Stella’s sport is fencing, and like maybe-boyfriend Daniel, she trains at St Augustine’s, the school on a finger of land between two rivers that flow into the harbour. Boundaries are blurred here, and ghosts slip the bonds of earth. Stella can see them. But when Rafe Manning and his enemy, Will Jacklin, from the colony’s early days, awaken, fencing becomes a real fighting skill that has to keep Stella and all her friends alive. Somehow the past has to be reconciled, but how can you forgive deeds that cannot be undone?
The girl who saw ghosts was hiding under a she-oak on the forbidden side of the fence. The night was coming down in slow degrees: the sun had set, a coolness was coming off the river, and fruit bats were winging gently across and up to the ancient and massive Morton Bay figs at the top of the ridge.
At three pm a southerly buster had ripped the oppressive heat of the day apart and as the temperature had fallen so had her blinkers. What was the use of being able to see ghosts if you couldn’t even recognise your real friends, Stella thought. Daniel was going to the dance tonight with Ally, because Stella had hurt him. Sara, into whose eager ears she had confided her sob story, had proved herself to be exactly what Vivienne and her Dad had said—the girl who sucked in gossip like a black hole and spat it out to the universe.
Skulking in the girls’ toilets and avoiding the cleaners hadn’t improved anything. She’d tried, but it wasn’t possible to pretend with any kind of bravado that she could get ready for the formal there as easily as at home. She’d stood in the toilet cubicle, putting on the dress she’d chosen in such hopeful anticipation, a pale delicate grey with a beaded bodice and floating overskirt, and just given up. When the rain started squalling and spitting on the iron roof, she grabbed her bag and ran across the oval and down the bank and through the fence and got under the whispering trees. The only thing she’d chosen right apparently was that the dress was basically uncrushable. Her feet were bare, her make-up undone. Her hair was like a mad fernery, wisps and tendrils everywhere.
Why was she even bothering to think about it?
This was the end of all the years of school, the one great, ridiculous, joyful night, and she wasn’t there, wasn’t going. AWOL like her mum. She’d put up with trying to shop with girlfriends, the whole stupid thing of buying the stupid dress and the shoes and the lipstick and the bag. Now she was sitting hiding under a tree, for heaven’s sake.
Her phone pinged.
Everyone would have arrived by now. There’d be background music playing, people lining up for photos, the bathroom full of girls already repairing make-up and comparing fake tans.
Her phone pinged.
She thought of everyone having fun in a kind of brimming golden TV glow while the mistakes that festered in the hidden crevices of her heart were being scoured out with bristling regrets.
Her phone pinged and it was Vivienne.
So I know you’re mad at Daniel but what’s happened? The Sara Cow arrived in her luxy limo and said you never even went to her place. WHERE ARE YOU?
Stella turned her phone off.
People thought of ghosts as old mostly, old and dusty with the whiff of the grave. But Rafe wasn’t. For all his lean purposefulness, the tatters of his soldier’s coat, and the eyes full of disillusion, she’d realised he was only a few years older than her. If you ignored the ghost bit. Stella wondered if you could kiss ghosts as well as see them. She wanted to take him to the formal just long enough to walk through the crowds of callow youths and mincing girls and sweep away all the stupid mistakes she’d made and the idiotic things she’d said and show the world.
She picked up her phone. Holding it was comforting. She looked back up the slope, turning her back on the river. Wishing wasn’t going to make Rafe appear, and going to the dance wasn’t going to happen, so she may as well just go home. She got herself back through the fence.
The almost-summer night had darkened. The hall stretched wide across the top of the grass slope, but all she could see of it was the series of windows and glass doors that faced across the oval and down to the river. Inside the hall would be a self-contained hive, humming with warm bodies, but from the outside, the strips of light lay on the grass like so many pale limbs.
The doors opened and the sound of the dance spilled out into the night. The endless deep repetitive bass of the music was joined by higher pitched sounds. Then bursts of chatter and laughter became people yelling. A fight chant. A girl screamed. Glass broke. Two security guards ran, out of breath, shouting. Stella saw Daniel and Ally, silhouetted in wide double doors, Gorboys behind them.
‘Nice dress, Ally,’ Gorboys said, ‘why don’t you get a man to match it?’ He pushed between them, smacking Ally on her bum. Dom pushed him back. Ally got her balance and ripped her shoes off. ‘Want to try the heels for size?’ She was aiming at Gorboys’ face.
Stella hesitated for a moment, then began to run towards the hall. Out of the darkness Vivienne grabbed her, ‘Where have you been?’ She tried to pull Stella away from the vortex. ‘You know what they’re like. You don’t want to be a target.’
The music pumped into the night. ‘Love, can’t get enough.’
Gorboy’s mate, Nicko, smashed through a window with a chair. Ed Farrow went one better, grabbing a classmate and thumping him against the window. With a sickened lurch, Stella realised the classmate was Kevin. She could just make out Shazzi and Colette in twin poses behind, hands to mouths stifling screams. She willed them to run and hide before the gang saw them and turned on them too.
Now Stella’s classmates began running pell-mell out through the doors, scattering in scared twos and threes. But the darkness of the night outside scared them too, so they ran and then they halted, looking back towards the light, huddling on the shadowy oval.
