Saturday, December 23rd
Shelley Bentley spun her boat around and came into the shallows. ‘Everything okay, love?’
The sight of a young girl sitting by herself on the remote beach puzzled Shelley. The Blue Lady water taxi pilot had been zipping past Blue Angel Beach, having just dropped off two of her favourite passengers, Orlaith and Tiger, around at Nautilus Lagoon. The lagoon was a favourite snorkeling spot on the shores of the National Park and on this Saturday summer morning, it was popular with locals enjoying the dive.
But beautiful, pristine Blue Angel beach, tucked up in a distant part of the bay and a young girl all alone? That was another matter.
Receiving no reply, Mrs Bentley eased her boat closer into shore and shut down the motor. She threw out her small reef anchor, letting the vessel glide closer in to the beach then slipped off her yachtie shoes and jumped over the side into the warm shallows.
‘You all right?’ she called as she waded through the water towards the small figure. ‘You okay, love?’
The girl turned her head to hide her red eyes and tear-stained face.
‘You’re a long way from home. I don’t mean to pry or anything but ... is something wrong?’ She waited until the girl turned around. ‘Oh, geez, it’s Xanthe O’Rourke, isn’t it? You’ve grown so much, love! I hardly knew you!’ Mrs Bentley studied Xanthe. ‘Had words with your Dad, I suppose, hey?’
Xanthe shook her head.
Shelley sat down on the warm sand beside the girl, watching her as she aimlessly sifted sand through her fingers. Shelley had the good sense not to rush things, but she was aware the sun’s warmth was picking up and it was too hot to be sitting here unprotected for long. She reached across for Xanthe’s hand and held it in her own. ‘Okay, love?’
‘I’m going to mess everything up.’ Xanthe spat out the words, looking straight ahead rather than at Shelley Bentley. ‘I’m useless. Can’t even get a stupid speech right.’
‘You’re speaking at the meeting today?’
Xanthe nodded. ‘Supposed to be.’
‘Oh, well that’s it! Butterflies in the tummy. It’s natural, love. Ask anybody. Ask that Jo Purdy lady, the actress. Or Orlaith May from the telly. Bet both of them get awful nerves before they go on. Stage fright, that’s all it is, pet.’
They continued to sit on the sand in silence. Shelley could see that Xanthe was really troubled. ‘This isn’t just about stage fright though, is it, love? It’s something else, right? Want to talk about it? Old Shell’s a good listener, y’know. Tell me stuff, it goes in the vault. I’m the original clam.’
Xanthe turned to Shelley and hugged her, burying her head in Shelley’s chest. The kindly woman cradled Xanthe, rocked her until, eventually Xanthe straightened up and taking a piece of paper from her shorts pocket, handed it to Shelley.
The Blue Lady driver took the letter and read it, looking hard at the girl when she had finished. ‘You didn’t know your Mum was having a baby, sweetheart?’
‘Yes, I did ... but ...’ Xanthe wiped away a tear with the back of her hand.
Shelley took her back into her arms. ‘How long has it been, sweetie?’
‘Since I’ve seen her?’
‘Yeah. Since you’ve seen your mum.’
‘I was seven.’
This took Shelley by surprise. Xanthe O’Rourke, to her reckoning, must be going on for eleven, at least. ‘But she writes to you, right?’ said Shelley, nodding to the letter in her hand.
‘My birthday. Once. Christmas. A couple of times. And this ... about the baby,’ said Xanthe, indicating the letter.
Shelley gave it another quick read and handed it back. Xanthe folded it neatly and stuck it in her pocket then stared into space until, eventually a steady stream of tears began to roll down her cheeks.
Shelley thought she understood. Xanthe had learned to live with the fact that her mother had walked out on her and her dad, but this news of a baby must have come as a shock, tormenting the girl. Her mother had a new family.
‘It’s breaking your heart she’s not here to see you today, to see what a great job you’ve done getting this protest meeting up, isn’t it, Zanth?’
