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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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Woodcut by Félix Vallotton

Pretending to be me?”

Maybe. Or maybe they’d change the name, too. Change all of it, except the passport itself. People who are hiding from the law.”

But he didn’t, did he?”

He didn’t take the passports, no. He didn’t take any of it.”

Just my jewelry,” Mummy said, running her finger around the rim of her wineglass. “Just sentimental things that can’t be replaced.”

It’s all right, Laura. It could’ve been worse.”

We’re lucky, really,” Noddy said.

Why’s that?”

Because we didn’t have to meet him. I wouldn’t have liked to, would you? What if, instead of having afternoon tea first, I’d run down to get something from your room. What if, then? He might still have been there.”

You might have caught him,” Cissy offered.

I would’ve screamed,” Noddy said. “Any of us would.”

But luckily,” Mummy started to stack the plates, “luckily he got scared. More scared than we would’ve been, because this is our house and not his, and he’d no right to be here. So he took off.”

I hope he doesn’t come back,” Cissy said.

Don’t be silly, darling. Of course he won’t.”

But Cissy couldn’t fall asleep that night. She lay stiff in her narrow bed, listening. She kept hearing noises, little scratchy ones. She could almost have floated up, she was so alert. Her breathing sounded like a storm. It was hot in the bed, and she kicked off the covers. She turned the pillow over, and over, looking for a cool spot, until all the cool spots were gone. She heard her parents’ voices for a while, and then they stopped. Everywhere was dark, and close, and still.

Eventually she got out of bed and walked down the long corridor to her parents’ door. They had shut it all the way, which meant they did not want her to come in. No light bled from underneath it; just more night. She stood for a bit outside, listening, squeezing her toes in the carpet, then padded back toward her room: past her father’s study, where the passports and tickets and checks were safe; past her sister’s room, where she paused again, and heard Noddy’s breathing, long and even, with the tiny scratch of a snore. And again, to her own door.

She peered into the well of darkness ahead, toward the front hall, where there were no people, except maybe the burglar, hiding. She cocked an ear, listened as hard as she could, strained to listen with her whole body. But could hear nothing. It was so black over there, hard to believe that the rest of the house—the front hall with its checkerboard parquet, the long kitchen, the living room with its bright cushions, the dining room where they had eaten their kidneys and rice, the playroom—hard to believe it was all still there, waiting in the blackness, and that it would sit silently waiting for day to come. You would think the rooms had vanished, eaten by the night. The thought made her shiver.

Her own bed was no cooler for her absence. What if she were trapped? What if the burglar came in the front door, this time, or in the living room window, or if he jimmied the door at the top of the stairs? Her room would be his first stop. What would he sound like—she pictured again the sidling storybook intruder, shouldering his great bag of swag—and what would he smell like? What would he say when he found her, a little girl in bed?

It was hard to breathe. So still, so hot. She tucked her little bald bear in the crook of her arm, and went to her window. She climbed out, left leg first, hiking up her nightie, onto the balcony. It was cooler on the tile, and brighter, although there was no moon. A breeze came and went, tickling the hair on her bare arms. She could just see the outlines of the house, and the pool below glowing dully. Something rustled in the jacaranda tree, but it was too small to be a person. A bird, maybe, all alone and restless like herself.

Cissy went back to retrieve her pillow, and dragged her top sheet from the bed. She spread it out as best she could on the balcony’s tile, and wrapped herself up in it, like a mummy. “This way,” she thought, clutching her teddy to her breast and turning onto her side, away from the winking stars and their drifting veil of cloud, closing her eyes to the vastness of the night, “this way, I’ll know if he’s coming. And this way, if he comes through the house to my room, he’ll never find me. He’ll never guess I’m here.”

On Friday, they flew to the New Hebrides. It was the beginning of the summer holiday. One week at the beach, and then Daddy had to be back at work before Christmas. Not like some of the girls’ classmates, who were waltzing off to Europe, or Los Angeles, or the Blue Mountains at least, for almost a month: Noddy and Cissy would come home and lounge by the pool with Monique and Rory Weston, the children next door. They knew already how long those afternoons would feel, soaked in chlorine and sunlight, Mummy out of sight in the house, studying for her exams. Mummy would be crossish, hasty, distracted; then briefly guilty, pliable; then gone again. They knew all this ahead of time.

