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This is a work of fiction.

Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the


author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events,
locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

First published in 2019

Copyright © Petronella McGovern 2019

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


any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying,
recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior
permission in writing from the publisher. The Australian Copyright Act 1968
(the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or 10 per cent of this book, whichever
is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational
purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has
given a remuneration notice to the Copyright Agency (Australia) under the Act.

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thursday

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LE XIE PAR KER

I UNDID THE CLASP AND BELLA CLAMBERED OUT OF HER CAR SEAT,

almost as fast as usual. The cast on her broken wrist only slowed
her for a moment. She started along the footpath towards the
playgroup.
‘Wait, wait.’ I pulled her back by the other arm. ‘We need
to put your jacket on first.’
‘No, Mummy. No. I don’t want to.’
Children’s laughter drifted over the wooden fence. Bella wrig-
gled against me, desperate to be inside with her friends. Her
elbow jabbed into my sore cheek, shooting pain across my face.
‘Oh God, Bella, STAND STILL! We are not going in until
you’re wearing a jacket.’
I pushed her good arm through the jacket sleeve. The flu
had killed almost a hundred people across Australia this winter;
Marty had seen kids in intensive care. I would not let Bella
catch a cold. At least we were finally through the sub-zero
nights; this morning it had been five degrees. But nothing like
a Sydney spring. September in Canberra was still cool.
‘Too rough, Mummy,’ Bella screeched. ‘Stop!’

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The high-pitched squeal reverberated through my aching


head. Deep breaths . . . in through the nose, out through the
mouth. Maybe I should have stayed home. But playgroup was
my one-day-a-week lifesaver. Especially now. Closing my eyes,
I pictured the tablets in my top drawer. Had Marty realised
I’d stopped taking them yet?
When I opened my eyes again, Mel was standing near
the gate ten metres away, shepherding her son, Sammy, into the
little playground. She lifted a hand and waved to us, smiling.
‘Hi, Lexie! Hi, Bella!’
So calm, so happy. She mustn’t have heard Bella’s screams
and my shouting. If only I could be more like her. Despite the
stress of being a single mum, Mel never raised her voice. And
she’d only just turned twenty-five. At her age, I’d been working
at the museum and starting a master’s degree. No time for a
boyfriend, let alone a child. But I was excited about life back
then. Now, ten years later, I dragged myself through each day.
Although the last few months had been better; maybe this
move to Canberra would give us the fresh start that Marty and
I had both been hoping for. Apart from last Tuesday, the day
of the broken wrist.
‘Sorry, darling Bella.’ I kissed my daughter’s cold forehead.
‘I just want to make sure you stay warm.’

The playgroup was hidden behind the local shops, near the
church and in sight of the primary school. This small block
was the hub of Merrigang, population 1641 at the last census,
plus the new arrivals: our family of three. Firefighters had
saved the historic heart of the village in 2003 but a hundred

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houses had been lost. Now, Merrigang was a mix of old and
new, nestled in a semi-circle below the ridge. Paddocks stretched
off to the west, bushland and mountains to the south. Over to
the east, Canberra kept expanding with new suburbs of con-
crete and steel, but the Merrigang old-timers believed the steep
ridge in between would save the village from being swallowed.
Twenty-two kilometres to Australia’s Parliament House and
we lived in a completely different world.
The Thursday morning playgroup had welcomed me in April
with cups of tea and plates of cake. Unlike playgroups in the
city where different families dropped in each week, here in
Merrigang it was the same four mums every Thursday—Mel,
Tara, Imogen and Julia. They had divulged the best playgrounds
in Canberra, child-friendly cafes, gymnastics classes and swim-
ming lessons. They’d moaned about their husbands (apart from
Mel, who seemed to be perfectly happy without a man). They’d
shared their birth stories. They told tales of tantrums and
toilet training.
Some days, I could pretend I was one of them.

Inside the playgroup room, Tara was the first to greet us, with
her short red hair gelled up; that meant baby Daisy had slept
last night. Her other daughter, Zoe, was crouched by the doll’s
house, moving miniature furniture between the tiny rooms.
Tara took one look at me and gasped.
‘Fucking hell, Lexie, your face looks worse than last week.’
Automatically, my hand went to cover the mottled purple
and yellow. I’d asked Marty to put tape over the whole thing
but he said it would heal faster exposed to the air. And he was

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right—the cut itself was closing up, though the bruising had
crept outwards.
I hoped the children hadn’t heard Tara’s swear word.
‘How’s Bella coping with the cast?’ Tara glanced over at
my daughter, who was on the carpet rummaging through the
dressing-up box. ‘I bet your hottie hubby has been a bloody
legend at bath time.’
Ha—Marty, the busy paediatrician, was never home by bath
time. Too busy looking after other people’s kids. Since Tara
had met him on the ridge a month ago, she’d mentioned him
every week at playgroup. Once or twice had been flattering.
Before I could answer Tara, her daughter screamed, ‘GIVE
IT BACK!’
One of Imogen’s twins had grabbed all the furniture from
the doll’s house and dumped it into the back of a tipper truck
which he was pushing along the floor towards the door.
‘It’s moving day,’ he shouted.
Imogen gently extracted the truck from her son’s grip and
glided it across the carpet towards Zoe.
‘Now, Thomas, they weren’t your toys to take.’
Sweet Imogen had her hands full with those boys. None of us
other mums could tell Matthew or Thomas apart; they were both
loud, determined and always getting into trouble. I imagined the
boys must take after their father because Imogen was nothing
like that. She marched Thomas to ‘time out’ by the toilet door.
Tara smiled gratefully at Imogen, patted Zoe on the back and
picked up her phone—texting, Facebooking—she was addicted
to that thing. The other children briefly glanced up at Thomas
then went back to their own activities.

