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Land Divers

The burglar stood at the bedroom window and watched them drive the Mini into the garage. They’d had the car windows open and Noddy and Cissy had been singing, very loudly, the calypso carol the lower school choir would perform at the Christmas concert: “See him a-lying on a bed of straw, drafty stable with an open door…”

It was Cissy’s turn to clamber out of the back of the car and run down the slick ramp to open the garage door, oxfords slapping on the tarmac. She always made a show of her effort. The door was so heavy: apple green, and so heavy.

Like bricks,” Mummy always said and said then, shaking her head slightly, but with a small smile at the sight of Cissy hauling the door: her matchstick legs, their regulation gray socks crumpled at the ankles, braced against the ground, all muscle; one gray ribbon dangling limp at her shoulder; her features in a grimace of determination.

At that point, Noddy was still singing the carol’s last verse, belting it: “Mine are riches from thy po -ver-ty, from thine innocence e- ter -nity…”

Shut up, Nod.” Cissy hissed back at the car, dragging the huge green door sideways. “I said, shut up!”

Mine for- give -ness by thy death…for me…”

Shut up!”

Just because you can’t sing.”

Can too.”

Can not.”

Girls—“

Can too.”

Girls, the lamingtons.” Which shut them up. They wouldn’t get the lamingtons for afternoon tea if they didn’t.

Cissy stepped out of the way and Mummy zipped down the ramp into the garage; and as it was Noddy’s turn, then, to shut the garage door behind them, Cissy teased Noddy and they began to spar again: “Can not.” “Can too.” “Can not.” Cissy was carrying both of their book bags out of the trunk, dwarfed by them. The stiff brown cases banged against her knees on either side.

But they were laughing, really, all three of them. And all that time, or at least some of that time, he was watching them, standing right above their heads at Mummy’s bedroom window, watching them.

It had rained on the way home from the library, that sudden torrential summer rain of a Sydney December, and the road itself and the glossy elephantine foliage in the front garden steamed, streaming water. The front gate stuck, and squeaked; the front door—apple green, with its great brass knocker—stuck too, as it always did in the wet. Mummy had to try the key at least four times before it turned. And all that time, or some of that time, the burglar was in Mummy’s bedroom—or by then, perhaps, he was getting out of it.

They only realized this later, of course, when Noddy found Mummy’s topaz ring—a big, ugly square thing in a heavy silver setting—in the woolly white tentacles of carpet beneath the window. This is what they decided had happened: the burglar had been rifling through Mummy’s jewelry drawer, had heard the car in the drive, had rushed to the window, had let the ring fall, and had fled.

It’s good he dropped this one,” Mummy said. “It has sentimental value.” It was a legacy from Cousin Esther, whom the girls had never met, but whom they understood to have been a brazen adventuress, from somewhere far away—St. Louis? She was American, and an orphan, which their mother always jokingly called “an orphing”—with money and a penchant for travel. The ring was South American. But Mummy had never particularly worn it, and they both knew that Mummy was actually sad about the jewelry that the burglar had taken: the pearl necklace she’d been given for her sixteenth birthday, the enamel and gold snake ring with his little emerald eyes, the lapis lazuli brooch, the Georg Jensen silver cuff Daddy had given her for her fortieth birthday. “Thank God I’m wearing my watch that Daddy gave me,” she also said, because her watch was very thin and all gold, more like a bracelet than a watch. “It’s the most expensive thing in the house.”

Noddy and Cissy agreed that it was a very good thing she’d been wearing her watch, although Cissy observed to Noddy later that she’d never seen Mummy without it, not even in bed at night. She wore it always except perhaps when she went swimming or took a bath. But they felt very serious and grown-up when Mummy spoke about “sentimental value” and the expensiveness of the watch. These were the sorts of things she would say to her friends, the other mothers. So they tried to respond as women would, with the same nodding and quiet clucking: “Quite right, absolutely.” They made the word “ab-so-lute-ly” last a long time.

By then, when they stood in the bedroom and looked at the dangling balcony door, just one small pane of its glass shattered, it was almost supper, and Daddy had been called and was coming home. Because they didn’t realize about the burglar until after the lamingtons. First they had afternoon tea in the kitchen, the soft chocolate cakes with their hard chocolate icing and sprinkled coconut, like snow, wrapped in wax paper to which melty bits of the icing and flecks of coconut stuck. Cissy ran her finger carefully over the paper to get it all, but Noddy frankly licked it, to Mummy’s disapproval. She ended up with chocolate dots on the tip of her nose, among her freckles.

