Kookaburra
© Jon Horne  


    “Kookaburra,” said the bird.
    Cheryl Thomas sat cross-legged in the dirt under a white ghost-gum, its grey bark fanning out from the trunk in long, fibrous shavings. Her heart raced and her lungs burned; it was further to the top of the hill than she had realised. She had run most of the way.
    “Kookaburra!” A child’s voice mimicked the bird.
    “Shush,” said Cheryl automatically, “you’ll frighten it.”
    “Kookaburra.” The bird gave its call again like a hyena’s laugh.
    “Did you hear it, did you hear it?” the voice stage-whispered.
    Cheryl strained to see out of the corner of her eye. Behind the gum tree stood a barefooted boy, seven years old, in cut-off jeans and oversized green plastic sunglasses.
    “I told you,” Cheryl whispered back.
    The kookaburra was perched on the dead branch of a blackened tree stump. The downy feathers of its outsized head bristled in the wind. Its long beak snapped shut, noisily. Cheryl had her breath back now, and with it came dizziness. She bent over and tipped her head forward, letting her hair fall over her face until it brushed the ground between her knees. When she felt the blood return to her brain, she leaned back, reached into her pocket for a hairband and tied her hair in a ponytail. The bird spotted her and hopped its clumsy way along the perch to the tip of the branch. It took off and flew inelegantly over the brow of the hill. Cheryl got up and made to follow, then she stopped.
    “You’ve lost it now,” said the boy, petulantly.
    “Let it go.”
    But she allowed herself to be led along by the hand. A few steps and she was at the summit, staring down at the city below. The kookaburra had gone.
    The city was clean, white and orderly. The air was fresh and cold. At night you could see the stars. There were never many people in the streets. Even the glue-sniffers who hung around the shopping centre after hours seemed, if not healthy, at least as if they were going to live through the night; not like it was at home. But the real difference was not in the city, it was what surrounded it. The hillsides, which made up every horizon, alternated between the soft, mossy outline of eucalyptus canopy, and the harsher, regimented lines of pine forest interspersed with clear-cuts which made the mountains look as if they were being prepared for surgery.
    Back home there were trees and hills, but they went on for a few miles at a time, at most. If you walked, you had no choice but to end up somewhere - Port Talbot, the Bristol Channel or the M4. Even if you got out into the Beacons or the Black Mountains, you would still, within a day or two, reach England and an unbroken arc of brick and tarmac running from Bristol to Liverpool.
    If she started walking now, she would get, roughly, nowhere. You could go for a fortnight and still be wandering through the trees. In one direction (she had no idea which) the forests would eventually peter out and become the red desert that she had seen from the air. In another direction, they would go on for however many hundred miles until they ran into the ocean - and you could bet the beach would be deserted. Elsewhere: maybe a cattle or sheep station, too far away to ever reach.
    (Cheryl wondered what a sheep station looked like. Richard would have loved the strange combination of words. Perhaps he would have drawn a picture of sheep waiting for a train, which would have made Cheryl laugh, and which she would have sellotaped proudly to the kitchen wall.)
    She headed back along the well-trodden path. It was easier going down.
    The divide between wilderness and city was a wooden gate. A pair of scarlet rosellas sat, colourful and symmetrical, among the branches of a tame eucalyptus overhanging the swept pavement. One of them squawked and clacked its beak gently against that of the other. Cheryl reached up and grabbed a handful of the eucalyptus’s sharp, waxy leaves, which cut her hand as she tore them from the twig. She broke one in half and held it under her nose. The scent was rich and sweet, the smell of heat, stickiness and sex.
    She began to walk along the side of the road, but before long, Karl pulled up beside her. She got into the car without complaint.
    “Home now?” Karl said.
    Cheryl smiled at his reflection in the rear-view mirror.
    Sometime soon, she thought, she would have to leave Karl and Rhona, and The Circle, no matter how much they had done for her. She had a life to make for herself.
   
    The bedroom was clean and not as spartan as it could have been. Bright afternoon sunlight crept in through the blinds. Cheryl lay curled up in a corner of the double bed, a pillow held closely to her chest, a blanket over her head and sheets gripped between her legs. Her own smell rose up through the bed, strong enough to taste but sweetened by the eucalyptus oil that still clung to her fingers. Sweat dripped from her forehead and stung her eyes.
    At five o’clock sharp, cockatoos began to screech in atonal unison. The noise found its way into her dream and she woke up trying to cry out.
    At six o’clock, Rhona came into the room.
    “Dinner’s ready, sweetie,” she said.
    Cheryl was up, showered, and in the middle of putting on a knee-length skirt - her white jeans were scuffed and dusty, ready for the laundry basket. She flushed a little as Rhona calmly looked her up and down.
    “Alright?” Cheryl asked.
    “You look lovely,” Rhona replied, “but brush your hair, won’t you.”
    Rhona left the room. Cheryl opened the wardrobe to reveal a mirror. Rhona was right, her brown mane had nearly gone to dreadlocks.
    “Brush your hair, won’t you... sweetie.”
    The voice was a mocking falsetto; the accent an ugly parody of Australian.
    Cheryl dragged the brush furiously through the knots in her hair.
    “Yeew look laaahvely,” the voice continued.
    “You’ve got a nerve coming here,” Cheryl said.
    She shook her head around and ran her fingers through her hair. In the mirror she looked okay - a little wild but presentable.
   