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Bella had taken everything out of the dressing-up box and


strapped on the wizard’s hat. Sammy was already wearing the
matching purple cape. Bella twirled the magic wand in front
of him.
‘I turn you to a . . . MOUSE! Ta-da!’
Sammy dropped to the floor, the cape tangled over his head.
Bella’s giggles echoed around the room.
‘To the sandpit!’ Sammy shouted from beneath the purple
material.
Mel smiled and waited to see if her son could disentangle
himself. I needed to take some lessons from her in how to step
back and let our children become more independent. Sammy
flapped around with the cape, then smoothed it back into the
right position.
I couldn’t stop myself from giving Bella an instruction.
‘Make sure you sit on the edge of the sandpit, darling. You
can’t get sand inside your cast.’
As she rushed out of the door to the sandpit, Bella didn’t
acknowledge my words. She was saying something to Sammy
about her broken wrist. I caught the last few words—fell on the
tiles—and prayed that none of the other mothers had heard.

In the kitchenette, Julia handed a plastic cup of water to her


daughter, Morgan, then took out the old china mugs from the
cupboard. Usually, we all had a cuppa and a chat before organ-
ising the kids’ morning tea. I’d been the last to arrive, despite
my counsellor’s suggestions on joining a group: arrive early and
bring food. At least I had the biscuits.

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Last week, I’d described the playgroup mums to my sister—


relaxed Mel, outrageous Tara, kind Imogen and bossy, pregnant
Julia. I hoped she’d meet them at Christmas; Phoebe had prom-
ised to fly over, even though she was still angry at Marty for
moving us here: ‘Do you even want to live in Canberra?’ she’d
demanded. I  didn’t know. The job had come up and Marty
accepted, hoping it would be a way for us to return to Australia
while avoiding Sydney. It was better than Manchester, but the
downside was I couldn’t see my sister at weekends. Phoebe
used to catch the train up from London whenever she could.
Being back home in Australia, though, I was starting to feel
more like the old me, and I was finally making some friends
here, in playgroup.
These four women, with their chatter and their laughter
and their advice, were helping me to become part of the world
again. Even the very blunt, slightly intimidating Tara (‘I’m just
calling it as I fucking see it’). When I’d first joined the play-
group, Imogen would say: ‘Language, Tara, remember kids are
in the room.’ Tara didn’t seem to take much notice. And when
they all confessed their parenting disasters (‘He scooped the
poo out of the potty and smeared it all over the sofa—I just lost
the plot’), I thought: I can do this, I can be a good mum for Bella.
‘I’ve brought Florentines,’ I announced, placing the biscuits
and Bella’s water bottle on the benchtop.
‘Yay, chocolate and sugar—just what I need.’ Julia grinned
and patted her ‘bowling ball’, as she called it. Nothing like the
bump of my pregnancy; mine had been low, pressing down-
wards, as if the baby knew my body couldn’t be trusted. Mel
rested her palms on Julia’s belly, waiting to feel a kick. I kept
my hands to myself.

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‘Bloody hell, Lexie, don’t tempt me.’ Tara moved her chair
further away from the biscuits. ‘I’m starving and I’ve only lost
half a kilo this week. I’m never gonna fit into my work clothes
by January.’
I’d always imagined that I’d be back at work after a year;
maybe even bring my toddler in on my day off to look at the
exhibits. Now it had been too long. Work was a foreign country.
Tara couldn’t wait to fly back there.
‘Oh no, not Florentines,’ Imogen sighed. ‘I’m sorry, Lexie,
you can’t open them here. They have nuts.’
Almonds, of course. Shit. Imagine if I’d sent Thomas into
anaphylactic shock. I grimaced and the pain in my cut cheek
shot into my eardrum. The deeper pain—the shame and the
guilt—was a constant.
‘Take them home, Julia. I’ll go to the shop and get some-
thing else.’
‘Thanks.’ Julia took the packet from me. ‘But don’t worry
about getting more, we’ll have enough.’
‘Tim Tams!’ Tara piped up. ‘I want Tim Tams!’
‘What about your diet?’
‘All this talk about biscuits has made me even hungrier.’ Tara
glanced at the kitchen bench. ‘I bet the others have brought
healthy crap. Did you bake zucchini muffins, Mel?’
‘Chickpea cookies, actually, but I bet the Tim Tams taste
better.’ Mel smirked. ‘If you all keep it a secret, I might even
have one too. Lexie, do you mind getting Tim Tams?’
‘No, absolutely not. I’m so sorry about the nuts.’
Cringing at my stupidity, I picked up my bag. Bella was back
inside again, still wearing the sparkly wizard hat. She rocked
a baby doll in a cradle, taking turns with Zoe and Sammy.

