Main Words in Deep Blue

Words in Deep Blue

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"We are the books we read and the things we love"
Have you ever picked a book because the title just called out to you, and then you started reading and with every single word, the book was climbing higher and higher on your "Took my breath away" list? Well I have and it did.
And I have absolutely no explanation for why "Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley" felt so different I had to write about it, except that it's simply way more than just a book.
If you happen to be someone who believes in the magic of words and love to read about characters that share you literary passion, THIS BOOK IS FOR YOU!
I realize this isn't a typical review, but I think you'll understand when you actually read Words in Deep Blue why I can't say much about it. It's just the kind of books that leaves you in a conflicted mess of emotions at the end, that you realize that the best way to talk about it is to say nothing at all.
I also realize that people have different tastes, but for me, this book right here is exactly what I have always been looking for.
05 December 2020 (23:54) 
This is one of those books that touch your heart and fill it with soft warmth, one of those books you find yourself thinking about long after you have read them. This is a must read!
09 February 2021 (18:02) 
These are one of the books that may not have much pages but explain more than books with 500 pages could. Even with 240 pages it teaches us something that words couldn’t teach. It may not make sense, but it really sucks you in until words are no where to be found. It seems as if you aren’t reading at all, you’re almost like dreaming. It’s soo relatable but so rare. Something you could really see yourself doing but is too good to be true. It teaches us things that can’t be seen in the real world. It’s easier to believe, when you see someone going through it, and that’s a great thing. People all over the world may be at their lowest and they just need this. They need to know that there is someone loving you, there’s always light even when your at the deepest part of the ocean. I also loved how the characters in this book explains my high obsession for books and I relate to them sooooooo much. Like when Henry said “ Because I love it. Because I love books down to the full stops. I love
them in a way that’s beyond logic and reason.” Ok I hope this review convinced you to go read the book, cause HELL YA YOU SHOULD *I highly recommend
03 September 2021 (15:37) 

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About Words in Deep Blue

Second-hand bookshops are full of mysteries

This is a love story.

It’s the story of Howling Books, where readers write letters to strangers, to lovers, to poets.

It’s the story of Henry Jones and Rachel Sweetie. They were best friends once, before Rachel moved to the sea.

Now, she’s back, working at the bookstore, grieving for her brother Cal. She’s looking for the future in the books people love, and the words they leave behind.

Sometimes you need the poets

The new novel from the award-winning author of Graffiti Moon.



About Words in Deep Blue






































About Cath Crowley

Also by Cath Crowley

Copyright page

To Michael Crowley and Michael Kitson, with love

A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. KAFKA

The Pale King

by David Foster Wallace

Marking found on page 585

Every love story is a ghost story.

Prufrock and Other Observations

by T.S. Eliot

Letter left between pages 4 and 5

12 December 2012

Dear Henry

I’m leaving this letter on the same page as ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ because you love the poem and I love you. I know you’re out with Amy, but fuck it – she doesn’t love you, Henry. She loves herself, quite a bit in fact. I love that you read. I love that you love second-hand books. I love pretty much everything about you, and I’ve known you for ten years, so that’s saying something. I leave tomorrow. Please call me when you get this, no matter how late.



salt and heat and memory

I open my eyes at midnight to the sound of the ocean and my brother’s breathing. It’s been ten months since Cal drowned, but the dreams still escape.

I’m confident in the dreams, liquid with the sea. I’m br; eathing underwater, eyes open and un-stung by salt. I see fish, a school of silver-bellied moons thrumming beneath me. Cal appears, ready to identify, but these aren’t fish we know. ‘Mackerel,’ he says, his words escaping in bubbles that I can hear. But the fish aren’t mackerel. Not bream, not any of the names we offer. They’re pure silver. ‘An unidentified species,’ we say, as we watch them fold and unfold around us. The water has the texture of sadness: salt and heat and memory.

Cal’s in the room when I wake. He’s milky-skinned in the darkness, dripping of ocean. Impossible, but so real I smell salt and apple gum. So real I see the scar on his left foot – a long-healed cut from glass on the beach. He’s talking about the dream fish: pure silver, unidentified, and gone.

I feel through the air for the dream, but instead I touch the ears of Cal’s labrador, Woof. He follows me everywhere since the funeral, a long line of black I can’t shake. Usually he sleeps on the end of my bed or in the doorway of my room, but for the last two nights he’s slept in front of my packed suitcases. I can’t take him with me. ‘You’re an ocean dog.’ I run my finger along his nose. ‘You’d go mad in the city.’

There’s no sleeping after dreams of Cal, so I climb through the window and head to the beach. The moon is three-quarters empty. The night is as hot as day. Gran mowed late last week so I collect warm green blades on my feet as I move.