‘She couldn’t care less,’ spat Xanthe, standing up and moving off from Shelley. She waded over to where her father’s tinny had begun lapping in the rising waters.
‘Does your Dad know where you are?’ Shelley called out as she followed Xanthe down the beach.
Xanthe shook her head without looking back and climbed aboard her boat. She tilted the outboard down into the water. It appeared she was about to say something but stopped herself and went forward and pulled in her anchor.
Xanthe sits on Blue Angel Beach and looks across to Glencairn
It was Shelley who spoke as she waded up to Xanthe’s tinny and held on to it. ‘Why don’t I take you home, sweetheart? We can tow this behind us.’
Xanthe hesitated for a moment. ‘Shelley?’
‘Yes, Xanthe, love?’
‘Do you ever just feel so empty sometimes? So full of ... so full of nothing that you ... that you just want to ...’. She looked away for a moment, fighting back tears, then she sighed. ‘Because I do.’
Before Shelley could respond, Xanthe had the engine kicking over.
Shelley was waist-deep now but she kept her hold on the side of the tinny. With her free hand she pointed across at Glencairn Island. ‘Look at it! It’s beautiful, isn’t it?’
‘Is what you’re doing this afternoon an empty thing, Xanthe O’Rourke? Fighting to keep your precious Glencairn Island a sanctuary? Is that nothing?
There was silence.
‘No. I guess not,’ Xanthe whispered.
‘You know it’s not! We’re all counting on you kids. The whole off-shore mob. We’re depending on your meeting to send a message, Zanth!’ Shelley covered Xanthe’s small hand with her own and lowered her voice. ‘And so is your dear Henrietta.’ Shelley stared into Xanthe’s eyes, remembering all that the Fabulous Island Film Unit children had told her about their beautiful young ghost, Henrietta. Or whatever or whoever she was. Only a story but a good one, thought Shelley. A feisty, wild young woman from two centuries ago that the kids now believed inhabited the old mansion around on the dark cliffs of Glencairn. ‘You’ve got to take this fight up to them, mate. For all our sakes. For the dead, for the here-and-now and for the ones to come.’
Xanthe looked hard at her friend but remained silent inside her thoughts.
‘Don’t let us down, love. Don’t let us down, you hear?’
Xanthe was silent for a little longer then the fingers of her right hand went to her throat, as if to touch a locket. But finding it not there, Xanthe closed her eyes and kept them shut, nodding her head.
It was as if the girl knew who had her locket, thought Shelley, and again, was reminded of the feisty Henrietta, one to play pranks, apparently.
When she opened her eyes again Xanthe’s gaze seemed focused, as if radiating a purpose, as if she had experienced a moment that was mind-changing. At least that was how it appeared to Shelley who felt she had just witnessed a turning point in the young girl’s life. She saw now, in Xanthe, a strength that had been missing a moment before, saw the girl’s shoulders straighten up as she looked across at Glencairn Island. There was even the shadow of a smile spreading across the girl’s lovely young face. Shelley released her grip on Xanthe’s aluminium boat. ‘It’s your day, Xanthe O’Rourke. Your day, darling. And it’s your life. You own it. No one else. You own today, and you own tomorrow.’
Slowly, Xanthe began to pull away from Blue Angel Beach.
Shelley saw the girl look back and was sure she saw Xanthe grin. She watched as the girl circled the tinny once around the Blue Water Lady then put on speed and headed out into the bay. A wave over her shoulder and she was off and racing.
‘You are one hell of a kid, Xanthe O’Rourke,’ sighed Shelley Bentley as she stood watching the small girl manipulate her boat with confidence. It took her moments to realize she had tears streaming down her own cheeks now.
The water taxi pilot stood for some minutes, knee deep in the warm water, watching Xanthe’s boat disappearing across the waters. She checked her watch. ‘Hey, time you got going, too, Bentley, old girl!’ she told herself. ‘You’re gonna be busy today with this protest meeting, that’s for sure.’ She was wading across to her own boat when she felt something brush against her leg. It was a tightly scrunched up ball of paper floating past on the tide.