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Here, she was surrounded by children of all ages. Surrogate


brothers and sisters.
‘Bella, let’s go to the shop.’
She shook her head, dark plaits flying. Chestnut brown.
The same colour as mine, now that I dyed it every eight weeks.
‘She can stay here,’ Mel said. ‘We’ll look after her.’
The other mums did it without a second thought—left their
kids in playgroup and wandered over to buy groceries for dinner.
And Mel was an expert at caring for other people’s children;
she’d even set up family day care at her house, looking after
Julia’s daughter Morgan on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and
Zoe whenever Tara needed a break.
Could I leave Bella here and go on my own? I’d done it once
before. Three weeks ago, I’d left Bella with the mums for five
minutes while I went to the shop. Worrying every step of the
way. I  hadn’t told Marty about the test I’d set myself. Next
year, she’d be off to preschool for six excruciating hours a day.
Marty half joked that I’d be hiding out in the toddler toilets
to keep watch over her.
‘Thanks anyway, but I’d better take Bella. She . . . she always
gets to choose the biscuits.’
Bella was ignoring my outstretched hand and concentrating
on piling all the dolls on top of each other into the cradle.
Staring at the outline of her cast under her jacket sleeve, I willed
the tears to stay unshed.
She would be safe here surrounded by the other kids and
their mums. Safer than at home.
‘Bella, do you want to stay here while I go to the shop?’
It would take two minutes to grab a packet of biscuits.
‘Yes, Mummy.’ She picked up her wand.

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I took a deep breath and ran my fingers down her plait.


Bella blew me a kiss then dashed away.
I can do this. I can prove to Marty that I’m getting better.
‘Sammy.’ Bella tugged at his hand, pulling him towards the
door. ‘Let’s play hide-and-seek outside.’
‘If it’s okay by all of you, I will leave Bella here.’ Amazingly,
my voice didn’t wobble as I addressed the others. ‘Please, can
you help her if she needs anything? You know—with her cast.’
‘She’ll be fine with us,’ Julia reassured me. ‘And keep an eye out
for that girl, Fox—she’s probably left the school grounds again.’
Last Thursday, Julia had found the eight-year-old wandering
around the laneway behind playgroup. She had marched Fox to
the principal’s office and demanded that the school pay more
attention to the child’s whereabouts. Apparently Fox was in the
same class as Julia’s daughter, and constantly disruptive. Julia
had labelled her ‘Trouble with a capital T’. The school mums
knew Fox by sight and looked out for her in the village.
At the gate, I called to Bella: ‘Don’t get sand in your cast,
Tinker Bell. Go inside if you’re cold. See you in a minute.’
Clambering into the cubbyhouse, Bella didn’t see my wave.

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M ART Y PAR KER

‘HI THERE, MY NAME’S DR MARTY. I  LIKE YOUR TRAIN. IS THAT THOMAS

the Tank Engine? Now, we’re just going to have a quick check
to make sure everything is working properly. Did you know
that trains have engine check-ups like this all the time?’
‘Choo choo,’ the toddler chortled as he dragged the train
along his mother’s arms.
In the two minutes between patients, Marty had skimmed
the boy’s notes—a two-year development check for a child
who had been unresponsive at birth. At a glance, the toddler
looked healthy; he was above the fiftieth percentile for weight
and height, and attached to his mother. A  straightforward
consult. Marty’s thoughts were still on the ward rounds from
this morning; should he have ordered more blood work for
the girl with the kidney transplant? He’d have to go back and
see her after lunch, maybe ring the renal physician for advice.
Christ, why couldn’t he make a simple decision these days? The
girl had a needle phobia and taking blood was traumatic for
everyone involved. If only Elissa were in today; she was brilliant
with scared kids. Maybe he could talk to management about

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getting her in two days a week and trying to organise a paid


position. Elissa was too valuable to remain as a volunteer. The
patients needed her. The staff needed her.
Marty asked the toddler to climb up the little stairs onto
the bed, watching the movement of his hips and legs.
‘Now, I’m going to have a look in your ears with this torch.
Can you turn your head and smile at Mummy?’
The mother had mentioned recurrent ear infections. As he
gently angled the otoscope into the toddler’s ear, Marty kept
talking. ‘Isn’t it lucky that we don’t have great big ears like an
elephant. Can you imagine waggling those gigantic ears?’
The boy laughed and Marty felt that half his job was done;
a relaxed child was so much easier to assess.
‘His ears look fine at the moment. Do you have any other
concerns?’ he asked the mother.
‘Actually, I  do.’ The woman reached into her oversized
handbag, pulled out a Filofax and opened it to a page of notes.
‘I’m worried about his pencil grip when he’s using a crayon.
He’s not holding it properly. I read that he should be using a
digital pronate grasp by now.’
A parent was the most likely one to pick up a problem, but
parenting had changed since Marty had chosen his specialisa-
tion. Now it was a competitive sport to raise the ‘best-ever’ child.
Perfect kids who came off an assembly line with no human flaws
or quirks. In the last few years, he’d seen the stress levels of
parents—and their offspring—skyrocket. He’d gone into pae-
diatrics to treat sick kids, but these days he spent more time
dealing with anxious mothers.
Anxious mothers. He should be a world expert by now. Since
Bella had broken her wrist, Lexie’s worrying had escalated again.