There’s almost nothing between our house and the water. There’s the road, a small stretch of scrub, and then dunes. The night is all tangle and smell. Salt and tree; smoke from a fire far up the beach. It’s all memory, too. Summer swimming and night walks, hunts for fig shells and blennies and starfish.

Towards the lighthouse, there’s the spot where the beaked whale washed ashore: a giant at six metres, the right side of its face pressed against sand, its one visible eye open. There was a crowd of people around it later – scientists and locals, studying and staring. But first, there was Mum and Cal and me in the early cold. I was nine years old, and with its long beak it looked to me like it was half sea creature, half bird. I wanted so badly to study the water it had come from, the things it might have seen. Cal and I spent the day looking through Mum’s books and on the internet. The beaked whale is considered one of the least understood creatures of the sea, I copied into my journal. They live at depths so deep that the pressure could kill.

I don’t believe in ghosts or past lives or time travel or any of the strange things that Cal liked to read about. But every time I stand on the beach I wish us all back – to the day of the whale, to the day we moved here, to any day before he died. With what I know of the future, I’d be ready. I’d save him, when the danger came.

It’s late, but there’ll be people from school out on the beach, so I walk farther up to a quiet spot. I dig myself into the dunes, bury my legs past my hips, and stare at the water. It’s shot with moon, silver leaking all over the surface.

I want to go in but I can’t. I want to be close to the beach and far away. I’ve tried to swim without thinking about the day Cal drowned, but it’s impossible. I hear his words. I hear his footsteps through the sand. I see him diving: a long frail arc that disappears into sea.

I’m not sure how long I’ve been here when I hear Mum walking over the dunes, her feet struggling to find traction. She sits next to me and lights a cigarette, cupping it from the night.

She started smoking again after Cal died. I found her and Dad hiding behind the church after the funeral. I’d stood silently between them, holding their free hands, and wishing that Cal had been there to see the strangeness of our parents smoking. Dad’s been working with Doctors Without Borders since the divorce ten years ago. Mum’s a science teacher at Sea Ridge High School. They’ve called cigarettes ‘death sticks’ all our lives.

We watch the water. Mum won’t go in anymore, either, but we meet at the edge every night. She was the one who taught Cal and me how to swim: how to cup the water, how to push it back and control its flow. It was Mum who told us not to be afraid. ‘Don’t ever swim alone, though,’ she said, and apart from that one time, we didn’t.

‘So you’re packed?’ she asks, and I nod.

Tomorrow I leave Sea Ridge for Gracetown, a suburb in Melbourne, the city where my aunt Rose lives. I’ve failed Year 12, and since I don’t plan to try again next year, and since I’m lost here, Rose got me a job in the café at St Albert’s Hospital, where she’s a doctor.

Cal and I grew up in Gracetown. We moved to Sea Ridge three years ago, when I was fifteen. Gran needed help and we didn’t want her to sell the house. We’d stayed with her every holiday, summer and winter, since we were born, so Sea Ridge was like our second home.

‘Year 12 isn’t everything,’ Mum says.

Maybe it’s not, but before Cal died I had my life planned, down to the last detail. I was getting A’s and I was happy. I wanted to be an ichthyologist and study fish like the beaked whale. I wanted Joel, travel, university, freedom.

‘I feel like the universe cheated Cal, and cheated us along with him,’ I say.

Before Cal died, Mum would have explained calmly and logically that the universe is all existing matter and space, ten billion light-years in diameter, consisting of galaxies and the solar system, stars and the planets. All of which simply do not have the capacity to cheat a person of anything.

Tonight she lights another cigarette. ‘It did,’ she says, and blows smoke at the stars.


the sounds of turning pages

I’m lying next to Amy in the self-help section of Howling Books. We’re alone. It’s ten on Thursday night and I’ll be honest: I’m currently mismanaging a hard-on. The mismanagement isn’t entirely my fault. My body’s working on muscle memory.

Usually, this is the time and place that Amy and I kiss. This is the time our hearts breathe hard and she lies next to me, warm-skinned and funny, making jokes about the state of my hair. It’s the time we talk about the future, which was, if you’d asked me fifteen minutes ago, completely bought and paid for.

‘I want to break up,’ she says, and at first I think she’s joking. Less than twelve hours ago, we were kissing in this exact spot. We were doing quite a few other very nice things too, I think, as she elbows me.

‘Henry?’ she says. ‘Say something.’

‘Say what?’

‘I don’t know. Whatever you’re thinking.’

‘I’m thinking this is entirely unexpected and a little bit shit.’ I struggle into an upright position. ‘We bought plane tickets. Non-refundable, non-exchangeable, plane tickets for the 12th of March.’

‘I know, Henry,’ she says.

‘We leave in ten weeks.’