The mother’s letter!
Retrieving it, Shelley straightened it out over the bow of her boat and read it for the third time. This time, however, she took note of the date on the top of the page. The letter had been written three years ago! And that meant the new baby was old news. But today the letter had mattered to Xanthe more than ever. Today, thought Shelley, the poor kid had yearned for her mother, for the mother who had forgotten her, the mother who didn’t care that this was going to be the biggest day in her daughter’s life.
Standing there, holding on to the discarded letter and remembering the smile she had just seen in those clear green eyes, Shelley Bentley realized she had been privileged to witness a crucial moment in the young girl’s life; the moment the daughter decided to become her own person.
‘Instead of your mother’s victim!’ Shelley said, angrily, as she swung up into her boat, pulled up anchor and started her engines. She soon caught up with Xanthe’s tinny and drove alongside it.
‘Go get ‘em, kiddo!’ she yelled across to the girl.
Xanthe nodded, grinned and gave a thumbs up sign then took off at top speed, swinging her boat in a wide arc out into Salvation Bay, leaving the water taxi bouncing over the frothy wake.
‘Knock ‘em dead, soldier!’ Shelley whispered to Xanthe’s disappearing figure. Her heart ached for the child. But she had never felt prouder of anyone in her life. ‘You’re one gutsy little kid, kiddo!’ she yelled out.
At least for today – when she stood on that stage and addressed her community about the urgent need to save their precious island from those who would destroy it – Shelley believed Xanthe O’Rourke would believe in herself. Would have faith in her own strengths. She looked around, at the bush, at the bay and then up through the tall tree tops to the glistening sun. ‘See you look after her!’ she said to the universe as she too, put on the speed and left Blue Angel Beach behind in its magnificent solitude.
The Week Before
By Friday morning it was no longer just a rumour. The Island was buzzing with the news and a bunch of kids on Glencairn was ready for the fight.
It was school morning, last day of term. The wharf was packed. The Curlewwas about to pull in.
‘Hey, you guys?’ yelled Zoran as he flew down the jetty, leap-frogging three dogs and four schoolbags before skidding to a halt in front of the twins. 'Did you see theStar’sfront page?’
‘It’s hideous!’ said Angel. ‘It’s actually going to happen! Can you believe grown-ups?’
‘I can’t believe anyone could be so dumb!’ wailed Honey. 'Hey, here comes Zanth.'
Xanthe was out of breath by the time she reached the end of the jetty and lobbed her heavy schoolbag at her feet. ‘Oh, boy!’ She took a deep breath then studied the faces of her friends. 'So, I take it everyone’s heard the news!’
‘Yeah. Happy days!’ said Angel. ‘Not!’
‘What are we going to do?’ Zoran, his jaw thrust out and his dark eyebrows crunched together like a pair of fighting caterpillars, slammed his fist into his palm. ‘Guys? C’mon! What are we gonna do?’
‘Stop them. What do you reckon we’re going do?’ said Xanthe, stepping down onto the middle step of the wharf ready to jump onto the deck as soon as the ferry was tied off. She stayed, poised for the jump as the old boat came alongside and banged against the wooden piers, churning the waters into froth.
Zoran tapped her shoulder. ‘How, Zanth?’ he said. ‘Stop them, I mean? How?’
‘Yeah, how?’ Honey called out above the noise. ‘Us? A bunch of kids?’
‘Us against them?’ Angel shook her head. 'Don’t reckon.'
‘Shush. Just hang on,’ said Xanthe. Her eyes were on the boy strolling across the beach towards the wharf.
All heads turned and watched the tall, dark-haired boy lob his backpack up onto the jetty then put one hand on the timbers and swing himself up and under the railing.
‘But Zanth ...’ Honey tugged on Xanthe’s uniform to get her attention.
