Copyright © JC Burke 2013. All rights reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Copyright © JC Burke 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

1

SARAH THE SENSIBLE

The wind has picked up. Pink balls of blossom fuzz drop onto the tidy lawns of Galston College as if it were a spring snowfall. Typically, Tallulah is the first to swat it from her hair and mouth, her wrist flicking in swift, cranky movements. The other girls, all residents of Galston’s second floor, see what she’s doing and follow. Even at university, Tallulah is the girl everyone wants to be, Sarah thinks. She remains still, happier to let the blossom fuzz settle on her lips than follow the others. They’re on their way to happy hour at the Sebbies bar. It’s a Sunday night Crossley University tradition, if you live on campus. Sarah stops at the wilting arrangement of lilies sitting in the doorway of Galston’s laundry. They were placed there on the day of Jessica Walski’s memorial, almost three
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weeks ago. ‘Maybe we should move Jess’s flowers?’ she says. ‘They’re not looking so good.’ ‘They’re fine. Just prop them up a bit,’ Tallulah instructs Sarah. ‘It’s not like she’s going to know.’ There’s a collective gasp from the other girls. ‘Well, she’s not. I’m just being honest.’ Tallulah squeezes in front of Sarah and rearranges the floppy stems, speaking to them as though they are Jess. ‘Oh sweetheart, sweetheart. What were you doing up there on the roof? Hey? I wish you could tell us.’ ‘That’s not what I meant,’ Sarah says, stepping over Tallulah and picking up the vase, an undignified grunt escaping her lips. ‘It shouldn’t be right outside the door. I can’t believe someone hasn’t tripped over it already. That’d be nice, a lawsuit for the college. Like Galston needs another drama.’ ‘Oh, you’re so bloody sensible, Sarah.’ Tallulah turns to the girls and says, ‘Did you know I made up that title – “Sarah the Sensible”? It was in a year 8 pastoral care class.’ ‘Didn’t Jess make it up?’ Sarah mutters. ‘After I cleaned up your mess in the art room?’ Of course Tallulah catches it. ‘No! I did. Remember?’ ‘Whatever you say, Tallulah.’ ‘You see –’ Tallulah’s still facing the others ‘– we were paired off for this trust exercise. You know those stupid exercises you do in pastoral care . . .’ ‘I don’t think anyone’s interested in what we did in year 8,’ Sarah mumbles. Surely no one wants to know what they did back then, and Sarah doesn’t want to hear about it now either. But Dee insists. ‘Go on,’ she begs Tallulah. The other
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girls are nodding, a line of heads bobbing. ‘We weren’t allowed to have nicknames written on our year 12 jerseys. My school was so boring. “Deanna Parsons” is what mine said. Exciting, not. I love all of your Trinity Hall ones. Sarah the Sensible, Just Tallulah . . .’ Her voice trails off. ‘Jess Wannabe and Paige the Brave.’ Tallulah finishes the list for her. The mention of these names brings the dropping of heads, an unexpected fascination with the concrete they’re standing on. Sarah tries to stare Tallulah out. Tries to make her turn her head so she can shoot Tallulah the look that says ‘shut up’. But Tallulah’s back finishing the fable of Sarah the Sensible. ‘So in this pastoral care class, way, way back in year 8, we had to describe ourselves and our partner in one word only and it had to be positive and honest . . .’ Sarah is mute and staring at the ground, wishing Tallulah would stop it because just the thought of those days hurts. Sometimes the urge to shout and yell rushes up Sarah’s throat so fast she finds herself grabbing hold of something to keep herself from losing balance. ‘. . . sensible was the only word for Sarah. She told me that in kindy she was the kid who figured out Santa wasn’t real. She said, how did one bloke get around the whole world in twenty-four hours, and if he was so good how come all the starving kids in Africa missed out.’ The other girls are looking up and laughing, the tension dissolving around them. But it’s not for Sarah. Where Sarah and Tallulah have found themselves in their first year of college is worse than Sarah could ever have imagined.

