Joe left his village as a teenager for Sydney, supporting his extended Fijian family at home as soon as he was able. His Australian wife, Anna, is about to have their first baby. They have a tiny house, which they share with two of his young nephews. When, Anna, goes into pre-term labour and one of the nephews is accused of a violent assault of a neighbour, Joe must choose between the different expectations of his vuvale; the needs of the family that raised him and the new family he has longed to raise.
Come on little one, walk faster. He felt like he was floating in a deep black sea. Lou pulled him along by his hand between the only two islands of light; the mess hall behind them and the family barracks ahead. The acres of sugar cane around them inhaled and exhaled heavily, asleep in the night. We’re almost there, my darling. The two worn, smooth wooden steps up to the barracks were 50 of his small paces ahead of them.
He’d snoozed in Lou’s lap while his mother and the other women of the mill had eaten, laughed and gabbled in their sing-song voices. The men, who ate first, were at the other end of the shed talking in low tones about the day, their bosses, drinking their grog. The tumble of conversation was fading behind them as they drifted in the blackness. Occasionally a shriek of laughter would dance out into the dark and over the cane’s snore.
He wished she would pick him up. So he dragged his feet a little, kicking up small stones in the dirt. Jo-Jo come here. She swung him up into her soft chest and belly and wrapped her strong smooth arms around his back and bottom. He clamped his slender legs around her middle and put his cheek on her shoulder. Closed his eyes. Settling in for the short ride to bed. A toad drawled its coarse croak somewhere nearby and another answered. Her thick curly hair smelled smoky, and like the spices of the curry from their dinner. He began to dream he was chasing toads.
A thin whistle cut through the air, low and long, barely audible. He felt Lou stiffen and draw him closer. He opened his eyes but there was only blackness. Without warning, she picked up her gait and dashed toward the wooden building ahead. Her bare feet smacked on the dusty earth. She ran as best she could. He clung to her tightly. They reached the barracks quickly. She pulled him from her, hurriedly unwrapping his arms from her neck and legs from her waist. Inside Joseph. Her breath rushed in and out. Now. Her voice was a coarse whisper. Go. Lock the door. He was frozen. Please Joseph, now. He let go and raced up the steps and into their family’s rooms along the low verandah. He slammed the door behind him and slid the bolt across. It was silent and dim inside. He would normally have been scared to be alone there in the dark. On his tallest tiptoes he peered through the gap below the rough wooden shutter on their window. He could see the back of her shoulder and arm. Her brown skin was green, lit by the fluorescent tube out there. Past that, there was only the black ocean of night.
‘Go away,’ she yelled to the cane. He jumped at her sudden noise, ‘You don’t belong here.’
A loud hiss. The hair on his arms stood up and his skin shrunk into goosebumps.
‘I said, go. You’re scaring the boy.’
Another hiss, menacing now. His heart thundered in his ears.
‘Why have you come here?’
‘We are good Christians, the Lord protects us.’
A lower hiss.
‘Fuck off!’ she screamed.
She stood there a few moments longer surveying the darkness, rigid.
‘My father and brother will be here soon.’
He watched her slowly step back to their door, edging quietly, keeping her eyes ahead. She leaned against it. Jo-Jo, unlock the door, darling. She was quiet but urgent.
He opened the door and she rushed in, driving the bolt back into place. She pushed him aside and dashed to the far side of the room, grabbing a long silver-bladed machete with a wooden handle from behind their father’s battered tin toolboxes. She winced and made a small whimper, looking at the long knife in her hand. Positioning herself under the shuttered window, she looked through the same gap he’d watched her through. He started to cry, quiet tears. She scooped him onto her lap, and sat on the floor with her back pressed to the wooden wall. She placed the knife next to her. It was as long as her thigh. He could see fresh blood on the handle and between her fingers. She pressed him to her tightly.
He could hear the voice of their father and brothers in the distance as if summonsed by their fear. She released him. Lay down, my darling, it’s time to sleep. He did as he was told, curling up on the woven mats, his head on her lap. Close your eyes. She ran her fingers over his hair. You’re safe. I scared it away. He closed his eyes and tried to chase toads again, but they were gone.
‘Junior, chop those carrots all the same or they won’t cook properly. Tommy, you keep stirring. I’ll get the door. Junior, what are you doing? Have you used a knife before?’
‘Shut up, man. I’m trying.’
The doorbell rang again. Joe was relishing teaching the boys to cook. Tommy seemed to get it. Junior was predictably put out, but still following instructions. Why hadn’t he done this with them before? ‘You can’t eat pizza forever,’ he yelled back down the hall. He opened the door and was faced with a big, middle-aged man, and a tall, skinny guy Joe guessed was in his thirties. Both in dark trousers, blue shirts with rolled sleeves and loosened ties. It was a humid evening and they both had a wet sheen on their foreheads lit by the verandah light.
‘Can I help you?’
‘I’m Detective Sergeant Willis and this is Detective Constable Randle,’ the older man said, he flashed some ID. ‘Are you Joseph Delana?’
‘Yes. What’s going on?’
‘Can we come in please?’ Willis’s expression gave nothing away.
‘Yeah, of course.’ Joe’s mind began to race as he walked them down the hall to the lounge, ‘What’s this about?’
‘We are investigating the assault of your neighbour, Kara O’Donnell.’
