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Authors: Mandy Hager

Nature of Ash, The

BOOK: Nature of Ash, The
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To Brian

With eternal love and gratitude

Go to your bosom; Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know.

— William Shakespeare

THE UNITED PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC
(aka
UPR
): China, East Russia, United Korea, Japan, Republic of Indochina, Fiji, Chile

 

THE WESTERN ALLIANCE
(aka
WA
): USA, UK, Australia, Taiwan, Malaysian Federation, Republic of Indonesia, Peru

 

STATE-SIDERS:
Citizens of the USA

 

CTU:
Combined Trade Unions

IF EVER THERE’S A NIGHT
to get rat-arsed with my mates this surely is it. For the last two days we’ve huddled around the TV in the common room as all hell breaks loose. Blustering politicians. Stand-up arguments in the United Nations. The jackbooted hordes of the United People’s Republic parading past their Leader in a show of force. And then there’s the combined ranting of the Aussies and their mates in the Western Alliance, who started all this argy-bargy before I was even born.

What freaks us most is news that somewhere out in our territorial waters the UPR’s torpedoed an Australian ship! Of course they’re bleating that they were provoked. If you ask me they’re just flipping the bird. But now we’re forced into the middle of this stupid game — and no amount of dribbling on about us being clean, green and peace-loving is going to help.

Even Dad is rattled. I talked to him right after the torpedo hit. ‘I don’t like it, mate. I want you home the moment this thing escalates, which it will.’ He sounded totally exhausted. ‘We warned them it would come to this.’ Yesterday the Aussies declared the torpedoing an act of war. Today our own Prime Minister says the UPR will have to pay the price.
Some price
. We’re out there now, manoeuvring our tragic little fleet of naval ships into defensive positions while we wait for back-up — about as scary as three wetas facing off a hawk.

So tonight we switch the TV off and gather in my hostel room, hell-bent on drowning all this crap beneath a sea of drink. It’s so bloody unfair. If those sabre-rattling douches shut the country down, we’ll be sent home. And once you drop out of uni, it’s damn near impossible to get back in. So much for my grand plans of doing good: there’s no way I can be a speech and language specialist if I don’t complete the full three years. With nearly half the working population unemployed already, and all the decent jobs reserved for those who have the right contacts — the stinking rich — chances are we’ll end up slaving in some sweat shop — or, worse, signed up against our wills to fight another no-win war. But, worst of all, I’d have to go back home, back to a life as boring and predictable — and hard — as it was before.

My roommate Hayden’s hanging out the window, smoking a joint, when someone raps on the door.

‘Piss off, Tania,’ Jeremy, who rooms next door with Harry, brays on our behalf. Our straight-laced third-year House Mother must’ve smelt the pot.

The Queen of Party-Poopers knocks again, this time
a little louder. ‘Police,’ she calls, and we roll around in gales of laughter. As if.

‘Ashley McCarthy?’ A man’s voice this time. Something in his tone makes Hayden chuck his half-smoked number out the window. He flaps his arms like a windmill in a flawed attempt to clear the air.

I signal Joe to turn the music down, and clamber over gangly limbs to press my eye against the peep-hole. ‘Bloody hell! It really is the cops!’

Hayden’s eyes meet mine. I jerk my head. He takes the hint: grabs our small collective stash and launches out the window — thank god our room’s on the ground floor. Only when he’s disappeared do I unsnib the lock and peer out. A woman and a man. No sign of Mother T.

‘Ashley?’ The lady cop looks up from her open notebook to arrest my gaze. I sense she’s not angry but, believe me, there’s something dire lurking right behind her eyes.

‘That’s me.’ I’m feeling sick until it strikes me that my retard of a brother’s probably done a bunk. ‘Has Mikey disappeared?’

The cops glance at each other and the man clears his throat. ‘Is there somewhere more … private … we can talk?’

‘Hold on a sec.’ I close the door on them and turn back to my pisshead friends. ‘I gotta go. I think Mikey’s run away.’

Jeremy unearths my jacket from the pile of crap on the floor. Lobs it to me underarm. ‘You want me to come?’

‘No … but thanks. I’ve dealt with this a thousand times. The little shit’s probably chatting up some
slapper in a downtown bar!’ I slip my jacket on and find my phone in the pocket. Damn. There’s one missed call from Dad and two from little bro.

I join the cops out in the corridor. The three cheap pre-mixes I’ve sculled have left me dying for a leak — but there’s no time for that. My phone is ringing now. ‘Hello?’

‘Ashy, you gotta talk to Jow Jow!’

‘Mikey, you little bugger! Where are you?’ I nod at the male cop and mouth:
It’s him!

‘Where’s Dad?’ Mikey demands, like I would know.

