By Jennifer Lane
All Our Secrets is set in a small town called Coongahoola, with the dark Bagooli River running through it. After the Virgin Mary appears to the local check-out chick, the Bleeders set up on the banks of the river, and begin to buy up the town and win souls. Then the River Children begin to go missing, one after another. All Our Secrets is an atmospheric read told from the perspective of an 11-year-old, and here we have extracted a segment about the Christmas after the first murder. Recommended for 13+, due to themes.
When I was younger, Christmas was the third best day of the year, after my birthday and the last day of school. But the year Mum’d kicked Dad out and Nigel was murdered, I would’ve happily gone without Christmas altogether, just skipped right over it to Boxing Day. That way we wouldn’t have tried to pretend that everything was okay, only to realise that things were actually worse than we thought.
Our un-merry Christmas started on Christmas Eve with Elijah and I singing carols to anyone on our street unlucky enough not to have their TVs turned up loud. After bribing us with a ten-dollar note each, Grandma Bett’d tied gold tinsel bows around our necks before leading us to a small stage she’d assembled out of Dad’s old beer crates at the end of our cul-de-sac. She then handed us a list of her favourite carols and instructed us to ‘sing with all your might’. She reckoned that because of Nigel dying, people’d forgotten about the festive season; she hoped our songs’d help them get into the spirit of Christmas.
Our un-merry Christmas started on Christmas Eve with Elijah and I singing carols to anyone on our street unlucky enough not to have their TVs turned up loud.
I felt ridiculous. I was nearly in Year Six. I wasn’t Grandma Bett’s ‘little angel’ any more. The tinsel scratched my neck, and mozzies whined in my ears and feasted on my arms and legs. I prayed that no one from school was within earshot. It was bad enough being the girl who wore a second-hand school uniform without also being the girl who sang Christmas carols on the side of the road. Both Elijah and I knew better than to say no, though, because Grandma Bett would take back her ten-dollar bribe. She was our conductor, her Christmas bell earrings jangling as she waved her arms about. We tried to sing softly but whenever she detected a drop in volume, she raised her arms and mouthed, ‘Sing up!’ Elijah’s legs jiggled as if he was dancing, but more likely he was fighting the urge to run away. My only blessing was that the Irwins had gone to Sydney for the week so there was no chance of Toby spotting me.
If Grandma Bett expected our singing to lure people out of their houses, she would’ve been disappointed. The only person who joined in was Mr Anderson on his way home from the Coongahoola Hotel. We sang ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ at his request (even though it wasn’t on Grandma Bett’s list), but he sang the wrong words and he was even more out of tune than we were. I was relieved when Mrs Anderson appeared in her nightie and yelled at him to get home. (Almost as relieved as I was when Mrs Buchen poked her head out her kitchen window and asked if we minded finishing up because she had to get some sleep before playing the organ at midnight mass.)
Things didn’t improve much the next day. When Grandma Bett answered the front door, she made a high-pitched sound that reminded me of Sebastian’s final cry.
‘Merry Christmas yourself!’ she said at last. ‘Robbie, what have you done?’
Elijah and I dropped our spoons and raced out to see Dad standing on the WE ME mat with his head bowed. When he looked up I saw that his left eye was red, purple and yellow all at once. It was like he’d tried to copy Mrs Lothum’s make-up, but only remembered to do one eye. His bottom lip looked like a fat slug, and there was a cut on his chin, like a tiny sideways smile. Poor Dad. I reached out to touch him, but felt too embarrassed at the last minute, so pretended I needed to lean against the doorframe. Surely Mum will let him come back now, I thought. He obviously needs us.
When he looked up I saw that his left eye was red, purple and yellow all at once … His bottom lip looked like a fat slug, and there was a cut on his chin, like a tiny sideways smile.
‘Merry Christmas, kids.’ His real mouth wasn’t smiling.
