Paul’s driving. I sit in the passenger seat and, as happens more and more these days, start to drift away. In my head a strip of film jerks through an old-time projector, and I see the four of us again. My father and mother, Dee, and me. I see my family on the last holiday we ever had together.
Dad jiggles the front-door lock. Dee and I butt our heads against his legs and fall in after him when the door suddenly opens. On the threshold, like meerkats, we twist and turn around Dad’s legs, peer in at the patterned lino and painted walls. The rented cottage smells of damp towels and all the families who’ve stayed there before us. Mum wrinkles her nose and heads off to open windows. We push behind the busy flash of her skirt, exploring this strange house with its sand-gritty floors.
Then it’s morning. Dee and I race into Mum and Dad’s bedroom and jump onto their bed. Mum springs out of Dad’s arms; her cheeks are red, but we don’t get into trouble. Dad pulls a funny face at me, lifts his leg, and looses a smelly blast of fried sausages and onion. He raises an eyebrow in my direction, but I can’t compete. My pop sounds like a torn party whistle.
“Terry, don’t.” Mum holds her nose. “She’s enough of a tomboy already.”
Dee giggles so much she almost falls off the bed. “Now this place smells like our family,” she says. Dee is pretty funny for a five-year-old.
Sometimes I hear her voice. “Wait,” she calls.
“Wait,” I say.
“What now, Shell?” Paul brakes. “Did you forget something?”
“Sorry. Just thinking aloud.”
His hands relax on the steering wheel, and we pick up speed again. Bushland blurs past, olive and grey. Paul’s in a good mood. We’re seeing his family today, and that’s something he rates the way he once rated going to an Iron Maiden concert. But he’s grown out of Iron Maiden the way I’ve grown out of his family. There’s irony for you. At the start I loved that Paul came with built-in relatives.
“Okay.” Paul’s eyes are on the road, but one hand leaves the steering wheel and finds mine. His fingers are warm, and I press them to my cheek.
The old church is buttery sandstone; its steeple points up into the flawless sky. Paul eases into one of the few spaces left in the car park. I look at my watch: we’re on time, but most of the McFarlane clan are already here.
Behind a rack of hymn books in the vestibule we catch our breath, and Paul squares his shoulders before propelling me down the aisle in front of him. Like the Queen, I wave and smile at the chattering pews of his relatives. But I’ve got no upholstered regal bosom or white curls; I’m more of a hot-housed thirty-seven-year-old Celtic pixie, energetic and auburn—a combination that Paul, being long, lean, and indolently blond, has always declared irresistible.
Paul finds us room in the third pew from the front, and we squeeze in. He leans forward to kiss his youngest sister’s cheek, and Kim sends an air-kiss in my direction. After ten years I still haven’t mastered his family code of behaviour and expectation. My husband, of course, is a past and present master of it. The only male in his immediate family, he is endearingly adored; on family occasions like these his sisters close around him like shrink-wrap. As he and Kim whisper together now, I notice how the stained glass above the altar is pulsing with unearthly sunlight, and I pray for something extraterrestrial to get us out of here. The landing of an alien spaceship might just do it. I pray again.
The baptismal font looms like an ancient mushroom over the front line of worshippers. Behind it the minister waits, easing his clerical collar away from his throat with a thick finger. I breathe in the waxed mustiness of the old church as the congregation settles and look around. High above the altar, Mother Mary and the Baby Jesus float in a sea of blue glass, waterproofed in the folds of Mary’s cape, shimmering in shards of violet and crimson. The Christ Child has oversized calves and toes. He’s a freak. I feel sorry for him.
The pew cushion is too thin, and my heart is racing as though I’ve drunk a bathtub of black coffee. The minister starts to speak, but I find it hard to concentrate. This whole family thing is too much. The seismic screwing of Paul’s siblings and cousins has triggered a fertility tsunami, and for the past few years we’ve trekked south for christening after christening. I haven’t realised until now how it’s sucked the air out of me. On the unforgiving wooden pew I strain to breathe, try to fill my lungs.
