Beware of Cliffs

This is the first few chapters of a fan fiction story inspired by Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. It’s a rough draft set in 1970s coastal Australia that I started last year with quite a lot of enthusiasm but now I’m not sure I’ll finish it. So here’s what I’ve done so far.

1

Winter, 1976.

‘We’re here now. Safe and sound,’ Mr Yorke coaxed, pulling the Kingswood into the driveway. They had driven for over twelve hours straight and the small boy hadn’t slept a wink.

The sun had recently set and stars flickered in the night sky. Dillon stretched out his matchstick legs, tingling from the long drive, and unclipped the seatbelt. In the distance a dog barked, disturbing the chickens asleep in their coop. From the front seat of the car Dillon’s eyes adjusted onto a sandstone farmhouse, illuminated in the blue moonlight like a forgotten shipwreck. Two ghostly white chimneys stuck out at either end as if they were naked masts, while a windvane slept at its centre. At the base of the chimney was a lean-to, stacked with piles of chopped wood. An outside light flicked on, revealing a cobbled path leading to the single story farmhouse. It was as long as two school buses, with a slanting roof and three shuttered windows either side of black door. The window to the far right glowed orange. A verandah travelled the building’s length and faced an ocean Dillon could hear but not see. A minute later another light snapped on in the window beside the front door.

There was no breeze. Everything was fixed in place like it had been a hundred years earlier, except for the multiplying lights. The lights meant people inside. Strangers. Dillon made no effort to move.

Mr Yorke opened the car door. ‘Now, I won’t let anything happen.’

Uncertain, Dillon shuffled out of the heated car into a rush of salt-biting cold. Dillon’s teeth clattered. At the far end of the farmhouse a lone pine tree towered into the night. The pine needles sweet-fresh scent irritated Dillon’s eyes and caused his nose to dribble. He wiped it on his sleeve. Mr Yorke opened his sheepskin overcoat and huddled Dillon’s shivering six-year-old body within to keep him warm. In Dillon’s mind he said, thank you, however his mouth refused to speak.

Inside the living room, Jami’s mum and her older brother Barton sat on the chesterfield around a crackling fireplace. Jami bounced on the pouffe, unable to sit still. They were watching Young Talent Time on their new colour telly. The telly had a wooden box panel frame and stood on four pointy legs. Whenever her parents left the room, Jami delighted in pressing all the buttons in the top right hand corner, not wanting to miss out on the other two channels. And, when completely alone with the telly, her favourite thing to do was to click on a dead channel and listen to the beautiful grey static with her cheek pressed a fraction away from the glass so it fizzed against her skin. She would slide the volume lever up-and-down as if it were a zip on a pair of her Levi flares. The rise and fall of the screeching static soothed her to no end.

When her dad’s car pulled into the driveway, Jami’s bouncing increased to the point her ponytail swung from side-to-side. What surprise had her dad bought them? It must be a puppy. Jami had begged and begged her parents for her own puppy to stuff into her hessian bag and play with down the caves. She wouldn’t go near their Border Collie, Goldie. Barton had harassed the beast into unpredictable insanity. Not even the tiger snakes attacked her ferociously barking snout.

‘Stop bouncing, Jami, you’re shaking the sideboard,’ her mum snapped. Jami ceased. From past experiences with the wooden spoon, Jami knew to stay out of her mum’s way. She was a large, bearish woman with deceivingly soft and chubby hands. Jami gritted her milk teeth and used all her might to transform into an angelic statue, but the temptation to jump out of her skin was too overpowering. She began bouncing again, slower this time, but bouncing all the same.

Her mum sighed.

Barton kicked the pouffe with his uggboot. Hard.

‘Barton.’ With a fierce slap, her mum backhanded his temple. Her crankiness had been on a steady rise since their dad’s long distance phone call from Sydney the day before. Anything set her off. ‘Now look what you’ve made me do. Go turn the outside light on.’

Red-cheeked, Barton slunk out of the living room. Sulking in a way only a fourteen-year-old boy can, knowing his dad would be inside any minute and there was nothing he could do about anything.

With her back to her mum, Jami ducked her chin into her shoulder and smiled in triumph.