‘Where are you?’

‘Home. Police. You gotta talk to Jow Jow.’

There’s some kind of muffled conversation, then this girl comes on the phone. ‘Is that Ashley?’

Jiao
. The foreign student Dad hired to care for Mikey after school. She’s UPR, though Dad reckons she’s lived here for years. He says that Mikey likes her but I’m not sure why he would — she’s always sounded such a deadpan bore.

‘Yeah, sorry. It’s me.’

‘I don’t know what to do,’ she says, rushing on. ‘Your father isn’t here and isn’t answering his phone. And there were police—’

‘Jiao, wait!’ I press the mute button and turn to look directly at the cops, who are standing right behind me. I’m starting to feel queasy. My head throbs like hell. ‘Why were there police at home as well?’

The male cop, who’s fiddling with his notebook, pulls my gaze. ‘Listen, mate, let’s find a quiet corner, then we’ll fill you in.’

Is he being purposely evasive? The tension radiating
from him and his partner does nothing to calm my catapulting fears.

I get back on the phone to Jiao. ‘The cops are with me now. I’ll find out what’s going on, then call you back.’

‘But Mikey’s—’

I disconnect. She doesn’t need to spell it out; I can guess how he’s reacting. Just the whiff of cops sends him right off. They’re the ones who always have to track him when he’s done a bunk. His darling Jow Jow will just have to tough it out until I’m told what’s going on.

I lead them to the common room, where
nobody’s
tragic enough to spend a Friday night. It’s littered with scummy cups and fast-food wrappers and stinks of dirty socks. We all sit down, surrounded by the mess.

I try to keep my voice even, but an invisible collar’s tightening round my throat. ‘Okay, what’s going on?’

Again the cops glance at each other before the male nods. ‘I’m Sergeant Paul O’Donnell and this is Sergeant Smith.’

‘Jeannie,’ the woman says. ‘Do call me Jeannie.’ She leans across the void to take my hand.
Oh shit
. When a cop holds your hand you know you’re in the crap
big-time
. ‘Ashley, I’m afraid we’re here with very bad news.’ Her hand is firm and cool, while mine is suddenly slick with sweat. ‘This evening, just on five o’clock, some kind of explosive device went off inside your father’s place of work.’

Heat detonates inside my chest and whooshes up my face. ‘And Dad?’

‘The truth is it’s not looking good. We know your dad was in the building, but we’re yet to piece together—’

No! I tug my hand away and leap to my feet. ‘He’s been blown up?’
This can’t be true. This is New Zealand. No one dies from shit like this here
.

My heart is hammering so loud I barely hear what she says next. ‘Right now emergency services are working through the rubble. It’s clear there have been deaths — as yet we’re not sure exactly who.’ Her eyes implore me to stay calm, but that’s about as realistic as Mikey growing up.

The world shrinks down to random snapshots: the woman Jeannie raising a shaky hand to brush her hair back from her eyes; her partner Paul picking at dead skin on the knuckle of his thumb, his scuffed left shoe nudging the mouldy burger wedged beneath the couch. And someone’s left the tap dripping, each plop so loud it’s like a gunshot in the room. I want to puke, the drink inside me roiling up — I have to swallow time and time again to hold it back. The cops press my throbbing head between my knees as I start to gag. Jeannie rubs my back and says something, but all I hear is pumping blood.
They think Dad’s been blown up?
This has to be some kind of sick, sick joke.

I can’t see straight. Hot tears boil over before I can rouse myself to swipe the bloody things away.
Have to get a grip. Take three deep breaths, then raise your head
. ‘What happens now?’

‘Jeannie will take you back to Wellington. You’re his next-of-kin. We know you’ll want to sort your brother … plus we’ll need you to identify …’

Jeezus
. They want me to tell them if some of the charred meat is Dad? Now I puke for real. It’s pure acidic alcohol, purging in a stinking pool between my legs. They haul me up, one cop each side, lifting me clear.

‘You haven’t told my brother this?’ I’ll bloody kill them if they have. He’ll never understand. Not in a million years.

‘No, we haven’t told him yet,’ says Jeannie. She passes me a handkerchief. ‘But we have concerns about his care — that’s another reason why we’re here. Is there anyone who’ll take him in till you get back?’

Trying to think logically while images of severed body parts clog my brain is near on useless. Who the hell would take him for the night? There’s only Jiao. She’s going to have to cope. At least she’ll understand some of his crazy quirks. I have to phone her anyway: I promised I’d call back.

‘I’ll check.’ I pull out my phone again and dial
home
.

Jiao answers straight away. ‘McCarthy residence.’

‘It’s Ash. I’m coming home. I’ll be there—’ I clap my hand across the mouthpiece. ‘When will we get back?’