I suck in my breath and try to stop trembling. The January morning was baking hot, but then came an afternoon burst of thunderclaps and a short, stiff curtain of rain. Now the towel around my shoulders is damp. I’m cold. I watch as the policeman inhales, his fag glowing at his fingertips. Like any seven-year-old show-off, I want to ask if I can have a drag too. But my father’s head is hidden inside his hands, and my mother’s arms are locked around my shoulders. Her tears drip down my neck. She doesn’t say a word.
I want to go home.
“Wait,” Dee called to me as I left the dressing shed.
This church is always cold. I shift on the cushion, trying to get comfortable. Beside me, Paul’s restless too. We watch his cousin Corinne and her partner, Ralph, make their way to the font. Corinne and Ralph are not remotely religious. This christening, like the others, has little to do with God; it’s more a reveille to a family offspring expo, a holy step-off into day-long pageantry. The McFarlanes love the theatre of it. They thrive on the greasepaint of weddings and christenings. In an ideal world the christenings would always come after the weddings, but if the order gets mixed up it’s not a catastrophe. Paul has told me his suspicion that some of his relatives marry less for a life-time commitment and more for the party afterward—they’ve been known to honeymoon with a thirty-strong entourage. But Paul can’t condemn them; he finds it amusing. Besides, he’s grown up with these people.
A murmur of voices rises from the font. In Corinne’s arms the baby is straitjacketed by its christening gown, and a trip-hazard train spools down its mother’s arm onto the carpet. The minister dabbles in the water and raises his hand. On cue, the baby shrieks as though it’s being exorcised. I close my eyes.
The celebrations continue later at Corinne’s parents’ house, a cement-rendered pavlova, all creamy curves and overhangs. Their cul-de-sac is full of four-wheel drives with baby capsules and booster seats, so we have to park a few streets away. Paul opens the boot and hands out our present for the baby. For weeks he attempted to outsource the task of buying it to me, but in the end he did it himself, at a brisk jog through the closest shopping mall. The gift is huge, pink and silver, trailing a pink ribbon. I wonder half-heartedly if there’s a life-time supply of stuffed toys inside, or a child’s mobile home.
“Pink? You’re not giving the kid a chance,” I say.
“Who says it’s a girl?” Paul counters.
Like hajj pilgrims we join the ranks of other guests making their way up the driveway and through the open front door. As soon as we’re inside, Paul disappears. I find myself in the kitchen, where Corinne’s lower half sticks out of the fridge. When she emerges, I wait my turn, stretch out my arms, and hug her. “Congratulations!” I say.
“Thanks.” Corinne’s cheeks are flushed, and her eyes have a wild flicker. “Thanks,” she repeats automatically, as though someone has pushed a button.
I move on to Ralph, the proud father, whose kiss catches me on the ear. There’s no sign of the baby. Perhaps it’s been put back in the props room. As soon as I think that, I look around; Paul and his frown are nowhere in sight, but I know I’ll have to ditch the cynicism if I’m to survive the next few hours.
“Can I get you a drink?” Ralph leads me to the trestle-table bar on the deck. People are wedged along the railings and cascade down the steps to the lawn and the swimming pool below. “Something to eat?” He gestures at a passing tray.
Ralph is the family hero right now, having impregnated Corinne on their first date. Such details come through Paul’s sister Kim, who gets them firsthand from Corinne. In my more sympathetic moments I wonder if Ralph ever imagined what lay in store for him.
My mother-in-law comes out through the doorway, balancing another tray of food for the buffet. “Hi, Shell.”
“Lesley.” I kiss her cheek. “How are you?”
“Good trip down, love?” She doesn’t need an answer. “Nanna and Grandpa are out the back.”
“I’ll go and say hello.”
I take a long mouthful of riesling and reach out as another tray passes. A wedge of runny cheese goes down with another gulp of wine. I ease my way down the steps. There are more hellos and more cheeks to kiss. I spot Nanna and Grandpa McFarlane sitting in state in the pergola facing the pool. White-haired and smiling, they seem deaf to the flash mob of children who sprint across the grass in front of them and leap into the water. It might be early spring, but the swimming pool is alive with young bodies and also, I see as I get closer, something that looks like a child-sized turd.
“Good to see you, sweetheart.” Grandpa reaches up while Nanna offers me her tissue-paper cheek.
“Can I get you something to eat, Grandpa?”
“Maybe a drink? A shandy is all I can manage these days.”