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At the bar, Sarah’s boyfriend, Wil, stands in a tight circle of boys, all from St Sebastian’s or ‘Sebbies’, the only all-male college left at Crossley University. It’s happy hour so most of them are up to their third beer. Wil still sips at his first because he and Sarah are having dinner with his parents tonight. It’s his mother’s fiftieth birthday. Sarah’s expression crumbles when she spots Wil’s back. She taps him on the shoulder. ‘Wil, why aren’t you wearing your new shirt?’ She’s oblivious to the others exchanging glances, one guy even raising his hand as if to crack a whip. ‘I told you to put it –’ ‘Calm down. It’s in the car.’ ‘Sure?’ ‘Yes! Remember, you stuck a big note on my cupboard door to remind me. And it’s on a hanger.’ ‘Good boy.’ Sarah pecks his cheek. ‘Maybe I can train you after all.’ ‘Oh, Willy,’ Harry chuckles. ‘Can you be trained into submission?’ Sarah opens her mouth to say something back but that’d mean eye contact with Harry. So she swallows the words in a yawn and looks the other way. Ewan’s asking Wil if he visited Paige at the hospital last weekend. ‘Yeah,’ he answers. ‘How was she?’ ‘Not so good.’ Harry reaches out, thumping Wil on the back and squeezing his shoulder. ‘Has Paige remembered what happened?’ Harry asks.
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‘No, nothing.’ Harry’s rubbing his chin and shaking his head as though he’s trying to solve some mathematical conundrum. ‘I’d love to know what really happened. None of it makes sense.’ Sarah feels her fingers tightening around her glass of soda while her other hand finds the edge of the table, her fingers gripping it tightly. ‘I know the pool was about to close but there must’ve been someone else who saw something before Sarah got there.’ Sarah just about slams her glass into Wil’s chest. ‘I have to go.’ ‘Hey?’ ‘I have that meeting at college.’ ‘But you’ve got almost an hour.’ ‘I have to . . .’ ‘Are you okay?’ Sarah nods. ‘I’ll meet you at the car, okay?’ ‘Yeah. Text me when the meeting’s finished.’ Sarah goes to peck him but this time Wil takes her hand. ‘You’re shaking. Are you sure you’re okay?’ ‘I’ve got to go, Wil.’ ‘No rush. We can get to the restaurant late. Mum will understand.’ Wil still holds onto her. ‘Are you sure you want to drive? We can get a taxi. Dad’ll pick up the tab.’ ‘Let’s just leave it the way it is,’ Sarah says. ‘I’ll see you later.’ Wil turns back to the boys while Sarah stares out into the crowd. The Sebbies bar has almost filled to capacity. Shoulders are slammed against each other, arms reaching out like tentacles to pass bottles of beer and multicoloured
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concoctions over heads and through the crowd, the liquid tipping and spilling on its way. There seem to be lots of faces from Galston, although it amazes Sarah that, after six months, there are still people she’s never laid eyes on. Just yesterday, she met a girl for the very first time, another fresher from the floor above. But then, Galston is the biggest co-ed college in the state – and Sarah wouldn’t be anywhere else. Sarah wonders if everyone’s remembered the meeting. How could they not when all they seem to do is swap stories of the ‘incident’ outside the laundry. Sarah knows that if she wanted to listen she’d hear these strangers pass Jess’s name around like a piece of gossip. It used to be Paige’s name. Not any more. She’s almost forgotten. Sarah’s wearing the blue dress she bought last year for her year 12 valedictory dinner. It’s a bit tight across the bum and thighs but she knows Wil’s mother has never seen it. She’s avoided spending money on clothes and wasting time shopping. For Sarah that’s a victory. Her eyes sweep over the crowd one last time. Then Sarah hunches over, trying to make herself as small as possible, and begins a calculated squeeze through the tangle of bodies. The throng is pulsating towards the bar but there’s a gap up ahead thanks to a guy who keeps looking at his watch, adding up how much more he can consume in the happy hour. Sarah heads straight for the gap. ‘Oi, Galstoner!’ he grunts, slopping his drink down her cleavage. ‘Back of the queue, sweetheart.’ ‘Shit! Shit! Shit!’ is all Sarah can say as she stumbles to the safety of the open doors.
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Outside, Sarah checks her dress for damage. Luckily most of his drink landed inside her dress and only a tiny circle shows through the fabric. Her fingers are busy dabbing at the spot when she hears someone call her name. ‘Sarah?’ Rosie, a senior and the supervisor of their floor, is coming towards her. ‘Are you feeling okay about the meeting tonight?’ ‘Oh, hi. I was actually going to see if you needed help setting up. But I just need to run to the laundry and sponge my dress. I’ve got my boyfriend’s mum’s fiftieth tonight.’ Sarah can’t resist adding, ‘At Le Charcuterie.’ ‘Don’t be late. Dr Littman will start bang on six-fifteen. You know what a control freak he is.’ ‘Do you think everyone in the bar has remembered?’ ‘They’re all grown-ups.’ Rosie’s answer makes Sarah feel small. ‘They don’t have to come if they don’t want to. It’s not school.’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Don’t worry, when we were freshers we’d be the first ones lining up outside the study room so we could all sit together in the front row. Big dags, we were.’ Sarah nods. She can feel herself smiling but it’s one of those smiles that squeezes your heart too tight and ends up hurting. At school, the four of them always sat together at assembly. Whoever got to the hall first would save the next three seats in the row. Sometimes other girls would mind a seat for Paige or Tallulah, because they were the ones everyone wanted to be friends with, but Paige and Tallulah’s answer was always the same: ‘Thanks, but I’m sitting with the others.’
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‘Sarah,’ Rosie’s saying. ‘I should probably warn you that there’s going to be a big photo of Jess up on the screen. Dr  Littman thought it was better that way. No confusion about who she is . . .’ ‘It’s okay.’ Rosie gives Sarah’s shoulder a squeeze. ‘Really? It’s been so tough on you girls. I still think about Paige and then I think about you and how scared . . .’ Please stop, Sarah’s saying to herself. Rosie doesn’t know that Sarah still hasn’t been back inside the Sports Centre. That even picturing the walk through the entrance to the swimming pool makes Sarah want to throw up, and that her fear doesn’t stop there. ‘. . . how scared you must’ve been that night when you found Paige,’ Rosie says. ‘I don’t know how you managed to be so level-headed. I would’ve freaked out. But you probably saved Paige’s life.’ ‘It’s . . . it’s fine.’ ‘I reckon you Trinity Hall girls are incredible. So strong. Honestly, everyone’s saying it, Sarah.’ At the beginning of the year, all the residents wanted to know which freshers were coming to Galston and what school they were from. The description of them was simple: ‘Tallulah Martin-Jones, Paige Blackman, Jessica Walski and Sarah Murphy are from Trinity Hall’. But because of everything that’d happened, now everyone said: ‘Those girls from Trinity Hall, they’re like sisters.’ And they had been once. They measured their trust with ‘How long’s a piece of string?’ No secrets between them. No lies ever told. But as much as these strangers wanted
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to believe it was still like that – because it added an extra touch to the tragedy – it simply didn’t feel like the truth any more. At least, not to Sarah.

