This is a scene from the first iteration of The Gulf. It ended up in the scrapheap (for good story reasons) but still has some stuff in it I like.
In the morning the school was closed off. The bus let us off a few stops back and we tried to get through but the police stopped us and in the next few minutes, a crowd gathered. I found Raf near the zebra crossing. His face was weird, all pinched into the middle with his one dimple showing.
‘What’s going on?’ I said.
‘They say there’s been an accident.’ My heart dropped cold in my chest.
‘What kind of accident?’
He wasn’t even looking at me. Kind of around me, through me to the school building. ‘In the tunnel. There’s been an accident in the tunnel.’
He paced in front of the cops. Punched his fist into his open hand. ‘You gotta let us in,’ he said. ‘You gotta let us in.’ The cops shoved him back, a big fat one with his gun in his hand. Shoved him with the butt of the gun, told him to back the fuck off. He came back to me, grabbed my hands. His were shaking. Mine began to shake because of his, referred shaking. He shook me for a full minute. Stared past me, just shaking and shaking. And then he said, ‘It’s Ellen. I know it.’
‘It’s not Ellen.’
‘It is Ellen.’ Shook my hands a bit longer. Paced in front of the cops again. The school principal arrived and pushed her way past the guns and past the tape, stood in the doorway to the building and looked back at us all, most of us just standing there smoking in our uniforms in broad daylight but what were they going to do?
‘Raf.’ The voice came from behind me. It was Ellen.
‘El. El. El.’ He lunged at her, brought her in close to him and squeezed her until her hands were white. ‘I thought it was you.’
‘Not me.’ She paused. ‘Not me. What you heard? Where are the others?’
‘Seb has frees on Wednesday mornings. Al is over there with Rin.’ He pointed.
‘What do you mean, dunno?’
‘Haven’t seen him yet. As if he’s ever on time for school though. He’s probably sleeping on his sister’s couch.’
‘Raf, listen to me. We need to find Yardy.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Yesterday. He was saying all these fucked up things, you know, after.’ She looked me for a second. ‘Went a bit schizo. Talking in other languages and shit.’
‘What are you talking about?’ He grabbed Ellen’s sleeve. ‘I need you to be real clear right now, Ellen. What … are … you … talking about?’
The colour drained from her face. ‘He said he wanted to do it, Raf. He wanted to do it.’ Raf grabbed harder, shook her body so hard her earrings rattled. Her shoulders gave way. She screamed. Sobbed so hard the only thing keeping her up was Raf’s hand on her dress and he was just staring at it, at his white knuckles, with his mouth hanging open. He was in slow motion. Everything was.
I ran to the cops. ‘Has someone died?’ I said. ‘Tall guy? Shaved head?’ The fat cop shoved me away. A crowd had gathered around Ellen, and Raf too, now both on the ground with their arms around each other. She kept screaming and all I could hear was her screaming until Raf started saying, ‘I told him. I told him this would happen. I fucking told him.’ and a few minutes later, the principal came back out and told us all to go home. Most of the others dropped away. A day off school was a gift.
‘What are we supposed to do now?’ I said. Raf reached up and pulled me to the ground next to him.
‘Don’t leave,’ he said. ‘Never leave.’
Ellen beat her fists against the bitumen. ‘They need to let us see him.’
I thought of Kirrily. Again. The man in the tunnel with his legs cut off. The pool of blood all around him.
‘Maybe they don’t think you should,’ I said.
‘Why should they get to decide? Yardy. Fuck.’ She howled again. Raf grabbed her, rocked her back and forth with him.
‘You don’t even know what’s happened,’ I said. She turned to me with her face alight, eyes wide.
‘Do you ever just shut up?’
An ambulance pulled up. Ellen jumped, threw herself at the paramedics. ‘You have to let us come with you. We’re his family.’ They ignored her. Pushed through the remaining students and into the school, slammed the doors behind them. Ellen ran through and beat her fists against the glass until the cop dragged her down. After that she sat on the stoop with her hands balled up on her knees and stared at the door. Stared, didn’t blink.
Minutes passed. Ten, maybe. Or infinity. Time didn’t move, but it rushed as well. It was in the people moving around us, dashing from one end of the school to the other, shouting into their walkie-talkies. But it wasn’t in us. We were frozen in place.
The doors opened a crack. Raf grabbed my hand. One of the cops pulled the doors open and the paramedics charged through, pushing a geurney with a white bag on it. A white bag about the size of a human. A tall human.
‘Yardy? Yardy!’ Ellen ran alongside the stretcher, her face right up against the plastic.
The taller of the paramedics spoke: ‘You need to get out of the way.’
‘We’re his family.’
‘The family has already been notified,’ said the cop.
Raf reached for Ellen as she ran past. ‘They’re not going to tell us, El. We’re just a bunch of shitty kids.’
They decided we should go back to Raf’s house. We sat at the back of the bus and said nothing. Ellen cried. Al put one arm around her and the other around Rin, and Raf’s head dropped back on to his head rest and he stared at the roof.
‘It’s just’—I squeezed Raf’s hand—‘we don’t even know if it’s him.’