But first there was their family week, together in the New Hebrides. Last year they’d traveled to Bali, and had stayed in a hotel on a lush hillside with louvered shutters instead of glass at the windows, with no electricity and no running water. In the bathroom of their villa was a giant tiled cistern, filled every morning by a boy who brought buckets of water balanced on a pole across his shoulders. They scooped bowls full from the cistern to flush the toilet, or to fill the shower bag. In the mornings they’d eaten sliced papaya and salty omelets oozing orange American cheese, sitting on the porch of their villa; and at night they’d gone to sleep under the thatch, listening to the rain, the scented smoke of the mosquito coils curling around their beds. The girls had loved it. But the spring-fed swimming pool had given Mummy hives, great red welts upon her arms and legs that had lasted for weeks; and so they weren’t going back.

The hotel in the New Hebrides was more modern, but less enchanted: a scattering of peaked-roof bungalows arranged around a main building, with gardens and pebbled pathways between them, and a beach on the far side. But there were barely any trees to speak of, and the land was flat and dry, and the cottages felt exposed, as though a great wind could come and flatten them. Their bungalow had two bedrooms with a bathroom in between, and from outside, it looked exactly like all the other bungalows. Noddy pointed out the waving frangipani tree outside, its shiny leathered leaves and its pullulating waxy white and yellow flowers: this was how they would find their way home in the dark.

Mummy and Daddy’s bedroom had one big bed, not as big as their bed at home, and a sofa and a glass coffee table; and the girls had twin beds. Both rooms had ceiling fans, and overhead lights that hissed and cast a bluish pall when illuminated. Noddy and Cissy quarreled over who would get the bed by the window, although Cissy put up only a halfhearted fight. She wanted to feel safe, and thought she would feel safer further from the outside. If anybody came in the night, she didn’t want them to find her first. Noddy, being older, was pleased to have her way. Cissy did not ask her if she, too, was afraid.

They ate their meals always at the same table, covered with a synthetic crimson cloth, on the verandah of the main hotel building. The verandah was long and breezy, and in the evenings, when there was a buffet, music played, and the girls were excused from the table and allowed to dance, giggling, on an open stretch of tile. Many young women and men seemed to work at the hotel, as waiters and porters and factotums, all in brightly flowered dresses and shirts, their tight black curls carefully oiled and groomed and their skin burnished in the evening candlelight. All of them were kind to the girls, and brought them tiny paper umbrellas or brightly colored swizzel sticks in the shapes of birds or swordfish to play with, but one boy seemed to have been assigned to them specifically, and at each meal he brought them their ice water and cleared their plates. He smiled shyly, and he knew the girls by name. His own name was Jeremy, which made Cissy think of Jeremy Fisher, only because she hadn’t known any others. This Jeremy was younger than most of the staff, with a broad face and still the full cheeks of a boy, but also the fluffy beginnings of a mustache and dark pustules along his jaw. He had a red blood spot in the white of one eye, and Cissy tried hard not to look at it.

They spent their days largely in the water. The beach was a long crescent of fine, pale sand, the ocean a preposterous turquoise. Standing in it up to her knees, looking back at the hotel, Cissy could imagine the land without any people, scrubby, barren, and deserted; but in fact the hotel teemed with Australians, and some Germans and English and French people too, some of them very white, and then very red as the days went on. Even Mummy and Noddy and Cissy got burned, unexpectedly, on a gray day when they hunted for shells along the shore, glossy, speckled cowries their chief prize. It was the one day that the sun didn’t feel as though it were consuming them; but it was, stealthily, from behind the clouds, and they realized only at bath time that Noddy, who was fairest, had been so badly burned that yellow, pus-filled blisters had popped up along her shoulders. Mummy almost cried when she saw them: Cissy could tell she felt she’d failed at something, at being a mother.

After that, they had to swim with their T-shirts on, which was clammy and uncomfortable, and when they idled on the beach and sipped orange Fanta from the bottle with a straw, Mummy made them wear their hats and smeared white zinc across their noses. Daddy, burly and furry as a bear, did not burn; but grew easily bored, smoked many cigarettes, and then abandoned the three of them on the shore while he went driving, for hours, inland, in their rented jeep. Over supper, while the music played, he would tell them what he’d seen: tangly forests thick with vines; villages inhabited by as many dogs and pecking chickens as people; groups of locals with hardly any clothes on. One afternoon he brought them each a necklace made of tiny brown cowries, with a star-shaped pendant of white shells. The necklaces were strangely heavy. The girls called them their amulets, and believed they had magical powers.

