‘Loonies speak their own language, like educated people.’
The Tree of Man, Patrick White
Let’s just walk, let’s just keep walking. Who knows where we’ll end up.
I put my arm in hers, pull her along, almost gamboling.
Where are we going?
I need history. I need the past. There’s not much in this city, but I’ll grab whatever little bit I get. And it’s good for you.
She laughs. What is it you said the other night? ‘History is lies agreed upon.’
I raise an eyebrow. I’m impressed you remember. No really – I’m very impressed. You know who said that?
No, Mum, and I don’t really care. I’m not even sure I believe it.
Napoleon. Yawn. I was hoping it was someone interesting.
Are you calling me boring?
She grins. Your words, not mine.
Arm in arm we take turns pulling each other along the walk. I can’t believe you’re stronger than me, she giggles. Or should I say heavier.
Dost thou have no shame? I pretend to be offended, she pushes my backside with both hands.
She seems more relaxed today, less moody. Perhaps it’s the fresh air. She wouldn’t leave her room last night; each time I passed the door her face was haloed by her phone. Or perhaps it’s just that this morning the world is softer: we’re told the outbreak is dwindling. Our masks droop like necklaces, rather than covering our mouths.
Speed up! Speed up! she cries. I need to get home.
I roll my eyes. You can live without it for half an hour, I say, knowing that her palm is wet-itchy, her mood is fragile: unbelievably, she forgot her mobile. It’s no doubt shrilly calling for her right now, shocked that she’s unstuck it from her hand. It’s probably covered with slivers of her flesh.
Look, I say, and stop on the footpath. The abundant fronds of wisteria provide a shade I sorely need. Liv pulls a violet branch across her top lip. Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn, she announces in a deep faux-American accent.
Well, aren’t you revealing a cultured side today!
She drops the branch, sighs. Hmm. From Gone with the Wind, yeah? Really cultured, Mum. Not.
My turn to sigh. I’ve dragged her along the footpath, under a canopy of droopy Port Jackson figs, beside cars seeking shortcuts from the neverending roadworks, the light rail. Where does the light rail end? she’d asked earlier.
The River Styx.
A far-too-slow road to hell, she’d laughed.
I was mildly taken aback, mildly delighted, that she got my cultural quip.
I flick the fronds out of my eyes and point at the large pale house directly before us. You know who lived there? I say.
Here we go. Want me to guess?
If she’s listened to me pontificating over the years, particularly after too much red wine, she might come up with an answer. But I doubt it.
Is this more boring history stuff? Why do you love history so much?
I find it fascinating – it reveals a country’s soul.
You say Sydney has no history. So therefore you’re saying Sydney has no soul?
No, it’s just a bit too limited compared to other cities. And before you mention the thousands of years of Aboriginal history, it is something I’m keen to understand, but it’s difficult to fully discover it here, to see it. In London, Moscow, everywhere else, history is in your face, you can’t avoid it.
She’s stopped listening, interrupts me: All right, so who lives in this big fancy mansion?
Patrick White lived here a long time ago, I say. Only Australian winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. And a great, great writer. A master. A maestro. See? There’s a tiny memorial on the gate.
She mutters something, turns around with her arms crossed.
I thought you were gonna show me something, I don’t know, brimming with mystique. A real celeb. A-level.
But she squeals and leaps in the air, then runs to a girl walking towards us, her head bowed over her phone. Abby! Abby! she calls, and the girl looks up, then saunters to Liv. Mum – you haven’t met Abby yet. She’s in my class at school.
I haven’t seen Liv this animated in months. The girl Abby is squinting at me, her lips puffed in what I can only interpret as disdain.
Hello, Abby, I say, and shake her hand. Her palm is limp. No mask, I notice.
Mum’s showing me some old author’s house, a guy she loves. Patrick White.
Never heard of him.
Me neither, but Mum loves this sort of thing. Don’t you, Mum?
I’m surprised at her eagerness to impress, or at least amuse, this churlish girl. Liv’s other friends have always been polite, though somewhat remote, aloof – not really interested in her ‘old’ mother.
I thought she was gonna show me the home of someone really famous, says Liv. Like a rock star, or an actor.
Are you enjoying the school holidays? I ask, trying to keep my tone patient, my lips stretched in a stoical smile.
Abby tucks a dark strand of hair behind her ear. Not really, she says. Nothing much to do.
But your brother’s on leave from uni, Liv blurts, you must do things with him. I stare at her, raise an eyebrow. She blushes.
Yeah. But he doesn’t have time to do anything with me, even if I wanted him to. He never gets off the web. Always going on about the conspiracy that’s gonna destroy the world. She turns to me, a grin teasing her lips. I wonder if your author was in on it.
Maybe we should go home now, says Liv. She’s nervously shaking her head, almost invisibly, at Abby, twitching on her toes. She begins to chew her thumbnail and I push her hand from her mouth.
He told me this morning that that Hollywood actor who was in Queensland last week is in on it.
In on what? What on earth are you talking about?
Tom…Tom…He’s making a film over here.