‘Calm down,’ she says, as though I’m the one who’s sounding unreasonable. Maybe I am sounding unreasonable, but that’s because I spent the last dollar of my savings buying a seven-stop around-the-world ticket: Singapore, Berlin, Rome, London, Helsinki, New York. ‘We bought insurance and got our passports. We bought travel guides and those little pillows for the plane.’

She bites the right side of her lip and I try very hard, very unsuccessfully, not to think about kissing her.

‘You said you loved me.’

‘I do love you,’ she says, and then she starts italicising love into all its depressing definitions. ‘I just don’t think I’m in love with you. I tried, though. I tried really hard.’

These must be the most depressing words in the history of love. I tried really hard to love you.

I should ask her to leave. I should remind her that we had a deal, a pact, a solid agreement when we bought those tickets that she would not break up with me again. I should say, ‘You know what? I don’t want to go with you. I don’t want to travel the lands where Dickens wrote, where Karen Russell and Junot Díaz and Balli Kaur Jaswal are still writing, with a girl who’s trying really hard to love me.’

But fuck it, I’m an optimist and I would like to see those homelands with her, so what I say is, ‘If you change your mind, you know where I live.’ In my defence, we’ve been on and off since Year 9 and she’s dumped me and come back before. More than once, actually, so history’s given me some reason to hope.

We’re lying in the self-help section, a room at the back of the shop that’s the size of a small cupboard. It’s just big enough for two people to lie side by side with no space to spare.

There’s no other way for her to leave than to climb over the top of me, so we do this weird fumbling dance as she gets up – a soft untangling wrestle. She hovers over the top of me for a second or two, hair tickling my skin, and then she leans forward and kisses me. It’s a long kiss, a good kiss, and while it’s happening I let myself hope that maybe, just maybe, it’s a kiss so great that it changes her mind.

But after it’s done she stands, straightens her skirt, and gives me a small, sad wave. ‘Goodbye, Henry,’ she says. And then she leaves me here, lying on the floor of the self-help section – a dead man. One with a non-refundable, non-exchangeable ticket to the world.

Eventually, I crawl out of the self-help section and make my way towards the fiction couch: the long, blue velvet day bed that sits in front of the classics. I hardly ever sleep upstairs anymore. I like the rustle and dust of the bookshop at night.

I lie here thinking about Amy. I retrace last week, running back through the hours, trying to work out what changed between us. But I’m the same person I was seven days ago. I’m the same person I was the week before and the week before that. I’m the same person I was all the way back to the morning we met.

Amy came from a private school across the river. She moved to our side of town after her dad’s accounting firm downsized and he had to shift jobs. They lived in one of the new apartment blocks that had gone up on Green Street, not far from our school.

From Amy’s new bedroom she could hear traffic and the flush of next-door’s toilet. From her old bedroom, she could hear birds. These things I learnt before we dated, in snippets of conversations that happened on the way home from parties, in English, in detention, in the library, when she stopped by the bookshop on Sunday afternoons.

The first day I met Amy I knew surface things – she had long red hair, green eyes and fair skin. She smelt flowery. She wore long socks. She sat at an empty table and waited for people to sit next to her. They did.

I sat in front of her in our first English class together and listened to the conversation between her and Aaliyah. ‘Who’s that?’ I heard Amy ask. ‘Henry,’ Aaliyah told her. ‘Funny. Smart. Cute.’

I waved above my head without turning around.

‘And eavesdropper,’ Amy added, gently kicking the back of my chair.

We didn’t officially get together till the middle of Year 12, but the first time we kissed was in Year 9. It happened after our English class had been studying Ray Bradbury’s short stories. We’d read ‘The Last Night of the World’ and the idea caught on in our year that we should all spend a night pretending it was our last and do the things we’d do if an apocalypse were heading our way.

The principal heard what we were planning and told us we couldn’t do it. An apocalypse sounded dangerous. Our plans went underground.

Flyers appeared in lockers with the end set for the 12th of December, the last day of school. There’d be a party that night at Justin Kent’s house. Make plans, the flyers told us. The end is near.

I stayed up late on the night before the end, trying to write the perfect letter to Amy, a letter that’d convince her to spend the last night with me. I walked into school with it in my top pocket, knowing I probably wouldn’t give it to her, but hoping that I might.

I had a brilliant best friend called Rachel back then, who I don’t have anymore for reasons I don’t completely understand, and my plan was to spend the last night with her unless some miracle happened and Amy became a possibility.

No one listened in class that day. There were small signs all over the place that things were coming to an end. Signs that the teachers overlooked but we saw. In our homeroom, someone had turned all the notices on the board upside down. Someone had carved THE END into the back of the boys’ toilet door. I opened my locker to find a piece of paper with one day to go written on it and I realised that no one had bothered working out the finer details of when the world would actually end. Midnight? Sunrise?