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Woodcut by Félix Vallotton

On the fourth day, after breakfast, they had to dress properly. Cissy put on the blue and white seersucker dress with the sailor collar and the red kerchief that she’d chosen, with Mummy, at David Jones department store in Sydney; Noddy wore a purple hibiscus-flowered dress with ruffled sleeves and flounces at the hem, just like the women on the hotel staff. Daddy had let her pick it out in the hotel shop. She pulled her voluminous blond curls back in a ponytail, and looked very grown up.

They were going on an adventure. Along with an American family—two parents and a teenaged boy with rust-colored hair as coarse as straw, who glowered surreptitiously at the girls—and an older German couple, the man lame, with crooked teeth, they were taken in a bus to the airstrip. There they boarded a small, unconvincing plane to the neighboring island of Pentecost.

We’re going to see them jumping,” Daddy explained to Cissy as they peered out the airplane windows at the islands that surfaced like ancient, green-barnacled whales from the azure water.

Who?”

The local people. Young men. It’s a ritual, something they have to do to become men. It shows they’ve grown up. It’s called ‘land diving’—like diving in the sea, but different.”

Where do they dive, then?”

That’s what’s so strange. They build enormous towers out of sticks, and then they climb to the top, tie vines round their ankles, and jump head first. They dive into the land. They’re supposed to touch their heads to the ground, for it to count.”

Cissy was shocked. “Why don’t they die?”

I guess if they die, they haven’t become men, eh? But don’t worry, they’ve been doing it for centuries. They don’t die. I think the vines are stretchy, and so they bounce back up again.”

Aren’t they scared?”

I’d guess they are. I can’t imagine that you wouldn’t be.”

But isn’t there sometimes one boy who gets to the top and says ‘no,’ who says, ‘I can’t’? The way I got to the high diving board at school and had to come down again?”

I guess sometimes there is.”

And what happens to him, then?”

I don’t know, sweetie pie. I don’t know.”

From the airstrip on the island of Pentecost (“Why is it called Pentecost, Daddy?” Noddy asked. “Was Jesus here?”), the group was taken in a battered blue van to the edge of a muddy field. Above them on the hillside, at the far corner of the field, rose a strange, precarious structure, like some extraordinary bird’s nest, a half-transparent tower of twigs and vines. Around the base of the structure, a crowd milled, and their shouts could be heard from far away. The men were almost naked, except for floating raffia loincloths, their hair frizzed in wild halos around their heads. The women, the few of them, wore grass skirts and no tops at all. Their breasts hung down on their stomachs and flapped when they danced, and Cissy was embarrassed for them. Somewhere, in a different direction, there was a fire, and with it the smell of cooking meat. The sky above the field loomed enormous, and at its blue horizon, an extravagant pompadour of clouds massed, bright but edged with an ominous gray. Cissy, in her sunhat and dress, sweated in the small of her back, and behind her knees. She could feel the odd salty trickle marking its path down the backs of her calves.

Noddy pursed her lips at the scene, disapproving. “Why did we have to dress up?” she asked, as they picked their way up the hill, avoiding spiny tufts of long grass and clumps of what looked like dung. The American boy was wearing shorts and a T-shirt. Another van-load of tourists arrived, all in shorts or jeans. Some wore great bright sneakers, like seagulls on their feet. As she walked, Noddy held up the flouncy hem of her flowered dress, even though it was nowhere near the ground. “My sandals are going to be ruined.”

It’s important to be respectful of people’s customs,” Mummy said. “We’re guests. It’s rude to behave as though you’re at the beach. This is an important day for these young men—it’s like your confirmation. You wouldn’t want strangers to show up at your confirmation in their underwear, would you?”

Actually,” Daddy said, “it’s hard to know if this one isn’t put on for the tourists. According to the guidebook, this isn’t the season, usually. But they did it last year, around now, for the Queen.”

For the Queen?”

She came to visit. She’s their queen too, you know.”

So it’s not real?” Cissy asked hopefully.

Oh, the jumping is real. They’re really going to jump.”

Look!” shouted the American boy with the rust-colored hair, pointing and starting to run. They could see a figure climbing the precarious tower, up one side, naked, wavering, and determined. “It’s starting!”

Cissy watched just once, right at the beginning, and then she could not watch again. There was something about the way the vines around the boy’s ankle unfurled, a crooked, fragile black line against the sky behind; something about the teetering bareness of the tower itself, something about the smallness of the boy, and yet his shiny skin glowing, so that he was like the frail shadow of a child and a god at the same time. It was too awful. There was, too, the hushed silence just before he jumped, everyone down below holding their breath, willing him, forcing him. Even after the first time, when she closed her eyes or turned her back, she could hear the silence and knew it was about to happen, could hear the roars and chanting and knew it had happened. She couldn’t get away from it.

