Storyglossia Issue 28, May 2008.


by Finbarr McCarthy


I'm in my office, at my desk. A detective amongst detectives. Not for the first time, I'm shrinking, dragged backwards through some kind of tunnel. There's a buzzing. I'm trying, God knows I'm trying, but I can't picture my wife's face.

I can see her, as a dress, moving around the house. A wine glass. A shape, in her single bed. But her face. No. I try to control my breathing, fighting a sudden headache that digs through the back of my left eye.

One of the younger detectives hesitates as he approaches me, I pretend to be peering into the screen.


I look up, "Yeah mate?"

"Well . . . "

"What is it?"

"Your boy."

"Is he ok?"

"Yeah, yeah, but look, we didn't know if we should have told you or not. Also there's—"

I watch him take a breath, his double chin, white-pink meat, drops across his loose collar.

"Told me what?"

"We've been given the job, D.C. Scott and myself, to follow Jack."


"He's all over the place Boss, we have to follow him in and out of shops, up and down escalators. Talk about taking the long way home from school!"


"Well, we've noticed he's been nicking things."


"Yeah, nothing major, magazines, small toys, food. We reckon he's swapping it with his mates at school."

"Right, thanks."

"Sorry. We didn't know if—"

"No, that's good, you did the right thing mate. Thanks. I'll have a word with him about this."

I wait for him to move away. But he sways, then grimaces, rubbing the back of his neck. He does that and I see a line-up. Ten, twenty men, all identical, all rubbing their necks. All eating KFC. Some weird grim chorus.

I put my pen down to hide the shaking,

"What was the 'also' about then?"

"Your daughter."




I leave my car and take the path to the lookout above Fairy Bower. From there, I can trace the coastline of Sydney's northern beaches and watch the swell as it pushes up from the south, giving surfers some solid power to paddle into.

I feel tempted to drop the memory-stick over the fence, into the caves and salt below. But I think of that and of Greenie, my informant, who'd passed me the stick with trust.

I see an older looking man taking off, way back, into a heavy wave. I've got a multi media snap show around my neck with enough material to bring down a lot of people.

The neck rubbing chorus surrounds me. Beer burping KFC angels. Colleagues in crappy suits. They remind me of the words my wife, Theresa, had to hear on her mobile: 'Tell your old man, that information dies, or you and your kids do. If you think we're taking the piss, have a look inside unit 8/7 Tower Street, Manly.'

Tower Street. Hanging Tower for Greenie.

I close my eyes and listen to the ocean. Twenty-four hour protection, each of my family followed everywhere until we sort this out.

I had no idea.

The next weekend, I drive to the city. I haven't been here for a while, but know Club Bermuda well. This part of the city stamped itself on me as a young cop more than twenty years earlier. The all day all night neon peacock bars designed for pissed international punters, local pissheads, footy crowds and office workers. An Eastern Suburbs piss and ecstasy fantasyland.

Knowing I can easily hide in the crowded darkness, I lean in a corner of the dark rectangular playroom. It's a Saturday, 2 p.m., hard rock. The bars are lined, people watching the action on the raised stage in the centre of the room.

The girls take turns with their acts, stripping, cock-teasing. After twenty minutes, I see her, recognising her immediately. She wears transparent robes, a mask, my little girl. I feel my eyes harden, some dark music in my head that surges from within. The deep lines in my forehead thicken, burn.

As she moves well to the music, acting it up, giving it more than the other girls, I feel sick. She doesn't see me.

A week later, the two of us are alone, having breakfast together. I don't want it this way, but I don't know what else to say. I can't tell Theresa, this'd freak her out. She's been in some other world for ages, snapping at me. I haven't told her about the tests.

Eighteen years old, Catherine's old enough to do what she wants. But no, I can't let it happen. Can I?

Catherine has Theresa's slender wrists. She sits barefooted, in faded jeans and an old, stretched, brown polo neck jumper. Her long brown hair is tied back into a loose ponytail. For a moment, as she yawns and pours us both a cup of tea, I think I see the suggestion of a bite on her neck. So what.

I'd thought of gentler ways to get there, but when I open up it comes out like this: "Cath I'm sorry, but I know what you really do for work."

Still half asleep, Catherine takes in what I've just said. I can see her eyes darken as they fill with tears, as she tries to use her anger to hide her embarrassment.