    There were new people at dinner, one placed next to Cheryl and two along the far side of the long kitchen table, while Karl and Rhona sat together, cramped for elbow room at the head. They were all dressed in white, as was the custom.
    Cheryl sat down and was introduced by Karl to Belinda, who in turn introduced herself as Billie.
    “Sorry, Billie,” Karl said, “Billie is a newcomer among us. We welcome her into our Circle.”
    “You are welcome,” everyone answered together.
    Billie was short, nervous and forty-ish. She wore jeans which were a little too tight around the waist and a lot too long in the leg, with a tee-shirt that was close to being a dress. Probably Rhona’s clothes. There was a pause while Rhona gave her a significant look.
    “Oh,” Billie said, “right... everyone, this is Gerard. Gerard has been my guide for the day. I... we welcome him into our Circle.”
    Once again, the response: “You are welcome.”
    Gerard was young - mid-twenties perhaps - and intensely beautiful with sea-green eyes and long dark hair licking his shoulders. He was very obviously Karl’s brother - perhaps even his twin. This surprised Cheryl. Karl and Rhona were so utterly coupled, like two halves of the same person; she couldn’t imagine them having brothers and sisters, or even parents. Of course, in real life they must have grown up apart, had friends and probably other lovers. At some point, they must have met.
    “Thanks Billie,” said Rhona, smiling, “and I believe it’s up to me to welcome Jacko into our circle. Welcome Jacko.”
    “You are welcome.”
    Jacko was eighteen, if that, with straggly hair and a beard that grew in clumps around his chin. If he ate solidly for a year or two, Cheryl thought, he might come near to filling out his lanky frame. He had a long, lonely face, with spots - great red boils with hard yellow centres - that were enough to put anyone off their food.
    Dinner was served. Nutroast with couscous, salad and petits pois. As Rhona filled the plates one-by-one, Cheryl felt tighter and tighter inside, as if her stomach and lungs were shrinking to nothing. When everyone had their food in front of them, Rhona sat back down and took Karl’s hand. Everyone joined hands and looked up to the ceiling, eyes wide open. Cheryl’s tension broke and she gave an angry sigh. She let go of Karl and Jacko and put her hands in front of her face.
    “I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m so sorry.”
    There was long pause, then she said: “Billie, Jacko, I wasn’t welcoming you, I was...” she searched for the word “...I was judging you.”
    Karl took her hand again.
    “Wait a minute Karl,” she said. “Billie, you are welcome. Jacko, you are welcome. You too, Gerard.” She reached across the table and squeezed Billie’s hand, then Gerard’s. Finally she took Jacko’s hand. There was a momentary awkwardness which consumed everyone. Then it dissipated and the prayer position was resumed.
    They were halfway through the meal when Rhona said: “That was very brave. It’s so easy to remember the words and forget the spirit.”
    There were murmurs of agreement around the table.
    “You know, Cheryl,” Karl added, “I don’t think you could forget the spirit. That’s what makes you special. That’s why you’re with us. Don’t you think?”
    Cheryl felt warm. The food was delicious.
    A nasty, bitter voice said: “Oh, your spirit. That’s what makes you special, is it?”
   