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Before that, Lexie had seemed to be getting better, although


when they’d walked up the ridge four weeks ago, she was con-
cerned about dislocating Bella’s elbow. Ironic in retrospect.

‘Dadda, do the swing!’


Marty had glanced down at his three-year-old, skipping
on the path beside him. Even though her nose was red, Bella
hadn’t complained about the cold yet. Earlier, she’d bolted out
the back door to crunch through the frost, admiring her trail
of footprints in the grass and puffing her breath into the air.
With barely a beat between them, Lexie had raced behind,
dangling Bella’s gloves and a jacket.
Now, Bella was rugged up like an Eskimo, her pink scarf
wrapped all the way to her chin and her hood almost covering
her eyes. A few strands of dark hair had escaped her ponytail
and drifted across her cheeks. Could she see the vast sky that
stretched across their heads and met the dark blue of the moun-
tains in the distance? Lexie had said it was too cold, too cloudy
for this walk, but he’d won the argument by getting Bella onside.
He wanted to take them along the ridge where he jogged every
Tuesday and Friday, a wide dirt path bordered by clumps of
gum trees, raucous kookaburras in their branches and kanga-
roos grazing nearby. Some days he wished he could disappear
from the hospital at lunchtime and clear his head up here.
Bella tugged on his hand again.
‘Swing, Dadda! Please?’ She smiled up at him, a small gap
between her two front baby teeth.
‘You’ll have to ask Mummy too,’ he told Bella. ‘Remember,
you need both of us to swing.’

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Lexie took Bella’s hand but then stopped and crouched down
beside her.
‘Why are your fingers so cold, darling? Where are your gloves?’
Bella grinned, and made them appear from each of her coat
pockets like a magician doing a trick. Purple and sparkly—the
brightest objects on this overcast day.
‘Okay, but put them back on after the swinging.’
They each held one of Bella’s hands and Marty called out:
‘One, two, three, SWING!’
He was careful to keep his momentum the same as Lexie’s.
His wife seemed stronger since they’d moved here. The hard
lines of her bones were softening; she’d put some weight on her
skinny frame. Lexie was wearing her black fleece jacket; the
one she’d bought eight years ago on their ski trip to Italy. Back
then, she only drank when they socialised. In those photos, she
had blonde hair and a big grin; she’d teased him that he was
too old to keep up with her on the slopes and on the dance
floor. He remembered them holding hands on the chairlift,
drinking a creamy Bombardino which left cinnamon dotted
around her nose, sharing lasagne with a single fork, and a kiss
tasting of gluhwein. Her wonder at the jagged skyline of the
Alps, the storybook villages dusted in snow. Now, dressed all
in black with her dark hair, she could have passed for an Italian
working at the resort. A different woman from the one he’d
married. Inside and out.
‘One, two, three, SWING!’
Giggling, Bella kicked her feet up high in the air.
‘That’s enough now,’ Lexie suddenly said. ‘Put your gloves
back on, darling.’
‘No, Mummy, I want more.’

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Marty had tried to catch Lexie’s eye but she was focused
on Bella.
‘It’s fine,’ he said. ‘She can have a few more.’
‘But you said that swinging could dislocate her elbow,’ Lexie
whispered.
Bella stopped in the middle of the path and refused to move.
‘For God’s sake, Lexie, that was a year ago.’ He hadn’t meant
to sound so exasperated and tried to rein it in. ‘It’s okay. She’s
bigger now.’
Squatting down, Lexie was wrestling with the sparkly gloves,
trying to get Bella to unfold her arms and hold out her fingers.
‘Bella is big and strong and healthy,’ he said. ‘We can give
her five more swings.’
‘I’m big and strong!’ Bella echoed, snatching her hands away
from her mother. She held her arms up in a bodybuilder pose.
‘I’m so big. I’m almost four. I can have swings, can’t I, Dadda?’
‘You let her do anything,’ Lexie hissed.
And you’re turning her into a neurotic, anxious child, he wanted
to retort.
Bella darted out of Lexie’s reach and rushed to investigate
something next to the path.
‘Yukky! Look at this, Dadda!’
The smell hit Marty first. The animal was almost unrecog-
nisable. Its grey innards curled in a heap, the head separated
from the body, tufts of grey fur scattered across the dirt. Most
likely a rabbit ripped apart. He wouldn’t tell Bella what it was—
her bunny had died just a few months ago. Marty steered her
away from the remains and kicked dirt over the mess.
‘Like Janice’s chooks,’ Bella said.