Yep. That’s him. Even though the corona virus thing was crazy they let him fly in to Brisbane, but wouldn’t let Aussies from NSW cross the border to see their dying dad. Typical.
The girl looks directly at me, her eyes gleaming, taunting. I can smell Liv’s discomfort, rich and sweaty, see the shiny moisture on her forehead, as she makes anguished faces behind my back.
Well. I’m sure there are reasons for that. I hate that I sound so prim.
It’s ’cause he’s a paedo. The government loves celebs like him. Apparently he’s a real sicko. I’ve read online that he, like so many other goody-goody famous people, is a main player in the conspiracy.
I snort. Oh please. Your brother told you this?
Liv’s voice is pleading. Her brother is just interested in a wide range of things. I don’t think he believes it –
Oh yes he does. Abby folds her arms. He’s got proof.
Liv widens her eyes imploringly. Mum, her mouth begs silently.
How do you know Abby’s brother? I ask her.
Liv blushes again, her cheeks such a soft pink my heart contracts. She’s been so alone these holidays, hasn’t seen her few friends who are away on holidays, and despite my nagging refuses to contact other girls from her school. I’m not cool enough for that lot, she told me one night. I should shut up and just let her be friends with this girl – and her brother – even if they are strange.
I met him on the bus. He – he likes bowling. Asked me to join him one night.
Do you want to?
She shrugs her shoulders, burns even redder. Maybe.
I fold my arms, feel a chill on my back as I lean stiffly on the white wooden fence, and turn to Abby. You say your brother’s a conspiracy theorist. What conspiracy would that be, pray tell?
She pushes her phone in her jeans back pocket, makes a church with her fingers as if concentrating, stares for a moment at the sinewy clouds drifting briskly past. You have to read the right websites. There’s one that explains it all. Apparently all these politicians and actors and famous people all drink kids’ blood ’cause they think it’ll give them long lives. It’s a whole gang of satan-worshipping paedophiles, a cabal, who run a child sex-trafficking ring.
I exhale loudly. You’ve got to admit it’s ridiculous, yes?
See? says Abby to Liv, and jerks her head towards me. I knew she wouldn’t believe me. She’s as brainwashed as my parents.
For god’s sake, I mutter.
It’s all been exposed by a secret person called Q. He – or she – has revealed that Obama, Hillary Clinton – they’re all in on it. Abby nods vehemently. For all you know, that – she waves her hand at White’s house – that author you love was in on it too.
I stare at the upstairs window of the faded, reticent property. It’s now privately owned, not a museum, as it should be, but I pray White’s ghost or whatever still roams here. I’m so sorry, Mr White, I think. He’d find all this insufferable.
Crossing my arms staunchly I block Liv’s view of the girl. Tell me you don’t believe this, sweetie.
Tom Hanks, Abby is saying, actually owns a ball with a child’s head painted on it in kids’ blood. Surely that’s evidence?
Liv laughs. But that’s from a film he was in! she says. You must have seen it – he’s got a basketball, he’s shipwrecked on an island, Cast Away it’s called…
A kookaburra chortles at us from a towering ghost gum in the park across the road.
Tell me Liv, please, I say. Surely you can’t believe all that?
I’m not sure, she says, and don’t call me Shirley.
I stare at her. How can this girl, my daughter, have my sense of humour, a great sense of humour, yet believe such dangerous nonsense?
She squats on the small brick wall supporting the fence’s palings, her chin in her hands, her face an ivory heart.
Please, I repeat.
If you come to my place now, says Abby, her voice spiteful and smug, you can discuss it with my brother.
I sputter, No one in their right mind could believe something so absurd –
You always tell me that truth is stranger than fiction, Liv says. What Abby’s saying is your proof. You love history, you love truth. You’re always telling me to listen to both sides. Well, I intend to, with Jake and Abby, this afternoon. Don’t panic, Mum, I’ll be back for dinner.
The girls giggle. Abby grabs Liv’s arm, and they skip along the footpath. Turning the corner, Liv throws me a glance over her shoulder, her eyes momentarily contrite.
I haven’t even asked Abby where she lives; suddenly remember Liv doesn’t have her phone. Running to the end of the street I trip, swear as I land heavily on my palms and knock my head against the fence, then, groaning, lift myself to my knees, wiping blood on my jeans. The two girls are gone; they’ve disappeared into the very thin air.
I limp slowly back to White’s house ignoring the dull pain in my temple. From the corner of my eye I notice, suddenly, a man in the front yard, almost hidden behind a dense pine, his combed hair thick and silver, his trousers pulled high at the waist. His mouth is downturned, his eyes narrow and ice-blue, wrathful.
Mr White, I say softly. The world stinks, you once wrote. How would you deal with this stench now?
But the figure is gone. Slowly I massage my sore hands, roll my tense neck around a few times and step homewards; the park opposite me is darkening, there are few people there, so I hesitate, and head towards it. I’ll stay there for a few hours, hide in the emerald Swamp with the flying foxes, think. I can’t bear to be back now, in a house without Liv, not for a while.