Nicholas Lazonby had a strange affliction. Any memories he made were in black and white. It could be anything, from anytime. But like every rule there was an exception. One memory, preternaturally vivid and awash with chromatic detail existed on the memory map. It was an incongruity, an aberration. It is of his father walking towards him, caught in the haze of the sun, form indistinct like it was about to reach its melting point. The year was 1947. The inception of this peculiarity began on a Sunday which meant visiting day at the Friends of Christ Reformation School; a few miles east of Darwin and along the north Queensland coast. The building stood alone but proud on top a cliff; where it collected salt from the ocean and birds looking for a safe nest. The design when viewed at ground level was in the Victorian style; the red brick façade was sectioned by vertical and Gothic cornices, and by the pattern of deep set narrow windows. A spire rose and pierced the sky. Some would say it was beautiful but only in the aesthetic sense, for it was a loyal dedication to the austerity of the age it was trapped in. From above, the main building looked as though it was stretching its arms out into a perpendicular U. The rooms in these jetties were mostly disused but the cloisters that hugged them provided effective shade from the burning sun. Beyond the extensive garden lay the ocean that propped up the horizon. Nicholas sat on his bed and waited patiently for the door to his cell to open. Five other boys share the room with him and all, like Nicholas, long for prospective parents to walk in and choose one of them to join their family. But, as with Sundays the door remained closed, the only visitor was the sunlight thorough the bars on the window, like a long golden arm of a clock, melting its way across the walls, until swallowed up by the encroaching shadows of nightfall.Nobody visited their room, it was filled with what the priests called the undesirables; those unfit for habitation with loving Christian families. But still they waited, in hope, and in vain. “‘Be strong and of a good courage, fear not, nor be afraid...for the Lord thy God, he it is that doth go with thee; he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee,’” bellowed Father Morley as he stood at the threshold of the room. ‘Although I fear it only applies to God’s children and you lot are certainly not.’ His eyes cast about the room looking at every boy just long enough for the words to attach their barbs. The man was cruel, it shaped every part of his character, and it seemed, his appearance: he was an obvious bald but the last remaining hairs on his head formed a protective brown claw over his crown like a parasitical creature vying for full control of its host. His round spectacles concentrated his face into a porcine aspect that was finished off by an algal bloom of ruddiness that claimed his cheeks and nose and stretched down to his mouth that was a viciously pursed rictus. ‘It is a wonder you heathens have the decency to get dressed in the morning.’ This was aimed at the two dark skinned brothers sitting on one bed. They were called Ben and Simon but of course they weren't their real names. Christian names were only spoken under their roof. These two had been picked up from a farm station in the bush. A wandering soldier had stayed on for a season during the monsoon and for the promise of food and shelter had pitched in with the upkeep of the business. He had found his bed to be cold and instead lain down with the aboriginal servants and sired two offspring in consecutive summers.As half castes they were seized by the authorities and given to the church for a "decent and proper chance at life, among civil people, under the eyes of God, otherwise, should they be left with their natural mothers surely would they perish."Both Ben and Simon looked at Father Morley with what he assumed was gormlessness brought on by their miscegenation. 'Never have I seen such a pair of feeble minded mulattoes as you two.' He spat. 'I've seen more spark in a three-legged dog after a lobotomy.' The boys kept staring with a listlessness familiar with drunkenness or malaise and Nicholas could see Father Morley battling to keep his temper down. Nicholas knew the boys could understand him perfectly, they were a lot sharper and more intelligent than the priests would ever give them credit for. Never once did they back down or look away, even after being acquainted with the cane and had their backs flayed. It was an inner strength that the priests knew they could not hope to diminish, regardless of cruelty. The priests could not fathom it and were angered more at their own lack of such vitality and sought to thrash it out of them at every opportunity. 'You!' Morley pointed a white maggot of a finger at Simon, the younger of the two. 