Sarah hitches up her blue dress, tucks her stilettos under her arm and trots across the lawn to the laundry. She’s focusing on the stain on the front of her dress because that problem is fi xable. Like the glued-in left heel of the shoes she’s holding, it’s fi xable. Although, when her shoe broke at Wil’s year 12 formal, it had felt like the world’s worst disaster. Wil, Harry and Ewan had all gone to Bartholomew House. Its formal was the one all the girls hoped to be invited to. Tallulah, Paige and Sarah were. Not Jess. She’d been a good sport, though. Jess lent Sarah her best suck-in undies and held up Tallulah’s dress all the way down the stairs and outside to where the candy-pink stretch hummer and their dates waited. She sent them off with waves and kisses and watched while their limousine looped around the centre oval, back along the driveway and out the gates of Trinity Hall. Sarah felt proud to be with this group; proud of her girlfriends and that Wil was hers. She sat high in the seat, her back straight against the leather, but gradually her attention was caught by how incredible the other girls’ dresses were. Tallulah’s was green silk. It was glossy and rich and glided along with her. And why hadn’t Sarah noticed the delicate oyster-coloured sequins that sparkled on Paige’s dress?
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Sarah had thought hers beautiful too and she loved that it gave her a little cleavage, but next to the others, she wondered if it looked cheap. Was the fabric too shiny and the hem the wrong length? Tallulah’s was split all the way to the thigh on one side. Every now and then a foal-like leg would untangle and recross itself. Each time, Sarah answered that smooth, tanned limb by recrossing her arms and sinking further into the seat. She was afraid that if her hands were free they might end up slapping Wil, because he was practically dribbling on his tuxedo. When they were walking down the driveway of the waterfront mansion where the pre-formal cocktails were being held, the left heel of Sarah’s stiletto suddenly snapped, landing her face-first in the gutter. She knew it was not going to be her starring night. The palms of her hands were grazed and her right knee was beginning to bleed. But what hurt the most was when Tallulah took Sarah’s shoe from her to inspect the damage. ‘No wonder,’ Tallulah announced to whoever was in earshot. ‘Made-in-China cheapies. What do you expect, Sarah!’ Paige said to Tallulah, ‘Don’t be a snobby bitch, Lulah! Just because your father bought you Jimmy Choos.’ For the rest of the night, Paige and Tallulah cracked up every time they spotted Sarah clip-clopping through the crowd. They weren’t aware how much their laughter hurt and humiliated her, because Sarah had already come up with a line. ‘I’m doing the povo limp,’ she joked every time she saw them.

