others who will have access to that database. So once this information is in there I am far from sure we can keep this to ourselves.

“If it is Susan I am not sure if it is in her best interests for it to come out so quickly. At the moment all we have in anecdotal information saying this person may be her. This gives me a basis for further investigation but does not oblige me to release information suggesting that it is her. A positive result changes all that.

“If it comes through the NT laboratory system I am far from confident I could keep it hidden, even if I wanted to, or had agreement to do so from my superiors. There have already been several leaks of what was supposed to be confidential information about Susan.

“So I, for one, don’t want to know until it is decided what to do with this information. Don’t forget there is still a warrant for Susan’s arrest from when she disappeared on bail. It was never revoked. It never seemed to matter before, but now I need to work out what to do about that before this knowledge gets outside this room.

“So, at a minimum, I need to talk to the judge and crown prosecutor before we contemplate doing this DNA test. We need to ensure some gung ho officer does not go flying over there to arrest her, or worse for someone to leak it to the media and have a pack of journalists descend on her.

“I think Vic should keep this as his own property for the time being. If there is to be DNA testing for now I think it would be better if it was to match the hanky to a sample from Susan’s parents, only done through a private laboratory and preferably overseas, where they cannot match it to Susan’s sample in our database.

“If it really is her we can soon get an official sample for testing, directly from her, if it is needed.”

Vic took the hanky back, and went to put is in his pocket. Then, as an afterthought, he handed it to Susan’s mother. “Perhaps I can leave this with you for safe keeping,” he said.

She nodded, “Of course. I will ring you and tell you once I know a result. I understand what Alan is saying; that some people are better off not knowing right now. But I and her father need to know. I think you also need to know, even though you need to keep seeing this lady, whoever she is.”

At first Sandy looked chagrined, but then she nodded her agreement.

“I hate to admit to a smarter mind, but Alan is right and testing overseas is a good idea.

“Now, before we get too much further, I have a big pot of dinner in the oven. I think we should all have a plate and a drink to take hope in this momentous occasion. It is the first time I have felt hope in a year and a half. I don’t want to get in front of myself but somehow it all fits,” she said.

 

 

 

Chapter 8 – Impossible Legal Guarantee

Vic slept on the sofa in Alan and Sandy’s flat, while Buck and Julie slept in the spare bedroom. Sandy had wanted him to take their bed but he would not hear of it. They were all so keyed up they slept poorly.

In the early morning, an hour before dawn, he rose and walked the kilometre to Nightcliff beach, finding the walk amongst the shallows and wavelets of a far out tide soothed his jangling nerves. He was bursting with impatience to get back to Cairns and find a way to do more work in the Cape so as to get the chance to see Jane again.

He was determined to call her Jane in his mind, determined to create a new identity for this person within himself, not get drawn into an old identity and the problems of the past. He believed there was a continuity of identity between this person and Susan. But now for him she was Jane, not Susan and he would help her build a new life.

But first he had promised to go with Alan to seek an urgent appointment with the police commissioner, a senior lawyer for the crown and the judge, to see if they could find an official way to maintain secrecy.

Alan’s story would be that Vic had come to him for advice, indicating that he had some information about where Susan was but was determined not to reveal it unless he could get an ironclad guarantee from all concerned that this information would not be disclosed to anyone else without his consent.

Alan would state he was seeking to establish a legal basis about how to maintain confidentiality so as to give Vic the certainty he needed to share his knowledge. This could then allow the information to be passed to others who needed to know such as her extended family. This would also allow Alan to make progress with his long standing investigation of where Susan had gone.

Vic talked to himself as he walked along the beach, feeling the ideas form in his brain. He could feel steel inside, he would not give a millimetre, not without a watertight guarantee, something an independent lawyer could check and confirm; other promises were worthless.

If not he would walk away. By tomorrow he and Jane, if he could get her to come, would have vanished again, not that he was telling Alan or anyone else this. After that the only person he would communicate with, apart from his own mother, sister and Buck, was Susan’s mother as he trusted her.

He hoped it would not come to that, but in his mind he was clear that he would do it if it was necessary. He had learnt from Mark how to hide in plain view; now he made his own plan to disappear. He was confident he could pull it off if he must.

He returned just as the sun was rising and showered. He borrowed some clean clothes from Alan which were near enough to his size. Alan was about to head to work, but said he would ring him with the arrangements to meet the lawyers and others as soon as he could put it together. So he, Buck and Julie shared a leisurely breakfast with Sandy to pass the time.

While Julie and Sandy were chatting away Vic brought Buck onto the verandah so he could have a private chat. Vic found that his mind was much clearer now after his morning walk and wanted to put Buck in the picture, not that he did not trust the others but he did not want them involved, it was putting them in a bad place, particularly Alan and Sandy with their jobs.

He had a powerful sense it now rested with him to ensure this person’s safety, Susan or Jane, he would not leave this on trust to others.

He knew the others meant well. But he did not trust their ability to keep the lid on this. So, despite whatever promises might be made, his sense was that, now that he had found her, it would be too easy for others to find her through him. His flights last week could be readily tracked by the police as he had logged them with flight control. That meant any half-smart journalist could do it too, so a leak could be a disaster.

No matter what promises of secrecy were given, he reasoned that too many officials would get to know for it to stay secret for long. Even if people did not know exactly where to look there were not that many communities in Cape York. So it would not take long to check them all out.

So, while he had said he would go to the meetings that Alan arranged this morning, he had already decided that he would be on the lunch time flight to Cairns. By tonight he would be back in the community. He knew he could not return in his helicopter, it was too traceable. It would have to stay in Cairns; instead he would get a cheap set of wheels.

That way he could drive back there tonight and, if he could convince Jane to come away, they would be gone by morning. Together they would vanish into the big population spread out along the east coast of Australia.

What he needed was a bit of help with the arrangements, someone to look after the chopper once he disappeared, ideally someone who could buy him a cheap set of wheels in another name, and also a person who he could trust as a relay contact. Buck seemed like his best option here.

He also had a plan to throw a false trail, knowing that, despite his care, someone might hear a rumor that Susan had reappeared and try to follow him to her. One of his Alice Springs mates, another half aboriginal bloke with a dash on Indian was almost a dead ringer for him. Vic had a passport with his mother in Alice, from when he had done his one and only overseas trip to Bali with this mate. He would ask his mother to get Ravi to go overseas using Vic’s passport and return on his own one. He had even talked to his friends about getting away to Canada to start a new life, so it made a plausible destination. His mate should enjoy a couple weeks there on a holiday at Vic’s expense then the Vic identity could vanish and Ravi could return to Oz under his own name. It seemed straight forward; if it was not quite legal who was to know and his mother could arrange it on the quiet.

So he explained his logic to Buck; that he needed to arrange for them both to disappear for a while. That would give Alan and others time to sort out the legal issues, hopefully get a new real identity for Jane, clear up any arrest warrant and bail issues so that the police and media lost interest and let them quietly get on with their lives.

If they had time alone, he thought Jane would come to trust him and he could better protect her. Maybe in time it would not matter if her identity became known. But, right now, it needed to stay buried; anything else was like a fuse burning on dynamite.

Buck nodded, “Yes I can see that now, perhaps we should never have come to Darwin, it was my first instinct but perhaps it was wrong.”

Vic said, “No, you were right; it was good we came, particularly before Susan’s parents left. They needed to know, Alan and Sandy needed to know, I am glad they all know now.

“But it was always silly of me to think she could stay hidden for long in such a small place. The safest place for now is where there are lots of other people; it is much easier to hide in a crowd. So that is what I am going to do. I don’t know where yet, but I need you to be my contact to the rest of the world. At the moment there are three things I need. The first is for someone to take over my helicopter and pay its running costs, hopefully it can make enough to cover the mortgage. Perhaps one of the big stations around here can make use of it, and make the loan payments as the price.”

Buck nodded, “Yep that should not be too hard, we can do that at VRD if needed, just send me the account details for the payments.”

Vic continued, “Then I need a set of cheap wheels, nothing fancy, just a reliable old sedan from a car yard in Cairns which I can collect this evening. Best if it is not in my name as that will make it harder to trace me. Can you sort that if I arrange to give you the cash?”

Buck nodded again.

“And lastly I need an ongoing way to access my money without going to an ATM, or bank. My mother has an account which I put twenty thousand in, kept safe for a rainy day. So, if I ring through instructions of where I am each month, can you get her to start drawing out the money and sending it to me.

“I think a couple thousand for the car and another couple thousand a month should be enough, though I might need more from time to time, like to rent somewhere. Once I get a steady cash job I should not need it any more. I also need someone to keep track of what is happening up here, any court cases or other things like that. You might also tell Alan and Sandy in general terms what I have done, not the specifics, but enough so they don’t worry. I will also need Susan’s family’s address in England so that I can get in contact with them if I need to.”

Buck nodded. “Sounds like you will owe me a whopping commission by the end of all that, but it does not sound too hard, all in all. So leave it with me. I will text your mobile this afternoon with the car and parents’ contact details. You should buy a new SIM today and send me the number, just in case the old number is used to track you.”

Vic said, “Oh, one more thing for your and my mother’s ears only right now. I want to fake my departure to Canada from Cairns. I have a mate that could do it; he looks just like me. He could leave on my passport and come back on his own. That way any serious journalists that hears a rumor about Susan and tries to get to her through me will find I am officially out of the country. My mother can organize the trip part, but what I need is for you to put the word out in a couple weeks that this is what I have done, it will give a reason for why I have offloaded my helicopter and gone away.”

Buck said, “God you have it all planned out, vic. Mark would be proud of your brilliance; it is seriously sneaky and no doubt illegal, though that never stopped Mark in any of his schemes.

“While you are on a roll why don’t you just hit the road, get on your way back to Cairns. I think there is a half ten flight you can catch. I will go with Alan to any needed meetings. I can relay the information, nice and general about what we know. That will put another layer to separate you and slow down any traces. After all, Mark made us jointly responsible for this girl’s welfare. If you take care of her I can look after the rest.”

With that they shook hands, Vic made his brief goodbyes and was on his way. He knew he could trust his friends to let nothing slip.

He first went to Casuarina, had a super short haircut, and bought some new sets of clothes and a new phone. Then he withdrew all the available cash in his bank account. By eleven he was winging his way back to Cairns.

 

 

 

Chapter 9 – Trust

It was after nine o’clock that night before Vic reached the community where Jane lived. He felt fatigue wash through him as the town lights came into view, but he was driven on by a surge of nervous anticipation.

Sure enough Buck had a car waiting for him in Cairns by the time he landed, with the details texted to him on his new mobile number. It was an older model Ford Falcon with a big six cylinder engine which ran sweetly. The car had a couple minor dints in the body work, but they were trivial, and the upholstery had seen better days. But it was sound and as good as expected for nineteen hundred dollars. Cash was king and Buck had negotiated down from the asking price of $3000.

It was registered in Buck’s name at his own family’s farm address in Queensland, down near Rockhampton. The story Buck had given was that Vic was driving it down there as a favour to him where it would serve as a second farm car. Buck had made it clear that if the car was a lemon he would pay the salesman a visit on his next trip to Cairns, looking for a refund, and he had a persuasive manner about him when needed.

It was a slow drive over unfamiliar roads to reach the isolated aboriginal community where Jane lived. It was long after dark before distant lights came into view. Vic felt anxious about how Jane would react to him turning up late at night, unannounced. But he was driven to keep going, no matter how he was received. Most of all he wanted to see her again.

He would have to play the encounter by ear. It seemed a huge ask to say to a girl, who barely knew him, to come away with him. He felt a little foolish for proposing it, though his mind and emotions joined together in telling him this was what he needed to do.

He was certain her safety was a terribly precarious thing, particularly if she suddenly became the centre of attention over something she had no prior knowledge of. It would be a disaster if they returned her to jail and took her children away.

His emotions for her were a complex mix of a hundred things but first and foremost he felt hugely protective of both her and her children, very conscious his contact with her and telling others could bring her undoing.

He was glad when he pulled up outside that a light was still on in her cottage, hoping that meant she was still awake. He sat in the car for a few seconds, composing himself. Then, realizing that planning was pointless at this stage, he opened the car door and walked towards the house. He was glad there were no other houses nearby, just the bulk of the back of the shop 50 meters away. He was also glad there were no dogs barking.

He knocked on the door and another light came on, lighting the outside. She stood there with the light behind her, illuminated in silhouette. She was wearing a light slip, not quite a nightie but something similar. It illuminated the outline of her body. He felt a huge rush of affection for her, this new Jane who seemed to have occupied his Susan’s body. He wanted to take her to him, hold her close and give her reassurance, as she stood there looking uncertainly into the outside night, seeking to make an identification.

His voice came out a bit croaky, “Jane, I needed to see you again.”

Now recognition came to her, half puzzled, half welcoming, another bit apprehensive. “Vic?”

He continued, “I am sorry I did not get here until it was so late. I hope I have not frightened you.”

As he spoke she seemed to relax. She opened the door to invite him in. They stood facing each other, a meter apart. He knew he needed to connect with her in a way that went beyond words.

He put out his hands to greet her and she responded in kind, a mirror. He walked forward a step and took her small hands in his. They felt so delicate, even though hardened with manual work. She gave him a tentative smile, such an open and trusting face.

All his rehearsed words fell away, he looked at her and she looked back at him with a curious intensity, as if seeing him for the first time. He released one of her hands and put his hand to her cheek and stroked it. She brought her hand to his hand and squeezed it, softly. Almost unconsciously she stepped forward, moving towards him, their bodies were almost touching.

He put his arms around her shoulders and pulled her into the small gap until all the space was gone. As he felt her body come against him he knew it was still her, made anew but still her. He cradled her in his arms and stroked her head. She was the most precious thing he had ever touched. He lifted her face to his, as if to kiss her.

She looked at him, serious trusting eyes locked on his, not knowing, but open to his soul.

He said, “You are all I have thought of since I left you yesterday. I just needed to see you again. More than anything I needed to see you again, to touch you and feel you and know you were not just a dream, but a living breathing person.”

She nodded, “I am glad you came, I have wanted to see you again too. It has a feeling of rightness to see you though I do not know why. I think partly it is because David trusted you. I trust you too”

Vic said, “Will you come away with me, leave here and come with me, just you and your children?”

She said, “If that is what you want then I will come with you. How soon shall we go?”

He asked, “Can we leave tonight? I would like to leave before the night is over. Perhaps we could rest for a while and go an hour before the daylight comes, when others in this place are still sleeping.”

She said, “Yes, we will come with you, we can leave then.”

She went to the fridge and found some bread which she toasted and served to him with a mug of tea. As she sat beside him at the table she picked up a pen and paper, saying. “I must write a note to tell Matilda at the shop along with Pastor Doug and Ruth that I have gone away and will get in touch with them again as soon as I can, or they will be worried about me.”

When it was done she put the folded note on the table.

Then she said. “We should rest now.”

He looked around and saw some cushions on the sofa which he could lay on the floor to make a bed. He said, “I will fix cushions to lie on for the night.”

She said, “There is space to lie beside me on my bed.”

So they lay on the bed, side by side. She turned her body to face him, she took his arm and placed it over her shoulders, then she closed the space until she was fully alongside him and pushed her face into the hollow of his neck. So they slept, bodies touching. It felt so good to him and it felt right to her.

She awoke in a small hour of the morning, number around three or four. Her mind was sharply awake in an instant. She did not know where her body was, except it was in a bed and the bed was unfamiliar.

A sound came of another human drawing breath, in and out, regular but not loud. She moved her arms around to explore the bed space. There was another body lying not far away, source of breath sounds, it was hard and angular shaped, a body of elbows and bony protuberances. It must be a man. Now she knew who this man was. The man had a name and a face. He had no history but his name was Vic, he was with her and she was so very glad.

She could remember no other past and her future was an unknown place, but he was here and he was known. That was enough so she would trust her life to him. She slept again until he woke her in the early dawn and she knew him still.

As the first light tinged the eastern sky they each carried a sleeping child to the car and drove together to another unknown place.

 

 

 

Chapter 10 – Making a Family

Almost two months had passed since that day when Jane and Vic had driven away. Vic could not think of a time when his life had been better or more fulfilling. Not that there were not lots of little speed-bumps or frustrations along the way, including the inability to satisfy his sexuality with this beautiful women whose body pressed to his every night.

But these were, at most, minor frustrations. They did not detract from all the goodness that filled his life. In his earlier life, when he visited his sister in Alice Springs, one of the things which gave him greatest pleasure was her three children coming and going, talking to Uncle Vic, sitting on his knee, showing him their books and drawings, sometimes telling him their stories of the days. At times they played little games which involved him but at other times he just sat and watched.

Now he had a family and it felt like it was his own; his Janie, his Annie and his Davie; he had given them all pet names of affection. Janie was his wife in all but name. Apart from that full sexual union, they did everything together, talked, shared, worked side by side, held each other in the night. He felt so comfortable with her and knew it went both ways. And he loved their children. Even though they were really hers, not his, he felt the same level of ownership and protectiveness he would have if he was the biological father. At first they mostly called him Bic, now he was just Daddy; he had filled up their memories in this space. He rarely disciplined them, though a couple times he had given Annie a small slap when she was mean to other kids at the playground, and a couple times something similar to Davie when he did something dangerous that could injure him. He had told Janie and she had said, “Of course, you are their father now, like I am their mother.”

As he walked off to work this morning he rolled through the events of the months in his mind; that long drive across the Cape to find her again, her uncertainty in the doorway and then, as they touched each other, their bodies and minds had connected in a safe place.

So he had committed himself to care for Jane and her children; she had trusted him to do so in whatever form it took. It was this sense of total trust that was so compelling; it drove him to be better than he otherwise could have been. In a way he felt he was minding three children not one, except that one had the body of an adult. He sensed he was entrusted to carefully and gently rediscover this adult beneath the child in Jane. This trust was the best thing his life had required of him at any time.

He believed that, in giving her this space and safety, she would slowly rediscover herself; an adult made anew from the child he now held. He felt and thought she could never be the Susan of before again; too much had been broken inside her, parts which could not be remade. But instead she had the chance to create a new self, one who could become his Janie, the one he knew and loved and who loved him in return.

So he must hasten slowly, let her rebuild her life piece by piece. He knew he could take and love her body at any time he chose; she would trust him with this too. But to do so now would be to take a part of her innocence, to make the choice for her before she could make the conscious choice for herself. He most wanted her to regain her sense of womanhood and choose him, not for him to seduce the trusting child who would then be his bonded woman in an unchosen way.

He did not know why this seemed so important but it was. So he must just push away his sexual desire for her, at least for now. He must pretend, when she cuddled her body into him and pressed her thighs against his maleness, that he was doing no more than cuddling a sleeping child.

His mind stepped through the weeks that had passed. Week One – they had crossed the peninsula to the east coast and followed it south to a small town south of Townsville, where they had found a caravan park with an empty van and stayed there for five nights. Days were spent watching their children play on the beach and going for walks through the sand dunes. Nights were simple meals and storytelling; she seemed to have no interest in watching television and he preferred it this way, lest stories of the missing Susan appear, or stories of Mark, Anne or the other Lost Girls.

While he was not sure what was the best way for her to regain her past knowledge, his sense was that any memories or desire for knowledge of the old had to come from inside her not be pushed onto her through the telling of the historys of who she had been by others.

So instead they both told stories, first for the children, then stories of her life in the mission since her babies came and also stories of his helicopter mustering and the people and places he had been. As they talked they linked their eyes together to share their imaginations. In that place he felt totally joined to her.

In Week Two they had drifted further south still following the coast, more little villages with holiday accommodation, budget places, each for a night or two. One day they had treated themselves to the ferry to Great Keppel Island and had stayed there for three days, swimming and snorkelling in the clear water and watching their children play in the shallows. In Week Three they came towards Brisbane, stopping in towns like Bundaberg and Gympie, but finding the city, as they approached it, to be too confronting for an unfamiliar family with two small children. By Week Four they had come back to the coast, this time to the Sunshine Coast.

Here they finally found this place which felt right; a holiday and caravan park just a short distance from the town of Caloundra. The ocean beaches were beautiful, there were sheltered inlets on the bay side which were safe for small children, the people were friendly but incurious, and they had been given a free demountable to live in along with a modest wage for Vic, paid in cash in return for him doing a few hours of caretaker and handyman duties each day. He also did a bit of casual labouring nearby, the jobs coming by word of mouth.

There was plenty of work and it was easy work for someone with his mechanical skills; ground maintenance, welding and fabrication, fixing lawnmowers and other small machines, maintaining the pool complex and gardens. It was not a job for life but the pay was enough to cover the daily living expenses and it gave them both a sense of stability and security.

He used the name Vic Bennet, giving an impression of being married to keep life simple. At the same time he avoided pieces of paper that could be traced; the cash funded a day to day existence, meeting basic living costs without the need for a verified identity

For Janie, in particular, this was a place to put down new roots. Her best friend had become Thea, a single parent who lived in the demountable two doors down. She had two children, aged two and four, and supported herself by making the beds and cleaning the units in the park.

Now Janie also had a part time job doing this too, covering days when Thea was extra busy or not available. When neither was working they would meet up for a slice of cake and a cup of tea, mostly at Thea’s unit. During work, when required they could share the child minding though Thea mostly brought her children from unit to unit as she tidied them. Jane had started to do the same with her children when Vic was not at home.

Vic liked Thea, but he was wary of her becoming too curious about their life. He tried to skirt around the occasional questions she asked; about where they were from or had lived and worked before. He just said he came from Alice Springs and had both been living and working up in the Cape before they got together. But Thea was a keen magazine reader and TV watcher. This gave Vic bouts of anxiety, lest she make the connection to such a well-covered media story.

Vic found his mind returning to their trip down the coast. Along the way, as they travelled, he had made a weekly phone call to get news of what was happening with the legal case in Darwin. At the same time he would pass on news of Jane for parents and friends. Wherever possible he used payphones to avoid his mobile, lest it be traced.

His concern was about a mole in the NT police or court system. His first suspicions had been well founded; within a week of them leaving a vague rumour was aired about sightings of Susan, still alive, in a town in north Queensland, fortunately with no location specified. This story seemed to have more of a ring of truth than the previous Susan sightings.

At least there were no new names and no current photos, his Janie now had her hair cut in a short bob and her face had plumped out, so the ability to link her to the Susan released from jail in Darwin nearly two years before was fading, the pasty faced, heavily pregnant girl of the old media photos was very much changed to his Janie.

His first telephone conversation had been with Buck. Vic identified himself and told Buck they were together and all was fine, avoiding more specific news.

Buck himself had two pieces of news, one that Susan’s parents had tested the DNA from the handkerchief and had confirmed that David was indeed their grandson, though Vic’s doubts of this were well gone without the official confirmation. The second was about the rat in the ranks of NT government who was feeding some information to the press, fuelling the speculation which was now hotting up, as evidenced by the Queensland sighting. So, as Buck said, this meant they had to be really careful about any communications and particularly about any locations and names.

On the inside of NT government Alan and Sandy were informally aware of DNA result. Alan had been talking to people unofficially in legal circles about how to proceed, whether to seek to reopen the court case and seek a change to the conviction or alternatively to try and have the sentencing concluded to a level where Susan was free to lead her life, or at least to some find some way of removing the legal requirement for her to return to custody for having broken her bail.

There had been speculation about Vic having a role in her disappearance. Some calls for an arrest warrant to be issued for him, based on the suspicion that he had in some way aided a convicted prisoner had been aired. But the story Buck let slip of his going to Canada was accepted; after all he no longer flew his helicopter. And Alan had done a good job of calming the horses from the inside so no-one had formally attempted to locate him for questioning or pursue more serious matters.

The other conversation Vic had was with Anne. This happened when they were staying in Yeppoon one night, where they had checked into a motel. They had just spent the three glorious days on Great Keppel Island, staying in a small and basic bunkhouse a short walk back from a pristine white sandy beach, dotted with corral atolls spread through the deeper water. Another couple, with small children, were staying nearby and they all became instant friends, sharing meals and drinks while their children played together. They had also taken turns to babysit the combined children while the other couple went for a swim together, out amongst the corral.

It was not something Vic had done before but Janie knew all about it, even knowing the names of many of the fish and pointing them out to Vic, glowing with enthusiasm as they explored. She was delighted this part of her knowledge carried over from a former life, having intensive discussions with the husband of the other couple, Eric, who was a marine biologist. Vic loved seeing this part of Jane’s adult personality and memory return.

That night, having returned from the island, with all the activity of the last three days, Janie and the babies were exhausted and fell asleep together in a tangle on the large bed. Vic had been reluctant to use his own mobile too much, since he had talked to Buck, lest the police try and trace him through it. It did have a new number but still he was not sure he could not be traced.

So he had eyed off the room phone and decided to chance it. Buck did not pick up, so he thought who else to try. Alan and Sandy were a bit risky and he did not want them to have knowledge they might have to deny.

That left Anne or David, neither of whom he knew well, or perhaps Susan’s parents. He was not yet ready to talk to them though he had taken a picture of Janie and the children to send to them on his phone camera.

He thought about waiting for another day, but chances were not easy to come by. In trying to understand this person he was with he really needed to know more about her and, after all, Anne was Susan’s best friend. She had been so from school, so who better to fill him in on her early life, the little snippets that he may be able to use to see if they triggered any memories.

So he rang through and she picked up on the first ring. “Anne here,” a more businesslike manner than he was used to. However, after a minute of making polite conversation, he found himself comfortable talking to her. He explained. “I felt like I needed to touch base with one of her friends. She and the children are fine. They are asleep on the bed next to me as they are tired.

“Now that we know for certain it is her, I am trying to think of ways to help her remember. At the moment she has no memories of before being here in Queensland with her babies. But the amazing thing is that she has full knowledge of some things, like working computers. Today she was talking to a marine biologist about Barrier Reef fish as if she was as much an expert as he was. But she does not know where she was born or grew up; she does not know how to cook a meal except for eggs and sausages, or any of those other things which would come from her past memories. So I am trying to find out things that she might know about, as it will help us to have things to talk about and it may also lead to other memories which she can’t reach now.”

In the end they talked for over half an hour and he got lots of the detail of Susan’s early life. He also promised to text her the picture with Janie and the babies so that Anne could pass it on to Susan’s parents.

After that, as they travelled on, Vic used his new found knowledge to try and open up more of Susan’s past knowledge and memories. He found her knowledge of what she studied at University was remarkably good, though she had no knowledge of the courses of study or the people she knew at University. Now they could talk about archaeology or medical technology, even though these fields were not Vic’s strong points. But, in this, Janie was a great teacher. She seemed to be able to retrieve vast stores of knowledge of her technical background, building Vic’s interest in these unknown fields.

He really liked seeing this side of his companion; in these things she was the master and he was the apprentice. It brought more balance into their relationship. It also seemed to satisfy a need in her to have more meaningful things to think about and discover. Now she would collect inexpensive books on these topics in second hand bookshops and devour them voraciously.

But in all other things she stayed a child, and in most ways she seemed unaware of her childish state. She had no sense of what clothing suited her, she had no sense of how she should cut her hair or apply makeup, her food and cooking knowledge was rudimentary, her knowledge of normal children’s development was abysmal.

One day she told him she could not see colours. The way she recently identified and told him the names of the fish on the reef, describing their patterns and shapes, it had not occurred to him she could not see this. It came out as she told him more about her singing in the church and how it let her see the color blue when the world around was only greys. And she told him how she now could see the brown colour of the skin on his arms when he held her children, but only in that place and that time. She said that one day she hoped she would be able to see some other colors, but for now she was happy she could see these two colors as they were so beautiful.

The thing he most loved and marveled about in this new woman was her positivity. She had lost almost everything she had ever known. And yet, in the things she did have, her children, him, and with the two colours she saw, she conveyed irrepressible joy. The eyes that looked at him, her blue eyes, gave him total attention and were for him alone. She looked at and played with her children the same way. They basked in this joy as did he.

 

 

 

Chapter 11 – The Girl and the Woman

In the months that had passed since Jane had come away with Vic, she did not understand what caused her to trust him so much that, when he asked her to come with him, she had said yes without hesitation.

Her life before, on Cape York, had been simple and she was contented. But yet, when Vic came into her life, he brought his color to it, and David trusted him. So she trusted him too. Now she was overwhelmingly glad to be with him. But she was starting to sense that their life together was missing something that other couples had.

As she thought about the life she had now her principal emotion was one of profound happiness. The words that her mind held to describe emotions, based on past memories, were limited things. So she struggled to verbalise what she felt towards this nut brown man who shared her life. In books she read about a concept called love.

She felt this ‘love’ thing must be something more spiritual, akin to her emotions when listening to singing in church. Her feelings towards this man were earthy, she smiled as she thought of the smell of the sweat of his body when he worked in the hot sun, she liked how the muscles in his brown arms corded and stood out when he strained to move something heavy. Most of all she smiled inside when she thought of how he played with and held her children. They looked at him with simple adoration; he was good and kind, he always had time for them, he cared for them in an easy and uncomplicated way, the same as he cared for her.

All in all it made her feel warm inside when she thought of him. She felt trust and affection and many more things besides, for most of her feelings she could find no words to fit, but the sum of it all was happiness.

And yet there was more, she had tiny glimpses of another life where she knew him too. These were like the tiniest reflections of light sliding through gaps in a fog which covered all the surfaces of her past. These flashes had slivers of anxiety attached to them, they did not spoil her happiness, but they were there and she knew them for what they were, warnings to leave well alone whatever had been before.

Sometimes she thought she should ask him to tell her what he knew about her from before. Was she the girl in the photo that he had shown her when they first met, the one he was searching for on that first day? Or was she someone who looked like that girl and who had taken over her place in his life? These were little puzzles that her mind glimpsed. She trusted he would tell her when the time was right. Buried deep was also a fear to know what had come before; she did not want a shadow cast over her life now.

And there was something else about him that she could not define; it was part of the happiness but different. It was something to do with him being a man. She had glimpsed his naked form, as he had hers, and it stirred other emotions which she did not understand. She had felt hardness at his middle, where his belly muscles joined his legs, and it stirred similar emotions to his naked form, but again she did not understand.

Sometimes, when he slept in the night, his body touching hers, he had pressed this part of his body against the place where her legs joined her body. Then she had wanted this feeling to go on and become more, but she did not know what followed from here. So, each time, after a minute of enjoying it, she turned away but felt regret in the undoing of this contact.

And sometimes, when she could feel him wound up and tense, she had this vague sense of wanting to do something more with her body to relax and pleasure him, to help relieve his tension. But again she did not know what.

It was not a big thing; it did not spoil her happiness. But sometimes she wished she had a sister she could ask what else she could do with her body to give this man more comfort and pleasure.

She was also slightly uncomfortable about them living in the same house and sharing the same bed when they were not really married. The minister, at the church, where she went each Sunday, talked about living in sin. He did not say it directly to her, as he thought she was married. But he would speak about it to the young grown up boys and girls who came to the church. She did not understood what this meant, but gathered it had to do with a man and woman living in the same house and sleeping in the same bed before they were married. She had seen weddings at their local church, and knew that she and Vic had not done this wedding thing; it was something she was sure she would have remembered.

So, even though Vic told her to say to people they did not know that they were married, and she had agreed, it could not be true. She understood it was said to explain the children and stop the questions. Now, as she thought of those men and women she had seen going to the church to get married, she thought this would be a nice thing to do with Vic. But she did not know how one decided to do it, what arrangements were needed, whether it was something a woman asked a man to do, or the other way around, or whether it just happened when the time was right.

Anyway now it was time to stop thinking about these complicated things. Her friend in a nearby caravan, Thea, had given her a cooking book, and she wanted to try the recipes from it. In her mind she knew, from when she first remembered, how to make toast and tea and cook eggs, sausages and other simple things like that. But she did not know how people made fancy food. Now that she had been given this recipe book she realized she could learn to do this; it was time to move beyond things out of tins and toast. It appeared that cooking nice food was a thing that a woman did, apart from minding her babies, when the man went to work.

Vic was due home from work in about an hour; he was working some days as a labourer for a local builder a few miles away. So she wanted to have this recipe, a dish called Lasagne, ready waiting for him when he came home. The thought of his smile, and the praise that would come when she served it, made her feel warm inside. So she set to work, feeling upwelling excitement as she waited for him to come home.

Tomorrow she would ask the Thea what other things she could do to please a man, apart from cook him nice food and stroke his hair as he lay beside her. She knew Vic really liked those two things but there must be something more. She needed someone to tell her what else there was and, as Thea was her best friend in this place, she would ask her.

Just after she finished preparing the dinner and setting it in the oven Vic was home. She ran to him and wrapped her arms around him, wanting to convey her joy in his presence.

He looked at her and grinned. “Well, I loved that, give me more, more!”

At that moment David and Anne came running up and he picked one up in each arm. Both giggled with delight. Then he smelt the dinner cooking and looked at her inquiringly.

“It is a dish called ‘Lasagne’. I got the recipe from the book Thea lent me. I hope you like it!”

Dinner was a great success and the toddlers shared it too, smearing as much over themselves as went in their mouths. After this Vic helped her bath them. Then they all sat and played together for a while before they went for a walk along the beach in the fading light. After ten minutes they were each carrying a sleeping child. So they returned to their cabin and lay together on the bed, quiet for a moment.

It came to Jane, in a flash of clarity; they needed to move beyond this point to something closer. Maybe Vic could help her instead of asking Thea.

She took his hand and touched it to her face, saying. “Vic, I need to begin to know who I am. I have tiny fragments of memories, but not enough to put together by myself. I also need to know so many other things, such as why you and I call ourselves married and are not, why the church tells me it is sinful for a man and woman to live together when they are not married, but yet we live together and it feels so right. I also need to know how a man and woman should behave when they are together alone.

“There are so many things I should know but do not know. As I watch other people I start to see how many holes there are in my life, things I should know but do not. For instance, when I met you, I only knew how to cook toast, sausages and eggs. I have no memory of meals from before, what things I liked or how to make them.

“The things I don’t know are the ordinary things of life. I know how to work a computer, how to do figures and ordering, nobody needed to show me that. But that stuff is just there in my head, I don’t have to think about it to know it. Whereas, when I try to think about the ordinary things, like what to wear or how to do my hair, I just do not know.

“Where I lived before I met you I was lucky because Ruth was my friend and showed me many things. So when I did not know something I would just ask her. She never seemed to mind. So I thought it was normal not to know things and have to ask her to show me.

“It is only since I have come with you that I have started to realize all the things that I don’t know but need to. At first, when we came away together, I was so happy just to be with you. I did not think about needing to know these things, it was like something that happened to another person I do not know. But, even if I cannot remember a life before, I know there was one. It must be full of things I did and people I knew. And I think you know some parts of it.

“So, even though thinking about these things scares me lots deep down inside, I think I it is time for me to begin to know who I was, in part to know how to behave better towards you. I feel there are things I need to do for you to make you happier and I do not know what they are.

“Tomorrow I was going to ask Thea to tell me about the things a woman should know and do to please a man. I would do them for you if I only knew, and I think they would please you like the dinner did. That is why I must discover them by asking others.

“But then I thought, You are my best friend; you are the one I trust the most. So, before I ask others, first I should ask you to tell me about who I have been, about how I should be with you. Please tell me these things?”

Now Vic put a finger to her lips. “You are so perfect the way you are. I could not imagine how you could be better for me and make happier than being the way you are now. So I would rather be with you, the way you are, than be with anyone else I have ever known. If there were a thousand people in a room I would pick only you.

“If it would make you happy to be married then, of course, I want to be married to you the way other people are. But it would make little difference to how our life is together, our taking joy in being with each other and being with your children.

“What being married is about is making a promise to the person that you marry that you will love them and care for them always, in any way you can. When I asked you to come away with me I was making that promise to you.

“When you said you would come with me you trusted me to keep my promise, and so you were making your own promise to me as well.

“Getting married in a church is just a way of making these promises while your friends, family and God are all looking on, so that everyone knows they are true.

“But, as to telling you what I know about you, you are right, there are things from the past that you need to know, simple things like about your mother, father, brother and old friends. There are also things that it may be better if you do not know, things that hurt you before and could hurt you again, the things that caused your memory to go away.

“There is too much for me to tell you all I know at once, and there are many things you will want to know that I do not know and so cannot tell you, even if I wanted to.

“As for how to please me, you please me so much already. The other things you want to know are things that only a woman can know. So perhaps those are things that Thea can tell you.

“Right now, I want to hold you close, to feel your breath on my cheek, to feel your body touching mine, to feel you inside the circle of my arms; that is the way it is meant to be between us.”

As they lay together in a still place, Vic said. “Perhaps I should start by telling you about how I first met you, the girl in the picture.”

She said, “Yes, tell me, but not tonight. Tonight I want to first tell you something. That is, I want to be married to you, that that is what I most and really want to do. Tonight I want you to show me and teach me how it is to really be married to you, to behave with each other in the same way other married people do.

“It is, like you say, that if there was a room with thousands of other men in it, all rich and handsome and nice and I could take my pick, the only one I would choose is you. I cannot imagine wanting to be married to anyone else, but it is what I most want with you.

“It seems to me that when people get married they make a promise to try and be the best they can for the other person. I want to make that promise to you, like the way you made it to me when we came away.

“It feels right that I should do it in a church where I know God is listening. But that part can wait. For now I want to know what it feels like to be fully married you, not just where you have made a promise to me, and I have trusted you, but where I have made the same promise to you and given all I can of me to you. I know I can give more, but I don’t know what. So now I need you to tell me and show me.”

“After that, when we have finished that part, then, I want to know about my family. I did not know I had a brother and I most want to know of him.”

“But to begin with, before you tell me or show me other things, I want you to first tell me about you. I need to know about you to know best how to please you. So please tell me about you, you must have a family too. I want to know where they live, what are their names and the things you remember from when you are little. Perhaps we can go to the place where your family lives and get married there. Then I will start to feel like have a new family which is your family. Once I have discovered who you are from you telling me about you, I think I will start to know better how to please you, and once I know that I will be ready for you to begin telling me about myself.”

So, as they lay together in the night he told her about his family and himself, his mother and sister. He told about all except for Mark, up until just before the time when he first met her. She had barely moved as he talked, just asked questions along the way.

Now she looked into his face with a dreamy smile, which transformed into a wicked grin. Very slowly and deliberately she kissed him on the lips, a long and lingering kiss, which went on and on. His body felt on fire with the intimacy of her touch.

At last she broke away and asked, eyes crinkled in a smile. “Did you like that? I have seen married people do that after they get married. I wanted to try it and see how it felt with you. It was so much better than I imagined. Now I want to do it again and again.”

Vic answered, “For someone who doesn’t know what to do to please a man you seem to be working it out pretty fast. My whole body feels on fire with desire for you. Soon we really will be living in sin if you keep doing that. I won’t be able to stop myself from having all the rest.”

Jane gazed intently at him in a puzzled way. “If you liked it why do you want to stop doing it? If you desire me this way why stop? I don’t want to stop you doing anything with me or having any part of me. I don’t care what the man in the church is talking about.”

Vic felt himself drowning in the sea of her eyes. He wanted to keep kissing her; he wanted to do much more, to fully join his body to hers. And yet; and yet; he did not want to abuse her childlike trust by taking her in this way without her having an understanding of what this act was or meant. He had to find a way to give her an understanding of what she was offering so she could choose whether this was what she still wanted when she knew what it signified.

He willed himself to block out his awareness of her closeness, to only focus on what he thought was best for her. She needed to know who she was and from whence she came so she could make a real choice about whether to go to this next place with him.

That was what they had started to do before the distraction of her mouth joining to his had intervened. So he put his finger back on her lips to break the spell and stop her going back to this place of intimacy.

He said, “I don’t want to stop this anymore than you do. But I think we first need to talk some more about who you are. Then you can decide if this being really married is still what you want.”

An uncharacteristic look of annoyance and hurt came over her face, as if she felt rejected as a woman by his not taking her fully right now.

Vic felt torn, he wanted her so much, he both desired to have her body and did not want to hurt her self-esteem; yet it still did not feel right to consummate their togetherness without her understanding.

He felt her pull away, as if to leave the bed. He put his hands firmly on her shoulders to stop her going. He looked at her with all the intensity that was burning inside him.

“I have loved you since the day I first saw you. Tonight I want so much to keep doing what we were just doing together, kissing and more. But please, trust me, don’t pull away or leave me. Just let me hold you and tomorrow we will start the telling of your other life.

“When enough parts are told for you to know from where you came then you can decide where you want to go from here, and if you want me there with you. Then, once you have chosen with real knowledge, I will go with you wherever you want, as far as you want, without limit.

“You are the most beautiful and precious thing I have ever known and I want you so much in every way that a man can want a woman. Now seeing your sad face I cannot bear to see you hurt.

“But I have been entrusted with my own knowledge of what came before which I must honour too. So I must find a way to bring those two things back together before we go further from here.”

As he spoke he could feel her begin to relax, and the hurt washed out of her face, replaced by an intensity of her own. She nodded, for them both further words seemed inadequate to match their feelings.

He drew her back in close and they lay very still, barely touching. After a few minutes her breathing slowed to an even and regular pattern. He knew she had fallen asleep, still trusting and touching him. He felt so blessed. Soon he slept too.

 

 

 

Chapter 12 – Once

Next day, after breakfast, Jane found herself making beds with Thea. She wanted to broach the subject with Thea about how a man and woman should be together, but did not know how to begin.

It seemed too unbelievable to admit that she, a woman with two children, did not know about intimate things between a man and a woman, but it was true. Thea was her friend and she needed to find these things out, but yet she could not find a way to broach the subject.

She must have seemed distracted because suddenly she realized that Thea was talking to her and she had not been listening. Thea snapped her fingers in front of her face, “Hey you, Jane, wake up. You seem to be off with the fairies this morning. I was asking you something; well really I was making an offer. But if you are too busy to listen I will stop talking and save it for another day.”

Jane brought her attention back to the now, “Sorry, I was trying to think of how to ask a complicated question. What were you saying?”

Thea said, “I suggested that I pay you back for the couple times when you minded my children, when I had to go out. I thought, maybe, I could mind David and Annie for the night so you and Vic could have a night out together, perhaps go to a movie of something. What do you think?”

The idea sounded really exciting to Jane. She said, “That sounds great, I will say it to Vic. What night is good for you?”

Thea said, “Why not tonight?”

Jane said she would check with Vic at lunchtime as he was working around the park today and would be back then.

So, when he came home for lunch, she said it to him.

Vic agreed with a wide grin, she suspected it was as much to please her as for himself, but he had told her before how he had loved going to the pictures with his friends when he lived in Alice Springs.

So tonight they decided they would go to the picture theatre in Caloundra, just the two of them, and she felt thrilled. She said to Vic that, even though they had been together for months, it felt like a first date.

When Vic went back to work she told Thea they would go and asked her for any suggestions about what to see. So, over a cup of tea, they sat down and looked at the paper together which listed the movies.

Thea pointed to a movie called “Once”, saying she had seen it a couple years ago and loved it; it was a sweet romance about an Irish busker and a European immigrant. Now the musical of it was coming to Melbourne and the movie was being re-shown as part of the publicity. So Thea said she thought that perhaps Jane would like it. Then Thea pointed to a couple of other movies and said Vic might prefer them, they were more action movies.

They each went their own way once they had confirmed arrangements. Tonight, once Vic got home, about half past five, Jane and he would get ready to go out. Thea would come to their unit at six o’clock to mind David and Anne in their own place; feed them and put them to bed once they were tired. Then Thea would bunk her children down on the lounge next to her while she watched TV until they got home.

So Jane dressed up, washing her hair, putting on lipstick and perfume the way Thea had shown her. She felt happy anticipation bubbling within her.

Then Vic was home and in fifteen minutes he was ready too. So they sat and enjoyed a beer until Thea came. Jane felt the excitement; it was her first remembered date. Tonight would be special, she would make it so.

As they were finishing their drinks there was a knock on the door. Thea, with children in tow, came in. The children settled in front of the TV to play while the three adults sat and chatted for a few minutes.

Then Thea stood and shooed them out, saying, “Go off and enjoy you night. Don’t hurry back; go out for some supper after. I will just fall asleep on the couch if I get tired.”

As they walked out to his car Vic took Jane’s hand, which she really liked. He told her how beautiful she looked, which she liked even more. He asked, ‘Do you know what you wanted to see?”

Jane said, “Thea had suggested a movie called ‘Once’ which is on at seven o’clock, but I am happy if you want to choose something else.”

Vic said, “Once sounds great to me.”

They parked the car in the town and walked up the road to the theatre. Other people were gathering in the foyer, creating an excited buzz. Vic went to the sign called ‘Box Office’, bought tickets, and handed one to her.

She read; “Once – Cinema 3”. They walked into the dim room and she chose a seat towards the front, just off to the side, it was as if her mind had unconsciously known where she wanted to sit.

She felt a thrill as the lights dimmed and watched with fascination as the advertisements for local businesses and a series of what turned out to be previews to other movies came on, all looked really exciting. Unconsciously she slipped her hand into Vic’s and snuggled into him, her head resting in the space under his neck.

Then their movie was on and she settled into the story. There was a man sitting on the pavement playing music and this girl came along, drawn to him and fascinated by his talent. They went to a place to make music. Now they had started singing a song together.

Jane was entranced and, as she listened to the words, she felt tears running down her cheeks. It seemed the song had been written specially for her and Vic.

 

I don’t know you

But I want you

All the more for that.”

 

When it finished she looked at Vic through tears. “That was a song about you and me, especially about me and how I feel with you.”

It is burnt into my brain and inside I am singing it just for you.

She sang quietly in a voice that only he could hear.

 

Falling slowly, eyes that know me

And I can’t go back.

You have suffered enough

And warred with yourself

It’s time that you won

Raise your hopeful voice you have a choice

You’ll make it now”

 

She continued speaking softly. “This song says what is important to do.

“Even though my mind does not know you from before I want you all the more for that. Your eyes look at me and know me and I can’t go back. We have both suffered enough, we will not war with ourselves. It is time that we win and have what we want. I will raise my hopeful voice and make a choice to have you and only you from now.

“It means we must have our full life together from now. I choose to give you all of myself. I know you want to tell me who I am before I decide about us. But, as the song says, I don’t know you but I want you all the more for that. I don’t need to know anything that came before. It is sufficient to know where I am now. Being in this place with you is the only thing I want. I know that it is more than enough to have this.

“So, from tonight, let there be no more talk of needing to know the past to decide. I know you now, I want you now. That is all that matters, that is enough for me.”

Vic felt overcome by emotion, this beautiful girl, with no knowledge of her past had chosen him now. It was more than enough for him too.

So they sat and shared the movie in solitude together. Others were there in the theatre too, but their world had only space enough for two.

They went out for supper together. It was a crowded place, but again for Jane it was a place only with space for two. She sat snuggled into Vic, feeling total trust, knowing tonight she would discover the woman within herself with this man. She told him so.

He said he was totally happy to just live in this place with her, to let the past take care of the past.

They came home to a quiet house, five people asleep. Thea woke up and stumbled off back to her own house, Vic carrying one child and Thea with the other, asleep in their arms.

Then it was just the two of them. They went and stroked and cuddled their children, both asleep in their own room.

Then Jane said, “It is time. Now show me how to become the person who really is married to you, you have chosen me and I have chosen you.”

So he brought her to their bedroom. He lifted off her dress. She stood there in the half light, wearing only her underwear.

He said. “God you look beautiful, Take of the rest of your clothes too. I want to fill my eyes with you.”

She nodded, self-conscious under his eyes, but her whole body tingling with an unknown feeling of aching desire. She turned her back to him so he could unclip her bra and then slid off her panties and turned to face him.

He led her to the bed and she lay there while he took off his own clothes. Now they lay naked, side by side. Then he gave her a long and lingering kiss before he took her breast in his mouth and stroked and caressed all her body, until finally, when she could wait no longer, he came inside her.

Slowly he moved and brought her to a place where her body was rising and falling with his, like waves in a sea. As he did she hugged him tight and kept her eyes, brimming with tears, locked on his. In that moment of pure adoration she felt him let himself go. His whole body shuddered in time with hers and as it did she was in a place of ecstasy too. It was like a first time for both of them. The physical pleasure was almost unbearable, but most wonderful was the joy she felt as their joining went on and on, she was riding on the crest of a wave in the ocean that went on and on forever.

After, as she lay dreamy in his arms, she said. “Now I understand what a man and a woman do to give pleasure to each other. What we did was far more wonderful than anything I could ever have imagined or dreamt. Can we do it again, soon?

“I am glad you showed me, it would be difficult to ask Thea about that. If this is part of being married to you, then I want this part most of all”.

Vic did not answer; he just kissed her then made love to her again. After that they both slept until sunlight and children’s chatter woke them. It was good to be a complete family. As they lay together, with their children, Jane said, “I would like to know my parents, just as my children know theirs.”

 

 

 

Chapter 13 – A Legal Minefield

Alan had spent two months going round and round in circles with the lawyers and the police, trying to figure out a way to get somewhere with this case so that Susan could re-emerge without her whole world imploding.

The judge who had heard the original murder trial was sympathetic, the police commissioner was sympathetic, as he knew there was lots of public sympathy for Susan following Anne’s program’s on TV. But the prosecution was playing hard-ball, there was a legal minefield in Susan’s conviction for murder that had never been overturned.

Alan felt his life was more and more caught up in endless meetings with lawyers who all had opinions for sale and big egos about how their view of the world was correct. But none had a way forward to get this mess of legal process resolved, other than something like a new hearing and a retrial.

He did not want to go there, even if he could get Susan’s or her family’s cooperation. Without her having memory of what had gone before the whole thing seemed futile. And that was without even considering the further damage it may cause to her if a trial reopened all those wounds again.

Anne, using David’s money, had retained the best barrister that money could buy. He seemed to have the best ideas about how to unscramble this omelette, but even he seemed to have no concrete way forward.

Then there were the ever present leaks that were coming out. There was a mole in a key place inside either the Police and or the Attorney General’s department, someone with access to not everything, but enough to keep stoking the fires of a campaign against this girl. It seemed to centre on one English tabloid or web-news service, where a black journalist, by-line Jake SS, whoever he was, seemed to keep digging up juicy morsels. that this girl had run away and gone into hiding to escape the consequences of her actions, that she was still the evil and conniving bitch as portrayed in the papers of a year and a half ago, when she had disappeared. This journalist was based in England, but he clearly he had an NT source that was feeding him.

The one thing that Alan was pleased about was that he had been able to calm requests for a full scale search for Susan led by the Queensland Police, as it was believed she was living there. He had stuck to the line, which was true, that he had no direct knowledge of Susan’s location. He had just been advised by an intermediate source of her existence and the need to secure a legal guarantee that she would not have to return to jail before she or her family could agree to her return or giving assistance with inquiries.