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Their neighbour across the road had bailed them up as they


were leaving the house earlier. Between sobs, Janice described
the carnage in her chook pen: all five chickens mauled to death
during the night. The victims of a fox, presumably. Bella wanted
to organise a funeral—she knew the name of each hen. Lexie
had been in tears and beseeched him silently. He’d ended up
helping Janice dig a grave for the chooks while Bella and Lexie
sang ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’.
Soft in the head. Marty could almost hear his father scorning
the tearful women. ‘Buck up,’ his dad would have said. ‘Life
in the bush is hard, get used to it.’ Not that they were living in
the bush exactly: Merrigang was a village with a foot in each
camp—the suburbs of Canberra over the ridge on one side, and
farms and wilderness on the other.
He’d fallen for the place; it felt like coming home. And Lexie
seemed better, he was sure of it; she was even making friends.
Not long after he’d pulled Bella away from the dead rabbit
mess, one of those friends had appeared on the ridge: Tara,
jogging in rainbow leggings, her cropped red hair plastered to
her head with sweat.
‘This must be the elusive doctor,’ she’d said, winking at Lexie.
‘You didn’t tell us he was such a hottie! You’ve been keeping
him away from us on purpose.’
A hottie. Marty had to stop himself from guffawing. He
was pretty sure that, at forty-six, the term no longer applied.
Did Tara prefer older men? She must be younger than thirty.
Marty watched as a blush flared on Lexie’s cheeks, then his
wife sidled closer to him and draped her arm around his shoul-
ders. He could feel the warmth of her body, the weight of her
arm, the curve of her breast pressed against him. When was

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the last time his wife had spontaneously hugged him? Those
hugs were saved for Bella.
‘Hi, I’m Marty Parker,’ he said. ‘Hopefully not too elusive.’
‘I’m sure you’ve heard all about me.’ Tara put her hands on
her hips and drew in a lungful of air. She was shorter than
Lexie and had to look up at them both. ‘I’m the one who makes
them laugh every week.’
Lexie giggled. ‘You’re the one who shocks us.’ She arched her
eyebrows and said to Marty, ‘Tara swears all the time.’
‘Okay, okay, I’m outrageous—but I make you laugh, right?’
Marty found himself smiling along as his wife joked with
this woman. Lexie had called the playgroup mums her ‘life-
line’ and maybe she was right—he hadn’t heard her laugh like
this in years. Tara seemed fun, the sort of person who swept
others along with her enthusiasm. Lexie needed a friend like
that. After the move to England, she’d lost contact with almost
everyone. Sometimes he blamed the friends; sometimes he
blamed Lexie. Sometimes he blamed himself.
Until now, Marty hadn’t met any of the playgroup mums and
struggled to keep track of their names and their kids. Although,
recalling one of Lexie’s stories, he was sure Tara must be the
mum who had dropped the f-bomb about a mouldy strawberry
and all the toddlers had chanted the word after her.
‘I’ve just gone back to running,’ Tara explained to him. ‘It’s
killing me. But I need to get rid of the baby belly and fit into
my old work clothes. God, I wish I was skinny like you, Lexie.’
The weight had fallen off his wife without him noticing. But
then one night, as he’d reached for her in bed, Marty had felt
the sharpness of her hipbone. And when he’d started to look
properly, he didn’t know how he’d missed it—the jutting ridge

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of her collarbone, the outline of her ribs, the hollows under her
eyes and cheeks.
‘Where’s Zoe?’ Bella piped up. ‘Is she sick?’
‘She’s home with her dad, and she’s finally better. You’ll see
her on Thursday.’ Tara turned back to Marty. ‘Tonsillitis—she
keeps getting it. Do you think she should have her tonsils out?’
‘Depends on the frequency and severity. What does your
GP say?’
‘She won’t give me a straight answer.’ Tara sighed. ‘But I
can’t have Zoe sick every second week when I go back to work.’
‘Has the GP referred you to an ENT specialist?’
‘No, should I ask her for one?’
‘It wouldn’t be a bad idea. It might take a few months to
get in, so ring for an appointment as soon as you have a name.’
‘Can you pull any strings to get me in faster, Dr Marty?’
Tara tilted her head to one side and batted her eyelashes at him.
‘I told you she’s outrageous.’ Lexie giggled again.
‘Well, it’s worth a try.’ Tara shrugged. ‘I need you on speed
dial, Dr Marty. My hubby’s useless except if you want some
policy advice on trade legislation.’
The talk quickly moved back to Tara’s children. The baby
had been awake for hours last night—did Marty think she
might be lactose intolerant? He outlined the symptoms, and
tried to head off any further questions by looking at the sky.
‘Those clouds are closing in. We’d better get moving so we
don’t get caught.’
None of the farmers around Merrigang had mentioned
the word ‘drought’ yet, but if rain didn’t fall soon, it would
be a tough season ahead. He’d heard the gunshots during
the night—a cull on the thousands of kangaroos that were