‘Hang on, Honey!’ Xanthe said, brushing the younger girl off, and at the same time putting a hand out to grab the other twin’s shirt to stop her running up the jetty. ‘Oh my god! You two! Just wait, will you? Wait till he gets here!’ It was obvious Xanthe was deep in thought, so much so that she was almost whacked on the head when Ferry Perry threw his rope out to hook the bollard and tie off the boat.
‘Down here, you lot,’ she said, ordering Zoran, Angel and Honey onto a lower step of the wharf, away from the mob now clambering over each other in a rush to be first onto the ferry. ‘Stay down here. Let them have it. We’re waiting for Jacko.’
‘G’day,’ Jack Nolan said when he joined his friends. ‘No, I take that back. Guess it’s not a good day.’ He acknowledged their gloomy looks and shrugged. ‘A lousy one, right? You’ve all heard?’
‘Yeah, we’ve all heard.’ Zoran jammed his earphones in but kept the scowl.
The water, now that the ferry was tied off and resting, was so clear the leather jackets swimming around the piers were part of the conversation. As was the stranger with the smart briefcase who stood on the jetty above the steps, his dark city suit and his highly polished black leather shoes out of place on Glencairn Island. The stranger leant against the railing, his head inclined towards the kids on the lower step.
‘You know what?’ said Xanthe. 'I reckon we can stop them.’
‘How, Warrior Woman?’ Jack said. 'How?'
The stranger put his finger against the nose-piece of his dark sunglasses to keep them in place as he bent even lower into the conversation going on beneath him.
‘Dynamite?’ the twins exclaimed. ‘Dynamite? We’re gonna blow it up, you mean? Their bridge?’
The listener standing above them cocked his ear even closer to the discussion.
The Curlew’stransport monitor signaled the five to get aboard but despite Florence Longshank’s impatience, they continued to hold back from the mob.
‘Hey, what did I tell you kids?’ yelled Mrs Longshank when Xanthe and Zoran landed heavily on deck with Jack, Angel and Honey following close on their heels. And only the twins looking a little sheepish to be caught breaking the rules by not using the gangway. ‘You lot want a clip under the ear or what?’ Mrs Longshank growled as they came down into the cabin.
‘Sorry, Leggy,’ teased Zoran, blowing her a kiss.
Xanthe moved straight down the back of the boat, ignoring a pretty freckle-faced girl along the way who had her hand out to collect a high-five.
‘She’s still asking if she can join,’ whispered Angel out of the corner of her mouth.
‘The Fabulous Island Film Unit?’ huffed Xanthe. 'As if?’
‘As if?’ echoed Angel. ‘The Fabs? I don’t think so!’
‘Watch where you’re going, C’mon you lot, in y’go. Hurry up, there,’ yelled Mrs Longshank, despairing that her charges were being more fractious than usual today. What with this being last week of term and all the excitement about the story in the Star,it was proving impossible to keep order this morning.
‘Stop your pushin’‘n shovin’ down the back there, you lot,’ she yelled out. ‘Let ‘em through. Go on, get in there, all of youse. Hurry up! Ken don’t have all day, y’know.’
Amidst the yelling, shouting and pushing, the Fabs made it to their usual places, settling in and kicking their bags under the seat, aware that, as usual, other kids had moved up and made room for them. The tiniest of the ferry’s passengers, with Mrs Longshank’s help, squeezed in among the big children on the wooden benches. The Kindergarten passengers wore lifejacket. Mrs Longshank insisted on it while they were aboard her vessel. Little Lucien Radlic, Zoran’s brother, was usually here, but today wasn’t one of his mainland days. Today, he was at home on the island with his dad.
Among the older students, some bent over their last-minute homework and a couple still chewing on cold Vegemite toast from the breakfast table, the talk was animated. Most students seemed excited by what the Starhad reported as being no longer just a rumour but a fact.
‘Quiet!’ shouted Mrs Longshank from the top step of the cabin. ‘Belt up or youse don’t go nowhere.’
‘Cool!’ came a chorus of cheeky voices from the back of the boat.
‘I’ll give youse ‘cool’!’ said Mrs Longshank, finally taking time out to shine one of her great smiles. ‘It’ll be cool alright if I throw a few trouble-makers overboard, won’t it?’