    Later, Cheryl and Rhona were sitting opposite each other on armchairs in the big living room. Billie and Jacko were in the corner, on the floor, playing chess. Karl and Gerard were still in the kitchen, talking. They hadn’t moved since dinner. Their voices were muffled, and so similar to each other that it was impossible to tell who was saying what to whom.
    “You okay?” Cheryl asked.
    Rhona looked surprised, then guilty.
    “Oh yeah,” she said, “but what about you? What happened to you today.”
    “Well...” Cheryl took a deep breath. “I was with Richard again.”
    Rhona leaned forward and tipped her head to one side - a gesture of sympathy which made Cheryl fidget in her seat.
    “Was it here?” Rhona asked, clearly hoping that it had been.
    “No, up on the hill. We saw a kookaburra.”
    “You felt him.”
    “It was real,” Cheryl said, “he was just... there.”
    “A presence.”
    Rhona had adopted the singsong tone of an indulgent mother. Cheryl found herself raising her voice.
    “No, I saw him. It was his birthday and we took him to the beach. Ivor got him a pair of sunshades and I cut the legs off his jeans. I mean... that’s what he looked like when I saw him today.” She gave a small smile. “He looked a right little terror.”
    She glanced at Rhona, but Rhona apparently wanted to hear more; so Cheryl continued: “He could be, you know, a proper pain in the arse when he felt like it. I mean... he was a... a normal boy, what do you expect?”
    “And that’s how you remember him.”
    “No!”
    Billie and Jacko looked up from their game.
    “No,” Cheryl said, quietly, “I mean I just keep seeing him the way he was that day.”
    The conversation in the kitchen was louder, but still indistinct.
    “You know why that is?” Rhona asked.
    “I suppose... well it was a big day for him. We took him out, he met a load of other kids on the sea front, they all went swimming and whatever, and we didn’t stop them... that is, none of the parents did... he was just really happy that day. It must have stuck in his mind.”
    “You believe that?”
    It was strange that she kept seeing him so young.
    “I don’t know.”
    “Cheryl, you remember what we said before? You’re the only one who can truly understand what you’re seeing, but to do that, you have to seek the essence of spirit. These essences bind us to those of our own flesh, to those in The Circle and to the very grounding of nature itself. They guide us along the paths we tread and the paths we create. The kookaburra is what we call a spirit signal, connected to the dreamtime but also engaged in the world around us. It senses the presences in...”
    Cheryl allowed her to rattle on. When she gave speeches like this, Rhona’s voice lost its singsong quality and became as soothing as a tinkling piano. She never tried to overpower you, as Karl sometimes did. Between them, they could preach to a roomful of people and make each of them feel as if he or she was the only one there. Or they could sit in silence and you would feel as if you were learning something new every second.
    As for the mythology of The Circle, Cheryl had no idea where it came from, and even less of whether or not she believed it. That didn’t matter. She liked the walking, the hand-holding, and the fact that you prayed with your eyes open and your head up - so different to church and chapel where you bowed your head and spent your time apologising to God for having been born. She liked being welcome.
   
    Karl and Rhona had practically welcomed her off the aeroplane when she arrived three weeks before, tired, alone and confused. When she walked out of the front door of the terminal at Sydney airport to where the taxis were lined up, there they were, waiting in their little white Honda. It had been as if they were waiting for her.
    She hadn’t gone with them at first. Richard - or whatever it was that she kept seeing - had been with her all the way from Heathrow; a childish energy that bumped and buffeted, ran up and down the aisle and chattered all the way through the films. Sleeping, she had felt him curled up against her body. Together they had peered out of the window and seen Siberian forests, the South China Sea and the highlands of New Guinea. As soon as the plane landed though, he had disappeared, and when that happened, the memory of his death had begun replaying in her mind.
   
    Richard was twelve years old when he died.
    The garage door was stiff and heavy. The handle was stuck. Cheryl had to crouch down and lift the door from below. Getting it moving, that was the hard part. Once, twice, it wouldn’t shift. Finally, with every muscle running on pure rage, she heaved the door up and over her head. Richard’s grey face rose with the door, staring back at her as if he was still alive. The scream she heard was her own, but it sounded like it was far away. She reached inside the door and forced open the boy’s death grip on the wire that ran from the handle to the locking mechanism. She didn’t catch him in time, and the body fell with a nauseating crack onto the uneven concrete of the garage floor. Smoke billowed out into the air. The scream stopped abruptly as she held her breath, pinched her nose and went inside. She stumbled over another body - she knew it was Ivor - but she ignored it until she had managed to feel her way inside the car to turn off the engine.
    She remembered with total, useless clarity, the resuscitation drill from Bronze Lifesaving. She cleaned the hot vomit from Richard’s mouth, pushed his lips together, then forced his chin up and blew into his nose, counting in thousands between each breath. She waited for him to cough. He didn’t. She pumped his heart and felt his neck for a pulse. She went through the routine again and again, for what might have been five minutes or an hour.
    Someone must have called an ambulance.
    Ivor lay with his eyes open, staring serenely upwards, next to his son on the driveway.
    “You stupid bastard, Ivor!” Cheryl yelled.
    With practised gentle firmness, the ambulance driver held her back while a paramedic covered the two bodies with dark green blankets and eased them onto stretchers.
   