While she was technically guilty of murder and out on bail, with the conclusion of the inquest it was clear that she had no direct role in any murder other than that of Mark and, in his case that she had acted on the basis of a real fear for her life. So a retrial would almost certainly find self-defence now that these facts were known.

But there could be no retrial without her, and no useful purpose would be served by one after all else that had passed.

It seemed that the best legal option was to seek some form of pardon, which left the conviction stand but agreed that, in view of the circumstances, no sentence be imposed and she be free to resume her life in whatever form she chose. However there were plenty of problems with this option including her authorizing this request which required knowledge and understanding of what had gone before. At some stage it would need formal communication to occur between her and the parties of the government to arrange this. A pardon was also normally only exercised when an appeal had failed.

In this case Susan had pled guilty of the crime, thereby agreeing with the verdict, so it was hard to see what basis there was for an appeal, and this was also made doubly hard when she now did not know what her crime had been or about her first decision to plead guilty.

So it went on and on, round and round. This afternoon he thought he might go and see Rebecca, the personal assistant to the Attorney General. She seemed a bright young thing, quick and smart, as well as vivacious in a slightly boyish way, not exactly beautiful but with cute charm.

She was a lawyer in her own right and seemed to have the ear of the big boss, the person who needed to cut a deal in the political world. After all she saw Mr AG every day. She also seemed sympathetic to Susan’s plight; both he and Sandy had casual conversations with her about the case in the earlier stages of proceedings when they had both attended meetings there.

And she must be someone to trust; working in that high position she was privy to all her boss’s confidential papers, so it should be safe to talk to her off the record, just to see if she could use her legal brain and some influence to try and get some new ideas on the table.

He wondered if he should go off to University and study law to figure out all this complicated legal manoeuvring properly. But that would take years and would not help him in the here and now.

He felt like the meat in the sandwich, the go between separating his own friends from government. He had to walk carefully on both sides of the fence. He liked his job as a policeman with the freedom it gave him to run cases and investigations. He did not want to throw that away through this event. Yet his strongest loyalty lay to this girl and to trying to find a way out for her that let her quietly get on with her life.

Well he would just have to chance it, to see if Rebecca would meet him for a drink after work so they could have an off the record chat about where to go from here. He knew it should be handled by the barrister David had retained but Alan thought his non-legal background might allow him to be more pragmatic in finding creative solutions, ones that passed a reasonable level of legal scrutiny, but most of all would work in the real world.

So he decided that, in half an hour when he had finished the report he was writing about a minor burglary, he would take an early mark and head into the city and call to see Rebecca on spec. It would be around four o’clock when he go there, nearly knock off time on a regular day. He would see if he could get a chance to talk to her, hoping it was quiet in her office. Alan knew her boss was away in Melbourne at a conference about something legal. So, with a bit of luck, she would be there on her own with not much to do.

He would ask her if he could have an off the record chat about this case, just to try and nut it out. Perhaps she would have time for a coffee break or an ‘after work’ drink. While they were not exactly friends they knew each other well enough for a conversation.

He arrived and found himself the only person in the office, apart from Rebecca. He was not sure quite how to broach it,

She smiled at him brightly, saying, “So, my favourite police officer has come to pay me a visit on a quiet afternoon, with my boss away and nothing else happening. Perhaps he will offer to buy me a drink in the local in a few minutes once I have logged off my computer.”

As they walked outside from her office she asked Alan to call her Beck, saying Rebecca was too formal. He found she was easy to chat to as they walked; she had a manner that set strangers at ease, not flirtatious but earnest and interested.

Alan bought them both a drink and they found a secluded corner in the bar which gave privacy. They exchanged pleasantries for a minute as they sipped their drinks.

Beck struck Alan as a person with lots of intelligence who was used to thinking outside the box. He had niggles of reservation about giving too much away. But she would hardly be in her current job if she was unreliable, he had high level security clearance and hers must be even higher, considering all the sensitive ‘cabinet in confidence’ documents she dealt with.

Beck opened the door to a more serious conversation with, “I am sure you did not come to visit me to flirt or pass the time, you are too focused for that, and I know that Sandy would cut your balls out if you made a pass. So I suppose you should tell me what it is you want to talk about.”

He explained the nub of his problem, “I have been told by a friend of a friend that a person has discovered where Susan is. But she seems to have lost her memory and apparently she does not know remember anything from before she vanished. She still has a murder conviction and her bail was revoked when she disappeared though it is clear from all that followed, including the coroner’s findings, that what happened was self-defence. But still, if she surrenders herself she will be returned to custody in the NT.

“So it is unclear how this can be resolved. Her time for appeal has long passed and, if she cannot remember what happened, how can an appeal be made, even if she is willing. I am told that when she disappeared she was in an extremely fragile emotional state, even suicidal. Her current memory loss seems to be the result of some sort of nervous breakdown.

“So it is unlikely that she is in a fit state to stand trial. But yet, without a retrial, it is hard to see how she can have her guilty plea undone. To put her back in jail and let her conviction stand, or even for the judge to resume the case for sentencing and then release her, would mean that she would have to return to Darwin. If this happened she would become a huge sensation again overnight, the centre of enormous media scrutiny. That could be extremely damaging to her current mental state. So the people I have been talking to refuse to agree to any return by her to Darwin at this stage. As we do not know where she is we do not want to damage the current cooperation we have by acting in a way which appears to threaten her. If we do so we may lose our connection with her.

“While we could seek to locate her independently and even arrest her or have her extradited if she is interstate, this is likely to be both harmful for her wellbeing and to cause extensive sensational publicity which will arouse very strong sympathy for her plight along with a bad public reaction to actions to bring her in, particularly if any harm comes to her.

“One or two people have floated the idea of a pardon. But I don’t quite see how it could be done. And, of course, anything which happens would need the OK of your boss. So, rather than have lawyers talking to lawyers and going in endless circles, I thought I should just try and get your ideas. Perhaps if we can think of something that makes sense you could tell me how best to make it work through all the official channels.

“So what I am really asking is for you to use your legal brain and perhaps to use your contacts through your office and your boss to try and help me figure out a solution to this mess.”

They talked for almost an hour. Beck was as smart as whip. She knew about both the politics and the two sides of public opinion, those who saw Saint Susan and those who saw only the murdering witch. Her legal brain quickly explored the various options and dismissed them in much the same manner that others had. The retrial was fraught with problems and the media sensation which accompanied it would be even worse than last time, not to mention the futility of conducting a trial when the defendant had no memory of the events.

Some sort of commission on inquiry was also possible, leading to a recommendation from a judge to the Attorney General for release. Asking the judge to convene a private hearing for sentencing was also possible. But they were all full of risks, loopholes and problems. In all cases it seemed that Susan needed to return to the NT.

Her ability to give any useful evidence remained a big problem. It was not as if she was mentally incompetent and needed to be put into mandatory psychiatric care, just she had no knowledge of anything that had happened from that part of her life. This fact had no bearing on her guilt or innocence, only on her ability to testify.

The option of having her psychologically evaluated was considered, but it came with a high risk of disclosing her location. Therefore it was doubtful that agreement could be gained by the other party for it. And, if it confirmed she had no memory it took them nowhere; whereas if it was considered she was scamming then that created a whole new set of problems.

The only thing that seemed to have some merit was the pardon option but the administrator had to act on the government’s advice and so the government needed a good basis for recommending this. Beck agreed she would commission advice on this option and Alan agreed he would float it with the other side.

As they talked Alan grew more comfortable with Beck. She seemed to be on his side; she had sharp intelligence and could see all the angles. After they had finished their legal discussion Beck asked him about himself and Sandy, saying she had heard a rumor they had first met on this job and asking if it was true, also asking him what it was like to be living with another serious professional who lived and breathed their job and whether they planned to marry and have children.

He found himself telling of his first meeting Sandy, him thinking she was a bloke and being at first dismayed that a wet city girl was on the job, then how she caught him out about the fish which Charlie had hidden and how it led to his friendship with Charlie. Then he told her of the huge and freaky crocodile who watched their every move.

He thought Beck would laugh at this and tell him it was superstitious nonsense. But she said she was a Territory girl, born and bred, and had seen too much to laugh at these things, she even got the ‘spirits of the land’ thing; it made a strange sense to her.

He found him telling Beck of his romance with Sandy leading up to their planned wedding last Christmas and how they had ended up postponing it with all the mess over Susan. He told of the strange mind link which had seemed to exist between Sandy and Susan, a mind link which revealed Susan’s terror on the day the murder had happened.

He told how, at first, almost to outdo each other, he and Sandy had been determined to turn this case into a murder, together working to unearth the clues that made it so, the timber fragments in the skull, the tyre track that linked the vehicle to the site, Susan’s DNA in the vehicle, the CCTV footage of Susan, then an unknown person, who was together with the murder victim at Uluru, then the girl at the roadhouse who remembered Susan telling how she had met this man while diving on the Barrier Reef, leading to the discovery of her identity in Cairns.

But then, once they had discovered that the person responsible was an English tourist visitor, someone who had never done anything remotely like this, it had stopped making sense and they knew there must be more.

He told of the weeks he had spent in England trying to get the story from this girl as they went through the extradition process and how strongly she had reacted when she felt she had been tricked into giving something away, but then of her voluntary decision to return to Australia for the murder trial and of her seemingly inexplicable decision to plead guilty but tell nothing of what caused the events to happen.

He told how both he and Sandy felt responsible for what had happened because, without their digging to open a murder case, it never would have begun. Yet, once they found the girl they knew it did not make sense for her to deliberately kill this man.

He told Beck of his race against time to find out about the texts before Susan was convicted and sentenced to spend her life in jail. He even told her about Anne and Sandy’s premonition that she would try and commit suicide rather than have the truth come out.

Alan felt as if, in telling this story, he would make Beck into an ally who understood what had led to this bizarre set of events. In doing so he hoped she would feel sympathy for the situation which followed where Susan was convicted of a murder, but the most reasonable understanding of the events was that she had acted in self-defence and had only pled guilty to stop damaging information about the man she killed coming out, that she had done this out of a strange sense of misplaced loyalty or perhaps to protect her children from this knowledge.

Beck was a good listener and he felt she was in Susan’s corner, showing sympathy for her plight. But as the conversation progresses he began to become just a tiny bit uncomfortable. It was nothing specific that he could put his finger on, it was just that her curiosity seemed to make her want to burrow deeper into this girl and what she was doing now with questions like; where she was living now, was she now living with someone or on her own?

They were all perfectly reasonable questions which someone in her position could want to know. But he felt unease with this direction. So he became evasive in his answers, saying he did not know even when he did.

He knew she could read this in him and while, at first she did not let on, it started to become like a cat and mouse game.

She ended up by saying, “I know you know more about where she is and how she came to be found than you are letting on, but let’s leave it that way for now. I can see why you want to keep this information secret.”

As they went their separate ways he felt he had another ally in Susan’s corner; Beck understood what was at stake. She said would use her influence to try and untangle all these mixed up threads.

 

 

 

Chapter 14 – Finding Family

It was now December and getting close to Christmas time. Vic thought about Jane’s request to know her parents. He also remembered her mother’s plea to see her daughter again and meet her grandchildren. It seemed time to do something, though he was not sure what that was.

His occasional talks to Buck and Anne had not revealed any new threats, but he was still nervous about disclosing their location to other people. For now interest in Susan was fading. But he knew it would not stay that way for a minute if there was real information to go on. So he kept on being really careful. He did not use a credit card or go to banks, he got paid in cash for work, he mostly rang others on a public phone; all to reduce the risk.

He hated to think what effect it might have on Jane if she was tied to Susan and her past life. Jane had made no more requests for information about her parents and seemed to have no desire to know about other parts of her past life and, since the night of them becoming lovers, he felt they had made a pact not to try and reopen the past.

But yet, for the sake of Jane and for her parents he wanted to allow this connection with them to happen. He did not know whether it may trigger old memories but he felt it was time.

The challenge was to work out how to do it without this becoming a way to trace him or her. In the end he rang Anne to ask her, as she seemed to have the best ideas about this. She was also a logical link to Jane’s parents, the childhood friend who was keeping in touch with them.

Anne said at once, “How about a Christmas reunion? David and I are going to his family property for Christmas. It is over the Blue Mountains at the back of Sydney. His parents know Susan’s parents well as a result of the engagement and the trial. They have stayed in touch. Plus there are other cousins in Sydney who Susan’s parents may want to visit. So, I am almost sure that if we invited them to come out for a visit, they would.

“I talked to both Susan’s parents on the phone last week. I try to ring once a fortnight. They both said how much they wished to see their daughter and their grandchildren before they grow up too much. They did not seem to have anything important planned for Christmas.

“Perhaps, while we at the farm over Christmas-New Year, David could arrange for you to visit us, he would tell the farm staff that you are a friend we met in the NT and say you are bringing your girlfriend and her two children to all come and stay for a few days. At the same time David’s parents could invite out Susan’s Mum and Dad, and her brother Tim too. They can stay at the main house; there are plenty of spare rooms.

“There is an empty cottage about two hundred yards from the main house where you could all stay. It is down near the creek and surrounded by bush, so it is very private.

“That way, when you come to visit as our friends they will be there too, but there will be no obvious connection for the workers to notice, not that I don’t trust them, but it is still best if they do not know.

“As it is a property in the country there will be no snooping journalists or other people who will gossip. It will just be a visit of my good friend Vic and his girlfriend, Jane, and children, staying in a cottage on the farm, while Susan’s parents are there as guests of David’s parents. No one will know they are really Jane’s parents. I think that will work.

“For your travel, it is best if you drive down; assuming that old banger of a car that Buck bought you is still reliable, because, if you fly your movements are readily traceable. If you drive, stay in cheap motels or caravan parks along the way and don’t use a credit card, then I think there should be very little risk of anyone working out who you are.

“Perhaps, to be even safer Jane should dye her hair a different color, strawberry blonde would look good with her blue eyes; that would make it even harder to for anyone to guess her identity.

“So let’s make it happen. I know her parents will jump at the chance to see her and meet their grandkids and I can’t wait to see my friend again, even if she does not remember me.

“Ring back next week once I have had a chance to get it organized.”

That night, when they were in bed together, he asked Jane, “Remember how you said you wanted to know your parents. Would you like to meet them at Christmas time?”

Jane hugged him extra tight and said, “I would love that.”

Next morning she had a pensive look on her face so Vic asked, “What is the matter?”

“I feel scared I won’t know who they are when I see them. Or what if they don’t want to see me?”

Vic said, “I promise they do really want to see you and also to meet David and Anne who they have never met, their first grandchildren. I will ask them to post a photo of themselves so you know what they look like.”

With that it was agreed. Next day they told David and Anne they were going to a place near Sydney to visit their grandparents and they were wild with excitement too.

Slowly the days ticked over, coming ever closer towards Christmas. Vic had his car serviced. He told the mechanic to give it an extra careful check to ensure that everything was good and safe for a long trip.

Sometimes he saw Jane looking pensive again and would ask her why.

She always smiled brightly and said, “It’s nothing really, I am just scared about whether I want any of my old life back. I am so happy here. I could not bear for anything to spoil what we have now.”

A week before Christmas a photo arrived in the mail with an English address. It was a picture of Jane’s parents and her brother Tim. On the back was written. “We all can’t wait to see you again.”

Jane looked at it hard for a minute before she put it down, saying. “I wish I could remember them but I can’t. I do think I want to meet them. But I am so very scared lest our good life comes apart. It is as if there is a bad monster hiding in the shadows, wanting to break loose and smash all we have.”

 

 

 

Chapter 15 – I Beg Your Pardon

Two weeks went by before Alan heard from Beck again. This time she rang him saying. “I think I have worked it out, found a way forward. I have spoken to the Attorney General and he has talked to the sentencing judge and also to the coroner who investigated all the girls who disappeared.

“All are of the opinion that we are in uncharted water here, it is nothing like any case they have encountered before. Their general view is the nearest thing to correct legal procedure would be a retrial where fresh evidence is brought forward to justify Susan’s actions, with or without her consent.

“They also agree, based on what you told me about her mental state and lack of memory, that a retrial would be of little value and pose a serious risk to her wellbeing, with a great risk of more mental harm or a new breakdown.

“Apart from harm to her, should the government seek to force a retrial, it would play very badly in the court of public opinion. A very large number of people have sympathy for her plight since the TV program telling her story went to air. To them she is guilty of nothing but bad luck. Of course, as they come to her defence, all the nuts on the other side will vilify her too.

“An alternate option discussed was for the trial judge to resume his sentencing hearing following the coronial, based on the evidence that it revealed, including the tape in which Susan told Anne how she killed this man after he tied her up and that she believed he intended to kill her and feed her to the crocodiles. But it would be difficult to treat this as formal testimony if Susan is not able to be cross examined on it. Without that evidence being admitted it would be hard for the judge to find that no sentence be imposed. And continuing the sentencing hearing, even if done in private, would be impossible to keep secret.

“So, as a result, it would be clearly known that Susan is alive somewhere, whereas now it is only a vague rumour. With the level of media scrutiny that would follow any revelation it would become extremely difficult for her to stay hidden, even if she did not return to Darwin for the hearing.

“So my boss, the coroner and the trial judge want to do two things. The first is for a court appointed psychologist to evaluate Susan and confirm that her absence of memory appears genuine. This examination could be done in a confidential manner without disclosing that it occurred or where. It could occur in a major centre like Brisbane or Sydney to assist in secrecy.

“The second thing is they will seek advice from a former judge of the High Court about the option for a pardon, if her memory loss is confirmed. All are satisfied, based on the phone text evidence from the sentencing hearing, along with the account of what happened by her friend, Anne, given at the inquest, that there is a good basis for her conviction to be set aside and her not to serve out a prison term. But they need to find a way to do this legally.

“So a pardon appears the best option but they want eminent legal advice, given in confidence, to confirm this. Today I will prepare a brief to seek this advice by mid-January. If the advice confirms that a pardon is legally sound, then the Attorney General will seek confidential agreement of the other members of the NT Executive Government before proceeding.

“So I expect we will have a definite answer in the New Year. Meanwhile I thought you should know. Officially my lips are sealed, as are yours, but it would be good to know if there is agreement by the other party. I would not want to have this formally announced without it.

“I have even found a legal precedent that it does not require the consent of the guilty party to seek a pardon on their behalf. So it seems this could be done in absentia and, once granted, she would be free to get on with her own life. While the pardon would have to be disclosed, her location would not have to be. So it is possible for her to continue her life in whatever way she is now doing. It does not mean that nobody will track her down, but it gives her a chance to stay hidden if she wants to.

“The Attorney General could announce that, following the inquest and representations from her family, he has sought and been granted a pardon for one ‘Susan Emily McDonald’ to her murder conviction.

“If it goes ahead we need to arrange a psychological assessment and a letter of request for a pardon from her parents, as her next of kin.”

The next day Alan rang Buck and asked him to pass this on to Vic and others as required. Buck rang Anne and told her. In return she told him of the just arranged meeting of Susan and her parents in a fortnight at Christmas. They agreed that Vic and Susan’s parents could talk about it there. To Anne it sounded like a way forward, but it would be for others to decide.

 

 

 

Chapter 16 – Farm in the Mountains

Vic and Jane set off the weekend before Christmas. The car was packed with their camping gear as they had decided to find places along the way in the mountains to camp, to treat this trip as their own holiday, done in easy stages, before they came to the farm.

Last night Vic had called Anne again, told her of their approximate plans, three easy days of driving, coming around the back of the mountains and avoiding the big cities of Sydney and Brisbane, the first night camping in the New England, in a national park at the back of Armidale, the second night between the Hunter Valley and Mudgee, at the back of the Blue Mountains, and arriving in the middle of the third day. He had an address and directions from Lithgow to David’s family’s farm.

They were three wonderful days, swimming in crystal clear mountain pools, giving the children swimming lessons, teaching them to dog paddle and stay afloat without help. They climbed hillsides and waterfalls with panoramic views, cooked on an open fire and enjoyed the music of birds and glimpses of wildlife. They went walking in the night with a torch, picking out forest animal eyes, possums and gliders in the trees, wallabies and native cats on the ground, frogs that croaked in the creeks. They made love in the night under star filled skies and in the dawn as the first birds called.

Part of them both wanted to keep driving, with just themselves’ for company, forever, to postpone the day of the meeting. But it must happen. It was the only way forward. Vic hoped it was the start of a return to a life in the open, an end of hiding. But he understood and shared Jane’s terror of it all coming apart.

Jane had her hair cut short, almost boyish looking and a bit hippy, with red blond colors and streaks. Thea had helped her with this, entering into the spirit of the game of a new Jane. Part of Vic hated to lose his familiar partner but he knew it was for the best and she still looked great.

Each new version of her was like a new girl emerging from the old, Vic told her it was sexy getting to make love to a different looking her. Jane was happy that he found her alluring and exciting. The children complained but within a day they were used to their new look Mum.

Two days before Christmas, at the time for lunch, they drove up the road towards a grand farmhouse, nestled into a hollow in the hills, high mountains rising behind and an elegant formal garden in front. The road wound through lush green fields with cows, sheep and horses gazing. A sign on the farm gate told Vic they had arrived.

With no one in sight, as they pulled up, Vic tooted the horn, and then reached over and squeezed Jane’s hand to feed reassurance to her anxious eyes. Anne came bounding out, saw her friend sitting in the front seat and, without pause, ran over to her, pulled open the door and pulled her out. As she did a light went on in Jane’s eyes, she knew one person from before. She hugged her friend as tears streamed down her face.

She said, “I don’t know how I know you but I do. It is so good to see someone that I know I know, even if I can’t remember from when. I think that, maybe, you were my friend when I was little at school though it seems like such a long time ago.”

Anne nodded, tears in her eyes too, “Yes, we first became friends at the start of High School. We were both twelve when we met. It does seem like a long time since then.”

Following a few steps behind were three other people, her mother and her father and her brother. Again Jane did not know how she knew them, she did not remember them, but she knew them in some way. It was not the picture they sent her. It was something more primal. She knew, without knowing why, that they were family, they were of her and she was of them.

She ran to them and hugged them, “Mum, Dad, Tim,” she said as she wrapped her arms round them.

They hugged her back.“Em, our own dearest daughter, our Susan Emily”

She pulled back and looked puzzled. “I must be mistaken, I thought I knew you but my name is Jane. I don’t know any Emily or Susan. She looked like she might run away, in fear at having made a terrible mistake.

“Of course, our daughter’s name is Jane; Susan and Emily are her pet names from another life,” her father said. “You are our daughter Jane. You have that same imp smile you did from when you were a little girl.”

Jane still looked uncertain, but the fear on her face receded.

Her father continued, “I remember you when you used to ride on my shoulders, when you were the same size as these two little monkeys here,” as he looked to where two small children and a man still sat seated in the car.

She nodded and walked back to the car, lifting out the two children and looking for Vic to come with her. He picked up David and she picked up Anne. They carried them to where the others were standing.

Now the circle had been joined by David and his parents.

David took over and did the formal introductions, saying, “Mr and Mrs McDonald, I would like you to meet my good friend Vic Campbell and his partner, Jane Bennet, with her children, David and Anne. They are visiting for a few days and staying in the cottage down by the creek.”

Everyone shook hands and exchanged formal greetings.

David’s father followed on. “Actually we were about to sit down for lunch. We set extra places in the hope that you might arrive soon. Why don’t you come inside and join us. After lunch David will show you to the cottage where you are staying.”

As they walked inside, Tim came alongside Jane, linking his arm to hers. He whispered in her ear. “You may not remember us properly but I sure as hell remember you. Wait until I start telling all the others of all the things we used to get up to when we were little together, Sis.”

Jane found herself grinning back at him and said, “If you tell on me I will tell on you, Bro. I don’t remember lots but I do remember some things I am sure you don’t want told.” If not quite true it would soon be, she thought.

A wonderful week passed. They swam in the dams and creeks; they walked in the fields and the forests. The children had unlimited attention from so many others, always willing to play a game or listen to them.

Despite initial intentions of secrecy from the staff who worked on the property it was soon clear this could not be sustained, there was too much unconscious behaviour and affection between Jane, Anne, her parents and her children for this to ever work, little David and Anne were shouting out Grandma and Grandpa each time they saw them.

So David talked to the cook, the gardener and the general station hand, who were working while they were staying over. He explained the situation to them and the need for no talk of this to leave here.

They all readily agreed and he knew he could trust them. They had all worked here for years and were close family friends as much as employees. So, after this, they really could be a family together again and from then on they spent most of their time in each other’s company.

Jane and Vic went riding across the farm, helping to move the sheep and cattle from paddock to paddock. Jane particularly loved this; she found she had a natural affinity for horses and balance in riding. Even though she could not remember her lessons as a child the knowledge had stuck. Typical riding parties were Tim, David, Vic, Anne, Jane, and the station hand, while the children would do things with their grandparents. David joked that they had so many horsemen they could muster a thousand head, not the tens and hundreds in their paddocks. But the riding gave them time and outdoor space to discover the world and each other, broken by bursts of wild galloping up and down mountain trails, the wind whipping their faces.

Jane confided in Vic on the second night. “I don’t know why I was scared. It is so wonderful to be back with my family again and also with Anne. I only have the occasional memory of being a little girl with my Mum and Dad and brother, and I remember a few things with Anne in first year High School. But it is enough. I feel like I have a past and belong somewhere again.”

 

 

 

Chapter 17 – A Family Meeting

All too soon the last day came before Vic and Jane packed up to drive home. The others were leaving the next day too, David needed to return to Sydney for work, Jane’s parents’ flight back to England went the day after tomorrow and they would drive back to Sydney with David and Anne.

It was a very poignant day and they all wanted to slow it down. But it seemed trying to make the clock run slow only made it run faster.

Anne was conscious of an elephant in the room. She needed to tell Vic and Janes’ parents the news from Alan about a possible pardon and the steps involved. So far she had made no mention of it except to David, not wanting to spoil the wonderful holiday mood. But she must do it today. It was difficult for her to get the others on their own without Jane being there.

It was funny how, in the space of ten days, Susan or Emily had become Jane in her mind, along with everyone else’s, it seemed. Perhaps it had been that almost disaster on the first day when Jane’s Dad had used the wrong name in an unconscious display of affection, and then had expertly retrieved the situation, turning Susan and Emily into childhood pet names. So, after that, everyone was very careful with the name they used, but it had only taken a couple days until the difficulty passed.

Anne wondered how she could get the others together, without Jane. It seemed rude to deliberately exclude Jane from a family meeting which was about her. But they could not discuss the legal options with her present, not without telling her the truth that her Jane mind was hiding.

Then it came to her, Jane had been talking about learning new recipes to cook for Vic and the cook had offered to teach her a couple. That would be the excuse, she would ask the cook to spend an hour or two this afternoon teaching Jane as part of preparing their final night family dinner. It promised to be a special occasion, fitting such a goodbye, a roast leg of lamb, salmon entrees and a selection of wonderful deserts. She went and asked the cook, a lady in her middle years, if she would take Jane under her wing for a couple hours this afternoon, get her to help with the dinner and teach her some new dishes along the way. Once Jane was occupied she would ask David’s Mum and Dad to take little Davie and Annie out for a walk and occupy them while the rest gathered in the living room.

Five minutes later Jane came bubbling excitedly up to her. “Cook has asked me to help her in the kitchen, to teach me some new dishes, so I have left the children with Vic. I am really looking forward to this.”

Anne asked David to run down to the cottage to gather Vic and the children while she went and found Jane’s parents who were chatting over a cup of tea with David’s parents. She quickly explained to them all what she needed to do, to talk with Vic and the others about the options to get the murder conviction removed from Jane. David’s parents gladly agreed to take the children for a walk in the garden.

David kept watch to ensure Jane stayed in the kitchen while Anne spent five minutes repeating what Alan had told her, the pardon option appearing the most promising, but with it the need for Jane’s to have a psychological assessment to confirm her lack of memory.

Anne could feel resistance in Vic, he was the one who had given up his other life to be with and care for this girl, and he had already lost her once. He said he did not want to take any chances with her wellbeing when he felt she was making good progress in her life with him and they had decided to get married; it was Jane that had decided. He had always wanted this but wanted it to be a deliberate choice on her part, which it now was.

Jane’s parents had said little to this point; they now said the marriage was wonderful news. They had no words to express their gratitude to Vic for all he had done and knew he would make a wonderful husband for their daughter. So while they wanted to get the legal situation resolved they did would trust Vic’s judgement about what was best for Jane.

At this point that David, who had been silently watching from the door, spoke. “Vic, for Jane to get married you will need to resolve her identity. To issue a marriage certificate the registrar or church will need to confirm her identity. As she is an English citizen, the UK government will have to have a role. I am not saying that you should tell her what her real name is, but you need identity documents which match her name to a passport or birth certificate in order to get married.

“If she can get a pardon, then at the same time her parents could seek for her name to be changed to match the name she knows herself by. But to do this, without her requesting it, you some form of authority for her parents to act on her behalf. It sounds to me like this will need an evaluation which confirms that she believes she is Jane Bennet and does not know her other identity and therefore her name should be changed accordingly.

“It is a job for a lawyer in England to figure out how to do this name change. But at a minimum, I think it will need a parental request along with a medical document which confirms her lack of memory.

“So, to get married, as you both want, you need a way to do this. I can see no way without something like the psychological assessment that Anne is talking about. However at the same time we must ensure this examination does not cause further damage.

I have a lot of contacts in the medical field from my work. How about I start by inquiring who has the best expertise in this area. Then I can arrange for you to have a private meeting with whoever seems best so as to inform you about how such an examination is done. When you understand this you can make an informed decision as to whether it is worth the risk.

“The risk of trying to maintain the life you have now is equally great, if the children or Jane get seriously ill people will seek an identity for her, the same in another year or two when it is time for the children to go to school. So we need to find a way forward, and this is the best I can see.”

Vic nodded reluctantly. “OK, I can see that now. I hate it but I could not bear to get into the situation you are talking about where her identity comes out anyway and she is arrested and taken to jail. So I agree to you trying to find a good medical person to do this and meeting with them.”

After this they worked out the details for another half an hour before all agreed that this day was too precious to waste sitting around and talking.

So they had an afternoon picnic in a hollow in the hills, sitting amongst screeching parrots and kangaroos, then a wonderful evening dinner, with the two children in pride of place, as if it was a party particularly for them, the family birthday party they had never had.

As the stars came out into the clear air of a mountain summer evening they sat on the veranda in little groups sharing company and tales. For a while Jane’s parents sat with Vic, telling him how much they appreciated all he had done for their daughter and that he was part of their family now and they hoped to shortly meet his own family. Then the groups rearranged and it was Vic and Jane talking to David’s parents while Anne and David talked to Jane’s parents. Then Jane and Tim were locked in close conversation while the rest sat apart. Finally the whole group joined together to share a glass of port, with two sleepy children on grandparents’ laps.

It was a difficult goodbye the next day. They had all become so close, like one huge family, over the last ten days. Jane said she wanted to see all her new found family and friends again soon and get on with arrangements for her and Vic’s wedding. She wanted to go to Alice Springs, meet Vic’s family and get married there and wanted this new family of hers to all come too.

Everyone agreed that this was a good idea and they would all come once it could be arranged. It was too hard to tell her of all the obstacles that had to be overcome before it could happen. However, as Anne and Vic said their own goodbyes, both had a sense they had opened the Pandora’s Box in bringing Jane back into the world of others who knew her. It was as if they had started a runaway freight train with no one at the controls. Stopping it from here without a train wreck may be easier said than done.

Vic felt pleasure in the happiness he had brought to this delightful girl who sat beside him, cuddled into his arm, as they drove away. But he knew a great fear that it could all go horribly wrong and control could slip through his fingers. His mind’s eye saw Jane as an exquisite crystal; flawless perfection outside, but cracks running through the core. One big knock could shatter it into a million fragments, never able to be made whole again

An old nursery rhyme ran through his mind

Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall.

Humpty Dumpty had a big fall.

All the King’s horses and all the King’s Men.

Never could put Humpty back together again.”

 

 

 

Chapter 18 – Divided Loyalty

The next week, after updating Alan about the holiday visit, David arranged a teleconference with his barrister and the NT Attorney General’s office. On the other end of the line was the NT Minister and his executive assistant, Rebecca Singleton, the Beck of Alan’s conversation.

His barrister spoke on his behalf. “My client’s representative may be willing to agree to the psychological assessment you are proposing to show she has lost all memory of the events which occurred. This is on the basis that, if we do so, you will seek a pardon for my client from the murder conviction, without the need for a retrial or a resumed sentencing hearing.

“Such agreement must be on the basis that all events prior to a pardon being granted remain absolutely in confidence. Both the medical examination and any future dealings with her or her representatives must be done in a manner which does not reveal my client’s current location and allows her to continue her current undisturbed life.”

The Attorney General answered. “That is very much what I had in mind, with the examination to confirm her mental state being the first step.

“I have sought expert advice from a former justice of the High Court to confirm a pardon is legally appropriate in this situation. I expect to receive this by the end of the month. If this supports our proposed course of action, I will then give an undertaking to seek a pardon on behalf of my government. In the meantime I am happy to give an undertaking of confidentiality on behalf of my department for the other steps which need to occur.

“The only caveat is that the psychological assessment needs to be done by a person who is acceptable to my office on the basis of their expertise and independence. This party may be required to give in person private evidence to NT legal authorities of their findings. I will leave it to Rebecca to confirm the suitability of such a person directly with you.”

The barrister replied, “Have you identified any such people you consider to be suitable to do this examination at this stage?”

Rebecca replied, “As you are aware most of the leading psychologists are based in cities such as Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. I have a list of names that may be suitable but have yet to meet any or discuss what is required with any of them. Because of the sensitivity of this issue I wish to meet in person with a small number of relevant specialists so as to determine who has most appropriate skills and at the same time ensure this person fully understands the absolute confidentiality of this task. I am happy to fly to one or more major Australian cities to meet with these people if we can agree on a short list with requisite qualifications and expertise.”

The barrister replied. “Do you have Dr Ross Sangster of Brisbane on your list?”

“Indeed I do,” Rebecca replied. “He and a Dr Pamela Hunt, in Sydney, are at the top of my list. In Melbourne Dr Veronica Ritchie is also high on my list.”

“Is Dr Sangster is acceptable to your client?”

The barrister replied. “I believe he is likely to be. I would want to have the opportunity to interview him in person before confirming this.”

So it was agreed, they would meet in Dr Sangster’s Brisbane examination rooms the following week to work out the details and confirm this was satisfactory to all. They would only make arrangements to interview other doctors if either of them had reservations about the suitability of this man.

Beck flew to Brisbane on the Tuesday evening for a Wednesday meeting with the psychologist and the barrister from the other side. She could have flown on the red-eye flight that left at two o’clock in the morning, getting in at breakfast time. But she hated spending nights on a plane when she could sleep in a comfortable bed. Not that there was anyone to share this bed with at either end right now, but it still beat an aeroplane seat.

As she sat into her seat that afternoon and banked over Darwin before heading south she thought how drab her life had become over the last two years, she an up and coming lawyer with a prestigious job, though the pay was only mediocre.

She should be living the high life, in her own apartment. But instead she lived at home and cared for her Mum who had Motor Neurone Disease and was going downhill fast. Not that she begrudged her Mum the care, they were close and there was no other family still living in Darwin, her brother and sister were long gone, one to Kiwi Land and one in Perth, and her father had been dead now for five years, though she still missed him.

So it was the least she could do. But still it was nice to be away for a night and to know her night was her own. It had been hard keeping the money up for her Mum’s treatment. Sure the public health system paid a fair bit. But the extra and new treatment which promised some hope of stopping the disease’s awful progression had to be paid for out of her own pocket.

While it had been a struggle thus far, she had managed to raise this extra cash, but there was nothing left for a life of her own. Thus her social life had almost vanished over the last two years though she kept a bright smile on her face and tried to act as if she was having a ball, being a party girl.

It had really come in handy when she had met that journalist in town the year before last. It was six months after diagnosis, just after she had moved back home but before it had got too bad. It had been one of her few nights out. This man was in town for the trial and sentencing of the notorious Crocodile Man killer, the English witch-bitch dubbed Crocodile Girl.

At the time Beck had largely bought the negative gossip doing the rounds that this girl Susan was a cold calculating killer. So she was flattered when this guy, Jacob, had come up to her in the bar, telling her how hot she looked, and, after buying her a few drinks, suggesting they go back to his hotel room to finish the night.

It had been one of the last and best bonks she had, good sex was hard to find when you lived with a Mum who depended on you. So, in the pillow talk after, when it emerged that she worked for the Attorney General and had the inside info and she had also told him about the struggle to pay for her Mum’s treatment, he had offered to help.

He said that, if she could provide some inside info about the case, he could arrange for his media outlet, an online news service in London which syndicated to many papers across the world, to make generous donations to help cover her mother’s expenses.

So she had told him what she knew from the inside about this case then, not that she knew about the last minute defence pitch which got Susan out on bail until it happened. But Beck had known that, after Susan’s release, she was staying with her new boyfriend Vic, the helicopter pilot, and she knew that this girl had chosen to take the name Emily instead of Susan; that was part of the bail related information that had come to her boss.

So with those bits, plus Jacob’s existing knowledge about this girl whose life he had been digging into for months now, it had given a big part of the splash in the paper just before she had gone missing, ‘The Two Faces of Susan Emily McDonald’, he had called it. Beck knew it had been a huge story across Australia and England for days, and Susan’s disappearance had then made it even bigger and more sensational.

The ten thousand dollars which had turned up in her account a few days later, called bet winnings, had been very welcome too. She had thought the article Jacob wrote had been a bit over the top, but hell the girl was no saint, she was an uppity Pommie bitch, that how Susan had struck her the one day she had seen her in court for her trial. It was the way she smiled from the witness box as they asked her about the murder. So Beck did not feel bad, all said and done, that a big part of the story had come from her.

She remembered the next time she had seen Jacob. In town for the inquest, he had looked her up, asking for any more insights. Another good night of sex had followed; the last she had. He had asked her if she had any more inside info. She did not have much at that stage, just a bit more inside info about the police investigation which had never quite got out before, only minor details but it added local color. Jacob paid another $5000 for this. He promised her that any more bits would also be paid for similarly.

So, when the rumor of the girl turning up again got going, she fed this too him too and it had earned another ten thousand. It seemed harmless enough. She had never walked in the shoes of this girl, but Beck thought she was an English tramp who had got caught and had run away from facing the music. That money really helped with her Mum’s latest treatment.

But as fast as she spent money on her Mum a new set of needs and costs would appear. A better wheelchair was the latest on the list. It was another cool ten thousand of which the state would pay near zero. It said the old one was good enough, even if her Mum was no longer strong enough to push it up even the most gentle hills on her own. So now Beck needed another ten big ones, for a wheelchair with a motor. She knew Jacob would pay.

But now Jacob was getting antsy, saying it was time for more inside info, suggesting she needed to try harder to find out, threatening how he would hate it if the deposit slip for the money he had paid her was to turn up in her bosses mail. Jacob was chasing where this Susan girl was holed up, probably in Queensland somewhere. But he was getting nowhere. Now he suggested Beck was not trying hard enough to find out.

She knew she would lose her job instantly, along with her career, if the payments ever came out. She hated the way that what she had done was being used against her. But the money for her Mum made such a difference. So she had told Jacob she would try harder to find out and she had meant it.

Then the real story had been dropped in her lap by that copper, Alan. Trouble was she liked the guy; she liked Sandy too, she was not jealous that way. But there was something honest and good about the way he was putting his job on the line to protect and help this girl. He had told her about the guilt he felt for his role in convicting her. As she saw his decency this way, she started to feel ashamed about her own role. It was too easy to wriggle out of any blame by saying that the information she had given had made no real difference and Susan got what was coming to her.

But as Alan told his tale about Susan that day, as they sat in the corner of the pub, Beck had started to walk in her shoes, seeing how it must have felt from the inside, so desperate and alone that she was suicidal. And there was something honorable in Susan refusing to disclose the true nature of the man she had killed, even though it had come out later anyway in the police investigation. The idea of Susan protecting her own unborn children from guilt by association with their biological father did seem well intended.

So it no longer was easy to be the inside source when the information would be used to damage this girl, though, God knew, she really needed that money, the next ten grand to buy the wheelchair.

For now she tried to block out her dual role and focus on the here and now, the fact that she was doing something that may help this girl and could even undo some of the harm she had caused. It was a nice thought, though it would not pay the bills.

Living this dual life gave her empathy for this other girl, Susan, how it was to be trapped by bad decisions and their consequences, even if well meant. She was pleased at the thought that what she was doing now may help this girl, tip the balance back a bit against the bad she had done before. But now she had a big moral dilemma to deal with, whether to pass on this new stuff to Jacob in return for more cash. That decision would wait.

 

 

 

Chapter 19 – Mind Jigsaw Maker

Next day Beck went early to the doctor’s waiting room, hoping to meet him and form her own view before the barrister for the other side arrived.

A receptionist showed her in. Beck said she was early for an appointment with Doctor Sangster and, as she had some reading to do, she would sit and wait until the due start time arrived. The lady nodded then ignored her, she obviously serviced a range of consultants, each with their name of their own room door, though no other patients or activity were evident.

While Beck waited she studied the dossier she had compiled on this doctor. He must only be in his mid-thirties, based on the date of his initial graduation but, after his primary degree, he had moved quickly to specialise in psychiatric illness associated with memory loss of traumatic origin.

After doing a Master’s Degree in memory associated disorders he had worked as a consultant psychologist in a Sydney practice. Within three years he had enrolled to do his doctorate, with an overseas fellowship to study at John Hopkins University in the US. He worked there for a further five years in a post-doctoral role before returning to establish his own specialist practice in central Brisbane.

It was clear he could have made a bigger mark in Sydney or Melbourne, but his choice was Brisbane. Now he was generally considered the leading expert in traumatic memory loss in Australia, seeing patients from all over the country. This brief was a bit different, he was not being asked to treat a person but simply to assess whether the memory loss seemed real and could be explained by the circumstances. He would also be asked to give an opinion on the risk of harm if the person was forced confront the events of which the memory was suppressed or lost.

As Beck sat reading about his career and rapid rise, she lost track of the external environment, absorbed in reading through the list of the abstracts of his key publications. They seemed highly relevant, most about the impacts of physical injury, but some about other emotional triggers.

She became aware that someone was standing looking down at her. He was tall, with straggly dark hair and a bit dishevelled, as if personal grooming was not a big focus, though he was well dressed, as if someone else chose good clothes for him, but he then selected and dressed in them with minimal effort and care. She would not have said he was handsome, but there was something arresting about him. She looked up, “Yes?”

“I was wondering if you were waiting for me. As far as I know none of the other consultants are in this morning and I don’t have my first appointment for another half an hour. You seem to be here waiting for someone though you do not look like a patient,” he said.

Beck looked at him properly now, “Are you Dr Sangster?”

“Last time I looked at my face in the mirror it seemed to answer to that name,” he answered, giving a self-deprecating shrug and a cautious smile.

She stood up now and held out her hand, “Beck Singleton, from the Northern Territory,” she said.

Now he raised an inquiring eyebrow, he really did have a curious and expressive face, “A singular origin and a singular name,” he said, then, “Pardon the pun, too many singles all in one place.”

She gave him a searching look, “Way to cryptic for me, Doctor. But yes I am here, waiting for an appointment with you, though still rather early. But I decided to sit here to read about you rather than wait down in a coffee shop. Your biography is impressive, but I would have not joined it to your face if I had run into you in the street, perhaps in the same way that my life is full of singularities, yours is full of little discordances.”

Now he genuinely smiled, “Ah, someone to rise to the challenge of the mind. I do like that! My work with memory and the mind is like riddles within riddles. I fear it has affected both my speech and manner.

“But seeing you are not waiting for me in a coffee shop and I am yet to have a morning coffee, please come inside and join me in having one. I am yet to brew a coffee which I need to fire up my memory and mental faculties in preparation for my formal meeting with you and the other lawyer, a QC his clerk said, who I presume is yet to arrive. So, rather than me drinking my caffeine dose alone, perhaps you will share it with me?”

He showed her through to an anteroom at the back of his examination room. It held a computer with a large screen on one side and a mini kitchen with a gleaming coffee machine and a large jar of chocolate cookies next to a sink on the other side. Between the two places was a large window which looked out to the river, in front of which were two comfortable chairs with a small table between them.

He indicated to Beck to have a seat, filled and pushed a button on the coffee machine, then set two cups and plates, each with a cookie, on the table. He sat silently in the opposite chair while the coffee bubbled away, filling the room with a delightful aroma.

In a minute the coffee was made. He poured them both a small cup and offered cream and sugar, saying, “This is one of my American acquired indulgences, to sit and sip my coffee with a dollop of cream and sugar, along with an American cookie before I start on my day’s work, that task of trying to understand how the mind works and, when it stops working properly, how to put it back together.

“I think my days of work are like making complex jigsaw patterns, trying to find shapes amongst so many mixed up bits. The mind is like that; it holds vast stores of information and, remarkably, manages to keep them organized and retrievable, like a massive filing system. What is surprising about memory is not when it malfunctions or fails, but how, in all the millions of everyday tasks, it works so superbly. Understanding how and why it works, as well as the reasons when it does not, is my life’s great challenge.

“But we should leave business until its time has come, for now tell me about you, the singular girl from the singular NT?”

Despite the bizarre introduction she found this man was easy to talk to. She told him about her study to become a lawyer and her job in the NT, she even told him a little of her difficult life with her mother. But she did not want to get stuck there with expressions of sympathy, so she quickly moved the conversation on, asking about him and what had brought him to Brisbane, when a glittering career in the US seemed on offer.

“Well, like you in the NT, this country is my home. After my years in the US I found I was homesick for Australia and particularly for its more tropical places, but yet I needed a big city to pursue my work, so Brisbane seemed most desirable. Now I have moved here I find myself content. Neither of my parents is alive and I do not have other family. Sometimes I think of moving further north, but it would be hard to sustain my practice and expertise in a smaller town, so here seems to offer the best of both worlds.”

There was a tap on the door and the receptionist indicated the barrister had now arrived. Dr Sangster went out to meet him and bring him in, saying Beck should finish her biscuit and coffee before she joined them.

Dr Sangster poured the barrister his own cup of coffee and went into to examination room for full introductions before they proceeded with their meeting. She and the barrister explained what they needed, for him the most critical requirement was for absolute privacy in relation to his client, for her it was the need to have an objective examination that would stand up to legal scrutiny, but which did not add further injury to an already damaged person.

After this both gave a sketchy outline of the situation, the claim of loss of memory by a person accused of a very serious crime in the NT, the need to evaluate if it was real, and provide a confidential report on this for legal consideration, but without any specifics. It was all generalities.

Dr Sangster put up his hands, saying. “I need to stop you both there. My rooms are private and soundproof. The other consultants all are away doing hospital work this morning. The receptionist is the only other person on the premises, as of now. She is paid to answer the phone and I have told her not to disturb us.

“So I feel we are going in circles and not getting to the point. I am happy to give an undertaking for total confidentiality in relation to this meeting. But if I am to examine this person in any capacity, whether to give you a report or to try and treat her, I need an accurate history of what has happened in order to give you advice about how best to go about it.

“Each person is different, every examination is different. It is something I need to plan carefully before I meet the client and I need to be as open as possible about my knowledge once I know them. I cannot do this if both of you keep talking in circles. Perhaps we can begin by you both deciding on whether you are willing to give me full information about this matter. Then, when you have decided that, we can decide on next steps from there. I will go out and talk to the receptionist about my patients for the afternoon and, while I am there, you can talk between yourselves and decide whether you can be sufficiently frank for us to proceed. There is no point going further unless I understand what has happened. If I do not know what happened I risk causing much more harm in the process. I will not do that.”

With that he walked out of the room. Now they had to rapidly strike up an agreement about how to deal with the unknown Susan, how much to share with each other and how much each could tell Dr Sangster.

They quickly agreed they were both happy to engage this man, he was the best in his field and despite some quirky mannerisms there was no doubt about his skill. So they would jointly tell him about the murder trial, Susan’s disappearance and the inquest.

When they got to that point the barrister informed Beck that the information he held about Susan’s current situation could only be disclosed privately without Beck present, because there had been previous internal leaks from the NT government about this case. She winced internally at this, realizing she was on thin ice, and agreed that she would leave the meeting while this information was provided, then return once it was done to confirm arrangements from here.

So they called Doctor Sangster back in and began the story together.

Beck led off. The person of interest is Susan McDonald, I am not sure if you have heard of her, the sensationally labelled ‘Crocodile Woman’.

Beck watched an expressive eyebrow go up as the name was said, and a small nod to indicate that he knew exactly who she was. Over ten minutes she gave a quick summary of the agreed publicly known events from Susan first coming to Australia, travelling in the company of a man with the alias of Mark Bennet, discovering his role in the disappearance of other backpackers and then killing him. She told of the discovery of the head and forearm, the evidence linking to Susan, of her extradition to stand trial and of her guilty plea to murder, but her refusal to describe what happened and why.

She told of sentencing day with a general expectation of a twenty year sentence, then of the sensational evidence of the day about the texts linking Susan’s action to her belief that this man had killed the other backpackers, giving grounds for self-defence, then how the judge had ruled that while this was investigated Susan MacDonald be released on bail, only for her to vanish less than a week later.

Beck told of information suggesting she had become suicidal, evidence suggesting her return to the waterhole of the murder, and then of the failure of all further inquiries to determine her fate. Beck said there had been a general view that she was dead but with lots of doubters who thought she had fled justice. Beck told how the inquest had returned an open finding about her fate while also making a finding that, despite her guilty plea, there was good evidence she had acted in self-defence.

Beck then told of recent contact by parties claiming to represent her, indicating she was alive but had a total memory loss of these events and refusing to disclose her location. She also told him that the desire of those she represented was to resolve her legal situation with the idea of a pardon based on the inquest evidence along with her inability to testify. But in order for this they needed an assessment of her mental state, so as to determine whether the memory loss appeared genuine. They also sought advice on the risk of further harm should she become aware of what had happened before, or if was returned to jail or subjected to further legal processes.

When Beck had finished her recitation, Ross Sangster leaned back, flexed his fingers and looked at her intently. “Well you have certainly described a situation which captures my interest. Of course you are asking me to play God and tell you consequences of finding out unremembered events, which is unknowable, but I can at least evaluate her current psychiatric state and point out what the key risks are. They are likely to be great.”