‘Oh right.’ He recalled the tense conversation with Terry earlier in the day, he’d hardly thought about it since. ‘Please sit down.’ He offered them the brown leather sofa in the stuffy lounge room. He’d dismissed Anna’s suggestion weeks ago that they replace his battered old couch. ‘It’s just getting good,’ he’d said, patting the cracked leather arms. These men in ties occupying it made her point. He looked around. He’d let the place get sloppy and chaotic while she was gone.
He hurriedly picked up three dirty glasses and an empty beer bottle from the coffee table, ‘Would either of you like a glass of water?’ He spotted a discarded empty chip bag and scooped it up. Both policemen accepted the offer, smiling briefly but then resuming their serious demeanour.
In the kitchen, Joe told the boys to stop cooking, ‘You better come into the lounge and talk to these detectives.’
Tommy looked at his uncle, alarmed, and then at Junior.
‘They’re just asking questions about Monday and what we saw or heard. Nothing to worry about, mate,’ Joe reassured his younger nephew. Junior shot Tommy a look Joe couldn’t read. He nodded at them to go ahead of him into the lounge.
He handed both older men a glass of water. Tommy stood back, close to the blank TV leaving the two armchairs for his brother and his uncle. The five men seated in the undersized warm room, all tall, made it uncomfortably cramped.
‘These are my nephews Thomas and Michael Delana.’
Joe switched on the pedestal fan in the corner, it whirred to life providing some irregular relief. Tommy towered over everyone else despite his stoop. This was his second dealing with the police in only a few days. Joe sensed his embarrassment.
‘So, what can we help with?’ Joe tried not to sound concerned.
‘As I said, we are investigating the assault on Kara O’Donnell, your neighbour, that occurred on Monday night. Her father told us that you were all at home on Monday night. Is that right?’ Sergeant Willis, the older policeman, was serious but seemed friendly. Joe was surprised; Terry must have spoken to the police about their conversation.
‘Yes. Well, I was asleep and got woken up by the ambulance that came for Anna,’ Joe answered. Both the boys were silent.
‘What about you two? Were you here?’ Willis looked from Junior in the armchair to Tommy’s downturned head near the television.
‘Yes, we both were.’ Junior’s voice was quiet. Tommy nodded but didn’t say anything, barely dragging his eyes up to look at Willis.
‘Did you see or hear anything unusual? Maybe there was a strange car parked out the front? It’s a quiet street, you might notice something like that.’
‘No.’ Junior was down to single syllables.
‘Perhaps you saw someone walking past? Or some shouting or crashing noises?’
Joe looked to his nephews. They both shook their heads. Junior was at least looking at the policemen. Tommy was glancing from Junior to the floor and back again. Something was off. Joe wondered whether it was obvious to Willis.
‘Do you know Kara well?’
‘Only to say hello over the fence,’ Joe said.
‘What about Thomas and Michael? Do you know Kara?’
‘Not really,’ said Junior.
‘Do you see her other places? Maybe meet her at a café or out for a drink at night?’
‘No.’ Junior was quick to answer. Joe could see perspiration on Tommy’s top lip.
‘OK, that’s interesting. And you didn’t hear any strange noises from next door on Monday night?’
‘See, that’s surprising to us.’ Joe didn’t think he sound surprised at all. ‘There seemed to be quite a bit of furniture knocked over at Kara’s house. It’s strange that you didn’t hear anything at all.’
‘We had the television on. Maybe it was up too loud.’ Junior offered.
‘We can’t really hear anything from next door, these old terraces have thick walls,’ Joe interjected but neither of the policemen acknowledged him.
‘Did you go over there yourselves?’ the younger detective, Randle, spoke for the first time. He didn’t look in Joe’s direction. He stared straight at Tommy. His tone was stern.
‘No, of course we didn’t,’ Joe tried again.
‘You were asleep weren’t you, Mr Delana? Woken by the ambulance, right?’ Detective Randle dismissed Joe with a momentary cold glance, he didn’t wait for an answer and looked back at Tommy.
‘Tommy? Can I call you Tommy? How well do you know Kara?’
‘Excuse me, detective, I don’t know what you’re trying to say but my nephews haven’t done anything wrong.’
‘Why don’t you let him answer, Mr Delana.’
Where was this going? He looked at Tommy who was still standing mutely near the TV.
‘Tommy? Do you sometimes see Kara on your own? Without anyone else around.’ Randle had lowered his head to try and catch Tommy’s eye. ‘Perhaps no one else knows about it, Tommy.’
‘Um, I know her a little bit,’ it was barely a whisper.
Junior cleared his throat and looked at Joe.
‘That’s enough.’ Joe came to life.
‘Why don’t you let him talk, Mr Delana?’
‘Because I don’t think he . . .’
‘Shit!’ Junior suddenly leapt up from his armchair and bolted into the kitchen. Joe was confused momentarily but then smelt smoke. ‘Tommy, go help him,’ he pointed his younger nephew toward the kitchen. Joe turned to the two policemen, ‘I think you better go now.’ They stood trying to look over his shoulder at the commotion in the kitchen. Joe stepped towards them and they moved towards the hallway
‘We’ll be in touch, Mr Delana.’
Sophie has had a 15-year career in communications, writing and editing roles in several industries in London and Sydney. Most recently she was freelancing in Hong Kong while living there. She has always loved creative writing but thought it wasn’t sustainable or sensible. Now she plans to do it anyway.
To contact the author email: email@example.com.