I was thinking about that when I turned and saw Amy standing next to me. The note was in my pocket but I couldn’t give it to her. Instead I held up the paper – one day to go – and asked her what she was planning on doing with the time she had left.

She stared at me for a while, and eventually said, ‘I thought you might ask me to spend it with you.’ There were several people in the corridor listening when she said it, and no one, me included, could quite believe my luck.

Amy and I decided the end should be when the sun came up – 5.50 in the morning according to the Weather Channel. We met at the bookshop at 5.50 in the afternoon, to make it an even twelve hours. From there we walked to Shanghai Dumplings for dinner. Around 9 we went to Justin’s party and when it got too loud we walked to the Benito building and took the elevator to the top – the highest place in Gracetown.

We sat on my jacket and watched the lights and Amy told me about her flat, the smallness of the rooms, the birdsong she’d left behind. It’d be years before she told me about her dad and his lost job and how terrible it had been to hear him crying. That night, she only hinted at her family’s worries. I offered her the bookshop, if she ever needed space. If she sat in the reading garden there might be birds. And the sounds of turning pages are surprisingly comforting, I told her.

She kissed me then, and even though we didn’t date until years later, something started in that moment. Every so often, when she was alone at the end of a party, we’d kiss again. Girls knew, even if Amy was with some other guy at the time, that I belonged to her.

Then one night in Year 12, we became something permanent. Amy came to the bookshop. It was late. We were closed. I was studying at the counter. She’d been dating a guy called Ewan who went to school in her old neighbourhood, but that afternoon he’d broken up with her. She needed someone she could rely on to her take to the formal. So there she was at the bookshop door, tapping on the glass at midnight, calling my name.


soft pencil moons

Mum goes back to the house, but I stay on the beach with Woof. I take out the letter I’ve been carrying around since I decided to go back to the city – the last letter that Henry sent. I kept it, along with all his others, in a box hidden in the back of my sock drawer. After I moved to Sea Ridge, Henry wrote every week for about three months, until he got the message that we weren’t friends anymore.

‘There’s no point writing back unless he tells me the truth,’ I’d say to Cal every time I got a letter and every time Cal would stare at me, his eyes serious behind his glasses, and say something like, ‘It’s Henry. Henry your best friend; Henry who helped us build the tree house that time; Henry, who gave us free books; Henry, who helped us both in English, Henry.’

‘You left out shithead,’ I’d remind him. ‘Henry who is a shithead.’

It wasn’t really a problem that I was Henry’s best friend and in love with him at the same time until the beginning of Year 9. He got small crushes on other girls but he didn’t act on them and they didn’t last and I was still the one he sat with and called late at night.

But then Amy arrived. She had long red hair and this impossible skin with not a single freckle. I’m covered in dust from years of summers at the beach. Amy was smart, too. We competed for the maths prize that year, and she won. I won the science prize. She won Henry.

She told me she would, at the end of Year 9, on the day before summer holidays. We’d been studying the writer, Ray Bradbury, in English. One of his short stories was about a couple on the last night of the world, and the idea had spread around that we should all imagine it was our last night. Really it was just an excuse for hook-ups; a free pass to tell whomever it was that you loved, that you loved them. I wasn’t planning on telling Henry, but since it was also my last night in the city, he said we should spend it together.

‘You like him,’ Amy said, looking at me in the bathroom mirror that morning.

Henry and I had met years ago in the primary school car pool. He was reading The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a beautiful book with soft pencil moons. I can’t remember that first conversation, but I remember the ones that came after: books, the planets, time travel, kissing, ghosts, dreams. I knew everything there was to know about Henry. Like just didn’t cover it.

‘He’s my best friend,’ I told Amy.

‘Well, I’m asking him,’ she said.

I knew what she meant, and I told her he was spending it with me.

Henry let me know that afternoon that he’d said yes to her. We were at the back of the school, hiding in the long grass, watching insects skate on lines of sun. ‘If it really bothers you, I can go back and say no,’ he said. Then he got on his knees and begged.

I closed my eyes and told him it was fine.

‘What else could I say?’ I asked Lola that night. ‘I’m in love with you and I have been forever and if there are two people who should definitely spend the last night of the world together, it’s us. Henry and Rachel.’

‘Why not?’ she asked, sitting cross-legged on my bed, eating chocolate. ‘I mean really, why not? Why not just say you my friend, are the person I want to kiss and I think we’d be great together and this girl Amy has a worrying habit of getting lost in her own reflection in the change rooms – why not say that?’

I didn’t bother answering. Lola was Lola Hero, the girl who wrote songs and played bass, the girl who people listed when they listed people they wanted to be. If she liked a girl, she asked her out the same day. The kind of love she wrote about wasn’t the kind of love people like me experienced.