Beck returned his ironic tone, “Well, I had not quite mistaken you for God, but as I read you biography, it appears that you are generally regarded as the nearest thing to his surrogate in your field in Australia. So I can settle for an expert opinion from God’s deputy.”

He nodded and smiled back, almost warmly, “Well I think you have given me all you can for now about the events up to the disappearance. Now I need to talk to your colleague in private to find out what he can tell me about what has happened since then.

“There is an excellent coffee shop just around the corner from my office. I suggest you allow an hour before you return for us to have a full and frank discussion about the next part. Then, after that, hopefully we can wrap it up fairly quickly and agree on what we need to do from here on.”

So she went and sat in the coffee shop, drinking tea this time. She found herself thinking about this strange man who had burst into her life. He was not particularly physically attractive, though he could improve that with more attention to his grooming. But he had a mind full of sharp edges. They drew her in, challenged and intrigued her own mind. He was a few years older than her, perhaps eight or ten. He had probably got to a stage in his life where his peculiarities where no longer as well held in check and he did not socialise enough outside of his work to knock off his rough edges. But meeting this man with a razor sharp intelligence which probed and tested her own was enjoyable. She had an ill-defined desire to see more of whatever was hidden below that veneer.

When her phone rang and jolted her back into reality she realized she had been musing for a good half hour. It was time to return to the meeting. Quickly they finalised the contractual arrangements for the fees, examination and report preparation, along with the need for the doctor to be available for legal examination in the NT if required. They agreed on how the client visit was to be managed. Beck agreed to document it and email it out, then each side would come back with their own confirmation within a week.

One thing she asked for and, surprisingly, the other two agreed to, was for the examination to be videoed and the video, at least an edited version, be provided to her to accompany the report. The video was to include shots of both the doctor and patient, with Susan’s face obscured if required. It would cover several questions and the answers which were made.

She knew it would convey a much stronger impression of a real person than any report could. She thought it may help garner support from the Executive Government to seek a pardon. She also had to admit that she felt a burning curiosity to see this girl, how she looked and how she acted, another two years on from when she had last seen her in the witness box.

 

 

 

Chapter 20 – Real Mind Games

It was the middle of February before the examination with Dr Sangster could be scheduled. By now the NT Attorney General had the advice sought from the former High Court judge. While less fulsome than Beck would have liked it gave the view that a pardon could be used in this situation.

They also had a letter from Susan’s parents seeking a pardon for their daughter. It emphasised her cooperation in giving her testimony after release from jail and that this was supported by the inquest findings. It added weight to the legal advice. From the point of view of her boss, the Attorney General, that was a good enough basis to take the request to Executive Government once the assessment of Susan’s mental state was made.

In Brisbane, Vic now sat in the waiting room, while Jane waited at the motel minding the children. He had insisted on a pre-meeting with the Doctor, Ross Sangster before Jane came in, first thing tomorrow.

Her examination was scheduled from 7 am to 8am to ensure that it occurred before anyone else was on the premises. A pre-positioned video camera was to be behind and to the side of where she was sitting. This along with a microphone in front would record what occurred. Vic had the right to see the video tape with the barrister and remove any sensitive parts before a copy was provided for others to view.

Vic had asked to be able to attend the meeting with Susan but this been had declined by Dr Sangster, saying it may interfere with how she acted and responded and it would compromise his own independent evaluation.

Instead Dr Sangster suggested this pre-meeting this afternoon, saying it would allow him to gather further information about Susan, the only name he knew her by. It would also provide Vic with an opportunity to ask his own questions about what was to occur.

So now Vic was just waiting for this, full of anticipation and trepidation at how it could go wrong. He realized that he was jumping at shadows but still it found him on the edge of the chair with anxiety as he sat there. He decided he needed to clear his mind and focus on the now, how to best protect his Jane. So he pictured her smiling face and her playing with David and Anne. He found it helped him to be calm.

A tall, lanky man walked into the room. H had an overgrown beanpole look, straggly dark hair, mismatched clothes and a slightly weird demeanour. He looked like a mental patient.

Vic felt annoyed at another person being here. Dr Sangster, when they talked yesterday, promised he would be here by himself. Vic asked for this precaution to be extra safe, so no-one else could identify him here.

So what was another person doing being here? Vic was on the edge of getting up and walking out when he realized this strange looking man was talking to him, “Vic Campbell I presume,” he said as he held out his big hand

Vic realized he had mistaken the doctor for a patient. He felt less than reassured and was about to say something cutting.

But the Doctor beat him too it. As he spoke, Vic realized that, despite his weird look, this guy was seriously sharp. “I know I could be mistaken. But, despite your sceptical look, I am really not a madhouse inmate come to visit, Ross Sangster, at your service.”

Vic found himself laughing, “Well I guess my face gave me away Doc, but I have to admit it, you sure had me fooled.”

The Doctor led him out the back and offered him coffee and a chocolate cookie biscuit, while they sat and chatted.

When the coffees were finished this man looked at Vic intently again and said. “First you can stop calling me Doctor, My name is Ross. Second I need to know about this person, Susan. I understand she lives with you, along with her two children.

“I know you are very concerned to keep her location hidden. I don’t need to know where you live. But I need to know about her life, anything at all she remembers, what she does each day, about any friends, where she goes, her interests, what she knows and does not know?

“When I talk to her I must be very careful. I need to ask her questions that demonstrate her knowledge and lack of it. But in doing so I must not undermine her current sense of who she is and cause more damage.”

Vic said, “Well, you need to start by calling her Jane. I did know a Susan once. They tell me the tests show this is the same person, the same DNA or whatever you call it. But the person who lives in this body now is no longer Susan, she knows herself only as Jane, she remembers none other.

“Any suggestion she is not Jane will distress her greatly, it is the only piece of identity she had to hold onto. So you must not suggest that she is another person called Susan.

“It seems to me as if more than just her memory has gone; it is as if the part of her, the part called Susan in another life, has been ripped out of her body and mind. Into that vacuum, a new person has moved in and taken up residence. That person is Jane.

“She is the warmest and loveliest person I have ever met. But she is like a person held together by bits of sticky tape. The bits could easily come apart if something else bad was to happen. Then I don’t know what would be left, if there would still be any person there? But the thought it could happen scares the Bejesus out of me. So you need to be careful, really careful.”

Dr Sangster did not reply at once. At first he nodded but said nothing. Then he remained looking intently at Vic, as if deep in contemplation. Finally he spoke. “What do you think? Where have all the memories gone? Are they still sitting somewhere deep inside her, buried to stop the pain, or have they really vanished, been torn out and got lost, so they can never be recovered? Does she need that part of her back?”

Vic shrugged, uncertain what to say, so the doctor continued.

“I know you do not know the answers, but these are things you need to think about. Today and tomorrow, only a small bit of what I need to do is to confirm this girl has lost her past and along with it her memories. I don’t need to see her to know that, it is abundantly clear from all I have been told. It fits as the only way for her to escape from an impossible situation, short of her own death. I think suicide must have come very close to her, feeling like a best friend she wanted to take control of her life, to let the pain end.

“Still I must make it appear to others, the lawyers, that my purpose is to assess her memory. I must go through the motions. But it is not my reason to see her, any half competent doctor or psychologist could do this part.

Vic asked, “Why then?”

“My first concern is to be gentle. She has suffered enough. Denying her past was her only way through the pain without destroying herself. Neither of us needs to be Einstein to know that.

“But the real question I put to you, as the person who carries care for this damaged person the deepest, is: What should we do about it? Do we need to try and join the old and the new? Does she need to reconnect to her old self in order to live a full and happy life? Or is she better to be left to begin again, to have a new life with the old one left completely behind, baggage of another person?

“That is the real question. That is the thing you need to think on before I meet with her. It will help shape what I do at the meeting and afterwards.

“Do I try to find the pieces of her old life and help her mind to connect them to her new life, or do I help her to bury them in an unfindable place, where they can never bring back the pain?”

Now it was Vic’s turn for silence, it was such a great responsibility, such a fraught choice. He thought of the girl he now knew. She was utterly beautiful, bewitching, kind and good. Yet, without a past, she was an emotional child.

He loved that child. But when he remembered the adult he had known, just briefly before, he realized the loss, the incompleteness. It was like the colours she was unable to see, her life was missing dimensions of existence that others had. It felt safer to leave her this way but it was not enough.

And in his heart of hearts he knew it was not a safe place for her either. The bright smile that covered the sticky taped pieces, still broken though held together, was inherently unstable. Without making real new joins between the old and new persons there was no resilience, without finding the old the new could never be much more than a shell.

Yes he loved her and she loved him and it was good. But it was not near enough, much more was needed to make her complete. Ultimately his own completeness was inextricably linked to hers, so she needed her to re-know herself too in order to know him.

The “I don’t know you but I want you” song from “Once” was true but it sold them both short. He wanted more than that for them both.

As these thoughts swirled through his mind he remained silent, only half aware of the other’s intense eyes, watching him. Now he had it clear in his mind he could answer.

“You are right, I have thought it through and now I know. We must try and find a way to build a bridge between the old Susan and the new Jane. They are both wonderful people, but they both need to know and value the other to form one complete whole. So, frightened as I am by what this all means, we must try to find a way to bring them back together, for the sake of many people who know and love her, but mostly for her own sake.”

Ross Sangster nodded. “I hoped that you would see that. My intuition told me the same. But, not knowing her, it is not something I could know with certainty. I feel much better if we are both agreed on that.

“My real responsibility is of course to her, she is my patient, assuming you and she agree. But I need your help and support. What we must try to do is part exorcism, part healing. It will be hard and painful for us all so I need your belief in this for when the dark days come.

“As we open the cracks to allow the healing to begin so too the pain will come back. It will be hard for her, but in many ways it will be harder for you, watching the bringing of pain to one you love.”

“Now you must tell me all you know of this person, both from before and after, but particularly from after. Even though neither of us can see them now, in the new person are clues to direct our way back to the old.”

The sun had fully set and the room was only lit by light coming in from the river by the time the talking was done. Vic returned to the hotel to find this woman, sitting on the floor with her children on her lap. It was beautiful and touching, a child with her children. He loved her with all he knew, but yet he knew he wanted all of the old to come back along with the new.

 

 

 

Chapter 21 – Memory Flashes

Ross Sangster brought two comfortable chairs into his examination room, separated by a low coffee table, in preparation for his early morning meeting before he and Vic parted last night. Then he set up the camera.

They decided, at the end of their meeting, to tell Jane that the reason for the visit was that Doctor Sangster was going to try and help her remember things from her past. If she agreed, he would begin with trying to help her remember more of her childhood before she came to Australia. Regardless of his agreement to do this assessment of her, he would only go beyond initial introductions if she agreed to this.

Vic had only told Jane thus far that he would like her to come to Brisbane with him and meet a doctor friend of his who had some ideas on how to help people get back their memory. He had said he hoped she would be happy to talk to this doctor.

She had answered that she would meet him though she did not feel she needed to remember her past now that she and Vic were fully together and happy. But she would do it for him if it pleased him.

So, this morning, he helped her feed and dress the children, then he said he would take the children for a walk in the park for an hour while she met the Doctor. After they would meet at a café for a delicious cooked breakfast, bacon and eggs for him, coffee and pastries for her and treats for the kids.

Vic and Jane were staying in a hotel just two blocks away so he and the children walked with her to the meeting place.

As they approached they saw Dr Sangster was waiting at the entrance to the office building where his rooms were. As they parted David and Anne smothered her in hugs before running off excitedly with Vic to play in the park alongside the river. She followed the doctor inside.

Ross Sangster had first thought of bringing in the receptionist early so that she could put a formal face on the process and operate the recording equipment. But, after meeting Vic yesterday, he decided it was better if it was only him there, he would have a meeting transcript from both the audio and video recordings. The machines were simple. He only had to turn them on before he started and they could operate in the background. He was not a techno whiz kid but it was simple stuff; press both “Power On” and “Record” buttons and let them run.

Now he looked at this lady carefully who stood before him. Her hair had auburn blond tresses but darker roots were beginning to show. She wore good quality clothes, but without any intrinsic sense of style or of how they worked to best effect. Her hair was loosely tied, but without obvious care. It seemed as if she looked at her image in the mirror without real recognition and with no sense of how to use her natural beauty to best advantage.

But what struck him most strongly was the almost childlike innocence in her face, open and trusting without the counter-play of those typical more complex emotions of an adult. She looked slightly nervous at the new and unfamiliar place but that was the only discernible emotion.

He brought her to the anteroom and began with his coffee and biscuits routine. He had stumbled on this as a great way to relax uncomfortable people and build first trust. It seemed to work now as her manner softened.

She was really quite lovely he thought as he watched her in the morning light, ethereal and vulnerable were first thoughts but, alongside, damaged.

He explained to her what he wanted to do. “Vic has probably told you I am a doctor who tries to help people who can’t remember things properly.

“Vic is hoping I can help you remember things from when you were little, not bad stuff, but memories of growing up in England. He thought it would be nice if you could tell your children your own stories from these memories as they grow up, as it will help them to them to know about their mother.

“So I thought the way to start is to sit and chat for half an hour in the other room. You can tell me whether you want to do this or not. If you don’t that is fine, but I promised Vic I would meet with you and talk about it.”

She nodded at him thoughtfully, her face looking unconvinced.

Coffee finished, he brought her to the examination room and showed her to a chair, saying, “I use a camera and microphone to record my meetings so I remember what happened later. Do you mind if I turn them on now?”

She replied in a small voice, “Yes that is OK”

After he turned on both recording machines he sat down opposite her. He expected that it would be up to him to open up the conversation but instead it was her who began.

“Doctor Sangster, I know this is important for others, so I am doing it for them. But, you see, even though it seems important for these people to know about me from before it is not important to me. I know I was someone else once, but I am not that person anymore. I don’t need to know that person anymore to live a good and happy life now.

“For a little while, when I first met Vic and I wanted to know how to behave as a woman with him, it seemed important. But now I understand about that part, what a man and woman should do together when they are married. So it is not important anymore. All the other things I need to know for my life now I can learn through watching TV or reading books. These things slowly fill my mind with new memories and make me happy.

“So it may be important to others for me to remember from before but it is not important to me. I am happy to talk to you but I don’t feel broken and needing fixing. If it makes Vic happy, I will try to find memories from when I was little, but it is only to please him.”

Ross Sangster nodded and said, “OK, let us just talk about what it is you do remember. Why don’t you tell me about when you met Vic, what you remember from then. Tell me the story about you and your children, how you met Vic, what made you decide to come away with him.”

She recounted the story of the meeting of the helicopter pilot, her son’s instant trust in him, how she wanted to sing for him in the church. It was a simple story, simply told, with a gentle loveliness, but an unreal feel. It felt like a story from a picture book, bright light but without complex emotion.

Then Ross said, “What can you tell me about coming and living in that place before you met Vic?’

She described finding herself standing by the side of a road, with the bag with her name on it and nothing else and how the aboriginal ladies had given her a lift into the town and she had gone and asked the lady in the shop for a job. She told how she had lived and worked there, how her babies had been born and soon she started to become friends with the people of the town, particularly the pastor and his wife.

He asked her if she had remembered anything about her life before that day standing by the road.

She said, “No, I thought I must have banged my head and got amnesia and the memories would soon return. But they never did.”

He asked her if it worried her.

She said, “No, it is just the way it was. My life was good with my children. The only time I wanted to know more about before was when I wondered about things like how soon my children would walk. Then I thought it would be nice to ask my mother but instead I asked the Pastors wife, my friend, Ruth. She answered my questions instead.”

Again he found these simple, unemotional descriptions clear but they were unsatisfying, as if she accepted she would never know about another life and felt no desire to look further. It was a tale without colour.

He asked her about the things she did know, like how to do the accounts at the shop, whether it seemed strange that she knew this but had no idea of how she learnt these things. Again she said it was just how it was.

He asked her how she felt when Vic came back and asked her to come away with him. For the first time he felt there was some real emotion, she told how Vic arrived in the middle of the night, that she had been so happy to see him and trusted him. She told of how they had shared the bed that night, him just holding her, and as she lay in the circle of his arms she dreamt again a dream she had had before. It was a dream of an unknown man that she needed to know. This night she had realized that this unknown man was really Vic and it had made her feel very happy. So she had trusted Vic and come with him, happy to be with him and share her children with him too. The time since had been wonderful, even better than she could have ever imagined. The only strange part was, at first, not remembering how a woman should be with a man.

Right from the start she had known, though she did not have the right words, that she loved him and he loved her. Then, once she realized that people like them got married she wanted to marry him and when she said it to him he told her he wanted to be married to her too. So she became his lover as well as his friend and that was the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to her.

Now her emotion was real and vibrant though the rest of the story remained without colour. But, as she told it, he was filled with a sense of her simple goodness and joy. For the first time he had real doubt as to whether he should help her to remember her life from before.

He asked her about the visit to meet her parents. Again she recounted the tale in the simplest fashion, her happiness at meeting them, along with her friend Anne, and knowing, even without remembering, who they were. She told of the tiny memories she now had of parts of her childhood with her parents, mainly of her brother and Anne, just a fragment here and there. It seemed to be enough for her, a connection to a distant past.

It seemed to Ross that, for all the intervening years, her memories had ceased to be important. Instead she was fully happy to have this huge empty space in her life.

He asked her what she most wanted to do with her life from here. Without a moment’s hesitation she answered, “I want to get married to the man I love. That is what I spend most of my time thinking about when I am not busy. Now he has agreed I just want it to happen.” She spoke with a dreamy and beatific smile that melted him.

There was no sign of pain at memories repressed; it felt like a part of her life had been washed clean, as if it had never been. Part of him thought he should just leave it there, dig no further.

But a sense of huge unreality gripped him. She said it was enough, she acted like it was enough, she was clearly happy now. But her emotions, as she talked of her life now, were like the emotions of a child, joy and sorrow, happiness and sadness, but all the complexity was missing.

He asked himself, in his mind, Where have all the shadows gone?

Where are the mixed emotions of love and hate, the envy, jealousy, the anger, the disappointments –the things that make a real human being real.

She said she did not want them, she said she did not miss them, but without them he felt that only half a person was sitting in front of him. He asked himself did he have the right to try and open cracks between the old and new if she said she was happy to only have the new. His ethics said he must not. Yet his deepest self, the part of intuition, told him he must.

So he decided to explore the edges of the memories from before they vanished. Those early childhood memories seemed like a safe starting place. He would take her back to them; see if he could get her to step forward, even a tiny bit, to find more of her childhood and life as a teenager in England.

So he asked her to tell him the last thing she could remember from when she was a little girl. It was her first year in High School, when she had met Anne and the two of them had become friends. She said she could only remember the day she first met Anne, two gawky twelve year olds in their first week at High School. They had desks side by side and used to talk when the teacher was not looking. He asked her to try and put herself back into that place now and remember the school holidays she had before that year, to remember where she had been and what she had done.

He watched as her mind drifted into this space, little flashes of light came into her eyes as memories came. Then she began to speak.

“I do remember those school holidays. They were summer holidays. We went to a farm up in Scotland. It was the farm where my Dad had grown up, in a valley between big green hills. His parents lived in one house. His sister, who was married too, lived in another house nearby. Her husband did farm work. My Dad loved to help and I did too. So he would bring me out on the farm with him. My brother Tim did not like farm work much. He had a cousin his age and the two of them would spend hours playing together. There was another cousin, but she was younger than Tim. I felt too grown up to play with her. I liked her and talked to her but I did not play with her much.

“I also remember my Aunt Em, my Dad’s youngest sister. She still lived at home with her parents, she had just finished school. She was the baby of the family, that’s what Dad used to call her. I was twelve and she was eighteen. She was to go off to University after summer. She was really pretty and a bit wild. I would sit with her and talk for hours about boys and going out and things like that. I can’t really remember exactly what we talked about but I just remember how much I liked being with her. She was so excited to be going off to a big city to live and study. It all sounded so exciting to me too. She would talk to me like I was as grown up as she was.

“And I remember how she, me and my Dad would sometimes talk, all sitting around the fire in the evening. Em and my Dad both loved animals, particularly the big wild animals in other countries, the lions and tigers, the elephants and giraffes, the monkeys, chimpanzees and gorillas.

“We all wanted to go to Africa and see them, the lions, leopards and cheetahs hunting in the national parks. I don’t know if we ever did, but we dreamt and talked so much about it, being camped by a waterhole and watching all the animals coming in to drink and how a lion pack would try and ambush them, while we watched from a hidden hide.”

“What were your favourite animals?” he asked.

She thought for a minute and then answered, “I am not sure, I thought the apes were so amazing, they are so like us, their behaviours and the way they interact. But then I loved the predators too, the way a cat would stalk up, or silently wait in ambush until something came along.”

He asked, “Did you ever see any that you remember, perhaps at a zoo or something like that?”

She thought hard and then said. I think the year before those holidays my Dad took me to a zoo called Whipsnade Zoo and also to London Zoo in Regents Park. I can remember watching a cheetah stalking someone who was walking along the outside of its enclosure at Whipsnade Zoo. And I remember feeling sorry for the lions at Regents Park Zoo. They were lying out in the sun and their enclosure was concrete. I thought of them out in Africa, in the long grass, hunting animals. I thought, What a pity, they have nothing to chase and nowhere to hunt in there.”

Ross did not know why but the image of a crocodile lying in ambush suddenly came into his mind, perhaps it was all the media speculation about the Crocodile Girl, perhaps it was that freaky story Vic told him last night of a huge crocodile swimming alongside him as he escaped from the wilderness after he crashed his helicopter, or perhaps it came from an association with the predators in her story. The words popped into his mind and were on his tongue before he could think and take them back.

“Have you ever seen a crocodile?”

He watched her face as he spoke, wishing he could take the words back.

First she screwed up her face as if thinking. Then her face transformed into blank dread from which, like a slow motion picture, it morphed into abject horror and overwhelming fear. As it did a noise began, somewhere deep inside. He mouth took a rictus shape. A thin banshee wail flowed from it, rising in tone and volume into a screech of unrelenting terror. Suddenly the noise was gone, bitten off into even more ominous silence. The terror in her eyes was undiminished and her body began to shake before giving way to heartbroken, convulsive sobbing of the words, “No, No, No, My Babies.”

Ross was first paralysed into inactivity by the noise, but as it transformed into sobbing words he rushed around the table and put his arms around her shoulders, pulling her to him and talking to her as to a small child. “It is OK, no one is hurting your children, they are safe, they are with Vic.”

Slowly her sobbing and shaking abated, her eyes returned to where they were focused on him, but with an accusatory look, “Why did you say that, that thing about the crocodiles? It is evil. I saw my babies swimming in a pool full of crocodiles. Lots of big crocodiles, swimming towards them, mouths open. My babies needed help and I could not reach them. I was stuck here in the wrong body. I knew the crocodiles would take them, tear them apart, eat them. I knew my babies would be torn into little pieces. I could not reach them or help them. I could not bear to watch it happen. It was so real.

“I wish you never said those words. I don’t want to talk about memories. I don’t want try and remember, ever. It is all too terrible. I never want to see that awful thing again. I just want to be left alone.”

Ross tried to calm her, telling her they would go out and see her babies now, they were safe with Vic, it was something she had imagined. It was not real. Her wild eyed terror remained though gradually the self-control came back and the accusation faded from her eyes.

He suggested she wash her face, go outside and see the others. She complied, but in the manner of a rag doll, moving without purpose.

So he brought her out to Vic and her children. She hugged her children tightly to her as if fearful they were a mirage and would vanish.

As she held her children Ross explained to Vic what he had done, his foolish words and how frightened she had been.

Vic had an instant flash of annoyance on his face, but he seemed less perturbed than expected. “As you said Doc, there is a whole world of pain trapped inside her. I am not sure that I am glad about what you did but it needs to find a way out. So thank you for trying to help. I will talk to you tomorrow after she calms down.”

Vic walked over and enfolded Jane in his arms. He stroked her hair like that of a small child as he murmured soothing words.

Soon her children grew impatient at being ignored. “Mummy, mummy come and see the boats on the river.”

 

 

 

Chapter 22 – The Reporter

Jacob was pissed off. He knew that lawyer tart, Beck, in Darwin, was stuffing him around. Once upon a time she had been only too happy to take his good money for scraps of information. And, largely because of her, he had made it big time, the journalist that everyone was talking about.

But now she seemed to have got cold feet. When he rang her work receptionist, asking to talk to her, she was always busy and never returned his calls. When he tried to ring her mobile it went to message unanswered, when he emailed her private email she never replied. He knew he could not use her government work email – way too dangerous for him and her if it was shown he was trying to pervert the course of justice.

He thought of upping the ante, doing something more direct with her work to scare the pants of her, perhaps leaving a message with her secretary that Jacob Shoesmith a journalist from the London’s Fleet Street needed to talk to her urgently about the Susan MacDonald case.

That would really put a scare into her. He also thought about his threat to send the bank deposit slip for the most recent sum he had paid her bank through to her boss in the mail with a ‘please explain’, anonymous of course. But that was just a threat. She would lose her job if anyone followed that trail and the goose laying golden eggs in the Susan story would stop laying.

Plus he had enjoyed his nights with her when he visited Darwin, she was only a mediocre sort to look at, good body but face a bit angular for his taste, but she was really hungry for sex when he got her between the sheets, her other recent bonks had obviously been limited with a sick mother. So he recalled the two nights spent with her as memorably good, they had turned each other on big time, perhaps his black body made her horny, her milky white thighs certainly had that effect on him. It would be nice to do it again at least one more time.

But, for now, she needed to deliver something. He had money waiting to send her. But she needed to use inside information to reopen the trail on the Crocodile Girl which had gone cold. He licked his lips, savoring finding that Susan tart, sticking a camera in her face as they brought her back to jail.

It had been far and away the biggest story he had ever broken. He had followed it from the start, from when they unearthed those clues saying the crocodile was not the real killer. The crocodile had only come along after the bloke was dead, finishing the murderer’s work. Instead it had come out that someone with a girl sized footprint had finished of that Australian Outback dude, Vincent Mark Bassingham, whacking him on the side of the head with a big lump of wood and dragging him to the water. This person obviously expected the crocodiles to do the rest and leave no trace. So he knew from the start she was as guilty as hell the way she had deliberately tried to hide the evidence. No lovers tiff this, but rather a cold and calculated murder from a clever but thoroughly nasty little bitch.

He had to give it to her; she was a great actress, deserving an Academy Award for her Saint Susan role in the murder trial. She had barely spoken, silence and beauty were such effective weapons when put together, playing the martyr image. But he had cracked that open, with a bit of help from the Darwin girl, Beck. He found that she spread herself around pretty well, that was her past history. Now she must have moved on to a newbie. Pity she and Vic had not stuck, he was sure he could have found Susan through him if he knew where she was. But he had seen Vic’s plane ticket for Canada, 18 months or so after Susan vanished. Jacob’s sources had told him the word was that Vic was all broken up.

A bit after Vic’s going abroad, rumors had surfaced about Susan having been found in Queensland. Beck had fed this rumor to Jacob, back when she was talking to him. She told of a vague story of a person who looked just like her working in a town up north. So he had jumped on a plane to there and spent a month looking around for anything that was real. He checked out the obvious places, Cairns, Townsville, he went to the smaller places and resorts, checking out all the shops and bars and businesses, flashing her photo and cash around and telling that he would pay well if anyone knew where she was. He had been pretty well everywhere except the blackfella places where no one in their right mind would go. And he had found zip.

But still the rumors bubbled around. When she vanished she was too pregnant for an abortion. A nurse at the hospital told him it was twins. He imagined her now with two small children. She should be easy to find.

He remembered the adrenalin rush from that time almost two years ago when his piece, ‘The Two Faces of Susan Emily MacDonald’, had been far and away the highest rating story of the English tabloids. Then Beck had told him about her going by her middle name. He thought that was both weird and a bit silly, as if by taking that name she could vanish.

Back then he got part of his story came from an earlier boyfriend, Edward, definitely still a bit smitten by her. Edward told Jacob the story of how she had dumped him and how she was a party girl, always willing to try it on with new men. To add to that he had the story of her shagging both the outback bloke, Vincent, Mark B or whatever and at the same time that rich dude, David. Then, the instant she was out of jail on bail, Beck told him she was shagging the helicopter pilot. At that point he knew he had gold, a true English tart, giving plenty on her back but quick to put the knife in when she no longer wanted it.

Not to mention the way she proudly carried that belly full of arms and legs from her contest, who knows whose it really was, perhaps one each to two fathers, seeing as the nurse also told her they were a girl and boy, not identical. The brats in her belly did not come from being a good girl who only went to church. So, when it was added to the crocodile killer, it was a story of sensation made in heaven. It had pushed him right to the top. He loved being in that place where his name was on everyone’s lips. But then it slowly slid away. As it did he slowly slid down the ratings and pay scales.

Now he had to make the story come alive again, it would be even bigger if he could find her now, particularly after all the Saint Susan TV publicity her red headed friend had done last year. He knew, if he could find a way to get that Beck bitch to fill him in on what she knew, he could crack it. Perhaps he should double the offer to twenty big ones. He thought about it for a minute. Yes, he was sure that would bring her round. He knew she needed a lot more cash for her mother’s treatment. Beck may not want to talk to him but her mother’s part time nurse had no such scruples. She had told him about the need for a new wheelchair for ten big ones. So it stood to reason that if she needed that cash just for one thing then she would need more cash for other things as well.

So she must be playing hard to get to put up the price. He needed to get out there and get in her face. Nothing like more pillow talk, after a good fuck, to bring her around. Being there in person would make it very hard for her to refuse him, either the money or the sex.

Having decided how to move it along he booked his flight to Darwin for next week. It was a small town and Beck would be easy to catch up to. Who knows, after he bonked her, paid her and got what she knew, he could spend a couple more weeks working all those Queensland towns again himself, if he talked to enough people and threw plenty of cash around he would surely dig something up.

That afternoon he got an OK from his boss for a ten thousand pound cash advance to pay his source, and another five for his own expenses for the trip he had booked. His boss was as hungry as him for a new big splash, but his patience was starting to wear thin.

“I don’t mind paying for results and you certainly delivered in spades a year or two ago on this one. But you have nothing to show for the money we have laid out since then. It is time to move on if this does not pan out. Plenty of local stories in our part of the world that you need to put a bit more effort into or your pay packet will take a haircut at your next performance review.

“So I am cutting you slack for a month to go and run this to ground. But, if it does not happen, you better find some other big stories while you are out there, or perhaps only a job at half pay or a new job will be in the offing.”

Jacob could feel his ears burning as he walked outside. With all the trouble that Rupert M and the other big boys had had over the last couple years it was getting harder and harder to use underground sources to crack the big ones in England. He was done with piss poor jobs, with a thousand hopefuls looking over his shoulder and waiting for him to trip and fall.

That was why he had decided for cash this time; if it blew up he wanted no money trail back to him and an inquiry. With a month in Australia, if he could live sensibly, this big wad of expenses would leave enough to pay Beck well and still leave him free to chase down other stories. His boss was right; he needed to find other things to pursue even if this panned out. No one could live forever on one story. He needed to dig into the other girls that were part of this, perhaps some new trails and sensations there.

The coverage on TV of this story had been very soft and lovey-dovey, the making of a new bunch of martyrs. That was fine and all, but what the public most hungered for was raunchy, out there stories; the requisite mix of sex, violence, horror and tragedy. They were his staple fare, goodies got boring.

As he walked home he thought how he had risen from his own humble beginnings, a black kid, with a Jamaican mum and mixed up north African bits on the other side, it was a muddled whether Egyptian, Moroccan or Ethiopian was dominant, but he got a bit of it all.

So his rise from a promising school student to a cadetship with a tabloid daily then to a journalist in his own right had been a big deal in his family. When he had risen to the top of the pool, the year before last, that had been a really big deal. He had spent his large income freely to impress family and friends. Now it was hard to think about taking a drop back to being another middle level journalist, who made a living – just.

The funny thing was when he had dug quite bit into the bloke Vic’s background, the black kid from a town camp made good as a helicopter pilot and then running his own show, had felt a sort of brotherhood with him. So, when Vic seemed desperate to shack up with the Susan witch-bitch after his miraculous survival, Jacob felt protective of him. Perhaps that had a small bit to do with the hard-ball way he had decided to play this girl’s story, leaving no room in his mind for sympathy for her.

He could let such things as kindness get in the way; he had to look after himself to stay as number one super trash digger in the tough journo game.

 

 

 

Chapter 23 – Beck

Beck had talked to Ross Sangster on the phone several times since their meeting in Brisbane. Most recently she had talked to him twice since his meeting with Susan, first on the following day when he told her how the meeting went and mostly about Susan’s distress when he asked about her memories of crocodiles. He promised Beck his report and video next week once he had agreement from the other side about the video’s contents.

He then rang her earlier today to say he had posted the video express mail and she should have it within two days. Once she viewed it he asked her to call him so they could talk about what to do from here.

Their telephone conversations had become remarkably friendly and frank, she found herself very comfortable talking to this odd man. His cryptic sense of humor gelled with hers; they had subtle mind contests with words and phrases that were both friendly and challenging. She was unsure if she thought he was attractive, but she liked him, liked his company.

He seemed to enjoy talking to her as much as she enjoyed talking to him. Sometimes he gave too much away about this case and the meeting, as if he inherently trusted her not to abuse privileged information. This made her squirm inside when she thought of what she had already done.

He let slip that this girl had two children, a boy and girl, who stayed with a man outside his rooms while she was in the assessment meeting with him. It was obvious, from the way Ross talked about the man, that she and he were in a relationship, not just friends. It came out when he told Beck about her reaction to the crocodile words. He followed that story by saying that, once she calmed down, he brought her back outside to the man who minding their children who and he put his arms around her and comforted her. He also told Beck that, when he asked this girl what she most wanted to do in her life from here, she said she wanted to get married. So, odds on, the person she wanted to marry was to the same person minding her children.

Ross had also used the name Jane once instead of Susan without even realizing he had said it. Beck suspected this was the name she used now. Added to this he said they had driven down to Brisbane from where she lived the afternoon before he met her so this indicated that she was staying within a few hours of Brisbane. Ross also spoke of her taking the children for regular walks along the beach which suggested she lived in a seaside place.

Each bit alone was not much. But, when she put these bits together, it was a lot more than she was supposed to know. It told a story about who this girl was now and gave a much narrower circle around where she lived. She knew it was information that was worth a lot of money.

As she walked out of the building to go home she was torn. She did not want to betray this girl yet again. But her Mum was getting steadily worse, becoming more and more housebound as she lost the strength in her arms to push the wheelchair. Beck really wanted to get her the new chair with the motor, and it would only take one phone call. She promised herself that if she did that, afterwards she would call it quits. She could feel the balance in her mind tipping towards this, but she had to put some protection in as well. She must make sure, if she gave him this story, Jacob would do two things.

The first was that he would never come back again and ask for more, all contact was at an end. The second condition she would require was he not run any story that could lead back to her. So he could not do a piece in the paper that led back to what she told him. He had to use her information to find out the rest of the story himself; the true story of who she was and where she was. He could only go public if he got that story. He must not leak this information in a way where it could be linked back to her. It was not just for her own sake, she could not bear for Ross to ever find out she had used the privileged information he had let slip to harm his client.

In the end she decided she would do nothing until the weekend, three days away. But if, after viewing the tape, it did not change her mind, she would ring Jacob in London on Sunday. She would do it when her mother was taken to church by a neighbor. She would not tell the story at first. Rather she would get a clear agreement to her conditions before she revealed more.

She was locked in her own world, thinking this out as she walked to where her car was parked. Someone was standing in her way, blocking the pavement in front of her. She stepped to the side to go round them. They stepped that way too. She stepped back the other way, they followed.

She felt annoyed and was about to dish out a caustic, “If You Don’t Mind, Get The Fuck Out Of My Way, PLEASE!!!” She looked up, vaguely aware of the dark skin, thinking, Drunk Aborigine.

It was Jacob. He did not look like an aborigine, but his skin was half way to that color. She was lost for words; he was the one person she did not want or expect to see. She thought she had made up her mind just before to talk to him. But now he was here in person, she realized her mind was still in a state of flux, she needed a couple days to think this through and compose herself before she was ready to talk to him.

He gave her a half grin, saying, “I know you have been doing your best to avoid me, so I decided I had to see you in person. Now I have got to see you, you had better come with me for a drink and a talk. We have important stuff we need to discuss, lots of important stuff.”

She could not mobilize the will to fight him so she meekly followed him as he led her along the street to the bar on the corner, then followed as he went into a corner booth where she sat facing him.

He could feel his sexual magnetism grabbing at her. She knew he was going to proposition her both for more information and a night in bed. She felt powerless to say no to either.

He went and bought them both a drink, remembering her usual gin and tonic from last time. He clinked his glass to hers and took a mouthful as he looked at her thoughtfully. “Here’s to renewing our friendship,” he said.

She lifted her glass in return and took a sip; it did taste good. She took a proper swallow, then thought, “what the hell, my body wants another night with him, and I want the money, what is the harm!”

Three drinks and an hour later she felt fully mellow. With each swallow he looker sexier and sexier. In a dreamy state she let him take her hand, lead her out along the street to his hotel, then into the lift and up to his room.

As he undressed her she felt incredibly horny, pushing the little voice of caution out of her mind. Then he was on top of her on the bed, riding her up and down. While her body was loving it, her mind suddenly snapped back. Why am I doing this? Why am I letting him fuck me?

She shook her head and pushed him away. “This is all wrong. I just want this to be over. I will tell you what you want to know, what I know right now, but only on the condition it ends today, no more sex, no more pestering, no threats of telling anyone anything about me.

“You can take what I give you, see if you can find the girl and get your story. In return you give me the ten thousand dollars I need for a motorized wheelchair for my mother. At least that will be something good to come from the bad thing I have done.

“I don’t know much about this girl but she is better than either of us. She deserves a new life after all the bad that has happened to her. Remember that if you do find her. You are the arsehole in this, not her. Before you smear her name across the tabloids, think, What harm has she ever done to you that entitles you to treat her like this?

She turned her face and then her body away. She found herself crying quietly. How had she let herself come to this place? She wished it was over now, except for her mother’s need of her and her income, she would throw her job, catch a plane and vanish, try to do the same as this girl was doing, find a new life without a past. She felt anger driving her. She would keep her bad bargain, if he agreed to her terms. But she would end it today.

She grabbed at the sheet and pulled it up over her body, then turned to him with the anger glistening through the tears. “Well, what is it to be. Do you want what I have to tell you, at my price, or shall I just get dressed and leave now?”

She watched the emotions swirl across the dark face. He looked shocked and hurt too at her stinging rebuke. But, despite her mental slap, there was still hunger in his eyes, not hunger for her and her body, that had never had any meaning beyond the sex act, but hunger for her knowledge and for the power and status it would bring him if he could find the girl Susan and write another chapter of her story. It was the hunger of a poor boy, risen to the top, who could feel it all slipping away and could not bear the thought of becoming a nobody again. Despite her anger a part of her felt sorrow and sympathy for his degradation, alongside hers.

He went to his briefcase and pulled out an envelope, it was thick. There are 100 fifty pound notes, in there. “They are yours, right now, no strings. And there is another envelope the same for when you tell me what you know. Then I will leave you alone. I will call it quits, whether I find the girl or not, I will let you alone after today.”

She dressed and then sat in a chair facing him, wanting this to be over fast. “What I know is this. She has been found but we do not know where she is. She has two children. The name she uses now is Jane. I do not know where she lives now, except I think it is somewhere in a coastal town, not too far from Brisbane, perhaps somewhere like the Gold Coast, where she can hide amongst other people. She lives with a man whose name I don’t know and she wants to get married to him as soon as it can be arranged. He treats the children as if he is their father and she loves him. That is the whole of what I know, perhaps it is enough to find her, if you are as good as you say.

“The only thing I ask is that, if you find her you treat her better than you have before. You could still write a good story which would sell and remake your name without harming her, this time you could try to be a little kinder. She deserves decency and a new life.”

For a minute she thought about saying about her memory loss. She also thought of telling about the seeking of a pardon. But the first thing was only the girl’s business and the second was only the law’s business. He did not need either for his story. She felt better not to have surrendered these two small things, as if a corner of her soul had retained something of its own.

He passed her the second envelope with a nod of thanks.

She took it and walked out the door without looking back. Her hand holding the money felt on fire, as if she was holding a burning devil. But, having sold her soul, she would not let the devil go.

 

 

 

Chapter 24 – Secret Pardon

In the days that followed Beck tried to forget what she had done. She told herself, over and over, that she had done no real harm, the money was for a good cause and the girl was away free and would soon be married and living a new life where the past could not touch her.

Her lack of memory was her salvation. It made her untouchable. So this man may find her and ask her questions, but all she could say was she did not know, she did not remember. That was no story and interest would fade.

Beck walked miles along Nightcliff and Casuarina beaches as she reran and repeated this mantra in her mind, scuffing sand and kicking little waves, as she tried to walk away the memory, make herself believe it would be OK.

On the Monday morning the mailman brought a package to her work. It was a slim square package with a note from Ross saying this was the agreed DVD of the interview. She closed her office door and loaded the DVD into her computer, watched as the icon came up showing it was loading then, when that finished, she pressed play

The video was good quality though mostly it showed Ross’s face to the camera. The other person was sitting with only her side profile in view from behind. It took Beck long seconds to connect this image with her mind image of Susan. Dark hair was replaced by something auburn to blond, tied loosely in a haphazard fashion, conveying a person who cared little how they looked. Her face was unseen but the profile conveyed a sense of unreality, a non-person filling the space, a part of that was due to the strange view, more was due to a demeanor, more absent than present. Ross had once mentioned something about this girl seeming to be missing a part of her soul, an empty shell sensation. But until she saw this image these were just words.

Now she understood him; the person sitting there brought to mind a beautiful but lifeless piece of porcelain. It was hard to believe this person had anything linking them to the girl she had last seen sitting in the dock, smiling brightly but incredibly controlled, a will of steel inside a pretty face, with an incredibly vital life force emanating. It was so much easier to believe that here was a different person. No wonder she was hard to find.

Beck half wondered if it was really her, rather than some clever charade of a different person, role playing, out for fame and glory. The change in the life essence was too hard to take in.

A few seconds later she began to speak. In that instant the uncertainty resolved. It was so her, the voice, the accent, it was unmistakable.

“Doctor Sangster, I know this is important for others, so I am doing it for them. But, you see, even though it seems important for these people to know about me from before, it is not important to me. I know I was someone else once, but I am not that person anymore. I don’t need to know that person anymore to live a good and happy life now.”

At that point there was a clear discontinuity as if a part had been edited from the tape.

It then jumped to a place where Ross asked her to tell of her earliest memories saying.

“Tell me what is the last thing you remember from when you were a little girl, living in England?”

She replied, “It was my first year in High School, when I met Anne and we became friends. I can remember the first day I met Anne. She was a gawky twelve year old with flaming red hair and a big cheeky smile. We had desks side by side. We used to talk when the teacher was not looking.”

Ross said, Put yourself back into that place now and try to remember the last school holidays before then, where you went and what you did.

A few seconds of silence ensued then the voice continued, “I remember those school holidays. They were summer holidays. We went to a farm up in Scotland. It was the farm where my Dad had grown up, in a valley between big green hills. His parents lived in one house and his sister, who was married, lived in another house nearby. Her husband did the farm work. My Dad loved to help on the farm and I did too. My Dad would bring me out on the farm with him.

“My brother Tim did not like farm work much, he had a cousin about his age and the two of them would spend hours playing together. There was also another cousin, but she was younger than Tim. I felt too grown up to play with her. I liked her and talked to her but I did not play with her much.

“I also remember my Aunt Em, my Dad’s youngest sister. She still lived at home with her parents, she had just finished school. She was the baby of the family, that’s what Dad used to call her. I was twelve and she was eighteen. She was to go off to University after summer. She was really pretty and a bit wild. I would sit with her and talk for hours about boys and going out and things like that. I can’t really remember exactly what we talked about but I just remember how much I liked being with her. She was so excited to be going off to a big city to live and study. It all sounded exciting to me and she would talk to me like I was as grown up as she was.

“I remember how she, me and Dad would sometimes talk, all sitting around the fire in the evening. Em and Dad both loved animals, particularly the big wild animals in other countries, the lions and tigers, the elephants and giraffes, the monkeys, chimpanzees and gorillas.

“We all wanted to go to Africa and see them, particularly the lions, leopards and cheetahs hunting in the national parks. I don’t know if we ever did, but we dreamt and talked so much about it, being camped by a waterhole and watching all the animals coming in to drink and how a lion pack would try and ambush them, while we watched from a hidden hide.

“What were your favourite animals?” Ross asked.

There was another pause as if she was thinking. Then she answered, “I am not sure, I thought the apes were so amazing, they are so like us, their behaviours and the way they interact. But I loved the predators too, the way a cat would stalk up, or silently wait in ambush until something came along.”

Ross asked, “Did you ever see any wild animals that you remember, perhaps at a zoo or something like that?”

Another pause and then she said. “I think the year before those holidays my Dad took me to a zoo called Whipsnade Zoo and also to London Zoo in Regents Park. I can remember watching a cheetah stalking someone who was walking along the outside of its enclosure at Whipsnade Zoo. And I also remember feeling a bit sorry for the lions at Regents Park Zoo. They were lying out in the sun and their enclosure was mostly concrete. I thought of them out in Africa, in the long grass, hunting animals. I thought, What a pity, they have nothing to chase and nowhere to hunt in there.”

Ross asked, “Have you ever seen a crocodile?”

At first she said nothing though a flinching movement passed over her body and her side face took a hard and squeezed up look, which washed away as her mouth opened into what looked like a grimace.

As it did a noise began, somewhere deep inside her. It started as a thin wail, rising in tone and volume into a screech of terror. Then the noise was gone, as if she had bitten it off. Now her body began to shake which soon became huge sobbing movements, with the words, “No, No, No, My Babies,” said over and over again.

Beck watched as Ross stumbled to his feet and ran to her, putting his arms around to comfort her. She turned to the side towards him bringing her face into view. It was a mask of pure and unadulterated terror. Suddenly the screen was blank, though the image was still burned deep into Beck’s retinas.

Then the face image returned; she was there again, facing Ross, saying with accusing eyes,“Why did you say that, that thing about the crocodiles? It is evil. I saw my babies swimming in a pool full of crocodiles. Lots of big crocodiles, swimming towards them, mouths open. My babies needed help and I could not reach them. I was stuck here in the wrong body. I knew the crocodiles would take them, tear them apart, then eat them. I knew my babies would be torn into little pieces. I could not reach them or help them. I could not bear to watch it happen. It was so real.

“I wish you never said those words. I don’t want to talk about memories. I don’t want try and remember, it is all too terrible. I never want to see that awful thing again. I just want to be left alone.”

Beck knew in that instant it was a terrible mistake for her to pretend this girl was alright, that she could retreat behind a no memory mask. She knew now it was not true, already her past had destroyed one life.

Now, even though she had built something new which had cut all links with the past, leaving her with little more than a shell of her past existence, it was a fractured place. Deep cracks ran between the new and the old and the wrong words could tear this fragile edifice apart and smash it to bits. If that happened she would be culpable.

The video was finished now, a real blank screen. Beck looked at it with blank eyes; her only remaining image was the overwhelming terror in this poor girl’s eyes. Shame rose at her own part, reflected from this image.

There was a knock on the door. She called out, “Yes.”

Her receptionist came in, saying, “I have a Dr Ross Sangster on the line and he would like to talk to you urgently. He says he had to fly to Darwin at the end of the week and thought that he could perhaps schedule a meeting to discuss the video and his report. He just needs to know if you can arrange that before he confirms his bookings.”

She picked up the call, a welcome distraction from her thoughts. “Hello Ross. Can I expect to see you in Darwin?”

“Yes I have been asked to meet with and review the treatment plan for an aboriginal man in Darwin Hospital who has traumatic and alcohol related brain injury with severe memory impairment. They have asked me to fly up for the day on Thursday, and I wondered, before I locked in flights, whether there was value in me discussing my report either with you or your other legal colleagues. I could do either Wednesday or Friday though, to be honest, Friday works better for me. If I came then I would stay for the weekend for a bit of sightseeing as I have never been to Darwin before.”

She answered, “Can you give me ten minutes? I just need to check the Attorney General’s diary and also to see if at least one of the two others, the coroner and the sentencing judge would also be available and could fit in a meeting.”

She walked out to her receptionist, saying, “Jenny, could you get onto, Judge Davis’s associate and see if she can squeeze us into his diary for an hour sometime on Friday, it is about the Susan MacDonald case.

“Also ring Coroner Edwards’ personal assistant and check his availability, ideally for the same meeting though it can always be for different meetings if needed. I will go and check with his lordship the AG.”

She knocked at the door, knowing her boss had been in for at least half an hour and that he liked to be left alone to catch up on reading the daily pile of briefs for his first hour of the day.

A grumpy sounding “Come In,” came back and she walked in, putting on her calm and determined face as he looked up.

“Oh it is you, Beck,” he said, giving her a much more pleasant smile than his voice belied.

“You sound frazzled,” she replied.

“Just these endless crappy cabinet papers, for Thursday’s meeting. Some people need to learn how to write simple English. They say lawyer English is bad. But we have got nothing on these high faluting civil servants, bloody jumped up office clerks, who think we want to read endlessly about strategic plans, key performance indicators, milestones of success. It is enough to give me a headache and make my beard go grey. Why can’t they just say what they mean in short simple words?

He paused for a second to draw breath, “Sorry for the rant. I am sure you did not need to know that. How can I help?”

“Friday is a clear day, right?”

“Well unless I can bugger off for the day after Cabinet and go fishing. But I suppose I can make myself available if needed, especially seeing as you ask with such charm,” he said, winking.

“Dr Ross Sangster has just rung and I said I would call him back in a minute. He sent me his report and the DVD of our own Lost Girl, Susan. I was looking at it before he called. He has to come to Darwin on Thursday to meet with an aboriginal patient. He asked if he could schedule a meeting with us to discuss his report, preferably on Friday. I am good for that day; your diary says the same. Jenny is checking regarding Judge Davis and Coroner Edwards. It would be best if we are there together to hear what he has to say. I wanted to double check with you before I said ‘Yes’ on your behalf. I will try to keep most of your day free for that fishing trip, but no promises.”

He grimaced. “That’s what I both love and hate about you, your bloody efficiency. So the answer is ‘Yes’, if I must, I will even admit to having a tiny twinge of curiosity about this one. What does the video show?”

“Well it is definitely her. She looks much different but I know her voice. She looks both genuine and scary. She sounds bright but brittle at first but then …” She grimaced, “Best that you see for yourself. It shook me.”