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Outside the laundry, Sarah’s still holding her left shoe, staring at the bubbles of glue around the heel and thinking that she should’ve taken her mum’s advice and bought a new pair. Instead, she’d delivered her stock-standard answer: ‘Mum, you know I would rather shoot myself than go shopping.’ Sarah puts her shoe back on and pulls at her dress, flattening the fabric across her thighs. She scans the tiny vodka stain on the front and tells her outfit it had better hold up for the night. Another little thing about Wil’s formal still bugs her. Did Wil tell her she looked nice that night? Jess did. Tallulah slapped her on the bum and sang, ‘Lookin’ good, girlfriend.’ And while Paige patiently applied Sarah’s mascara she mouthed, ‘You look so beautiful, Sarah.’ She can still clearly hear Wil suck in his breath and utter ‘wow’ as Tallulah climbed into the stretch hummer. But she can’t recall him saying anything nice to her and, call her pathetic and tragic, which is what Sarah feels when she finds herself thinking about this, that thought bugs her. Sometimes it bugs her a lot. She’s just about to flick on the laundry light when she spots Jess’s lilies. Suddenly she feels foolish. That’s the thing about her cheap, broken shoe and the Bartholomew House formal. None of it matters now. When Sarah switches on the light she sees a guy in a grey beanie sitting on an old chair, his feet up on a washing machine. ‘Shite!’ Sarah gasps. ‘You scared me.’ ‘Sorry.’
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‘I didn’t think anyone was in here.’ ‘I have a shocker of a headache.’ He glances up and Sarah sees that he has the greenest eyes, as though they’ve been coloured in with a texta. ‘That’s why the light was off.’ ‘Oh, sorry.’ Sarah is standing there waiting for him to let her through, surprised again to encounter a Galstoner she’s never seen before. ‘Um, excuse me. I need to get to the basin.’ He drops his legs and she squeezes through to the line of silver tubs. Never one to be good with silences, Sarah begins conversation. ‘So . . . are you going to the meeting?’ ‘Which one?’ ‘The one tonight, in the study room.’ ‘Really? What’s it about?’ ‘You know, about Jess.’ ‘Oh! Shit, yeah.’ He jumps up. He’s tall, maybe even taller than Harry, and Sarah wonders if she has seen him before. Or is it just that his look is familiar? It can be hard to tell one person from another when you live among the ‘genetically privileged’. That’s how Sarah thinks of them. Rich and good-looking. To Sarah, it seems the two go together. Which she considers unfair, as if they’ve hogged all the good genes. ‘I knew there was something on tonight,’ he’s saying. ‘What time’s it on?’ ‘In fifteen minutes.’ He’s yawning now. Stretching his arms above his head. ‘What’s it about? Specifically, I mean.’ ‘I’m not really sure. Maybe about safety or something.’ ‘Did you know Jess Wollaski?’ ‘Walski. It’s Jess Walski,’ she says. ‘I went to . . . to school with her.’
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‘Oh. Sorry.’ Now Sarah’s squeezing past him again. ‘I’d better go.’ As Sarah leaves, he whispers what sounds like, ‘You poor little girl.’ But as she turns the corner, she almost trips in her China cheapies. ‘You poor pretty girl.’ That’s what he said. There’s no time to think about it because there are voices coming from the path outside the laundry. ‘We’re a bit early, aren’t we?’ It’s a guy. He sounds drunk. ‘I hadn’t finished my beer.’ ‘We’re early because I’m not using those disgusting toilets in the Sebbies bar,’ a girl’s voice answers. ‘There was already spew all over the floor.’ ‘It was that fresher Brylie. I don’t think she’s ever had a drink before.’ ‘Brylie? What kind of a name is that? I’m going up to my room to pee. Save me a seat?’ ‘Hey, the police tape’s gone!’ It’s the drunk guy again. ‘Shows how much washing you do.’ People start laughing and Sarah’s legs move faster. ‘The tape’s been gone for over a week, Eddie.’ ‘Is the blood still there?’ ‘Eddie!’ Sarah breaks into a run.