Using a brass key, Mr Yorke unlocked the front door and switched the hallway light on. The room to the left had a light glowing under the door and the thumping of a tennis ball being repeatedly thrown again the wall, coming from behind it. When passing the door Mr Yorke tisked and strode on. At the end of the hallway was a T-shape opening to another corridor, which ran the length of the rear of the farmhouse. It had originally been a verandah and was now enclosed with timber and louver windows. The chill had frosted over the glass slats with condensation. To Dillon the farmhouse was a rabbit warren of halls and doors.

Switching off the light at the end of the central hall, Mr Yorke scrapped his fingers along the sandstone to find his way to the last door on the right. The moonlight glistened through the glass and onto the rear wall of the farmhouse. Behind the closed door filtered the soothing voices of Young Talent Time, singing their closing song.

On entering the living room, the enclosed heat swept over Dillon like a shocking wave. However, he refused to release Mr Yorke’s leg and disentangle himself from under the sheepskin coat. Only the top of his unwashed hair peeked out. On the couch Mrs Yorke glared at him with red-faced stony eyes. She got up and obligingly kissed her husband. Dillon saw her as a black-haired creature with curls of large-eyed newborn snakes, slithering in her hair.

‘So this is the orphan?’ She screwed up her nose as if he were one of the mice that got into the flour tin. ‘Let’s hope he’s nothing like his father.’

‘Drop it, Noreen. He’s been through enough. Give him some peace.’

Mrs Yorke peered into the front of the coat. ‘He’s got her dirty yellow hair. When was his last wash?’

‘It’s been hectic as you know.’

‘It’s too late fire up the water heater. I’ll have to sponge him down in the kitchen.’ Mrs Yorke flung her hand into the coat to extricate the boy. ‘Come here then.’

The instant he’d saw her, Dillon knew she hated him. He hadn’t a clue what he’d done. Dillon went to bite her wrist, snapping his jaw at her as if he were a senseless crocodile.

She withdrew her arm and yelled at him, ‘You’ll get the wooden spoon if you ever try that again. Do you hear me?’

Dillon closed his teeth. He did so not out of fear but strategy. He refused to nod and stared defiantly at her.

Mr Yorke patted Dillon’s shoulder. ‘Take it easy, Noreen. He stopped talking. After what he saw.’

‘What the hell, Jared? It’s a dumb savage. You’ve bought a dumb savage into the house.’

‘Noreen!’

‘All right, All right. Are you hungry? What does it eat?’

‘Dillon. His name’s Dillon and you’ll all be kind to him. I mean it. Now he only eats meat pies. I’ll grab one too’

‘Fussy too. It’ll take a while to cook straight out of the chest freezer.’

‘We’re not tired.’ He ruffled Dillon’s hair. ‘Are we?’

Dillon shrugged, momentarily unbidden by Mr Yorke’s strange kindness. Mr Yorke’s chest seemed to puff out further with each gratuitous act. Mrs Yorke huffed and left the room.

What was an orphan? Jami had spent the past few minutes puzzling over the word. Was it some sort of puppy? Jami was unsure about what had just happened between her parents, and knowing better than to get into the middle of it, which she was itching like a monkey to do, she waited. And chewed her grubby thumbnail down to the wick. So as soon as her mum slammed the living room door closed and stomped off to the outside kitchen, Jami catapulted off the pouffe and raced over to her dad, who was awkwardly easing himself into the deep crevice of the chesterfield. There was something bulky under his coat, with thin ankles and dessert boots, something that reeked.

Jami bounced on her knees beside her dad and tugged at his coat. ‘Dad, Dad, did you get me a puppy? Did you get me a puppy? Dad? Dad, what is it?’

‘Settle down, Jami. You’ll frighten him.’

‘I want a puppy.’ Jami’s mind was so focussed on the notion she was getting a puppy; she’d convinced herself there was an actual dog inside her dad’s coat. ‘I’ve always wanted my own puppy. I’m going to take care if it. I promise I won’t forget to feed it or anything.’

‘Jami, enough. It’s not a dog. You won’t ever get a puppy until you behave yourself and I haven’t seen any sign of that yet.’

Jami shook her dad’s arm with a relentlessness he was familiar with. ‘But I want a puppy.’

Her dad softened and revealed the small pale boy pressed against his solid barrel-like chest. ‘I have something even better. A new brother. This is Dillon and he’s going to stay with us from now on.’

Jami stared at the mangy boy and took in his large grey eyes and blood red lips. He looked nothing like a puppy. She wanted a puppy, not another bossy, big-boots brother. ‘But I want I puppy.’