Jenny had found time in both the judge and coroner’s diaries between eight and ten o’clock Friday morning, after that both were booked solid.

Beck replied, “OK put them both in for eight, meet here, and tell them both to block out the two hours. It may take less, but it is a complicated story and you never know. Tell them both I will hand deliver a DVD and report this afternoon for their eyes only.”

She went back in and closed the door before calling Ross, not that she did not trust Jen, but one leaker in her organization was more than enough.

By the time Ross came off the phone she had agreed to have dinner with him on Friday night and do some sightseeing over the weekend. He was booked in from eight to nine o’clock Friday for the meeting on his report. Then he would have to go off and amuse himself for the day while she and the others decided where to go with this. Then she would prepare all the required documents to action whatever they decided.

She really hoped they all would agree on a pardon, with it to happen as soon as possible. She really wanted to give this girl a chance to disappear totally, sooner was better lest Jacob run her to ground. She must find a way to warn her that a bloodhound was on her trail, perhaps Alan could do that.

Friday came before she had time to think, she was at work early, making sure Jen was on duty keeping everyone else away. She set up a big screen in the conference room to allow them to all view the video together. On the table, in front of each man’s chair, sat a copy of the report and alongside it a preliminary position paper with a summary of the report and recommending on the steps from here.

The others were seated, perusing their documents, when Ross arrived. She escorted him in, did the introductions, then passed him the remote control, saying, “Before we go through your report, which seems straight forward, could you walk us through the video and give us your impressions both of the patient and of what happened on the day.”

Ross nodded and started the video, explaining the first sequence, where Susan spoke to him, unasked, before he had asked her any questions. He said from after that section he had blanked out the name of her partner at the request of the barrister for the other side, but otherwise it was unchanged.

He then explained the gap in the sequence saying, “Next I asked her to tell me about what she first remembered from her life now. She described arriving, heavily pregnant in a location in Queensland, with no understanding of how she came to be there, just that one morning she was standing beside a road holding a bag with a name written on it, she decided that must be her name and since then she has gone by that name.

“She found a job working in the town and soon after gave birth to two babies, a boy and a girl who are now nearly two years old. Since that time she has moved on to various other locations. I am unable to disclose her current name or any of the locations where she has been, which is why that section of the tape is missing.”

He then moved on to the next part of the DVD sequence saying. I now tried to see if any memories existed of her life before and it turned out she had just a few which finish when she lived in England around the age of twelve. Significantly her last clear memory is of meeting her friend Anne, the person you have no doubt seen on the television documentaries, searching for the ‘Lost Girls’.

I do not know for certain but I assume that she is now in touch again with both Anne and her parents who for a long time were all desperately searching with no idea of what had become of her. If so it is good for her to have a little bit of stability and reconnection after what must have been an extremely difficult and traumatic part of her life.

The DVD started playing again and they all watched rapt as she told about her memories of her friend and her holiday on the farm, then of her love for the wildlife of Africa. It had a dreamy, almost otherworld, feel to it. They had all seen it before and knew what was coming. Yet all had an intense look of anxiety of their faces as the crocodile question came out.

Ross let it run to the end without a word spoken, then he turned it off and faced them saying.

“My final question was very foolish. I don’t know why I asked it. After that I wished I had not. At first the other side wanted me to take that part out. I persuaded them not too, this picture speaks far louder than words.

“We can all see, despite the new life she has made, there is a connection to the old. I do not doubt for a minute that she is totally genuine in saying she remembers nothing, her mind must have walled off that part as a last resort of self protection. But I would hate to put her in the witness box and start questioning her about that time. I would equally hate for it to happen from a journalist or third party.

“I think the best thing we can do is to allow her to quietly disappear and get on with her new life, to respect the wish that she clearly stated at the start of this video not to know about her past.

“I am troubled that, even then, her past may come back to haunt her. But I would not like it on my hands to cause it. I fear it may not end well.

“It is a strange thing. In many ways she is a delightful and lovely person. She has great warmness and kindness. It comes through very strongly, as if all her bad parts of her character have been taken away and locked out of reach. Now all that remains is a kind and gentle shell.

“But the box of horrors is still there, buried somewhere. I would not wish to open it. When I spoke those words, the terror on her face was something I would never wish to see again. You can only glimpse it in this video. But that is enough to understand what a bad place that must be for her.

“Perhaps with time she will find a way to deal with it, perhaps her family can help. But for us, here today, the kindest thing, in fact the only decent thing we can do, is not to harm her any more. So I leave it in your hands to find a legal way to let her get on with her new life. In effect that is what my report says, though it uses more long words. I am sure you have already read it, but there is nothing in it that you cannot see here with you own eyes.

“Her memory loss is genuine and it exists to protect her mind from something at the furthest edge of terror. It would be most foolish, much more than foolish, to force her to confront that place. I advise you in the strongest possible way, Do not do that!

“Now any questions, gentlemen?”

There were none. Dr Ross Sangster excused himself and left the room.

The remainder of the meeting took but a few minutes. All present agreed to recommend to Executive Government that a pardon be granted to one, Susan Emily MacDonald for her conviction to the murder of Vincent Marco Bassingham.

Beck was left alone to put the executive wheels in motion. By the end of the day it was all prepared for a meeting between the Attorney General, the Chief Minister and his key advisors on Monday. No problems were expected and the formal process was expected to take about a month.

She took a deep breath and said a silent prayer as she walked out of the office that night that it would go smoothly so this girl could be left to get on with her life, never to be found again by those who would do her harm.

 

 

 

Chapter 25 – Confession

Beck was full of trepidation at the thought of meeting Ross for dinner. With the advance notice she had arranged for a neighbor to sleep over with her Mum so she did not need to be back at a particular time.

But, since seeing the video, she had a sense of betrayal of Ross’s trust in what she had told Jacob. She did not think his or her name would ever come out from Jacob. But she had used the ‘in confidence’ information Ross gave her to send Jacob off on his hunt for Susan. Jacob was exactly the type of bloodhound who would succeed.

As the first step this afternoon she had rung Alan, told him about the agreement for the pardon, but also asked him to warn Susan’s friends to be very careful about her location. She suggested to Alan it might be a good idea for Susan to move to another part of Australia as, with documents floating around in senior government which referenced her examination by Ross Sangster in Brisbane, the chance of a leak was much greater. With this came the risk of journalists searching for her in this part of the state.

Alan agreed she was right and said he would pass it on “post haste”.

So, hopefully, that would protect Susan, though Beck did not feel sure. But what most ate at her was she had betrayed the trust of a man she really liked. She hated facing him with this between them. After meeting Jacob she buried the money deep in a drawer with her clothes. Since seeing the video she could not bear to bring it out and touch it, it had such a tainted feel.

As she dressed to go out she looked at her over-strong jaw and nose and wished she had been born softer and prettier. Not that Ross was a drop dead gorgeous type either, but she wanted him to look at her with liking on this night out together. She thought that, perhaps, she was as nervous of him and how he looked at her as she was of the secret she held. After looking in the mirror yet again she gave away the effort at covering her face with a layer of make-up, he would have to take her as he found her.

They met in the lobby of the hotel he was staying in. An excellent restaurant with a mixed Asian cuisine, which she loved, was next door. For ease she had suggested it.He was already at the bar when she walked in and he looked as nervous as she felt. That relieved her. Maybe he cared what she thought of him too. He looked well in black pants and a white shirt and his black hair neatly brushed back. He seemed taller than her when she came up to him. Impromptu she leaned up on her toes and lightly kissed his cheek in greeting.

In return he took her hands and looked at her saying, in a quaint, old-worldly way, “You look quite lovely.”

“She blushed with pleasure.”

They fell into casual conversation. She went to talk about the case at first, but he pressed a finger to her lips saying, “It is not so often I get to have dinner with a beautiful girl. How about you begin by telling me about yourself and how you come to be living here, working in such an important position.”

So they chatted about her. She found she did not want to pretend with this man. She told him of her mother again, but in more detail, how she lived with her and cared for her and it left little time for other things. She said, “Really I don’t have much time for going out now so I lead a fairly boring life. My days of being an out there party girl are long gone. It is strange how work has become my sanity outlet.”

He nodded, sympathetic, but more, as if he understood, saying. “My life is not too dissimilar to yours, not that I have the reason you have of caring for another. But I am not easy in most people’s company. I find that small talk does not come easily away from work. I often seem to say silly, inappropriate things. So, like you, my work has become my passion and main outlet. It is where I feel most comfortable. I sometimes wish I was a naturally social person. So it is nice to find a kindred soul.”

After that they followed other lines of conversation as they ate their dinner. He liked listening to classical music and they shared this interest, he had dabbled in photography as had she. The meal drifted by with a pleasant meandering feel. After the meal was done they moved to a lounge chair in a small alcove, sitting side by side but not touching, sharing a glass of port.

Finally he asked her about the case which she quickly updated him on.

He looked both relieved and pleased when she told him about the agreement on the pardon, saying, “I am very fearful for this girl, lest she be discovered. I only hope my own foolish mistake, that question about the crocodile, has not really harmed her. In the second after I said it, even before she had registered it, I wished I could have taken the words back. I think it was my ego, wanting to be clever and play God, the great fixer, rather than just waiting for her own self discovery. I have damaged her trust. I hope I have not damaged more. The thought gives me sleepless nights.

“Have you ever deeply wished you could undo something?”

As he spoke he looked into her eyes with searching intensity, as if seeking to discover kindness in her soul.

She felt shame well up, his mistake seemed such a small thing compared to what she had done, but for him she could tell the pain was real. She knew she must take this chance to unburden herself too. She took his hand which rested on the couch beside her, squeezed it with her own and turned her face back to his, searching his eyes as she gathered courage. “Thank you for telling me, it must be hard to speak of this. In time I think she will come to understand that you meant her no harm.” She took a deep breath to steel herself to go on, collecting her faltering words. “I have done something far worse, a thing that shames me. I harmed you and her in what I did.”

His eyes stared into hers in a kind, nonjudgmental way. She stumbled through the story, the lust and betrayal, the taking of the money, the buying of things to help her mother, and then the day just gone when she met this man again and took his money in return for telling what Ross had told her. She saw the pain in his face as she told of that, a wince. He did not look away.

She finished by saying, “After I saw the video I could not bear to touch the money. It is still in my drawer. I feel, having sold out, I should take it, use it to buy the thing for which I paid the price. Then a small piece of good can follow the bad. But I cannot bear one more betrayal. Before I saw her face and terror I pretended I was harming no-one, even though it was a lie.

“I cannot pretend anymore. In her face I saw the harm I had done to her, now and before. So, if I cannot repair that, I must do no further harm.” Beck’s body was shaking as she spoke; Her mind felt a tearless horror. Ross did not speak but put a big arm around her shoulder and pulled her in against him, cradling her head like a child. They sat like that for some unknown time.

At last he spoke. “What you did was a bad and selfish thing, and cannot be undone. For that you will always carry shame. Now you must learn to let it go. One day, should the chance arise, you must tell these words to those you have hurt, the girl and her man. They are good people and I am sure they would forgive as I do. Then perhaps you can begin to forgive yourself. In the meantime we should do something good with that money. Not use it for your mother, I will make sure she gets the wheelchair she needs without you needing to lie and steal secrets. But you should use it to help others in great need, those you do not know. That way the money will not taint them too.”

Beck put her arm around him and lay her head against his shoulder. “Did anyone tell you, you are a good man and a good friend.”

The weekend passed with them spending most of the time in each other’s company. They were not lovers but their friendship was a deep and intense thing, they had shared their deepest and worst secrets so now they felt as if they could each tell the other anything. On Saturday they drove out to Litchfield National Park. They walked alone along a barren stony track for half an hour until it plunged down a hole in the hills. They swam together in a clear rock-encased pool, both a little self-conscious about their revealed, imperfect bodies. A late wet season water flow plunged over a sheer cliff into this shadowed place below, spraying them with a fine mist that flowed over their bodies and made surreal shapes as they drifted in and out of the fog into the gloomy light.

That night Beck played host at her own house. While she worked away in the kitchen preparing food, Ross charmed her mother and the next door neighbor, a regular visitor who covered for when Beck was away, she was a longstanding friend of the family.

On Sunday night, in fact early Monday morning, she went with Ross to the airport for his red-eye flight to Brisbane. She sat with him at a small table, sipping a coke and keeping odd snippets of conversation going but mostly just sharing silence. Finally, when the flight was called, Ross took her hands, saying, “Thank you for a wonderful weekend; the best in my memory.

“I have been meaning to tell you but was not sure how to say it. I have been offered a job in Darwin, working at the hospital in the Rehabilitation Unit for people with brain injury, both from alcohol and traumatic causes. It sounds exciting, but in truth half the attraction is because you live here. What do you think about me taking it?”

She gave a spontaneous grin. “Well I am glad that is settled. Otherwise I would have had to find a way to move to Brisbane. That would have been tricky with my mother. In the meantime I was thinking of flying down to Brisbane for another weekend, just with you, only if you are free, of course. This time you can play the host.”

Now he gave her a huge smile in return, “I would really like that.”

 

 

 

Chapter 26 – The Returning

Vic had got the warning to move from Anne, via Alan, and took it seriously.

He had been shocked as he had looked at the record of Jane’s interview a few days later with Ross and the barrister. Jane’s upset manner on the day was bad, but she was over the worst when he saw her. Afterwards she had a distant and reserved manner, so unlike her normal sunshine self, which had persisted for a few days, as if for the first time in her remembered life she had lost trust in someone or something, though she had stayed affectionate to him. Fortunately this faded and now she seemed back to normal. But it had reinforced his sense of her vulnerability.

He had gone back to Brisbane the following week for a two hour meeting to decide on the contents of the video to be provided. They debated long and hard over what parts to leave in. Vic insisted that all parts referring to him or her living in the north Queensland aboriginal community must be taken out, lest others who saw it trace her that way. He also wanted the bit showing her acute distress removed, not that it gave anything else away. But it was far too raw and pain filled to let others see, or so he had thought.

Ross argued forcefully, that despite his question being a mistake, her reaction was the thing that would work best in getting the government to understand just how fragile and damaged she was. The barrister supported Ross, saying this picture was far better than any words.

But, even though he had finally agreed to it remaining, the awful sight of Jane’s terrified face frightened him to his core. He had already been thinking it was too dangerous for them to keep staying so close to Brisbane with the series of meetings he had been to there.

It would not require Einstein to start checking the smaller regional towns nearby, particularly checking out the temporary places where people stayed like caravan parks. He considered renting a house in one of the towns around here. But that was fraught with its own problems like the identity documents and references being needed for leases. He could try to find a farmhouse in the area in return for farm work, but his contact network did not run deep in this place and the act of looking would bring him into public view.

He hated the idea of randomly moving Jane and their children around, as much for the children’s sake as hers, they all needed stability and new roots, not an endless, half fugitive existence.

It was a devil’s choice between two evils, the evil of a forever fractured existence, links broken over and over when only half formed, and the evil which lurked in a buried place in her mind, threatening to break out and overwhelm her. He did not know what to do, each choice was not good.

At least with the message about the threat of exposure came the fact there was agreement for a pardon. The other thing that Vic had thought about and talked over with Anne was the need for Jane to have new identity documents. They were needed for marriage, which she mentioned regularly and they were needed for travel as well as the thousand other normal things a person did, health insurance, education, driver’s license – the list went on and on. Of course the primary identity of Susan MacDonald was an English one, so the identity change had to begin there.

He had a half formed plan of her needing a new passport in the Jane Bennet name. That would need a legal name change in England. That part would not be hard to achieve if Jane could remember her former self and give a signed instruction for her name to be changed. But it needed to be done without public knowledge and it needed to be done on her behalf by someone else, which meant her parents.

So he had talked it around with Anne and bounced ideas around with Ross too. They formed a plan for Ross to provide a report confirming Jane’s loss of memory and new identity. Ross would say she needed to be given identity documents in this new name, as it was likely to be very harmful for her to be forced to confront her previous identity.

At the same time Anne would use her legal connections in London to work out how this could be done both legally and in a non-disclosed way. Her idea was that Jane’s parents could sign forms authorizing a name change and then new identity documents could be issued in the Jane Bennet name.

With the wheels in progress for a pardon Vic also thought he should seek agreement from the NT government for this course of action, Alan was pretty good in getting things like this sorted as he had already shown.

So Vic was hopeful that within four to six weeks, shortly after the pardon was granted, Jane would have identity documents in her own name. Then, using these, they could get on with their lives together in a faraway place.

But this did not solve the conundrum of where to go now. He knew they needed a new home, one not easy to get to, one where the people could be trusted not to let the cat out of the bag. It had to be a place where there was control of others who came and went and, importantly, one where Vic could do something useful while he waited. He tried to think of all the remote parts of Australia where he had not been, at first thinking that, if he was unknown, no one would guess to look for him in these places. But, if he did not know the people in a small place, he would stand out like the proverbial dogs balls, not to mention Jane and their children. Their unknown status would make them subject of idle gossip and curiosity and that brought danger.

At last it came to him. He had to go back to where he was known and trusted, and with that came a trust in others. One of the stations at the outer edges of the Alice Springs district would be best. These were small family owned units, despite their immense size. Many had extra houses for workers or outstations. As of now most stations had yet to take on workers for the cattle season. He could think of several such places, it would need a bit of careful inquiry to work out which served best, for both the place and him. In such a place the only person who would know he was there would be the station manager. Most were already good personal friends. People from outside could only get to these stations with the manager’s agreement.

It seemed like a neat solution, at least for a couple months until the pardon and identity stuff was sorted. He remembered he had an uncle who worked out on a place to the far north-west of Alice. He lived alone now his wife had died and his kids had moved to town. He was head stockmen when there was a stock camp. The rest of the time he maintained the windmills, making sure stock had water. Vic had not seen him for several years but had visited him often as a boy. So it was an obvious place to go.

He would ring his sister and ask her to try and get it arranged. At the same time he would tell Jane he wanted to make a trip to Alice Springs for her to meet his family. Jane had announced that she wanted to get married there, so it was also a step towards this idea which he liked as much as her.

Jane and the children were delighted when he told them and they decided to leave the day after tomorrow. They all had really enjoyed the Christmas car trip to the farm and this promised another family adventure.

He made Jane promise not to tell anyone where they were going, saying that once the arrangements for the wedding were made she could call and tell people, but for now he wanted to keep it a secret. He could see she was torn in wanting to tell Thea but she agreed and he knew she always stuck to what she said.

A week later they found themselves crossing into the Northern Territory from Queensland after coming across from Boulia and crossing the multiple flood outs of the Georgina River. It had rained two months ago and the country was lush with fat cattle and myriad wildlife and water birds. They came onto the Plenty Highway as they entered the Territory and followed it as it skirted around the northern margin of the Simpson Desert. Part way along they turned into the station homestead road they were heading for. After another hour they were there. Vic’s uncle was there to meet them along with his sister and mother who had driven the several hundred kilometers for a family visit. They were entertained royally in the station homestead on the first night. The next day they all climbed aboard a Toyota Landcruiser Station Wagon driven by Vic’s Uncle Jack.

He brought them to the outstation where he lived and showed them to a two bedroom cottage next to his house. He said this was their new home for as long as needed.

The house had a telephone so they could ring the world and a mail plane came to the main station each week delivering mail. The station cook went to town once a fortnight to buy food and on the next day a delivery was made to his Uncle’s outstation. In return for this place to stay he would do work on the station to help his Uncle fix roads, fences and machinery, check waters and help with stock work. He wanted no wages, just a place to stay for him and his family.

Finally Vic felt safe knowing no one could find them or reach them here. The only people who knew were people he would trust his life to.

 

 

 

Chapter 27 – Another Family

Jane was surprised at the joy she felt in discovering a new family, Vic’s mother, sister and uncle. They were all affectionate and kind, wonderful with the children and full of the stories of the land. She found she could sit and listen to them for hours.

She loved the fact that they shared Vic’s blood and some of his looks, their dark skin and dark eyes were just the same, though each had their own special bits, his sister had blond highlights to her hair which Vic assured Jane were natural for some desert people, his mother had beautiful glossy back skin and hair which shone when she brushed it. His uncle, Jack, had a tough wiry body so much like her Vic though his hair was now a grizzled grey.

Vic’s mother and sister stayed for a week, living next door in the Uncle’s house though in truth they were as much in her house as his, and Jane loved it that way. On the third day Uncle Jack appeared with a quiet horse and led the children around the yard, the next day he came with two quiet horses for Jane and Vic to ride while his mother minded Anne and David.

They followed him as he rode around the home paddock, first taking them to a little rocky hill where the heavy bodied kangaroos, which he called ‘big boy wallaroo’ grazed. From here they had a panoramic view and he showed them the lie of the land. They rode on checking the fences and Jack showed them his special places and the signs of the land, the sweet open grass flats where cows and calves played, the places of water along the creek, the places in hidden trees where the cattle camped, two more little rocky hills where more kangaroos grazed.

He finished by saying, “Now you not get lost, but more better you stay inside fence unless you come with me. Don’t want picaninny belong you lost in outside bush, too hot, no water, big snakes, maybe devil devil man.”

Vic grinned and punched his uncle on the arm. “Ah, go long with you Jack, devil devil man only children story, me blackfella too, not get lost. But still we best be careful with the children in the bush.”

Jane nodded, she understood Jack’s and Vic’s warning that this could be a dangerous place.

After a week Vic’s Mum, Rosa and his sister Jill went back to Alice, saying they had a wedding to organize, giving Jane and Vic a sly wink. Each week Jane rang her parents and Anne. David and little Annie had now learnt to take turns to say hello too and tell simple stories like “today the chooks laid three eggs,” or “yesterday we saw a big goanna”.

Other times Vic rang others to check on the wedding arrangement, that is what he told Jane anyway, though she knew it was a bit more than that. But that was fine, Vic would tell her anything she needed to know and she trusted him just so.

One day, when Vic was out fixing a grader which had broken down on the main station road, there was a knock on the door. It was Uncle Jack who had been out checking windmills and was now finished for the day. He said, “Today Vic’s not home till late, more better you come and have dinner with me.”

She followed him to his house with the children and went to help him prepare dinner. He shook his head and showed her to a chair, giving her an album of photos to look at instead.

He said, “I good cook, I fix the dinner. You marry family, you become part of family. So this is family photo book from great grandfather to now. You look. That way you know your nother family too.”

So she sat there and began to turn the pages. First she was looking at old sepia photos, men with big hats and ladies with long heavy skirts, other men leading and driving camels, others again with black skin and few clothes with big spears and throwing sticks, one proud black man carrying a big kangaroo on his shoulder, then several men riding horses behind cattle, horse races, old cars and trucks with their proud owners driving along scrubby roads.

As Jane worked her way towards the back she recognized the clothes were becoming modern and the cars were newer looking. She recognized a lady who was a young Rosa, with three children standing around her and a small baby in her arms. She looked carefully at each child around her, two boys, like Vic but different, then the girl, perhaps five or six, she realized that this was Jillie. Vic must be the baby in his mother’s arms. Rosa looked so very proud with her children, particularly her little baby.

It made Jane smile inside with pleasure. She knew that, but for change of skin color, it could have been her when she held her babies David and Annie, she knew and owned that look too. Next page there was a picture of a shiny new helicopter and a proud young man standing beside it, then a second picture of a tribe of black kids climbing all over it as the same man watched over them with huge pride.

Uncle Jack walked over as she stared at her Vic in the flush of success. “Fine looking boy, heh. Not bad for a desert blackfella to own that thing. Good thing about our Vic is he never forgot his blackfella roots, he spent half that first day taking all the nieces and nephews and then the rest of the town camp kids for rides in that machine.

“Only pity was that boy could have been a football star, so quick and balanced. If only you could have seen him running down the ground, cutting his way through mob of players, a step one way then a swerve another, keeping the ball at his fingertips, so fast no-one could even touch him. He was pure magic, he was. Could have played for a top Melbourne AFL team, made lots of money, seen his name in lights. But his big sister, Jillie, she would have none of it.

“She would tell him, “Sure you could make the big time boyo, but what then? What when you is 30 and is all smashed up?”

So she made him stay at school, do his lessons, get an apprenticeship, learn to fly. The day he bought that machine I had to tell her she was right, but a part of me always wanted to see him running down the field, ball on a string, kicking it straight through the centre of the MCG goals, it would have been a pretty sight.”

Jane folded the book closed and walked over and hugged the Jack. “I suppose being married to Vic makes you my family too. I like being part of this family and having an uncle like you. You must tell me all the stories of Vic as a little boy along with your own children.”

So they shared a meal and he told her story after story, most were funny but some sad. As he talked more and more she felt she belonged, this was her real family now and she was joined to them. When the meal was finished he went to a drawer and pulled out a package wrapped in a tattered piece of oil cloth. He placed it in her hands.

She unwrapped it. It was an old book, bound in a leather cover with its edges frayed and marked, tied closed with a faded red ribbon. She carefully untied the ribbon and opened it. There was something old and precious in the feel of this manuscript, its weight, the heavy paper, the marks of all the hands which had held it. She turned the pages, seeing brightly colored ink drawings and delicately drawn lettering. She could not read the writing as characters and words were unfamiliar.

Jane looked at Jack with inquiring eyes. “What is it?”

He said, “I do not know, it belonged to my Grandfather Vikram, it has been passed to each generation for someone to mind. It should now go to Vic. As you have more education maybe you could find out the story it tells, does it tell from where he came, or is it a religious book, like a bible. Now there is a new generation in our family, it is a thing for you and Vic to have. But before it passes from me I would like to know what it says, what is the story it tells. Could you find out for me, so I can know its story?

“I have held it in my hands many times. But its inside is a mystery to me. I do not have the learning to discover what it says. I would like if you can do that for me. Then, when I give it to Vic, I can give him proper instruction in its meaning. I think that is what I should do before I pass it on.”

Jane nodded. “I am not sure quite where to begin. But I am sure I can find out. So yes, I will do it for you. It is best if you keep the book, to keep it safe. But I will take photos of its pages. That way I can find a person who can read these words and tell me what it says and then I can tell you in turn.”

Next day she borrowed Vic’s mobile phone which had a camera and worked her way through this old book, carefully turning each thick yellowed page, some smudged with dirt or fingermarks. There were about 150 pages with writing and a few blank pages towards the end. The writing was like nothing she knew but a few of the pictures seemed to have a familiar feel about them, one of a brightly colored parrot. She was sure she had seen similar flitting through this desert landscape. There were also a couple of images of men in long flowing garb leading and riding camels and a couple landscape type pictures, carefully drawn using a range of ink colors which seemed to be Australian. There were also drawings of landscapes with jagged high snow covered mountains and lush valleys. They seemed from another land, perhaps around the high mountains of the Himalayan ranges.

However the writing gave no clues, nothing was in a language she could understand. The script seemed different from any language she had seen, many letters or symbols with complex curves and curls. She decided she needed to talk to a university professor with knowledge of languages from the Indian subcontinent or Middle East to begin to decipher this story.

 

 

 

Chapter 28 – Search for the Elusive Susan

Jacob left Beck behind feeling bemused and a bit frustrated. The aborted sex had left him full of desire – not just for Beck but for any raunchy hot young thing between the sheets. By the end of the night he had satisfied that itch with another girl he had picked up at the hotel bar, buying her a few drinks and sweet talking his way into her pants.

But after he had had her a couple times he found he had little to talk about with her, she was just a good time girl and was happy to go on her way looking for more adventure before the night was done. When she was gone he fell into a deep sleep.

He woke early, wishing Beck was lying beside him. He would have liked to start his morning having sex with her, but more he enjoyed talking to her, her mind was sharp like his own and she challenged him.

But she was not there. He knew she was now torn about what she had been doing, caught up by a guilty conscience. He wondered what led to her change of heart, had she found out something she was not telling him. In the end he decided that it had been a fair trade, the money for the information she had given him. Now they could both get on with their own lives.

As he showered and dressed he felt re-energized. He could sense this story was now within his grasp. It had that feel; his gut instinct told him it was able to be cracked open. This girl had gone into hiding under another name, he now had that name, the first name at least, and he had an approximate location for where she now lived, a coastal town somewhere within a hundred or so kilometers of Brisbane.

He spent a few hours on the internet in his hotel room, familiarizing himself with the geography of this area. After his searching he decided that either the Sunshine Coast or the Gold Coast, or perhaps the very north of NSW were most likely. There were loads of apartments for rent in the Gold Goat and also lots of other short term accommodation options, backpackers, caravan parks and the like.

A backpacker place was also unlikely with two small children. Her place was unlikely to be the top end of the market, these would want references and identification, two small children would also be a negative. That is unless she now had a sugar daddy and he could not discount this, she picked up men easily, some sort of sex and charm offensive. But her new boyfriend sounded like someone more her age, not a rich dude.

So the bottom end of the real estate market, the scummy flats which took cash rent and no questions asked, perhaps a caravan park where she rented a van with cooking facilities, that felt about right. The Gold Coast had a lot of these places, but once you went down to the bottom feeders the pickings thinned out. There were also quite a lot of these places between Tweed Heads and Byron Bay in the far north of NSW. Then there were a lot more places in Sunshine Coast, from Noosa south but overall these were of higher class with less chances for anonymity.

Jacob decided that he would begin at the bottom end of the strip, fly to Brisbane, get a hire car and work his way north. He figured two weeks south of Brisbane would let him work his way through northern NSW and the Gold Coast and then he would need another week to cover the Sunshine Coast. If he found nothing by then he would rethink his options, try a different tack.

Having made his plan he booked the lunch time flight to Brisbane and rented a luxury hire car to collect from the airport. He decided he wanted to play the part of a high end private investigator employed by Jane’s parents. His invented back story was they were desperately seeking to trace their daughter who had left London after a family falling out. She had gone off travelling without keeping in touch. Her mother was now critically ill with advanced cancer and the family urgently wanted to find her and give her the news in the hope she could return to see her mother again before she died. He would tell people that her last known address was in Cairns where she had a baby, twins actually, born about a year after she left and these would were now about two. She had sent them a card telling them this news from Cairns but that was the last definite contact.

However it was known she had left that address a few months ago and travelled south, having rung a friend who now lived in Brisbane to say she lived in a coastal town not too far away but not giving the address. So his job was to try and locate her and ask her to get in touch with her family urgently He intimated that there was a substantial reward on offer from the family to anyone who could give the information that found her.

He knew he could tell this story convincingly. He had a card made up giving his contact details as a private investigator with a checkable London firm. As he travelled he would leave cards and a photo of her with people he met along the way. On the bottom of the photo was written, Have you seen Jane? Reward for information about her location, and his mobile number. The photo was of Susan taken earlier in her life with her hair cut shorter and her face rounder. It was sufficiently different not to easily link her to the NT Crocodile Girl, but with enough similarity to trawl some possible sightings.

A week passed as he worked his way north, then a second week. He had been to lots of places, talked to lots of people, building and caravan park managers, small neighborhood shops and cafés, children’s playgrounds, childcare centres, toyshops, and those who sat around watching others.

He had run to ground a few leads which had turned into nothing. Overall people bought his story and the reward mentioned sharpened their interest, but there was nothing convincing about any likely sightings and there were no more substantial leads. He had given away over a thousand cards and photos in his travels. He felt that, with all this, something should come back to him if she was around.

But so far nothing had. Even though he was not ready to give up yet it felt like a lot of effort for so little.

Tomorrow he would begin at Noosa and work his way back down the Sunshine Coast to Brisbane. If that yielded nothing then he would need to rethink how to do this.

Another week passed, he had done all the towns of the Sunshine Coast, both those on the coast and the near inland ones, except for the last one, Caloundra. After that all that remained was the bayside villages and towns along Moreton Bay until they were hard up against Brisbane suburbia. Once he got there he would have to admit he had failed.

So today was Caloundra. He would start at the southern tip where there was a caravan park and work his way north. At 8:30 he knocked at the caravan park office and was greeted by a middle aged couple who announced they were the park managers. He asked about a girl named Jane with two small children, twins, aged around two years old. He knew in an instant he had got a hit, it was there in both their eyes.

“Yes, we had a Jane who stayed here until about two weeks ago. I am afraid I don’t have a forwarding address. She left quite suddenly with the man she was with. We had thought they were married, they really seemed like a family, but Jane told Thea they were heading off to get married, she did not say where. Thea has gone to the shops but will be back in about an hour. You had best talk to her as they were good friends and she is most likely to know anything further.”

So Jacob sat in his car and waited, trying to calm his jangling nerves with some soothing music. At last a girl of a similar age to Susan came driving in; she looked like she belonged here. The manager came out and pointed to her and the unit where she stayed.

So Jacob went over and knocked on the door. “Coming,” came a voice and in a few seconds she was there looking out at him. She was not quite suspicious but there was something guarded about her.

He went through his story but he could tell this woman did not believe him, as he spoke she became even more guarded and cautious. The mention of a reward only served to make her more suspicious.

Finally she said, “I am sorry I can’t help you. I really did not know her that well, we just chatted a bit as we made up beds and things like that. Then one day she just upped and off, not saying where she was heading.”

Jacob knew she was lying, her whole defensive demeanor told him that. But he knew he was wasting his time and decided that he had better try other options to find out about them before the suspicions spread.

He decided that the wedding story was likely true, he saw it in Thea’s eyes when he mentioned hearing of it. He had backed off then.

So instead he needed to try and get a bit more about the man she was with, he would go back to the park managers and ask them before Thea could warn them to be careful. So he came back, thanking them profusely for all their help but saying it was a pity that Thea had not known where they had gone. As if in passing he said, Oh she told me the man’s name Jane was with, but I forgot to write it down, could you prompt my memory.

“Vic,” replied the man at once.

You don’t know a surname asked Jacob. The man thought for a minute, Bennet, he said. Nothing else you can think of about him asked Jacob. The man scratched his head, obviously giving the matter some thought. Only he was a dark one, skin half way to your color and I have a feeling one day that Jane said his Mum lived in Alice Springs. She was a sweet girl she was, she thought the sun shone out of our Vic and it was something she said one day about how she really wanted to go to Alice Springs to meet his family, particularly his Mum who lived there.

Jacob could feel a huge and rising elation. He would bet London to a brick he had them, he had thought Vic had gone overseas.

He had been informed about boyfriend Vic being heartbroken and catching the flight to Canada around the time the first rumors of Susan’s reappearance surfaced.

But the sneaky bugger had been smarter than he credited, obviously having set this up as part of a disappearing act when, all the while, he had hooked up with his girlfriend again.

He knew it was all inference at this stage but how many blokes were there with skin that color and the name Vic who lived in Alice Springs.

He could have asked these people for a better description of Vic, even got a photo and shown it to them to confirm it was him. But he knew he did not need that.

Instead he went out to his car, put $2000 cash in an envelope and passed it over to the man and his wife saying, “My employer is a well to do and generous man. He would like you to take this for your trouble. Perhaps you could treat yourself to something nice with it.”

With that he gave them a wave, climbed in his car and drove away.

He knew the end of the chase was very near.

 

 

 

Chapter 29 – The Wedding

Vic looked back at the month that had passed while they lived in seclusion in their desert hideaway. He had loved this uninterrupted time spent with Jane and the children. Even though he knew another man was their father it felt like the Jane’s children were fully his now. He had worked hard on the station in return for keep but the work was a pleasure, mostly doing things with his hands and knowing that each night he would return to his family who always greeted him with ferocious joy.

Now the weather was cooling at night and, at the main station, a stock camp had been assembled to start the season’s muster. Next week they would draft off the steers for fattening in the river paddock and brand all this year’s calves from the close in paddocks before they went mustering further out. Vic and Jane mostly stayed in their outstation cottage but a few times they had come in to the main homestead to join the others for dinner.

His Mum and Jillie had visited again the weekend before last to tell them that all the arrangements were now made for their wedding. Jane had sent Vic across to talk and drink with his Uncle for the afternoon, the children playing at his feet. She had closed the doors and put covers on the windows so he could not look in while she had taken Rosa and Jillie inside to help her select a wedding dress and make other style arrangements. Vic understood from Jane that her two bridesmaids would be Jillie and Anne while little Davie and Annie would carry flowers and follow her. He also knew Jane’s mother, father and a few other key friends would attend. He wanted to keep it low key but it was easier said than done. Jane had a penchant for issuing instant invitations as she did not see the need for secrecy. So it was hard to keep it quiet, but overall it seemed to have worked.

Sorting out the legal complexities had been tricky and Vic knew he owed a great debt to Buck, Alan, Anne and many others. However it had all come off as well as he could have hoped, much better than expected.

It had worked been worked out in two places at the same time.

Following on from the video the Northern Territory Government agreed to grant a pardon to Susan Emily MacDonald. It would be signed in two days time, on the Friday evening before their Saturday wedding. But it would not be announced until the following Monday, limiting the chance for journalists to go digging.

At the same time the English Government had privately organized to grant new identity papers, also released on the Friday, English time. This would happen once the NT government confirmed the pardon was signed. These documents, which changed the name of Susan MacDonald to Jane Bennet, had been lodged on Jane’s behalf by her parents, with the support of the psychiatrist, Ross Sangster. He confirmed her memory loss and the risk of severe mental or physical harm if Jane was forced to become aware of her past identity.

His statement was supported by an eminent English colleague who had been given the transcript of his previous interview with Jane along with the video and a summary of the trial information. He had fully concurred with Ross Sangster’s opinion. The English lawyers from Anne’s former firm had got a court order to suppress this identity change from public disclosure for a five year period.

So, barring unforeseen hold ups, it would all happen like clockwork. Scanned copies of the NT documents would be sent to the UK once signed and then scanned copies of the new UK passport and other identity forms would arrive in time for the Saturday wedding ceremony. The originals would be couriered in both directions on flights leaving Friday night from both London and Darwin. They would be available in both London and Alice Springs at the end of the following day. So the original documents for the wedding could be lodged the following Monday in time for official registration procedures, and the English passport would be in their hands before they boarded the plane on Monday morning.

The end result was Vikram Campbell was marrying Jane Bennet. It would be decreed in the official marriage ceremony. It would all be legal. And Vic lived in hope that no one outside their immediate circle would be any the wiser as to how Susan had become Jane, his bride.

Early on Monday morning they would fly from Alice Springs via Cairns for a month’s holiday in remote northern Scotland, staying on the family farm where Jane’s last childhood memories remained. She would travel under this new passport issued to Jane Bennet.

After that they would see what happened and decide on whether they could become public people again in either Australia or the UK or whether they needed to establish a new life in some other unknown location, perhaps New Zealand. Vic liked that idea as he had contacts who could arrange work there as a pilot, flying helicopters again in the mountains.

For now Vic was happy to know almost nothing of the detailed wedding plans. All he knew was that they would drive back to Alice Springs, tomorrow, Friday. Jane would stay in a very private resort with her parents and Anne that night. He would have a night with his mates, a low key bucks’ ceremony he insisted. He was determined not to have a hangover. He would stay that night at his sister’s place with his Uncle in two of Jillie’s kids’ bunk beds.

Jillie and his Mum would bring him and his Uncle to the church the next day, the one his sister belonged to. Jillie had squared away with the pastor that there be no publicity and no uninvited guests and, for extra security, Buck and Alan would take positions by the back door to only ensure invited guests came inside for the church wedding ceremony.

After the ceremony they would all go out to Desert Springs Park for a private evening reception, with paid security to ensure no uninvited guests like photographers turned up there either. That night they would go to a private resort in a gorge in the West McDonnells for their wedding night. Here they would have brunch with the wedding guests the next day before saying their goodbyes in preparation for Monday’s early departure.

The whole plan was not totally foolproof but, since the early leaks when he had first done a runner and brought Jane away, there had been no further squeaks. So Vic was quietly confident that it would all work and they could just fade into the sunset, like any other newlyweds.

Saturday morning had a slow, dreamlike quality. Vic sat at his sister’s kitchen table drinking endless cups of coffee, his hangover only minor. Jack had gone up town shopping, having been harassed by Rosa to buy a new suit so he looked the part of the head man of the family. Vic’s own suit hung in the cupboard, never worn though he was confident it would fit. He would do it all the proper way though this part of ceremony seemed unimportant to him. But he wanted it to be perfect for Jane. He could not quite believe his luck in marrying this delightful girl; it was an unimagined dream of barely six months ago. He promised himself to make their life together extra good from here. He could not wait to see her or their children again, he even wondered if a third one may have started its spirit journey in one of their nights of loving out in the desert. It was a wonderful thought.

The time drifted away until his sister harassed him into showering and dressing. He polished his shoes an extra time and adjusted his bow tie in the mirror, deciding he looked pretty spic.

Then it was time to go to church. After a brief hello to a few friends he moved to the front of the church to await his bride. The waiting was agony; all he could think of was all the things that could go wrong. Every second seemed like a minute and every minute seemed like an hour. At last he heard the distant noise of a car’s arrival and muffled voices. This was the moment of ended waiting. He looked down to the far end of the church. A shimmer of light started to drift through the door, part sunlight, part gossamer.

He realized it was the flounces of a wedding dress, as she paused for a second before coming through. White with tiny patterns of a faintest blue to turquoise that he could only just make out, they drifted in and out of view in the breeze. Then this gorgeous apparition wafted through, lightly holding her father’s arm. She was so beautiful she took his breath away, a huge lump formed in his throat and his hand brushed tears from the edges of his eyes.

She drifted towards him like that strand of gossamer floating above air eddies, weightless with her own exhilaration. Their eyes met in an iridescent smile, with just a trace of amusement in hers at his discomfiture.

The service had a mesmeric quality, words spoken; “I do, I promise,” finally a ring on his and her finger and the signing of the register. Her kiss was the barest brush of lips. They joined their arms to walk back down the aisle. They emerged through the crowd of well wishers, laughing, hugging and shaking hands, he still unable to believe his luck.

A man stepped forward. Dark skinned but different from his local black brothers. He thought he was coming towards him, but then he realized it was Jane he sought. As he reached them a microphone was pushed forward. Vic saw a camera on a tripod a few feet behind with its red record light running.

Words came from the man’s mouth. “Hello, Susan Emily MacDonald. How does it feel to have married the best friend of the man you killed?

“This is Jake SS reporting for the Truth in downtown Alice Springs.”

Vic felt overwhelming rage. He knew that name; he had read his by line in the newspaper on the day that Susan had vanished. He was the author of all those hateful words and still it was not enough.

He stepped forward, tearing the microphone free with one hand and casting it aside. He felt his fists move, hearing dull thuds as they connected with the hateful face, once, twice with each hand as the man slumped forward, then he hit into his chest and body as his rage powered him on.

He felt himself being grabbed from behind, pulled back. The man was slumped on the footpath, near the edge of the road. Buck moved across his view, picking up the camera and smashing it into the road, then grabbing this man and hauling him to his feel. Alan was by his side, a posse of two. Each held an arm and kept the man upright.

Buck’s voice spoke. “Listen you scumbag. You are lucky we pulled Vic off before he killed you, because he surely would have. I don’t want him to end up in jail for fixing filth like you on what should be his perfect wedding day.

“But I will give you a tip, if so much as one word of what happened today ends up in your scummy paper I will come and find you and string you upside down, hanging by your balls and dick, until your precious bits come away. Then I will take what is left of you and give it to the crocodiles, the ones that interest you so much. If you don’t believe me just try it on.”

Alan nodded, “To be double sure you shut your filthy mouth I will be there to help him too. This man and woman who got married today are both worth a hundred of you. They have earned the right to be left in peace.”

With that each took an arm and flung him backwards towards the road. He lay there, on his side in the gutter, with a stunned look on his face and blood oozing from cuts on his face and lips.

Vic felt his anger slowly cool, watching from the edge of his vision as this man sat there unmoving, making no attempt to interrupt further. It almost looked like an expression of shame had come onto this man’s bleeding face. Vic decided he would not to let it spoil his day.

Anne and David, along with other family and friends, had formed a tight knot around Jane, shielding her from view and further intrusion. This pleased Vic while he got his anger under control. Alan and Buck stayed nearby, not crowding, giving unspoken support and plenty of time to let him get himself back together.

He felt a tug at his elbow; it was Jane’s father with a big grin on his face.

“I always told her she needed to find a man with balls, one who would stand up and fight for her. I think you just proved you’re that one. It was the prettiest boxing exhibition I have seen, barely five seconds, eight lovely punches. Someone should put you in a ring against a pro. You could show a thing or two.”

Vic found himself grinning back and laughing. His anger evaporated. It seemed the words had passed Jane by, not understood, no damage done. He sensed, from this guy’s demeanor, that he would tell no further stories.

Time now to enjoy the night with his ravishingly beautiful wife!

He eased his way back through the crowd to her and she rewarded him with a smile that melted everything inside him.

“I belong to you, I love you and we are married,” she whispered with unadorned delight.

Now he kissed her and savored every inch of her wonderful body as it pressed to his. Then it was David and Anne, both the big and little who joined the hug circle and then it was Jane’s mother, father and brother too, and then it was his own mother and sister and uncle, then was a hug joined by every person who was there, all except one.

After a minute a second person detached from the group and went across to the man on the ground. She took his hand, spoke to him briefly, then pulled him to his feet, put her arm around his waist and led him away.

Vic did not recognize this person, not from his family or friends, not anyone he had met from Susan’s side. She had grey streaked hair and looked old, perhaps fifty or sixty, but she walked with the firm manner and had the step spring of someone half that age. Curious, Vic thought.

Gradually the people hug knot unwound and they made their way to their cars. For Susan and Vic it was only a short trip to an open place where a helicopter stood resting, waiting to whisk them off to afternoon photos and then the reception. The children would travel with Jane’s and his parents and the rest of the bridal party to join in the photos. Other guests would follow along in an hour or two.

 

 

 

Chapter 30 – In the Gutter

Jacob pulled himself to a sitting position on the edge of the gutter and sat there waiting for the pain to ease. Long minutes passed. His whole face and body was hurting, but it was a small hurt compared to the hurt to his pride. Five minutes before he was feeling so pleased with himself that he had finally run the witch-bitch, Susan, to ground. He had thought of hiring a camera man to capture the day but in the end decided not to as he did not want to share his glory with any other.

It was a simple shoot, he knew exactly where they would be when they came out of church, making their way through the gathered people, and walking down the steps to the outside. So he put his camera on a tripod and filmed them as they came out the back door, following their slow progress unnoticed as they made their way through wedding guests, handshaking and kissing friends. Then he focused the camera on the bottom of the steps with a wide enough view to capture them coming down. While the camera continued to record he stepped forward holding a microphone connected to a recorder in his pocket.

Susan looked different to when he had last seen her, much fuller of body and face and more womanly, hair done differently. She was stunning in her floating white dress with little blue-green flowers within the fabric. Despite the changed appearance it was unmistakably her, her blue eyes and an aura that was just her. He knew for certain he had found her.

Seeing her bedecked as a beautiful bride seemed a fitting way to end it, the ultimate betrayer image; the perfect deception story undone.

As he had said her name he expected to see a look of fear and horror come into her eyes at being caught out. Instead all that came was a blank, bemused look. He knew in that instant she really had no idea what it was all about, there was no guilt or anxiety. Good actor though Susan had been he knew she was not good enough to hide this. Instead here was a person filled to the brim and overflowing from happiness who showed a warm kindly face towards an unknown stranger, someone who had said something she did not understand. She would try to help him out of innate generosity.

The image was not right; in fact it was totally wrong. As he saw it all his certainly about her guilt crumbled to dust and instead he felt ashamed at what he had done.

In the second of watching her face he forgot about the man standing beside her, the elusive Vic through whom he had finally found her.

So he felt surprise as this man loomed into his central vision, tearing the microphone free and throwing it away. Then there was further surprise as the flying fists connected with his face and body. He felt his head jerked back and forward with each impact and felt his face mashing under hard knuckles. Normally he was quick on his feet and had grown up in a tough place where self-defence was a required survival skill He knew he should protect himself or get out of the way. But surprise rendered him immobile in those seconds and he just stood there and let the blows fall.

He felt burning pain in his chest and belly as more blows fell there; this guy had fists like sledgehammers despite his modest size. Then, before he could move, those two human gorillas, not so much big as strong, stepped in. Hard faces in his space and hard hands on his arms, they had told him they would finish it if he spoke another word of what he had found out.

He knew he would never tell the rest of this story but it was not from their threats. It was a thing inside his brain called his conscience which had told him he had got this story awfully wrong, that to mislead further would be the greater wrong. It had never occurred to him before that he had a thing inside him called “knowledge of right and wrong”, instilled as a child in the church with his mother. This part of his mind now said, Enough!

He felt mortified as he lay there. It was a blow to his manhood and his pride. He knew he could have stood up for himself and fought back. But they were right. She deserved to be left alone. Even if they had not smashed his camera he could not use this, not if he had any shred of remaining decency.

This girl was a victim not a monster. He could harm her no further. He glimpsed it in Beck’s face that day, but then he had ignored it to pursue her.

So he, after visiting all the coastal towns around Brisbane, Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast, searching for a Jane with two small children, had finally found her trail in the caravan park in Caloundra, where the manager had confirmed her identity and told him that the man was Vic.

At that point Jacob knew how to find him, Vic the helicopter pilot. He guessed they had gone to Alice Springs. So he came here to look.

At first nobody in Alice had known anything about Vic’s wedding plans amongst his wide group of former mates. Jacob kept clear of the immediate family and close friends lest they warn Vic. Instead he focused on friends of friends knowing that some secrets would pop out. Only last week he cracked it, finding out from a friend of a friend that Vic was indeed getting married this Saturday at his sister’s regular church in the main street of Alice.

So he had paid a visit to the church. The office lady asked pleasantly how she could help. He told her he was assisting with accommodation for guests coming to this Saturday’s wedding of Vic Campbell. They had mislaid their wedding invitation and needed to know the time of the wedding. As he was walking by, down the main street, he decided to pop in and ask.

She answered. “It is at three o’clock in the afternoon.”

So he made his plan to be there. First he had thought of setting up to catch Susan on the way to church, but there would be lots of people standing around and it might be hard to get to her. In the end he decided that it was best to let the ceremony proceed and catch her on the way out. That way the element of surprise would be greatest. And, with everyone inside, he could set up in the perfect position.

Tomorrow he planned to have his story and pictures syndicated to the front pages of the London and Australian tabloids. It would be huge, the picture of the wedding girl in the white dress alongside the evil monster who murdered her lover and fed him to the crocodiles. He would tie the two pictures together with his picture her face and her shocked answer when he asked his first question.

It just had not worked out that way. He knew that this was a better and more decent result though his journalist career would go up in smoke if he did not submit the story as promised to all those who eagerly awaited it.