‘Did the murderer try and get you, Dad?’ Elijah asked. ‘Did you kill him?’
‘Nothin’ so excitin’, son. Let’s forget about it, eh? It’s Christmas.’
Mum came up behind us, the bells tinkling on the Santa slippers Grandma Bett’d given her. She’d taken an hour to get ready that morning, blow-drying her ringlets and ironing her dress, a new red one with sewn-in shoulder pads. She looked a million times better than Fat Frannie, until close up you saw that her face was red and sweaty from leaning over boiling saucepans.
‘What’s going on? Frannie come to her senses and clout you?’
‘Go easy, Nell. Thought you of all people’d be more Christian-like,’ Dad said, pushing past her into the hallway.
‘But look at you! Are you trying to scare them more than they already have been?’
As if on cue, Lucky started howling. She ran and clung to Mum’s leg, wearing a saggy nappy and dragging Teddy by the foot.
I’m not scared of Dad, I was thinking. The only thing that scared me was the fact that Mum was angry with him instead of feeling sorry for him. It meant that we were no closer to getting him back.
‘She’s already having nightmares you know, and what is she?’ Mum almost yelled (since meeting the Believers she’d given up yelling). ‘She’s two! She doesn’t even know what a nightmare is.’
‘Shark!’ Lucky cried. ‘Shark!’ She let go of Mum and squeezed Teddy so tight his stuffing nearly came out of the hole Grub’d dug into his fur with a pick-up-stick.
‘See! That’s another thing. Why did you take them to a bloody horror film? Grub hasn’t had a bath since last Monday.’
‘I told them when to close their eyes,’ Dad said, pouting and lowering his own Jersey cow eyes. ‘When do I ever get to the pictures? Thought I’d pick one we’d all like.’
‘All right, all right.’ Grandma Bett flapped her arms as if she was shooing away a fly. ‘Nell, your parents will be here soon. Shouldn’t we finish the lunch? Gracie, perhaps you could organise a quiet game for the littlies. Robbie, I wouldn’t normally say this, but I think you need a drink. And a shower. But please have the shower first.’
‘You kids are going to have a good Christmas,’ Mum’d told us the week before. ‘No one can stop our family from having a good Christmas!’ And she and Grandma Bett did their best to make sure of it by buying us more presents than they could probably afford, including a digital watch for me. I’d begged Mum for one about three years before when Shelley got one for her birthday. But now Shelley had a multi-coloured one and the watch I unwrapped was black with a wide wristband, like a boy’s. I was so disappointed that I had to think about Nigel to stop myself from crying. He probably would’ve liked getting a new watch. He probably would’ve liked getting anything. Just being alive would’ve been enough. Instead, he was lying inside a shiny brown wooden box next to some ancient man called George or Arnold in the Coongahoola cemetery. And here I was, alive as anything, and ready to bawl like a baby because of a stupid present.
‘No one can stop our family from having a good Christmas!’ And she and Grandma Bett did their best to make sure of it by buying us more presents than they could probably afford . . .
Elijah got a BMX bike that Mum’d bought second-hand, but he was only allowed to ride it as far as the Andersons’ and back and he was bored with that after the tenth time. Grub and Lucky got a talking Big Bird and a talking Grover, which they carried around for a while before burying them under the couch cushions. Grub didn’t even try to break my watch; he and Lucky lay singing ‘Way in a Manger’ while patting the Sebastian rug. (Even after Grandma Bett had covered the Sebastian patch in salt and soaked it in hot water, he was always there. In a way, he became our kitten. Because of Grandma Bett’s constant scrubbing, the Sebastian patch became softer than the rest of the rug and Lucky would spend hours lying on it whispering and making a noise that sounded a lot like a meow.)