Why not? ‘Because I am not a huge fan of failure and humiliation.’

But by eleven, we’d gone through a tub of ice-cream, two blocks of chocolate and a bag of marshmallows, and this kind of madness hit. I decided to break into the bookstore and leave a love letter for Henry in the Letter Library at Howling Books.

My world seemed too small that night. I’d never even hinted to Henry that I liked him, but with the clock ticking down it became the thing I had to do before that last second and the Letter Library was the perfect place to do it.

The Letter Library is a section of books that aren’t for sale. Customers can read the books, but they can’t take them home. The idea is that they can circle loved words or sentences on the pages. They can write notes in the margins. They can leave letters for people who’ve read and been there before them.

Henry loves the Letter Library. So does his whole family. I didn’t quite see the point of writing to a stranger in a book. There’s a much better chance of getting a reply if you write to them online. Henry always said that if I didn’t understand the Letter Library, then he couldn’t explain it. It was something I had to get instinctively.

There wasn’t an alarm on the bookstore, and the lock on the toilet window that faced Charmers Street was broken. After Lola and I climbed through, we listened before we left the bathroom to make sure no one was in the store.

It was dark but the streetlight helped us see. I’d written the letter before I left home – my hands shaking as I put the words onto paper. It was mostly I love you – a little go fuck yourself. The perfect love letter, according to Lola.

I didn’t hide it in a book he never read and leave it to chance. I put it in T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations. Even more dangerous than leaving it in his favourite book, I’d left it on the page of his favourite poem: ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’.

I decided that if I was doing this, I was really doing it, so I climbed silently upstairs to Henry’s room. He was still out with Amy but his book was on this bed, his page marked by a folded corner. I left a note in it –

Look in the Prufrock tonight – Rachel.

Lola and I went back out the bathroom window; laughing as we hit the air. It had been a hot day but now rain covered the street. ‘It’s the end,’ I thought, but I wasn’t thinking the end of the world. I was imagining the end of Henry and me, the moment when he read the letter, and everything changed. We’d be a different Rachel and Henry. I saw a couple kissing on the other side of the street, John and Clara from school, and felt rain hiss on my skin.

We hailed a taxi and dropped Lola off first. I was checking my phone obsessively by the time I reached my place. I imagined Henry’s voice and how it would sound with the knowledge of me in it. I fell asleep waiting.

Lola woke me around three, asking if he’d called, which he hadn’t. He hadn’t called or come around by the time we left at nine, later that morning. At ten, when we were on the road to Sea Ridge, he sent me a text: Sorry I overslept!! Will call soon.

Henry doesn’t use exclamation points, I thought, staring at them. He doesn’t like the look of them unless they fill a whole page, in which case they look like rain. He especially hated when people used two, and at that moment I understood why. Two is trying too hard. Two is false.

Amy loves exclamation points. I read a short story of hers once and she used them every time someone spoke. She wrote the text. I imagined her reading my letter over Henry’s shoulder and telling him how he should reply: ‘Ignore it. She’s leaving anyway.’

Henry never mentioned my letter and what I’d told him that night, not once, in all the letters he wrote. They were full of Amy. I ignored every one.

Henry doesn’t know about Cal. If he’d heard, nothing would have kept him from the funeral. But I haven’t told him and neither has Mum. Rose can’t say the words without crying and she never cries in public. Cal wasn’t on Facebook. He had an account, but he wasn’t interested.

Tim Hooper, his best friend from Gracetown, moved to Western Australia a couple of months before Cal died, so I wrote him a letter with the news. I didn’t need to tell him not to post it on social media. I didn’t have to say that I couldn’t stand the idea that Cal’s death would be gossip for people to comment on. Tim just knew.

‘Henry used to tell me we were so close we could talk by mental telepathy,’ I say to Woof and the night around me. I only read the start of the letter before I fold it up, dig a huge hole, and bury it in the sand.

Dear Rachel

Since you never write, I can only assume you’ve forgotten me. Again, I refer you to the blood oath we took in Year 3.


second-hand books are full of mysteries

I wake Friday morning to see my sister, George, standing next to the fiction couch, where I fell asleep last night, and where I plan to keep sleeping all week.

Not surprisingly, I haven’t taken the break-up well, and I have no intention of taking it well in the future. My plan is to stay on the couch, getting up for toilet breaks and the occasional toasted sandwich, until Amy comes back to me. She always comes back to me. It’s just a matter of time.

Last night I collected all the books I thought I’d need before I took to the couch, so they’re all piled up around me – there’s some Patrick Ness, an Ernest Cline, some Neil Gaiman, Flannery O’Connor, John Green, Nick Hornby, some Kelly Link and, if all else fails, Douglas Adams.