Part of him felt strange relief he had not succeeded in his final assault on this girl, he sensed there was justice in him being thwarted. Another part of him felt mortified as his inglorious treatment and thrashing, now he looked like any black other drunk sitting in the gutter. He felt as if he should get up and crawl away to some obscure location to sleep off the pain and shame, the way another black drunk would do.

But yet he stayed transfixed, watching the unfolding scene. The family and friends closed around the married couple, enfolding them in friendly protection, the mood of the guests lifted again if a bit more subdued.

Jacob decided they were right; it was their time in the sun to enjoy, a special occasion which no one else could take away.

But yet he was still a journalist and he needed a story. He wondered if he could do an, “I was wrong, they are really decent people” story, and tell of his road to Damascus conversion.

No it would not wash. It would reveal their location to others of his kind. Those people would keep his previous version running. His stepping aside would hand this story to them on a plate. He knew the new identity of this girl, Jane Bennet. Once that fact got out hiding was not a realistic option for her. She could not keep running, nor could Vic vanish easily again either.

He noticed that something had changed in the wedding group. They had all formed into a tight circle, arms around each other with the bride and groom in the centre, an enormous group hug.

There was such a sense of solidarity in these people and Jacob found himself profoundly moved, he knew he was not welcome, but part of him felt an urge to join them. It reminded him of family gatherings of his childhood and the community of his home. He felt a wistful nostalgia for that time and place, its simple innocent goodness.

As he watched a grey haired lady detached from the edge of the group, she did not seem as if she quite belonged but yet had been moved to express her shared pleasure with them by joining her arms to these other bodies.

Now she moved purposefully towards him. He feared she would ask him to join in and he could not do that. Instead she spoke to him. “I do not really know them, yet I wanted to wish them well, particularly the girl, Jane. She and I are fellow travelers.

“But then I saw you sitting here, alone and lonely with your cut face. So I thought I would come and talk to you. You do not know me but I know of you. I have read some of your stories, true in parts, untrue and unkind in others. But at least you are a searcher for the truth. It seems that this story that you planned to tell has got away and will stay untold.

“Perhaps I can give you another. It is time I stopped running from my own past. I am Cathy, one of the four Lost Girls.”

 

 

 

Chapter 31 – Cathy’s Tale

Jacob allowed himself to be led away by this strange looking girl. His mind had barely comprehended what she had said, but she had a power in her eyes and face that impelled him to action.

It was funny how he had first thought her old. It was her grey hair, streaked and appearing thin and worn. And her clothes, appearing ragged and in the style of what an old woman would wear. But closer inspection gave the lie to her other appearances.

She was actually quite youthful, something approaching his own age. Despite her raggedy demeanor she was distinctly pretty, a pert button nose and sweet soft mouth. But most of all she had a look.

He struggled to place where he seen that look before. It was hauntingly familiar. At last it came to him. It was the look of Susan on that first day in court, a day when she should have been pleading for her deliverance and freedom. Rather she made a guilty plea with something like gloating mischief on her face. It was a look of sparkling vitality that she could not hide. In that moment he had hated her cocky joy in that place. It made him angry and in response he was determined to break it, to make her pay for what she had done. In that moment he had made himself the judge of her actions and had decided that his words would be the tool of justice.

Now he understood she had been the actress playing a deliberate role to turn the crowd against her own self, mocking the gravity of the court and refusing to bow to fear. So, despite her central role on a day of horrors, an ineffable part of her soul’s defiance had bubbled out into a look. This lady had it too, a willingness to look horror in the face and smile, unbowed.

In that second, as he saw this similarity, he knew what was missing from today. It was what had crumbled his desire to pursue her, Susan. The thing he hated in her was gone, gone was her defiance of the world. But, in losing it she had lost most of herself; her soul was missing. What remained now in her body shell was a simple kind person who had lost their devil spirit and with it their life’s fire. He knew of his hand in that loss and from thence came his shame. He had done his part in a thing which had destroyed her essence, broken an essential part of her humanity and being.

But this other woman who stood beside him, holding his hand in hers, still had that life force, the yin and yang of a full soul. With it came courage to look at the worst of the world and spit in its face. So he would go with her and hear her story. The story mattered, but it was the power of the life force in her soul that drew him in, he fed now on its power.

He looked carefully at this woman and she turned her face to him. If you put aside the raggedy hair and outdated clothes, she really was seriously beautiful. Their eyes connected and he felt a jolt, it was not lust. It was two souls sharing knowledge and pain, their own and others.

He said, “What did you say your name was again. My mind was inside my head until now and I did not properly hear what you were saying.”

She said, “Today most people call me Kate James, my few friends call me Cathy. But my true name is Fiona Rodgers. As I said before, I am one of the ‘Lost Girls’ in this story you and others have been writing. Today I came here to show my solidarity with this other Lost Girl, Susan, now called Jane.

“I sat quietly in the back of the church, unknown and unseen, and wished her a new joy in life after much horror. I intended to leave quietly, to slip away and return to my quiet unknown life, my story still unknown.

“In that moment when you tried to tear her story from her, I knew that there was another story that must be told. I decided, in those seconds of your confrontation and beating, to seek out her friend, Anne, to ask her to tell my story. She knows I am alive, but not where. I would have given her my story.

“But, when I saw you sitting in the gutter, beaten and shamed, I knew that it was you who should tell my story. You have been a seeker after truth, even if blinded by your own cleverness. Now you have understood the pain done by your former words, their ability to harm as well as heal, I think you are ready to take and tell my story, if you will.

“So I will tell it to you. You must find words to tell it to the world with kindness. It, like Susan’s story, is a story with power to harm. But my hiding it for so long has caused more harm. Now I know it must be told.”

They found a café where they sat for two hours and he listened as she talked. It was the life of an innocent young girl, trusting of her uncle. It told of her sister’s rape and suicide, of her own rape, then of her seeking escape in the selling of her body. She told of her flight from that life to Australia, then of her meeting the man, Mark, travelling with him for a week, first as friends then as lovers, though only for two nights. She told of a first wonderful night, when she had told him of her own awful childhood and he had held her and comforted her. In that night she had loved him and known he cared for her.

Then she told of a second wonderful night when she had joined her body to him and it seemed he had loved her in return, how he had told of his awful secrets, the killing of Isabelle to save her from the crocodiles, then the killing of Josie and Amanda. Despite knowing this she had loved him still.

Then she told of the awful realization that came to her in the early light of next morning that he was too dangerous to stay with, not for her but for her family. He slept still as she arose and quietly dressed, knowing she must leave him, to protect him from himself.

The knowledge had come to her in the darkest part of the night. At first she had not understood it. Now in the morning she saw it more clearly and it convinced her she must leave. She saw in him an uncompromising hatred of those who harmed small children, those who abused them or destroyed their innocence. In that moment she knew he would surely kill her uncle, her own abuser, when the chance arose. He had said it to her in the night. At the time he spoke, full of the rapture of love, she had not really listened.

His words were, “The only way to fix bastards who do things like that to little children is to kill them. I will fix him so he will never harm another.”

So, in the morning’s first light she had known, if she stayed with him, he would act on these words. She could not bear for him to further kill a part of the goodness in his own soul through killing another and, despite her hatred of her uncle, she did not wish for his death. It would only bring yet more pain to her family. So she fled, taking rides along the highway to Alice Springs. She left all her things in his car, except for her purse with a few hundred dollars which was in her hand as she got out of bed.

Once in Alice Springs she had stayed there, changing her appearance so no one would know her, finding a cleaning job that did not require identify papers, paid cash in hand. Now more than three years had passed.

She lived alone, in a tiny room with a gas burner to cook on, and mostly read books when not working. In the early mornings and evenings she walked along the sandy river bed and beside the red hillsides. As people thought she was old and slightly mad, no one troubled her.

Her only real friends were a few of the aboriginal people who also lived in the river and some who walked in the hills, collecting foods. In this way she had met Vic’s mother, Rosa, at odd times over more than two years.

Over time and story sharing she had realized that Rosa’s son Vic and Mark were friends so she had connected Susan to them through the story of Mark’s murder and the trial. Then, when Susan vanished, Rosa had told her how cut up her son was, searching for but never finding this girl. Then one day Rosa was smiling again. Cathy knew Rosa had a happy secret but did not probe. One day Rosa had told her, sworn to secrecy, that Vic had found Susan again and, a few months later, of the marriage plans.

So she had quietly come to the wedding, sitting alone at the back of the church, unknown to all but Rosa who had given her a friendly smile and waved her in past Buck, whispering, “Later you meet Vic and Jane.”

Instead of that meeting now she was sitting here, telling Jacob this story, saying that once she had talked to Anne, he could write it.

Jacob sat there listening, spellbound. He knew this story would bring him back to the top if he chose to tell it, the rediscovery of another Lost Girl, being returned to her family along with telling of the childhood abuse that had brought her to this place. But he was no longer sure he wanted to tell it.

Kate’s family, like Susan’s, had suffered enough pain. They needed to know their daughter was safe; she needed to have a family again. But what good could come from the world knowing of her childhood, of the harm done to her and her sister. It would not bring her sister back. It would not take away her pain and it would give new pain to her parents. Perhaps he could help her give her evidence to the police and that would prevent her uncle from harming others, perhaps that was enough, and in a small way this good may be a balance against past harm.

He told her of this and she nodded, saying, “Yes, I must tell my parents, but I am terrified. Would you help me do this please?”

 

 

 

Chapter 32 – Across the Ocean

It was almost dark when Vic and Jane arrived in Abu Dhabi, stopover point of their flight to London. They approached over the clear waters of the Arabian Gulf and glimpsed high buildings at the edge of the water before settling onto a runway that shimmered with heat eddies in the late afternoon light. They had three nights here and then their flight went on via London to Glasgow, where Jane’s parents, who had flown direct, would be waiting for them.

Vic had read the Sunday and Monday papers with trepidation as they waited to depart from Australia, but there had been nothing about where Susan was or linking her to his Jane. He was not convinced this hunting of her was finished but it was out of his hands.

So he decided that he and his new bride, along with little David and Annie should enjoy this visit to an exotic location. Tomorrow they would do a boat trip out to sightsee in the Gulf. The next day was a rest and relaxation day, visiting the shopping centers and big buildings before an early departure on the third morning for their London leg.

As they left their airport terminal for the coach to the city the baking heat hit them. Vic felt at home in this desert place, a different landscape but with similar air-feel to his home. He wondered how he would handle the cold rain and mist of Scotland after this place’s blasting heat which barely eased with the setting sun.

Their days passed like a magic interlude, out in the sparkling Gulf waters on the first day, heat shimmering off the shore horizon. On their second day they mostly lounged around the pool, teaching their children to swim, with a brief lunchtime foray to a huge shopping centre.

As Jane lay in the circle of Vic’s arms on that last night in the Gulf, he asked her if she was still as happy to be married. They had not talked about what happened on the day with the journalist. With all the other activity of the wedding it had largely passed her. He hoped he could now consign it to the dustbin of history.

However, to this question, rather than giving an immediate answer in her normal way, he felt Jane pause, as if thinking. He looked at her closely. He found himself sinking into her blue eyes. Just when he felt himself losing all other threads of memory in this pool of light she spoke. “I was fully happy before and now I am glad to be married. It has a feeling of rightness for me and in making you the father of my children.

“One thing I do not understand though is who that man was, why he asked that question, and what it meant. I most don’t understand what it was that made you so angry. I have never seen you angry before. With that man you frightened me, not because I thought you would hurt me, but because you were so quick to act against him. There was danger in you in that minute that I did not know existed.

“If I have done something that caused your anger towards him I feel I need to know and yet the knowledge scares me so. The only thing he said that made sense to me was my name.

“One day last Christmas, at the farm in the country, I saw a piece paper with the travel bookings for Tom and Elinor MacDonald. I knew it must be my parents, because people called them Tom and Elinor. So it told me that, as their daughter, my surname must have be MacDonald too.

“I could not remember having that name, but knew it must have been so. So I thought, I have been married before, that is where my babies came from, and that man’s surname must have been Bennet.

“Then, when that man, Ross Sangster, was asking me questions, he asked me to try and remember being a little girl. I told him I remembered going to my grandparents farm in Scotland. Since that day I have remembered how people called me Susan, or Susie, or sometimes, “little M”, after my aunt Emily. So then I knew that my other names were once, Susan and Emily.

“So, when that man came up to me and said, “Susan Emily MacDonald,” I knew he was talking to me and I wanted to help him. But when he asked me about marrying the best friend of the man I killed I did not understand.

“Did I crash a car and kill that man and in doing so did I lose my memory?

“Or did I cause some other accident that killed him and if so what was it?

“And why did him saying it make you so angry that you punched him, over and over again, until he fell to the ground?

“So it has not spoilt being married. But each day my mind asks these questions. Even though it frightens me I think I need to know.”

Now it was Vic’s turn to think, to try and wrestle a safe answer out of his mind that was true but not dangerous. To mask his uncertainty he put his fingers in her hair and kissed her. She kissed him in return. Soon the question was lost in other pleasures.

After, as she lay with hair spilling into his face, she said. “My question still remains from our wedding day.”

He said, “I will start to tell you, one little bit at a time. But if I frighten you please tell me to stop.”

“Before I met you, you were with my best friend. His name was Mark, Mark Bennet. He is the father of your children. One day he died, I don’t think it was your fault, but some people said you killed him. That man I hit wrote it in a newspaper, saying other bad and untrue things about you too. So, on our wedding day when he asked that question, I got very angry.”

Jane nodded, “I am glad that is all it was. That is all I need to know.”

Vic felt relief that Jane had asked for nothing further, though her lack of curiosity also troubled him.

Instead she placed his hand on the bottom of her belly and put her own hand over it. “Now I have something to tell you. Under there a new person is growing, I can feel his spirit touching mine like butterfly wings. I think his name will be Vic. He will be our child, the product of love and bodies joined.”

Vic lay there, keeping his hand pressed to that place, lost in amazement that a part of him had created a new life within the body of this gorgeous woman. He felt overcome by a joyous wonder that it could be so.

Next day they came on to London and then flew on to Glasgow, having decided it was safest to go straight there. From there they caught the train up into the highlands with her parents. They marveled at the glorious scenery of lochs and snow covered mountains.

Jane found more and more childhood memories returned as she saw this place, she knew the mountain and lake names, she remembered the little villages, and finally, as they drew near to their own stop, she was bubbling with excitement. As they came to the small village railway stop she could feel herself bursting with impatience.

She saw her aunt in the distance and knew her name without prompting. “Aunt Ada,” she called out and ran into her arms. “It is so good to see you and remember you. I feared you would be strangers. I am so happy to know you, even though it is only a memory from when I was a little girl.”

They brought their new family to their country house. It was not so large and grand as in her childhood mind, but was warm and comfortable, tucked into a hill with a lake below, with her grandparents house just behind it.

As they looked out a late afternoon mist was rising in the valley and far across the heather hillside she saw deer heads, raised proud and tall against the skyline. It felt so good to have returned to a place full of memories.

 

 

 

Chapter 33 – Anne’s Meeting

It was the Monday after the wedding of Vic and Jane. Anne and David had decided to treat themselves to a couple days in Alice Springs, before flying to Darwin for the rest of the week to ensure that all the legal issues about Susan and Vic were properly tidied away. Despite the minor hiccough of the arrival of that uninvited journalist on the Saturday, which they had only glimpsed and not spoken of since, it had been a wonderful few days.

The bride, still Susan, in Anne’s mind, looked radiant and spectacularly beautiful in her dress of fine pale turquoise flowers set into delicate lace. Anne, as a bridesmaid, had a soft turquoise toned dress. It matched perfectly with both her auburn hair and the rich brown skin of Jillie, similarly attired.

She had found Jillie and all Vic’s family to be delightful people, so warm and welcoming to her and Susan, who of course they called Janie now. It was funny how names rolled off the tongue in this place, Annie, Jillie and Janie as the bride group, little Annie and Davie as the flower and ring carriers, she dark haired and cheeky, him blondish and serious.

She felt incredibly connected to these children, perhaps because from she and David had come their names and also that they were the nominal godparents, even though missing at the baptism. But they had both taken seriously the promises given to ensure these kids were OK, whatever happened to the mother.

Anne felt so blessed that her prayers were answered with her friend returned to her. Even though the damage to her was still writ large in the vacant parts of her mind and in her simplicity, she was there again and that was infinitely precious.

Today they had all waved their farewells at the airport as the Cairns jet departed, and then had come back to town, each couple or group to enjoy their own private time before they went their separate ways in a day or two.

Tonight they were having a group private dinner of all the remaining family and friends as a way to both say goodbye and give thanks for this wondrous time. Now she and David had decided to lunch in the Mall and do the local sights and shopping before a quiet afternoon by the pool. Tomorrow they would do a tourist trip out along the McDonnel Ranges to the gorges.

They settled into a simple salad lunch after a surfeit of rich food, she reading a magazine and David the newspaper.

A woman came to their table, not a waitress, clearly seeking Anne out. She must be older as her hair was grey. Something about her was familiar, though Anne could not recollect from where. She was softly spoken and polite and her voice was young. Anne looked at her intently, trying to recognize the familiarity. She realized she had glimpsed her at the wedding, walking away, leading the journalist in a kindly manner. But that was not the familiarity, it was in the face and on that day she had only had a back view.

The woman said, “You are probably wondering who I am and why I have come to you. My name is Cathy, once Cathy Rodgers, though I use a different surname now.”

With the words, it all came clear in Anne’s mind. “Oh my God,” was all she could say, no other words would come.

David looked up, he had been impervious until now, but his brain was working fast, replaying the words and joining the dots, “That Cathy. The one we have sought for over two years now.”

Standing a few steps behind, as if awaiting the outcome was the black man who Vic had punched. David felt his gut tighten with anger at what this man had written, cause of so many problems. But this girl was so polite that his anger stayed contained. He invited her to join them, and then asked her, forcing politeness into his voice, “Is the man behind with you?”

She looked at Jacob and nodded. “He has come to make an apology for the harm he has done. I thought he should begin with you, her best friends. But that is not why I came. I came to seek your help for myself. I realize I cannot hide away any longer but I do not know how to rejoin the world. I have disguised myself and led a simple life for over three years now.

“I suppose I should just ring my parents and ask them to come to me, but I find myself unable. Too much has passed, with too much pain, to just go home again. But I am tired of running and I am tired of hiding and I don’t want my parents suffering to continue. I have asked Jacob to help me to tell my story, perhaps in public and he has said he will. He will write no more of Susan, she has earned her right to a new life.

“So now I ask that you hear what he has to say first, then allow me to tell you of me and what has brought me here.”

David and Anne both nodded and Cathy invited the man to join them. His words were simple, “I have done your friend great wrong, in what I wrote and spoke. One day I will apologize to her myself. But today my apology is for you, her friend who has walked in her shoes and suffered along with her.”

Anne took his hand, “I thank you, I cannot speak for her but what you have said is enough for me, the past is the past and cannot be undone. The future is what we can change.”

He nodded and said, “Thank you.”

David held out his hand to shake, “She speaks for me too.”

So they sat and shared their stories.

Cathy told the story of her three years of living a simple hidden life as an old woman who cleaned around the town and how she had befriended Vic’s mother, thus hearing of the wedding.

Anne told the story of the diary, the parts in it that Mark had written about Cathy, telling of her early life and its pain, parts that the inquest had deliberately withheld, even from her parents lest they cause further harm.

She said, “I know what your uncle did to you as a child and why you fled. I also know your uncle has been missing for nearly three years now. It is not known if he has gone into hiding or if it is something else. But he is missing too. Because of what he has done we chose not to tell that part of the story.”

Anne asked if she could ring Cathy’s parents to tell them of meeting her.

Cathy shook her head. “Soon I hope, but not now. I need to know fully about my Uncle first. I cannot see my parents and tell them this until I know the truth about him, whether he is hiding or he is dead.

“Before I knew what you have told me about him being missing I had decided to confront him with Jacob present. I would have asked him to admit to what he had done, to give him the choice to go and tell it to my parents and the police or I would do if for him.

“Now it seems we cannot do that. So now we must try to find him for ourselves. If he is out there I may be able to reach him when others cannot. Jacob has the skills and contacts of an investigative journalist to help in this.

“If we locate him it will be as I have said. We will give him a choice to turn himself in and admit publicly to what he has done. If he does not then Jacob will write and publish his story for the whole world to read. That is the only way I can see for real justice to be done.”

So David and Anne agreed to help in this quest. They offered money, but Cathy said she had more than enough. Instead they arranged an introduction to Alan who was dealing with the English Police in the search for this man.

Cathy said that armed with this information they would conduct their own search for him. If he was hiding somewhere there must be others that knew, and she would try and find a way to reach him through people who knew. It may take some months but that is what she and Jacob would do. She said she would give it six months and then, if no trace was found, she would contact her parents.

Two days later Anne and David met with Cathy and Jacob in Darwin at the police station. Information was exchanged along with the promise that should anything be found Jacob and Cathy would let both the English and Australian police know.

Two days later they were on a plane bound for Iraq.

 

 

 

Chapter 34- Crocodile Sisters

Beck and Ross were together again in Darwin, after a wonderful weekend in Brisbane when they had crossed the bridge from friends to lovers. Beck was very busy sorting out the arrangements for the pardon, doing briefs to all and sundry. The need to keep them in the strictest confidence was a challenge.

Ross was now very cautious about what he said about this whole thing, following the cautionary tale about the leaking and consequences. They knew there were others who could also be the source of something getting out. He and Beck both waited in trepidation lest the journalist from London spring a discovery of Susan’s location, but all remained silent.

Finally it was all done, the pardon had been signed and delivered, the wedding had occurred and Susan and Vic had flown away. Of Jacob nothing was heard, he seemed to have faded away without sign. Both Beck and Ross breathed a sigh of relief as their day to day lives continued.

A few days later Alan came on the phone to Beck, saying, “The word is around town that you have a new man. Sandy and I would like to invite you both out to dinner with a dear friend of ours, Charlie, otherwise known to friends as the real Crocodile Man. His wife is making her legendary catfish curry this Friday night and she told us to bring any extras we can find. So I thought of you, particularly as I hear that you and that Queensland doctor who saw Susan are now an item. I thought you might like to meet a few of the locals and hear a bit of the back story about how this all unfolded.”

Beck had no hesitation in accepting. Alan and Sandy were good company and it was great to be out in the open with Ross. This relationship somehow felt different from her previous one night stands and she wanted the whole world to know about them.

They drove to the address given, carrying beer and wine in their arms. Charlie greeted them at the door. She had seen him from a distance at the previous legal proceedings but had never spoken to him.

His eyes twinkled as he met them. “Aha, more friends of the girl with the crocodile stone.”

Beck look puzzled. Alan came over to bring join the welcome and he explained. “Charlie means ‘Susan’, I suppose you could call us all the ‘Save Susan Committee’, not that she knows about us. But now you have played your part of helping her and now she is on her way to the other side of the world so we wanted to welcome you to our group.”

Alan brought them over and introduced them to two others who Beck also knew by sight, the flaming English redhead, Anne, now becoming a significant TV celebrity and her drop dead gorgeous boyfriend, David. Beck knew he had been engaged to Susan before, and was now hooked up with her best friend. He was also something of a TV celebrity with all the publicity.

At first she felt a bit overawed with all these people. However, in the course of drinks and plate of curry the ice was soon broken. Within an hour they felt like they had been friends forever.

As they talked, Alan told of the wedding, a week ago now and how the journalist Jake had waited outside the church with camera and microphone in hand for them to come out. He said that Vic had dropped him with some well directed punches and some other nameless people, had warned him off and then left him nursing a cut face on the edge of the street, then how the girl, Cathy, long lost, had found him, taken him in hand and led him away. She and Ross listened in trepidation and then relief as it the story emerged from Anne and David that Jacob would trouble Susan no more.

It felt to Beck like a stone of fear was lifted off her heart and she said a silent prayer of thanks for this deliverance.

As they sat there in a loose circle, talking, Charlie came over, asked Beck to put out her open hand. Into it he placed a flat round item which rested neatly in the palm of her hand. It was cool and heavy and felt like a stone.

She asked, “What is it?”

“What you think,” said Charlie.

She closed her hand over it and closed her eyes. It was clearly a stone and yet it was more, it seemed to be imbued with something, a presence. Keeping her mind clear she tried to focus on this presence and slowly it sharpened into something more distinct, an ancient presence of places such are rivers, deep water. She could not see its shape, just a sense of being inside and looking out into a watery world.

Sandy came over, by herself and took Beck’s hand. Now it was like there was a link formed between their minds, Sandy could see and feel what she felt and she could see and feel what Sandy felt.

She asked Sandy, curiously, “Why is this, what it this thing that makes us connected, I can sense its presence but I cannot see its shape. I only know it is a creature of the water, a giant fish or turtle perhaps.”

Then it came to her, as if an insight from inside Sandy’s mind. “I know, it is a stone which belongs to a crocodile, infused with a crocodile’s spirit. It sits inside a crocodile. It allows one to look out, as if with the eyes of a crocodile.”

Sandy nodded, “I suppose you could call it a crocodile spirit stone. It is a stone taken from the stomach of a crocodile where it sat for many years, becoming infused with its presence. A part of it lingers still. Only some can see and feel it, most cannot. Susan could, I can, you can. I guess that makes us all crocodile sisters.

When Susan sat in jail, in her moments of terror and she thought the bad crocodile spirit of Mark would overwhelm her, she would hold this stone, keep it touching her skin. And when she did, the crocodile spirit within this stone would free her from other outside spirits trying to invade her mind. She must have let some parts of them in on that fateful first day there.

But as the madness seized her, she did not want to hold this anymore. Then I feared that other spirits, bad spirits of crocodiles at that waterhole, would overwhelm her, draw her to them and consume her.

Now I hope and pray she has escaped their hold. But that thing you saw on the video, Alan told me of that. It means that part of a bad crocodile spirit lurks somewhere deep inside her and still has the power to tear at her soul. So we have to help her be safe in whatever way we can.

It may be something you can do to help her in return for what you have done. I have seen your secret in your mind and know it too. I am not one to judge, none of us are. But should she have need of us, then we are her kin. We will help her in the way sisters do. Anne is her best friend and that is a powerful bond. But only you and I share her spirit sisterhood.

 

 

 

Chapter 35 – Northern Seas

Vic was pleased with the positive change in Jane as the family settled into the routines of the Scottish hill farm. She seemed to pick up where she had left off her life as a 12 year old girl when last she remembered being here.

She had even taken to using her original names of Emily and Susan again some of the time. These were what her grandparents, aunt, uncle, and cousins called her without thinking, mostly Em, or Emily, the name of her later childhood, but sometimes Susan, her small girl name and the name which connected her to the memories to the past.

She told Vic, one day, that, now that she had his surname of Campbell as her married name and she was getting used to the names of Susan and Emily again, she did not mind him using these names for her too if he wanted. He found that all three names were now connected in his brain and he could use them all and move between them without effort, though more and more she became Susan again to him in his mind.

One day Jane asked Vic if he thought she should change her name back. He said he did not mind if she added back the old names but he did not want her to lose the name he had rediscovered her under. There was a sweet and innocent part of her that was still Jane to him.

So now while her aunt and parents mostly called her Emily and her grandparents mostly called her Susan, he called her all three as the mood took him, sometimes all together, Susan-Emily-Jane. They were all parts of one fused person and he loved them equally. Their children of course just called her Mummy so it did not matter to them.

Vic could sense this place, with its quiet and peaceful routines, was good for healing her spirit and mind. He was pleased it was so.

There was also an endless flow of people wanting to meet the children, cousins, friends of cousins, village neighbors.

Tom and Elinor said they could stay for the first two weeks. The children were rarely out of their grandparents’ sight and sometimes would make their own visits to Great Gran and Great Pa and tell them their stories of the day.

Vic worked alongside the farm manager most days to have an outlet for all his energy. He found he needed to spend most of his time outdoors or he would feel a restlessness grow inside him like a caged animal.

Jane seemed content to spend hours inside with her grandparents, parents, aunts and cousins chatting and drinking cups of tea. He loved her dearly and he found satisfaction in the stability she seemed to have gained. But sometimes he wished she had a bit of the fire that burned inside the old Susan, the ferocity and anger as well as the gentle softness. But he knew that trying to bring that person back was fraught with danger and he did not want to risk opening up any cracks to her missing years.

Still it was as if what she was now was a sweet twelve year old in an adult’s body, without the edginess of maturity. Her boundaries were very contained things and she seemed to live contentedly within them. Part of him, deep down, ached to have a bit more of the old Susan back.

So he put in hard physical days outside and loved the bare open Scottish hillsides even though a spring day here rarely reached the temperature of an Alice Springs winter day.

The day before Tom and Elinor were due to leave Tom brought out two rifles and suggested Vic walk out with him to try and bag a deer. He said that once he would have loved to do this with Susan but now she seemed to have lost her desire for the outdoor life. There was a wistfulness in Tom’s voice as he said these words.

Vic looked at him sharply.

Tom returned his look. “Yes I know,” he said, “we should just be happy to have our daughter back. Truly I am so grateful, and to you for your part. But yet I miss the fire she used to have. She does not argue with me anymore or challenge anything I say. She does not burst with the uncontained energy of before. I would not lose what we have for all the tea in China, but a part of me aches to have my little fiery Susan back.”

Vic nodded, “Me too, sometimes I cannot bear to sit around the house any more. I am a person used to doing physical things. I suppose we could go off and travel, but I do not want to break up her pleasure in rebuilding her family and memories. But yet I find I want more, to work hard in something that pushes me to the limits. The farm work is good, but easy on my mind.”

Tom said, “Yes I know. I have been thinking about it. You are not the sort of bloke to sit around twiddling your thumbs. I hear tell you’re a helicopter pilot, a damn good one at that, so your friends say. Are you still up for that?”

Vic nodded, not seeing where a job like that would come from over here.

Tom continued, “Well I know a good few people in the North Sea oil industry business, they have oil rigs, lots of them, off the coast not too far east of here, out in the North Sea. They use helicopters to ferry people and goods out and back. They use ships too, but often a helicopter is the best, it gets in and out quickly with the bad weather out there.

“So I could ask around with some of the oil company bosses I know, see if there are any jobs supplying the rigs, even maintenance might be the go. I am not sure what you would need to do to get a ticket to fly one, but I heard tell you are also a qualified aircraft mechanic. So it got me to thinking that even that would be something to get you out of here, and once you get a foot in the door there you never know.

“Anyway I will inquire if you like. After that it will be up to you to impress them. Not that I expect you to have too much trouble if you can fly like you can box. Working a machine amongst the trees chasing cattle is probably a bigger test than doing a ferry run to an oil rig.”

Vic said, “Thanks Tom, I would love if you’d ask. I think I will need to do something soon or I will go mad and I don’t want to tear Susan away from here, she seems so happy back with her family again.”

Tom nodded and the talking was done. They walked miles up and over the heather. Late in the day they got their deer, two fine heads and headed back home, struggling under the weight of the meat

Next day, true to his word, Tom made some calls and a visit to the helicopter base was arranged. The day after Vic was on his way, driving to Aberdeen, two hours east where he was to meet the head pilot.

His name was Jim; he was standing in the hangar as they stripped down a big jet turbine machine. He began asking Vic odd questions as they watched the work. He quizzed Vic on his maintenance skills and the need to see his ticket for this. Then he asked about the machines he had flown, expecting from the story that had come down from the big boss that Vic had only flown the little stuff, light and maneuverable, but not really the type for this work.

Vic told him he had endorsements for most of the main types, having done a lot of work for the mining companies with the heavy lift machines used to bring machinery and spare parts in and out of the remote NT and Kimberly mines.

The work on the machine was finishing now, so Jim said to the head mechanic, “Well roll her out, I want to give it a test flight, just to be sure, before you sign her off.”

“Aye, aye sir,” the mechanic replied.

Vic stepped back, expecting that his meeting was done for now and he would hear more later. Instead Jim turned to him and said, “Well, what are you waiting for? Do I need to invite you to come too? I imagine you want to get the feel of your bum in the seat of a metal bird again, back in the air.”

Vic grinned and nodded. Soon he found himself strapped in the copilot seat while Jim took the command seat. The sound of the turbines spinning up was sweet music in Vic’s ears, then they were up and away. The ground fell away and they climbed steadily heading out into a grey eastern sky over an even greyer and lumpy ocean. They leveled at 1000 feet heading due east at about 150 knots.

Jim turned to Vic and said, “Over to you sonny boy, Vic. Put this old girl through her paces and show us what she can do.”

Vic realized Jim had taken his hands off the controls and now it was up to him. He had never flown this exact type before but it was pretty similar to some other big birds he had worked, so he took the stick in hand and steadily pushed her into a slow bank, then pulled back to feel how she responded to a climb. She was slow and heavy and the engine revs began to dip. So he piled on the power. Now she was responding as the turbines roared up the range.

Vic felt fully alive for the first time in ages. He looked across at Jim with elation. Do you mind if I work her through the paces a bit more?

Jim nodded, “Disappointed if you don’t.”

So Vic focused all his attention on getting to be as one with this huge bird, dialing up the power to feel the limit of her climb, then a gentle bank which he tightened sharply, the a dive and flare to pull her up down above the waves. He kept her straight and steady, just above wave skipping height as he pushed her forward, steadily increasing the speed, until she was roaring through the spume, skimming above wave tops at over 100 knots. Then gradually he brought her back to the original height, straight and level, almost exactly as she had been ten minutes earlier when he first began.

He turned to Jim and said, “Well I am a bit rusty yet and she is a wee bit different from others I have used but I feel I am starting to get her to sing like a bird for me.”

Jim looked at him and nodded, “For someone who has not flown in six months and with a new machine type in a different place I think you have pretty much nailed it. I would have been hard pressed to do it any better and I have over 1000 hours on type. We had better go and see my form filling secretary to work out all the dozens of forms and papers we need to get you on the books.”

It took a month until Vic was fully legal and able to fly on his own. In the meantime he shared copilot and mechanic duties, going home twice a week for a day and night with his beloved Susan Jane. The rest of the time he was a North Sea pilot. Jim seemed to have taken a special liking to Vic and was always looking for opportunity to give him good jobs and opportunities.

Summer passed with mostly good weather. Now each week Vic typically flew 3 days doing ferry trips out to the rigs and spent two days at base, checking his machine and arranging trips or doing various training and certification courses. Most weeks he had two days off at home, sometimes days together and sometimes single days.

Susan was always glad to see Vic and their days and nights together were a delight. But with all her family around her need and dependence on Vic was much reduced.

Susan’s pregnancy was how beginning to show. In his nights with her Vic took great delight in placing his hand on her belly, feeling tiny movements. It still blew his mind that he had created this new life inside her body.

It was a two to three hour drive from the highland farm to Aberdeen so when at work Vic stopped over in a small pub in the centre of town near the oil rig helicopter base. He gradually got to know both other pilots and crew who flew and maintained the machines along with others from the town, particularly the fishermen who crewed the trawlers based here.

They would tell tall tales of winter trips, huge seas and wild weather. Several had lost mates in storms in that unforgiving place out over the horizon, called the North Sea.

One of the things Vic had undertaken in his work was emergency rescue training. That way when ships got into trouble in the bad weather, a not infrequent event for the many sailing boats and fishing trawlers which plied the North Sea, he could respond if he was closest to hand. He had been assigned a crew for major search and rescue events of two others, a trained observer who also served as winch operator and a rescue man, Reg, who would strap himself to a line on the winch and go down when required.

The three of them did a weekly training run, him holding a hover with the winch team practicing a retrieval. They were getting pretty slick in this operation and could scramble and be in the air in less than five minutes. However, as Jim, old and experienced rescue pilot, told them, it was one thing to do practice drills in good weather. It was entirely different to do it for real in a howling gale.

In the autumn the first of the winter storms came. This first storm was only a moderate event with force five to six gale winds. So Vic continued his ferry operations, but got his first taste of bad weather flying in this part of the world. He marveled as the sea transformed from a one to two meter rolling swell to a five meter broken lumpy ocean, whipped into whitecaps. His skill was tested holding a flat hover over the rig with a 40 knot nor-wester. But the big heavy machine rode the buffeting well and his hands were now tuned to the slightest wind changes.

He found he could hold it steady better than most. He enjoyed the challenge of the wild weather, it was a test for his skill and he rose to the test, improving with this real life practice. Soon the weather settled again to a glorious late autumn and he enjoyed his drives to and from the highlands, watching the low slanting sun carved through a glowing sky adding to the brilliant colors of the falling leaves along the roadsides.

One day in early November, as he was driving back to Aberdeen and the weather was at its brilliant best, he heard a news flash; sudden intensification of a low pressure system in the mid-north Atlantic. It was located south-west of Iceland with a bearing for the north of Scotland and Ireland. The bad weather was set to intensify over the next twenty four hours. A Force 8 wind event was predicted. They would not fly past Force 7 except for major emergencies so he thought he might end up sitting in base. But they needed to be ready to mobilize for emergencies. At the base there was frantic activity, seeking to jam several ferry trips in today, so as to get machinery and people on and off the rigs before the weather turned bad. Vic flew four trips out and back, mostly carrying people to get the non-essentials workers off the rigs, doing crew changes wherever possible before several days when they may not be able to fly.

The next day the weather was bad, even in the shelter of the port; gusting winds, driving rain and endless grey skies. There were no flights as, even though the weather was just within allowed flight limits, it was deemed unnecessary as the essential work was done the day before.

So mostly they sat around the base and listened to the radio, doing minor maintenance but staying on high alert lest a call out came. In the fading light of the four o’clock news a new alert came out predicting a major intensification of the system later tonight to a Force Eight or even Nine event. Shortly after this a Mayday call came from a small fishing trawler in trouble in the North Sea about 100 miles north-east of Aberdeen. Vic was listed as the first responder so he called the crew and they rolled the machine out of the hangar. He warmed up the engines while they waited to see who would be given the task, whether a boat nearby could respond or whether a helicopter would be called in. This was a call that the full time helicopter rescue base would normally respond to and he was waiting as a backup.

There was a static of chatter across the airwaves, saying the nearest ship able to respond was 1-2 hours sailing time away and with heavy seas it may take longer. The regular helicopter rescue machine was already out, having just done another job. It needed to return to base to take on fuel before it could get out that far. It was an estimated 45 minutes flying time for Vic, however the weather was deteriorating and it was a marginal call whether it was still safe to fly. In the meantime one of the crew was on the phone back into town to see if he could get better information about the fishing trawler, as it was Aberdeen based. It turned out that several of the trawler’s crew were locals, well known in the town.

That did it, Vic called in. “We are best placed to respond and flying conditions are still suitable (just – he muttered under his breath) so clearance requested to respond.”

Clearance was granted but with the statement, “pilot to return to base if conditions deteriorate further.” Vic blocked out the second part, he had a job to do. He did a final check of the machine, while the crew checked their gear. Then they were away.

The wind was at 90 degrees to their course gusting to over 50 knots as they cleared the port, so they proceeded with a crab wise angle, but still maintaining a hundred knots plus, giving an estimated time to arrival of 45 to 50 minutes. The trawler had lost its engine and was rolling in ten meter swells, the crew considering abandoning ship to a life raft as the big waves threatened to overwhelm it without steerage. The mechanic was working furiously on getting the engine going and now Vic had the boat on the radio he could talk himself in.

As they were holding a steady course a massive buffeting gust pushed them off line and his wind speed measurement kicked up to over 70 knots. He knew at this point it was exceeding safe limits for the machine and he should return to base.

But hell, these people were locals of the town, his mates had drunk with them, they were in deep trouble. He could not leave them out there without an engine. So he pushed on, now the wind was so strong he was down to 90 knots forward, pushing his arrival time out by an extra five minutes.

Fortunately the machine still felt solid and stable despite the buffeting as the wind bounced around. Some of the gusts were now getting close to 100 knots he realized as he closed on the trawler. Finally they spotted it, a tiny dot between massive waves.

As he drew level he turned the machine to face into the wind and, slowing to a hover above it, he saw his airspeed still read 85 knots. He know attempting a winch rescue in this was foolhardy and dangerous to helicopter and crew, particularly the man on the rope. He asked Reg who would be going down whether he wanted to go ahead. It was really past the limits of what they could do.

Reg answered. “These guys are my mates, I drink at the pub most days with them when they are in port. So you hold her steady, I will go get them.”

Vic nodded and looked out towards the horizon. Barely a kilometer away he saw a massive bracket of at least three waves. If those hit the boat it would roll over and that would be the end. He called out to Reg and the winch man, “Only got a couple minutes with that coming. I will get as low as I can, that way the down draft will keep you flatter.”

He brought the machine to a bare fifty feet above the trawler mast and held it as still as possible, the twin turbines roaring with the strain.

He nodded to Reg; he was down and in a minute he was up again with the first two, then heading down again for the final two.

Vic spared glimpse towards the horizon. The waves were getting real close now, three big ones in a bracket and then a total monster behind. He knew, in that instant, that the boat would be unlikely to ride out the first three and if they did the last one would turn it over and that would be the end of anything below.

He called out over the radio, “Need to be away in less than thirty seconds, once those waves hit I need to get up into the sky. I won’t be able to hold steady above them at this height.” He could see Reg on the lurching deck now, clipping on the harnesses to the other two. The first wave was almost upon them towering up to the helicopters height. In ten seconds Vic would have to dial on the power and pull up to keep clear.

He called out “Ten seconds max.”

Now the boat was rolling into forty five degrees and the man was still fumbling with his harness. Vic called to the winch man, “I am going up, let out against me, they need a bit longer.”

As the machine responded to the power and came up just above the wave crest he looked below, the boat had come over the wave and just righted, but was now deep in the water, as if it had half filled in the roll.

Vic knew the next wave would finish it. It was ever bigger than the first, he needed more height. He watched it thunder towards them, holding as steady as he could while the precious seconds ticked by.

Just when he could wait no longer the call came, “Up and away.”

He powered into the sky, pulling three men on the line clear of the wave by what looked like inches. Then they were up to a safe height and the three came fully up. The trawler was now lying on its side in the water. It was still there after the third wave passed by.

The fourth wave sound like a freight train as it thundered through; even above the engine roar and wind howl. It seemed to pass bare meters below the machine as it sat there while the winch man got all the men from below on board and directed them for home.

Vic held steady for a few more seconds until the wave had gone past. Of the trawler no sign remained in the sea below.

He turned the helicopter for home and felt it shoot forward like a stone from catapult with the wind behind it.

 

 

 

Chapter 36 – Reluctant Hero

As Vic came in to land a crowd was gathered at the helicopter base to welcome them home with cheers and claps. As he shut the helicopter down he saw Jim heading his way with a concerned look on his face. It seemed out of character with all the well wishers. He wondered what he had done.

Vic walked over to him and Jim pulled him away to the side of all the people “Well done young fella. I gather that was a neat piece of flying to get them out. But other news is more important right now.

“Your wife’s aunt rang about half an hour ago to say your wife has gone into labor. So I thought you might want to escape the celebrations and head home. It is not the best driving weather, but it is better than flying.”

I gather all is fine but the aunt thought you would want to be there.”

Vic thanked him and slipped out the back to his car, unnoticed. The drive was wild, wet and windy. Despite his anxiety to go fast he kept his speed under control, not wanting to slide into a ditch.

It took two hours of intense concentration to reach the local small town hospital where Susan was waiting. She was pale and drawn. A contraction came as he entered the ward. As it passed she greeted him with her usual smile, interrupted by another spasm.

He held her hand and they talked quietly in between contractions.

The midwife advised that all was proceeding normally. The baby seemed strong even if three weeks early and it was just a matter of letting it happen in its own good time.

Vic had spent little time in hospitals; his only experience was when they operated on a broken leg. Then he had left early to search for a missing Susan. That seemed a life time ago and he blessed all that he could think of that she was here again with him and now it was about their product of their new life together.

He said a silent prayer for the day to go well, but felt an unformed terror of yet another problem arising, how the unforeseen had a habit of rising up each time their life seemed comfortable.

He calmed his mind. This time hospital seemed like a much better place. The nurses were reassuring, the doctor quietly competent. It was just him and Susan’s aunt there with her, her parents were due up in a fortnight to mind the children for her predicted delivery. They were now on their way and he welcomed the thought of their quiet competence.

He felt he should be in control and reassuring but he was scared. Despite having seen it often in livestock, this birth business was no joke. He found himself more anxious for Susan and the baby than he was in the middle of a Force 9 gale trying to hold a lurching helicopter steady.

Each time she contracted his body contracted too in a fear spasm. It proceeded slowly, contraction following contraction, becoming more frequent until almost continuous. The midwife checked and announced she was fully dilated and it would happen very soon.

They gave her gas to breathe on and told her to get ready for a final push. Vic held both her hands as her face contorted and she cried out. His heart was in his mouth. Then suddenly it was there, the black head pushing out between her legs, an almost pop as the body slithered through into the waiting hands.

After a quick wipe and shake to clear the mucus this little creature was drawing breaths. Its color went from bluish to pink. The nurse wrapped it in a small blanket and passed it to him to hold. He looked at the unknown object and saw a little face, perfectly formed eyes and nose, and his black hair.

In that moment it was no longer an object but a living, breathing person they had made. The emotion of what they had created almost overwhelmed him. It was the most perfect day in his life, to have lost this woman and found her again, now to share the birth of this person with her, to hold it, a joined part of them both. He could feel tears streaming down his cheeks as he gazed at their baby.

He carried the small bundle over to his most beautiful darling and placed it in her arms. She looked at them both with a radiant smile, then tucked the bundle and him inside her arms. It felt unbelievably good.

She stayed in hospital for five days, not that she needed to but the baby was a bit small so they wanted to see it well settled and feeding before it went home. And the hospital was hardly busy, just Susan and one other mother in the maternity ward so there was no rush.

Vic barely left her side while other relatives ferried brother David and sister Anne in to see their baby brother. Susan announced the next morning that this baby was named Victor Thomas, or Vic junior for short, she did not ask Vic, she just said it was what she wanted. Who was he to disagree?

On the third day the weather cleared, the storm had blown itself out somewhere across the middle of Europe. As they ate a leisurely breakfast in the hospital bed the nurse came in with a newspaper held out.

“Didn’t know you were a hero, did you,” she said with a smirk.

There was a photo of Vic, making his exit from the helicopter on his return to base. The story began,

 

HELICOPTER PILOT HERO.

But for a remarkable piece of flying by helicopter pilot Vic Campbell, four men would have lost their lives when a fishing trawler foundered in the North Sea in this week’s huge storm.

Yesterday we told of the remarkable bravery of the man who went down to winch the four crew of the trawler to safety. But all those involved say the true hero of the story is the pilot. He brought his helicopter down to wave height and held it there as four huge waves came crashing in, holding position as wave after wave rolled past, first capsizing then sinking the boat as the sea thundered over it. All the while the pilot held the helicopter steady allowing the men cling to life and be lifted out on a flimsy line.

[_ With waves of 50 feet bearing down and a Force 9 -10 gale only pilot skill allowed the crew to be winched up to safety. The pilot somehow kept the helicopter bare feet above the wave tops so the down draft allowed the winch to operate despite the hundred mile an hour gale. Those who saw it describe it as the most skillful and courageous flying feat they have witnessed. _]

But where is Vic, reluctant hero. Rumor has it that on this same night his wife gave birth to a child. So Vic drove through this same storm across the highlands to be with her at the birth. Mother and baby are reported as fine.

It is with the heartfelt thanks that all the people of Aberdeen commend Vic for his skill and bravery and wish the very best to this new family!

 

Vic winced as he read it, he should have felt flattered. But now, as a local hero, all the reporters would descend on the hospital. It was no secret here who Susan was, the new mother. In days the story would be out.

He was tired of running away. Susan had done nothing to be ashamed of; he had done nothing to be ashamed of. He knew it was now far out of his control, but he was not going to hide from it again. He would hold his head high and if any reporter came to him saying nasty things about his wife he would punch him in the mouth like he had the last one. This time, he would let the story run its course. He hoped it would all end up OK, but he would not hide away. At least this time it was Susan who was in hospital not him and she was totally and utterly captivated by the new little Vic.

Surprisingly for the next week it was only a local story and he thought it would all die down. Susan was named but of minor interest, he was the one talked about, the boy from the Australian Outback, a true bush hero.

After a week someone joined the dots. This story was front page on a London tabloid and he knew that tomorrow it would be front cover of all the papers and lead on the TV news.

He waited anxiously for the next day to come, expecting the worst. But instead, now that he was a national hero there was no space for any bad story about Susan. Even though the first tabloid had made the connection and tried some hints about Susan’s past life it was howled down by all the other papers and programs the next day, with stories like

 

HELICOPTER PILOT HERO AND HIS REMARKABLE WIFE.

Despite rumors in our disreputable competitor we can report that both Vic Campbell and his delightful wife Susan are true heroes, she for surviving the ordeal of months in jail for a murder she had now been pardoned for, he for first having made an extraordinary journey to escape from his own helicopter crash in one of the remotest parts of Australia and then having performed a second extraordinary feat to rescue others in a similarly terrifying situation. As modest people they now just want to be left alone to enjoy their beautiful little baby and so we should respect their wishes.

 

The only comment was a single interview with her father. He simply said he and he and his wife were incredibly proud grandparents and asked all to respect the privacy of his wife and son in law.

Within a week it was just another story, barely mentioned. In another week it was gone, with no appetite remaining for sensation. It seemed to pass Susan by. They did not deliberately hide newspapers from her and for the first day or two she had proudly read about Vic. By the time she became a character in the story she had lost interest. So these papers stayed unread.

 

 

 

Chapter 37 – Mind Picture Flashes

Susan found little Vic a delight, he was an easy baby, full of life when awake, but happy to feed and settle for good long sleeps. His eyes were now open and she loved to meet his eyes. She thought he was beginning to recognize her and give her tiny smiles as his dark eyes gazed at hers intensely.

She was also full of pleasure as she watched Vic hold his child, him trying to talk in an overly grown up way, telling the tiny boy of the first ride he would have in a helicopter, how they would play football and other things they would do together in the future, while the baby looked up at him with dark serious eyes.

On the day she brought him home she felt no anxiety, she had done this before and that time she was alone. Now she had helpers by the score and it really was not hard.

As she settled back into life at the farm she found it almost too easy, and for the first time she could remember she felt strangely restless. It was an unfamiliar feeling. She wondered why, now when everything was so perfect.

She felt a sense that she needed to bring order to her life, that she needed to do something more constructive than just mind her baby and now and then her other children, when not with the many other helpers.

She decided to organize their room, re-arranging the furniture, bringing in bright pictures from the hall, buying exotic imported flowers in the town.