    The memory was photographic; clear and distant, and it still paralysed her. In front of the airport, she had only been able to stand with her bags on either side of her, with the automatic door opening and closing behind her, watching the taxis leave one-by-one. When she had been able to move again, there was only the white car with a young, beautiful couple inside, dressed in white, smiling at her in a way that - try as she did to be suspicious - had made her trust them.
    At first it had just been a lift to the city centre. Then they had found out they were staying in the same hotel. After that, an offer to stay until she found her feet, and a long drive from Sydney to a detached bungalow in the outskirts of Canberra. Karl had been her ‘guide for the day’ (actually a week). He had taken her for walks in the Blue Mountains, showed her the clearing in the woods where lyre birds danced and the grassy hollows where grey kangaroos fed. She had learned to mourn the gum trees cut down to make way for hillsides of pine. Slowly he had introduced her into The Circle.
    There were meetings every Sunday for the curious. From them, two or three people would come back to the house. None so far had stayed. Billie and Jacko were the latest. Cheryl was in a unique position, since as far as she knew, she was just there, not one of the temporary guests but not yet a true initiate into The Circle. It suited her, Soon she was wearing white for dinner, and then, all the time, even when she was out walking alone in the city or in the bush.
   
    Rhona had stopped talking. Cheryl looked down and saw Billie and Jacko sitting at her feet like disciples. Billie was wiping her eyes. Jacko was staring down at his hands, embarrassed.
    “Jesus, I didn’t know,” Jacko said.
    It wasn’t Rhona who had been doing the talking, at least not for a while. Cheryl heard herself talking about Richard’s death, and realised that she had just blurted out the whole story. But instead of being embarrassed, she simply knew what to do. She reached out her hands, and the four of them became a small Circle. They opened their eyes, stared upwards and prayed. The combined spirits of Cheryl and Rhona stretched up and mingled; a tiny force in the grand scheme of things, but still full of power and delicacy. Images of birds and animals, rivers and rocks, wind and ash, played in Cheryl’s mind. She sensed Billie and Jacko’s spirits wafting around randomly, searching for something, but lost. Cheryl/Rhona herded the two blind spirits together, felt for them and eased them up to join their own.
    When enough time had passed, Rhona said: “I think you’re ready, don’t you?”
    Cheryl came down to earth with a bump.
    “What for?”
    “Jacko needs a guide for the day.”
    Jacko looked up and smiled awkwardly.
    “No,” Cheryl said, “I hardly know anything.”
    “What did you just see?”
    Cheryl looked down.
    “Tell us,” Rhona said.
    “I saw... the world,” Cheryl replied.
    “Well there you go.”
    “But I can’t do what you do. I just...”
    “Come on, Cheryl.”
    “...I just had a vision.”
    “Exactly!”
    “No, that’s not enough. You interpret what you see. You’ve got a whole system worked out.”
    “That comes from the vision.”
    “Rhona, I didn’t even know you had visions.”
    “What?”
    “I didn’t know,” Cheryl said again, quietly.
    “But I told you about them. I explained them to you,” Rhona said.
    “I didn’t know they were real!”
    Rhona looked hurt. Cheryl continued: “I’m sorry. I didn’t think you were lying, I just hadn’t any idea what it...”
    She was interrupted by a shout that came from the kitchen. It was accompanied by a crash. Rhona jumped up and made for the adjoining door. Cheryl followed her. Billie and Jacko remained on the floor, exchanging confused glances. Karl emerged from the kitchen, looking shaken but in control. His shoulders seemed wider than normal, and he bobbed slightly on the balls of his feet. Rhona went to him. She suddenly seemed as small as a child beside him.
    “It’s alright,” Karl said.
    Cheryl went into the kitchen anyway. Gerard was standing at the sink, running a tap onto his hand, which was bleeding. He smiled calmly but the whites of his eyes showed around the green.
    “What happened?” said Cheryl.
    “Nothing,” Karl replied from the doorway.
    “Nothing? What about the broken glass?”
    “I dropped the ashtray,” Gerard said.
    Cheryl said. “You’ve been fighting, haven’t you.”
    “We were talking,” said Gerard.
    “That’s enough!” Karl shouted.
    “Look at you!” Cheryl continued, laughing.
    “What were you arguing about?” Rhona asked, taking a step back into the living room.
    “Later,” Karl muttered.
    “Yeah,” Gerard agreed, “we need to talk it out, all of us.”
    “Well,” said Rhona, “all of us are here. Why don’t we talk it out now?”
    “He means us three,” Karl said.
    Rhona folded her arms. “Okay,” she said, “but while you two were doing whatever you were doing, you missed something. It’s us four now.”
    “Eh?” said Karl.
    “Tell them, Cheryl.”
    “What?” said Cheryl. “Oh. Well I had the vision. And now Rhona wants me to be Jacko’s guide.”
    Billie and Jacko appeared in the doorway together. Jacko gave Cheryl a grin.
    “We’ll talk later,” Gerard hissed, “us three.”
    Rhona moved her mouth but only noises came out; she glanced back and forward between Karl and Gerard, but neither of them returned the glance. Karl went to sit down. Gerard turned the tap off and followed Karl into the living room, practically barging Billie and Jacko out of the way, and leaving Cheryl alone in the kitchen.
    Rhona spluttered a little more. Then she managed to say: “I think we should sleep on it. All of us.”
   