At that moment Barton crept into the living room and sniffed. ‘Who’s this?’

‘Son, meet your new brother, he’ll share your room.’

‘What? No way. Where’d he come from?’ Barton added, sarcastically, ‘ The cemetery?’

‘Barton!’

Jami chanted in her persistent wail that usually wore her mother down. ‘Puppy, Puppy. I want a puppy. Puppy, Pu—’

‘Both of you. Cut. It. Out. Where is you empathy?’

‘Dad I’m too old to share a room with a kid. Why can’t he share with Jami?’

‘He can share with you.’

‘Puppy. Puppy. I want a puppy.’

‘Dad,’ Barton pleaded with an unfamiliar edge of panic to his voice. ‘Not again. Not after waking up to the other dead Jamie.’

Jami stopped dwelling on her misplaced puppy and took notice. Nobody ever mentioned the other Jamie. He’d died before she was born. She now slept in his bed, after it was moved out of Barton’s room, and she shared his name.

Jami crossed her arms. ‘I don’t want the dead boy in my room either.’

‘Enough. This is Dillon. He is our guest. And. Right. We’ll figure it out in the morning,’ Her dad said, lifting Dillon out of his coat and onto his lap, cupping his palms gently around Dillon’s blank face. ‘We’ll camp out here, I think. Keep you warm by the fire. That would be our best bet.’

Seeing her dad pet over the strange hollow-cheeked boy, who stole her puppy, sent a wave of fury through Jami. She leapt off the couch and spat at Dillon, who curiously didn’t even move to avoid the assault. Her dad roared and went to yank her ponytail as she, quick as a colt, ran for the adjoining door between her bedroom and the living room.

And, as she was about to slam it shut and lock it, she hollered, ‘I want a puppy. Not an orphan. A puppy.’

2

A week after Dillon’s arrival Jami continued her routine of waking before anyone else and eking out the dawn with thoughts of future antics, while Dillon slept, silent as the moon, on the camp bed across from her. The living room fire had gone out during the night and a thick morning frost hung in the air. Jami rested on her pillows and gazed above her rainbow-socked her feet to the cautiously brightening sky outside. Her purple velure curtains were always open, revealing a black metal-framed window. She wanted to know the instant it was morning so she could escape the doldrums of feigning sleep. For sleep, when it came, was her enemy and laying in restless darkness waiting for it even worse.

Her legs wiggled out of her tangled blanket. Jami blew the condensation, clinging to her breath, against the bottle green vine etched wallpaper. There were a series of child-sized zoo animals stuck onto it too, placed there by her mother when Jami was born. When Jami stared at the animals long enough they pranced in a cartoonish possession across the walls and occasionally into her dreams to torment her. In between her single bed, with the boyish brown wooden headboard, and Dillon’s springy camp bed was a bookshelf filled with Jami’s snow dome collection, given to her by her father from his business trips. The other door, on her side of the room, opened onto the front hallway. Across the hallway were Barton’s bedroom and then her parents’ at the far end of the house. Jami rarely opened that door, preferring to skip through the living room.

With increasing restlessness, Jami slipped out of bed to gauge how close she could get to Dillon without waking him. The tangerine shag pile carpet tickled her hands as she crawled, half in anticipation and half for the thrill, over to Dillon. His yellow hair had been doused the night before in green apple shampoo, almost making her sneeze. Jami pinched her nose to stop the sneeze and stuck her ear as close as possible to his nostrils, to see if he was alive. A faint whistle of his breath rippled across her cheek.

Dillon never spoke when awake, but during the night she heard the strange whimpers and grunts of his dreams. It annoyed her that this odd boy was fooling everyone and getting away with it. This freakish, quiet boy who moved, to her mischievous delight, with the stealth of a jaguar. She wanted to know his secret, so she too could get away with her own wildness, while retaining her dad’s affections, as Dillon was able to do.

Jami licked her pointer finger and stuck it in Dillon’s ear. ‘Gotcha.’

He stirred and opened his eyes. She skipped into the living room, singing out to the farmhouse, ‘It’s toast time. It’s toast time. I’ll have honey on mine.’