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damaging farms and grasslands, as well as the city’s nature


reserves. One of his teenage patients had asked him to sign a
petition against the killing of the joeys. Apparently, the babies
were taken from the pouch of the dead mothers and bludgeoned
to death. It was considered the most ‘humane’ way.
‘It’s funny,’ Lexie said as Tara disappeared into the distance
while they forked off onto a smaller, rougher track. ‘Tara can
manage not to swear in front of you for ten minutes but she
still does it around the kids.’
‘That’s because she was trying to get a free consult.’ Marty
didn’t add his other thought: And trying to impress me.
Bella danced along in front of them, singing a theme song he
didn’t recognise. Was she watching too much TV? He should
pop home for lunch again some days and check that Bella wasn’t
plonked in front of the television with Lexie half unconscious
on the couch next to her.
When Lexie spoke again, he assumed it would be about
Tara. But it wasn’t.
‘I was thinking—’ her words were soft, tentative ‘—that we
could go up for Archie’s birthday’.
Blood rushed to Marty’s head. He opened his mouth.
Nothing came out. Was that why she had hugged him in front
of Tara? Because she was setting him up for this?
‘We haven’t visited him for two years,’ she continued.
In England, his birthday had come and gone without much
discussion. Marty should have been prepared for it this year,
now they were home. But he couldn’t face returning. Not when
he was so hopeful about their new life in Merrigang.
‘It’s not a good idea, sweetheart. It’ll set you right back.’

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Marty touched her shoulder and Lexie jerked away from


him, folding her arms across her body like a shield. Christ, he
would not be made to feel guilty here. It was for the best. She
needed protecting—from herself.
‘I probably can’t go anyway,’ he said. ‘I’ll be on call. Why
don’t you go up by yourself? You could see your dad too. Bella
can stay here with me.’
Marty knew his wife wouldn’t go anywhere without their
daughter. Lexie gave no sign that she’d heard him; instead, she
rushed to Bella and enveloped her in a tight cuddle.
‘Time to go home, Bella,’ Lexie said.
‘No, not yet,’ Marty fired back. ‘We’re going up the hill.
Bella wants to do some exploring.’
‘It’s too steep for her.’
‘No, Mummy.’ Bella shook her head. ‘I’m an ex-plo-rer.’
‘Fine,’ Lexie snapped. ‘I’m tired and I’m staying here. Be
careful.’
Glaring at Marty, she leant against a large rock, pulled a
water bottle from Bella’s backpack and handed it to him. Marty
tried to mask his surprise: she rarely let him do things alone
with Bella. Last weekend, he’d encouraged Lexie to go to the
museum for a few hours, so she could enjoy time out in her
old world of exhibitions, while he looked after their daughter.
But Lexie had refused.
‘We’ll be back in fifteen minutes,’ he said.
Lexie nodded and turned her attention to her phone. Marty
briefly wondered what she was looking at—she’d deleted
Facebook, the newspapers were too upsetting for her, and she
didn’t follow any blogs. Perhaps she was emailing her sister.

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Bella strode up the track in front of him, but her fast steps
slowed after only a few minutes, and when she bent down sud-
denly, he stumbled against her. Standing upright again, she
held out her palm to show him a white pebble that she’d found.
They kept walking until she spotted her next treasure—a twig
shaped like a Y. Next, a  yellow leaf. Carefully, Bella placed
these three keepsakes into the pocket of his jacket. Enthralled
by his daughter, Marty pushed away thoughts of Archie and
his birthday.
Finally, they made it to the top of the hill. Over a decade
ago, this ridge had been burnt to a charred moonscape of brown
rocks. A fire tornado rocketing around the edges of Canberra
had threatened to engulf Merrigang and the outer suburbs. It
destroyed hundreds of houses and thousands of hectares. Now,
young trees stood proudly and the old gums had recovered.
The track had been rebuilt. Only the very top provided hints
of the fire. On the trig point, the white paint was scorched and
blackened.
Standing below the trig point, Bella spread out her arms
and spun around in a circle.
‘I’m the King of the Cars-dul. You the dirty rascal.’
‘Can you say “castle”?’ Marty asked.
Last week, he’d seen a ten-year-old with a severe speech
impediment. Why hadn’t the parents done something before
now? he’d wondered. Marty stared out across the Canberra
suburbs, trying to pinpoint the hospital. Should he have ordered
a scan for the girl with concussion yesterday? Marty would ring
the hospital later and check that she hadn’t been readmitted.
Bella tugged on his arm, forcing him to turn in the oppo-
site direction, towards the Brindabellas, blue mountains of

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eucalyptus trees and rocky outcrops. Not long ago, the top of
the range had been capped in snow. But Bella was pointing out
something closer—a mob of kangaroos, thirty or more. Startled
by the presence of humans, they bounded away, their strong
tails curved behind them.
‘They’re off to the Brindabella mountains,’ Marty said,
scooping Bella up onto his shoulders.
‘That’s me. I’m Brinda-Bella. I’m a mountain. Can we go there?’
If only he could keep Bella like this forever. Loving, uncom-
plicated, trusting. Every evening when he walked in the door, she
raced down the hallway to greet him. Tory had been like that
once. She’d loved their bushwalks and camping trips at age five
and eight and ten—dad and daughter, out in the wilderness. But
now, at sixteen, she called herself Victoria and barely spoke to
him. His ex-wife stoked the hatred, Marty was sure of it. Would
Victoria really come to Canberra for the Father’s Day weekend?
‘Can we go to Brinda-Bella mountain, Dadda?’ Bella asked
again. ‘Can we go for my birfday?’
Victoria, his ex-wife, Lexie—they’d all stopped believing
in him. But to Bella, he was still the hero, the one who could
make dreams come true.
‘Absolutely, my little explorer. I’ll take you there.’