A loud cheer went up.
One who didn’t cheer, however, was the well-dressed stranger standing behind the transport monitor, the dark sunnies hiding his eyes but not the sourness of his expression. Maybe it was the pursed lips. Maybe it was the shudder, which went through him as he studied the chaos of a boat-load of noisy school kids.
He stepped down into the cabin and made his way around backpacks and skateboards until he reached the rear, where he eventually took his seat opposite the five Fabs. He brushed a blonde wind-blown strand of hair from his eyes and checked his watch. Reaching into his jacket, he produced a smartphone and started texting. He returned the mobile to his pocket and turned to look out at the bay. The self-satisfied smile had little to do with the beauty of the sunshine bouncing off the sparkling water.
Ken Hawley, the Curlew’selderly pilot, with his bushy white beard and sea captain’s jacket, was at the wheel explaining a few things to his son, Ferry Perry, the young pilot who would soon be taking over the run when his father retired. Neither man had seemed surprised to see the slick young business type joining their school run this morning. They had other strangers on board, including a woman reporter from the Star who had already interviewed Ken and Perry, and her photographer who had been snapping away, capturing shots of the photogenic pilot and his First Mate, as well as shots of the old Curlew – a vessel whose days would be numbered if the island was to be joined to the rest of Australia by a bridge, as per this morning’s disturbing news.
A bridge joining Glencairn to the mainland. No longer an island. No longer protected. The ancient sanctuary of wildlife and rock art threatened. A five-star resort to follow. All in the Star,and what had been merely a troubling rumour, now confirmed.
But unlike the two pilots, Florence Longshank wasn’t having any part of posing for pesky newspaper photographers or answering their nosey questions. The Curlew’s transport monitor had more important business to attend to. For twenty-two years it had been Mrs Florence Longshank’s duty to keep order aboard the Curlew on its school runs, making sure her young passengers staid safely below deck until the ferry tied up at Happy Cove and she could stand back and let them off. Only then could she relax and watch the children loiter up the hill to school.
All she had to do then was to clean up after them and wait for it to happen all over again, in reverse, that afternoon.
‘Sorry. Too busy,’ was Mrs Longshank’s terse response when the Starreporter tried for the third time to get this tall, skinny woman’s opinion about the proposed development. Florence Longshank was way too preoccupied with seeing her charges settled in and behaving themselves and, once she was satisfied they were safely seated and reasonably quiet, the veteran of many voyages untied the Curlew’s heavy back-end rope from the wharf with one deft flick of her wrist, a manoeuvre young Ferry Perry had yet to master.
Using the two fingers of her right hand shoved between her lips, she gave her ’Okay’ signal – a piercing whistle. Perry freed the rope from the other pier. The captain tooted his horn. With a loud scrunching noise as it knocked against the piers, and a churning up of lots of white water, the old blue and white ferry backed off. Ken waited a moment then, thrusting his engine into forward gear, throttled his craft out into the bay and headed across the water, over to Happy Cove and the morning’s drop-off.
Amid all the usual commotion, at least two of Ken Hawley’s passengers were busy hatching plans. Xanthe was one of them.
‘Zanth?’ whispered Angel behind her hand.
‘Don’t go there.’
‘Dynamite, you mean?’
‘Yeah, dynamite! What do y’reckon?’
‘Not the kind you’re thinking of, dummy.’
‘Yeah. A video. It’ll be dynamite! These people who think they’re going to come over here and ruin everything. We’ll blow ‘em out of the water, you watch! They’ll be so ashamed when our piece hits Youtube and goes viral. They’ll be too scared to do anything but just go away and leave us alone.’ She looked to the reporter and the photographer sitting outside on the back deck. They were coaxing two adults to pose for them with the island as background. ‘Too easy!’ she said to the others. ‘You just watch. They’ll all want this one, all the channels.’
‘Do you really reckon we could get stuff on the news?’ asked Honey.