As she was sorting through all her things one day, putting aside the clothes from her late pregnancy when she had grown large, she came across a book wrapped in cloth which she had forgotten about. As she unwrapped it the memory came flooding back. It was the gift of Vic’s uncle from a couple weeks before they got married. She had promised to try and find someone to decipher the strange writing within it and comprehend its contents.

At that time she had photographed it on Vic’s phone and meant to seek out someone who could make sense of it. However in the activity of wedding preparations it had been forgotten, the pictures left on the memory card of Vic’s phone which now sat at his sister’s house in Alice Springs, and the book put into the bottom of her suitcase. There it had stayed while it accompanied her across the world.

She decided that this would be her new project, something to keep her busy in the free time of which she had plenty right now. So she needed to find someone who could read what it said. It was unlikely that anyone in this small community would be able to do that. So she needed to go to a city to find someone who could do this, perhaps Edinburgh or Glasgow, where University scholars abounded, perhaps down to London. She remembered that her mother worked at Reading University, in a medical field, and her brother had also attended there. Between them they may know someone who could help.

She had promised her Mum and Dad she would come and stay with them with the baby soon. She had a half formed plan to go next week, to catch the train down and stay for three or four days, do it while Vic was away in Aberdeen on one of his flying trips. Perhaps she could fit it in then.

She wanted to keep the old book safe; it was after all a family heirloom of Vic’s family, entrusted to her for a purpose. So, while in due course, she wanted to show it to various people to get their opinion, she did not want to hand it over to others lest it got lost or damaged. So she must photograph it again before she showed it to others. That way she could pass over a digital copy while retaining the original. Her Mum and Dad were always taking photos of their grandchildren on a fancy camera. She could borrow this from them while visiting.

The following week she was on the train with David, Anne and little Vic.

Vic dropped her at the station en route to Aberdeen for four days. He would collect her on his return which he had timed to fit in with her travel. David and Anne were thrilled with the train ride, looking out of carriage windows at mountains and lakes and then, as the highlands fell away, at rolling green fields with sheep and cattle. However, as the novelty went, they were just two ratty toddlers, hungry, restless and endlessly complaining as boredom overtook them.

She was glad to arrive at Reading after several long train hours and pass her children on to her mother. They soon came to her old house.

As she walked inside she felt the weight of memories flood in on her. It had been her home for most of her life and, even though she had no memory of it since little, there was so much of her life from before then which came pouring into her mind again.

Her Mum called out she was taking David and Anne to visit a neighbor who had promised a cake. She should follow over in half an hour when they were invited there for afternoon tea. Baby Vic had fed shortly before arrival and was now sleeping soundly so she placed him on a rug on the floor and asked her father if he would keep an eye on him while she set out to explore.

She found her old bedroom, not so large and grand as she remembered, but with her familiar favorite teddy on the pillow. She picked it up and hugged it to herself. As she did more memories came back, some fully remembered. Others were little more than shadows that teased at the edge of her mind. Today she felt her mind was a place of sunshine and shadows, the remembered happy memories were like bright sunlit spaces. Alongside these were other places where she knew she should remember but saw only shadows with vague glimpses of things that had been. For the first time she felt her curiosity piqued, wanting to know about all that had gone to make her life from before, particularly in those missing years.

She started rooting around in her drawers, looking at the clothes. None were what she remembered, tight denim jeans with a bright sparkly top, floral summer dresses, make up and accessories. None of these had belonged to a twelve year old.

She opened the bottom drawer, searching for something that may be familiar. Instead under jumpers she found an expensive looking camera. It tore at her memory strings but with no clear knowledge that it had been hers. Still, as she picked it up, she instinctively knew how to use it, the controls familiar in her hands. She flipped the power on button. Surprisingly it still worked. She thought the batteries would be flat from years unused. The battery warning light was on but it still showed a bright back screen.

She pushed the buttons to display the photos on the camera. One by one they flashed up. There were photos of her with friends and family, at home and on holidays. Apart from her family the only other person she knew was Anne. She saw photos of herself in a pale shaded bikini, holding the hand of a handsome blond tousle haired man; he must have been a past boyfriend though she could feel no trace of him left in her mind.

It came to her that this camera would provide a solution to taking photos of the old book she needed to translate. It had lots of space on the memory card, just a new set of batteries were required and she could get to work. It would take a few hours tomorrow to photograph all the pages. Then she could print off some sample pages and go looking for someone to translate what was written.

That evening she talked to her parents about her plan. After dinner her mother suggested she show them the book so they could think who might best be able to help her with deciphering it.

Her father looked at the complex curls of the characters on each page and said, “I think it looks a bit like Arabic, so I think we should start there. If it is something else from the Middle East or India there is a good chance that they can direct us.”

Her mother slightly knew a Professor of Arabic Languages at the Reading School of Literature and Languages. He had helped her with a project some years past about Arabic medicine from the time of the Moorish Empire. She took a few photos on her phone, saying she would show him these tomorrow and seek his advice.

Her father found her some new batteries for the camera and it now showed fully charged. Susan’s other grandmother, who lived nearby, agreed to come over tomorrow and mind the children so Susan could have a few undisturbed hours to take photographs. She found she was looking forward to the challenge of doing something that felt important and complex.

After breakfast next day she got to work. Her Gran was there early and the older children were keen to go with her to a nearby park, then head on visiting neighbors while Susan worked away. Vic had just fed and she would have several hours of solitude to work.

So she opened the book and began at the front, doing it page by page, checking the quality of the first few photos was acceptable on a laptop her father had lent her before she continued. They were fine.

As she returned the memory card to the camera she was seized by a powerful sense of déjà vu. It felt so familiar, using this camera to photograph this – the word ‘diary’ came unbidden into her head – she wondered where it had come from. It may in fact be a diary, but equally it could be something else like a religious book of devotions or transcribed stories.

She told herself, no it is not a diary, it is a book. Yet, every time she turned the page and took another photo, her mind said, Now you have captured another page of the diary. She had a sense now it was not one book but two, this book in a strange language in her hand, and another book, a diary in neat but cramped English, with a bit of French thrown in. She could even picture a page of lovely flowing French cursive script though her mind did not have knowledge of its meaning.

She shook her head to clear this complexity of layered pictures; it was like two sequences of images had got overlaid in her brain, one from now, one from some other time. She made a conscious effort to block out the extraneous thoughts and just concentrate on the task at hand – turn the page, focus, click, check image on back screen of camera, begin again.

An hour passed and then two. Now she had all the pages captured. She just needed to check their quality in detail and label them on her computer, cross checking the accuracy of the sequence with the original book as she went. She began at the outside – Label – Outside Front Cover – correct. Inside Front Cover – correct. She clicked to the next image on her screen and reached for the book to open its cover again and compare. But now this dark brown cover with a few curly symbols transposed in her mind to a red brown cover with the words Mark B in clear hand writing.

She shook her head. This was seriously weird.

She pushed on, it was hard to concentrate. Each time she turned the page another image, different from the book in front of her, jumped into her mind for a few seconds before it faded.

She forced herself to ignore these unwanted images and go on. As she was getting towards the end she saw a transposed page with the word Kate written on it. She tried to think of any Kate she knew but could not. A few pages later the word, Susan jumped out at her. Somehow she knew this half seen page in her mind was a page about her.

She could not begin to imagine why she was seeing a book, actually diary, that had parts written about her. It was not written by her, she knew this writing belonged to someone else, an unknown man she thought. She also knew the lovely French script was written by another woman.

The strange thing was that if she tried to see this other book more clearly it would fade and drift out of her mind. But if she looked at the book in front of her, its images were overlaid with sharp images of the other diary.

At last she was finished and went to make herself a cup of tea, her head feeling overloaded with so many images. As she sipped her tea the jumble of pictures left her mind and only the ones of the book she had photographed today remained. It felt a relief to get her mind back under her control again.

She looked at the clock. It was lunch time and she was hungry. Her Gran and the children should be home soon and Vic would wake hungry too. She set to work to make up sandwiches for the others when they arrived. As she worked the phone rang and it startled her out of her reverie.

It was her mother, saying, “I have just met the Arabic Professor over our lunch break. He tells me the language of your book is not Arabic but it has some similarities. He thinks it may be in a language from the Indian subcontinent, something like a Kashmiri script. He is unable to work it out though he can guess the odd word. However he had a long standing Kashmiri friend in Wokingham who has offered to have a look. He rang this friend while I was there and the friend has kindly offered to meet you and I mid-morning tomorrow.

“So I have blocked out the morning for this if it suits you to come. If Gran is there I will ask her to mind the children again. This man would like to see the original as well as the copied images. He said that if he can look carefully at the cover and binding it will help him to know exactly where it is from and the period when it was written.”

Next morning, about half past nine, when the morning traffic rush had died down, they set out. It was seven miles to Wokingham. In less than half an hour they were coming into this lovely old town. It felt achingly familiar to Susan, but this was no surprise, she had probably been here many times in her lost memory period.

They met an elderly Indian looking man who introduced himself. As they waited for coffees he reverently unwrapped the book from its covering.

“Ah, it is beautiful, as I thought it is written in Kashmiri. It is a variant that is a different from the regular script. But I can read most words and, with a bit of practice and research, I will be able to transcribe it for you.

“It is a book which has been written in over several generations. It covers at least two hundred years. It contains some religious tracts, but also family stories. The last part describes the journey of a young man who left his home and family and travelled to a faraway land, bringing camels with him.

“It will take me a couple months to work my way through it but I would be honored to do this task if you will allow me. Could you tell me as to how you came by this book?”

Susan described its history, handed down over generations through a part aboriginal family in Alice Springs, with an understanding that it had originally being owned by an Afghan Cameleer who brought it to Australia.

“That is all I know, except that this Afghan man was my husband’s great grandfather. His Uncle has told me the book is to go to my husband and one day be passed on to our children to keep the old man’s memory alive. So, this Uncle would like to know what it says, the story of his ancestor, so he can pass this on too, the story to go along with the book.

“So I am happy for you to do this but I would ask you to take care of it. It is the only surviving piece of family history of that man.”

As she spoke these words she knew it was a silly request. The reverent way in which this man handled this book meant he gave it a value far higher than she had perceived.

He nodded. “But of course, it is a very precious object and I will take great care. I understand you have photographed the pages. I will work off those images but I would still value having the original as I work. Sometimes it may help my understanding to hold it and look at it more closely.”

So it was agreed, he would copy the memory card images onto his computer and she would retain a copy as well. Each week he would send her a letter with a copy of the pages that he had translated. She and her husband could read this story as it unfolded and send a copy back to Vic’s Uncle.

It was now almost lunch time and Susan’s mother needed to go, as she had an afternoon appointment at the University. So, after shaking hands and thanking the man profusely for his help, they started to drive out of town, following a different road to the one they had come in on.

As they left the shops of the town behind an industrial building came alongside them. Something buried deep in Susan’s mind screamed out. “Stop,” she said.

Puzzled her mother pulled to the side of the road. “What is it?”

 

 

 

Chapter 38– Contents of the Locked Box

Susan said to her mother, “There is something inside there I need to get. I left it here before. It is inside a locked box.”

She could feel herself tugged towards the building, it was here, she knew it; the diary she had seen. She walked off without reply, leaving her mother in the car. He mother parked the car and followed her.

She found the front entrance and let herself in. A middle aged man came to the counter to help, “Yes, how may I assist?”

The words came out unbidden, “It is Locked Box 972532, I need to open it and retrieve the contents. The security code is 679013.”

The man looked up his list, wrote down the numbers she had given then nodded. As he went to speak Susan’s mother joined them, so he paused until she was alongside as well.

The man said, “That box was in use with that security code for two years, until a bit over a year ago. However at the end of that rental period the owner had not returned to collect it. So its contents were removed. It is now in use again with a different security code.”

Susan felt panic flood into her mind, It could not be possible that the contents were gone, she wanted, no she needed to see the diary that she knew was inside.

She calmed herself. “Do you know what has happened to the contents since they were removed?”

The man shook his head. “No, but I can find out. Generally we hold the contents for a further 12 months before we dispose of them. However in some cases where the contents are clearly valuable and we know that we can recover the cost if needed we will hold them for longer.”

He picked up the phone and spoke a few words. In another minute they were joined by a lady of similar age who was introduced as the person who managed the recovered objects. This lady brought them into an office and keyed the details into a computer.

“Yes,” she said, “I can see what happened. The security box had two things inside, a book that looked like an old diary and a pouch with some jewelry inside. Our preliminary estimate was that the diary is of no particular value but the jewelry is highly valuable. So we stored them in a new secure storage compartment in the off limits area. It is our policy to hold items of this value for five years before we consider disposing of them.”

Susan could feel relief flooding into her. She did not know why these things were important but she knew they were. They were a vital part of her life from before and, even if she could not remember them, she needed to have them back and see what they told her.

She asked, “So are we able to collect them now?”

The lady looked carefully at her, as if assessing what to do. “Well there are two things to cover; one is to confirm your entitlement to the objects. The second is to pay the outstanding fees for their storage. You have confirmed you know the security code, so that is a start. In addition at the time you stored the objects we recorded your driver’s license number as an independent way of confirming your identity should the need arise.”

Now Susan felt flummoxed again, she had no memory of a license.

She said, “I don’t have my license with me, do you need to see it.”

The lady shook her head. “No just the number will suffice.”

Unbidden the number came into Susan’s head. She recited it and the lady wrote it down. It was checked against a field on the computer screen.

“Well that is all correct. So there is just a matter of $300 pounds; that is for two further years of storage fees and an additional charge for the removal and storage in a new location.”

Her mother pulled out her credit card and made the payment.

In a five minutes Susan was holding these two objects in her hands.

Her mother looked at her, curious, “Do you want to check the contents?”

Susan shook her head, “No I just want to bring them home. I will look at them later.”

Her mother shrugged and they drove home.

 

*

 

Susan sat alone in her room in the late night. She had suppressed her desire to look at the diary and the bag of stones that she had carried home. She knew it had been a subject of conversation with her mother and father and her Gran who had stayed for dinner, she had walked into the room as they were talking and felt the conversation fall into a lull on her entrance.

Finally her father had blurted out, “Your Mum was just telling us about your visit to Wokingham today, meeting the Kashmiri man and his kind offer to translate the book, and also about your stop off at the storage place on the way home, how you remembered that you had left things there before you went away.”

He stopped there, waiting for her to say something. A silence ensued. Finally, realizing she was being ungracious, she said. “I don’t really remember what it is. But I feel like I need to have a look with Vic before I show whatever it is to others. He may be able to help me understand what it means.

“So I plan to bring it home tomorrow on the train and then we can have a look together. Once we do that I promise I will tell you about it.”

They all nodded but she could see a disbelieving look on all faces. She felt bad. She could not remember lying deliberately before. Doing it to these people, who had been so wonderful to her, felt unworthy.

But she could not bear to open something so significant and private with anyone else looking on, not even Vic. This book was a story of the life she had lost. She must know what it said, just she and only she, to begin with.

After that no one raised the contents of the locked box any further. The night proceeded with laughter and humor, entertaining the children as her parents and Gran told stories about here when she was little. Now they were all gone to bed, the children in their own room, Vic lying in the crib alongside her bed, sleeping soundly.

She sat on her bed with the book in her hands, looking at a reddish brown cover with only “Mark B”, handwritten, to distinguish it. It was just as she had remembered it from when she had photographed the other book. She knew that inside would be the words of writing her mind had glimpsed.

She felt no real interest in the stones in the cloth pouch. The lady had said they were jewels, but they felt like small stones to her. One day soon, when she had read the book, she was happy to open the pouch and show the stones to others. She did not care about them. If they were valuable, all the better, but it was of minor importance. The story must come first. She knew, with a deep clarity, that this was her story, the key to unlocking a part of her mind. She held the book in her hands and immersed herself in its presence. It had its own presence, the essence of a vanished spirit, perhaps Mark B.

 

Chapter 39 – The Ghost of Mark

She kept holding the book and let it fill her consciousness; it had its own clear presence. As she thought of it she felt it enter her mind, it had a face, half human, half crocodile. She should have been frightened, as on the day when she glimpsed the crocodile tearing at her children. But there was none of that, just a faint regretful curiosity, wondering where this man had gone.

Now his crocodile part dissolved and only the man remained. It was a regular man’s face, weather beaten edges and an eye crinkling smile, not quite handsome, but utterly arresting. It looked into and captivated her soul.

With a pang of pain she knew she had utterly and totally loved this man. His departure had been the most devastating thing she had ever known. She loved Vic no less, but the sense of the loss of this earlier love was so powerful and poignant that it dwarfed all else in her mind. She could feel tears trickling down her cheeks.

She turned the pages forward a little way and started reading. She was reading the story of E or Elfin, become the Elfin Queen. This man had loved her too, fully and completely. It did not take from what Susan knew was his love for her and hers for him. As she read of how E had died and he buried her in the boat he had made, somewhere out in the desert by a river, she felt tears streaming down her face. He was desolate, heartbroken. She shared in his heartbreak.

She read on, various odd stories were interspersed, one about a metal bird and a man named Vic, she realized with a shock this was her Vic, he was this man’s friend. They had shared much together.

There were more stories about him and other characters over the pages that followed, along with other stories she realized were set in the Australian Outback, musters, cattle, horses, more helicopters, shooting and fishing, and crocodiles, lots of places with crocodile stories and images. There were some references to other girls too, but they seemed to pass like ships in the night, lighting pages only for brief spaces, then their lights were gone.

Then a second significant person came along, B, or Belle, or as time went by “my beautiful B”. It began as a lovely story of friendship, meetings and re-meetings. Then it told of a road journey together, to a faraway place in part of Australia called the Kimberly, from Broome heading north. It was a trip of joy and wonders, friendship morphing into deep love. It was clearly a two way thing; she read it in Mark’s words and read it also in the elegant cursive script of Belle, some parts French, some English. Belle told of her delight in her new found lover, her plans to bring him home, to meet the family, to make babies with him. It was utterly gorgeous.

Then she turned another page. She was devastated. Belle had fallen into a pool full of crocodiles, huge crocodiles, beasts that had torn her body apart. Mark, using the only weapon to hand, had finished it before she could suffer, a single shot into the head he loved so. Belle felt nothing. The crocodiles got only a body, the soul departed.

But he had killed the thing he loved. Rage and grief tore apart his soul, leaving something else in its place, a dark and malevolent crocodile spirit, hunter and destroyer. She could bear to read no further. She had no tears now, just a soul full of devastation as she shared his pain. She did not want to read on, nothing good could come past here.

So she lay in her bed, light off, and dreamt awful crocodile dreams. This time they were not of her children but of a girl, dark haired, one who looked somehow like her, her body torn apart as monsters feasted, limb torn from limb as blood darkened water, while the man watched in anguish. Then it was his body they tore at. She first thought he had thrown himself in the pool with Belle, consumed by grief. But as she watched she saw these were other crocodiles, in a different place and time. The eyes that watched were hers.

In the morning she woke up with the book on her lap and only vague remembrances of her dreams and the man. They felt to belong to another place and time. Yet a portent of unresolved doom, with tearing crocodiles at its centre, remained.

She pushed it from her mind, determined not to let it spoil this, her homecoming day. She felt mounting excitement to be on her way back to her husband, she loved the sound of that word and she loved the thought of his intense smiling face.

She was upbeat now; she wanted to share this discovery with him. Then she thought of how good her parents had been to her. They deserved for her to be more forthcoming with them too.

She knew what she would do, she was not ready to let them read the contents of the diary, after all Vic had the first right to see that. Instead, she would open the contents of the pouch with them. After all it was only a bit of old jewelry, maybe some semi-precious stones, going on what the lady at the storage place said. Perhaps they were worth a few thousand pounds, enough to ensure their bill was paid.

She put the dairy in her suitcase, under her clothes, in the place which had before held her Kashmiri book. Then she took the pouch in her hand and went out to see the others in the kitchen.

Her Gran had stopped over and the children were up, eating breakfast. The kitchen was a babble of noise. She walked in, unnoticed. As they realized her presence they looked up.

She said. “I thought, before I go home today, we should open this pouch of supposedly old jewels to see what it contains.”

She handed it to her mother. “Perhaps, as you were there with me when I collected it, you should do the honor of opening it.”

He mother nodded, looking thoughtful and a bit tense. She untied the strings and tipped the contents gently onto the table. As the stones rolled out she let out a gasp, which was mirrored by her Gran and her father.

There were about fifty stones, with only two made into settings. These two were a gorgeous milky pale blue stone set into a ring and another stone, almost identical, made into a pendant. She saw their blue clearly.

Susan felt her eyes riveted to just these two objects. Without knowing where they came from her words came tumbling out, “He said he chose them to match the color of my eyes.”

She shook her head, “I don’t know why I said that, I don’t even know who he is, but I know he gave them to me.”

The others seemed to have barely noticed her words. They were gazing, as if awestruck, at the rest of the pouch’s contents, big stones in many different sizes, shapes and hues. Susan knew they were many colors though she could not make these out; just the two blue pieces had color.

Her father was shaking his head, saying, “Unless I am seriously mistaken, this is a lot more than some bits of old jewelry and semi-precious stones. See all the colors, red, blue, orange, green, milky, clear and sparkling. I think this is the real stuff, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, diamonds, nothing but the best.

“I would not begin to be able to guess what these are worth. It must be a huge amount. If each is worth ten thousand pounds, and many are worth much more than that, we are looking at half a million pounds on the table.”

Susan looked at her Dad as if he was crazy, “Dad, you are joking. Why would someone put such things in a locked box and forget about them?”

He replied, “Sweetie, I don’t know, I did not put them there. But look for yourself. Then tell me if I am wrong.”

So she looked. While she could not see the colors except for the blue of her amazing opals, she realized it must be true.

He said, “This stuff needs to go into a bank vault somewhere until we can make arrangements to have it properly assessed and valued. Whoever’s it is it is far too valuable to just leave lying around.”

Susan felt disappointed, she had been looking forward to taking these home to Vic and admiring them together, “Oh, Dad, I don’t know. Can’t I just take them with me, home on the train and show them to Vic. I can’t wait to see his eyes open wide when he sees them. I want to surprise him.”

Her father shook his head in disbelief, “Susan, what a crazy idea. What if happens if something happens to them, what if they get lost or stolen? They are far too valuable to be careless.”

Now she felt annoyed. “Dad, they have been sitting, forgotten in a box for three or four years. Before that God only knows where they were and for how long. Yesterday I carried them home in that little bag in the car without anybody thinking anything of it. Then last night they sat in my bedroom without any lock and key. We are the only people who even know about them. Why would something suddenly happen to them now. Not to mention that if I had not remembered that code yesterday they could have sat in that storage place forever.”

She could see her mother and Gran nodding with her in agreement. Reluctantly her father gave way. “Well, I suppose that is true. It is like you were meant to discover them. But you must let one of us come with you on the train, I am sure your Gran would be glad to come with you.”

Her Gran nodded, “Of course, pet, I am free and would love to come. I have barely been introduced to your children. A day with them on the train would be wonderful. And who is safer than an old lady with a walking stick.”

Now they all laughed and it was agreed. Today she and her Gran would go on the train to Scotland. Tonight they would show them to Vic. Tomorrow they would be taken and stored in a bank vault in Edinburgh or Glasgow until they were valued and assessed.

The trip home was uneventful. Vic was there to meet them all, encasing everyone, Gran included, in a group hug. Susan felt her news bursting on the tip of her tongue but she held it in. She would save it for after supper when it was just the two of them. Then she would show him both the diary and the stones together. In doing this she knew she must ask him to tell her about this Mark, his friend. She could run away from that knowledge no longer.

As they were sitting over supper, chatting around the table with the whole family, telling of the trip and the book from Kashmir, the phone rang. Her aunt got up to answer it. In a minute she had a puzzled look on her face.

Finally she said, “Just a minute,” and turned to address Susan, “There is a girl, Cathy, on the phone. She says she had a letter of introduction from your friend Anne. She has just arrived from Australia. She asks if she could come over here now and give this letter to you. She is staying nearby and could come straight away if it is alright.”

Susan was looking forward to the rest of her night alone with Vic, but could think of no polite way to say no to someone who wanted to meet her at Anne’s request. So she shrugged her assent.

 

 

 

Chapter 40 – Meeting a Lost Girl

Soon there was the sound of car tires crunching on the gravel drive. Then came a knock on the door. Susan went to the door and opened it herself.

Standing before her was a girl of somewhere around her own age, with darkish hair cut short. She could also see a dark skinned man still sitting in the car parked some distance away. The girl held out her hand and said, “Hello, I am Cathy. I was just talking to your aunt on the phone.”

Susan invited her in, but the girl replied, “Thanks, but no thanks, at least not tonight. I just wanted you to have this letter sooner rather than later.

“I am hoping to have the chance to meet you and talk about what it says in the next couple days. Tonight we are both jetlagged and need to sleep,” she said, pointing to the man in the car. “I want you to have chance to think about what we are asking and say no, if you want, before we go further.”

So Susan took the letter she proffered, thanked Cathy and watched her walk back to the car and drive away before she came back inside.

The others all looked at her with interest. She briefly explained what had happened, saying, “If Anne wanted to give me a message it is funny that she did not ring me and tell me directly. It must be something complicated that I need to think about for her to have written to me instead.”

Vic yawned. It made no sense to him too and he was tired after a long day of flying and driving.

Her aunt took the initiative, “Actually I think we all need to head off to bed now, it is getting late and you both look tired after your trips. Maybe, you should leave reading the letter until you wake in the morning with a fresh mind. I will pop your kids in the bath and put them into bed. Susan, you should go a have a rest with Vic and your baby now.”

Susan felt happy to oblige, since coming to live here David and Anne seemed always happy to go off with others and, in truth, after her bad night of sleep last night, she was suddenly very tired.

She took Vic’s hand. They went to their bedroom, happy to be together with their baby, knowing talking would wait. As she lay beside him she said, “I have much news but I need to rest before I tell you.”

He tucked their baby between them, put his arms around her and they fell asleep.

She dreamt of meeting Vic for the first time. He was standing next to a helicopter. She was travelling with another man whose face she could not see. But she was happy. Everything around her in this dream was bright with full colors, green trees, blue sky, golden sun, red dirt, and Vic’s berry brown skin. The colors were unbelievably beautiful. She did not want to wake from her dream. It was a warm and happy place which she did not want to leave.

She woke to find Vic staring intently at her. She told of the dream and he stroked her and held her close, telling her that she had remembered the first day they had met. Still in this happy place she returned to sleep.

The sky was just glowing in a clear cold daylight when she woke again. Her baby was restless, seeking food and she gave it a breast, watching as he sucked greedily. She snuggled into Vic, wanting to postpone the telling, it all seemed too complicated and hard to explain now, plus she could feel his early morning desire for her and she wanted that too. So they postponed a little longer with joined pleasure. She dozed again. Her mind snapped sharp awake. It was time to speak.

So she told him of it as it happened, the taking of the pictures, those images of another time that kept coming into her mind, the diary, the man with the crocodile face. Then she told how she had seen the place where the things were stored and had known they were there and what the code was, even though she had no remembrance of leaving them there three of four years past. Having told up to this part she went and took the book and the stones from her bag and passed them to him.

“It is time for you to begin to tell me who I was before,” she said. “I need to know, I cannot block it out any more.”

He nodded and looked at the book with wonder. “It is hard to believe I am holding it. I have read parts. Anne read it all, not this book but a copy. You must have copied it, as you did with my book, and stored the original for safe keeping with the stones. They belonged to Mark, they are yours now.

“The book, this diary, is the story of Mark. He was your lover before me. He is the father of Anne and David. He was my best friend and I miss him still. It is a hard story. It tells of bad things that Mark has done. I can tell you parts, Anne can tell you more.

“If you wish I can read this with you, or I can sit with you while you read for yourself. Only a small part is a story about you. You came last; his last great love. When I knew you then I was only a friend, a friend of Mark who took you both flying for a magic day of scenery and fishing. By the end of that day you were my friend too. After that you travelled on further with him but I never saw you together again.

“When you left him he was dead. In that you played a part, but it is not something of blame. Mark knew there was no other way for him; he could not escape his past. So he chose to give his body to the crocodiles. That is why you see a crocodile face. It was as if, when he left, what remained was a crocodile spirit. Sometimes that spirit has haunted you too.

“As to the stones, I knew he owned some such; he was a rich man. He once told me he an old timer had shown him a fabulous opal mine, far out in the desert. It gave him more money than he ever needed. Instead he chose to live and work in the outback; it was the only place where he felt at home.

“As part of this life he bought and traded gemstones with other miners, always at a fair price. He would keep the best stones for himself, saying he loved to have these things of beauty. I think only I and Buck knew of this. Sometimes he would give them as gifts to friends.

“Even though he was rich he lived simply and spent little on himself, his needs were few. So those stones were his own collection and, when he went, he gave them to you to do with as you wish.”

Vic picked up the book and turned the pages until he came to where Susan first appeared. He said, “Here he tells of when he first saw you.”

He read aloud the words;

 

Beach Girl, beautiful. She stands there with her toes in the little waves, hair flung back like a Greek goddess, arms stretched out to the morning sun. She is enchanting and I want to know who she is. I stand on the shore path, watching her in the bright light. When she looks my way I move behind trees, now I can only glimpse her. Then she comes my way, I keep out of sight, it might look like I am spying.

She has stopped at an ice cream stand. Now she walks on, licking a cone with such pleasure, the ice cream trickles down her fingers and she licks it off. I wish I was an ice cream drop.”

 

Vic finished saying, “I wish I could write as well as he. In the moment I first saw you I felt something the same too. Part of me was jealous of Mark in that instant but part of me was also delighted that my friend had found such a wonderful person.

“I could not believe it when I heard he was gone. Even though I wanted you for myself I also felt entrusted by him to look after you.”

Mark’s words and Vic’s word both moved her greatly even though it was only Vic she knew, she remembered Mark not. The Mark she knew was only flashes of a face at the edge of the light, like a shadow in the last sunlight.

She moved in against Vic and held him telling him she joyed greatly in being entrusted to him. Then she joined her body to him again and drifted back to sleep.

It was mid-morning when she woke again, saying, “Now I must read that letter from Anne, which Cathy, gave me last night.” She found the letter and opened it, taking the folded sheet in her hand and speaking the words,

 

Dearest Susan,

I hope this letter finds you well, and congratulations on the great news about your little boy, Vic. I know I have said it to you on the phone, but I still find I want to write it too. I am so, soo, sooo excited for you.

I have also read about your heroic husband, and the stories which are now beginning to be told about his heroic wife, though last time I talked to Vic he said you had little interest in reading these stories, they had largely passed you by.

So, if you do not now know about your life or choose not to want to know, please put this letter aside without reading more. I would not have brought this memory back, but this story is not only about you.

I started trying to find out about you, my missing friend, but along the way I found the stories of others, those I called the “Lost Girls”. I have told these stories as best I can, and that would be the end, except that one girl is lost no longer, that is Cathy, who you have now met.

She has decided her story will cause much pain and yet it must be spoken. The man who is with her is the man who wrote awful things about you. He is the man who Vic punched and left in the gutter at your wedding. Now he is ashamed of what he did to you, knowing much he wrote was untrue. He has played no part in the recent stories about you and Vic, except to write a piece asking others to respect your privacy.

However, now, he is helping Cathy tell her story. Like you she has suffered much, but she wants the truth to be known. It is a hard story for her family to hear, it will be a hard story for her to speak of, yet she feels she must.

But, before she opens her own Pandora’s Box of secrets, she had set one condition, not to protect her family but to protect you. If you decide, after having met with her, that you want this box of secrets closed, nothing further told. Then she and Jacob will tell of it no further, lest it harm you.

They say that, after the harm done to you in what Jacob wrote, their first consideration is to harm you no more. So Cathy has asked to meet with you, if you are willing, to tell you the story of her life and what she knows of Mark.

Then, she can decide if she is brave enough to tell the story of her own life for others to hear, her parents first and then the world.

So, if you are willing to know what happened from that time lost to your memory, then meet her, listen to her and hear what she has to say. If this is too hard, no one will blame you and she will speak of it no more and trouble you no further.

So I leave it with you to decide whether to hear her story. I know it and it is a brave story, but it is not mine to tell.

Please give your baby and your other delightful children lots of hugs and kisses from me and David and from all your other Australian friends.

We all miss you and Vic greatly and hope to see you again soon.

 

Your closest and ever loving friend

Anne”

 

Vic and Susan began to talk in earnest as she put the letter aside; it was the narrative of a lost year of her life that he told her. He did not know of the years before she came to Australia, but their importance was minor and others could fill them in.

However he knew the story of his wife from many sources, from the documentaries on all the lives of the ‘Lost Girls’ that Anne had made and which he had forced himself to watch despite the pain, from reading some bits of Mark’s diary, really only the parts about himself and Susan.

Due to the sensitivity of parts the full transcript had not been released, but Anne and the police had gradually worked through the different parts with the named parties, checking facts and verifying contexts. She and Alan had spent many hours with Vic going through the parts where he was either mentioned, where they concerned Susan or where the locations and other things may be within his knowledge.

At that time all had agreed that, with Susan gone, the diary was Mark’s bequest to Vic. It was also Susan’s gift to him in another time. So, although he had never fully looked at it before, it was agreed he had a right to it.

While he did not know all its contents and had largely avoided the parts that told bad things about his friend, yet in the knowledge sharing as they searched for Susan, he knew the main facts.

Now, slowly, over a morning, as their bodies lay almost together in a bed, he filled in the story. There were times when it was very hard and tears flowed, for both of them, at the unfolding tragedy of this man. But Vic knew that now it was begun it could not be stopped until an end was reached. So they talked, mostly it was Vic’s words as she had no memory other than the fragments that came two days before with the taking of the pictures.

She watched as he spoke, looking with a rapt face and intent eyes, occasionally asking him to stop, occasionally seeking for him to hold and comfort her. It was late morning when he finished. They knew others of the family had attended to their children David and Anne, and Susan had stopped once to feed Vic again. After the telling was done, they lay together, barely moving for a long time.

Finally she roused herself, saying. “Thank you for telling me, perhaps it is good that I don’t remember, though now I feel a huge void in my life, before it was just an empty place, like a blank sheet of paper, with nothing written.

“I do not know why I can no longer remember; perhaps it was protection so the awfulness could not reach me. Now part of me wants to stay in that place of forgetfulness. Another part wants to know it in my own mind. I fear that the memory will tear its way through, whether I want it or not.

“But I cannot go back to the place of unknowing, I must go forward. So I must go and meet with Cathy and hear her story. Before I do I will read what Mark’s diary say about her so I know at least a part of her story and can spare her telling that. I will do it this afternoon.

“Then perhaps I will read more of what it tells of me. For now I cannot bear to read the middle part, that which tells the worst of the man Mark. I find that this part is something I do not want to know.

“Will you come with me when I meet Cathy and along with her the man Jacob? If Jacob is helping her then I must help him. I know you fought with him to protect me but that is past. I cannot hold anger against him.”

Vic nodded, “Yes I will come and I will not fight with him.”

*

Next morning they all met in a café in the local town, a neutral ground.

Vic opened by shaking hands, with Jacob, saying, “My knuckles still hurt for a week after I hit you, I hope your face did not hurt for too long.”

Jacob answered, “I like people who fight for what they believe, though it was a month until I could eat without pain in my mouth. However it is past and I feel no pleasure in what I did and wrote.”

With that they shook hands and walked off to look at the countryside for five minutes while the girls talked alone. It was an intensely private thing, for Susan to tell Cathy she had read in Mark’s words of her most intimate and private memories as told to him when he was her lover; her rape as a child and the death of her sister. It was said in a minute. Then they just hugged in the way that sisters do. After that they talked for half an hour.

Cathy and Jacob told how they had met with Alan and he had told them he had passed over this same information to Scotland Yard a year and a half ago for its investigation. What was strange was that they had passed over the information in a case where the accused was now a missing person. Cathy’s uncle, George, had disappeared about four years ago now, bare months after Cathy met Mark and before Susan had first come to Australia.

George was on a tour of duty in the Middle East, providing support and intelligence in Iraq at a time when information emerged about a child pornography ring. His name was linked to it, nothing definite, but he was sought by the police to interview. The contact was only with a senior officer, so he should not have known of the police arranging an investigator to go to Iraq to meet him. But it seemed he was tipped off.

One day he had not come to work. All inquiries had since found no trace of him. He was skilled in working and operating in this environment. Perhaps he heard something and went underground. All that was officially known was he could not be located without any specific fears for his safety.

Four years was a long time, so it was hard to know what to make of it. It was particularly hard for Cathy’s mother. He was the younger brother and she did not know of what he had done to her daughters. Now he was missing too it was like she had lost one daughter, then another and now a brother. But Cathy was now the daughter who had returned. With Susan’s permission she would no longer live a lie.

Before the meeting was done Susan found herself offering to come with Cathy while she told her parents what had passed. Cathy was determined it must come out; she had moved past secrets and the harm they caused.

So that afternoon it was just Susan and Cathy who sat in another Scottish living room as they told a story, a story that no-one wanted to hear.

Mark and Jacob collected the children and drove in the countryside. David had taken a real shine to Jacob and sat on his shoulders as they walked in in the woods and hills around the villages they visited, Annie was happy to have Vic’s undivided attention. As they walked the men talked, sharing childhood tales, the boy who was mostly black and grew up in a rough London neighborhood, but fed his imagination on his mother’s Caribbean tales, and the other boy who was similarly black and grew up in a rough town camp in the middle of Australia, but was dragged into being something better by a sister with high expectations. By the end of the day they were good friends. Each loved a woman who was alike, a survivor of something awful; the women could comfort each other in a way of sisters. So they must be like the brothers, and they felt like brothers. It seemed right.

They returned as the winter sun was setting to a somber living room, tears had been cried, but there was forgiveness and the relief of knowing.

Cathy, having got her story out, decided it did not need to be spoken of further. She had been reconciled, only a vanished man remained. Grief must be endured as the family faced the truth. So all agreed the story would end here, unless the man was found.

Vic felt it was better that way; Cathy’s family had more than enough to deal with without having the story of such a man told outside their family circle, though his unexplained absence made full closure impossible.

 

 

 

Chapter 41 – Fading, Fading Colors

Vic and Susan spent most of the next two days with Jacob and Cathy. By the end of that time a fast friendship between all had formed.

Jacob took Susan aside, before leaving, saying, “I cannot believe what I wrote about you. It is so untrue. I had blinkers on my eyes. I was so angry that you dared to challenge the world, not bowing to its power. I confused that courage with mockery. Now I see what you were doing was refusing to give in to awfulness. It is good you do not remember that time. I would rather you never read what I wrote about you then.”

Susan said, “We did not know each other then, now we are friends. As I do not remember, it does not hurt me. So I will never read it.”

Then they were gone, returning to London to talk again to the English Police, then on to Australia via the Middle East, for one last attempt to find the Uncle who had remained elusive until now.

It was strange how, despite both Jacob and Cathy being UK citizens, they decided to spend their lives in Australia, at least for now. Both said it felt like home, it where they had found each other and a wholesome new life. Even if Cathy never found her Uncle and Jacob never published any parts of this story, they had reached joint acceptance. Now their lives had moved on

Vic felt a pang of regret that it was not him and Susan on the plane returning to his home. As winter ground slowly forward in Scotland he really missed his Australian life, particularly the endless bright sunlight.

As Susan said goodbye she felt amazed at how far their lives had moved on it the last six months. For her their past life in Australia now seemed like a barely remembered shadow. She did not miss it. She was less sure if Vic felt that way. She wondered if she was a selfish burden on him, trapping him in this place with her family and offering little in return for what he had left behind. Still, at least he was flying helicopters again.

Over the month that followed Susan made herself know the full story of that missing year. She listened to the tapes of her own voice telling it which Anne had sent her, she watched the documentaries of the Lost Girls Series and she listened to it as well hearing the same stories from Vic, making him recount all he had seen and done. But it was only knowledge not memory. It seemed like it had happened to another person, someone unrelated to who she was now. No new memories of then broke through whatever block had sealed her mind.

A week before Christmas she got another letter from Anne. It was a wedding invitation, this time for her to take the bridesmaid role. It was to be after Easter in Reading, four months from now, when the spring days were growing long and all the flowers were out.

David and his family would cross the world for the wedding. Susan found herself thrilled with the idea of this occasion, she would chatter to Vic about it, asking for his advice about the various arrangements that she had offered to help Anne, with. Vic was of little help, saying to ask her mother, that his part in his own wedding of turning up and being dressed, was the limit of what he could manage. Susan did not push it, liking this new challenge.

Three more wedding invitations turned up at the end of that week; three weddings in one, for the end of May. All were to be held in Darwin on the same day. They were for Alan and Sandy, Cathy and Jacob, and for Ross to a person named Beck. Vic knew of Beck’s role in arranging Susan’s pardon.

Neither Vic nor Susan had met Beck but both liked Ross Sangster. His opinion, after all, allowed Susan to go free. So, while he was little more than a face to them, they thought well of him. Now he was a friend of others they knew, they figured that soon he and Beck would be their good friends too. It seemed strange to have decided to have three weddings all on the one day in Darwin, but it would make it easier for them to attend them all.

So they booked their flights to return to Australia from the middle of May to the middle of June, flying from London to Darwin for the weddings, then a week in Alice Springs with Vic’s family, then a week in Sydney with David, Anne and Susan’s cousins and then a final week of holiday time in Cairns before they returned to Scotland.

They had never discussed a future beyond this place. It seemed Scotland had become their new home, Vic’s flying career had risen with the publicity and the money was good. Susan’s life was full with her children, the book translation pages arriving from the Kashmiri book and helping around the farm. So, for now, they both accepted they would return here.

They were even making plans to have another baby around the end of the year, God willing. A gap of a year seemed right. Of course it was up to Susan to fall pregnant, but that happened with ease before, no reason to believe it would be different this time. So Susan would stop breastfeeding in March in the hope of a New Year baby. With luck it would be a little sister for Annie which she knew Vic would love.

It was a white Christmas that year, all the hills around covered with snow. Susan’s parents, along with other cousins, came up and it was a day of great excitement, particularly for David and Anne for whom it was their first remembered Christmas. They were spoilt rotten with so many presents from so many relatives. In the afternoon the men found toboggans in the shed and took turns racing each other down snowy hillsides, with children on board.

In the New Year life settled back into a quiet routine, periods of three or four days when Vic was gone and two day home periods when they spent most time together.

They read part of the diary each night and discussed what it meant. They were half way through, but had read the later bits about Susan early on, as part of her knowing her past. It felt like embarking on a joint voyage of discovery, reading a two page part each night and discussing what it meant before sleep.

They were reading about J or Josie as Vic thought her to be. She had just arrived in Katherine and Mark had taken her in, describing his feelings for her like those for a little kid sister, but it was clear she was looking for more than that from him. By the end of this night of reading, Josie had found her way into his bed. They both felt secretly pleased for this comfort Josie had given Mark, his life had been very dark and empty since Belle was gone.

They drifted into a dreamy sleep as they put the book aside, bodies not quite touching but with connections between hands and feet.

Vic awoke to hear Susan call out. At first he thought something had happened, perhaps to one of the children and that she was summonsing him to wake. But he saw she was sleeping still. He watched her for a moment. Her face was reflected in the soft light behind little Vic’s crib that allowed them to find their baby in the dark.

Suddenly Susan sat bolt upright in the bed, waving her arms, saying “Please, please, don’t let it end like this. I will stay with you on any terms. We can make a new life together in a place where we know nobody. I love you. I will never tell what you have done.”

She held out her arms imploringly, desperation in her face, pleading. Then it seemed as if she had been struck an invisible blow, she recoiled and, as if rejected turned her face away, softly crying, lying on her side.

Vic wanted to put his arms around her to comfort her. But he knew in this dream she was sharing life with another man, living out a private agony of that ending. He did not feel entitled to share that. He had heard the story before, told with her voice on the tape, the story of her final night with Mark, how she implored him to stay, yet he had turned his face away.

In the morning, when she awoke, he asked her if she remembered any dreams of the night before. She shook her head, puzzled, and said. “No, maybe I dreamt of colors and sunshine.”

The next night he awoke to her dreams again. This time he found her pacing the room, as if in a trance, talking to a person he could not see.

Vic said her name, “Susan.”

She did not seem to hear him, continuing with her conversation. Then she put up her arms and started to move and sway in a rhythmic pattern. He realized she must be dancing, moving in time with a hidden body. It felt both private and weird. As it went on he was consumed by jealousy. Eventually she came and sat on the bed, dance and conversation over. He eased her under the covers, tucked them around her and she settled back to apparent sleep.

Again, next day, she said she remembered nothing.

The next night he was gone, so before he left he asked her aunt to check on Susan in the middle of the night, lest she sleepwalk, saying he had found her sleepwalking the night before but she remembered nothing of it.

When he rang and asked about Susan the next day her aunt said she had been sleeping soundly when she checked. But that morning Susan had told her of having a dream full of colors, she could not remember what happened; the colors were all she could remember.

When Vic returned after his three days of flying Susan had a tired and drawn look to her face. Her aunt said she had been irritable for the last two days which was very unlike her, normally so calm and sweet.

The next day he brought her walking into the hills with him. It was late afternoon, the sky alive with streamers of cloud in the flat slanting winter light. He was entranced by the beauty of these streamers of gold and other fiery colors. He held Susan in front of him, arms wrapped around her, body pressed to his. He asked whether she saw it too, the glowing light and color.

She showed no interest, saying it looked like nothing much, just a dull grey color as the light was fading.

That night he kept his arms around her all through the night, determined to hold her and thus keep her for himself; to let no other invade her dreams. It felt as if this person of her dreams was stealing her soul from him.

She woke up in the morning with a sad wistful look, saying. “Vic, your skin used to be brown, now it has gone a dull and dirty grey, I can’t see your color anymore.”

She went to pick her baby up from the cot. She came back with empty hands, tears streaming down her face. “Something has happened to my eyes, now I can’t see the color of my baby’s skin anymore, he is a dull and dreary grey, the same color as you.”

“Everything looks the same color now; that is no color, all the light has gone. It is only when I dream that the light and color returns to my world.”

Vic thought of taking her to the doctor, but it did not seem a problem that a doctor could fix, he knew it was in her mind not her eyes.

He took her in his arms and brought her back to bed, seeking to comfort her. He made love to her with all the tenderness he could find.

He remembered how, once, he had wanted a woman with a fire that raged at the world, someone who could see the shadows as well as the sunlight. Then he had found a woman who only saw sunlight and he had loved her for her simple goodness.

Now it seemed that she only saw shadows in her waking hours and the sunlight was only for her dreams. More than anything he wanted the sunlight to return to her waking eyes, to see bright light in them again.

So, after that, each night he let her to her dreams, it seemed to refresh her spirit though it left her tired and irritable in the day. It was as if some of the color of the night carried forward into the next day. By the evening the light in her eyes had faded and she would take to her bed early so she could return to her dreams.

He found himself hating the spirit which shared this time with her, but he could not withhold this from her lest all the color faded completely from her daytime eyes.

The thought that she could not see the color of him was hard to bear. The thought that she could not see the color of her baby was impossible to bear, and made him feel like his heart was being torn apart all over again. He hoped and prayed that, as the sun returned in strength, moving the winter sky back towards spring, so too would the light come back into her days and her need for nighttime dreams of color would fade.

January merged into February, the sun grew brighter and the days were longer, but yet the dreams continued and her daylight colors faded ever faster, barely lasting the morning. Sometimes he would find her gone to her bed and sleeping after lunch. It was as if she must return to the one place which was real for her. It made his heart ache to see her like this, his girl of fading, fading colors except in her world of dreams.

Now he often spent sleepless nights trying to understand who or what it was that invaded her dreams. But while she often walked and talked in her sleep it seemed it was never again to a person he thought he knew, as on the first night when he knew she pled with Mark.

She never spoke any name. It seemed her partner was a faceless soulless being. But always she returned to commune in this place of colored dreams. After each two nights of watching her, Vic needed to return to the helicopter base to sleep.

She continued to be sweet to him, though now she was often irritable with her children and others. But, more and more, it seemed her eyes no longer looked towards the daylight but only to the night, as if he and others of the world were fading from her view and, as they did, the colors faded too.

Vic could feel quiet desperation seep into him. He had found this girl, his wife. He had loved her and she had come back to him in body and soul. Why had he not just taken her to a far off place where she knew nobody and the past could never reach her. She had a new identity and they could have gone and lived anywhere in the world, unknown.

Instead he had chosen to bring her back to the simple and comforting reality of an older familiarity, trying to give her connections back to her distant past from which to build a new and different reality. But, while the past brought connections and some were to the good, some were also to the bad. It seemed she could not keep separation between them.

Now, as the bad came surging back, he felt it was slowly tearing her apart, making fractures in her soul, breaking apart the inner core of the new person he had found. It was as if her dreams opened cracks between two beings resident in one body. These cracks let in the colors, but so too did other shadowed things slip through as well.

He did not know for sure that the people or things of her dreams were bad. But he could see them sucking her vitality. Now her life force was fully consumed at night and not enough remained for her daytime life with him and her family. He wished he knew what to do. His aunt had glimpses of this shadowed self; she had become a quiet supporter in his corner. Others saw less, and his wife, the consummate actor, could hide it from them. Even the fact that she now was able to live a double life, spoke of the return of a duplicitous part to her soul, which was not there when he found her again.

He remembered how she had warned him on the first meeting, “I do not know if you can find her, or if you will ever be able to bring her back again.” These words now resonated with a ring of truth. It was as if the more she discovered of her of her past, the less remained of her in the present and for the future. He felt despair at reliving all the loss anew.

He did not think it was not a sickness of the body; rather it was an illness of spirit. It seemed as if another spirit, perhaps a malevolent crocodile spirit, was stealing away the soul of the person he loved.

One night, at the helicopter base, when it was daytime in Australia, he rang Alan and told him of his fears. He asked him if he would talk to Ross and Charlie, to see if either could offer any ideas of what he might do. If it was a disease of the mind, perhaps medicine could help, or perhaps, if it was a spirit, human or crocodile, drawing her back, the way it had before, then there may be some aboriginal spirit man who could help.

Next day Alan rang his back, saying he had talked to Charlie and there was a parcel coming which he hoped might help. It was heavy and had cost a good bit of money to express post. But he should have it in a day or two. Charlie said it was a powerful medicine against the dreaming spirits, crocodile spirit to fight crocodile spirit.

Ross rang later the same day. He had no solutions. He talked to Vic about psycho-analysis but admitted that, in her case, it was probably a waste of time, whereas he thought Charlie’s idea was worth a try.