Noddy didn’t have any trouble looking at the jumping. It was as if she were looking for Cissy, so Cissy didn’t have to. Sometimes, over the two hours they stood there, Cissy looked at Noddy looking. Her face was flat and smooth, her nose white with zinc and her cheeks freckled and flushed, her sunhat pulled low over her brow. She breathed through her mouth, her lips slightly parted, her expression expectant, patient, grown-up. In the moments before the boys jumped, Noddy’s face did not move: her eyes didn’t widen, her nostrils didn’t flare, her lips didn’t round in an o of surprise. It seemed as if she knew something Cissy did not. Cissy couldn’t make her out.

Just once Noddy cried out, and Mummy too, at the same time. A boy had come down too hard, and had smacked his head with a loud thud, like a melon falling, rather than just touching it like a kiss to the ground. The crowd had an impulse to run forward—even the tourists—but Mummy and Daddy held the girls’ hands and kept them back. Older local men untied the boy’s ankles and helped him to his feet, carrying him under his arms. He staggered, and clutched his head, but for all her peering Cissy couldn’t see any blood. He was encircled by the crowd, and disappeared. At least, Daddy said, the boy was awake.

Maybe it’s time to go now,” Mummy said. “Maybe that’s enough.”

Daddy had a cigarette dangling from his lip, and a camera around his neck. He’d been taking photographs of the tower, and the jumpers. Now he took a photograph of the girls, of their mother.

Seriously, Ed. I think it’s time now.” Mummy had a certain look.

Daddy spoke without taking the cigarette out, so it flapped up and down. His hands were busy with the camera. “If you’re worried about it, why don’t you take the girls back to the van?” He looked at his watch. “There’s only another half-hour till we go for lunch.”

Is it done then?”

I don’t think so. It goes on. But after lunch we can visit the villages. They give you that option. There’ll be a market, you know, things to see.”

I’m not leaving yet.” Noddy had already turned back to look at the tower, up which a new tiny young man was climbing, spidery against the sky. “I want to see more. I want the next boy to get it right.”

Mummy made an exasperated sound in her throat. “Cissy?”

Cissy took her mother’s hand and they set off back down the hill, leaving Noddy and Daddy on the edge of the crowd. “Do you have a pen and paper in your bag?” she asked. “We can play hangman.”

It was late when they finally got back to the hotel. The American teenager was the only other child at supper—all the families had eaten and retired, and only grown-ups were left. The verandah felt different, dreamier, less bustly. While the four of them ate their food, three couples danced to the music in front of them, as if putting on a show, shuffling slowly and holding each other close.

What say you girls make your own way to bed,” Daddy suggested, “and let your old parents have a cup of coffee and a dance? It’s late now, and we’ve all had a long day.”

Sure,” Noddy said, holding her hand out flat. “Give us the key?”

Aren’t you such a big girl,” Mummy observed with a vague smile, reaching out to stroke Noddy’s arm. “How did you get to be so big?”

Key?” Noddy said again, and flapped her hand open and shut.

I’m sleepy,” Cissy said. She was. She’d fallen asleep in the little plane on the way home, and again in the van on the way back from the airport. It had taken a great effort to stay awake to eat. She tried to push into the crook of her mother’s arm. “Come back now, Mummy. Read us a story.”

No stories tonight, lovey. But if you scamper along and put on your nighties, I’ll be there to kiss you goodnight.” Mummy hugged Cissy close, kissed the top of her head, then swiveled her around and patted her bum, directing her away as if she were a wind-up toy.

The gardens were dark and mysterious beneath the cloudy night sky. Low garden lamps lit the way every so often, stretching a fairy necklace through the grounds. The air smelled of flowers and the sea, and they could hear the dance music dwindling as they went. Cissy followed Noddy, tried to step where her big sister had stepped.

Suddenly, Noddy took off at speed. “Race you to the frangipani!” she called over her shoulder, and Cissy could see her dress flapping, and the pale soles of her sandals kicking up in the gloom.

No fair!” Cissy stopped. “No fair! I’m too tired.” She actually stamped her foot. “Come back, Noddy. I’m too tired.” She stood and waited, sobbing dry sobs—crocodile tears. But she was tired. She heard her sister clattering on the paving stones, the gravel, out of sight now, behind another bungalow. “Come back, Noddy! I don’t know the way. I don’t know the way!”