    Cheryl’s room was in a wooden prefab next to the house. To get to it, she had to go through the kitchen, out of the back door and along a path. As she passed the living room window, she heard Karl and Gerard still muttering between themselves.
    She lay down on her bed and tried to think of a way to get them to sort it out, but her mind kept on going back to recent painful events. Eventually, maybe, the grieving would be done with. Until then, there was only so much she could do to stop it.
    The day before the funeral, she had received a phone call from Ivor’s mother. Radio Cymru’s breakfast programme had just reported that Richard Thomas, a year-eight pupil at Park High School, Swansea, had been found dead in the garage of his parents’ house. His death was believed to have been linked to the suicide of his father, Ivor Thomas, a local man, thought to be unemployed.
    Ivor’s mother translated the report in a flat voice. Cheryl listened to her without comment.
    By the time the English-language media had got hold of the story, it was already getting out of hand. Richard was being fêted as a tragic boy-hero, the phone was ringing every other minute and reporters had begun hammering on the door. It was the morning of the funeral. Cheryl stepped into the lounge. Camera flashes exploded through the open net curtains and she retreated back upstairs. She washed and changed into a black dress, then sat on the bed, waiting for the car to come and take her to the crematorium.
    The phone rang yet again. Cheryl had a feeling that it might be Ivor’s mother, so she answered it. It was a reporter. The same thing happened once more. She put the phone down without speaking and dialled Ivor’s mother’s number. There was no reply. The phone rang again. Cheryl picked it up and was about to scream down it to deafen the bastard on the other end, when Ivor’s mother said: “I did a 1471. I’ve been trying to phone you.”
    “Oh,” Cheryl sighed gratefully, “I wanted you to call.”
    “I can’t come to the funeral.”
    “What? Why not?”
    “They’re saying Ivor killed Richard.”
    “Who’s saying that?”
    Ivor’s mother started crying. “On the radio,” she said, “on the morning phone-in. Someone said he was irresponsible and he was...” the old woman choked on her words “...they said blokes like him are cowards and that if he’d lived then he should have been had up for killing Richard.”
    “Oh no.”
    “They’re right, aren’t they?”
    “No they’re bloody not,” Cheryl said, “and so what if they are? I want you to come. Please.”
    “I’m sorry,” said Ivor’s mother, “it’s too much.” Then she hung up.
    The car arrived. The driver from the Co-operative Funeral Service, unused to publicity, kneed a reporter in the groin, elbowed one photographer in the face and broke another’s camera on his way to the front door. Cheryl was able to walk out to the car relatively unmolested.
    The vicar was tactful. The deaths became once again an accident, or at worst a fatal mistake. Cheryl looked around the chapel. Ivor’s whole family must have stayed at home with his mother. There were a few of Ivor’s friends, one or two neighbours and a bevy of strangers, presumably reporters. As far as she could tell, there was no one from Kashiguru Electronics Ltd., the firm which had worked Ivor to the point of illness for five years and then sacked him the first time he made a cock-up. At least one token bloody Jap might have had the guts to turn up. Scum.
    An old schoolfriend of Ivor’s gave a short speech, and then, heartbreakingly, a friend of Richard’s. Although the speech showed signs of being written by an adult, the boy carried it off perfectly - clear-voiced and dry-eyed. Cheryl resolved to be the same, at least until she got home.
    Her own parents were dead. Ivor’s family had stayed away. Her husband and son were about to be cremated. She realised how few friends she had.
    The sound of the mechanism was awful. Taped organ music didn’t come near to covering it. Before Richard was born, Cheryl had been a slave to conveyor belts in one factory or another. Had it been her body that was being carried away to be burned, then there might have been some redeeming irony in the whole business. But this was just sickening.
    She would have been alright; she would have made it home with her dignity intact, if some little shit in red braces hadn’t shoved a television camera in her face on her way through the garden of remembrance.
    The reporter had the gall to ask her how she felt. So she told him.
    In a hundred words off the top of her head, Cheryl described Ivor’s summary dismissal from Kashiguru, how he had been bullied relentlessly by a company that only knew one way to treat their employees. Richard’s now-famous act of heroism was nothing but a waste. He had wasted his life trying to save a broken man. They had broken Ivor, broken the town and people like them wouldn’t stop until they had broken the world. Ivor, she said, could have been anyone. They didn’t just hold your job in their hands, they held your whole sorry life. It was time for workers, their families and their communities to hit back. It felt as if she was building up to a call to arms, but she ran out of steam and sank into unwanted tears. The interview ended, the camera zooming in on her for effect.
    Cheryl had never spoken like that in her life. People standing around her actually applauded.
    Her speech was edited to a couple of seconds on the local news, and that was the end of it, for all of half a day. That evening. Newsnight picked up the story. They ran the whole speech as part of a piece on a ‘new militancy’ that was allegedly appearing in some of the re-emerging industrial communities. The announcer smirked a little as the film ended, but he couldn’t diminish what had been said. If anything, his snobbery gave her credibility. It was obvious to anyone watching that she meant every word. Her articulate passion struck a chord. Sentiments that would have sounded hackneyed coming from a trade unionist or a politician became powerful and poignant when spoken by a young widow leaving a funeral. The next day, the Daily Mirror printed her speech in full. Over the course of a week, her face became known, then her name. She became, briefly, a symbol for something undefined - something honest, something to do with class and pride, something British, something Welsh - whatever the press wanted to use her for. The Mirror talked about working men; the Express dragged a few old soldiers out to bark at the Japanese.
    Kashiguru’s employees went on strike over pay and conditions. The day after picketing began, a little less than half the workforce was dismissed. It became national news, and Cheryl’s outburst was broadcast once again.
    Two weeks after the funeral, Cheryl received a package. It came through the post, without a stamp. The package contained a one-way air ticket from London to Sydney, dated the next evening, along with a thousand pounds, two thousand Australian dollars, an Australian passport in the name of Cheryl Morgan (born in Geelong, Victoria) containing the same photograph as Cheryl’s real passport, a booking for two nights in a four-star hotel in Sydney, and a list of forensic, material and circumstantial evidence which appeared to connect Cheryl Thomas (née Morgan) with the murder of her husband and the involuntary manslaughter of her son.
    “It’s blood money!” Ivor’s mother raged, over the telephone.
    “Yes.”
    “I’ll help you.”
    “No. They’ve won.”
    “They haven’t! We’ll fight!”
    “I said no. That’s it, it’s finished.”
    “I’m sorry Cheryl.”
    “Please don’t say anything. They’ll do it to you. They might still do it to me.”
    “I mean for what Ivor did. I’m sorry.”
    “So am I. Goodbye... I... love you... ever since I met Ivor, you don’t know what you’ve meant to me.”
    The phone went dead. Cheryl filled a suitcase and left for London in the morning.
   