 

 

 

Chapter 42 – Crocodile Stone

Vic returned from the base to the farm on the third day, nervous with anticipation. Sure enough an express box sat on the kitchen table, waiting. It bore his name, writ large, in black texta. He picked it up, it felt heavy.

Susan was out visiting with her aunt so he had the place to himself. He took the box to the bedroom and opened it. In it, nestled in bubble plastic, was a black stone, flat and round, as if river smoothed, but with a dark polished texture. It looked as if the stone was coated in impregnable matter which had rubbed smooth into a dull luster.

He lifted it out. It sat, neat and full, in the palm of his hand. He could feel it was infused with a presence, emanating a silent force. It soothed his mind and spirit like healing balm.

He understood, without it being said, that it was intended for Susan to hold, for it to sit in the palm of her hand or rest against her body. Alan and Charlie had talked of the crocodile stone which had given her mind solace before. Perhaps this was it and it could help again.

When she came in, full of subdued brightness, as the light of the night was fading from her eyes; he brought her to sit on the bed and asked her to close her eyes, and to put her open hand out, palm up.

She complied and he rested the stone in this place, closing her fingers around it. She seemed to want to open her eyes. So he rested a finger on each eyelid and asked her to stay still and tell him what she felt. He could feel calmness wash over both him and her, coming from her to him in the place where their skin was touching.

She said, “It is like a dream and yet I know I am awake. My mind is full of light, light and colors. I can see your color; I can see David and Anne’s color. I can see my baby’s color. I can even see the color of the sky. It is so glorious and beautiful.

“It is as if, when I hold this stone, my mind sees through other eyes, eyes not my own. These eyes can see what mine cannot. But because I am linked to it I can see the things these eyes see too.”

He lifted his fingers from her eyelids. As he did the shared vision faded. He watched her face intently as she looked at him. “It is not so bright as it was before, when you touched me. But still color remains, softer than before, but still a thing of beauty.”

She kept looking at him with a beatific smile, saying. “The thing of most beauty I see is you. I had forgotten how wonderful you look.”

So now as she walked and talked she carried the stone with her, mostly in an inside pocket where a part rested against her skin, sometimes in her hand. It brought light back into her eyes and joy to her smile. It almost made her seem whole again. But then, whenever she put it aside, the brightness faded and only the shadows remained.

Vic felt his anxiety fade as the brightness returned to her eyes. It was not fully the Susan of old, but at least, when she held the stone, the fading colors returned to brightness and with them came a light which lit her face like a shaft of sunlight.

Their life returned to a place of quiet joy. He did not have her fully back but, having known the fear of losing her again, now he understood the preciousness of what he had regained. She had a renewed zest for life, playing with her children, talking to Anne, her parents and the old Kashmiri man, making plans for the wedding. But it hid a brittleness; a shell encasing a shell, hollow inside.

Others seemed delighted to have back the Susan of old, perhaps they had noticed more than he realized. But he knew that, while it was better to have her in this place, he only held her by a thread, a thin line of contact through a crocodile stone. The sickness was still in her soul and sometimes he glimpsed it, even now.

He wondered, as he saw her now, if on the day when she gave Mark to the crocodiles, whether in that act a part of the crocodile’s spirit occupied her soul and now this part consumed her spirit from its inside place.

He must find a tribal medicine man from the place of crocodile spirits, and see if she could be healed that way. The crocodile stone was working as a medicine pill that kept the disease at bay, but it was no cure. The soul cancer was still there; when the link was broken the disease would return.

But still it was something, a lifeline to buy time, time to find healing. He knew he must bring her back to the land of the crocodiles for this.

 

 

 

Chapter 43– Last Will and Testament

It was now mid-March, only than a month to go until Anne’s wedding and plans for it were well advanced. The days were much longer now and the grip of winter was easing, most of the snow was gone from the hillsides and the trees were all in bud with early leaves and flushes of early flowers were starting to poke up their heads in the meadows.

Anne was flying in, arriving in two weeks. Once she came Susan would take the children and stay with her parents in Reading for a fortnight. That way she could share in all the final preparations with her friend, going to the church rehearsals and the hens’ night amongst many other things.

David was flying in three nights before the wedding, on the Wednesday. Most of the other Australian contingent arrived that day or the day after. Vic would also go down that Wednesday, taking the following week off flying.

There was a bucks’ night on Thursday, where Vic would join many of the other Australian contingent, along with Susan’s brother and a couple of other down under locals to give David a proper Aussie send off. Friday was a quiet night before the wedding on Saturday in Greyfriars Church, a treasure of an old Francisan building in the heart of Reading.

Susan and Anne had both been baptized and confirmed there so it was familiar from both their early lives. It was a place where Susan had taken Vic to sit quietly and meditate on their last visit to her parents, a month ago. That day, the old building with seven hundred years of history gave him a sense of calm and contentment as they sat amidst its lofty, soaring arches.

One night, when he was home from flying, Vic and Susan were curled up together in bed doing their ritual of reading two pages of the diary together, an institution they had consistently maintained, resisting temptation to skip ahead, determined to both know this man as fully as possible through the words he had written. They took turns reading sections; Vic’s concentration was a bit amiss tonight, thinking of the trips he was booked to make in the helicopter the next day.

As he was reading his part, feeling dreamy, his eyes closed. The book slid from his hands. He made a grab for it, grasping the edge of the back cover. It fell open in his hand in a place without writing. A single sheet of paper fluttered out, floating in an unseen air eddy before it fell. Susan reached out and grabbed it. She turned it face up so they could both read what it said.

Vic’s eyes began reading, the tight small writing; he knew the hand which wrote it. Susan was looking at Vic not the paper, saying, “I didn’t know that was there. Perhaps I left a sheet of paper in it one day.”

Vic shook his head; he had already read enough to know what it was. Part of him wished he could make it vanish unread; love letter from another.

He knew the words belonged to Susan and they read:

 

Dear Susan,

If you are reading this it almost certainly means I am dead. I know now that is the only way forward from here. One of us must vanish and I could not bear for it to be you.

I have written this because I wanted to say goodbye. It seems important to me now to tell you that I love you and not just vanish with those words never said.

They are words I have wanted to say to you ever since that first day on the boat when I met you face to face, though I had already been entranced by your image, glimpsed distantly on the Cairns shoreline, feet in the shallow water and hair flung back embracing the sun. It is that I have loved you utterly since even before I first met you. It was only when brought to a place of no other choices that I could say it honestly.

You probably wonder why I say this now when I could not say it to your pleading eyes just a short while ago. I cannot answer as I don’t know. All I know is that I couldn’t give you false hope for a future together in this life, to do that would have been a worse lie.

There was a time yesterday, when I was angry with you. Then I thought maybe I could kill you as I killed those others. But I knew, in that instant when you tried to jump in front of that truck, that it was impossible. In a choice between me and you, you must live; my life is of less importance. I’m sorry my actions have frightened you, I’ve seen fear of me in your eyes and I hate that. I understand why. Now I must hurt you no more. That leaves only one way. Soon, with the first light of dawn, that time of choice will come and must be acted on.

I’ve just looked at your beautiful face as you lie sleeping. It’s peaceful. I hope your dreams are good and you dream of happy times with me, there are so many memories of you in my mind now and the joy will never go away, it will be my last memory. I remember riding on the beach, sharing a helicopter dance, your eyes as I gave you the pendant and the ring. But most of all I remember loving you, holding your body in my arms, your hair in my face, loving you over and over and over again. While I’ve had you like this so many times, as I watch you sleep, I ache to feel you again this way, just one more time.

Before I write a final goodbye, I must tell you a few practical things. In my briefcase, combination 2153, you’ll find two things which I’d like you to have. Don’t give them to others, at least not until you’ve decided for yourself what you want to do with them. The first is a pouch of precious stones. They’re mine, bought and paid for in full by me. They’re all of high quality. I think their value is at least two million dollars. They now belong to you. The second is my diary. It tells of what I’ve done over the last five years. I ask that you read it so you know the good and bad of me. After this you may give it to the police or pass information in it to the families of others whose death I am responsible for. I wish I could feel guilt over them but I don’t, I didn’t set out with the purpose of harming any of them. However, you must judge this and me with your own eyes and conscience.

I have made a will. It is set between the back leaf and cover of my diary, inserted into this space which is glued closed. It’s been witnessed by two friends I trust. It leaves all I possess to you, and gives the details of how to access what I own.

Now all is said and I must say goodbye. I leave this where I hope you will find it, alongside your English passport which contains a picture of your smiling face. I have just touched and kissed this one last time. I would kiss the real face, but that may awake you too soon.

Now I go to the water’s edge. My own crocodile totem will talk to the dreamtime crocodile spirit of this place until our spirits are as one. Then I’ll swim out to join the crocodiles and offer my body to them as a gift. I’ll wait until your eyes are open, before I go. I’d rather not give you this pain, but you must see me go to know I have gone, so as to have freedom from me again.

If any of me remains when it’s done, I ask that you place the ashes of these parts in the place of the rainbow spirits, that place we looked at and loved together, when first we walked in the desert. There my spirit will walk in freedom, along with many other spirits of this land, holding forever an image of your love amongst the twilight colours.

I wish you a good and happy life with someone else, who will love you, and who you will love in return, in the same way that we have loved. I am blessed to have had this time with you.

All my love,

Mark

 

They sat still and in silence for a long time after each read the letter. Susan seemed less moved than he was even though it was a letter to her.

He sat there, tears oozing from his eyes, breaths feeling like sobs. He thought of the bravery of his friend, of what might have been. Mark had given Vic his blessing to take and love this woman.

This paper was a message to him as much as to her, a message from a brother. Part of him wished this brother had lived to share this joy instead, to watch his children grow, to throw them in the air with his roguish grin.

For Susan, Mark was but a name and a few disjunct images, not the life force he remembered. So it was left to him to grieve for what she had lost, it was for the loss of his friend and a life unlived. Now he felt he was back in the river, his friend pushing him on. God how he missed him!

Susan was practical now. “He talks about a will, did you know of a will, were you one of the witnesses?”

Vic was too distracted to talk of this or look further. He told Susan to let it wait for another day. She nodded, cuddled into him and fell asleep. For a long time he sat and stared at that paper sheet.

It was written for her but the words were balm to his soul. Sometimes in the dark days of the winter past he had felt rage and anger towards this man, blaming him for stealing away the soul of the woman he loved each night, and dimming the light in her eyes. Even if it was true, and he felt it was not, he could not begrudge this man a part of her. He, Vic, was the inheritor of the sunlight, this man lived only in shadows.

He felt a great sense of agency for his friend, he had witnessed the will, he would carefully ensure it was done. He would do all he could to fulfill the trust given to care for the woman they both loved. It was enough.

Vic was roused early when daylight was but a gleam. It was Susan, saying, “You asked me to call you early to drive to work. Now you must go. I will leave the will for your return.”

It was four days before he returned. Then their lives were full for the next two days. The diary got left aside, sitting on the dresser in the corner for that visit, and for the next and the next. They both thought of it but neither wanted to open it and take from it its hidden codicil. It had waited there for more than three years now, what was a little longer?

Then Anne was arriving the next day and all the time went into packing and preparations for Susan and the children to go to Reading. Vic took them to the train, waved goodbye to them and drove back to the farm. Early next day he would return to Aberdeen for five days more flying before he joined the wedding party.

So this night the house was quiet, just him and his aunt, no children’s play and laughter. He went to the bedroom and put a pillow to his face, feasting on the smell of her. He saw the diary in the corner. It was time.

He saw the back cover bulged slightly. He found a penknife and lifted the glued sheet which bound the cover. There were several sheets of paper in that space in two lots. He extracted the first. It was familiar, titled.

 

LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT OF VINCENT MARCO BASSINGHAM

It was relatively straight forward. Other than pages referred to as Attachments 1 and 2, which sat behind the signed document, it said.

 

I leave all those things I own and possess to Susan MacDonald, except for the bequests I make as detailed in Attachment 1.

Attachment 2 provides a list of assets which comprise my estate and which I authorize the trustees of my estate to dispose of as they see fit.

I name as executors of my estate, Vikram Campbell and Buck Mathews.

I further ask that the executors contact and make arrangement for the ongoing support and protection of my African child, Nathaniel Mark Nockezume. I give them full discretion as to the manner in which they do so. He lives with his Grandmother in Mozambique at the address in Attachment 1

 

Below this sat two signatures, he recognized these as Buck’s and his own along with that of Vincent Marco Bassingham, the man he only really knew as Mark B, but still the best friend whose instructions he would follow to a T.

 

 

 

Chapter 44 – African Boy

David’s ‘Buck’s Night’ was a night straight from his Australian home; to Vic it seemed that most voices in the crowd had broad Aussie accents. Buck and Julie had come over as part of the gang and their trip for the wedding was to be followed by some European sightseeing. Alan and Sandy were here too, talking of plans for their own outback wedding in Darwin. The night started at the hotel where they were staying, with pre-drinks for the whole Aussie contingent, gradually added to by locals such as Anne and Susan’s joint friends from their English lives and a few well heeled legal eagles from the city firm that Anne had worked for. Once all the boys were assembled they took to a bus and moved on in the best Aussie style towards central London, doing the whole nine yards with a succession of pubs and increasingly raunchy venues, finished by a late night stripper, though David was, by then, in no state for any serious action.

Sandy professed disappointment at being unable to come along with the boys. So she and Julie, along with Susan, Anne and Susan’s Australian cousins decided on their own impromptu girls’ night out together, though it was in a different part of the town, to ensure their paths did not cross.

Next day was not flash for the boys, hangover cures aplenty were touted, greasy bacon and eggs, hair of the dog. None really worked though, slowly, as the day wore on, the passage of time ensured that all began to feel better.

The Australians, and others from out of town, had taken over a large part of their hotel in downtown Reading. The smoking room was now the place of the boys, dark glasses to avoid the glare, nursing watered drinks, with female partners showing a complete lack of sympathy as they sipped Gin and Tonics, consumed plates of fries and mocked their men folk for being piss-weak and having poor staying power.

Vic was one of the better off though he had enjoyed the best night out since he left home, the ‘Ocker’ humor worked best for him, full of mocking asides and little put downs; David parodied by brothers and others alike.

But that was last night. Now he needed to talk to Buck, his fellow will executor, about Mark’s bequests and directions. He and Susan had only spent brief moments together since his arrival at her family’s house after dark the night before last, she was busy with a church rehearsal when he arrived and, by the end of a night of many meetings and greetings, they had both slumped into bed exhausted.

So, yesterday morning, he had only mentioned the will to her and told her briefly of the contents. He actually wanted to talk to Buck in the first instance; it was up to the two of them had to work out the details. Susan was the main beneficiary once all the dust had settled, but their job came first, to interpret and follow the written instructions.

The stones Susan had discovered were now stored in an Edinburgh bank vault, with a conservative estimate placing their value at two to three million pounds plus. It was likely a big plus due to the quality of what was seen. But they were Susan’s private inheritance, as the letter from Mark made clear. So, even though Susan said they should be considered as part of the estate, Vic did not agree and he planned to forget about them for now.

He had to give it to Mark he knew his rocks and had collected the good ones. The two gem assessors had drooled over them, saying they might be worth up to five million pounds, maybe even more. Perhaps the real value of what was sitting in that one little pouch was much as all the rest of his assets combined. But that was the business of another day.

It was the list of things in the will that he needed to discuss now, a long list of properties, shares and many other assets. Vic’s own rough estimate was the list easily translated into upwards of ten million Aussie dollars worth, or, in the currency of this place, above five million English pounds. The bequests to come out were pretty simple, an amount of $500,000 for him and the same for Buck, a few smaller amounts for others like Mark’s Uncle and some other bush mates, say another couple hundred thousand Australian dollars.

The rest was all the property of Susan, which seemed doubly fitting as it would become Mark’s own children’s inheritance one day, though Mark had not known that when he gave it to her. In due course he and Buck would talk to Susan together, in their joint role, about how to realize this value, what to sell and what to hold, all those mundane details.

What he really wanted to discuss with Buck most was what to do about the African boy, Nathaniel. Mark clearly named him as his own child and had asked them to ensure his care and support as they saw fit. But apart from a name and address they knew nothing about him, the place where he lived and what his circumstances were, not even an age. So now they sat and talked. Vic had two copies of the will in an envelope, one for him and another for Buck. The original had been left with the family lawyer, locked in his office safe for safe keeping. He passed a copy to Buck saying, “I see your signature here alongside mine. I think you have seen this before.” He sat silently as Buck read and digested it, letting out a whistle.

“I knew the old bastard was loaded; it was obvious despite his simple life. But all this! It somehow seems wrong to take it from him after what he has done. Perhaps the money should go to the families of those he harmed. What about you, I see you are named like me as a beneficiary.”

Vic said, “I have thought about it, the same as you. At first I thought I should not take it, Susan has plenty to meet her needs and I can make my own money. But then I thought: He was my friend; he wanted me to have it. So I will accept his wishes and take it with gratitude, as should you.

“You have always talked buying your own place to run cattle, back home in Queensland, separate from your family’s farm. Mark would have wanted you to have that. He would far rather your farm be a continuance of what he once owned; good horses in a paddock and cattle growing fat rather than a pile of money or shares in a bank vault.

“For me, I have a yen to return to the land of my birth and I think Susan would like it too. We have not properly talked about it, but since seeing her Aussie friends she has said it, she would like to live in bright sunlight and see her best friend, Anne, often. So perhaps I shall buy a new helicopter, return to the life I once knew. I must talk it fully through with her first, but if she agrees, that is what I will do.

“However the main reason I wanted to talk today is to decide what to do about the one other person Mark names in his will, not as a beneficiary but as a child of his. I know nothing of Africa, other than Mark told me once he fought there as a mercenary, the bullet fragments in his arm tell of that too. But it appears he did much more than that; he sired a brat, a child with an African name. All I know, as you can see too, is this boy of his lives in Mozambique somewhere. It must be a small village. I cannot find it on a map. Did Mark ever tell you of this?”

Buck should his head.

Vic went on. “So we must discover this child. We could pay someone to go and find him, using money from the estate. But I do not think this is what Mark intended, something to be done at arm’s length. As he is Mark’s own I feel I must meet him and know him, in order to know best what to do. I don’t want to just send money. Mark would have wanted more than that. I think we must make sure this boy has the chances his father never had, education perhaps, maybe something more, not just things but the care and support of Mark’s friends. So what do you think? Should I go and find him, should I take Susan and the children or go alone?”

Buck said, “You are coming home in a month for the weddings. Why don’t you leave a week early and fly by Africa, a flight to South Africa would get you close. Then, once you find him you will see the way it is, what he is like, how old he is, what he needs. Then you will properly know. Once it is done you can fly on to Perth and up to Darwin in time for the weddings. I could come too but this is our first trip away to this side of the world. Julie has my life visiting castles all mapped out. So, if needed, I could leave her for a part and come too. But, in truth, I would rather it was just you. We’ll talk on the phone if needed. But I think it is something you should decide when you get there. And yes, Susan must come too. Any decision you make must be a decision of two.”

So that was how it was. The wedding passed by and was great. They returned to Scotland to pack up their lives there. They flew out a week earlier than planned to Johannesburg and from there they flew on to Maputo which was only two hours’ drive from the village where the boy lived. They rented an apartment on the beach for the week, a place of white sand and a view out across the Indian Ocean. Somewhere over the horizon to the north-east sat the fabled land of Madagascar, the exotic sound had always resonated in Vic’s mind along with images of its strange monkeys called lemurs. Further away, east, was his own home, a mere ten thousand kilometers away, if he could but glimpse it. It felt closer than for a long time, to know it was the next land past the sea, over the distant horizon. It felt like a cord pulling him back.

On the first day in Mozambique they rested and relaxed, enjoying their children’s play on the beach. Little Vic was now six months. He sat like a Buddha, grasping handfuls of sand and trying to eat it, while goggling at his older brother and sister. Susan had bought a new bikini which showed off her ‘back to flat’ figure. Vic feasted his eyes; he never tired of looking at her.

On the second day they hired a four wheel drive and a local guide who drove the vehicle and spoke the language. He took them to the village by a mix of roads and tracks. It had an unpronounceable name and was not much more than a collection of mud houses and a few houses made of tin.

Their guide made inquiries as to where the boy Nathaniel lived. Once he had directions he paid the local boys some centavos to keep the car safe while they walked there along a dusty footpath. It was a simple hut but better looking than most, neatly swept and clean. As they came close the word went around of who they were seeking. An old woman came out and conversed with their guide, who translated.

“She is Nathaniel’s grandmother. The boy lives with her as his mother is long dead, she died when the boy was only a few months old, of the wasting disease; you call it Aids. The father lives in a faraway country, somewhere across the ocean, a land she thinks is Austria. He visits occasionally and gives her some money, enough for the village school where the boy is now and also to buy books and food. The father has not been now for over three years and the money for school fees and other expenses is running low.”

Vic found an old passport photo of Mark and passed it to the interpreter to show to the old lady, saying, “Please ask her if this is the father?”

The woman looked and then nodded intently, letting forth a stream of words where the name Marco was heard.

The translator interposed, breaking her story into bite sized bits, making her pause as he translated each part. “This man, Marco, is a good man, he loved my daughter. She was a prostitute until she met Mark. Soon after they met the sickness made her unable to work. Because we are poor here she worked around the mines of the Witwatersrand, it was how she supported herself and me. She always sent me money but I saw her rarely.

“One day this man, Mark, brought her home. She was expecting a baby and getting sick. He gave me money and asked me to care for her. He came when he could to see her, telling me he had met her when working in a mine. He was convinced the child was his; she had promised him that since she had been with him she had not been with other men.

“For six months, from when the child was nearly due and she was very sick, Mark stayed with us. He helped me care for her and the child until she died when the baby was only a few months old. He was very sad, but he had to work to make money and could not care for a small baby.

“After that he would come when he could, maybe every second year and other times he would send me money, at least twice a year. It was enough for me and the boy to live on and also to buy books and pay for school when he grew older. But no money has come now for three years. I am too old to work so it is hard to survive.

“Nathaniel is a good boy but there is nothing for him here in the village. He is too clever for his own good, he has learnt to speak and read English. Before he used to study and read many books. But now the older boys and men of the village are trying to lead him astray. Because he is clever and can speak to strangers they think it will make them rich. So they get him to buy and sell things for them, even things they do not own.

“He listens to me still, but it is getting much harder. He knows we need money. He thinks that their promises of riches will help. But I know trouble is coming. One day he will end up in jail or beaten by bigger men.

“Can you take him away and give him the chance I cannot? If you are his father’s friends I know it is what he would have wanted. Soon the boy will not listen to me and then I will be unable to control him and keep him safe.

“I am an old woman and will die soon. But I want a better life for the son of my daughter, and I know that this man Mark would have wanted it too.”

They sat with her and she served them food from the little she had. They would have protested, but their guide said she would be offended if they refused her hospitality. So they ate, dipping their fingers in a common pot of corn gruel, accompanied by pieces of coarse bred and a tea like liquid served in earthenware cups.

As they waited they exchanged further stories of this boy becoming a man, of his own mother as a child of the village and of their own families.

Vic, with his dark skin, was a source of curiosity, particularly when he explained that most others in his family had darker skin than him, nearer to the color of the guide and old lady. It was something in common, a sense of kinship. It was a friendly exchange though, with all communication coming through the guide, it was hard to fully understand. At last a shout went up, morning classes were over and Nathaniel was returning.

He was a sturdy boy with a serious face and with the gawky maturing body of someone between childhood and adolescence. They understood he was twelve, soon to be thirteen. He was expecting visitors, having heard the village gossip. He now looked awkward and self-conscious in the face of these strangers, who had come just to meet him.

However, once they explained their connection to his father, he was full of chatter. He particularly loved Vic whose skin was almost the same color as his own, along with the chubby baby of the same name, with his small brown hands and face. Soon he had the baby on his own lap, chortling with delight at this new face to poke and hair to pull.

His English was surprisingly good; he proudly told how each time his father had visited he had taught him new English words and made him read from the English books that he kept stored in his part of the hut. After an hour of talking they knew that they had reached a point of decision. They could either leave money and go, with arrangements for more money as needed, or they could try to do something further.

They asked the guide to make their excuses for a minute while they walked outside along the dusty track, small village children at their feet calling out with curiosity. Vic asked Susan what she thought.

She spoke without hesitation, “We should bring him with us, offer him the chance of a new life.” Vic felt as she did but knew it was not so simple.

So he said, “We have five days yet in Mozambique, we had talked of making a trip to a national park and staying there for two nights to see the wildlife. Why don’t we do that, invite Nathaniel to come with us; at least ask our guide about how that part can be arranged? Then, if he spends those days with us and it still seems right, we can see how we can legally bring him out to live with us.

“If it is not possible at least we can continue to be his friends, support him and his grandmother and visit them again.”

So they returned to ask the guide how these things were done. The guide said that, if his grandmother approved, Nathaniel could come and stay with them in Maputo until they left.

As for going to a national park that part was easy. He suggested they go to Limpopo National Park. It ran along the mighty Limpopo River and adjoined Kruger National Park in South Africa, world famous for its wildlife.

It was a four hour drive in the four wheel drive they had hired; he would continue the hire. Bringing one more made no difference. All would fit in the car and he would drive them if they wished. He knew the road well and he was happy to be their guide for this part too, just another three days of guide fees, very cheap for tourists.

If he brought them he would show them all the wildlife, lions, elephants, giraffes, zebras and much, much more. He even had a relative there who ran a lodge for guests and would ensure they got an extra good deal.

Vic could see this man’s business brain working, how to get the most from his tourist visitors. But he did not mind, Mark was paying for this bit and he could well afford it, he had asked that they do something like this.

So Limpopo National Park it was. He said it to Susan who was talking to her children and Nathaniel.

She grinned, “To the ‘great grey-green greasy Limpopo River, all set about by fever trees,’… Seeing that would be something. Perhaps we could even see the elephant child of Rudyard Kipling’s story. Oh do let’s go.”

So the guide asked the grandmother. She gave a beaming smile which told of her agreement. They invited the boy themselves, conversing with him in his good English. They could tell he was delighted, grinning widely. He said it was a long time since he had left the village. It sounded like a whole new and exciting adventure.

They said nothing about his leaving his grandmother and coming to Australia, just of coming with them to Maputo and Limpopo National Park for the next five days. His eyes told them how desperately he wanted to come.

So he packed his clothes and a few other belongings in a plastic shopping bag and sat in the car, between the other children who thought he was totally wonderful, a new grown up play friend.

Next morning the family packed up in the car with their guide and drove inland until they came to the park of the mighty Limpopo River. That evening they stayed in the lodge their guide had recommended and looked out over the Limpopo River’s bank.

On the bookshelf Susan found a copy of the ‘Just So Stories’ by Rudyard Kipling, much thumbed by many other readers. In the falling dusk she read the story of the Elephant’s Child to her assembled family.

As she spoke of the broad hippopotamus aunt, who smacked the Elephant’s Child with her broad, broad hoof, they watched a hippopotamus rise from the water and make a mighty yawn. Soon after, walking down the river bank, came a group of elephants with a baby elephant following close behind. It looked like just they imagined the Elephant’s Child, full of ‘satiable curtiosity’ to discover the world. Fortunately of crocodiles there was no sign.

Next day they drove out onto wide grassy plains dotted with zebra, giraffe and innumerable antelope. They watched a group of hunting lions as they fanned out in search of prey. Later they saw a leopard resting in a tree, troupes of baboons and the dark shadowed bulk of a rhino half hidden behind thorn trees. None of them wanted their holiday to end.

By the end of the trip it felt like Nathaniel belonged with them, he was just one more of their family. He asked endless questions of Vic, most about how he learnt to fly a helicopter. Vic knew he really wanted to fly in one and felt a strong desire to show him, maybe even to teach him to fly as he had been taught. Even though he looked very different from his father, Vic felt the shadow of Mark in him, his intense and focused interest and his ability to concentrate and learn new things.

So, that night, back in Maputo, as they sat on the beach looking across the vast Indian Ocean towards the continent on the other side, Australia, they asked him if he would like to come and live with them there.

Now he had a shy and nervous look on his face as if this fortune was beyond all dreams. He answered, “Yes, I will come if grandmother and the spirits will it,” He gave a rapturous smile to his new brothers and sister.

So, on the final day before they caught the plane, they went and saw his grandmother and sought her permission. She gave it by signing of legal paper with the imprint of her thumb, indicating her agreement.

It was not an official adoption form, but a document quickly drawn up by a Maputo lawyer which stated that wished to adopt this boy, Nathaniel, and had the agreement of his grandmother to do so. They did not know if it was be legally valid, but it was a start, a promise of intent.

Vic also promised he would come back as needed to complete the full process. It would take time for all the formalities to be done in both Australia and Mozambique, but they stated their willingness to give sponsorship and other undertakings as required. Formal adoption was what they proposed.

In the meantime they arranged for a payment of $100 Australian dollars a month to come to the grandmother, with an extra $20 month commission to their guide in return for him ensuring that the money got to her and any other needs of her and her grandson were met. They also promised the guide a bonus of $1000 if he could ensure the legal adoption steps were completed quickly, along with another $1000 paid as needed to cover any expenses he had to meet along the way to achieve it.

For their guide this was a vast sum that he could use to buy a new life for himself and his family, even to buy his own car for his business. So they were confident he would hold to his side of the deal. Even if he did not it was only money, and with more money they would find someone else to do it.

The lawyer was also left with a good retainer for the work he needed to undertake, and again there was a promise of more if success was achieved.

So they had done all they could for now. One day, very soon, they told Nathaniel, they hoped he would join their family in a new home far away.

Nathaniel nodded, saying. “Yes, if the spirits will.”

Susan hugged him to herself, and the children hugged him too, before they waved goodbye. Vic shook his hand and told him that soon he would teach him how to fly a helicopter.

 

 

 

Chapter 45 – Four Weddings and a Funeral

Actually it was three weddings on one day, not four. The fourth wedding had already been, and the funeral came later. But Susan, and her new best friend Cathy, always thought of this day as the day of four weddings and a funeral. Perhaps, it was because of the movie of the same name, with the ‘oh so dishy Englishman’ that they both rather fancied, it was also because this part of their story really began with the four wedding invitations that had arrived the week before Christmas, followed with the first wedding a month before. Now it continued with many of the same cast of characters on another remarkable wedding day which followed. Then the sequence concluded with a funeral of sorts a few days later, for parts of a man long gone.

So Anne had married David. It was something that Susan felt hugely emotional about, an emotion of unfettered delight for both David and Anne. On the day of their wedding, with her as a bridesmaid, she had cried many more tears than she had on her own wedding day, and the delight of the occasion was almost equal to her own wedding day for her.

She knew, from the stories others told of herself, that she had been briefly involved with David, even engaged to marry him. But it was a vanished memory. Anne had retold Susan the story of her own first meeting with David, when he was with Susan, almost engaged. Anne took delight in saying how there was a primal spark of attraction between them both on that day. Even though they had not acted on it until much later, when Susan had formally broken the engagement and given Anne her blessing, she felt there was an inevitability to all that had followed, like two attracted magnets which finally fused. Susan could see it was a rightness she and David did not have.

She liked David, she could feel his charm and saw his good looks. But he did not melt her insides the way Vic did with a single look. She also knew how her own vanishing had torn David and Anne apart, over and over, continuing for over two years while Anne searched for her. It had probably delayed their wedding plans equally.

So this wedding had a right feeling, it was long overdue for them to formalize life together. After the ceremony they went off on a month long honeymoon, travelling the globe, going to more countries than Susan could count. They returned just in time to celebrate this triple wedding.

Anne had told her, on the girls night out in Darwin, when Susan asked about her modest drinking, that she thought she was expecting. It redoubled Susan’s delight and she shared her own news that this time they would do it together, only two weeks ago she had got the positive test result herself. Now that she and Vic had decided to return to Australia to live it was even possible that they would have their babies together, almost as twins.

Today both she and Anne wore bridesmaids’ dresses, she on behalf of Cathy and Anne on behalf of Sandy. So it would be lovely to stand side by side in the combined bridal party.

It was strange how this event had come about. Three groups of people, unknown to each other at the start of last year, and two couples unknown to each other until after her own marriage last year, had struck up friendships almost overnight, all having decided to get married.

When one couple told the other of wedding plans in Darwin, the second couple said they had almost identical plans. Soon after, all three couples were out for a meeting and drink. It turned out, when they compared notes, that all had wedding plans for Darwin in the same week.

Almost as a lark, one person had said, “Why don’t we do it together?”

Five other heads nodded, it was effectively settled.

So after that it was just about figuring out how.

A place of great emotional resonance for all was East Point, the place where Darwin Harbor met the sea. Here Alan and Sandy, along with other friends including David, Anne, Buck, Julie and Vic, had gathered in much sadder times, for the opening a missing persons memorial.

The names of Susan Emily MacDonald and Cathy (Fiona) Rodgers, along with others who were also missing, were inscribed on a stone block. Cathy and Susan’s names were there still, inscribed on metal plaques giving the details of when last seen before missing and now a couple lines about their return. Two other names on the list of over 50 had similar joyous returns told, the fate of the rest was still unknown.

So this was a place of hope as well as sadness. With the link between all these couples through this story, and their love of this place with its north-western vista, looking over the vast ocean towards Indonesia, all had agreed that this was the perfect place for their wedding ceremony to be. So on a Saturday in May, as the late afternoon sun fell towards the sea, making glistening lines on the watery horizon, they assembled to marry.

They each had their own celebrant, each according to their own custom, a Presbyterian Minister for Cathy, a civil celebrant for Alan and Sandy, and a rabbi to mark Beck’s Jewish heritage. All assembled stood as witnesses for three ceremonies which together took an hour. By the end of the third the sun was only a hand’s breath above the where the sea met the sky.

None were overly religious, but all had a sense of destiny and awe at how life had drawn them together. A central figure was the aboriginal man, Charlie. He was a friend to all; all had shared his wife’s catfish curry and forged their friendships around his table. He began by welcoming all to his country, Larrakia land. He spoke first, then a second time again at the end, this time doing a smoking ceremony to waft clouds of grey into to reddening sky, then calling on his rainbow serpent dreamtime ancestor to look kindly on these new married people and guard their lives together.

When his speaking was done the sun had fully set. Then the two hundred guests moved on to the Fannie Bay Trailer Boat Club for an evening of stories, laughter and celebration.

It was a simple but inspiring ceremony. Susan was so glad to have been a part of it. She looked with equal pride at Vic, standing with Buck alongside Alan as a groom’s man. This was something they had shared in equally.

Soon the night was done and just one ceremony remained.

It happened a fortnight later. Alan and Sandy were just returned from their honeymoon. It was a much smaller and more somber gathering, just her, Vic, Alan, Sandy, Buck, Julie, Charlie and Antonio, uncle of the man, Mark, his surviving next of kin.

They waited together in the front office of the coroner’s building while two parts of a man were released from its custody. These body parts had sat for over three years now while the legal processes around his murder and the inquest about his role in the disappearance of the “Lost Girls” had rolled on. When all the lawyers were done this man’s mortal remains, a skull and a forearm, the parts had been forgotten about.

Finally, almost as an afterthought, as Sandy tidied up in preparation for her own wedding and to take three months off work, perhaps to try for a baby of her own, she had come across these two preserved items resting in a storeroom cabinet. At first she had not known what to do. There was no obvious family seeking return of the remains.

So she had talked to the two best friends of the man Vic and Buck, about what should be done. While Mark’s father was still alive Mark had explicitly rejected him having any role in his estate or other parts of his affairs, in his will. So they contacted his surviving uncle, who remembered Mark with affection as a child, and the three had agreed on a plan.

What remained would be cremated and the ashes divided into three parts, one to go to his mother’s family in Italy. These grandparents were too frail now to make the journey but wanted to bury some part of the grandson they never knew in their own family graveyard. The second part of the ashes would be returned to the billabong from whence they came. Vic and Charlie would do this together, it was to return a part to the crocodile spirit which had brought this to pass, whose power they had both known.

The third part belonged to Susan. It was for a role given by the man’s own request, something he had asked Susan to do in his farewell note, to take a part of him to a place in the desert which he had shown her long ago.

She said she was not ready to do it yet. She said she would only do this with remembrance of who he had been. This memory had not come back. So she delayed her part, in hope that one day this memory would return.

Today was the beginning. When the small coffin shaped box, into which the parts had been placed, was brought out, Charlie took his agreed place in the front to lead the man’s spirit home. The other four men each took a corner of the little box. Their wives walked with them, each with a hand resting on the box as a mark of respect. They placed the coffin box into a waiting hearse and followed it in funeral cortege, in two cars behind.

They brought it to a private chapel next to the crematorium. Here a priest of the church of his ancestors would say his Catholic ceremony, so as to meet the request of his Italian family. Gathered inside the chapel were a handful of other friends, come from many places across the outback by personal invitation. They included Vic’s mother, uncle and sister, some miners from leases in unknown places, a store trader from Borroloola, Mick, fey Irishman from Top Springs and a few others, mostly with black skins.

There were no outside observers of this unannounced ceremony. It was not something to advertise; too many had been hurt by his actions. Yet in these gathered people’s hearts was a part which held real affection for the life of this man and the good he had done.

Four photos of the man in life adorned the chapel. One was from Buck. It showed him astride a horse, intense concentration on his face as he tamed a wild spirit. Another showed him arm in arm with Vic and Vic’s mother, his second family. A third showed a small boy going fishing with his Uncle many years ago. The final one was of a mother with baby in arms, Rosalie holding little Vincent Marco Bassingham. Together they seemed to make a fitting tribute to the tragic story of the boy’s passage into manhood. It was little enough, but it felt as if at least some good parts of his memory were held and valued by his true friends.

Uncle Antonio, Vic and Buck each told a story of a boy and man, who was a friend to many in the bush. A few others told their own stories too.

Then it was done. As the words, ‘Dust to Dust, Ashes to Ashes’ were spoken what remained of the man they had known passed from sight.

Vic and Buck had tears on their faces as did Mick and some others. Susan remained dry eyed, wishing for a memory to give her own tribute.

 

 

 

Chapter 46 – Hidden Within Golden Light

Vic felt very nervous. Today he and Buck, with Charlie and Alan, planned to take a part of the ashes to the place of the crocodile, a billabong on the Mary River, a hundred odd miles to the east of Darwin. He had hoped to limit it to just the four of them but the others from the funeral cortege said they were coming too, except for the Uncle who had caught a plane to Italy, taking with him his own small casket for the family there.

What frightened Vic was not the crocodile, or other unnamed terrors. It was bringing his wife to this place of horror. He had been staunchly opposed to her coming from the outset.

He had discussed it with Charlie, and Charlie had agreed. “Bad medicine, best she not come. Bad spirit, maybe try take her again.”

Vic knew that Susan’s mind was held together with not much more than sticky tape. The calm outside belied a place of turmoil within her. Since the ceremony for Mark she had begun dreaming again. It seemed the crocodile stone was losing its power. She would push it away from herself in the night and then she would dream. At first Vic tried to push it back into contact, but it was as if it burnt her night time skin, she would flinch and recoil from its touch. During the daytime she would hold the stone, at least at times. But he would discover times when she set it aside and then she would sit there in a semi-dream state, unaware of the world around her. He felt he was losing her all over again. This time it was totally beyond his power to stop it.

Part of him felt he should abandon his plan to return to this land and instead go back to Scotland. It seemed as she came closer to the place of the crocodiles so their power to invade her mind grew too. He discussed it with Charlie and Ross and neither had any real solution. Ross suggested either a dream centre for night observation or some psychological tests; that was all medicine could offer. All Charlie could suggest was that he talk to his own medicine man and this man would talk to the Baru people, those entrusted with care of the crocodile spirits, to see if there was anyone who knew how to take this possession away from her.

Part of the problem was that Susan did not seem to understand what was happening. So she was determined to go to the place of the crocodiles, to take part in the return Mark’s ashes and, along with them, that part of his spirit that seemed to belong to the crocodiles of this place. As her wishes coincided with his plans there was no keeping her away. It seemed to Vic, despite her saying she could not remember Mark, some part of the crocodile spirit which connected both Mark and her to this place, drove her on.

So, despite all the cautionary words from Charlie and the alarm running through his own mind, he found he was unable to stop her. She said it was something she must do; it may help her regain her memories. She said it with such a hunger of anticipation that it both frightened him and gave him hope. Perhaps she was right; she had to return to meet the devil in his lair to know it, in order leave it behind. But Vic knew it was fraught with danger.

So his fear and caution was to no avail. They were going today and she was coming, there were no ifs and buts. The one thing that reassured him was that Sandy was there too. She still seemed to have a power to see inside Susan’s mind. So Vic had to trust Sandy to be the watcher and pull his wife back if danger threatened.

In the early dawn, with first traces of light in the sky, they loaded up and got ready to go. The children were staying with Charlie’s wife, Rosie, for the day. Rosie would take good care of them, along with his own mother who was there with them too, so Vic had no concerns in this regard.

Just as they were climbing into the car to depart another car pulled up and the occupants got out. It was Ross and Beck. It turned out that Sandy had invited Beck. Ross was determined to go where Beck went. Sandy told Vic of the day she and Beck had held the crocodile stone and how their minds had linked through it, like crocodile sisters. So they decided to come together, two minds and two bodies watching Susan were better than one.

Now they divided themselves between Alan and Charlie’s two Toyota’s and headed away. In the back of Charlie’s vehicle was the body of a small pig, it was one that Charlie had bought from a pig hunter friend, only a bite sized morsel for a large crocodile. They had placed a small slit in its belly. Into that place were inserted the ashes, now embedded in a ball of solid glass. They intended that this part of Mark ashes would end up inside the huge crocodile, the one that had watched them, its own perpetual crocodile stone. So, if it swallowed the pig it would have a part of Mark within it.

In planning this day Charlie had advised that to placate the crocodile spirit they should return a part of Mark’s body to its belly. He wanted to return the forearm. When this was not agreed by the others Alan came up with the idea of making a newly formed glass crocodile stone, and Charlie with the idea of putting it inside a food offering. A glass craftsman had taken the ashes, placed them within a small bottle and melted it into a casing which sealed the contents inside a half inch of glass, a sort of time capsule.

All too soon they came to the side of the billabong. Susan at first stood back, as if watching within a dream, holding the flat black crocodile stone which Charlie had sent her within her hand.

Vic felt relief at her apparent willingness to watch from a distance. On either side of her, each with a hand resting on her shoulder, stood Sandy and Beck, as if communing with her, spirit to spirit.

Charlie carried the pig towards the billabong, Buck and Vic flanking him on either side, while Alan walked just behind and to the side. He carried the Baru crocodile totem in one hand and his police service revolver in the other. The revolver was pointing away from the others, but he had it at the ready lest some saurian beast should emerge from the water.

They reached the side of the water. All was still and nothing was in sight. They placed their pig offering at the water’s edge and stepped back a few paces, continuing to watch.

The water was completely still, not a breath of air moved; its surface was like glass. They stood in a half ring facing east; it was two hours after dawn. The sun was yet to clear the trees and light the water, which sat in gloom. As they stood, watching and waiting, the first shafts of sunlight struck the water far out across the billabong, reflecting directly into their eyes.

As the sun ball rose clear, the water surface turned to gold, dazzling and blinding them in reflection. They stood still, unable to move from the blinding golden light. A living essence sat at the centre of the ball of golden light.

It was the time of the crocodiles. They all knew it in their souls; the crocodiles were coming to claim their own.

 

 

 

Chapter 47 – Crocodile Sprit Dreaming

Susan felt an implacable determination to see this through. So when Vic had tried to tell her not to come, out of fear of what this place might do to her, she had dismissed this as irrelevant. She knew it could do her harm, Vic was right in that, but not to come was inconceivable, it was required of her.

That she could not remember that fateful day when she had been here before made no difference. She had been here before. Her hand had ended this man’s life; she had a duty to fulfill. She did not know what was required of her, but she knew it would come to her once she returned.

So she stood at the back and waited. The stone gave her calm and connected her to other eyes through which could see the colors, so she held it in her hands. And she found a comfort in the hands of her friends which rested on her shoulders. She knew this link let them see through her eyes as she could see through theirs.

It was a strange sort of linkage, as if four sets of images were running together through her mind. One was what her own eyes actually saw in the here and now, another two came from her friends’ eyes and minds, what each now saw, mixed up with what they remembered or knew about this place. In this stream of images from Sandy she could see Sandy’s memories of when she first came to this place, she with Alan, together seeing the giant crocodile, Sandy with Anne and seeing the giant crocodile again as it called for the return of its own.

In Beck’s mind were no images of this place from before, she saw it with fresh, curious and unafraid eyes. It gave her solidity and a reassuring courage. But also in Beck’s mind Susan felt her guilt towards herself and Vic from when she had betrayed them and leaked that information. Susan already knew this, Cathy had told her. But Beck did not know she knew, hence the guilt. Susan transferred a though of forgiving acceptance to Beck, It was done and no harm had come. She felt Beck’s relief and knew Sandy saw it too.

But the strangest part of the mental image flow was the fourth set. They were the images of the hidden part of her mind which was closed to her. She could not see them directly; they were blocked away from her. But the block did not hide them from her friends. So they saw this day, as it happened in her mind, and through them she could see it too as a reflected image.

This was the place of which she desired knowledge, so she encouraged them to look deeper. Now it was as if the three of them were there on that fateful day, reliving the awfulness.

She saw herself lying in her bed in the predawn, wrists handcuffed and chained to the car. She saw the terror of her expected fate bubbling through her mind. She saw herself pick up the knife and hide it in her clothes. She saw Mark squatting at the water’s edge, lost in his own contemplation of his fate, making his peace. She saw herself summon her courage and rattle the chain, attracting his attention as she formulated her plan of escape. She saw the surprised look on his face, not ready for the moment, wanting to stop time.

She saw him come and release her, then fix a bowl of warm water with a washer and soap. She saw the kindness and tenderness in his movements that she had never noticed on that first day.

She saw herself walk away from him, take off her clothes, lay the knife on the ground and begin to wash herself, as his lustful eyes looked on. She saw herself call him over, seeking to create her opportunity and how he trustingly came, she saw and felt his hands as he stroked her breasts and washed her bottom. She saw herself pick up the knife unseen and turn towards him, knife in hand, eyes seeking the spot to strike.

There at that point her memory froze in horror. She could look no more, knowing already what she had done to kill him, the knife embedded in his chest and the timber crunching through his skull. She did not want to see this or see how she then dragged his body to the water’s edge and the crocodiles came and took him and then tore apart his body. But as she withdrew a final image came, it was in the moments after, when blood only remained to stain the still water.

It was a miasma sitting above the water, as if a half formed cloud. She realized now that her eyes had seen it on this day but had not recognized it for what it was.

Now she knew it. It was the spirit of a man and crocodile made one, the man taken within the body had exchanged a part of his essence with the beast. But it had not fully settled into its new home yet and a fragment of this fused crocodile spirit hung in the misty air that covered the water surface.

As she drew a deep sobbing breath on that fateful day, she felt this cloud of presence drift over her and she drew into herself some small part of this other being. Now it was within her and would continue to be. This being was a thing of pain in its fusion. Now a part lived within her, fusing its soul with her own. She did not want it but could not escape it.

She turned her mind away from this image and felt the others withdraw too, in sympathy with her pain.

Instead she looked towards the golden light and let her mind dwell only there. The other eyes followed hers; they were linked to her will and would follow whatever she did from here, three sets of eyes and hands as one.

In the centre of the light she saw the three crocodiles come. They were a long way away and small in her vision, but big in her mind. She realized that she was seeing not the physical creatures, but seeing their spirits as they came towards her. They were ancient beings, dreamtime spirits, for today temporary inhabitants of these physical forms.

Mark faded from her mind, she understood now that, because he was of their totem, when he died they had taken his spirit within their own, joined it to theirs. With the passage of time since that day his fusion with them was now complete, one soul whole and united.

And she saw too that in her grief at what she had done on that day, at the time when she had taken a part of his left spirit within her, in exchange she sent part of her spirit with him, as if to provide him with comfort on his soul’s passage. So she had given a part of herself away. It now lived with the beings who approached her and a part of them also lived on within her.

It was a fused part of her being now, it could never be removed. As Mark belonged to the crocodile totem, so she too belonged. She could no more remove it than tear out her soul. For her to keep living she must let this spirit inside her keep living too.

She was it and it was her. When it could not find her in her waking hours it found her in her dreams. When she held the crocodile stone in her hand its own spirit sat in harmony with it, providing easy passage to her soul so this spirit did not have to tear at and overwhelm her mind to gain entry.

In that moment she was one with these other spirits that came towards her and she sought only to join them. She walked forward to where they came, the centre of the golden ball of light. The other girls walked with her, hands still on her shoulders, locked together with common purpose.

She came to the water’s edge and reached down and picked up the pig. She held it in her hands and walked forward further, now knee deep in the water. She held the pig in front.

Her mind spoke out. This is a gift, but if you prefer, take me too. There are three of you and three of us; you can each take one of us.

The other girls minds’ spoke alongside her own, “Yes, take us too.”

As if in unison, three crocodiles’ mouths opened wide, as if to say, “We accept your gift.”

She heard a scream from the back of her mind. “NooOOO!”

A body hit hers and knocked her sideways, along with the other two.

The pig fell forward, floating on the water. A huge set of jaws closed on it, slowly and with delicacy. It turned and swam away, parts of pig protruding from both sides of its mouth. It turned its head one way and a companion tore off a limb, it turned its head the other way and its other companion took another limb. It opened its mouth and swallowed what was left.

Three creatures disappeared as one, fading into nothing as the water flowed above them.

Now people were rushing in, pulling her from the water, pulling out her friends too, the three crocodile spirit sisters. The stone she had carried had fallen into the water, somewhere deep below. It had returned to the place of the crocodiles.

Susan sat, as in a trance, by the water’s edge. Faraway she could hear Vic shouting, screaming at her, shaking her to listen. But she could not hear the words and soon there was only her, lost in a crocodile spirit dreaming.

Part of her wanted to return to him but another being filled her soul and she was powerless to act outside of it.

 

 

 

Chapter 48 – Crocodile Man

Vic was shaking with rage. How could she do this, how could she be so stupid, throw away her life after all they had done together. He screamed at her, he shook her, he slapped her.

But she said not a word; she just sat there staring into another place that only her eyes could see.

The others sat there too. But slowly their minds cleared and their senses returned. They told of what had happened and of where they had been, to the place of the crocodile spirit dreaming.

They had not felt fear; they had not perceived danger, but if there had been danger, in that moment, they had been incapable of care.

