This week Hachette Australia publishing house have shared an extract one of their latest publications: Inga Simpson's Where the Trees Were.
Lachlan Valley, 1987
WE FLOATED DOWNRIVER. Stringybarks and red gums leaned over the water, throwing shade too thin for the heat. The boys were ahead of me, in formation. I had missed the start and given up, let them go. It was quieter on my own. Sometimes it was as if the water was talking and I liked to listen.
There were four of us. Five, counting Matty. We left Kieran’s little brother at home when we could, but during the holidays it was difficult to get away without him.
I drifted past the swinging tree, with its knotted rope, waiting. Ahead, Kieran paddled towards the beach, wanting to win, although it wasn’t really a race. I paddled, too, now, to catch up. Kieran was out, on the scoop of pale sand and gathering up his lilo. The back of his calves were burnt brown, disappearing up the bank. Ian was out next, then Josh, then Matty and me. We pelted along the path, well worn by us and stock coming down to drink. Our bare feet gripped the earth, impervious to rocks and roots. On land I was quicker, more certain, even dragging the lilo, and left Matty behind.
From a high point on the bank – the launching pad – we threw ourselves into the water all over again, rubber slapping on water and skin slapping on rubber. This time I got myself into a better position, where the river was deep and ran more swiftly, helping me move in front of Kieran. I was lighter and, if I kept my balance, would reach the shore first this time.
‘No paddling!’ he said.
‘I’m not.’ I pulled in my arms, tucked them by my sides, and lay my cheek on the pillow of the lilo. Once red and navy, it was now more pink and grey, from the sun. My swimmers top itched where I was peeling and I wished, not for the first time, that I could still take it off the way I used to, and go bare-chested with the boys. Mum had put an end to that last summer – saying I was too old. Ian and Josh floated out either side. Our wingmen. Matty called from behind, which we ignored, although Kieran did glance over his shoulder to make sure he wasn’t drowning.
‘What time do you reckon it is?’ Ian squinted into the sun.
‘Not even close to lunch, yet,’ Josh said.
Ian was always most concerned with time, for fear of missing a meal. Fear of his dad, too. His mum worked, so he had as many chores as us even though they lived in town, and was always in trouble for getting home late or messing them up.
Matty paddled to catch up, his splashes getting closer. ‘I’m hungry, too,’ he said.
Dragonflies flitted and dipped between us. We drifted around the bend in a languid line, as if the river was ours, as if it always would be.
Afternoons were for swinging.
We climbed up the tree and onto the horizontal branch, waiting our turn to place our feet on the knot, grip the rope and throw ourselves out into midair, to freefall into the river. If the timing was right, the arc perfect, we would reach the middle and touch the bottom with our feet or our hands, depending how we had left the rope.
The water was cold down there, brown and quiet. Things brushed against my skin. I felt a pull, not just of the river, the current wanting to carry me. When I looked up to the surface, the world was strange and far away, as if perhaps I was no longer part of it. But I always needed breath and had to return to the surface, and then it seemed that I belonged after all.
Matty couldn’t get his swing right, lacking the strength to push out far enough, and often hesitating before jumping. So one of us would push him and tell him when to let go, or jump with him. It was all easy for Kieran. He was getting muscles and moods and had started wearing board shorts over his Speedos. He did somersaults and dives and bombs to impress us, sending up great fountains of water. Sometimes he would climb to the top of the tree and dive from there. I held my breath when he did that, even though I wasn’t underwater, because I knew that he was too high and, with the summer we’d had, the river too low.
We had been at it for an hour or so when we found ourselves up the tree without Kieran. For a while it was fun. I could keep up with Ian and Josh and we jumped in pairs, taking turns with Matty. Then we found ourselves all in, treading water. Waiting for Kieran. Even the cockatoos had gone quiet.
‘I’m tired,’ Matty said. I let him grab my shoulders, although it nearly sent me under.
Ian looked towards the shore. ‘Maybe he’s started on the food already.’