The music stopped. In the brittle silence, Shazzi and Collette ran out of the door at last, out and onto the grass, picking their way over shoes that lay abandoned like bones scattered by scavengers. When they came to the edge of the light, instead of halting or slipping into the darkness, they flicked on their phone torches and kept running.
Gorboys and Nicko sauntered out, watching them. Ed whistled.
‘Whoah!’ said Nicko. ‘Hey girls, need saving?’ The boys suddenly ran, loping through striations of light and dark towards the girls, circling them. Shazzi stumbled and her phone flew out of her hands, the torch glare flicking over and over, faces, bare arms, grass. Gorboys picked it up. ‘I’m keeping this one close,’ he crooned.
Ranged along the edge of the hall’s verandah, the teachers stood for a moment, like swimmers waiting for a signal to begin a race.
Gorboys moved in on Shazzi, pulling her into a forced embrace. ‘Dance with me, babe.’ Collette came at Gorboys from behind, digging her nails into his face. ‘Go dance with your wolf mates,’ she said.
Nicko and Ed sniggered, ‘Tasty!’
Kevin stumbled out of the window and lurched towards them, raging. One of the male teachers, Stella thought it was Mr Oatley, suddenly sprang into action and pulled Kevin back. The spell was broken, and three other teachers started running towards the girls. The two security guards charged towards Gorboys. In the shadows, Stella watched the boys’ postures change. Their arms went out, they thrust out their chests, their stance widened. They roared into the night.
Stella shook herself free of Vivienne’s hold.
‘You’ll get hurt!’ Viv said.
‘I can’t just leave them.’
Then it happened. Out of the corners of her eyes, Stella saw ghosts begin to rise, shaking the bonds of the sticky black earth and slipping into the free dark night. Life called to them and they were greedy for it, greedy for the unbridled excess of emotions that had been circling the hall all night. They sniffed the special tang on the fringe of every freedom: pride, humiliation, jealousy and lust. Like Rafe, these ghosts too wore tattered long coats, but these coats flashed a brindled red. Tarnished brass buttons, the occasional ragged and faded epaulettes and grubby white belts betrayed the ghosts’ sojourn on earth. Black stains marked the death wounds of violence: death by bayonet, by musket, by sword and knife, by stabbing, by strangulation, by hanging. Their disease-corrupted bodies still moved, though, as if the moral corruptions were a web that meshed them to the earth. They gloried in the melee. They put their faces to the moon and howled and laughed like the dogs they were. They stretched out their arms to encompass the world. Life called to them again and they answered. Their rusted weapons came out of the earth: knives, swords, hafts of bayonets. The Brown Bess technology of gunpowder had wasted quickly, but iron—iron was the weapon of kings, of real men, of unending grudges, the unafraid, the close quartered, and of the dead.
Leading them all was Will Jacklin. Stella recognised him straight away. The way his walk was a strut. The way the others arrayed themselves around him and looked to him for affirmation, even when they were all dead. His natural acceptance of adulation as his due right. Stella suddenly remembered the way Gorboys’ mother had stood in the Rivers Primary School office and yelled at the office ladies, the teachers, the Principal, ‘her boy’ she said, ‘Her Boy’, making excuses for everything. It was never his fault.
Gorboys lifted his head. Ed Farrow turned one way, Nicko the other. They had heard the howling of the ghosts. They smelled something. The trio was joined by others, Sean, Quinny, Dooges, Brenno. They formed up in a rough line and roared through the huddled couples, then, turning, circled back, wide and weaving, knocking, barging, grabbing at limbs and hair, tackling fleeing feet, rolling on the ground laughing and leaping up to roar again. Another pair of boys emerged from out of the trees, carting a duffle bag between them. Bottles appeared. Beer bottles and spirits. The gang roared, bottles held high, and the ghosts joined in. They howled and laughed at the night. Everyone could see them now. Life had called them back.
The scattered groups of Stella’s classmates called out in the darkness to their friends, tried edging crab-wise towards each other, coalesced in the margins. ‘We need light!’ someone called. The principal yelled from the sidelines but her voice was lost. If the police were on their way it made no difference. The hunters were circling their prey, herding them into deeper darkness.
Now the fear was terrible, and with the fear, the ghosts became more and more real. Their death wounds began to seep afresh with blood, and their suppurations mixed with the smell of rum and dirt that rolled through the air. The ghosts of miserable men could still wield power. What was a little rust on a sharp blade? The weapon could still kill.
A hand gripped Stella’s left shoulder from behind. Another hand reached around and grabbed her wrist. She screamed and kicked out.
‘Stop!’ said a voice, ‘Listen. Once Jacklin is gone, the others are nothing.’ Rafe moved round in front of Stella. ‘I’ve watched you,’ he said, ‘you’ve got Hannah’s spirit. I’ve waited a long time to avenge her death.’ Then he put a weapon into her hand, and he kissed her once and they walked through the crowd of callow boys and mincing girls, bright sword and a shadow sword together. And Stella barely paid attention to the nasty flicker of thought in the edge of her mind. Maybe she wasn’t the girl who could see ghosts. Maybe she was the girl who summoned them.
Megan de Kantzow has published a children’s novel, Holiday of the Lifetime, and three picture books with Omnibus / Scholastic, (Just You Wait! ills. Craig Smith, Me, Oliver Bright, ills. Sally Rippin, and Bushranger Bill, ills. Amanda Graham), as well as non-fiction. She is also an English teacher.