“Coming right up. Nanna, something for you?”
“A lemonade, love.” Nanna’s eyes wander; it’s unclear if she remembers who I am.
Lesley bursts through the throng, carrying her newly baptised grandniece. “Shell, I can’t find Corinne. Change her, will you, love?”
It sounds so easy. Change her, will you? Hold her.
Just in time, Corinne rescues me. I go back the deck, my stomach sinking.
Ralph has disappeared from the bar, and in his place is Kim’s husband, Kevin. “What can I do you for, Shell?” He hoists his cargo shorts another unsuccessful centimetre over his belly.
“A shandy for Grandpa and lemonade for Nanna. And a white wine for me.”
His grin is close to a snigger. “Should I just give you the wine cask, eh, darl?”
I stretch my cheeks wide in an imitation of smiling. My dislike for the guy is visceral and longstanding. With Kevin every conversation feels like a minefield, but I can’t fault his bar skills; he’s loaded a tray in the space of a minute and is already making small talk with his next customer. More people arrive, and I work out the safest route back to the pergola.
Paul’s sisters form a bright blonde gauntlet along the far edge of the pool, so I make a quick detour to say hello. As I ask the usual questions, they give the usual answers while their eyes follow their kids, who are duck-diving or wrestling each other in the water. I could be twiddling the tuning button of a radio for all the clarity I get with these women; it doesn’t matter what I say these days, I just can’t find the right frequency. “Better deliver these drinks,” I say to no one, and head to the pergola.
Grandpa winks as I hand him his shandy and presses my hand. He doesn’t need to do more. Nanna used to be the chatty one, but in the last year vagueness has settled over her like a beekeeper’s veil.
More McFarlanes queue up to greet them, so I move off and look for somewhere to sit. Deck chairs are stacked under the steps. I pull one over into the shade, next to a triffid-sized clump of bird-of-paradise, and lose myself in its camouflage. Then I finish my second wine in a gulp and lean back.
A few minutes later Paul finds me. “Everything okay?”
“I’m soaking up the atmosphere.”
He looks at my empty glass, then bends down to kiss me on the forehead. “That all you’re soaking up? You’re driving home, remember.”
From where I’m sitting I can see the shallow end of the pool, and now I spot Layla sitting on the steps. It is simply impossible that Kevin could have sired such a perfect child. Layla’s golden hair is dark toffee in the water, her legs and arms glistening. Spray plumes around her as the others paddle, splash, and push their way into the water. Amidst the chaos Layla squats as beatifically as a tiny Buddha.
“When we have a baby,” Paul said once, “I’d like one just like Layla.”
I close my eyes and let the sounds wash over me, water splashing and kids laughing, warm as sunlight.
My father was a moody man when he came home from Vietnam, but whenever he got grumpy, Mum, who was a saint with a beehive halo, massaged his neck and whispered words into his ear until his smile came back.
On the beach that day the two of them couldn’t keep their bodies from touching, so Dee and I made smooching noises, which set them off even more. When they came up for air, Dee strutted about like a movie star in her Christmas present, a shirred green swimming costume. Her pot-belly stuck out, and her bum floated high under its frills. Mum clapped, Dad wolf-whistled, and I nearly cacked myself laughing. What a show-off she was. Dee did a curtsy, but Dad stuck his foot out and she landed on her backside in the sand.
“I forgive you,” she said, struggling to her feet, so Dad promptly tripped her again.
She leapt onto his stomach and pummelled his chest with her fists. I jumped aboard too, and all three of us ended up covered in sand.
After lunch had gone down, Mum and Dad lay back under the beach umbrella while Dee and I headed to the water. She shrieked when she jumped over each tiny wave, and so, embarrassed, I waded past her as fast as I could and jumped about with the older kids further out. I was on the lookout: every seventh wave was a big one, Dad had told me, so I always counted them to be on the safe side.
When a bank of dark clouds started rolling in after lunch, Dad waded in and told us to get out. It was time to leave: he hated a storm. We ran to the dressing sheds with our towels.
The crowd on the deck thins as the McFarlane clan take up their positions in chairs along the pool’s edge and around the lawn. They chat with plates balanced on their laps or sit elbow to elbow at scattered picnic tables. Old hands, they know to get their food early, before the kids descend like locusts on the buffet.