'Outside now. Father Acre wants to see you.' Father Acre wants to see you was vernacular for the head priest is bored and wants to exercise his whip upon adolescent flesh. Simon stood up and walked out of the door, without any change in emotion or semblance of fear. Ben fixed his gaze upon Father Morley until the priest offered another volley of invective and turned about heel, leaving the rest of the boys to blow a sigh of relief that it wasn't them chosen for the lash. Nicholas knew a few to be physically spent and a session under the drunken hand of Father Acre would probably finish them off. He looked around. Three other boys sat on their beds in the dorm, ashen faced and broken. Hodgkinson was the oldest, at 15, but had only by a few months on Nicholas. He was in the same orphanage that Nicholas had found himself in after his time at Uncle George's. He knew not where he came from prior to St Magdalene's Orphanage and Hodgkinson never volunteered the information. Taciturnity was rife among the boys but there was something of the mute about him. Nicholas had never heard him speak and the only time he sound had issued from his lips was when he was having one of his fitting episodes, of which Father Morley equated with demonic possession. A sound thrashing was the only way to deal with that by the priest's reckoning.Next to Hodgkinson was Charlie, an amputee from the south coast of England. A warm September night in 1946, on the voyage from Portsmouth to Darwin he had woken up screaming, a pain like fire searing his nerves. By the time he got the lamp on the spider had vanished, leaving two red puncture marks in his thigh. The ship's doctor was stone drunk on Vermouth at the Craps table and it was a few hours till he was sober enough to administer to a patient. The wound had festered and looked like it was a couple of days old not a matter of hours and as dawn broke Charlie's sobs echoed throughout the ship, renting the dreams of the passengers until some woke up thinking they were back on the battlefield. In his inebriation the night before the doctor had forgotten to lock the medicine cabinet and was thus cleared out of morphine by an opportunistic thief. All he had was a bottle of rum from the West Indies. With every gulp of alcohol the saw bit deeper into Charlie's leg and after what seemed an eternity he was granted oblivion and passed out. The spider was never caught but as the ship had picked up timber from Venezuela before docking at Portsmouth it didn't take much to ascertain from the where the spider must have originated. Of little conciliation was this to Charlie, who spent the rest of the voyage drunk and prone to long periods of deep depression.As it was he was granted exemption from all hard physical labour and was instead employed as a skivvy of sorts; light cleaning, administrative support to the priests, even as a Sous chef if the incumbent had overspent himself in one of the brothels populating the borderlands. 'D-D-Do you think he knows,' stammered the third boy, referring to the rumours of a possible escape route. He was a ginger haired lad called Mac from Newcastle. He was the tallest out of them all with a long head that looked like it had been drawn out of a brick wall and placed on a neck. No matter how long he was exposed to the Australian sun, his skin remained pasty and sallow. Nicholas could not tell what was worse, his speech impediment or his ugliness. But both became invisible once he had got to know him and he found him, out of everybody, the most affable and garrulous. 'No,' answered Nicholas, 'there is nothing to know at the moment. I'm on garden duty tomorrow and I'll speak to Malcolm then. Until that all we can do is get our heads down and hope.'A silence punctuated the room, a shared daydream of escaping the prison they now found themselves in invaded their consciousness. For most, the journey to the Antipodes had been enjoyable and rich with excitement of travelling to land afar. 'We need YOU! to help repopulate and stabilise our brothers and sisters in the colonies.' Rang the words of the head Jesuit one winter evening after Vespers at St Magdalene's Orphanage. 'A new life awaits you, a new family awaits you. God wants this for you, he is calling YOU. Who is going to listen? Who wants to go?'Nicholas had been one of the first to offer himself to this new adventure. He had called St Magdalenes home for just over two and a half years. It was forced upon him when Uncle George could care for him no more; drunk and up to his eyeballs in debt he had dragged Nicholas from his bed one morning and foisted him under the care of the priest's of the orphanage. He was beaten regularly by his carers for the most minor of indiscretions and demeaned at any opportunity. The choice to leave was an easy one to make. In Darwin he and the other boys were separated from the girls and taken to Friends of Christ Reformation School. Those fit for foster care were housed in a different wing to Nicholas, for he was deemed undesirable due to a scar running from his forehead down to his chin.In 1942 as Japan had ruffled its feathers and flexed its muscles Nicholas' father, an engineer, was conscripted to Singapore to oversee the sea defences should the Japanese Navy attack. They came instead inland, routing the British, butchering many and enslaving more. His father was captured. The officer who called round said there was little chance of survival in the face of the Oriental savagery and their resolute codes of honour. To surrender is to spit in their face, was what he had said. Shortly after his mother lost her fight against the Consumption and Nicholas was left in the care of his Loco Parentis, Uncle George. George was a drunkard, a degenerate gambler and disposed to acts of wanton violence to any in his vicinity. He hated Nicholas and at the first opportunity abandoned him to St Magdalene's Orphanage. Not before one of his creditors came round and said that if there were any more late payments he would take the boys ears off and cook them in butter for