‘Get. Up,’ George says, gently shoving me with her knee, which is her version of a hug. I love my sister, but, along with the rest of the world, I don’t really understand her and it’d be true to say I fear her, just slightly.

She’s seventeen, starting Year 12 this year. She likes learning but she hates her school. She got a scholarship to a private one on the other side of the river in Year 7 and Mum makes her stay there even though she’d rather go to Gracetown High.

She wears a huge amount of black, mostly t-shirts with things like Read, Motherfuckers on the front. Sometimes I think she likes post-apocalyptic fiction so much because she’s genuinely happy at the thought that the world might end.

‘Is the plan to get up sometime soon?’ she asks, and I tell her no, that is not the plan. I explain the plan to her, which is basically to wait, horizontally, for life to improve.

She’s holding a brown paper bag soft with grease and I’m fairly certain it has a sugar-and-cinnamon doughnut inside. ‘At this point I don’t have anything to get up for,’ I say as I reach for it.

‘No one has anything to get up for. Life’s pointless and everyone gets up anyway. That’s how the human race works,’ she says, and hands me a coffee to go with the doughnut.

‘I don’t like how the human race works.’

‘No one likes how the human race works,’ she says.

I finish eating and lie back on the day bed, staring at the ceiling. ‘I have a non-refundable round-the-world ticket.’

‘So go see the world,’ George says as dad walks past.

‘Get up, Henry,’ he says. ‘You’re fermenting. Tell him he’s fermenting, George.’

‘You’re fermenting,’ George says, and pushes me over so she can sit next to me. She lifts my legs and puts them over her legs.

‘I don’t understand,’ Dad says. ‘You were such happy children.’

‘I was never a happy child,’ George says.

‘True, but Henry was.’

‘I’m not anymore. It’s actually hard to imagine how my life could be any more shit at this point,’ I say, and George holds up the copy of the book she’s reading. The Road.

‘Okay. Sure. It could get more shit if there was some kind of world-ending event and people started eating each other. But that’s a whole different shit scale. On your average human-emotion scale, my life is registering as the shittiest of the shit.’

‘There’ll be other girls, Henry,’ Dad says.

‘Why does everyone keep saying that? I don’t want other girls. I want this girl. Not another one. This one.’

‘Amy doesn’t love you.’

George says it gently – like she’s sympathetically sticking a piece of glass straight through my left eye.

Amy does love me. She did love me. She wanted to spend an indefinite amount of time with me and that’s basically the same as forever. ‘If a person wants to spend forever with you, that’s love.’

‘But she didn’t want to spend forever with you,’ George says.

‘Now. Now she doesn’t want to spend forever with me. But then she did and forever doesn’t just disappear overnight.’ If it does, then there should be some sort of scientific law against it.

‘He’s flipping out,’ George says.

‘Take a shower, son,’ Dad says.

‘Give me one good reason.’

‘You’re working today,’ he says, and I take my heartbroken self off to the bathroom.

According to George, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that our family is shit at love. Even our cat, Ray Bradbury, she points out, doesn’t seem to get it on with the other cats in the neighbourhood.

Mum and Dad have tried six times to get back together but finally, last year, they signed the divorce papers and Mum moved out of the bookshop into a small flat in Renwood, a couple of suburbs away. When George isn’t at school, she spends all her time sitting in the window of the shop, writing in her journal. Dad’s been on the down side since Mum left, with no sign of stopping his post-divorce habit of eating whole blocks of peppermint chocolate every night while he re-reads Dickens.

I don’t agree with George. It’s not that I think we’re great at love, but I think the whole world is fairly shit at it, so, statistically speaking, we’re average, and I can live with that.

Amy did love me. Sure, she leaves me every now and then, but she always comes back. You don’t keep coming back to someone you don’t love.

I stand in the shower and try to work out what I did wrong. There must have been a moment when I messed up, and if I could find my way back to it, maybe that moment could be fixed.

Why? I text Amy when I’ve dried off. There must be a reason. Can you at least tell me that?

I press send, and head downstairs to the shop.

‘He looks better,’ Dad says when I rejoin them.

George looks up at me and decides it’s best not to answer.

‘What’s that wonderful Dickens line from Great Expectations?’ Dad asks. ‘The broken heart. You think you will die, but you just keep living, day after day after terrible day.’

‘That’s hugely comforting, Dad,’ George says.

‘The terrible days get better,’ he tells us, but he doesn’t sound all that convincing.

‘I’m going book hunting,’ he says, which is unusual for a Friday. I ask if he wants some company, but he waves me off and tells me to look after the shop. ‘I’ll see you tonight for dinner – eight o’clock at Shanghai Dumplings.’