The chairs for the meeting have been set up in the Galston College study room. It’s probably Sarah’s favourite place in the whole of Crossley University. The furniture is elegant,
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the cedar desks exuding the scent of tradition and success. The sword of a former King of England hangs proudly on the wall. On either side are curtains made in rich navy velvet, the pelmets displaying the Galston College crest in thick, golden thread. She’s surprised to find Tallulah beside Rosie, both of them bent over a data projector. ‘Uh, hi,’ says Sarah. ‘You were quick,’ Rosie answers. ‘Did you fi x your dress?’ Suddenly a giant image of Jess at their year 12 valedictory dinner launches onto the screen. Seeing Jess’s smiling face hits Sarah like a punch in the guts, and somehow the fact that Tallulah is standing right beside her makes it even worse. ‘Yay!’ Tallulah cries. ‘It worked! Don’t you think this is a heaps better photo, Sarah?’ Sarah’s leaning into the wall. She can feel the cold bricks on her back. Tallulah keeps going. ‘I hate the one that was in the newspapers. Jess looks so, so serious and so skinny in it. She wouldn’t have liked it. Sarah and I know she wouldn’t. Jess hated that she was so little.’ But Tallulah and Sarah had never discussed the photo of Jess in the newspaper. They can barely speak to each other. At least, not about the things people probably think they’re talking about. ‘So, she would’ve liked this picture?’ asks Rosie. ‘It was her profile picture on Facebook for ages. That’s always a sign.’ Then without even looking up from the
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projector, Tallulah says, ‘Hey, Sarah, isn’t that your valedictory dress?’ She points at Sarah’s feet. ‘And I see those shoes are still with us. I thought Paige nicked them?’ ‘Did you girls always swap clothes?’ Rosie asks. ‘Tallulah means nick them to throw them out.’ ‘Oh,’ says Rosie. ‘Come on, they were pretty bad shoes, Sarah!’ ‘I’m dressed up because we’ve got Wil’s mum’s fiftieth tonight.’ ‘Let me guess, at Le Charcuterie?’ Before Sarah can answer, Tallulah is groaning, ‘Borrrrrring. That place is so dark and the food is so heavy it makes me want to crawl under the table and have a snooze.’ ‘I think the food’s fantastic,’ Rosie says. ‘Last year, I went to its sister restaurant in London.’ ‘I’ve been there!’ ‘What did you think?’ Rosie asks Tallulah. As Tallulah and Rosie swap degustation menus, Sarah stands there feeling like the country cousin, yet again. She stares at the Galston College crest, the motto repeating inside her head. Incipit Vita Nova: ‘A New Life Begins.’ At the start of the year, Sarah would suck in her breath with excitement every time she read those words, because Galston College was a new life. Now she sucks in her breath because it’s a cruel joke. Jess is dead and Paige is virtually locked away from them. How did it happen? Because Sarah didn’t see it coming. Rosie’s saying, ‘Dr Littman wants to have the picture up so people will see it when they walk in.’ Tallulah’s shaking her head. ‘What? In case there’s some
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random person who’s had their head up their bum for the last three weeks and doesn’t know who Jess is?’ ‘I think so.’ Sarah knows it’s petty, her sensible side tells her this, but she can’t help wondering why Rosie asked Tallulah to help and not her. Doesn’t Rosie know that Sarah is the one who helps with these types of things? At school she was a prefect and the head library monitor and elected to the student representative council three years in a row. Not Tallulah. Tallulah was too busy smoking out of the boarding room window or sneaking off at night to meet a boy on the tennis courts while Jess stayed on the lookout for her. Galstoners are starting to wander into the study room and take seats. Dr Littman, the college master, enters and walks straight up to Rosie. He thanks her for putting up the image of Jess. Rosie, without a falter, answers him with, ‘It was Tallulah who did it all, Dr Littman. Not me.’ ‘Thank you, Tallulah,’ Dr Littman says and shakes her hand. ‘Hey, Sarah?’ Tallulah turns. ‘Save me a . . .’ But Sarah has already darted away, almost tripping over the chairs. She wants to take the last seat in the back row – the one that’s nearly hidden behind the blue curtain – but she knows that’s as conspicuous as sitting up the front. So, she opts for the end chair in the third-back row because it’s the last single seat left. It takes a while for everyone to settle. Dr Littman asks for quiet, makes a reference to the smiling image of Jess, clears his throat and begins to speak. ‘I thought it important we had this meeting so that
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we’re all up to date on what’s going on. That way I think the spread of rumours can be averted.’ Some random in the front row throws up his hand. ‘Dr Littman, is there any link between what happened to Paige Blackman and Jessica Walski?’ There’s a grumble in the crowd and Sarah wonders what it means. Then a girl calls out, ‘This is serious!’ ‘What happened to Paige Blackman is serious too!’ the boy snaps back. ‘That’s why I’m asking.’ ‘Can everyone please settle down,’ Dr Littman orders. ‘There’s definitely no link between Paige and Jessica. As you all know, Paige is still recovering. She has a long journey ahead of her and we wish her well.’ Dr Littman turns so that he’s looking at Jess’s picture. ‘Jessica Walski was happy and doing well with her studies. That we do know. However, as the coroner’s report is pending, there are still many things we don’t know. At this stage the police have no reason to think there was foul play involved.’ He clasps his hands together. ‘It seems . . . It seems Jess either took her life or simply fell off the laundry roof in a tragic accident. Most probably it is the latter.’ There’s a sudden silence in the study room, as if it’s an unscheduled moment for reflection. Sarah notices couples hugging each other and residents exchanging looks and squeezing hands. She sits there feeling numb, staring into the back of Tallulah’s head and hoping like crazy that nobody touches her. Littman’s back to business. ‘I don’t want to keep you long but there are a few things to discuss. I know it’s been three
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weeks but the police are very keen to speak with those who remember anything. It doesn’t matter how insignificant the detail may seem, please come forward. We simply want to understand what happened that night and put everyone’s minds at rest.’ He turns to Rosie. ‘Do we have the other slide?’ Rosie hits the remote and a photo of a gold ring dotted with emeralds and sapphires replaces the smiling face of Jess. ‘This ring of Jessica’s is missing,’ Dr Littman says. ‘Her room has been searched thoroughly. She wasn’t wearing the ring when she was found, but apparently she rarely took it off.’ Dr Littman keeps talking and Sarah wonders if he knows how tiny and delicate Jess’s fingers were. That the ring had been made smaller to fit her and that Tallulah had once tried it on her pinkie and even then it got stuck. Sarah had called her dad, who’s a nurse, to ask about the best way to get it off. ‘A lot of stuff has been stolen out of residents’ rooms lately,’ a voice calls. ‘My laptop was nicked and the room next door had –’ ‘I’m aware of this,’ Dr Littman interrupts. Sarah fades in and out of Littman’s speech. She hears snippets, such as that 24-hour counselling is still available and to be aware of reporters snooping around campus asking questions. But most of the time she hears nothing. She just sits there.