Josh’s hair was sticking straight up on top, like wet straw. ‘Should we go look for him?
‘There he is,’ I said.
Kieran was high on the bank, gesturing for us to follow, as if we weren’t already on our way. The look on his face was enough. The promise of something new – an adventure.
SHE SHIVERED. THE basement was kept at a constant temperature – twenty degrees – but always felt colder at night. She had been sitting still too long.
The few times she had worked into the night, prepping for a big exhibition, had been with others, the place alive with movement and noise. In the low fluorescent light, and the quiet, the room most resembled a morgue, its walls lined with specimen jars and stuffed animals, the tables littered with dismembered and decaying objects, some being prepared for display, others for storage or disposal. Until recently, there had been human remains, too. They were hidden away now, off site, awaiting identification and repatriation. The knowledge of them lingered in the room.
She stretched one leg and then the other, closed her hands into fists and released them. Upstairs, the night guard would be completing another circuit, around the great masters and the other pieces deemed of significant cultural value. Frank always did Wednesday nights. Unless he was sick, which had only happened once in five years. Or when he was on leave. He took his four weeks all at once, over Christmas, every year. He was one of those guys counting down the remaining workdays until retirement, actually crossing them off the calendar with a red texta. He was old enough to be in the original super scheme, which through some drafting glitch, gave a financial return so good, if retiring at age fifty-four years and eleven months – rather than fifty-five – that you had to work for another ten years to match it. ‘Fifty-four eleven’, they called it. Or they used to, before September Eleven.
They had shut that scheme down before her time. It was another of the baby boomer booms she was paying for. Like the rest of her generation, she would have to work until she was sixty. In theory, anyway. It could all be over tonight.
Her stomach growled. Being alone with her thoughts had been peaceful at first but now those thoughts kept coming back to food – the pasta she might have had for dinner, the pear she had forgotten to eat for afternoon tea, the sushi she could have packed in her pockets. The emergency power bar still in her pannier.
She checked her watch again. Frank would be in the tearoom, his two-minute noodles turning in the microwave. She could almost smell them. Right on midnight, he sat down at the square table, with a detective novel – it was always a detective novel – and slurped and read for fifteen minutes. The monitors allowed him to keep one eye on things. Or they would, but he sat with his back to them, listening to jazz through his earphones. It was always jazz.
They had been installing an exhibition around the clock, trying to make the opening on time after a customs delay, when she had first seen him. The presence of five senior conservationists scoffing Turkish pizza at the tearoom counter hadn’t disturbed his routine in the slightest. She should have reported him. Someone should have. It was a major security flaw: a ten-minute window. Just what she had been looking for.
She moved now, a shadow in the shadows, to deactivate the alarms, disarm the outer cameras, and open the gate. The loading dock camera was out of order. A stroke of luck she had taken for a good sign.
The driver backed in: lights off, plates and brakelights covered, reversing alarm disconnected. The truck was gunmetal grey and immaculate.
The exhibit was waiting. Like a prisoner, it had been prepped for transfer tomorrow, back out to the Mitchell storage facility. Laid out and bubble-wrapped. Bubble wrap for fuck’s sake. But all that plastic would help it travel safe now. It was worth a hell of a lot to the right people.
The truck’s tray crept closer to the ramp. She held up a gloved hand, signalling stop. His face, like hers, was hidden beneath a cheap black balaclava, but his eyes shone in the side mirror. She started the forklift, eased forward. Its modified prongs were more used to paintings, busts and sculptures, but it took the package in a familiar embrace. She raised it slow and steady, just one finger on the hydraulic lever, as she had practised, keeping the package balanced.
They were almost out of time.
He tapped his hands on the wheel, watching the clock. He could still take off, fly free, if something went wrong; that was their agreement. She drove to the edge of the ramp and lowered the forks onto the truck’s tray.