‘Oh yeah?’ Al said. ‘Where is he then?’
‘Has anyone tried calling him?’
Al took out his phone with the Rin arm, stared into it for a second, put it to his ear. We all heard it go to voicemail. (‘It’s Yardy. Leave a message.’) Ellen slid out from Al’s grasp and doubled up on the floor, rocked back and forth and the air seemed stuck in her throat and she started to try to spit it out. A wrenching gasping sound. Raf slipped down next to her and rubbed her back.
‘It doesn’t mean anything,’ I said.
Ellen’s body started to shake. ‘I need to get off,’ she said quietly. ‘I need to get off.’
‘Shh,’ said Raf. ‘You’re okay. You’re okay.’
She shook her head violently. ‘I’m not. I need to get off. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe, Raf.’ She grabbed his t-shirt. ‘Make them stop the bus. I can’t breathe.’ She stood, threw her head down and then up, gasping for air, hyperventilating.
Al: ’Someone do something!’ And Rin: ‘She’ll be okay in a minute.’ And Raf, rubbing his hand up and down her back, crouching along with her. She breathed deeply. The shaking eased.
Raf looked up at me. ‘Why don’t we head to his place instead? Find out for sure.’
Yardy’s place was down on the docks. Ellen stood in front of the door with her fist in the air.
‘I don’t want to,’ she said. ‘I don’t want to know.’
But she didn’t have to. A man came to the door, threw it open. His eyes were swollen, his face streaked. He grabbed all five of us at once and pulled us into him. Ellen screamed. The man took us inside, all of us like that, crunched together.
Two younger girls cried on the couch, held so close they were almost one person. At the kitchen table, a woman — his mother, I assumed — stared straight ahead, a glass of clear liquid in one hand.
‘Sit,’ the man said. ‘All of you.’
Ellen sat next to the mother. Tapped the glass and pointed at Al. ‘Please?’
‘Course, El.’ He grabbed the bottle of gin from the kitchen bench and poured Ellen half a glass of it. ‘That should do for now.’
Raf coughed loudly. ‘What …’
The man — his dad? — shook his head. ‘You know what, let’s not talk about it. Yeah? Let’s just all be here together.’
Ellen banged her head against the table. ‘I knew this would happen. You all knew this would happen. Fuck me dead.’ Yardy’s mum put an arm around her. Raf sat on the other side of Ellen, me next to him, then Al. Hamish lurked in the kitchen, slamming his fist on the bench, turning the tap on, running his fingers through the venetian blinds.
‘Stop it, you dickhead,’ Raf said.
‘Going for a smoke,’ Hamish said.
And then Al started freaking out.
It was hardly anything at first, just his knee jigging under the table. Floor vibrating a bit. Bone colliding with the shitty flat-pack wood. Rin looked at him, look at Ellen. He closed his eyes. Drew breath threw his nose, out through his mouth. jig-jig-jig. Both knees going, one at a time. jig-a-jig-a-jig-a. Raf reached across the table to him but he didn’t notice, hands on his knees, knees going up and down. Scratched his arm. Pinched the skin between his fingers. Eyes glassy, like he wasn’t even inside them.
Ellen was looking at him too, then. Chin resting on the table. Staring right at him like he was going to spontaneously combust. ‘Al, stop it.’
He started pulling at his hair. Fistfuls of it, trying to yank it right out of his skull. Really pulling at it. Then his eyebrows, plucking them with his fingernails, dropping black hairs all over the table. And the whole time, knees going, banging underneath the table. Eyes ahead. Knees going. Hair plucking. Eyes ahead. Knees going. jig-jig-jig. Like he was in a trance. Breathing through his nose and out his mouth, pulling the air and pushing it away. We all watched and tried not to watch.
‘Alistair. Look at me.’ Raf reached across the table. Al slammed his fist on Raf’s hand.
In a split second, he was standing. Pushed his chair right out from the table, leaned on it with his hands flat, stared right through Ellen and right through the window and right through the desert and screamed. Screamed this hideous gutteral scream with his head right back. Looked to us but didn’t see us, looked and looked with his eyes going every way eyes can go but never stopping on any of us, just searching with his eyes and screaming. Clawing at his face. Blood began to seep out in creeks along his skin. His face and arms came out in them, welts with shiny blood in the middle. And before anyone could do anything, or maybe before anyone knew what there even was to be done, he sprinted from the room and the front door slammed shut and we heard his screaming along the street.
‘I’ll go,’ Hamish said. ‘You stay with the girls.’
Raf grabbed Rin’s arm and Ellen’s arm and held them both under his armpits. Yardy’s mum got in there too, held Raf’s hand. His dad went into the living room, where the little girls had stopped crying and fallen asleep.
‘It was late night,’ he said, looking in on them. ‘Such a late night.’ He crossed his arms, leaned against the doorjamb with his eyes closed.
So I sat on my own, naked at the kitchen table. Hamish hadn’t meant me. I was away from home, again.
The police came to Yardy’s house after ten. They had been already, his dad said, asked a bunch of questions, words they’d never even heard before. The fat one from school was there, and a woman with a thin mouth and a little moustache above it. They shoved us off the table, made us sit in the front room with Al, who still had his hair bundled into his fists but at least seemed to be able to focus on us now.