‘If we hurry we’ll make the 11.30 flight,’ says Paul. ‘You should be home by 1 a.m.’

Flight? My god. ‘I’ll be home around one in the morning. Can you stay with Mikey till then?’

There’s a long pause before she answers. ‘I guess. Is everything okay?’

‘Not really.’ I don’t want to tell her about Dad. Not yet. Not ever. It can’t be true. ‘Can I talk to Mikey?’

I hear her call him to the phone above the drone of the TV. He’ll be chuffed he’s been allowed to watch so late. Thank god he’s into watching crap and not the
late-night
news.

‘Ashy? Where’s Dad?’

‘Listen, Mikey, I’m coming home tonight. There’s been some … trouble … at Dad’s work. Jiao will stay with you until I’m there. Okay?’

‘Coming home? Yus!’

‘Be good and do everything Jiao says. Go to bed now and I’ll wake you when I get home.’

‘I can show you my new shoes! Dad got them yesterday.’

‘Yeah, Mikey,’ I say. ‘You can show me your new shoes.’
Oh Christ
. My voice is growing wobbly, so I end the call.

The next hour and a half is a blur. My mates have picked up on the vibes and regrouped in Jeremy’s room — only Hayden’s waiting when I open our door. He takes one look at me and rises to his feet, his face as white as toilet paper. I feel numb. And weirdly tired. The effort to explain what’s happening leaves me out of breath. While I stumble round our room, stuffing a few clothes into a bag, Hayden just stares at me, his stoner eyes signalling his impotent distress. As I’m about to leave, I ask him if he’ll let my boss at Countdown know I won’t be in for work tomorrow. He springs at me and tries to wrap me in an awkward hug. I brush him off — can’t bear to have him touch me in case I fall apart.

The cops escort me out to their car and we floor it to the airport, where they bustle me on to a waiting plane. At any other time I’d be ecstatic: since peak oil and climate change screwed everything, flying’s only for the rich, not for the likes of me. As the plane accelerates along the runway I’m forced back in my seat. It’s as if g-forces, and the weight of what I’m heading home to, combine to flatten me.
Nothing will ever be the same
. Every touchstone of my known world has been erased. Only this morning I was bitching on again to Hayden about how Dad calls every week. It’s just to check that
I’m okay, but he can’t resist repeating his little lectures about working hard or ranting over the latest drama in the news. ‘At least he cares,’ Hayden had said. ‘My olds are glad I’ve gone.’ I laughed and told him he was lucky. What a load of crap. I’d trade the world right now to hear Dad rant.

My god — his message! How could I forget? I take out my phone and turn it on. Nothing. The bloody battery’s flat. I don’t know why, but suddenly I’m blubbing like a girl. I need to hear Dad’s voice. I need to hear him tell me that he loves me. That’s how he always ends his calls.

The woman cop, Jeannie, is sitting next to me, and wraps her arm around my shoulders. I swear she’s blubbing too. ‘I have a boy your age at home,’ she says. I guess it’s meant to comfort me, but all it does is make me more embarrassed. I bet
her
son would tough this out. I bet
her
son’s still got a dad.

It’s pretty clear the cops aren’t holding out much hope. They wouldn’t be going to all this bother if they did. But it’s impossible to process — it means that Mikey and I are orphans now. No mum. No dad. The only relative left is Grandma, Mum’s mother, and she’s loopy as hell. It sounds heartless, but the truth is it’s been years since I’ve really thought about Mum. Sometimes I think I can remember her — I have these dreams where she’s holding my hands, spinning me around. I’m three, maybe, or four. But mostly my memories are taken from old photos or stories from Dad. Poor Mikey doesn’t even really understand what he’s missed out on: Dad and I are all he’s ever known.

Mum died of ‘complications’ three months after
Mikey’s birth. It’s the one thing Dad’s closed up about. Even now, fourteen years on, he never says she’s dead, just ‘passed’.

Jeezus. Not ‘says’

‘said’. This can’t be bloody true
. The thought of telling Mikey fills me with nauseous dread. You never know how he’ll respond or if he’ll understand. Stuff you think he’ll not have a shit-show of comprehending he can get, almost like he’s got this open portal between your emotions and his own. Other times you’ll say something a hundred times and he’ll still look completely blank. That’s Downs for you. Both gift and curse.

By the time we touch down in Wellington, news of the bombing is playing out on giant TV screens inside the terminal as we walk through:
‘Breaking News: Union
Offices Bombed — Death Toll Rising.’
Jeannie grabs me firmly by the elbow and hustles me into a police car. Tonight I’m going home to break the news to Mikey. Tomorrow morning she’ll take me to do The Deed.

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