The thick chocolate-coloured carpet of Le Charcuterie absorbs the natter of prenuptial agreements, company
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takeovers and the indiscretions of the genetically privileged. When Sarah walks in, it’s not resting Wagyu beef that she smells – it’s money, old money. No one would ever suspect it, but Sarah plays a game with herself. She calls it ‘What would you prefer?’. Would she stay poor – not that her family’s actually properly poor – or would she prefer to be ‘nouveau riche’ or cashed-up bogans, like Harry and Wil say Ewan’s family is. Whatever it means to them, she knows it’s not good. In fact, Sarah understands that to be nouveau in the world of Galston and St Sebastian’s is probably worse than being ordinary – as she is considered to be, with a mother who’s a teacher and a father who’s a nurse. Wil’s mother Winnie says teachers and nurses are exceptional, that theirs are the most honourable professions in the world. Yet neither she nor her husband picked such occupations, and nor did their children, Wil and Miranda. To be fair, Sarah understands the general gist of what Winnie means, which is why when she plays the ‘What would you prefer?’ game, she picks her predicament over Ewan’s any day. It’s an intimate dinner in one of Le Charcuterie’s cedar-panelled private rooms. Just Wil’s parents, Winnie and Richard, four of their closest friends and Sarah and Wil. The absence of the Blackmans, Paige’s parents, seems to take up all the space in the room. It’s mentioned by Winnie at the very beginning of dinner, as though it’s a point of housekeeping that needs to be dealt with then put away. ‘Welcome and thank you all for joining us tonight.’
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Winnie stays seated as she speaks, her hands neatly clasped on the table as if she’s still at work in the courtroom preparing to pass down a sentence. ‘It means a great deal to have people I love so dearly here with us. I almost shed a tear when Miranda rang from Paris to say she was sorry she couldn’t be here to help celebrate, but a second later I realised she was talking to me from a boulangerie where she was ordering her first cafe au lait for the day, and I knew she probably wasn’t sorry at all.’ Laughter from around the table. ‘Anyway, I have Wil here and of course dear Sarah, whom I’m so glad could join us tonight.’ ‘Thank you, Winnie.’ Sarah smiles, and Wil takes her hand and squeezes it. For the rest of Winnie’s speech, her  hand sits comfortably on his lap and Sarah feels like she’s part of this world. ‘How fortunate am I to have such a wonderful family . . .’ Winnie hesitates. ‘Blessed with good health and fortune. I often think about that, and even more so recently. It was too much for Jenny and Ross to come tonight. Darling Paige is improving, but it’s a slow and painful process. So, my birthday wish is that next year we will all be together again and this annus horribilis will be well behind us.’ A toast to Winnie is followed by a toast to Paige and the Blackmans, and Sarah thinks it won’t be mentioned again for the rest of the night. But the conversation of adults – even judges and doctors and politicians – loses its elegance with too much burgundy, and later in the evening Sarah finds herself wedged between Winnie and one of the other wives, whose eyes seem to have lost their ability to focus.
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Copyright © JC Burke 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