In the kitchen a bald light globe lit up the narrow-windowed room and an iron kettle simmered on the wood stove. Dillon swallowed the last of his butter on toast and placed the Skippy plate in the deep white sink, as his mother had taught him. After the melamine plate clunked with the rest of the dishes, he waited, blankly, by the sink. This strange messy family was nothing like his ordered one. Jami gulped down her recycled Vegemite glass filled with milk as if it were her last and chewed her toast as if it were cardboard. Next door, Mrs Yorke was in the laundry, heaving sopping sheets through the twin tub washing machine. He imagined mountains of soup suds filling the room to the roof. And her bubbly screams as she tried to find the door handle. Mr Yorke and Barton had gone in the Kingswood to Holloway Downs, a coastal town over forty minutes drive away. Radio school wasn’t on and Dillon had the whole day to follow Jami around like a paperclip to a magnet. He could tell she liked him, and not in the pitying way Mr Yorke did. She liked him in the way he liked cars. And he liked her for it.

Jami smacked her lips together and kicked back her chair. ‘I’m done.’

Dillon stared, curiously, at Jami.

‘You’re a spaz,’ Jami said and went outside, leaving her plate on the Formica table. Dillon picked up the plate and rested it on top of his in the sink, for symmetry.

An uneven stone and concrete fence enclosed the backyard and, even though the cold air stung the inside of Dillon’s throat, the sky was clear and sunny enough to see the mountains. Dillon held his breath, for as long as he could, against the cold and chicken poo stench. He mimicked Jami’s strut as she wandered like a peacock around the chickens, past the dead Jamie’s miniature grave under the magnolia tree and through the back gate toward the barn.

Mr Yorke had told him the barn had used to be a shearing shed but now it lay dormant, housing rusty tools and a redundant 1938 Ford. Inside the barn Dillon stood by the googly-eyed headlights, staring at the size of them. The front grill was taller than him. Jami opened the squeaky driver’s side door and motioned for Dillon to climb in and join her on the red leather bucket seat. With gangly legs, he teetered on the foot ledge before hopping in.

Jami ecstatically patted his head.

It was the first time he’d responded to any of her requests. Dillon had kept a shadowy distance from her and at the same time avoided Barton by hovering near her. For the past week it had only been her dad that got any reaction from him, to complete a request. Dillon couldn’t figure out how genuine Mr Yorke was but his track record so far set him apart as at least attempting to be kind. Mrs Yorke wouldn’t go near Dillon, which suited him. He didn’t yet know why.

Jami swung the huge steering wheel left to right and back again. ‘Let’s go for a drive. Where to dumb-dumb?’

Dillon wore a pair of her overalls with a cable knit jumper underneath. He scratched at the uncomfortable shoulder straps, ignoring Jami. The sun had enough space through the clouds to brighten the chilly morning and light up the cracks in the barn’s roof. Dust motes floated in the shards of light, while the stench coming off a pile of greasy rags wafted into the car. Dillon sneezed and studied the radio knobs without touching them, like an anthropologist discovering a new culture.

‘It’s old junk, I know.’ Jami wasn’t one to give up easily. ‘I know where. But I’m not telling. You have to guess.’

Still studying the radio, Dillon’s lips tilted into an unsure grin. For some reason Jami’s attention, whether it kind or bordering on cruel, heartened something in him.

Jami’s face exploded in triumphant delight. ‘I got you to smile. Ha. Ha. Let’s go to somewhere that begins with the letter A.’

Dillon had no interest in participating in her game and shrugged, cunningly. He also liked to see her wound up.

Disappointed, Jami smacked the steering wheel and groaned. ‘A is for Africa. Dummy. This is boring, boring, boring.’

From the laundry room the twin tub whooshed and swooshed and squealed like a waterlogged spaceship. The chickens in the yard squawked and clucked over their morning seed. Encouraged by Dillon’s earlier grin and wanting to shock him out of his apathy, Jami crawled over Dillon’s lap and stuck her hand under the lip of the dashboard. She fumbled round blindly until her fingers landed on a bumpy square of masking tape.

‘Here they are.’ Jami unpeeled the tape and pulled out a delicate but tarnished key. She poked Dillon in the ribs with it. ‘Now we’re cooking with gas.’

An even wider grin crept across Dillon’s face. Goldie started barking wildly at the front of the farmhouse. Her dad had chained Goldie to the pine tree earlier so she wouldn’t chase the Kingswood all the way down the driveway and onto the road. Determinedly, Jami rammed the key in the ignition and, after several false starts and gear crunches, the engine splattered to life. The radio also blasted to life and Dillon squashed his hands over his ears in surprise.