‘Or would it just be for film nights around at the fire shed?’ added Angel, her voice already betraying a sense of defeat.
'We’ll be interviewed,’ Xanthe grinned. 'Because of the big fight that’s coming.’
‘What big fight?’ Zoran called out to Xanthe in the new, deep voice that sometimes took them all by surprise; even Zoran. Lost in his music, he had only caught this last part of the conversation. He held his ear plugs away from him. ‘What big fight’s coming?’
‘Ours. We’re gonna fight, don’t you reckon,’ said Jack, digging in his bag and bringing out an orange to peel.
‘We’re going to fight, and what’s more, we’re going to win, guys,’ said Xanthe.
‘Are we? Going to win, I mean?’ Honey was only too aware that if her friend said they were going to fight, they would fight, for sure. She believed in Xanthe, who was older and knew a lot more.
‘Who are you kidding? Look at them,’ said Angel as she studied the excited, chattering passengers, some of them passing around the front page of the newspaper. ‘Listen to ‘em, will you? This lot thinks it’s a great idea.’
Xanthe, taking note of the higher than usual level of chatter aboard the Curlewthis morning, let a deep frown crease her forehead as her eyes came to rest on the stranger sitting opposite. She could not say why, but the man gave her goose bumps. She turned to her friends and put a finger to her lips.
‘Zip it, for now, you lot, okay?’ she said, nodding in the stranger’s direction.
Angel shot a quick glance at her sister and both rolled their eyes. There was a feeling among the Fabs that Xanthe went around imagining problems just so she could get stirred up about things, just so she could be the one to boss them around. And because she was like that, the twins knew Xanthe’s ideas sometimes landed them in trouble. They looked at each other again and rolled their eyes a second time.
The look that had just passed between the sisters did not escape Xanthe. She scowled at them. ‘Look here,’ She shot another furtive glance across at the stranger and put her hand over her mouth, ‘We’re going to have to rush this thing through, right? Okay? There’s no time to lose. Beautiful Glencairn Island,the one we talked about doing last term? Our introduction to the island. The wombats and pythons. Our king parrots. The rock art. How we love it, here. Get it made and get it on Youtube. We’ll get people talking. Then we follow up with a proper movie for Kids Channel. That one will be about the bridge and the resort and how destructive they would be on Glencairn. That’s what I mean by dynamite! The geckos, for instance. What would a bridge do to them?! Think about it!’
‘Geckos needs friends,’ said Jack, looking back at the island.
‘Hey!’ Xanthe was excited. ‘Jacko! That’s what we’ll call our movie! Perfect!’
‘Whatever.’ He knew that before the day was out, the title would be Xanthe’s idea.
‘But first, we have to get the Beautiful Glencairnvideo made, and a special web site. As a kind of promo, don’t we?’ said Honey. ‘You reckon we can do it this weekend, Zanth?’
‘We have to, don’t we?’
‘She’s right,’ said Jack. ‘I reckon we’ve gotta get them both done. And quick.’ He looked around the cabin, at the number of kids and the few adults aboard who had their faces stuck in the Star’s story. ‘Before the thing gets out of hand!’
Xanthe looked to the outer deck, to where the Star’s reporter was interviewing another smiling parent. ‘Real quick, I reckon, Jacko!’
Zoran shook his head. ‘Look at ‘em. We’re not gonna change this lot’s mind about anything? What’s a couple of dumb videos gonna do?’
‘We’ll show how much this place means to the birds and tiny creatures. Show how a bridge and a resort would ruin everything,’ said Honey.
‘Uh, uh. They’re dorks, this lot. They won’t care.’
‘So, you’re saying we just do nothing. God, Zoran, you’re such a––!’
‘Pessimist.’ It was Angel finishing her twin’s call, as she so often did.
Xanthe, meanwhile, stared out to the bay, the corners of her mouth beginning to twist into a knowing smile. ‘We will, y’know. We’ll fight them, alright. The wreckers. And we’ll win.’