him. He left George and Nicholas a visible and permanent reminder of his intent with his knife. Nicholas fell asleep to Ben intoning a native song, the words lifting themselves up and out through the bars and into the night air, towards the austral stars. Simon's bed was still empty in the morning.The gardens surrounding the school were thick and verdurous. Eucalyptus and Acacia grew unrestrained in the deluge of light, and with them many others flourished like Emu bush with its fuchsia flutes and spindly shoots and also the parasitical mistletoe. Many birds and insects chirped and hummed, whistled and clicked, filling every available space on the sound-scape. A great wall surrounded the garden to minimise the effect of the saline siege from the ocean beyond the cliff and it performed its task as well as could be expected. It was the most beautiful part of the school and in fact anywhere that Nicholas had ever seen. The aborigine Malcolm was already in the garden by the time Nicholas had finished breakfast. He was busy extracting gum for the priests to make their insect repellent. No-one knew where he lived or what he did, just that one day he had turned up and said he would maintain the gardens for free. It was postulated amongst the priests that the school was built on an ancient Ylongu site, one of the few remaining in the area, and he wanted to preserve what he could of his people's heritage. When he was asked he just smiled and titled his head, never confirming or denying and in the end they got tired of asking. They were just pleased someone could take care of the extensive garden that had the natural propensity to become incontrollable during the wet season.'Malcolm!' Nicholas shouted, approaching the man.Malcolm turned around and smiled, his teeth brilliant white against the pitch of his skin. 'My friend, you return. I am pleased to see you.'Malcolm's English was as good as any, his Australian accent indistinguishable from most. 'You seem sad, is there anything the matter?'Nicholas told him about Simon, and how he hadn't returned. Malcolm looked thoughtful for a while before speaking, 'Those men, these Galkas, are known to us in our tribe. We call them Dream Eaters. Men abandoned by their gods wander the earth, sustaining themselves on the spirits of others. Tell me Mr Nicholas, do they speak of the soul?'Nicholas said, 'But only when quoting from the bible to scare us.'Malcolm nodded, 'Their pharisaic ways will be the end of them, you'll see. Faith will come to your aid. What do you hope for Mr Nicholas?''To see my father again.''Hold onto that, in the Dreamtime you are with him. That is forever, if you feel it and believe it. What we call the outside, the physical world, will catch up soon. I'm sure of it.'Nicholas paused, unsure of what he was about to ask. 'You mentioned last time that there might be a way we can leave this place. Down the cliff and to the beach, there's a boat there, we could sail it away, to somewhere better...Malcolm flung his head back and laughed, a loud see-saw cachinnation that sent a few birds in to the sky from the trees. 'Mr Nicholas, you balandas do not understand so easily. To do that you have to disappear, vanish, like magic. If you leave, then they will come looking for you. You must be invisible, but how will you do that I wonder? Or maybe it would be best if they couldn't see anymore.''I don't understand.' said Nicholas.'To reach the beach with the boat there is a cave that you shall pass through. Inside it is a Baru, an ancient spirit who one must face before he can carry on. The Baru decides by looking into the person's spirit and if it sees what it likes, if that man is true of heart then he will pass. If he isn't then he will be devoured. Do you think you can pass the Baru my balanda and hope the priests will fail?'All we have is hope. I'll do what it takes to get us out.'Malcolm smiled at this. 'Then it shall be. Now come closer and I'll tell you what needs to be done. Listen closely, you must listen and remember. For the next time you see me I'll be the Maralitja man, guide to the spirits.' And opening his palm lay a bouquet garni of faintly odourous leaves.When Nicholas returned to his room in the afternoon the rest of the boys were there, except Simon, whose bed remained unmade and empty. Ben was crying in the corner. Hodgkinson had his arm round him, his eyes like titanium pins staring through Nicholas and into places unknown.'What's happened?' Nicholas asked the room.'S-S-S-Simon won't wake up. They b-b-beat him so bad this time Nicky. His f-f-f-face is purple. The doctor d-d-doesn't know if he'll s-s-s-survive.' Mac said, trying to hold back tears. 'Right, we're leaving tonight,' said Nicholas, 'Malcolm has told me the way. Hodgkinson and Ben will carry Simon, you'll be ok won't you Charlie? It'll be tough going.'Charlie looked at the floor. 'I'll stay here, I'll only slow you down.''Don't be ridiculous Charlie! We're not leaving anyone behind.' Countered Nicholas.'I-I-I'll carry you Charlie if I have to.' said Mac. 