Jami tugged on Dillon’s arm and yelled out, enthralled with all the noise, ‘Take the steering wheel.’

When he didn’t move, Jami sighed and turned down the radio. Tentatively, Dillon withdrew his hands from his ears and placed them, white-knuckled, around the steering wheel. Jami dove under the dash and pressed her foot flat onto the accelerator. The car shot forward and out of the barn. They raced out of the yard, bumping like crates of milk bottles, towards the ocean cliffs.

‘Keep going, keep going,’ Jami called out as she clung onto the dash and stuck her chin up to the windscreen, while her foot pressed hard on the accelerator. The rush of the wild engine, tipped her nerves into ecstasy. She also rejoiced at the freedom of not having Barton lurking nearby ready to pounce on them.

Clouds crept in from over the mountains behind them and covered the sun. They bumped and jolted over the paddock, her fingers clenched onto the dash. What would it feel like if they smashed into the sea? She whooped in expectation.

Dillon joined in and with a gleeful. ‘Ahhhh.’

Astonished, Jami took her foot off the accelerator and the car jerked to a halt. ‘You made a noise. I heard it. Do it again.’

Dillon smiled and opened his mouth. ‘Ahhhhhh.’

Jami jumped up and down, singing, ‘Ahhhh, laaaaaa, laaaa, ahhhh, ahhh, driving in the car, ahhh ha.’

‘Ahhhh, laaaa, ahhhh, laaaaa,’ Dillon chorused.

And they yelled together across the paddocks until Jami saw her mum in the rearview mirror, staggering toward them, waving a wooden spoon in her tight red fist.

‘Shhh, Dillon. She’s coming.’

But there was no where to go and after dragging Jami by the ponytail out of the car, her mum smacked Jami’s legs until they stung and sent her to bed. Which was a punishment worse than death. Her mum had refused to go near Dillon; instead she gave Jami Dillon’s share of the wooden spoon.

3

Spring, 1976.

The kitchen building had been added to the back of the farmhouse as an afterthought. It was made out of mud bricks and corrugated iron. There was a slit of a window above the door, which opened onto the backyard. The mud bricks joined with the back verandah and a frosted louver window into the hallway. Even during Dillon’s short time at the farmhouse he had witnessed Mrs Yorke arguing with Mr Yorke over when he was going to convert the louver window into a doorway for her to be able to walk into the living room without traipsing outside through the back door to get into the main house. Then, when she was exceptionally agitated she bought up the outside toilet and washroom on the far side of the kitchen building and how demeaning it was for them to exist in such conditions.

Jami, Dillon and Barton sat at the red and white Formica table. A CB radio crackled with the remote voice of their Radio School teacher. Beside Dillon, Jami wriggled, impatient and restless to escape the dingy, wood smoke filled room. Her brown ponytail flopped in her face and sneakers banged against the metal chair legs. She couldn’t distract Dillon though. He was content to focus his thinking on the workings of the radio and wonder how a voice could travel across the vast land. How voices worked at all. And why his own voice was so peculiar. It only seemed to work around Jami.

Barton and Jami fought over the radio’s hand held device.

‘It’s my turn,’ Jami whined.

Barton flicked her ear. ‘I’m the oldest.’

‘You’re a spaz.’

Dillon’s shoulder’s jerked in silent laughter. He thought Jami was ice cream with mint chocolate Ice Magic with hundreds and thousands sprinkled on top, before the chocolate hardens. Perfection. In his eyes, and in his dreams, she could do no wrong.

Barton clenched his fist and punched Dillon in the forearm. ‘It’s not funny, spaz.’

Dillon stiffened. His arm stung but he didn’t move. Instead he imagined concrete pouring around his skin, protecting him from another onslaught. He’d been with the Yorke’s for a couple of months and still couldn’t get his mouth to work. Well except when he was outside and alone with Jami. She told him he didn’t have to speak to anyone but her.

Jami stood up. ‘I’m telling Mum.’

‘Like she cares.’ Barton smirked.

‘I’ll tell Dad then, when he calls tonight. Ha.’

‘I’ll tell Dad then,’ Barton put on a whinny voice. ‘What a dobba.’

Barton punched Jami in the arm as hard as he had done so to Dillon. Dillon jumped up and rushed Barton, flailing his arms about like a furious and voiceless squid. Barton pinned him onto the floor and pounded his fists into Dillon’s ribs.