We strained to hear their murmured answers. What did they know? Had Liam — ‘Liam?’ ‘Yeah, Liam. Yardy’s the … he downed a yard glass in 7.3 seconds once.’ — been acting differently? Coming home late? Meeting up with strange people?
His mum said nothing.
His dad gave them the basics: his grades had been suffering; he hadn’t been sleeping. Maybe he had been up in the night, sometimes he would hear the door bang but it could have been the wind. Sometimes he came to dinner and didn’t eat anything.
‘Did he ever go missing?’ the lady cop said.
‘No,’ said Yardy’s mum. Snapped, really.
‘Actually …’ His dad let out a huge sigh. ‘A few weeks ago. He didn’t come home for dinner, which was normal, I mean, he’s a fifteen-year-old kid, right? Didn’t come home for dinner, but a lot of the kids don’t. Figured he was at Rafferty’s house like always. Claud makes the best XXXX’—Raf let out a surprised laugh—‘but he wasn’t there. Wasn’t at school either. Jen got a call next day to say he never came in.’
‘Then what happened?’
‘Wasn’t home the next night either.’
‘Were you concerned?’
‘Course I was bloody concerned.’ He coughed. ‘Sorry. Ma’am. Yeah, I was concerned.’
‘Had he ever done anything like that before?’
‘He’s sixteen. He ran away a couple of times when he was a kid. You know how it is. Can’t have any dessert, pack a little bag, run away …’ His voice cracked.
‘I know this is hard, Mr Peacock. We just have a few more questions.’
‘When can we see him?’ he said. His voice was a tiny mouse, a few little squeaks coming from the back of his nostrils. ‘When will they let us see him?’
‘I’m afraid I don’t know the answer to that question.’
His mum was crying. Rin hugged the little sisters close to her body, and they were crying too. Everyone was crying. I suffocated, drowning in their water.
‘Did you notice any changes in his behaviour? Any issues with aggression?’
‘No. Never.’ His mum blew her nose. ‘He was a kind boy.’
‘What about his friends? Any of them acting strangely? Getting into trouble?’
The fat cop spoke then: ‘Mr Peacock, have you ever heard of something called “ice”?’ Silence. The crying stopped. Raf’s body tensed next to me.
‘What?’ said Yardy’s dad.
The lady cop cleared her throat. ‘We found some suspicious objects with your son’s … in your son’s bag, Mr Peacock.’
‘What do you mean, “suspicious”?’
‘We have reason to believe he may have been taking this drug. Methamphetamine.’
‘I know what it is. We got that pamphlet about it in the letterbox.’
Hamish leaned over Al, whispered in Raf’s ear: ‘We need to go.’
‘Seriously, we need to go now.’
The mood in the living room switched. Rin bolted upright, started shoving her cigarettes and phone into her bag. Al’s knees were going again. He scratched at his skin, pulled on his hair. Raf punched him in the arm.
‘Seriously, you dickheads,’ he hissed. ‘What do you think is going to happen? What, they’re going to search us right here because our idiot friend threw himself under the Ghan? Fuck me.’
Hamish paced, long strides one end of the room to the other.
‘Sit down,’ Raf said.
Hamish pointed at Al. ‘Make him stop doing that. He’s going to rat us out. Look at him. Hardly got his head on.’ He strode over, slapped the back of Al’s head. ‘Get it together.’
‘Hamish, fucking stop it.’ Ellen’s voice was muffled. She had curled up in the corner of the couch, back to us, with her head shoved under the cushions. ‘He’s right though, Raf. You need to get out of here.’
‘And leave you by yourself? Not gonna do that.’ He stroked her hair. The floor pulsed under Al’s feet, blood trailing in a thread from his shoulder to his elbow.
I coughed. All five of them turned to look at me, as though they’d forgotten I was there.
‘Yes?’ Ellen said.
‘My brother is still at your house, Raf. I should go get him.’ He looked to Ellen, back to me.
‘Do you know how to get there?’
‘Yeah, I think so. I’m just in the way here.’
The chairs in the kitchen groaned as they were pushed in. The fat cop spoke first: ‘Thank you for your assistance, Mr xxxx.’ And then the woman’s voice: ‘We’re very sorry for your loss.’ The front door closed behind them. Al’s eyes flicked towards it, legs still bouncing.
‘They’re gone, mate.’ Raf pushed down on Al’s knee. ‘They’re gone.’
Yardy’s dad came into the living room, a glass of brown liquid in his hand. ‘I think you lot should go home,’ he said. ‘We’re going down to the hospital in a tick.’
Ellen’s body shook. ‘Take me with you?’
He shook his head. ‘Family only.’ Chugged the whole glass at once, coughed and rubbed his throat. ‘They’re going to talk to your parents, too, you know. All of your parents.’ He looked each of us up and down, one by one. Stopped at me, looked again. ‘Who are you?’
‘This is Skye,’ Raf said. ‘She was just leaving.’
I closed the front door. The house exhaled.