    The more she thought about it, the more she thought about it...
    If anything, Kashiguru had done her a favour by blackmailing her out of her home. Perhaps they meant to, in a way. Honour and all that. This was a beautiful country.
    She looked out of the window, hoping to see the Southern Cross bright in the night sky. Then she shouted: “Why the hell can’t you leave me alone?”
    Ivor’s ghost sat on the window-ledge. Not the craven forty-year-old who had committed suicide, he was about twenty-five, with a full head of hair and wearing the mischievous grin that had first charmed Cheryl into bed during the late autumn of 1984.
    “I’ve been trying to warn you.”
    “No you haven’t. You’ve just sat behind me taking the piss out of everything Karl and Rhona say.”
    “Mum’s right,” said Richard’s ghost, now fully twelve years old, but still wearing the green plastic sunglasses.
    Ivor said: “Do you know what it’s like to be on trial?”
    Cheryl shook her head. “If you have to hang around me, why can’t you do what Richard does? He goes for walks with me.”
    “He was an innocent child.”
    “Yes! He bloody was!”
    “But I wasn’t, and I know what’s going on.”
    “Alright then, tell me. What’s going on?”
    “You’ve been on trial since you got here, but you just passed the test. It’s the other two you want to worry about.”
    “Karl and Rhona?”
    “No!”
    “Billie and Jacko.”
    Ivor said. “If they don’t come up to scratch, that’s it. Finito.”
    “I don’t know what you mean,” Cheryl said, “and anyway I don’t believe you.” She closed her eyes and the ghosts disappeared.
   
    The next morning, over breakfast, she was appointed as Jacko’s guide for the day. This time she didn’t protest. Karl and Gerard still seemed on edge, and Rhona was being overly sweet. When they prayed, the four initiates’ spirits rose separately, like plumes of smoke on a still day.
   