‘He wants you to stop. Stop it.’ Jami ran from the room.

Dillon went floppy, curled up silent as a stone and took the attack. Barton didn’t stop until his fed up mum walked in the room with a frantic Jami. Although, Dillon knew Barton had only stopped because Mrs Yorke might tell Mr Yorke. If that possibility didn’t exist, Barton would have had free reign to pummel Dillon into a second tiny grave beside the other Jamie.

Jami hauled Dillon off the floor and dragged him into the yard. The spring wind rushed around them. She didn’t even try to dodge the chook poo splattered over the patchy ground. With Dillon’s arm around her shoulder they hobbled over to the stone fence and out the back gate.

Her mum yelled out after Jami, ‘You protect that boy over your own blood. A wounded dog that’ll bite you in the end.’

‘Well, you’re a … a … a … boofhead,’ Jami yelled in her direction. Her mum shook her head in disapproval.

When they finally made it to the cave near the base of the mountain, Dillon moaned in agony. The cave echoed the groan like a tribal drum beat. Jami helped him onto the stack of hay and blankets she’d collected with plans to run away to the cave in the summertime. It was dry enough and the entrance partially covered in with fallen rocks and scrub. She wished there were trees around it to hide the stony outcrop. Her family knew about the cave but never went there because it was also the other Jamie’s favourite place and Barton reckoned he’d seen his ghost floating around it. Jami kept an eye out for the ghost and imagined the little boy hanging around her, wanting to join in the fun, but she never saw anything.

Jami spat on the corner of the blanket and wiped Dillon’s swollen mouth. ‘We’re safe here.’

Dillon hunched over onto his side and gasped. ‘He wants to kill me.’

‘So don’t just lie there and cop it.’

‘Cause if he does, kill me,’ Dillon said in all seriousness. ‘It’ll be murder and not self defence.’

‘Huh? Heavy. How’d you know that?’

‘Mum told me.’

‘You’re weird. Mum wouldn’t ever say something like that.’

‘My mum. Not your spaz mum.’

‘Oh. It’s still a weird thing to say.’ Jami looked at him oddly, and grew restless. ‘I’m going to fix Barton up good.’

Jami went outside and collected sticks and handfuls of stringy weeds. She squatted beside Dillon and made a small smoky fire with the redhead matches she’d stolen from the wood stove. She selected two special sticks and with the left over weeds made a poppet.

‘This is Barton. He’s going to feel all the pain you’ve ever felt … and more.’

Jami dropped the poppet into the flames. Fully believing she had the power to curse her own brother.

And she’d been right.

4

Summer, 1976.

In the living room Jami and Dillon sweltered in the heat. It was almost Christmas and Jami struggled to hold a pair of large black-handled scissors in her small hands, while snipping out strips of coloured card to make paper chains. They sat at the antique dinning table and Jami tried to be extra careful not to scratch the expensive lacquer. Jami had started her paper chain project earlier that day, in the kitchen, but her chaotic cutting and pasting around her mum, who was baking for Christmas, had seen her banished to the main house with her silent apprentice, Dillon, in tow. It was Dillon’s job to arrange the card in coloured piles for Jami to pick and choose which one she wanted to do next.

‘I want to hang paper chains everywhere,’ Jami said, pasting a coiled chain heap that dangled over the table and onto the floor.

Dillon opened his jaw and Jami flicked it shut.

‘Barton’s around, dumb, dumb.’

‘What’s this?’

Jami jumped and tuned around. It was her dad in the doorway.

‘Dillon wants me to hang the chains all round the pine tree out the front,’ Jami said.

‘Oh does he now?’

Dillon nodded.

Her dad gathered up a pile. ‘How about we do the Christmas tree first?’

‘That’s boring. I want the big tree outside to be our Christmas tree.’

Her dad sighed and began winding the chain around the small inside tree, while Jami sulked. The tree was a tiny fresh pine tree her dad and Barton had got from Holloway Downs. Jami had begged her begrudging mum to decorate it with delicate angel ornaments and satin balls. Under the tree were three empty pillowcases waiting for Christmas morning. When that chain pile was finished Jami handed the next one to Dillon, while her dad’s back was turned.

‘Dad, Dillon wants the outside tree done. Now.’

‘Oh, righto, follow me.’