"Dad? I work in a factory."

I've said enough. My smile isn't meant to be mean or patronising. But the shit hits the fan anyway. She drops her fork, throws down her tea and storms out. I think she'll be there upstairs to talk later, but by the time I've washed up, the front door slams and she's gone.



I find Theresa's note, beneath a newspaper on the kitchen table.

"Doctor wants u come in urgent. discuss x rays. What x rays Tom? U ok?"

I grab a football, throw it against a wall and try to head it into Jack's arms. Instead, it hits my nose and rebounds into a vase of flowers. Jack and I rush to clean up the mess, laughing, before Theresa gets home. From work? Like two naughty boys we're down on our knees.

Jack, gangly, thin boned, thick wild brown hair flopping across his red excited face, cups the fallen petals and stuffs them in the vase while I try to arrange the flower stems. We both stand and scuff over the water on the carpet with our feet.

"Well," I smile at my boy, "We going out for a game then?"


Jack sprints up to his bedroom to get his boots and Sydney FC T shirt. I can see it coming: he's eleven now, but in two or three years, my son won't automatically want to be with his dad will he? Or love talking to me. In fact, my son might want to get away from his old man.

I feel a tightening in my eyes, wondering if that's what I deserve anyway, how much time have I given to my boy?

As we drive, I take a work call on my mobile, directing me to a park not far away.

"Hey mate, mind if we stop off somewhere first, before our kick-around?"

Jack's face lifts, happy to be playing anywhere with me, "I don't care."

I go on, "Listen Jack. When we get to this place can you do me a favour and stay in the car?"


"It's police work, you know, children aren't allowed."

He nods.

"Thanks mate."

I pull up inside a small park. Two police cars have sealed off the driveway to a shallow pond. I press my hand on Jack's shoulder, "Won't be long mate."


I dip under the fluorescent police tape, see the partially covered body on the stretcher. Police divers wade through the pond, searching beneath the surface. I introduce himself to the police on the scene. To one side, the forensic crew discuss the best way to approach the situation.

I check the body. The dead girl is on her back on the ground with her left, bruised, arm uncovered. Her hand, with it's long pink fingernails, is a claw. The nail from her ring finger is missing. I take a quick breath and pull back the cover from her face.

Strands of matted black hair stick across her forehead and eyes, her lips are cracked, torn. Her mouth darkened, water, blood. Even with the bloated change that her type of death creates, I recognise her: Elsa White, Greenie's girlfriend.

I see Jack from the corner of my eye. He's out of the car, half hidden by a thin young tree, staring at Elsa. I hadn't wanted him to see any of this.

He's quiet as I bend back into the car. I can tell he thinks he's in trouble.

"Don't worry about it Jack. I don't, it's just, you know, not the best thing for you to see."

He stares at me,"Dad, you ok?"

I smile. A lie. This threat is real. I have to decide and think. A headache grows.

We drive away in silence and soon reach another park with marked football fields to have our kick-around. And for a while, laughing in the mud, we can almost forget Elsa. Exhausted, we stop for a breather.

Picking at scabs on his muddy knees, Jack sits cross legged on the grass next to me. His wet, tangled hair covers his eyes as he half turns to me.


"Yeah, mate?"

"Was that person dead?"

Swirling the football in the mud, I take a deep breath and pick the ball up.

"Yes. She's dead."

Jack freezes.



"But it wasn't that deep."


I want to change the subject, but can see how worried Jack is as he sits, staring across the muddy field, then he comes out with:"What's drowning like?"

I try to imagine.

"Can't say for sure, but I've read things where people have said that it was really peaceful, even enjoyable."

Jack turns, surprising me with a sudden, high-pitched breathlessness in his voice,

"But how could they tell anyone, if they'd drowned?"

"Well, they were, you know, resuscitated."


"Where did you learn that?"


"Good, yeah, CPR."

"She was a weird colour."

I let the ball drop. Jack straightens one of his legs to hook the ball away.

"Yeah. Look, try not to think about it too much mate."

"Did you know her?"

"Can we talk about something else, want to go in goal?"


I think I hear a voice but then it disappears. Again, the urge to vomit. The football changes colour. But this, I've read, can be a symptom. I've Googled it. Google the god. Google slips by, to the side of my vision.