Nana and the Butcherer arrived to the smell of burning turkey, with armfuls of presents, including the best present we’d ever got and the only good thing to come out of that Christmas Day: a brand-new cassette player and two tapes. The player was the same size as our Oxford Dictionary, black with a shiny silver speaker. I put on ABBA Arrival and pretended I was one of the ABBA singers, the girl with the long, blonde hair, not the fuzzy-brown-haired one, until Grandma Bett asked me to turn it off for a while to give everyone’s ears a rest.
Most of the other presents were for Elijah and Grub. Just as the Butcherer made no secret of his dislike for Dad, Nana made no secret of her preference for grandsons. But she didn’t comment once that day about my messy hair or Lucky’s sulky ways. A Christmas card had arrived from Mum’s brother in Queensland. It was the first time they’d heard from him in months. Nana talked about nothing but Boyd. He had his own building company, his wife was a dentist and their two children were similar in age to Elijah and me, blah blah blah.
As usual, Nana and the Butcherer left much faster than they arrived and slammed the front door behind them. It started with the Butcherer asking Dad what his ‘lady friend’ was up to while he was ‘playing happy families’, and ended with Dad saying, ‘I’m a grown man and you retired years ago, so why do I always feel like I’m on detention when you’re around?’
I was sick of hearing about an uncle I’d never even met, but wished Nana and the Butcherer hadn’t left. Mum and Dad sat slumped on opposite sides of the living room. They were both so determined not to ruin our Christmas by arguing that neither of them was game to say a word. Grandma Bett filled the silence with an even longer than usual explanation of the meaning of Christmas, which confused the twins and which Elijah and I’d heard before.
Mum and Dad sat slumped on opposite sides of the living room. They were both so determined not to ruin our Christmas by arguing that neither of them was game to say a word.
When the phone rang, we all jumped. Elijah tripped on the Tonka truck Nana’d given him, so Mum got to it first. She said, ‘Yes’, ‘Uh-uh’ and ‘I’ll see what I can do’ for about five minutes before hanging up.
‘Bethany,’ she said, chewing her little finger. ‘She’s asked me to join them for a Christmas prayer session. Just an hour or so. You don’t mind, do you?’ She asked us in the posh, slightly American voice she always used after talking to Bethany.
‘You’re free to do what you like,’ Dad said. ‘Said so yourself.’
‘It wasn’t you I was asking. It was your mother and children.’
‘Please yourself, Nell,’ Grandma Bett said. ‘Robbie needs to spend some time with the kids – and his old mum.’
Dad left soon after Mum without explaining what happened to his face. I didn’t find out until Matty Thorpe told me on the first day back at school. He said that his dad was at the Coongahoola Hotel on Christmas Eve and saw my dad get into a fight with Andrew Hitchcock, the Captain of Coongahoola’s Masters Rugby team. Apparently, Dad’d tried to kiss Heather Childs, not realising that her fiancé was Andrew Hitchcock, nor that Andrew was at the bar ordering a pie and chips. Matty’s dad reckoned that if Andrew hadn’t been in the pub drinking all day, Dad wouldn’t have lived to see Christmas morning.
The next time I saw Dad, his face was normal again, except for the yellow around one eye if you looked closely. I’d been back at school for two weeks. I was in Year Six, my last year of primary school. Not that it was a big deal. In any other town I’d be changing schools at the end of the year, but in Coongahoola moving up to Year Seven just meant going into the prefab classrooms on the other side of the toilet block.
The only things keeping me awake at night were the thought of learning long division in term two and worrying that I’d never be as grown-up as the other girls in my class (my chest still didn’t look much different to Elijah’s). The green paper with the list of rules was still on our fridge and we still ran our lives by them, but they’d lost all meaning. It was as if what happened to Nigel was just a nightmare. I wondered if the whole town could have had the same nightmare and if maybe we all dreamt up Nigel too.
But then on the last day of February, I realised it hadn’t been a dream and that life had changed for good. That was the day Anthea Bryce didn’t turn up at school.
All Our Secrets
By Jennifer Lane
Published by Rosa Mira Books