‘Did you know or suspect that Paige was taking drugs?’ Winnie asks Sarah. ‘I don’t want to put you on the spot, but surely you would’ve noticed something?’ ‘It won’t leave these four walls,’ adds the other woman, whose gaze is struggling to centre on Sarah’s face. ‘Cross our hearts.’ ‘Or do you think she was depressed?’ Winnie continues. ‘The wrist injury she suffered last year seemed to throw her off a bit. But she was back training and diving again and god knows Paige’s nerves are made of steel.’ ‘It does seem odd to be loaded up with those Quaaludes or whatever they’re called,’ the other lady says. ‘And on a diving board at night.’ ‘That’s why I wonder if she was depressed. But Sarah, if you didn’t –’ ‘Mum!’ Wil leans over the table. ‘Stop it! Sarah can’t tell you anything I haven’t. Paige isn’t into drugs. I’m sure once she’s all better she’ll be able to explain it.’ But Wil doesn’t know about the Thursday night Sarah walked into Tallulah’s room. All she wanted was to get an essay back. She wasn’t even planning on staying for a chat because she had a law assignment due the next morning. In and out, three seconds tops. Sarah simply knocked once, then opened the door of Tallulah’s room. Paige and Tallulah were huddled over the desk, their heads almost touching. There was a tapping noise as though one of them was emptying pencil shavings out of a sharpener. Sarah wasn’t sure they’d heard her. So she called again. ‘Helloooo?’
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Copyright © JC Burke 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Paige spun around. Tallulah jumped onto the desk but Sarah spotted the gold credit card and two short but perfectly straight lines of white powder. ‘Oh! We thought you were that girl, Brylie.’ ‘Um, um, no,’ Sarah started to say. ‘I just wanted to get my –’ ‘Don’t tell Wil,’ Paige said, taking a step towards Sarah. ‘Please? Sarah?’ ‘You can’t fucking tell a soul,’ Tallulah snapped. ‘Not Wil. Especially not Wil.’ ‘How long’s a piece of string?’ Sarah answered. ‘Exactly, Tallulah. How long’s a piece of string,’ Paige echoed. Tallulah retreated. ‘Sorry, Sarah. I didn’t mean to flip out. Thank god it was only you.’ ‘We’re going to that party on the fourth floor,’ said Paige. ‘It’s no big deal. Tallulah organised it. It’s not like we went to some random sleazy dealer. I’m not that stupid, and we’re just . . . just experimenting.’ Sarah wasn’t freaked out but she didn’t believe they were just experimenting, either. At least, not Tallulah. She’d been partying pretty hard and Jess had told Sarah that Tallulah kept hassling her: ‘Come and do this. Come and try that.’ Sarah had begun to lose track of what her friends were up to. She’d asked Jess if she wanted to try anything or had already, and Jess’d definitely answered, ‘No.’ But Sarah had barely seen Jess in the last weeks of her life. Winnie is flicking her wrist at the waiter to open another bottle of wine. They’re off the topic of drugs but still spouting theories on Paige’s mental health. ‘If Paige’s
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Copyright © JC Burke 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

injury had put her into some terrible, depressed headspace the girls would’ve known . . . Wouldn’t you, Sarah? I mean, that’s what girlfriends are for.’ Sarah sits back in the chair and clasps her hands neatly on the table, trying to stop the scream that’s building inside her. She concentrates on sitting quietly until their voices sound like they’re at the end of a long corridor.