We take a walk around the park. Jack keeps very close, holding the ball. It's nice, he's leaning against me like he did when he was a lot smaller.

"Jack, everything ok?"

I can see him looking at me, surprised.


"Everything ok at school and everything?"




I can sense that he's irritated, he pulls away, just that little bit.

"Got enough pocket money?"

Jack frowns, vague,"Yeah."

I'm guessing that isn't true.

"What's, I mean—"


"You now that you can ask me if you need money for something. I'm not saying you'll always get it, though."

"Yeah, sure."

"How are your friends?"

Jack shrugs, "Ah, you know."

"Any getting into trouble?"


"If they were doing stupid stuff you'd walk away wouldn't you?"

"'Course I would."

I pretend not to notice Jack blushing.

"I mean, you wouldn't do stupid stuff like some boys do."

"Like what?"


Jack avoids my eyes,"No way."

"Good, cops—"


"No one really gets away with that sort of stuff, someone finds out, cops know."

"Know what?"

"Well, it's our job," I do my wolf smile,

"We know everything."

For a second, I can see that Jack might believe me. I have to rest. I buy him an ice cream from a small shop near the entrance to the park. We sit for a while, watching the traffic. He looks very worried.

"Only kidding."

He smiles,"I know."

Both Jack and I are uncertain about this conversation. As I think, space opens up before me, empty, the edge of a desert. The words are there.

"Jack. I'm sorry."

"What for dad?"

I shrug, want to say so much. But I force my lips together to hide my emotions. He sits there, rubbing his arm.



A few days later, Theresa leaves me another note, "Have you two had a fight?? Did u go doctor?"

Notes. That's all it is these days.

The next weekend I take Jack out again in the car.

"Mate, we're just taking a side trip to the pond we were at that time, ok?"

Jack frowns, then surprises me with his loud voice—

"What for?"

"I want to do something."

"At the pond?"


Recognising the fear in his voice, I wonder if he might have been having nightmares about Elsa.

"What's, I mean what do you want to do there?"

I can't think what to say, instead, I smile. But he sees my eyes, looks away and plays with his Ipod.

I pull over at a small roadside stall. Returning to the car, I hand him a bunch of red roses. He removes his earplugs.

"Here, hold these mate."

We arrive at the pond, leave the car and stand together by the water's edge. It seems more normal now, the only signs of the week before are a few tyre marks in the muddy sand. I put my hand on Jack's shoulder.

"Know that girl last week?"


"I know . . . knew her."

"Is she your friend?"

"No, police stuff."

Jack seems frozen, but his thumbs are circling around each other.

"Did someone kill her?"

I want to answer, to say yes, but I can't put something terrible like that in my son's mind. Instead, I gesture to the pond.



"Throw the flowers in."


"Yeah, here."

Jack tries throwing the flowers into the middle of the pond, but too far. Instead, they flap through the air and land in the water, almost silently, just a few metres from our feet. They drift, brushed by a soft breeze.

"Oh no."

"Don't worry, that's fine."

We watch in silence. Two ducks swam nearby. I bow my head, feeling Elsa watching, maybe wanting something from me. But I don't know that I can give it. As we watch the ducks swim around the flowers, Jack copies me until the silence is too much for him.

"Dad, do you give flowers to everyone?"


"Why are you leaving some here?"

I shrug, knowing that I'm trying to prepare him. And myself. "Because it feels like the right thing to do, don't you reckon. I mean, she's, she's lost so much."

He says nothing, but leans against me, his mouth clenched, his tongue pressing against his cheek.



Sitting in a toilet cubicle at work, it feels like my power is draining away, my control. In my throat, on my tongue, I can taste pumpkin, jasmine, coal. There's an echo.

Beyond my door I hear two men enter the room. One is Steve Burke, the fat young detective in charge of the protection unit, the other sounds like he must be one of the crew rostered on to protect Theresa, Jack and Catherine until we decide they're safe again.

As he pisses, Steve Burke grunts and then sighs,

"She's alright ain't she?"

"Good looker that Theresa, nice arse."

I sit, elbows on my knees, squeezing my body into silence, listening to the two men.

"Big tits."

"Too big."

"Never too big mate."

I think about flushing the toilet and surprising them, but Steve speaks,"Reckon Tom knows?"


"She's been seeing someone else."