Paul’s gone missing again; he’s probably helping at the bar. I head inside to get some food myself, and maybe something else to drink.
At the bar there’s no sign of Paul. Another cousin, looking a little the worse for wear, is in charge. He leans in for a kiss. “What can I get you, Shell?”
“A white wine, thanks.”
I load up a plate and smile my way back to my deck chair in the shade. It’s all I can do: the glare is taking its toll and my head is starting to ache, but my sunglasses are in the car, and I don’t think I can get there and back.
Just as I sit down, Kevin appears poolside. He’s changed into a pair of fluoro board-shorts whose pattern could induce a migraine on its own. He jumps into the water and dunks whoever he can grab. Toddlers float to the surface, too stunned at first to cry. Kevin lines them up on the edge of the pool before throwing them back in again. A chorus of wails rises from mothers and kids alike, and Kevin takes a bow.
Paul pulls up a seat beside me, beer in hand. A second later Kim drags up a seat too. “Check out Kev, would you?” she coos. “He’s such a natural with kids.”
“He’s just a big kid himself,” Paul says.
Kim takes a sip. “So when are you two going to get your act together?”
“What act?” asks my husband.
“Don’t play dumb, Paul. And don’t leave it too long. I’ve got three kids already, and I’m two years younger than you.”
“You never know, Kim. Could be any day now,” I say.
Paul doesn’t look at me.
Kim doesn’t lose a beat. “I’ve got lots of stuff I can give you when you do, Shell. Lend, I mean—I don’t think Kev and I are finished yet.”
“Oh, for god’s sake,” I mutter.
She looks at me for a moment, then stands up and heads back to the house.
Paul stares me down. “What was that about?”
“Do these people ever think about anything else?”
“These people, as you say, are my family.”
“Can you come up with anything less original, Paul?”
Not unexpectedly, I find myself alone again. I pick at my cooling lasagne, play with a chicken leg, and try the potato salad.
I must have dozed off. When my eyes open again, the chatter and splash from the pool has subsided and all the action has moved to the lawn, where, sprawled on blankets, the older kids are flirting with each other and the younger ones are hanging around trying to get noticed. As I watch, one of them throws a bread-roll and scores a direct hit.
The nap has helped; my headache has receded to a dull throb. My plate is still on my lap. I wonder where Paul is.
Kevin bursts onto the deck, making a megaphone of his hands. “Line up, line up! Family photo time!”
This is a well-rehearsed manoeuvre. I join the assembly on the lawn, and we kneel, squat, sit, or stand in rows. Babies are set upright, toddlers’ mouths are wiped, and older kids are threatened into smiles. I take up my position at the end of one row, and a moment later Paul appears, putting his arm around me. I must be forgiven.
I turn to speak to him, but he’s already talking to a woman whose belly juts out like a bike helmet under her tee-shirt.
“Where’s Layla?” Kim calls from the steps. The din subsides a little. “Layla, over here with Mummy, sweetheart. Layla?”
No one moves.
“Anyone seen Layla?” Kim calls out louder. She looks around.
There’s a general craning of necks towards the pool.
Kevin calls from the deck, “Layla? Layla, baby! Photo time.”
The yard is silent.
Panic runs like ice down my spine. My knees turn to mush, and I know that within seconds I’ll be
flat on the grass.
“For chrissake!” I hear Kevin say, just before I black out.
Our drive home is quiet. For one thing, Paul is driving.
“You’re not a kid,” he says impatiently.
“I wasn’t drunk.”
Layla was found soon enough. One of her cousins, playing a one-sided game of hide-and-seek, had shut her in a wardrobe. The boy didn’t find it quite so amusing after Kevin sat him down for a little talk.
Paul drives carefully, his eyes straight ahead on the road. He keeps his hands to himself. “I think you need to speak to someone,” he says.
I leave the café at midday.
With Paul’s blessing I’ve taken the afternoon off, though lunch is our busiest time and today is no different. I know he could do with an extra hand, but he couldn’t protest. His initial brief for me—“Speak to someone”—was followed quickly by a short proviso: “Someone professional, that is.” A drink in a bar with a girlfriend is not what he had in mind. But he needn’t worry; for the last few years we’ve been working so hard to get the café on its feet that girlfriends and bars have been scarce on the ground.