    No one told her how to guide Jacko, so she started as Karl had with her own training. After breakfast, she went to the nearby grocer’s and bought supplies for a long day. She took Jacko out into the hills and walked with him. There was nothing she could tell him about the plants and the animals - he knew perfectly well where the lyre birds danced - so she concentrated on silence, trying to pass on the feeling of simply knowing what to do and where to go. Now as she passed through the wilderness, she knew how far it was to the desert and to the sea, which way they were and how you would go about walking there if you needed to. So much of it was about water.
    It was not that the rivers or the rocks or the animals were talking to her, at least not in any sense she recognised, but with every distant outcrop and every angry screech of a cockatoo, she knew a little more. Each step she took had a new balance and a new confidence.
    Jacko didn’t get it, just as Cheryl hadn’t got it at the beginning. The power - even perhaps the spirit - within Karl and Rhona had been obvious right from first meeting them; but until she started having visions herself, she had still regarded them, basically, as a couple of sexy-looking hippies with a religious streak. Jacko wasn’t much different. His scepticism was a barrier to be broken down. He wanted to believe in something, but would he?
    They walked most of the day, stopping for food and water in a clearing which had once been burned, by a tribe of people now long dead, to let the grass grow and make the kangaroos feed in a place where they could be caught.
    This was enough, Cheryl thought, for the first day.
    As they went through the gate that took them back into the city, Cheryl slid her arm around Jacko’s waist. He tensed up horribly, but she kept the arm where it was. After a few seconds, he rested his hand on her shoulder. Walking like this felt awkward and disjointed; there was no rhythm to bring her step and his round-shouldered lope together. Still she wouldn’t let go of him. Boys like Jacko sometimes grew to be quite handsome later on, if they filled themselves out with real food and went easy on the booze, but for now, he really was on the ugly side. He probably hadn’t been cuddled since he was a baby. Perhaps that was all his spirit needed.
    A couple of weeks of her new-found serenity, a bit of love and a few long walks in the hills, and Jacko’s soul would be soaring upwards with the best of them. She patted him hard on the backside.
    “You doing alright up there?” she said.
    Jacko looked down at her and gave his usual shy grin. They started to get a bit of rhythm in their step.
   
    They returned to find Karl, Rhona and Gerard sitting silently, not looking at one another. The three of them must have stopped talking as soon as they heard the front door open.
    Cheryl and Jacko stood for a moment in the middle of the living room. The silence dragged on until Cheryl lost patience with it.
    “I’m making tea,” she said, “if anyone wants one.”
    She went into the kitchen, filled a kettle, put it on the stove and drummed her fingers on the formica worktop. No one answered her.
    “Where’s Billie?” Jacko said.
    “Gone,” Rhona replied.
    “Yeah, she wasn’t really one of us,” Gerard added.
    Cheryl came through into the living room. “Billie’s gone? What are you talking about?”
    Gerard was smiling. Karl stared coldly at the wall.
    “She left,” Rhona said.
    Jacko groaned sadly: “Where to?”
    “It doesn’t matter,” Gerard whispered through his smile.
    Jacko looked nonplussed. He glanced over to Cheryl for support.
    “Of course it matters,” Cheryl said, nodding back.
    “Listen,” Karl said grimly, “she might be back. People come and people go. You know how it is here.”
    Cheryl spun on her heels and made a point of storming into the kitchen. She poured a cup of tea for herself and said: “Want one, Jacko?”
    “Er... yeah.”
    She called him into the kitchen. As she handed him his tea, she said: “Come on, let’s leave them to it.”
   