Marty finished writing up the boy’s two-year development check,


sighed and reached for the file on his next patient. Maybe he
could take Bella to the Brindabellas this Sunday?

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3
LE XIE

MY FINGERS WERE SHAKING TOO MUCH TO LIFT THE CHILD LOCK ON

the playgroup gate. Come on, you can do this. I  pulled it


again and the lock clicked. Seven steps to the footpath. My
black boots thudded on the concrete. At the corner, I turned
right, striding past the pharmacy and the bakery. The little
strip of shops was busy, with most of the car spaces filled.
What if  Bella  needs the toilet? She has to have help with her
cast. What if she’s choking on grapes? What if one of the twins
hits her with a wooden block?
Fifty-six, fifty-seven, fifty-eight, fifty-nine . . . I hadn’t realised
I was counting the seconds.
Outside the bakery, two weather-beaten farmers slapped
each other on the back in what passed as a hug for that gen-
eration of men. Everyone knew everyone here. Apart from me,
of course. But I did recognise a few of the locals. Through the
bakery window I spotted the young schoolteacher waiting for
a takeaway coffee while four elderly women ate Danish pastries
at a table. Our neighbour was pinning a message to the com-
munity noticeboard outside—she was still worried that her

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new chickens weren’t safe in their little shed. A mother from


the Tuesday playgroup was pushing a guy in a wheelchair—her
husband or her brother?
Our gardener waved goodbye to Mr Whitlaw, who was drag-
ging three garbage bags from his car towards the church op
shop. Smile and keep walking; you have to get back to Bella. But
my ingrained politeness won out. I took a bag from the old man
and helped him through the door of the shop. He lived further
along our street and Bella would pat his Labrador whenever we
saw them out walking. Since her bunny had died, she’d been
asking for ‘a dog just like Napoleon’ for her birthday.
‘The wife has sent me down with clothes and toys from our
granddaughters,’ Mr Whitlaw puffed. ‘You should have a look,
Lexie. There might be some things that Bella would like.’
A woman I’d never seen before came out from behind the
counter and kissed him on the cheek. They chatted about
the chance of rain as I heaved the bags onto the sorting table.
Unlike Tara, they were too well-mannered to comment on my
bruised face.
‘I’ve got to run,’ I  interrupted them, trying to slow my
breathing. Keep counting . . . ninety-five, ninety-six, ninety-seven,
ninety-eight. ‘Maybe I’ll come back later with Bella.’
‘Wait a minute.’ Mr Whitlaw rummaged through one of the
bags, and brought out a doll almost as tall as Bella. ‘Here you
go, have this one. My granddaughter loved it.’
Dora the Explorer. Phoebe had given the DVD to Bella
just after she was born, insisting that her niece grow up with
a positive female role model—one who solved puzzles and had
adventures instead of looking pretty and being rescued by a
prince. Unpacking in the new house, Bella had rediscovered the

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DVD; she watched an episode of Dora almost every morning.


I could imagine her playing with the doll on the couch then
taking her into the garden for an adventure with her fairies.
‘Wow! Bella loves Dora too. I’ve never seen a Dora doll this
big. Great—I’ll take it for her. How much shall I give you?’
The shop assistant picked up the doll, put her down again
and wandered over to the till. She pressed a few buttons and
hummed and hawed. After not seeing anything useful there,
she went to check in the toy section, lifting up a truck to see
the price tag. Could she be any slower?
‘Is ten dollars okay?’ I held out the note. ‘I really have to go.’
At last I could leave the op shop, with Dora shoved under my
arm. But I still hadn’t bought the biscuits. A bright orange ute
with its radio blaring skidded into a car space near me, making
me jump backwards. What if something happens to me? Marty
can’t look after Bella.
I rushed into the small supermarket, not waiting for the auto-
matic doors to open fully. Second aisle, biscuits and crackers.
A swirl of colours and brands danced on the shelf. Two hundred
and thirty-one, two hundred and thirty-two, two hundred and
thirty-three . . . Black spots danced in front of my eyes. God no,
don’t faint. I brought my hand up to the gash on my cheekbone.
Pushed softly against it. I deserve this. The pain gave me a new
focus. I snatched two packets of Tim Tams from the shelf and
hurried to the front of the store.
At the checkout, the twenty-something with the blue hair—
Jack or Zac or Raf, I could never remember his name—squinted
at my face, handed over the change and said, ‘Have a great day.’
I can do this. I can. Three hundred and one, three hundred and
two, three hundred and three.