Neither of us has mentioned the obvious: why wasn’t I speaking to him? why not my husband? I don’t have the answer to that, and Paul isn’t going to push it. There are areas of silence in my past that he navigates around with care. He knows they have nothing to do with what’s between the two of us.
Paul wasn’t the only one taken aback when I made an appointment to see a counsellor based an hour away from home; I surprised myself too. By choosing that person I was geographically edging closer to the beach where my life changed completely, one long-ago summer.
It’s another thing I can’t talk about with Paul. I can’t tell him that Dee has tiptoed back into my life, and that for six months or more my little sister has been playing a hide-and-seek game of memory with me. Old tricks have stopped working. I tried to hide from Dee as long as I could, and the meanness of it descended on me like a fog. I couldn’t help it. Even now I’m trying to avoid her. It’s left me anxious, wondering whether I’ll trip over my sister in a corner I’ve forgotten. I haven’t been sleeping well, and I know it hasn’t made me easy to live with.
I wonder what Dee would have been like at thirty-five. Maybe she’d still have the same pot-belly and sense of fun. For me she’ll always have beach-bleached curls, a peeling nose, and trusting blue eyes. I think she would still love me. She was loyal to a fault. She forgave me everything when she was five.
I can’t believe it was nearly thirty years ago.
We never learnt what happened to her. She simply disappeared. If she drowned at the beach, how did she make it back to the water without anyone noticing? Her body never washed up. If she was hit by a car, reversing in the car park or accelerating to get home before the storm, why was there no scream or cry for help? The police believed she was abducted, but there was no sign of that either. No witnesses came forward to report anyone suspicious hanging around the beach.
Dee just vanished.
At first the loss and uncertainty were unbearable. Grief choked the breath out of my parents, and I could only breathe when they did. A pall of desperation settled over each of us as the weeks and months and years passed without answers. For me, though, a time came when the wound closed over. After all, I was a child. Dee simply wasn’t there anymore, and I learnt not to pick at the scab of it.
Her memory stayed buried for almost three decades, but lately the earth has begun to shift. Things I haven’t thought of for years—faces and smells, her touch and voice—are rising from the mud of my life like bones in a graveyard after a flood.
THE SHACK traces the toxic fall-out left by a family tragedy. When five-year-old Dee Purdy goes missing from a dressing shed during a summer storm, her sister, Shell, was left with her parents’ grief and her own guilt and confusion. Now, thirty years later, tiny Dee plays a hide-and-seek game of memory with Shell, who is forced to negotiate the unresolved minefield of loss and confront damage that she’s never truly understood.
Estranged from her father and fearful of having her own child, Shell falls pregnant but suffers a miscarriage. Her relationship with husband, Paul, breaks down, and Shell returns to the shack where her father has based himself in his years-long search for Dee. At her lowest ebb, Shell befriends a local artist, Bruce, and hears his story, a story which enables her to piece together her own.
With black humour guiding its jarring lock-step of memory and discovery, revealing what happened that summer’s day, the novel tells the stories behind Dee’s disappearance and shows how heartbreak and silence can distort lives for decades to come. THE SHACK offers unexpected answers after another young child goes missing.
The horror story of the Lost Child is one close to the Australian psyche. THE SHACK takes as its starting point a very recognisable national tragedy—the real-life disappearance of Cheryl Grimmer from a Wollongong beach—and reworks it to shine light on the impact of such events, which, although they fade from media attention, always leave questions and fault-lines that undermine so many lives.
My intention as author was for Shell to understand and accept her past; to open herself to others, especially Terry, her father; to share her secret with Paul; and to understand Bruce’s actions and give him her support. Through courage, daring, honesty, and insight, Shell finds a path towards the healing and love to which she has never felt entitled until now.
Lynne Cook lives in Wollongong in New South Wales, Australia. She is a Varuna alumna (Short Story Focus Week 2014) and won the Newcastle Short Story Prize in 2016. Two of her short stories were published in the 2016 anthology Award-Winning Australian Writing. A one-time teacher and academic, she has a doctorate in modern German literature from the University of New South Wales. The Shack is her first novel.
Embark, Issue 17, October 2022