The stranger stared at Xanthe from behind his reflective sunnies. His lips were also curling, but not in to a smile. He adjusted his gold cufflinks and turned his gaze back out the window to the island and then across the bay to the mainland.
‘Who’s the dude?’ Jack whispered to Zoran.
His own office was on the eighth floor of the glass and steel tower in the city’s central business district, but on this particular Saturday morning, Ugject Development Company’s dynamic Sales Supremo, Dwayne B. Slew was hanging around in the Chairman’s suite on the thirtieth floor.
The executive suite was the twenty-four-year-old’s home away from home these days, the place where he came to dream. And to plot. Before his twenty fifth birthday, he would be ensconced in this lavish thirtieth floor suite as President of the company. It was his destiny, and he was impatient.
Like all men of vision, Dwayne Slew intended to seize control of the company. And it would all be due to this Glencairn Island project, his own baby, which made it so much sweeter.
His commissions on the sale of the resort condos alone would be worth tens of thousands of dollars and then there would be the bargaining power the deal would give him within the company. Ugject’s Board members would be eating out of his hand. He would be on the cover of BRW. The youngest property magnate in the land.
‘Power! Yippee!’ yelled the Sales Supremo as he spun himself around in his boss’s chair.
Nothing was going to stand in his way. Certainly not a bunch of dumb island yokels who thought they owned the place. He checked his watch, an expensive Rolex. It was almost 7.30am. It was time for the executive meeting he had called for this morning.
A ‘power breakfast’ was the way he had positioned it on his memo to his boss; a new concept and one he would be introducing the minute he was in charge of Ugject.
Up and making money while your competitors are still in bed.
He checked the wall clock and headed for the door. He had to make it back down to his own work station.
But why not help himself to a drink first? He glanced across at the executive cocktail cabinet. Why not? Just one long delicious tomato juice spritzer to pump up his metabolism.
He reached for the crystal glass and tumbled in a handful of ice and two thin lemon slices. Amazing. Who came in here and prepared these things, he wondered, already looking forward to giving directions to whoever it was once he was in the top job. He opened the tomato juice, poured it then squirted soda water at it.
A stick of fresh celery sat in the bar fridge. He popped it in and stirred.
Meanwhile, as the juice slid down Slew’s throat, an elevator further down the hall was about to open.
* * *
Sir Conan Digby, AO was a belly-squat man of advanced years. His passion for big Cuban cigars was no doubt to blame for his poor health – the breathing problem that robbed him of oxygen and made every breath a challenge. Lady Digby, when she was alive, had urged her husband to give up the cigars, retire from Ugject Developments and, in his old age, cultivate his prize camellias. But then along came his young Sales Supremo and put this spanner in the works, this ridiculous development project. Sir Conan felt he should still be in bed rather than fronting up to a meeting at this ungodly hour on a Saturday morning to meet a young man he did not like. And with his heir apparent in tow.
‘Not that I think you are in the least bit suited to running this empire, you blithering nincompoop,’ Sir Conan barked at his grandson, a pale young man with fly-away ginger hair and large round spectacles who, at present, was down on all fours trying to gather up spilled documents at his grandfather’s feet and shoving them back in a battered old case. It was a hard, brown cardboard thing with push-down metal locks that Sir Conan Digby had been using since he was a young brickie’s labourer sixty years ago.
Although the old man actually adored his heir, he also despaired of him as his successor and this morning the elderly grandparent felt too irritated by having to get out of bed to come to this meeting to think kindly of anyone, not even his grandson.
Digby Junior, still down on his hands and knees scrounging around for dropped things, suddenly noticed a pair of shiny black shoes whiz by the open elevator. ‘Gramps? That man––’
‘Oh, do be quiet, Junior! Hurry up.’ The Chairman of Ugject Developments, deep in his misery, had failed to observe his Sales Supremo, crystal glass in hand, sneaking into the elevator next door. ‘It is an ungodly hour to have a man up and about on business,’ he grumbled. ‘And my gardening day, at that!’