Noddy didn’t come back. Cissy started to cry in earnest, unsure whether to pick her way back to the safe lights of the restaurant—she could still hear the music, just; and knew that Mummy and Daddy were not far away—or whether to go forward into the dark. Her sister was all alone too: that was what made her go ahead. She couldn’t imagine having to go into the bungalow alone, with its hissing light and the scurry of a lizard in the corner of the room—she couldn’t imagine wanting to. Even if Noddy wanted to, it wasn’t right to go alone.

Cissy stepped along the path, hurrying from garden light to garden light. She paused with her feet in each small pool of light, having decided they were the only safe spots. The walk that had seemed magical did not seem so any longer. She wished she had her amulet around her neck, to protect her from the night spirits; but it was on the dresser in their room, in the dark. Would Noddy be there yet? Would she have turned the lights on already?

There were two bungalows to twist around before she could see the shape of the frangipani tree ahead. There it was, its countless white flowers like a night-light, and from it emanated the most extraordinary honeyed nighttime smell. It was definitely their tree. Which meant that theirs was the house next to it; or should have been. But there were no lights on. Where was Noddy? Why wasn’t she there?

Nod?” Cissy called out, hesitant at first, then louder. “Noddy? Noddy! Where are you?”

At once she heard rustling and small, strange noises, like an animal fighting, and realized she’d been hearing them already. She made out something moving at the side of the bungalow, behind the tree, in the dark—then a large shape broke off the side of the house and unraveled, became two shapes, with many arms and legs, and then somebody ran off toward the beach, and suddenly there was Noddy, beside Cissy, grasping her in a tight hug and moving with her toward their door, so that they were like the dancers on the verandah, shuffling close together. Noddy smelled funny, and Cissy could tell from her breathing that she was crying.

Are you okay? What was that? Was that a ghost? What was that?”

Noddy didn’t say anything. She wasn’t going to tell. She took the key from her pocket and fit it blind into the door. It took several tries. Once inside, she switched on the hissing light; but Noddy turned away and would not let Cissy see her. Cissy picked up her amulet from the dresser and held it with both hands.

What’s happened to your new dress?” she asked. “It’s got torn, at the shoulder.”

Nothing. Nothing’s happened.” Noddy sighed a big, ragged sigh as she disappeared into the bathroom. “Put on your nightie,” she called, murkily, from behind the door. “And get into bed.”

I’ve got to brush my teeth.”

No you don’t. Special treat. Get into bed.”

When Mummy came in to kiss them, Cissy pretended to be asleep: she turned her head to one side and breathed as deeply and evenly as she could, although her body was a hot little board under the sheet. She heard Noddy sitting up, moving her sheets, and then she could hear Mummy and Noddy whispering, the urgency of it; she strained to hear.

Tell me… No, she’s asleep, don’t worry… Tell me.”

Noddy whispered for a long while, very softly. Cissy couldn’t hear enough to understand. All through the talking she could hear her sister crying as quietly as was possible, her breath in between words like falling down steps. And then Mummy said some things that ended up in the air, like questions; and Noddy whispered some more, and put her head in her hands. After Noddy was done talking, Mummy held Noddy in her arms and rocked her back and forth. She stroked her hair and Cissy heard her say, “It’s okay, baby-doll. Everything’s okay.”

All this Cissy could discern with one eye open, their outlines silhouetted against the window. They stayed like this, swaying like the dancers, until Daddy came and stood in the bathroom doorway, in his pajama bottoms, and called, in a stage whisper, “Laura? What are you doing in here? Let them go to sleep.” And like a ghost, saying nothing more, Mummy disentangled herself, and left.

In the morning, Cissy got up to pee before Noddy was awake. She was sitting on the toilet when she heard her parents’ voices in their room on the other side of the bathroom door. It wasn’t quite closed. She could smell cigarette smoke. Her mother was using a tone familiar from strained moments: she was trying to keep Daddy calm.

As far as I can make out, all he did was kiss her, and grab at her dress. Of course it isn’t nice—it’s horrid, and I’m as upset as anybody would be. She’s just a little girl. But it wasn’t—you know…” Mummy paused, began again: “He didn’t get very far, and as far as we know he didn’t intend to.” There was another silence, and then: “In local terms, he probably thinks she’s old enough to marry! Apparently he told her she was beautiful, that he was in love with her—something about her blond hair… Rather sad, really.”

Daddy said something that came to Cissy as a rumble. He must have been over by the window, facing away.