    Cheryl and Jacko sat back on Cheryl’s bed, leaning against the pillows. They drank their tea and didn’t look at each other.
    Cheryl said: “I’m worried about Billie.”
    “She’ll be ’right,” Jacko replied. “It’s just a bloody shame. I really liked her.”
    Tentatively he reached his arm around Cheryl’s back. His hand wavered a couple of inches above her shoulder. She let him feel uncomfortable for a moment; then she leaned into him and he relaxed.
    “I’m not sure,” she said, “there’s things going on with the others.”
    “I know what you mean. It’s like Gerard’s planning something.”
    Cheryl couldn’t resist it. Jacko’s heart was going like a pneumatic drill. She squeezed the inside of his thigh. “Just like you, eh, tiger?” she said.
    He flushed, took his arm off her shoulder and drew his knees up to his chest.
    “I’m sorry,” Cheryl said.
    “No, erm... I should go.”
    “Don’t be daft! It’s nothing to be ashamed of. I was eighteen once, I know what it’s like. Anyway I’d rather talk to you than that lot in there, so stop where you are.”
    “Bloody hell,” said Ivor’s ghost, “you’re quick off the mark. Bit young isn’t he?”
    “Get lost,” Cheryl said.
    Jacko made to get up.
    “Not you.”
    “What?” said Jacko.
    “Oh Christ, okay... Jacko meet Ivor, Ivor meet Jacko.”
    Jacko stared over his shoulder at Cheryl. She gave a resigned look in response.
    “I told you,” she said, “Richard and Ivor, I see them all the time.”
    Ivor had disappeared.
    “No, wait! Ivor! Is Billie alright? Is that what you were trying to tell me?”
    No answer. Jacko was silent as well.
    “Look,” Cheryl said, “if you think I’ve gone round the bend, just say so, will you? I don’t know one way or the other.”
    Jacko mumbled a few reassuring words. He was perched on the side of the bed now, his calves twitching and his knees shaking, as if his legs wanted to leave but the rest of him wouldn’t let them.
    It was crunch time. Cheryl lay back and stared out through the window into the twilight. There was an extraordinary world out there, knowledge and magic in every blade of grass and every call of a bird, but there was also a city full of people with jobs and families and homes, or scrabbling along without these things, in either case just getting on with their lives with no need for the extraordinary. Either she took the whole thing on board: the spirits in The Circle, the visions and signals from nature, and the simple certainties that these visions gave her - the whole mystical caboodle - which would mean not only believing in the ghosts of her loved ones, but taking them on their word; or else she might as well look in the Yellow Pages, find the nearest funny farm and sign herself up for the long journey back to Real Life.
    “It’s up to you, Mum. I can’t tell you what to believe.”
    It was Richard, but it was the voice of a grown man.
    Since the accident, Cheryl hadn’t really had a good cry. She had broken down a couple of times and shed a few tears at night, but nothing more: too busy trying to save Richard; too busy with Ivor’s mother; too many funeral arrangements, reporters to avoid, aeroplanes to catch; too busy living. Hearing Richard like that sent her over the edge. She curled up on the bed. Tears and snot poured out of her. She grasped handfuls of hair and pulled at it. The worst of it - not the loss of Richard, but the fact that he would never, ever grow up, never be anything more than a boy - came out of the back of her mind and lodged itself in front of her eyes.
    Poor, horny, confused Jacko did what he could. He lifted Cheryl’s shoulders up and held onto her, letting her punch him in the chest and bite his arm. When she had exhausted herself, he lowered her head down onto the pillow and quietly stroked her hair.
    “Jesus,” she whispered. “Sorry.”
    “I wish I could do something,” he said.
    Cheryl felt for the hand that was stroking her hair. “You can’t.” she said. She looked up at him through red eyes. “You don’t have to stay if you don’t want.”
    She let go of his hand, but he stayed. He turned off the lights. They sat and watched the night sky become clear and brilliant. Then he went back to his own room to sleep.
   
    In the morning, Cheryl went through the ritual of breakfast and prayer, but her bags were already packed.
    Gerard gave her his most affecting smile, and when that failed, he sneered that she would never know anything like The Circle again. She agreed with him. Karl and Rhona sat in silence, their presence now a mere shadow next to the green-eyed light of Gerard.
    Jacko pleaded with her to stay. He asked to go with her; there was nothing for him in The Circle. She told him to stay, to learn from Karl and Rhona as she had done. Then he could make up his own mind. He hung his head, and his face went long and lonely once more. She offered her hands to him in prayer.
    Their spirits stretched and mingled. Together they moved among the birds and animals, rivers and rocks, wind and ash.
    “Christ almighty!” said Jacko.
    Her job was done.
    They saw Billie, alone, her spirit lost and bemused.
    Cheryl and Jacko looked at each other, then across at Gerard.
    “What have you done to Billie?” Cheryl shouted.
    “Nothing,” said Karl. “I told you. She left.”
    Gerard said, quietly: “I told her to go. She hadn’t got a clue.”
    “Can’t you see her?”
   
“I can,” Jacko said.
   
    She was standing among the gum trees on the hill overlooking the city, smoking a cigarette and sipping from a bottle of water. Next to her on the ground was a blanket, and on the blanket was a half-empty packet of chocolate digestives and a sharp knife. Cheryl and Jacko knew where to find her, but it took them two hours of hard hiking to reach her.
    She let them hug her, but there was no warmth in her greeting. Her nervousness had gone. She looked windblown and old.
    “I’m not going back,” she said.
    “That’s a stroke of luck,” Cheryl replied. “Nor are we.”
    Billie continued: “I’ve tried everything, you know, and I’m still just me. It’s not enough. They were my last chance, The Circle. I thought they’d have the answer.”
    “You see that bird?” Cheryl said, pointing. “That is a spirit signal. It’s going to guide us, until something else does.”
    “Kookaburra,” said the bird, nearly falling off its perch on the dead branch of the burnt gum tree.
    “You know she’s right,” said Jacko.
    They sat down on the blanket and finished the biscuits together.
    “I don’t know a damn thing,” Billie said.
    Cheryl picked up the knife and hurled it at the city. They folded the blanket and put it around Billie’s shoulders. The three of them began to walk. Cheryl knew where to go.


      
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