Since I finished Year 12 last November, I’ve worked in the bookshop every day. We sell second-hand books, which is the right kind of book to sell for this side of town. Dad and I do the book hunting. It’s getting harder. Not harder to find books – books are everywhere, and I’ve got my particular spots to look, spots Dad showed me – but harder to find the bargains. Everyone knows the worth of things these days, so you don’t just find a first edition of Casino Royale sitting on someone’s shelf that they don’t know they’ve got. If you want to buy it, then you buy it for what it’s worth.

I keep reading articles about the end of second-hand bookshops. Independent bookshops selling new books are hanging in there, doing well again in fact. But second-hand shops will be relics soon, apparently.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because, since the divorce, Mum’s been talking about selling the shop. Every time she talks about it her arguments convince me a little more. I love this place but I don’t know that I love it as much as dad does – he doesn’t care if it makes money. He’s willing to work some place else to keep it.

He and Mum bought the place twenty years ago, when it was a florist. It was priced cheaply for a quick sale. The owner had walked out for some reason. When Mum and Dad came to inspect it, there were still buckets on the floor and the place smelt of old flowers and mouldy water. The notes had gone from the till, but there were still coins in the drawers.

Mum and Dad kept the wooden counter running along the right as you walk in, as well as the old green cash register and red lamp that the florist had left behind, but they changed almost everything else in the long, narrow space. They put in windows along the front of the shop, and Dad and his brother, Jim, polished the floorboards. They built shelves that run floor to ceiling the whole length of the shop, and huge wooden ladders that lean against the shelves so people can reach the books at the top. They built the glassed-in shelves where we keep the first editions, and the waist-high shelves in the centre of the shop at the back. They built the shelves where we keep the Letter Library.

In the middle of the shop, in front of the counter, there’s the specials table, and next to that is the fiction couch. At the back on the left are the stairs to our flat, on the right is the self-help cupboard, and then through the back glass doors is a reading garden. Jim covered it, so people can sit out there no matter what the weather, but he left the ivy and jasmine growing up the bluestone walls. In the garden there are tables with Scrabble boards and couches and chairs.

There’s a stone wall on the right, and in that stone wall there’s a locked door that leads through to Frank’s Bakery. We’ve suggested to Frank that he open it so people could buy coffee from him and then bring it into our garden, but Frank isn’t interested. In the whole time I’ve known him, which is since I was born, he’s never changed a thing in his shop. It’s still got the same black and white tiles, the same diner-style counter with black leather stools along it. He makes the same pastries, he won’t make soy lattes and he plays Frank Sinatra every minute that he’s open.

He gives me my coffee this morning, and tells me I look terrible. ‘So I hear,’ I say, putting in some sugar and stirring. ‘Amy dumped me. I’m broken-hearted.’

‘You don’t know what broken-hearted is,’ Frank says, and gives me a free blueberry Danish, burnt on the underside, just the way I like it.

I take my coffee and Danish back to the shop and start sorting through the books that need to be priced.

I check through all of them because what I like about second-hand books are the marks you find inside – coffee rings, circled words, notes in the margin. George and I have found all kinds of things in books over the years – letters, shopping lists, bus tickets, dreams. I’ve found tiny spiders, flattened cigarettes and stale tobacco in the creases. I found a condom once (wrapped and unused but ten years out of date – a story in itself). I once found a copy of The Encyclopaedia of World Flora 1958, with leaves marking the pages of someone’s favourite plants. The leaves had dried to bones by the time I opened the book. All that was left were the skeletons.

Second-hand books are full of mysteries, which is why I like them.

Frederick walks in while I’m thinking that. He’s a bit of a mystery himself. He’s been a regular here since the day we opened. According to Mum and Dad, Frederick was our first official customer. He was fifty then, but he’s seventy now, or thereabouts. He’s an elegant man who loves grey suits, deep blue ties, and Derek Walcott.

For as long as I’ve been book hunting, as long as the shop’s been open, Frederick has been looking for a particular edition of Walcott poems. He could order a new copy, but he’s looking for a second-hand one. He’s not looking for a first edition. He’s looking for a particular book that he owned once. And something like that, he’s likely never to find.

I don’t think he should stop looking, though. Who am I to say he won’t find it? The odds are stacked against him, but impossible things happen. Maybe I’ll find it myself. Maybe it won’t be too far from home. Second-hand books have a way of travelling, sure. But what travels forward can come back.

Frederick won’t tell me what’s in that Walcott he’s looking for. He’s a private man, a polite man, with a flower permanently fresh in his lapel and the saddest eyeballs I’ve ever seen.

I hand him the three copies I’ve found over the last month. He dismisses the first two but hesitates over the third. The way he holds it makes me wonder if maybe I’ve found the one. He opens the cover, turns the pages, and then tries not to look disappointed.

He takes out his wallet, and I tell him he doesn’t have to keep buying the books if I haven’t found the right one. ‘They sell, and I’ll go on looking for it anyway.’