"Not unless you tell him."

"Or you."

"Wouldn't do it mate."

I feel my face and neck flushing red, my gut twisting again. I stare down around my ankles at my trousers and underpants.

"Finished though ain't it?"

"Hard to say."

"How long has it been going on?"

"Before we started."

"How often?"

"Once a week, same motel, usually two hours."


"Nice arse."

The sharp groan of the hinged lavatory door signals the men's departure. I fight the tears, give way to the cramp in my gut. My bowels explode.

Twenty minutes later, pins and needles in both legs, not wanting anyone to see my swollen, red, eyes, I take the fire stairs and limp away from the building. In what feels like an unreal, slanting world, I try to drive home.



You sit on a bench, beneath a tree. The edges of your vision are burning margins. Your eyeballs ache. You make binocular hands around your eyes to stop the pain, but it grows, every throb, clamping down into your gut. Was the light, off the ocean, was it like that before? Vicious.

But you need to look, as if you will never see again. You manage one eye open, to watch the people. The pulse darkens, until you are next to yourself, watching. That, is better. Here, you are senses, no barrier from tastes and smells. Vanilla and mint ice cream, diesel, seaweed, sputum, blood.

You watch yourself, a tall, tired man. Stooping into an odd shape. A woman pushing a stroller stops to look at you. You can see she might think that you are drunk, so she moves on.

Seagulls wince you further in. Children chasing and screaming with excitement. You're standing next to their father, he sounds Dutch. He follows them, watching every step. You feel your body cramping, pulling you back, but you want to grasp after him. That was you, once—there—one step behind them.

Sound grows. The questions you want to ask yourself are slammed by a high pitched light that sears from ear to eye. Then, nothing.



Inoperable. I try to fight the meaning of that word and for the first treatments I say I'll be away, on a small holiday. Tell them that's how I need to do it.

The times we've been here. I remember Catherine's small hand in mine, the stretch in my shoulder as she pulled and skipped, wanting an ice cream. Our family holiday. Little girl's hands. Baby fingers.

Following the scenic road, I drive through the small Central Coast towns, along the isolated beaches. It's late autumn so finding a room in the old hotel won't be a problem.

Lights on, mine is the only car making its way through the headlands. The country seems more beautiful than I'd remembered. The skies are wild, shifting.

Below, in a gradual darkness, the ocean sucks and draws against the familiar coastline. I arrive at the old holiday hotel and as I park, taking my suitcase from the boot, I can feel the cold change, the wind picking up.

Coming here during the summer with my family, I'd never felt a cold wind in this place. I take a breath, knowing that this isn't the school holiday—ice cream and excited children mood: this is further.

This is my deal with whoever judges. One day, it may be found. One day the evidence will be seen. One day, Greenie, Elsa and others may receive their justice. I can't plan it. Maybe it will give my children and wife the time to grow and be safe, away from danger. I picture, hope, really, that the men and women who control lives with money and fear—maybe they'll be old, incontinent, unable to come after anyone.

With my children, I've been down along this path many times. The long path beneath the hotel that reaches to the edge of the headland, to a fence that protects visitors from the sudden cliff edge.

The path is loose, made from old bricks, tiles and logs, all hinting at a planned walkway, but then abandoned, for some other time.

I know the spot, behind trees, (out of view of the hotel windows, we were sure). I dig with a knife and cut away a tangled hand-sized trap door of weeds, mud and gravel. The brick is still there. I heft it out and for a moment, cannot breathe.

Wrapped in plastic, are Catherine's bracelets, Jack's toy car, a lighter from me, the photographs and notes we'd written in the darkness. My eyes sting. I know that I can not touch this treasure without my heart breaking. I take a photo of myself with my mobile phone, at the new markings, then wrap the phone in plastic and, with the memory stick, drop it into the hole.

Inside my room, I drink the whisky, catch my gaunt reflection. From outside, I see the baby, the little girl and Theresa teasing me, rubbing their faces into the glass. They disappear with quiet giggles, to play.

Copyright©2008 Finbarr McCarthy

Finbarr McCarthy lives in Sydney. Return is adapted from a novel in progress. his stories have been published in Australia and New Zealand and in a number of online publications, including Southern Ocean Review and Austrailianreader. His first book, Sydney From Below, explored the world of Australia's homeless men and women.