Outside the heat was worse. Goldie was panting by the verandah with her tongue out. There was not a cloud in the sky and the breeze was as warm as toast. Her dad got out the ladder but struggled putting up the chains. He called out for an unwilling Barton to scoot up the ladder and wind the chains around the large tree. Barton swore under his breath at the heat and at his dad for making him do such a stupid thing. From the verandah Jami bounced on her heels and ruffled Dillon’s hair, thinking Barton had got what her deserved.

‘It’s going to be the grooviest Christmas ever. Santa will love, love, love our monster tree.’

From around the side of the house her mum gathered more firewood from under the lean too for the stove.

Jami called out to her, ‘Doesn’t it look rad?’

Her mum shook her head. Her short curls were damp with sweat and she was panting worse then Goldie. ‘Waste of paper, is what it is.’

Jami felt an odd pinch in her ribs. ‘Scrooge.’

‘I’ll show you a Scrooge, get into the kitchen and peel the spuds.’

Jami had never peeled potatoes before and jumped at the chance to show her mum how good she would be at it.

5

Autumn, 1977.

That following Autumn Dillon went out into the paddock to shoot rabbits. Both him and Barton had gotten shotguns for Christmas and now spent most of their time competing over how many rabbits they could hand over to Mr Yorke in the evenings. So far Barton was in the lead because he had Goldie and Dillon only had Jami, who made too much noise. She was getting expert at gutting and skinning them though, which Dillon hated doing. Mr Yorke had given him strict instructions not to let Jami use the gun.

Jami begged and begged him for a turn on the shotgun. Finally one blustery day near the cliffs Dillon’s curiosity at what she would do overthrew the authority he felt.

‘I can’t believe I only got a View Master and you got a shot gun, you know?’ Jami said, holding the shotgun.

‘It’s because you’re a girl.’

‘No shit, Einstein.’

Dillon mimicked Jami’s taunting voice, ‘Let’s do some damage.’

‘Ace.’ Jami pointed at the pebbles Dillon used as target practice and fired, missing all of them. ‘Find me a rabbit. It’s bigger.’

Dillon found her a borrow and caught two rabbits. He held them in his hands so Jami could shot them at close range. Not thinking until later she could have shot him in the process or that she’d break his shotgun, which she did.

On the way home that evening they caught Barton in the barn, beating Goldie with the butt of his gun. Jami yelled out for him to stop but instead Barton cornered Dillon and began pounding his ribs, furious at them for disturbing him. When Dillon finally got away he lifted up his shirt to reveal the bruises.

For the first time ever he spoke to Barton, ‘if you don’t give me your gun I’ll tell Dad.’

Astonished, and not wanting his dad to know, Barton handed over the gun. But under his breath he said, ‘I’m telling you can talk.’

6

Winter, 1978.

One evening Dillon squatted on the back door step, shuffling a pack of playing cards. He’d become quite adept at playing 21 with Jami and Mr Yorke. Mrs Yorke had cooked an early dinner and in the fading light was outside tending to Jamie’s grave in the far corner of the yard. The magnolia tree over the headstone had lost its leaves and fragrant flowers, leaving shadowy branches to curl around the lilac sky like fingertips pressing on silk. Under the tree and on hands and knees, Mrs Yorke pulled out any weeds and sweep away leaves and chock poo from the small mound. Even with the windy chill her face and neck were crimson from the effort. Dillon didn’t always watch this ritual, he usually sat around waiting for Jami to come inside so they could play a game of cards or watch the telly. Jami never seemed to bother Mrs Yorke at her task but she never left her alone at it either, asking the same questions over and over: When will you play cards with us? Is Jamie in Heaven? Why do chickens lay eggs?

Mrs Yorke always ignored the both of them.

In her parka, Jami skipped along the top of the chest-high stone fence, her arms stretched out for balance. ‘I’m going to win. I’m going to win,’ she said to nobody in particular.

Jami had recently turned eight and, for the short time her and Dillon were the same age, she would tease him about being twin brains and knowing his every move before he did. For fun, Dillon let her believe it.

Dillon’s ears were numb and he pulled his cable knit beanie down the cover them from the wind. ‘Maybe. Maybe not.’

Sometimes Dillon let Jami win and other times his ego was too enormous to contain. He enjoyed testing her reactions to disappointment and success. Jami was so theatrical it made her gloating performance or furious pouting better entertainment than his favourite character, Dickie Knee, on, Hey, Hey it’s Saturday.

