stall after ours, and that Mumâll be here in the afternoon sometime, and that Iâm not to worry because Connollyâs paid the doctorâs bill and sounds good for some figure of compensation regardless of the enquiry, which Evanâll keep me well out of, and his low smooth voice fills me so that Iâm not hearing the words so much as the sounds of him talking to me, until he says, âHowâs the leg, then, boyo,â and I lose it like a girl. He sits down with an arm around my back as I do, for everything, and for knowing that this is the last time a man will touch me like this. My father is gone. Heâs gone. And Iâm still here, but Iâve gone somewhere too.
Not only am I shame-filled in a dozen different ways, I am altogether irrelevant to this day, this drama, this other personâs being. How mortifying, falling asleep in the room like that; flushing, mute, idiotic. And the way he glared when I brought the tray in: he despises me. That rankles â how dare he! But then I think of the state heâs in and how he quite possibly recognised me, too, as that strange, rude girl in the street, and I canât blame him. And I flush and flush in waves of indignant humiliation and something else I cannot name, more a feeling in the very centre of me thatâs soft and waiting to be stabbed. I also have a sharp, irritating strain in my neck.
I spend the rest of the morning hiding in the empty parlour pretending to read My Brilliant Career , canât get past: My Dear Fellow Australians, just a few lines to tell you that this story is all about myself â¦ Fatherâs out and Pollyâs gone to the shops for something or other. Sheâll be back to fix lunch, and praise be, because there is no way I am going back into the spare room. I canât face him. Father will take him to his own house this afternoon around three, and three canât come around soon enough.
Thereâs a knock at the front door and my heart just about leaps through my ribs. My face must be fairly incandescent as I open the door. I cannot make my mouth function.
âFrancine, isnât it?â Thereâs a woman there, tall and broad and already impatient with the cretin sheâs speaking to.
âYes,â I manage.
âAda Moran,â she says, and Iâm not sure at first if itâs an introduction or an instruction. Sheâs holding out a bundle of neatly folded clothes that sheâs retrieved from a basket at her feet. âFor Daniel. Daniel Ackerman,â she explains, because I clearly need telling.
âOh. Thank you. Thatâs very kind of you,â I splutter. âI shall see that he gets them. Very good to meet you, Mrs Moran.â Mrs Moran, who I now remember is the stretched to the limit matron at the hospital. Thereâs a wrench of gallstones in my belly.
âMust rush,â she says after one last mystified glance and sheâs already off and away to the trap waiting for her in the drive.
I look at the bundle in my arms and do as the circumstances dictate: I write Polly a note and leave it for her with the clothes on the kitchen table. Gone out, not sure when Iâll be back. Please see that Mr Ackerman gets lunch & clothes.
I can now add abject cowardice to my growing list of shortcomings.
Hayseed makes no comment as we ride up into the hills, but Iâm sure he looks askance at me a few times. The air is wonderful, though, once weâre out of town. Damp from the rain and the mist thatâs now been burned away by the sun, which is warm on my skin one moment and cooled by the breeze the next. A perfect May day. Even the scrub looks more appealing, brighter, greener, and at last I can feel myself settling to the rhythm of Hayseedâs gait.
From up here I can look down on it all, the smudges of smoke and the scars on the land. I try to imagine how it might look if there were no people here; how it would