Now, after, they did not know for sure but thought the crocodiles were not seeking to harm them, only to link with their spirits. But yet, they now acknowledged, what they had done was crazy and the danger was real.

The four men had just stood and watched too, frozen to the spot and unable to move. It was as if a spell had been cast, rendering all other life immobile until something had passed. It was only Vic, in desperation, who had managed to break free, to scream and fling himself at where they stood, knee deep in the water.

Once he moved the others could move too. All knew, deep down, that if the crocodiles had sought to really harm them it would have been too late.

When Vic’s anger cooled he was distraught as he looked at his wife, lost in a trance. He took her hand and sat beside her, talking to her, telling her he was sorry, asking her to come back.

But she said not a word. She just sat there staring into space.

Alan walked across and lifted her up. Her body was an automaton and moved not itself, but did not resist him. He carried her to the car and placed her on a seat. Then he took Vic by the shoulders, walked him to the car and pushed him in so he sat him beside her.

At home she sat in a chair and said not a word, they dressed her, they fed her, they put her to bed. They woke her in the morning. She moved when they moved her, she did not resist, but it was the moves of reshaping a doll.

Vic wished he had never returned to this God forsaken place.

A week passed, then another. He had to do something. The children wanted their mother back, he wanted his Susan back.

He asked Sandy and Beck if they could better explain what happened and how to reach her, but for them this memory and knowledge was gone.

Ross visited each day and tried to hypnotize her, and reach her that way. But she did not respond to anything he did. He took her to the hospital and ran brain scans and connected her to an EEG machine. Her brain showed no damage but it was working at the most basal level.

Ross said it was operating like a reptilian brain now, breathing, heart, digestion, just the basic functions, no signs of arousal in her higher brain centers, just the slow reptilian like brain waves of her brain stem which went on and on, unchanging.

He conferred with other specialists who suggested a range of drugs and electro-convulsive therapy which could be tried. But Vic would have none of this; he would let no one do things to her that may harm her more. Ross had no belief in their likely benefit either.

So Vic went and saw Charlie, saying there must be someone to help.

Charlie had been asking, he felt a share of the blame too. He sat silent for a long time, as if seeking guidance, then said, “We must take her to the place of the crocodile spirit totem, we will seek help from the medicine man of that tribe, the man who talks to the crocodile spirits. Perhaps he can talk to the spirits, ask the spirits to leave her.”

So they caught a flight to Gove, just Charlie, Vic and Susan. An old grey haired man, tall and thin with frizzy hair and a wise face, was waiting for them. He took Susan by the hand and she walked with him. He brought her to an old battered Toyota tray-back and sat her in the cabin. He did not speak and neither did she.

Uninvited, Charlie and Vic got on the back. They drove, no words said, for an unknown passage of time. First the road was good then it got rougher. It ended in two wheel tracks which climbed up to a gap in the hills. They crested the rise and saw, open before them, a view of coast and islands. Just behind the coast, at the end of the wheel tracks, lay a round pool of water, connected by a small creek to the sea.

Still the man spoke not, and looked not towards them.

He took Susan by the hand and led her to the pool. He brought her to a place where a flat rock was lapped by the water. He sat her down and then sat down beside her.

From his pocket he pulled a Baru, like the one of Mark had once owned. He started a chant, tapping two sticks together. It was a crooning, pleading sound. It rose in intensity, keeping time with his tapping.

The sound rose to a crescendo then fell away to a whisper. Then it was silent, the silence continued. Then the crocodile came.

It was not so big, not as big as the last. But it was old, its teeth were worn, its body seemed spare of flesh, too small for its skin. It placed its jaw on the stone ledge, resting between their legs. The old man placed his hand on its head, just behind its eyes. Susan did the same.

Then the old man sang a song, it was a song like no other, no words but only clicks and grunts and barking noises, but as the sounds came and went they formed into a melody. As the melody swelled so too did the crocodile, growing in size and power, glowing with light. He filled the pool and still he grew as the melody grew. Now his tail touched the ocean and his head dwarfed the bodies beside him.

At the crest of the melody he opened his own mouth, teeth yellow, jaws gaping wide. Ever wider went his mouth, as if sucking the whole world into his being. To Vic it seemed his spirit had flowed out of his mouth and now enveloped Susan and the old grey crocodile man. Their bodies became shimmering outlines within this other presence. For a time that seemed to last forever this world stood still.

Then the crocodile barked. He barked the bark of a male reclaiming his territory. It shook the sky and the water like a thunder clap.

And then there was silence.

The man started tapping and singing again, loud first, the volume diminished slowly and then dwindled to nothing. As the music subsided, so did the crocodile, first growing smaller, then sliding backwards and down until all that remained was the water.

The man stood and took Susan’s hand. She stood beside him. He signaled for her to walk back to the others. She walked on her own, barefooted in the dust. Vic looked at her; she looked back at him and smiled. For a long time he had just held her smile, she was so precious to him. Then he reached out and touched her and she was returned to him.

After, neither she nor Vic could ever properly describe what happened on that day. But some things they knew, the old man had sung the supreme crocodile spirit and the spirit had come.

Then, as the music rose, the spirit of that crocodile had come into her mind. It joined with the other crocodile spirit which lived there, absorbing it into the greater being. It had filled her ever more completely, until it was all she knew. When it had captured the whole of her own crocodile spirit it had barked. In the bark it had reclaimed its own, a part of its territory reassumed.

With that done it slowly slid out of her mind, and then it was just her again. Part of her felt sadness for the thing she had lost, part of her felt peace that she had long forgotten. It just was not there anymore, but no longer was there a place of absence that restlessly searched to be filled, a void requiring presence. She felt empty but content. She was Susan or Emily no longer, she was only Jane again; she had chosen that name to be free of the spirit. Now it was gone that name belonged best to her.

 

 

 

Chapter 49 – The Places of the Lost

Now she was Jane but with more, a part of the Susan of old seemed to have come back too, driven to do things, to achieve, to catch up for her missing years. The memories had not returned, that must be something else. But in their place was a new found will.

She applied herself to the adoption of her new son, and in three months they greeted Nathaniel off a plane in Darwin. She applied herself to getting Vic to set up in his helicopter business, she employed a lawyer to draw up the contract for the lease of premises at Darwin airport, she sourced and leased two machines, a small one for mustering and a large one for the heavy lifting. She found a second pilot, someone that Vic told her he could work with.

Vic went along with her in all her endeavors, his heart overflowing with gladness. Maybe now she was a bit manic and bossy, but she was his Susan of old, oozing willpower and determination, unstoppable. He loved her so.

Her belly grew bigger with their second child but still she powered on. She bought a house in Darwin, big enough for her whole family and for all her friends to visit at once if they chose. She assembled and edited Vic’s Afghan ancestor’s story, a story of a man in whose footsteps walked her husband, someone who had abandoned his home for a woman he loved and made a new home across the sea to which his bride to be promised to come. But she had never come and he had never returned. The bride of his dreams married another. But then he had found a dark skinned girl and loved her instead. One day she would publish it, a story deserving to be told.

However, most of her time went into winding up her inheritance from Mark. She catalogued and progressively liquidated the properties and assets that Mark had acquired; only the stones she did not touch.

When it was done there was more than ten million dollars sitting in a bank account. All the debts and bequests were paid and enough remained in other places to meet any needs that she or Vic could foresee.

So she asked Anne to call for a meeting of the Trustee’s of the Lost Girls Trust. She asked Vic to come with her to the meeting in Sydney. When all were assembled she asked if she could speak.

She said, “The man who caused all this to begin was once my friend and lover. I knew him only as Mark Bennet. When he died he left me all that he owned. My husband was named the executor of his will and together we have made all the bequests he asked. Then we sold all the assets which were unneeded. Their value was a small amount more than ten million dollars.

“Even though I believe that Mark was overall a good man, I know he caused harm to others. So, I have decided to do two things.

“The first is to donate the money left from his estate to this trust.

“The second is to give his diary to the trust, on the condition that it is maintained for anyone who wants to read it to know of the man. I ask that it be kept somewhere safe, where anyone who wants to know of the man, can read it. The reading of it may give to some of those he knew, or those who knew them, some greater level of understanding or comfort.”

With that she laid the diary on the desk in front of her, hers no longer.

Vic took it from the place where it rested. There was something teasing at his mind, it was from the time when he had found the will.

He remembered there were other papers in that place too; another sheaf of several sheets. He had forgotten them in all that had passed since.

He opened the back cover and looked at the gap from where the will had come. It was still unrepaired. He eased it open and looked within. The sheets were still there. He took them out and laid them on the table before him. The first sheet was in Mark’s writing, saying:

 

In the event that this diary becomes the property of another after my death, I have decided that I should record the places where I buried the persons of whose deaths I tell in this diary.

I hope one day to have the courage to meet Elfin and Belle’s parents and tell them about their daughters and how and where their lives ended, but each time I have set my mind to do this my courage has failed me.

 

After this sheet each other piece of paper had a name and a diagram, a hand drawing with names and numbers. The first was labeled Elfin, the second was labeled Belle, the third was labeled Josie, the fourth Amanda. The fifth name was George Davis. Vic tried to place George Davis, the name had some ring of familiarity but he could not remember. Then, as he looked a second time it came to him. It was the man that Cathy and Jacob had sought, the missing uncle of Cathy Rodgers.

Vic said to all assembled. “Just for now we need to keep these sheets of paper. From what I can see they tell of the places where Mark buried those he killed or who died while with him. This information needs to go first to the police and their next of kin.”

He handed the final sheet to Jane saying, “You should ring Cathy and tell her of this.”

*

Two weeks later Alan set off. The district police were happy to do the site visits locally and see what they found. But Alan wanted to be there himself, to see with his own eyes, to record each detail and come to his own point of closure with this man, Mark. He did not know if he hated or pitied him, but certainly it was a strong emotion that ran through him each time he thought of this name.

It had become much more personal since that day when Sandy had almost joined the crocodiles, the way he had been rooted to the spot and unable to move, except somehow Vic had the willpower to break free.

Before that he had a desire to help the girl Susan, and not have her blood on his hands. It had been personal, sort of. But when she had drawn Sandy into that crazy space, inside her head full of crocodiles it had become fully real for him. Now he knew just how powerful was the destructive force associated with this man. He had been dead now for three years, but yet he still shaped events from beyond the grave. And, although Alan could not see how, he sensed that there were yet more dangers, seen and unseen, in following this man’s trail to the end.

So Alan was determined that he, and only he, of them all, would go first to see. The others could make their own visits later if they wanted. Both Jane and Anne were heavily pregnant now, so he had David and Vic on side. Strangely neither woman protested overmuch; perhaps it had shocked them all to the core just how dangerous the last trip had been. Cathy and Jacob had protested most but they had their own trip to make to try and find the Uncle. He was the one where what happened was most clear but the location was not. Sandy had been unexpectedly quiet.

So now Alan was off on his own. A policemen from each locality was coming with him, to help interpret the clues. First stop was Birdsville, where his chartered plane would land. He would be collected there by the local policeman, Fred Howard, who would come with him, as they worked their way east, following the directions to the place named for Elfin.

They could have come another way but Alan wanted to retrace the journey which Mark described he made from Birdsville to this place. Mark had noted in small writing, alongside the diagram he had drawn.

I followed the directions of the old miner from Coober Pedy, the way he knew from thirty years earlier. He came from Birdsville so I came first from Birdsville. His directions were good.

 

So they began as Mark had begun those years before, taking the road through Betoota towards Quilpie. Before they reached the junction for the next main road they looked for a sign to Four Mile Tank. Three miles along that they took a track that brought them north along the edge of the Beale Range. From there the roads were little more than goat tracks, but they still existed as roads used by miners and stations.

Eventually, after another tortuous half day of driving, with several dead ends they had to backtrack from, they came to a collection of old mine sites spread out across some broken and rocky low ranges. The station owners had fenced these off to keep cattle from falling down mine shafts.

They knew this must be it; there was a river channel below that fitted with the river Mark described. It was not flowing now though the ground was lush with dense grass, still with green shoots from last summer’s rain.

They searched through the knee high grass, seeking the rocks Mark had carried to make the shape of a boat. The river bank was a mud channel with rocks mostly absent. They found the occasional one amongst the grass.

For two hours they searched as the followed along the contour of the river bank, having only found the odd solitary rock. The sun was getting low. They had spent a long day driving and now searching. They both had cold beer on their minds and agreed to stop when they got to the next bend in the river. The rest could wait until tomorrow.

Then Freddie who was working the down slope while Alan covered the upslope called out, “Two rocks together, make that three. Bloody Hell, I think this is it.” They cleared away the long grass. It was it, the place sought, quite unmistakable, boulders the size of footballs that Mark had brought from the hillside, making a boat shape ten feet long by five feet wide.

They gazed in awe at the effort it must have cost for a single and solitary man to dig a hole this size, place a boat and a body in it and then fill it again and carry these big stones to make this rocky memorial.

Mark had simply said in his diary, “I dug a hole by the river, big enough to take the boat. I carried her cold body in my arms down from the mine above.

 

I placed her into the boat with the opals she had found. Perhaps they will pay the ferryman to bring her to a happy place. After I filled the hole I carried rocks from the hill to mark the place in the shape of the boat.

God I miss my Elfin Queen.”

 

Next day a team arrived from Brisbane in a helicopter, with a pathologist to complete the excavation. To Alan’s surprise Sandy stepped out of the helicopter, along with her Queensland colleague. She had been determined not to argue with Alan. But once she knew the find had been made she had caught the night jet to Brisbane and, with her powers of persuasion, she was here for it too.

They dug down, each spade full of dirt checked as they went. Two feet down the spade struck metal, the top edge of the boat’s side. It was exactly as Mark had described, the tin boat, a backpack, the opals and crushed body wrapped in a blanket, pelvis fractured in the rock fall. They lifted the bones out with all the care they could, mindful of the loving way she had been once placed there.

A day later they moved to the next site. It was only five miles away, further up the same rocky ridge. Mark had linked them in his drawings, saying the easiest way to find the place of Amanda is to go to the place of the boat, then follow the track north five miles along the side of the ridge.

 

There you will find the site of the mine which I worked on in the days before she died. It is not as rich as Elin’s mine but there is still much of value left there, I have not worked it further. I feel it belongs to her and one day it should be her inheritance, as she sat there, at first patiently, while I dug it out, meaning for her to have it all. If she had only waited a little longer and not made me so angry I would have given its proceeds to her.

 

So finding the mine was easy, it was exactly where his drawing showed. Finding her grave was not so easy. There was no diagram for it. Instead Mark described the way he had walked. It was vague, as if only half remembered. Maybe he was no longer quite sure when he told of it. What he wrote was,

 

I hit her hard. I knew I had killed her; I could have softened it but did not. I left her until my anger passed. Then I picked her up in my arms. She acted like a tigress but was only a cub, easy to carry. I walked with her, her pack on my back, taking two sticks of gelignite and a rope.

I went northeast, until my arms grew tired, perhaps a mile. I rested near an old mine shaft. I lay her down and put on her best dress, that of the first night, sweet of memories. I took her to the shaft bottom, where I left her, then set off the gelignite. It covered her grave so none will disturb her. I should be sad but am not, it is better the end was kind.

For an hour I talked to an eagle in the sky, asking him to keep watch over her spirit until it crossed safely over. As I talked I walked. Part way back, in an empty shaft, I dropped her pack. I covered it using the second bang stick.

I am glad she lies near my Elfin Queen. They are both free spirits. Perhaps will dance together, beautiful together in the sunlight.

 

It sounded more caring than the way he had told Susan and in the diary. The way he told it sounded like none was meant to find her. And find her none could. They searched but nothing matched what he said. They found plenty of abandoned mine shafts, but they were empty. None was collapsed, as if from explosive.

Her pack was easier, a bare half kilometer from the mine site. Still it took a week of searching. But eventually they found this place, her pack in a deep shaft tied to a coil of rope. In the pack were the rubies he had given her, a few clothes, a notebook, a computer tablet and twenty thousand dollars. All were almost undamaged despite the years in the ground.

So that was it, they had found the one and knew, almost, the resting place of the other. Amanda’s things could be returned to her family.

Alan returned to Darwin for a week of completing paperwork. While these cases were now for the Queensland Police and coroner to deal with, he still had to do his reports, based on what he had found.

After this he was ready to head on. This time the site was in the Tanami Desert south of the VRD, down towards Lajamanu, otherwise known as Hooker Creek. This time Sandy was clearly part of the team, she was the assigned NT pathologist for the recovery of this body. And this time any suggestion that the others were not welcome were quickly put to bed.

Vic announced he was travelling down in his big heavy lift helicopter, capable of taking a dozen people, and that Jane would travel with him. Vic knew the location so Alan could hardly stop this flight. And, as he had read Mark’s directions, it was hardly feasible to exclude him from the search. Also Alan knew that for this search a helicopter would be useful.

So it was decided they would all travel together. Alan offered for the government to pay for the helicopter.

Vic said, “Don’t be silly, I am doing it for my friend, the way he wanted. It is his money that is paying to make something right.”

The first day they ferried to VRD. Alan, Sandy, Anne, David, Cathy, Jacob and of course Jane, were all onboard. They stayed the night there with Buck and Julie, each having their own bunk beds, boys and girls sleeping separate in the stockmen’s quarters.

As they sat over dinner, Jane’s first new memory came.

She turned to Buck, “I remember Firefly, not just being told his name but riding on him. It was like a magic carpet, the way his body flowed. Another thing I remember is the helicopter dance in the Wickham Gorge. And I also remember sitting here over dinner with Mark telling stories. I was falling asleep so I went to my bunk bed. That’s all I remember, but it is something.

“Tell me, have I remembered true, Buck?”

Buck winked at her and said, “It is true. Now tell me, do you remember a day when you sat in that cell and I came to see you. I apologized for not bringing Firefly to see you. You laughed and I laughed until we were out of breath and our sides ached.”

Jane thought for a minute and then said, “Yes I remember that too. But what I most remember from that day was you told me that Vic was missing, vanished with his helicopter, and I thought my heart was broken in two. But he is here now so that part cannot have been true.”

Next morning they left early, Buck flew the station fixed wing plane to Lajamanu where he was to meet the local policeman. They would drive from there to the site of Mark’s map. This place was easy to find.

It was on a road which turned off the Kalkaringi to Lajamanu road. It ran east for thirty kilometers, until it came to a small rocky ridge in the desert. At its base was a pool of water. Behind the ridge to the east were sand hills where, after rains, wild flowers grew. It was such a season now.

Both Buck and Vic knew this place, it had been shown them by Mark, a place he had found and loved to visit when he had worked at Lajamanu.

Mark’s instruction was to walk to walk to the back of the sand hills, about five kilometers into the desert. There they would find a place where the sand met a small rocky outcrop. That was the place of her grave. He had carved her name, Josie, in the stone above, so the desert held her memory.

They landed the helicopter at the end of the road, next to the rock pool where the police vehicle waited. Everyone was let off except for Alan, Sandy and the Lajamanu policeman.

Vic flew to the east, keeping low. Now all four looked for this place that Mark had described, thinking it should be easy to find. After ten minutes of detailed searching it was not found. Vic found a clear place on a clay pan and set down on the ground.

He said, “This must be about where, but where is a lot of where.”

So they each took a quarter to search from the ground, agreeing to walk out two hundred steps and search back from there.

Half way back Vic saw a place where the flowers grew thicker in front of a small grove of desert trees. As he came up close the rocky place stood up, hidden from above by trees but easy to see in side profile. It was only his head height above the ground.

Vic shouted out. The others came over. On the rock face was chiseled,

 

HERE LIES JOSIE

My lost KID SISTER

 

Vic went and ferried the others across before they started digging.

It was as Mark had told, the body of a teenage girl, small bones, wrapped in a soft mohair blanket, no other clothes. A small round hole in the base of her skull told of the killing. As they lifted her out and carried this blanket wrapped package to the helicopter they all felt unutterably sad.

Her death seemed so senseless, a testament to evil.

David said, “Do you think we could just leave her here. I think it is what both she and Mark would both have wanted. He buried her with love in a place of desert beauty. I think here she would be most happy.”

But it could not be so, at least not for now. They brought the body to Hooker Creek airport, from where the policeman would arrange the carriage to Darwin. It was so official procedures could be done. Buck stayed with the policeman to help with his paperwork before returning to VRD.

The others flew on to Halls Creek to stop for the night before the last leg of the journey. Dinner in the Halls Creek Hotel was a somber occasion.

Alan could see Cathy and Jacob chatting to David, Anne and Sandy. Vic sat with him while Jane was on the phone, checking on her family.

Alan said to Vic, “I could have sworn you knew the way today. You seemed to walk almost straight there once you landed the chopper.”

Vic said, “When you spent as long with Mark as I did you start to think the way he does and look through his eyes. When I saw that little sheltered place half under the copse of trees I knew it was the sort of place he would choose. It was alive with flowers. I think they caught my eye in the air.

“So, as we walked away, I chose that side, it seemed most right. I forced myself to walk all the way out before I looked there, not wanting to miss something else. But, as I walked back, I could feel that place calling to me. As I looked the brightness of the flowers struck me. I later realized it was because a huge pile of flowers was once there before. All those seeds had germinated as the flowers broke down, year after year. I could picture it as he left it, not a bouquet or two but armfuls on armfuls of flowers. Mark never did things by half. The flowers would have been piled as high as himself before he left.”

David joined their conversation saying, “I felt today that it was a place of peace, where Josie was happy. I could see she was buried with love. It felt like a sacrilege to disturb her grave. I thought we should leave her there. What was it about her death that moved Mark so; brought out a kindness for her in her death that he could not find for her in her life?”

Vic replied, “I think Mark knew, on that day he killed her, he had done a truly terrible thing and there was no going back. The killings before then were done through desperation or need, or to stop evil people.

“On that day Mark chose to kill his kid sister for no good reason except she took something of his that he cared about. So, once done, his only reparation was to bury her with all the love and kindness he could find. It is as if, once it was done, her spirit felt his goodness and forgave what he did, happy to know his love. But, for himself, he could find no forgiveness for what he did that day.

“That day he lost the biggest part of his human soul. Amanda was but a consequence of that day, the hatred of himself became hatred of the part of her that was like him, the person where self interest came first. So his killing Josie made Mark despise himself and then killing Amanda was like killing that part of himself he despised, something to take pleasure from.

“When he asked Amanda to come with him he did it as a challenge, his diary clearly says that. But when she came he never really gave her a chance, he tested her to meet a standard he knew she could not meet. So he set her up to fail and cared not. He knew that leaving her sitting in a God forsaken place, with nothing to do, day after day, when she was used to getting her way, would drive her crazy. Yet he forced her to hold to the bargain she had made unknowing. Even as he watched what this boredom did to her, he offered no relief. He could have made a trip, visited a station, gone somewhere nice, just for a day. He could have done something, anything, to break the monotony.

“Instead he kept on digging, collecting more stones for no good purpose. He neither needed them nor the money they would bring. Yet he kept her waiting until, in the end, she broke. He knew she was like him but without his strength to fight him, the tigress who was really a cub.

“When she pulled the knife he could have stepped aside, taken it from her. This man, who was a mercenary and who stared down charging bulls, was not afraid of a slip of a girl with a kitchen knife. So he did not need to kill her, he was not frightened, it was not self-defense. He chose to hit her hard enough to kill her when a slap would have sufficed.

“It would have cost him nothing to leave a day or two earlier, nothing but kindness and for her he had none. That was because she was like him and he had no kindness left for himself.

“If Belle had asked him to take her somewhere he would have driven her a thousand miles without seeking a reason. But, when Belle died, he lost his hope in goodness. Then when he killed Josie he lost his soul. So, for him, it was as if Amanda was a test of himself, proof he was a being without a soul, someone who deserved his own fate of always killing what he loved.

“When it was done he felt more relief than remorse, glad to have put her aside. Only after her death could he feel enough tenderness to wish kindness to her in another life.

“Even though he tried to find a part of his humanity again with Cathy and Susan, from then on there was always a devil on his shoulder, waiting to bring him down. I think, after that day with Josie, his guilt was so great he almost wished for it to happen. The flowers were his way of saying sorry, giving something he knew she loved to try and take away his guilt. She felt his love but he could not accept her forgiveness. So nothing could undo that day.

“I think, if I had talked to him on the day he died, and asked if there was one thing from his life he would have chosen to have undone it would have been that shot that brought Josie down.”

Vic paused for a breath, having exhausted his words. He had never spoken as much before as he did now, as his mind had grasped for reasons to make sense of his friend. He expected to see just Alan and David sitting there. Instead, as he looked up he saw he was ringed by a circle of all of his friends. They were all listening and nodding. Cathy sat beside him and took his hand.

“Thank you Vic. In him I saw a good man tormented by his past. Since I left him, I have myself those questions you answered. With each new discovery I ask them, again and again. I have asked myself, time and again, Why? Why? Why? Why could not the past stay in the past? Why could he not let his life move on? For a night or two he tried when I loved him, but the devil was always there.

“Even though I knew he would not harm me, a damaged person like he was, I knew he would damage others; it was self hatred that drove him. “I tried to give him hope but he could not let himself believe it. I was not strong enough to hold him and bring him through the pain. So I made myself leave him even though I felt torn in two as I did.

“Until tonight I never understood why. Now I do and for that I thank you. Susan got closer than me in bringing him past the pain, she offered acceptance with no conditions. But he could not do himself the kindness to accept her offer. Instead he fled from her to his devil the only way he knew. In that last day Susan gave him the kindness he gave to Belle, a quick and kind ending. She since has lived with that devil of recrimination. Now she too must learn self forgiveness.”

Vic spoke again, “It is not only for Susan, now Jane. I was his friend, yet chose to be blind to the things he did. I put my hands over my eyes, and looked the other way. When it was tearing my wife’s mind apart, I chose to hate him for what he had done. Only now, when I see the price that he paid, can I begin to look at him in understanding. So I now must reconcile myself to the ghost of his passing and the harm he has done.”

David said, “While I never knew him, today I walked a mile in his shoes. Far too long he has haunted my life and Anne’s life, as with you, Alan and Sandy, and you Cathy and Jacob too.”

Cathy nodded, “Perhaps tomorrow it is Belle who can bring us to the place where we truly forgive Mark for all the evil he has done, while still remembering the goodness of the man who was once my friend.”

 

 

 

Chapter 50 – Laying His Ghost to Rest

Next morning they flew to Kunnunurra, fuelled up to maximum fuel and took on two more passengers, a local aboriginal policewoman, Jessie, who was a traditional owner of the place to which they were going, and Isabelle’s father. He had flown from France to be here with them when they searched for his daughter’s things. As there was no suggestion they would find a body there was no need for a pathologist’s attendance, today was about recovering the personal effects of a person the NT coroner had already found was deceased, a finding with which the Western Australian coroner had agreed.

So they had a full load with extra fuel and ten people aboard and, as they got airborne, Vic could feel the load in his big machine. The weight would burn off as he burnt fuel on the trip north.

For an hour the helicopter flew north, north-west over a rough and broken land. It was a place of red and brown mountains which raised their fractured heads to the sky. Between scarps narrow gorges plunged, giving glimpses of green trees fringing pools of water and places of yellow sand.

As they flew Cathy thought about her Uncle and all that had passed with him. The note told of how Mark had tracked him down in Oman, already in hiding, as the police were looking for him over other child sex charges.

Mark said he had taken him out to Rub al Khali, otherwise known as the Empty Quarter. Mark gave an approximate place but that was all.

Mark’s note said he had talked to her Uncle there and told him what he knew, how he had raped and abused his two nieces and how one had killed herself because of him. He said he had since found out this man had done similar to other girls as well. So he deemed his life forfeit as payment.

Mark wrote, “I told him I should use my knife on him for what he done; cut away the parts that had hurt little girls. But I did not. I gave him a choice, to go to the English police while I watched on, and tell of all he had done, or to stay here and take his chances. I told him there was no water here, none for two hundred miles and no one ever came here. He said he preferred to stay here, perhaps he thought he could cheat death. I knew he could not.

“I left him with a bottle of whiskey and a tablet that would end it. And even though I did not tell him so, in the whiskey was a thing which would bring a speedy end. I knew when the thirst came he would drink this and soon die, unless he took the tablet first. I drove away, not looking back, and came back to Australia. His bones are far out in the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Desert. I do not know where but I am glad it is so.”

It was not as Cathy would have done it but she could feel it was justice, better justice than a court could ever have given. At first she and Jacob had thought of going there, but there was no point. Whatever was done was finished three years past. There was nothing to gain in driving through an empty desert. If, by a miracle, he had survived she knew that none would ever see him again. And she knew, the way Mark had done it, survival was not an option, his only choice a kinder death. That was how Mark saw justice. After all the people her uncle had harmed she could not disagree. Now, when she balanced it all up, her main feeling was relief.

So she left his memory behind and looked up. Half an hour had passed, now she glimpsed and then saw a blue line on a smoky horizon, then the line became the place where the sea met the sky. She hoped there was more joy in this place than where her mind had been.

They came to the coast at a place where sheer red cliffs met an azure sparkling sea. Vic matched this place to his GPS and map and turned further west, following the turns of the coast as it twisted and plunged. Fifteen minutes later he saw a headland overlooking a little bay, shaped into a half circle. It looked right. He came in closer to see it better.

Mid-point of the cliff circle he saw a small waterfall that fell to ocean, its spray all a glisten. Behind the waterfall lay a clear pool of water, and rising up behind it were other broken rocky hills. Wheel tracks wended their way near the side of the cliff and then vanished into the green grey scrub behind.

He knew this was it, the place of his map, the place which the custodians of this land called Wallaby Dove Pool, a place from where these first spirits had come out from this water and joined the land. Now, each evening, their descendants came to drink. It was the place that Mark called Crystal Creek.

Vic brought the helicopter to rest and sat in it for a minute while the turbines wound down. He handed the map to Alan, saying, “Perhaps you should go first with Jessie to look. Then the rest of us will come.”

Alan and Jessie nodded and walked away.

Five minutes later Alan waved them over. Jessie held a small brass object in her fingers, a twenty two rifle shell, found lying near the cliff side in a place where the rock had broken away.

“It must be this place, just round from the waterfall, from which she fell,” he said, pointing to the ground.

They looked for other signs; there was an old blackened fireplace, unused in years. It was a long time since any had camped here, perhaps the last was them. They checked the hillside behind, looking for caves and rock crevices.

At last they found it, an entrance overgrown by shrubs. It was a crevice in the rock, two meters long and half a meter high. It had been filled with stones so nothing could enter it except, perhaps; a small mouse. As they cleared away stones they saw the neck of a guitar with a backpack beside it.

Alan lifted the guitar out and passed it to Belle’s father. He took it, hands shaking, he knew it was hers, a present of her family when fifteen years old.

He handled it lovingly and strummed a few chords then he passed it to others with a wistful sigh. He opened the pack; its contents neatly folded inside and still dry.

He shook out a shirt, “It is from the local market in our home village,” he said with a tear in his eye. Inside the shirt was a diary, only small notebook size. He took it and opened it and read it aloud.

 

J’ai passé un moment merveilleux. Je suis enchanté avec cette homme. Cette nuit nous somme devenir amants. Aujourd’hui je suis extatique. Il est un bon homme. Même si on ne se revoit jamais, je ne t’oublierai jamais”

 

This morning I sang him one of my favourite songs – Piaf is perfect for a day when I am in love. I sang it first in English then in French, then the last verse again in English. The French is far more beautiful as befits my beautiful man.”

 

Then her father picked up the guitar and played it by ear, singing the words as she might have sung them.

 

No, nothing at all,

No, I don’t regret anything!

Neither the good that’s been done to me,

Nor the bad;

It’s all the same to me!

 

Non, rien de rien

Non, je ne regrette rien

Ni le bien qu’on m’a fait

Ni le mal; tout ça m’est bien égal !

 

Non, rien de rien

Non, je ne regrette rien

C’est payé, balayé, oublié

Je me fous du passé !

 

Avec mes souvenirs

J’ai allumé le feu

Mes chagrins, mes plaisirs

Je n’ai plus besoin d’eux !

 

Balayées les amours

Et tous leurs tremolos

Balayés pour toujours

Je repars à zéro

 

Non, rien de rien

Non, je ne regrette rien

Ni le bien qu’on m’a fait

Ni le mal; tout ça m’est bien égal !

 

Non, rien de rien

Non, je ne regrette rien

Car ma vie, car mes joies

Aujourd’hui, ça commence avec toi

 

No, nothing at all,

No, I don’t regret anything!

Because my life,

because my joy,

today

begins with you!

 

When he had finished he was too emotional to speak and they all had tears in their eyes. He walked to the edge of the cliff and flung the guitar into the sky, watching as it slowly fell to the water below, saying,

“It belongs here with her, may she always hear its sweet music.”

Jane walked over to the helicopter and took out a small bottle. It was the last container of Mark’s ashes. At first she thought to fling it to the place where the guitar had gone, but then she remembered her charge, as Susan, from him.

So she unscrewed the lid, took out a pinch and, with all the love she could bring to her mind, tossed this dust of the man into the air, her mind hoping that some part of it would mingle together with whatever life essence remained here of Belle. She passed it around and the others did the same.

Then they loaded Belle’s pack in the helicopter and flew home.

That night they stopped at Timber Creek. It was a story telling night about Mark and Belle. It was the wake Mark had never had and a memorial for Belle. It might have been sad but it was not. Those who knew Mark told a story of him, those who did not know him told a story of other lives he had touched. Belle’s father told of his daughter and Anne read from the diaries.

It was not quite celebratory, but in all the minds and voices there was joy and forgiveness as well as pain. They remembered a man of two parts, the good and the bad and the woman he had lost who regretted nothing.

 

 

 

Chapter 51 Sunlit Shadow Dance

She stood on the cliff took, looking out over the valley below. The sun was just touching the horizon and, as it did, suddenly the whole world lit up, lighting not just the ordinary world, but her world too. It was fully alive again for her first remembered time with blinding and full color. The color was more beautiful than she could ever have imagined.

As the color came back so too did the memories, the good and happy but along with them the pain and horror as well, all she had been and all she had done. She cringed with pain in her soul as it all came rushing back, the awfulness of it; her awful part. Slowly it too faded as she looked far out, her mind moving past it.

In that last sunlight of the fading day she could see the shadows dance. She remembered how, all the years ago, Mark had brought her here and had told her how, in that last fading light, the shadows came out and danced, those of the people who had lived here over fifty thousand years.

He had asked her to bring his remains back to this place and they had. They had scattered his ashes across the hills and sand plains below. Now he was one of them, walking amongst them, a shadow dancing amongst other shadows in that last sunlight.

She felt his joy, his joy for himself and his joy in seeing her again. She heard the spirits singing in that last light, more beautiful than any sound she had heard before, all life’s emotions mixed and blended into ten thousand, thousand voices. And his voice sang loudest.

He stood there beckoning, waving, signalling and calling “Come to me. We can go together into this other place; leave the pain of this world behind. It is a good place. I want you there. Come with me, come now.”

Now she was only Susan again and loved only Mark. She remembered still, as if from a great distance, Vic; how she had shared her life with him and loved him too. They had taken Mark’s children, her children and they had created their own children together and they had given them all a good life. But Mark was her first and truest love, she was his Susan and her spirit must go to him, it must answer his call.”

As she stood at the cliff top gazing out across the rocks far below, she knew she would now soar from here like an eagle and fly to Mark. She would rejoin his crocodile spirit to that of hers and be complete again. She would leave behind all the pain that she could not bear to remember.

She stepped forward to where there was only air.

Far below a small cry came, penetrating somehow through the other world music and last sunlight where still the shadows danced. It was the voice of her child, David. “Mummy, come back!”

It pulled her back. Again her feet stood on solid ground.

She knew that this boy, the new Mark, needed her more than the other Mark, as did Vic and Anne and little Vic and the others, even one unborn. So she must learn to live with the pain, accept what she could not change and take joy in life’s little things.

She looked back out, Mark was calling again, but now she knew it was not for her he called. As she watched another girl came out of the shadows, she had dark hair; this girl looked like her but was not. She answered him, singing in a beautiful French voice.

Non, je ne regrette rien.”

 

As Susan watched she was joined by another and then another girl, and finally there were four. She knew all their names, the one with dark hair, the two brown and the one of glorious shimmering blond. They all joined hands and danced towards the other spirit shadows in that last sunlight.

Susan watched as the light faded and then they were gone. Now she was Jane again, the remnants of Susan had passed from this place.

She walked across the flat ground to where they all stood and they all enfolded her in their big and little arms. She was glad she was still here. She stood with them all in the now fading twilight as the sun travelled across another sky. She knew that all these other ancestral spirits had gone there too, Mark’s spirit, the crocodile spirit that had tried to take her there, along with the spirits of other women he had loved and who had gone before.

But it was not her time to go there, she would live and love in the world of men, watch her children grow and their children too, share their joys and pains and live again in life’s colors. It was enough.

 

 

 

Epilogue

In the months after they returned from the desert Jane gradually got the rest of her life in order and did what more she could to make reparations for the harm Mark had caused.

For Amanda the police had sent her things to her family. They asked the family what to do with the money and the notebook of her travels. The family asked they be sent to the man who had loved her, the money had come from him and the notebook was of value to him. He and they were now agreed for him to read it and write her story. The family also sent him one the rubies. He kept it and was glad in her memory. It was something of beauty to remember her by after all he had suffered.

But that was not reparation from Mark, just a return of what Amanda had owned along with Mark’s gift to her. Jane wanted to do something from Mark’s estate for Amanda. So she wrote to the family and asked if there was more she could do.

A month later came a reply. “We would like to erect a memorial for our daughter at the place she died, something in her likeness that others will know her by.”

So on the hill of the mine Jane arranged for the erection a stone cairn. On its side a likeness of Amanda’s face was made out small ceramic tiles and pieces of colored glass, things that would not fade in the bright sunlight.

For Elin’s family, the police sent them her things from the grave. Alan told Jane that the fabulous opal now sat in a local museum in Sweden, donated in Elin’s name. The family had brought Elin’s mortal remains home and buried them in the boat grave alongside her mother, the warrior queen and her warrior daughter. On her graveside they put a small plaque to the man who had loved her in his desert kingdom.

Jane knew it was a thing that would have pleased Mark and wrote to tell them so. They sent her a photo they had taken of this place.

One day as Jane was going through the many things of Mark’s that had gradually been located and come to her. In a box she found a series of mining leases for this part of Queensland, over thirty in all. Two of these leases were for the mines where Elin and Amanda had died. So the final thing Jane did was she transferred the one to Elin’s family and the other to Amanda’s family. If there were yet things of value in this ground it was their right to discover them, if not at least these places held the memories of the last resting places of their children. A year later the two families met on these rocky hills in the desert to agree on a small joint mining venture named after their daughters, with the profits going into the Lost Girls Trust.

The final piece of the jigsaw was Josie. Jane traced the bank transaction where Mark had transferred the money into her name, as told in his diary. It gave her a real name, Josephine Kelty. Then they traced her mother but her mother was dead, and there was no other next of kin. So Jane arranged for Josie’s bones to be placed in a coffin and taken back to the place in the desert where they found her.

It was in the next winter when the wildflowers were again in bloom. Rather than putting a headstone on the grave, they put a small bronze plaque on the cliff below the inscription that Mark had carved; just Josie’s name and date of birth and death. Mark’s headstone told the rest.

Then they and their children and their friends walked in the desert for the rest of the day gathering all the wildflowers they could find and piling them above the grave. When they had finished the pile was as high as their heads and almost obscured the stone. They hoped that for many more years the children of these flowers would again bloom in Josie’s Place.

The months and years rolled on by. It was wonderful for Jane to have all her colors back and gradually more pieces of the memory of her former life came back too. They did not all come at once but, like the myriad pieces of a jigsaw, when looking the other way one would suddenly remember a piece and where it fitted, then reach for it and place it.

So now, five years on, the jigsaw of her mind was mostly complete, just occasional spaces that may or may not be filled in the fullness of time. She knew some pieces may never return and her jigsaw would always resemble one of those much loved family favourites, built over and over again as time rolled on. These, like hers, had odd empty spaces, places leaving room for imagination to fill. She called these life’s missing places.

She remembered that morning when, as Susan, she had killed her lover, it was a sad place but the pain was gone. His spirit lived on in the lives of his children who she and Vic watched grow, Nathaniel, now apprentice air mechanic, soon to be a pilot, David, quiet and studious, but having a magic touch with animals, he could calm a wild horse and he rode like his father. Some days when he smiled Vic said Mark had returned to life. Annie had the least of Mark, at first she seemed to be Jane’s Susan child. But one day Uncle Antonio sent a photo of his sister, Mark’s mother, from when she was a girl of Annie’ age. The resemblance was so strong that Jane felt she was looking at a photograph of her daughter. So now she knew another part of Mark lived on in this child, along with a part of her too.

She remembered too, from within her own mind, on that morning of killing, that the crocodile spirit had sought out and found entry to her soul. In her anguish, as they tore at Mark’s body, she sent out a part of her to be with him in the place of crossing. Into that place, left empty, slid a remnant of another, the spirit of his devourer. Slowly its power had grown within her, filling her mind, taking over her spirit.

She remembered also those days of her vanishing, seeking to escape it. On that early morning she climbed into the car with the other Mark man as he drove to the waterhole in the pre-dawn light. She knew he was really just a fisherman but now she thought he had been sent to meet her, the man to escort her back to her first true love.

Susan had wanted to go back to Mark, Emily not. They had fought inside this car for the control of her body and, with Susan feeling cocky that she had won, Emily had seized her chance. As they came to the red traffic light where the Arnhem Highway began, Emily opened the door as they stopped and jumped out. She fled, bare footed across the dirt, with her overnight bag grasped in her hand while Susan was left in the car, holding the plastic bag that contained the Baru crocodile spirit and the pink sandals.

Susan had not been able to find her way back to her, try as she might. While, for a brief moment, she was Emily she knew Emily was not in a safe place. So she must leave Emily behind too if she was really to escape from all the evil that had filled the life that had been. So she tore Emily, protesting, out from her body and from her mind too. Then there remained to her only an empty body and empty mind with no life spirit living within.

So she had chosen a new name, Jane. But she had to be Jane somebody. So she had chosen a remnant of Mark, in the first B name by which she had known him, Bennet. It was a fitting name for her children to hold. She had, after all, made her marriage promises to him, their father, on that last night, perhaps that was the night when her children were conceived, so the name was rightfully theirs to keep.

At a roadside stop nearby where she fled from Susan, she had found a marker pen in her bag and printed Jane Bennet on her bag’s label, lest she loose even this memory of her past life.

There was a road train parked nearby, its decks were empty of cattle, but still with the manure and other excrement of where the cattle had been. She climbed to the upper deck, up above eye view. She found a clean corner and lay down. There she slept, finding comfort in the animal smells. She slept for a long day. The truck went on and on, sometimes stopping for a short time. The sun rose high and then went down. She was sheltered from wind and most of the sun in her secluded corner. Late in the next night it stopped at another roadhouse, on the road to Queensland, at a place called Barkly Homestead which she remembered from before. She climbed down, had a drink from the tap and climbed back up and slept again.

Next day, somewhere in Queensland she left this truck, hunger having forced her exit. She found a place to shower and change her clothes, then bought a meal. Having eaten she found another different truck, this time a goods truck, again empty except for furniture blankets. She slept again for many hours, revelling in the comfort of her blanket bed.

Again she came out at a roadhouse, fed and washed again before she found another empty cattle truck with a resting place on its top deck too. It did not have the animal leavings of the first truck, it had been washed clean and she found that without this smell she was less comfortable. So, when a few hours later in the night, the truck pulled up by the side of the road, for the driver to relieve himself, she climbed out and watched it depart down an empty road.

A short distance down this road was a shed with a roof, an open side and a rough timber seat. She climbed on this and slept until the daybreak of her new life had begun. That day she was just an empty shell, the spirits of Susan and Emily had left her, so she took the name Jane, the name on her bag. Now a new spirit had created a new life within, the old was gone and she was glad to be only Jane.

It was now more than seven years on from the day of the ending of the first Susan and Emily. Jane was what Vic called her again, both agreeing that Susan and Emily had passed with the crocodile spirit. Each day since Vic grew more handsome and told her she grew ever more beautiful.

On this day, together they sat in a restaurant at Watson’s Bay, enjoying the autumn freshness of wind, sun and sky. The restaurant looked down to the beach in the harbor where a small tribe of children played, some of hers, some of them belonging to others.

In a circle around the table sat her closest friends, there were Anne and David, looking fondly at the children that they and others had created, there was Sandy and Alan with their own brood, Beck and Ross, Buck and Julie, and Jacob and Cathy. And of course, closest forever was Vic.

All their lives were good, no new tragedy had befallen any of them, their children were well; they were well too. It was more than enough.

Vic raised a glass and said. “I propose a toast to a long departed friend of mine, a man of two parts, good and bad, but still my friend despite all.

“Without this man we would never have met and so we would not be here today and this gladness we share would never have come to be. I still miss him after all this time, a man who lived at the far edge of danger.

“He would enjoy us sitting here, good friends enjoying life’s good things. But, even if he was here with us today, his spirit would be forever looking out for a new horizon, a place lit by sunshine but where the shadows gather.

“Let’s drink to my friend Mark B; may his restless crocodile spirit know peace in that dreamtime place where sunlit shadows dance forever.”

All raised their glasses – “To Mark!”

 

 

About the Author

Graham Wilson lives in Sydney Australia. He has completed and published nine separate books, and also a range of combined novel box sets.

They comprise two series,

1. The Old Balmain House Series – three novels

2 The Crocodile Spirit Dreaming Series – five novels

along with a family memoir, Children of Arnhem’s Kaleidoscope

The Old Balmain House Series starts with the novel, Little Lost Girl, which was previously titled, The Old Balmain House. Its setting is an old weatherboard cottage, in Sydney, where the author lived for seven years. Here a photo was discovered of a small girl who lived and died about 100 years ago. The book imagines the story of her life and family, based in the real Balmain, an early inner Sydney suburb, with its locations and historical events providing part of the story background. The second novel in this series, Lizzie’s Tale, builds on the Balmain house setting, It is the story of a working class teenage girl who lives in this same house in the 1950s and 1960s, It tells of how, when pregnant, she is determined not to surrender her baby for adoption and of her struggle to survive in this unforgiving society. The third novel in this series, Devil’s Choice, follows the next generation of the family in Lizzie’s Tale. Lizzie’s daughter is faced with the awful choice of whether to seek the help of one of her mother’s rapists’ in trying to save the life of her own daughter who is inflicted with an incurable disease.

The Crocodile Spirit Dreaming Series is based in Outback Australia. It starts with the first novel, ‘Just Visiting’ which tells the story of an English backpacker, Susan, who visits the Northern Territory and becomes captivated and in great danger from a man who loves crocodiles. This second book in the series, The Diary, follows the consequences of the first book based around the discovery of this man’s remains.. The third book, The Empty Place, is about Susan’s struggle to retain her sanity in jail while her family and friends desperately try to find out what really happened on that fateful day before it is too late. In Lost Girls Susan vanishes and it tells the story of the search for her and four other lost girls whose passports were found in the possession of the man she killed. The final book in the series, Sunlit Shadow Dance is the story of a girl who appears in a remote aboriginal community in North Queensland, without any memory except for a name. It tells how she rebuilds her life from an empty shell and how, as fragments of the past return, with them come dark shadows that threaten to overwhelm her.

The book, Children of Arnhem’s Kaleidoscope, is the story of the author’s life in the Northern Territory: his childhood in an aboriginal community in remote Arnhem Land, in Australia’s Northern Territory, of the people, danger and beauty of this place, and of its transformation over the last half century with the coming of aboriginal rights and the discovery or uranium. It also tells of his surviving an attack by a large crocodile and of his work over two decades in the outback of the NT.

Books are published as ebooks by Shakespir, Amazon, Kobo, Ibooks and other publishers. Some books are also available in print.

Graham is planning a memoir about his family’s connections with Ireland called Memories Only Remain and also is compiling information for a book about the early NT cattle industry, its people and its stories.

Graham writes for the creative pleasure it brings him. He is particularly gratified each time an unknown person chooses to download and read something he has written and particularly write a review – good or bad, as this gives him an insight into what readers enjoy and helps him make ongoing improvements to his writing.

In his other life Graham is a veterinarian who works in wildlife conservation and for rural landholders. He lived a large part of his life in the Northern Territory and his books reflect this experience.

 

More information about Graham and his books and writing is available from the following sites:

 

Graham Wilson – Australian Author on Facebook

Graham Wilson Author Profile on Shakespir and Amazon

Graham Wilson’s Publishing Web Page

www.beyondbeyondbooks.com.au

 

If you want to contact Graham directly please use the email:

[email protected]


Sunlit Shadow Dance

The girl you love vanishes - you search and search. No trace is found. You see someone who looks so like her - she looks at you but does not know you, no recognition flickers. Is it a mirage, dream or desperate hope? She likes you. You ask and she comes with you. Her mind sees only sunlight. You see dark shadowed edges. Can you remake your life with a person who holds no memory of you? An unknown girl appears on an aboriginal community in far north Queensland. She has no memory of any life before, no one knows her. The people in the community say she just arrived one day. Who is she? Where has she come from? She looks like a missing backpacker, Susan, but her name is Jane. Her past life is an unknown place from where she knows no one. She is trying to make a new life without any connections to her past. This is the final book of the Crocodile Spirit Dreaming Series. It tells the story of an English backpacker who went travelling in Outback Australia with a man who loved crocodiles, and how her life turned into a horror nightmare. She finally gets her freedom only to disappear. Her name was Susan. She was on trial for murder when she vanished. She had been just released on bail, despite pleading guilty, when new evidence indicating self-defense was found. She was also pregnant and expecting twins. Since she disappeared only a pair of shoes she was wearing have been found. They were next to a waterhole full of crocodiles. It is feared that she and her unborn children are dead, taken by crocodiles. More than a year has passed without any other trace of her. An inquest has made an open finding on her disappearance. Is there a link between missing Susan and this girl, Jane, who turns up out of nowhere, knowing no one, remembering nothing? Can this girl, Jane, build a new and happy life with her two small children. Can whatever tragedy haunted her past be overcome? This is the story of the remaking of a new life from the broken shell of the old - and how memories of the old threaten to tear apart the new. And at the dark edge lurks an ancient creature of the deep, a being whose lineage is the long lost Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime, the time when the spirits made this land. Yet beyond this dark is a new place where sunlit shadows dance.

  • Author: Beyond Beyond Books
  • Published: 2017-08-09 13:35:32
  • Words: 118048
Sunlit Shadow Dance Sunlit Shadow Dance