Mrs Yorke sat back on her knees and puffed out a steady stream of breath. She only had on her cotton floral house dress that looked more like a beach tent she was so wide under it. Dillon wondered how her skeleton held up against all that wobbling flesh. Her baby snake curls were wet with perspiration and chubby hands black with dirt. It was as if the weight of her shoulders were too much for her and she fell forwards onto her palms.

‘Mum,’ Jami said and jumped off the fence, running past the chicken coop to her. ‘Mum? What is it?’

Mrs Yorke hung her head like an elephant trunk between her outstretched arms. ‘Get away. All your skipping around the fence has made me dizzy.’

‘I’ll get you some water.’

Jami went into the kitchen and got a glass of water. Dillon wondered over for a closer look. Mrs Yorke’s complexion was white as the magnolia petals use to be. She took the glass from Jami and drank it.

‘That’s done it,’ Mrs Yorke said.

Jami helped her up and Mrs Yorke smiled. It was so unexpected Dillon wasn’t sure if it was a grimace but then she spoke, ‘How about I play a game of cards with you tonight.’

A few heavy drops of rain splashed down from above. Dillon wasn’t sure what to think of the scene or request. He waited for Jami’s reaction to see if it was a good thing. He was glad to see her happy. He’d never seen Mrs Yoke embrace Jami before and in response Jami shone.

Jami bounced under Mrs Yorke’s armpit like an overjoyed monkey and said, ‘Yes, we can all play. It’ll be ace.’

The living room fire spat and crackled with the fresh log Jami’s mum dropped onto it. Jami didn’t want to leave her side and tugged on her mum’s dress, itching for her to get to the dinning table and play cards. The telly was on, flickering lines and coloured zigzags from the poor reception due to the wind and rain. Jami had an inkling her mum was tired and needed a lie down but she refused to give up the chance to play cards with her. Jami tugged again on her mum’s dress. A small grunt came from her mum and Jami braced herself for a slap. When it didn’t come she pushed her mum’s wide hips in the direction of the cards Dillon was dealing out on the table. Her mum eyed the chesterfield but Jami kept on pushing.

‘Play, Mum. Just one game. You said you would,’ Jami said, in her whinny voice.

Her mum plonked onto the high back chair and sighed, her typical red-faced hue returning under the low hung table light. ‘One game then.’

They played the game, all the while Jami was bouncing and swinging her legs. Her mum even got her to get a packet of Cheezels from the treat cupboard in the kitchen. Jami was in her element, everything her mum said and done was pleasant and encouraging. Not even Jami shaking the sideboard with her bouncing got any reaction. Jami wondered if something magical had happened and her mum had been turned into a fairy godmother and she would let her bake all those yummy things her mum did for special occasions. She might even let Jami lick the cake mix off the wooden spoon.

‘This is the best night ever,’ Jami said, scoffing the Cheezels she’d placed like rings on the tips of every finger.

‘Dillon won’t like you pasting cheezel crumbs all over his cards,’ her mum said.

Jami’s eyes widened in shock. It was the first time she had heard her mum use Dillon’s name and now she was defending him. It had to be magic.

Dillon seemed to realise this too and shrugged in confusion. ‘I don’t mind.’

Mrs Yoke laughed. It was so startling Jami burst into laughter and then Dillon. Mrs Yorke couldn’t seem to stop laughing and they held their sides and threw back their heads in hysterics.

After a while Mrs Yorke went clammy and rubbed her stomach. ‘I have to stop this nonsense. It’s giving me indigestion.’

Dillon felt suddenly alarmed and didn’t understand why. He looked at Jami for a clue as to why but she was still laughing.

‘Maybe go rest, Mrs Yorke. You look like chalk,’ Dillon said.

‘I feel like chalk. I think I will.’

She had trouble getting up. Now Dillon and Jami both had to help her up and down the hall to the bedroom at the opposite end of the farmhouse.

In the bedroom Mrs Yorke collapsed on the purple terry-towelling bedspread and didn’t move. The room had the same tangerine shag carpet as the rest of the farmhouse and bottle green vine wallpaper. Jami climbed into the bed beside the still Mrs Yorke and wouldn’t let go. She sobbed uncontrollably. Dillon felt helpless and curious. Helpless for Jami’s distress and curious about what Mrs Yorke’s state meant for him. If Mrs Yorke died would it be a good thing or a bad thing?

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