'Nicholas is right, no-one is staying here.''But what about the priests? And the other boys?' asked Charlie.Nicholas answered, 'Everyone else has been moved to a different school, we're expecting a load more in the next couple of days. But that won't be our concern. As for the priests, they won't be bothering anyone else, I'm sure of it.''What are we going to do?' Charlie asked, his voice slightly shrill with excitement. Even Hodgkinson was paying attention, his eyes now focused on Nicholas.'Listen closely, you must listen and remember.' And he told him the plan.Father Acre sat at his desk, head bent over a piece of paper, his pen scratching furiously at the vellum. The addressee was the Bishop's bursar in Darwin, controller of all the diocese's finances. Acre wanted more money, not that they needed it, but he needed it. He was by far the most avaricious out of the priests, hoarding wealth like a dragon atop a treasure pile. This was his weakness, they all had them, one way or another, although more accurately, Acre had more than one: his love for wine and his great pleasure in thrashing his charges. It empowered him, unlike Father Crippin, the old pervert who skulked the corridors at night, searching out those with fair hair and blue eyes. Father Morley was the newest and he had yet to gauge what his particular delectation was. Time would no doubt reveal all. Acre finished the first draft and reached for the bottle of merlot next to him. 'Damn!' He exclaimed, already half cut, at the empty bottle. He would have to go downstairs and to the outhouse himself to find another; the cook would be long gone by now, whoring and philandering, and the boys had all been moved on. 'Except!' screamed his mind and he thought of the room on the top floor. And just if fate had also been reading his thoughts he heard the clink and a clank of Charlie on his crutches, advancing down the hallway. 'Boy!' he shouted. The clink clank stopped. There was a shuffle and a pained looking figure entered the room. Charlie was still finding it hard adjust to having the only leg, and so walked with a grimace etched on his face.'Where in hell were you going at this time? It's past 9!''Just for a walk, Father.''A walk! You?''For some,' he paused, 'exercise. I'm cooped up all day, I want to go for a walk.'Acre pondered on this for a moment and decided that the need for more wine far outweighed the need to expend energy debating the veracity of the cripple's story. 'I need you to go the outhouse and go to the cellar there. You'll find wine. Lots of it. Bring me back a couple of bottles. Actually, no no, hold on, go and get the boy with the scar to get them, it'll be faster.''They're all asleep Father.' he said.Damn, he thought. Getting the little buggers to get up and do that will take just as long as the cripple will take. I could send Father Crippen in, that'll wake them up, he mused, although rousing the old pervert will take just as long. 'Yes, you go, and be as quick as you can.'Charlie hobbled away down the hallway to Acre's voice booming from the room, 'And don't you think about having any, I'LL KNOW!'Father Acre sat down and waited. He tried to finish the letter but the words weren't fitting right in his head. He also noticed his hand was trembling. 'Damn, where's the boy. I should have gone myself.' Getting up he was saved a journey by the clink clank sound, now accompanied by a dull ching! of the returning Charlie.The boy stumbled in, out of breath, his face rubicund, carrying only one bottle. 'Where's the other bottle of wine? Did I not tell you to get me two, are you deaf as well as lame?'Charlie's head bowed under the vituperation of Father Acre's words. 'I-I bumped into Father Crippen. He said you wouldn't mind if he partook in a little potation himself. He needs it he said, because all his favourite boys had gone, he was lonely.' Acre shook his head and grabbed the bottle from Charlie. 'You may go now. I'm going to need you in the kitchen tomorrow, I gave the cook a couple of days off, God knows why. I want you in there at 5am. Do you hear?'An affirming nod of the head and a quick turn Charlie was out of the room and on his slow way back up to the dorm. He was pleased with himself, he had played his part well and now he could rest for a while, he was going to need it. Father Acre had believed everything he had said, even the lie about giving the other bottle to Father Crippen. He had given it to Nicholas instead. Nicholas smelled the liquid. Satisfied that Malcolm’s bouquet garni had been completely dissolved like in Father Acre’s bottle he then resealed the cap. Knocking on the wooden door he waited to be admitted. 'Come.' The voice was old and creaked like a fragile floorboard.Opening the door his eyes adjusted to the stygian room, a solitary candle jumped and flickered in the breeze from the open window opposite the door. Father Crippen's skin crawled with shadows as the draught jostled the flame, and sitting across from him Father Morley, cards in hand, looked like he had been eaten up by the darkness, a disembodied head watching a strange pair of hands deal out cards. 'This better be good boy,' Morley spat, 'we're in the middle of a game, Father Crippen here is about to surrender all that he owns to me.'The old man snorted, 'You'll find that luck is a capricious master Morley, I'll win back what I've lost by the end of tonight.' Crippen turned his attention to Nicholas, a look of lasciviousness distorting his lined face. 'Come closer, let me see you. Ahh,' he said recognising Nicholas, 'the one with the scar. Such a good looking boy, ruined by this disfigurement.' He ran a papery finger down Nicholas' face. 