The kitchen and the bedroom, site of the intrusion, were at opposite ends of the house—a long, semicircular house of pale pink painted brick, with a long windowed balcony on its inside curve, facing the swimming pool and the garden, but with only Mummy and Daddy’s bedroom window facing out to the street. “Like a fortress,” Mummy had said when first they saw it, “Or a harem. All open on the inside, but closed to the world.”

Somehow the shape of the house made the burglar’s trajectory the more unnerving. He’d come over the wall at the bottom of the neighbor’s garden, slinking along the side of their shared swimming pool. Cissy pictured him on tiptoe, with a large white sack, for loot, swung over his shoulder, and perhaps even a mask on his face, like the burglar costume her sister had worn for Edwina’s birthday party, the costume for which Noddy had won first prize. Then he’d shimmied up the drainpipe, not to the main terrace with its wrought iron balustrade, a long, curved stretch of terra-cotta tile onto which the children’s bedrooms opened, but to the separate little Juliet balcony at the end of the curve, with its stone wall—behind which he could hide, Mummy pointed out; it was the only good place to hide if someone came into the garden—and there he had jimmied the lock of the balcony door. “Jimmy” was a new word in their lexicon, that afternoon.

He’d come, as it were, from inside. Cissy, in particular, eight years old and just past the age of reason, was troubled by this. It was like finding an insect inside your tummy instead of on your arm—just wrong. All that was over the neighbors’ garden wall was another garden, belonging to other neighbors. There was no way to the gardens except through the houses. It didn’t make sense. By supper time, of course, they’d learned that the burglar had robbed three houses that afternoon, theirs last of all. He hadn’t visited the Westons next door, but the Woodford-Smiths over the wall and the Richards, next to them, and the Edwards, who were half-Spanish, beyond. Nobody was quite sure how he’d got back out of the maze of gardens without being seen; but he had.

The police came not long after Daddy, just at dusk. Cissy expected there to be two or three men in uniform, smart and shiny, but instead one man turned up alone in a rumpled blue shirt and dark trousers. He looked as though someone had sprinkled lamington coconut on the back of his collar. His mustache drooped like two mouse-tails on either side of his wet red lip, and his shoes squeaked on the parquet. He did not seem particularly impressed by their sleuthing—by the telling placement of the topaz ring in the bedroom carpet, or Noddy’s momentous discovery of a large muddy footprint in the bushes beneath the balcony. The children, whose ideas of detective work came from Agatha Christie, had been sure that he would measure it, or take a cast of it, recognizing that it was the vital clue; but he merely nodded and stroked his limp, silky mustache with his forefinger.

That’s where he jumped down,” he agreed, and pointed back toward the pool, “and then he run off over thataway, back where he come from. He knew what he was about.” And without so much as taking a note, he ambled back to the house. “I don’t know as we can help you much,” he said. “Best bet’s the pawnshops. Keep an eye. But we’ve got three of youse this afternoon alone, in these two blocks. Nobody even saw him, and he’s long gone now.”

Over supper, Daddy tried to make the best of things. “It could’ve been so much worse,” he said. “We’re lucky you came home when you did.”

We were playing in the garden at the library,” Noddy said. “But it started to rain.”

Thank goodness for the rain, then.” Daddy helped himself to more kidneys. The rest of them had finished eating, but Daddy ate one thing at a time: first the kidneys, then the rice, then the salad. He wouldn’t be finished for a long time yet. The girls fidgeted, sat on their hands. Noddy couldn’t resist sucking on a clump of her bushy hair: even though she was ten and her breasts were budding like tiny meringues under her shirt, she’d only stopped sucking her thumb a few months ago. When Mummy saw the hair in her mouth, she shook her head but said nothing. Cissy, meanwhile, swung her feet against the legs of her chair, until Mummy put a warning hand upon her arm. “If he’d got to the study next door, we wouldn’t be leaving on holiday on Friday.”

How come?”

Because the tickets are in my desk. And the travelers’ checks. Everything for the trip. The passports too. Sometimes,” he speared a kidney and held it hovering in the air, “sometimes thieves like to take passports. They sell them on the black market.”

Cissy pictured an Oriental bazaar in a giant black tent. “What’s that?” she asked.

It’s when you sell things illegally. Against the law. They’d take your passport, Cissy, and take your picture out of it, and put somebody else’s in. And then that somebody else would use it.”

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