Nothing. I really think nothing. Do you want her to have to talk about it? Do you think the fuss could help? Surely not. Best just to put it behind her—ghastly, but there you go. And if we were to pursue it—he’d lose his job, Ed.”

Cissy couldn’t hear what Daddy said, but he sounded angry.

Think about it, darling. What is there, here? What future is there for a boy like that? We get on a plane and go home—she can just put it behind her. But him? This is one of the most promising jobs in this whole godforsaken country—a waiter in a hotel, for pity’s sake—take it away and you’ve ruined his life. Think about it.”

Daddy’s footsteps made the floor shudder slightly. He was walking toward Mummy, or toward the bathroom, or both. Cissy wiped hurriedly, and did not flush. She did not hear what anyone said after that, but slipped back into her room and under the covers. She pulled the sheet over her head and pretended to be asleep and waited for the day to begin again.

When it did, it was as if none of it had ever happened—not the night shadows against the house, nor Noddy crying, nor Mummy holding Noddy in bed in the dark. Not Mummy’s words behind the door. As if Cissy, often chided for her overactive imagination, had dreamed it all. At first Noddy seemed like she was in a bad mood, but after breakfast they had a singing competition, and Mummy judged, and Noddy won, for singing the calypso carol (“Mine for- give -ness by thy death for me, Child of sorrow for my joy…”), and she was promised a packet of chewing gum that she wouldn’t have to share. Then, on the beach the girls ran races, and swam races, too, up and down the shore, splashing in their white T-shirts in the brilliant blue water, diving down to the pale, sandy bottom for treasure and carrying shiny shells and fingers of dead coral back up to Mummy and Daddy, who lay stretched out side by side, for once, reading books on chaises longues beneath umbrellas; and by lunchtime Noddy seemed just like herself.

When they sat down at their regular table with its crimson cloth, Cissy’s heart fluttered in fear that Jeremy would come and that Noddy would be frightened or angry; but he was nowhere to be seen. A heavyset girl named Tulip, with dark, overhanging eyebrows and massive arms, poured their water and brought their food. In between courses, she stopped behind Noddy’s chair. Smiling, she stroked Noddy’s blond hair and said, “Beautiful girls, my beautiful little girls,” and Noddy raised her face up and around toward Tulip like a cat, private, grateful, and it seemed as if Tulip had been sent on purpose to make things safe again.

Back in Sydney, Noddy and Cissy slid quickly into the routines of the pool, and babysitters, and Monique and Rory Weston. They built a teepee out of sheets and sticks in the backyard near the mossy birdbath, and served afternoon tea to one another on banana leaves plucked from the tree. They played doll hospital, daubing Mummy’s perfume samples onto their dolls’ wounds like salve, and binding them with gauze and tape. There was a plush stuffed elephant whose legs had grown too weak to hold him up, so Cissy splinted them and bound them; but when she tried to take the tape off, the elephant’s fur came off too, and in the end he was both weak-kneed and bald.

One afternoon, Noddy told Monique and Rory all about the land diving in the New Hebrides, and suggested that they could get the clothesline rope and all tie themselves by the ankles to the wrought-iron balcony and leap off head-first into the garden. But nobody even thought it was funny, and Cissy remembered the boy with the banged head, staggering, and then her sister, staggering, and, knowing she must not say anything, she grew quiet and went inside to lie on her bed for a while by herself. After that, they didn’t mention the New Hebrides again.

The great excitement between Christmas and New Year’s was that Daddy found one of Mummy’s jewels. He was walking at lunchtime past the row of pawnshops near his office downtown, looking in the windows just like that, he said, wondering if he might find a present for Mummy, when he realized it was staring him in the face.

The pawnshop owner had to give it back for free, because, Daddy explained, it was illegal to traffic in stolen goods (Cissy pictured an intersection, and truckloads of jewels, and a traffic jam), and the shopkeeper should have asked more closely where the ring had come from when he took it.

Mummy should have been thrilled—it was the gold snake ring, a blue enameled coil around her elegant finger, with sparkling emeralds for eyes—but somehow they all understood that if she could have chosen to get one thing back, this was not the thing she would have chosen. It was nice, but it wasn’t the right thing. She didn’t say what the right thing would have been, and perhaps there was no right thing; or perhaps once it had been taken, there was simply no way to get a thing back quite as it had been. Once the police had done their paperwork and the snake ring had come home again, Mummy put him in his red velvet ring box, snapped the lid shut on his emerald eyes, and tucked him in the very back of her night-table drawer. And as Cissy pointed out to Noddy many, many years later, Mummy never once wore that ring again.

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