‘Yes Gramps ... but ... that man who just went––’
'Come along, boy! Get up!'
Digby Junior grabbed the bag and caught up with his grandfather who was already out the door and striding down the hall in an angry huff.
‘Gramps. It was––'
‘You know what?’ said Sir Conan, taking a long draw on his cigar and blowing the smoke into Junior’s face. ‘I intend giving this Clew clown just one more week to prove he can get this project underway. If he can’t, then Ugject gives him the boot. Whatever happens, I will be retiring and appointing you Chairman at next month’s Annual General Meeting. Are you clear on that? Humph! Well, are you, son?’
‘But Gramps, I’m––?’
‘What?’ growled the surly old developer as he paused with his hand on the door to his office suite. ‘What, in tarnation’s wrong with you?’
‘I’m studying to be a vet, remember? First Year Veterinary Science? Sydney Uni?’
Conan Digby Junior did not bother with any further responses, although the dejected look on his face would have signaled to a more sensitive person than his grandfather that the young vet student was not happy about being handed the chairmanship of Ugject. He held his tongue and walked beside the old man through the doors and into the executive suite.
‘One week. That’s all the time he’s got,’ barked the old knight. ‘One week to prove he can do it then he’s out. And I’m about to tell him so right now! No room for losers, son. Remember that when you’re at the head of the table. No room for losers! It’s that philosophy that’s made Ugject great!’
* * *
Dwayne Slew, having managed to slide into the other elevator undetected by Sir Conan, had pressed number Eight. But immediately the lift had reached the eighth floor, he had pressed number Thirty and ridden the lift strait back up again.
The elevator mirrors were smoky coloured affairs, but Slew was pleased that his hair still looked blonde and shiny when he examined his appearance in all three mirrors. He figured, by anyone’s reckoning, he had been blessed with good looks and that was never a handicap in business. He was grinning when he stepped out into the big wide world of commercial possibilities onto the Thirtieth Floor. This Glencairn thing would mark a turning point in his life, Dwayne Slew believed.
No one knew who had inherited the prime piece of land over on Glencairn Island. No one knew who the original occupiers of the old house had been, either. And from his investigations, the Sales Supremo gathered that the island yokels weren’t aware of this handy situation. No title deeds had ever been registered and therefore the ownership of the land and the house were up for grabs. And the local yokels would soon know that he, Dwayne B. Slew, was about to grab it!
* * *
Slew was still congratulating himself when he opened the door of the fire escape and chucked the crystal glass in, giggling to himself when he heard it bounce down the cement steps. The sound of breaking crystal conjured up visions of the glass that would be smashing once his bulldozers moved in on the ugly old house on Lindquist Hill. It was a vision that stayed with him all the way down the hall to the door of the Chairman’s suite.
‘Dwayne, baby,’ he said as he faced the big mahogany doors just before swinging them open with both hands and announcing his presence, ‘... you are on a roll!’
‘We are on track!’ he announced as he burst into the room with a flourish, clapping his hands together.
‘What in tarnation––?’ said Sir Conan Digby, almost swallowing his cigar.
‘The project is just about shovel-ready!’ Slew said as he took his seat and opened his briefcase. ‘No problemo!
‘No what-o?’ Sir Conan Digby looked murderously angry.
‘Except for one possible irritation,’ continued Dwayne Slew. ‘An irritation which I will soon have totally under control. Totally. Absolutely. Under control. Yes, shovel-ready! Any day now we send in the bulldozers. And then it’s farewell, goodbye, adios to a bunch of brats who think––’
‘What the devil are you talking about, Clew?’ the irritable old knight barked.
‘Never mind. Really not a problem at all, Sir. Just a bunch of hick kids who think they can sabotage my ... our ... development. Don’t worry. I have the matter in hand. Under complete control. I’ve got them thrashed before they start. Here’s what we do going forward, okay?’ The Sales Supremo spread his marketing plan out on the boardroom table.
Sir Conan Digby sighed and reached for another cigar.
Conan Digby Jnr sighed and reached for his iPod.