'Such a shame.''Why are you here anyway Lazonby?' Morley asked.'Father Acre wanted me to bring this bottle to you, for your game. He wanted to congratulate you on such a fine job you're both doing.''The old soak!' exclaimed Crippen, 'he must be in a good mood to share his sauce. Better not waste this opportunity Morley.' Crippen poured out two glasses and gave one to Morley. The priest began drinking, inspecting his cards with a smile on is face. Father Crippen drank his and poured another glass. 'Here boy, you have some.'Nicholas shook his head, 'I can't, its not allowed. I have to get back anyway. I'm tired.''I insist. I don't think Father Morley here will care if you have some wine with us, will you Father?'Morley shook his head, his eyes had moved from his cards to Nicholas, a gaze pregnant with intent and prurience. A tremor shook Nicholas and he nearly fell over. Sweat beaded his forehead, his heart thundered in his ears. He took the glass from Crippen and held it in front of him. The liquid was dark in the poor light, murky like water found deep in a lake. He downed it in one.'Ah good boy,' said Crippen, 'perhaps now we can begin to forget about that scar.'As Crippen reached out to him Nicholas felt the wine pool deep in his stomach. It suddenly became cold as ice. Tendrils like vines grew up through his body, encircling his neck, biting at his cheeks before wrapping around his brain, assimilating with it, recalibrating it. He opened his mouth to speak but the only words that came out were mindless gibberish. Someone cried out next to him, was it Father Crippen? he couldn't tell. His voice sounded like a million pine needles falling onto flagstones. The light went out and it was black. That was when the drums started. A rhythm borne out of the wind and the earth, keeping time with a metronome installed inside the viscera of Nicholas and the priests. There was a voice underneath it, simmering, words like a chain of consciousness, until the links broke and the drums stopped and out of the darkness two eyes bulge, beautiful alabaster in the ebon world. 'I am the Maralitja man. And I am your guide through the spirit domain.' The voice was a whisper but louder than anything Nicholas had heard before. It beckoned him and he followed. They all did.Nicholas woke upon a bed of fine sand. Grasses as sharp as razors bit into his skin. His mouth was parched from the thick sea air and his whole body felt like it had been reforged out of lead. But through his aches and pains, something had changed in him. Layers had been peeled back, scraped away like dead skin to reveal a shining core. He felt rejuvenated, renewed with purpose. The sea undulated softly, stroking the beach, it's roar an ambience. Behind him he saw the maw of a cave. It spewed a nauseating funk that triggered something in his memory but it evaded him what it was. Blood caked the ground and rocks surrounding the entrance, shards of black material lay torn in the sanguine puddles. Nicholas recognised it from the cassocks worn by the priests. The trail of blood led to the water's edge and there in the surf sat a bloated crocodile, it's scales an obsidian armour in the morning sun. Watching Nicholas for a moment it turned it's head and walked lazily into the ocean, disappearing under the blue.To the left of where he was standing, amongst the grasses, he saw the hull of a wooden sloop propped up on the sandbank. He heaved with all the strength he had left and gradually it slid down into the surf. Just as he was about to give up he felt the light bounce of the waves as they licked the keel. The creak of the timber reminded him of Father Crippen's voice and he looked back towards the cave; he thought of the two bulging eyes popping out of the darkness, but the darkness lay still as it had done since before primordia. The current was strong and the boat was dragged out to sea like great hands had a hold of it and were pulling it, guiding it, through the maze of rocks and kelp. The land rose sharply into a huge cliff and high up among the circling gulls he could make out the black outline of the school. It was only the spire he could see but he knew what it was. Riding the wind, like the sky was talking, came a see-saw laughter that seemed so familiar. A memory. The Maralitja man had spoken to them last night. They were at the entrance to the cave. 'You must face the Baru before you can emerge from the other side.' Into the darkness they marched tardigrade, like a cortege, but instead of the black Nicholas was bathed in bright light. His feet were on tarmac and it was hot, so hot. The horizon rippled, smudging the objects like in a ruined oil painting. From the haze emerged a figure, a stick man and he was shouting. He was shouting his name, he was shouting for Nicholas. Nicholas hurried but his feet were slow and he kept slipping but meter by meter he edged closer. Around him, in the far distance, he heard the sound of thrashing water, screams rent the air, the inimitable crunch of teeth on bone, but he ignored it and kept walking and just as he reached the man who was his father there was a great incandescence and then the darkness came and he fell into the soft embrace of the sand.Nicholas laughed, the first time in an age, and he couldn't stop. He threw his head back and laughed at the sky, at the sun, at the changing face of the cliff as the boat rounded its rocky jetty. He laughed and howled, tears streaming down his cheeks and through the salty veil he saw, like in a haze, five small figures on a beach. They waved to him and he waved back.
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