Wil and Sarah are summonsed back to his parents’ place for a nightcap. Sarah loves going to Wil’s house, and walking from room to room studying their art collection. Each painting is from a different time, a different culture, but they hang together effortlessly. In the lounge room the massively oversized Persian rugs take up the entire floor space – not just a dodgy metre or two under a coffee table, like at Sarah’s parents’ house. She notices the way she sinks into the couches’ feather cushions, her body moulding into the tightly woven linen. But what Sarah notices most, what really intoxicates her, is how understated it all is, and that’s what only old money can buy. Winnie is already in a dressing gown with her makeup off. Her glasses are perched on the end of her nose and she swirls Scotch in an etched crystal tumbler as she speaks. ‘Richard’s showing Willy his new car.’ ‘Wil said he bought a new one.’ ‘Now I can ask you without Wil butting in,’ says Winnie. ‘How are you and Tallulah bearing up? Really?’
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Copyright © JC Burke 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

‘Yeah.’ Sarah nods. ‘Okay.’ ‘You know how grateful the Blackmans are to you?’ ‘They wrote me a really nice letter.’ ‘Oh, it’s been such a frightful time. Thank god you walked into that swimming pool when you did.’ Winnie is settling herself onto the couch. Sarah’s taken one of the cushions and is holding it against her chest. She’s scared Winnie may be able to hear her heart thumping. ‘Paige has settled into Nottingdale,’ Winnie’s saying. ‘It was a relief to get her out of hospital and into rehabilitation, and then that terrible news about Jessica hit.’ ‘Yeah.’ Sarah wants to say more. She knows it’s expected but the words are stuck and she can’t make them come out. ‘But Paige is dealing with it. Just one day at a time. Her parents still haven’t told her about the toxicology report. They think she needs more time.’ ‘That’s what Wil said.’ ‘I’m not sure that’s the best way to handle it. Better to be up front, don’t you think?’ Sarah swallows. ‘Probably. Wil says Paige still can’t remember anything about – about that night.’ ‘I think she’s lost a couple of days. It would be strange, wouldn’t it, losing a piece of your memory?’ Once upon a time, Sarah would’ve agreed. She would’ve nodded her head and said, ‘Yes! Yes! Yes! How terrible it must be for Paige.’ But there are times when Sarah almost envies Paige. She wishes that one long minute of her own life could be flushed down the toilet and swallowed up by the sewer.

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Copyright © JC Burke 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Wil is snoring. It seems to be the same every time. He thrusts for a while, groans, then rolls off and within seconds is fast asleep. It’s not like on TV, all urgent and tearing each other’s clothes off as if there’s no time to lose. But Sarah doesn’t know any different. Wil is her first. Her first everything. Some days she still can’t believe that someone actually fell in love with her. They joke that they’re both average in the looks and body department. Wil and Sarah also agree that they complement one another perfectly, give each other something that the other doesn’t have. Wil’s super patient and tolerant, which Sarah isn’t. Wil provides wealth, connections and social standing, while Sarah is the efficient, determined, strong one. She can make things happen, ensure their life is as bump-free as possible. ‘The verdict,’ Sarah the law student likes to say, ‘is that together we are perfect.’ And Wil agrees. Wil’s sweaty and smells of whisky but she wants to lie close to him. She’s so fond of this boy. She likes the tiny curls on the back of his neck and the way he holds her hand as they walk through campus. Maybe she’s not as pretty as Paige or Tallulah, but if Wil is happy to hold her hand, doesn’t that mean he’s proud to show everyone that she’s his? Through the alcohol, she can just catch a whiff of musk aftershave. The scent of Wil, the smell that calms her. She can’t turn off her mind. It’s another bad night, one of many Sarah’s had since finding Paige at the bottom of the Sports Centre’s Olympic pool.
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Copyright © JC Burke 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

She wishes she hadn’t heard Harry say today: ‘There must’ve been someone else at the pool before Sarah got there.’ It made Sarah want to smash him against the wall and stare at him until she saw a flicker of panic in his eyes. Sarah burrows her head further into the crook of Wil’s shoulder. She’s not brave or strong, whatever Wil thinks. She’s being chicken: if she tells anyone, like she knows she should’ve, what will happen to her?

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