He climbed out of the cab and onto the back, gripping the tree as she reversed. He rolled it into the middle of the tray, spun it lengthways, and covered it with a soft tarp while she parked the forklift and cut the motor. In the quiet, she could breathe again.
She caught one end of each strap, looped it under the rail, and threw it back. He tightened the fasteners.
She climbed into the passenger seat, shut the door. Thirty seconds. He was up and in, all in one smooth movement. Twenty seconds. They drove out the gate and into the lane, into the night, and along streets still damp from the afternoon’s late shower. It was windy on the bridge, the water choppy in yellow lamplight, and then they looped away via the off ramp. There were few cars on the Parkway, and lights twinkled in the satellite city centre in the valley. She kept one eye on the lanes behind them in her side mirror. He watched the road ahead. ‘So far, so good,’ he said.
They were already pulling into the warehouse by the time the automated message alerting her to the security breach flashed on her pager.
Their footsteps were loud on the concrete, the space inside vast and empty around the truck. They bumped fists for a job well done before slipping out the side door. He locked it behind them.
They walked in opposite directions without looking back.
It was cold, even in her fleece and jacket. Even with her blood still pumping. She walked to the car park of the nearby club, fished her keys from her pocket and unlocked her bike. There was already a crust of frost on the grass.
She cut across the club’s service road to the bike path. Her headlight showed the way around the curves and through dips, up that last steep rise. Back past the empty city centre. It was the ghost town everyone said it was. She saw no one.
The sky was so clear she could see the pits on the moon. Her legs had found a rhythm; she was part of the bike, and together they were part of the universe. The stars looked on, guiding her home through the empty streets and around the back of her local shops. She threw the balaclava and gloves into the cafe’s skip, which would be emptied in three hours. She shook out her hair, ran her fingers through it.
There should have been a further message on her pager by now but the screen was blank.
The carport light didn’t flicker on. She had remembered to cut the switch when she left this morning. Yesterday morning. She locked her bike and slipped up the back steps in the dark. Something stirred in the hedge. She removed her shoes, opened the door, and padded to her bedroom without turning on the lights. She stripped, left her clothes on the floor in a neat pile, and slid between cold sheets.
She went back over every detail, every moment. No one had seen them, nothing had gone wrong. There had been no mistakes. On the road home she had just been a cyclist. It was done.
One afternoon in 2011, I stumbled across an early draft of Mr Wigg in the QWC/Hachette Australia Manuscript Development Program submission pile. I was, at the time, a publicity manager for Hachette Australia, and fell instantly in love with what was to become a bestselling and extremely well-received novel. Released in 2013, Mr Wigg was followed by Nest in 2014 – an equally outstanding novel that was longlisted for the Miles Franklin and the Stella Prize and shortlisted for the ALS Gold Medal and the Queensland Literary Awards Peoples’ Choice.
Where the Trees Were is Inga Simpson’s new novel. My first as her publisher, but not my first as a fan of her gorgeous writing. Within these pages is a captivating story about the innocence of childhood and the scars that stay with you for life. It is a meditation on sacred places, real and imagined, and the lengths to which we will go to right past wrongs.
Told through the parallel narratives of Jay as a youth and as an adult, Where the Tree Were sweeps you into the story of what happened on a very special day by the bank of the river – those childhood vows and that overwhelming need to keep the promises made, no matter the cost.
I hope you love this story as much as I do, and that you tell your friends and family about it. Books this special deserve to be read, discussed and shared.
Publisher, Hachette Australia
Inga Simpson began her career as a professional writer for government before gaining a PhD in creative writing. In 2011, she took part in the Queensland Writer's Centre Manuscript Development Program and as a result, Hachette published her first novel, the acclaimed MR WIGG, in 2013, followed by NEST in 2014. Her most recent novel, NEST, was shortlisted for the Courier Mail People’s Choice Award, the ALS Gold Medal, and longlisted for the 2015 Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Stella Prize. In 2015 she was awarded a 2015 QLD Literary Fellowship. You can find her @NestOfPages.