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S I X M I N U TES

Clomping along the footpath, my heel caught in a crack


and I fell forwards momentarily. Rocking back to equilibrium,
I stopped and took a slow breath. Concentrate on Black Mountain
Tower in the distance. Bella thought the tower was a rocket ready
to blast off into outer space.
Last steps, around the corner of the building and to the
black gate. Put Dora down to open the child lock. Can’t see Bella
through the bars . . . Three hundred and seventy-one, three hundred
and seventy-two, three hundred and seventy-three . . . I’ve made
it. I  can stop counting now. Three hundred and seventy-three
seconds. Six minutes.
Opening the gate into the playground I saw the twins arguing
in the cubbyhouse and Sammy pushing a digger in the sandpit.
Where’s Bella?
The twins spied the doll and bolted over.
‘What’s that?’ asked the slightly taller one.
‘It’s Dora,’ Sammy called out. ‘Hola, Dora! Where’s Map?
Is it in Backpack?’
The boys followed me in through the screen door, crowding
around me, tugging at Dora. As each child inside the room
spotted the doll, they rushed towards me. Less than an hour
with the kids at playgroup and the room was strewn with
puzzles and blocks and dolls and clothes. Stepping around a
pile of trains, I tried to find Bella in the chaos, to see her face
light up and to hear her cry: ‘Dora Splorer!’
Mel was rinsing out a cloth at the sink, Tara was rocking
the pram back and forth, and Imogen was picking up some
crayons from the floor.
‘Fantastic doll, Lexie!’ Julia had to shout to make herself heard
above the children. ‘They all love it. Where did you get her?’

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I searched for Bella’s dark hair among the small bodies


thronging around me, taking note of each child to see if I’d
skipped her somehow—Sammy, Matthew and Thomas, Morgan
and Zoe. Baby Daisy in the pram.
‘Where’s Bella?’
She wasn’t in the ‘home corner’, squatting down behind the
toy stove. Not in the pile of dress-ups and black starry cloaks
hanging on the little rack. Nor under the mini trampoline. Not
hiding beneath the child-sized tables and chairs.
‘She was here a minute ago. They were playing hide-and-
seek.’ Julia heaved herself out of the chair and looked around
the room. ‘Is she in the toilet?’
Dropping Dora and the biscuits on the table, I charged to
the kids’ toilet and pushed open the door. Empty.
The adult toilet door was closed. A knock and a push. Not
there either.
‘She must be outside in the cubbyhouse,’ Imogen reassured
me. ‘The kids have been in and out. I’ll come with you.’
If she’d been in the cubbyhouse, Bella would have run up
to me when I’d come in the gate.
Julia was closest to the window. ‘There’s no-one in the
sandpit,’ she reported.
Flinging open the door, I sprinted to the cubbyhouse.
‘Bella, where are you?’
Down on my knees, peering underneath the wooden beams
for a stuck child.
Imogen started walking towards the little shed but I was
quicker than her. I yanked apart the metal doors and stepped into
the gloom. Tricycles, scooters, trucks for the sandpit, buckets,
spades, a climbing frame and a gymnastics mat. No Bella.

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I scanned the small outdoor area again. A concrete path for


riding bikes, a few small trees, some grass. A high wooden fence
down the bottom near the lane and the car park.
‘Bella!’ I called. ‘Bella! Bella!’
‘Seriously, Lexie, she was here a moment ago.’ Julia placed
a hand on my shoulder. ‘Maybe she followed you to the shop
somehow?’
The black dots were dancing in front of my eyes. Had I
locked the gate properly when I left?
‘Where the fuck has she gone?’ Tara wailed near my ear.
My whole body recoiled from her.
Morgan burst into tears and the baby began to howl. The
twins were climbing up a tree, hollering at each other to get
higher for a better view.
‘Children, go inside!’ Mel screeched. ‘Matthew and Thomas,
get down from there. Immediately! Julia, take them all inside
right now!’
I froze at the panic in Mel’s voice. Mel, who was always calm.
The images came one after the other, each one a punch,
harder and harder. Bella hit by a car. Bella abducted in a
van. Bella hiding in a concrete tunnel. Bella bleeding on the
highway.
‘She can’t be far.’ Imogen squeezed my arm and directed me
to the gate. ‘We’ll find her.’
‘Lexie, you go to the shops.’ Mel was suddenly composed
again. ‘Imogen, check the lane, and Tara, walk towards the
church. I’ll go to the school. I’m sure Bella will be okay.’
I couldn’t share Mel’s optimism, not until I held my daughter
in my arms again.

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Imogen unlocked the gate and I shoved past her, flying


towards the footpath. Scanning, scanning, scanning for a
glimpse of a pink coat.
But before I reached the shops, Imogen called out. ‘Lexie,
over here.’
Thank God, she has found her. I’ll never leave her again. It
doesn’t matter if I’m unable to let her out of my sight, as long as
she’s always safe. I’ll stay by your side forever, Bella.
Running down the footpath next to the playgroup fence,
I couldn’t stop myself from crying out her name. Behind the
playgroup sat a small lane with a row of townhouses and six
parking spots, including my Honda CR-V. Maybe Bella had
wanted something from our car.
I needed to hug my daughter, to tell her: ‘You gave me such
a fright, Tinker Bell. I love you to the moon and back.’
Imogen was standing near the road.
Alone.
Something dangling from one hand.
My boots pounded the bitumen.
Blood pounding. Head pounding. Stomach churning.
Finally, I was close enough to see.
A sparkly wizard hat.
This time, I couldn’t fight the black dots.

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