He insists, though, and I imagine someone walking into Frederick’s house after he’s died and finding hundreds of versions of the same Walcott book, and wondering why they’re there.

Frederick isn’t the only regular. There’s Al, who reads a lot of science fiction and looks like someone who does. He’s been working for years on a novel about a guy who’s jacked into a virtual utopia. We’re all looking for a way to tell him that it’s already been written. There’s James, who comes in to buy books on the Romans. There’s Aaron, who arrives drunk at least once every couple of months, banging on the door late at night, because he needs to use the bathroom, Inez who just seems to like the smell of old books, and Jett, who comes in to steal the hardcovers so he can sell them to any other second-hand place that’ll take them.

There’s Frieda, who’s been playing Scrabble here with Frederick for ten years. She’s about his age and wears severe stylish dresses, and you just know she used to be one of those English teachers who had fifty eyes in the classroom and a supernatural knowledge of Shakespeare. She started the monthly book club, which Howling Books hosts but doesn’t run.

The same people come every time. I set up the chairs, open the door for the teachers and librarians, put out a whole lot of wine and cheese, and then stand back. I hardly ever join in the discussion, but if it interests me, and it pretty much always does, I read the book afterwards. Last month they read Kirsty Eagar’s Summer Skin. George read it after the book club because they talked about the sex scenes, and maybe I read it partly for that reason, too. But mostly I read it because of the way Frieda talked about the main character, Jess Gordon. She reminded me, just a little, of that best friend I had once, Rachel Sweetie. I liked the book – George did too – so we put a copy in the Letter Library.

The Library is the thing that Howling Books is known for, at least locally. We get a write-up every now and then, on sites like Broadsheet, as something special to do in the city.

It’s up the back, near the stairs to our flat, separate from the rest of the shelves. In it we keep copies of books that people particularly love – fiction, non-fiction, romance and sci-fi, poetry and atlases and cookbooks. Customers are allowed to write in the books in the Letter Library. They can circle words that they love, highlight lines. They can leave notes in the margins, leave thoughts about the meaning of things. We’ve had to get multiple copies of works by people like Tom Stoppard and John Green because Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and The Fault in Our Stars are crammed with notes from readers.

It’s called the Letter Library because a lot of people write more than a note in the margin – they write whole letters and put them between the pages of the books. Letters to the poets, to their thief ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend who stole their copy of High Fidelity. Mostly people write to strangers who love the same books as them – and some stranger, somewhere, writes back.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

Written on title page: This book belongs to George Jones. So don’t sell it in the bookshop, Henry.

Letters left between pages 44 and 45

23 November – 7 December 2012

Dear George

You’re probably surprised to find this letter in your book. Maybe you’re wondering who put it here. I plan to leave that a mystery, at least for now.

I haven’t actually left it, yet – I’m still in my room writing it – and I’m sure getting it into the pages won’t be easy. I’m thinking I’ll put it in when you’ve excused yourself from class to go to the bathroom and left the book on your desk. But I know you like to find things in second-hand books, so I’ll give it my best shot.

And here it is, you’re reading it, so I must have been successful.

I know you’re curious, so I’ll tell you this much -I’m a guy, your age, in at least one of your classes.

If you’d like to write back, you can put this book into the Letter Library at your bookstore and leave a letter between pages 44 and 45.

I’m not a stalker. I like books. (I like you.)

Pytheas (obviously not my real name)

To Pytheas – or Stacy, or whichever friend of hers wrote this. Stay away from me. If I catch you in my shop, I’ll call the police.


Dear George

Thank you for writing back, even if it’s only to say that you plan to call the police on me.

I don’t want to make you angry, but I’m not one of Stacy’s friends. I don’t really like Stacy and she definitely doesn’t like me. This isn’t a joke. You’re funny, and smart and I’d really like to write to you.

Pytheas (Would any of Stacy’s friends call themselves Pytheas?)


So you’re not a friend of Stacy’s? Prove it.


Dear George

That’s a hard one. How can I prove to you that I’m not playing a joke? If we were a mathematical equation, then it would be easy. But since we’re not, you might just have to take a chance.

I’ll tell you some things about me. Maybe that would help? I like science. I like maths. I like solving problems. I believe in ghosts. I’m particularly interested in time travel and space and the ocean.

I haven’t decided what I want to do when I leave school, but I think I’ll either study the ocean or space. Before that, I’ll travel. The first place I want to go is the Atacama Desert. It’s 1000 kilometres long, running from Peru’s southern border into Chile. It faces onto the South Pacific Ocean and it’s known as the driest place on earth. There are parts where it has never rained and since things don’t rot without moisture, if something died there, it would be preserved forever. Imagine that. You can see the desert on page 50 of the atlas in the Letter Library. (I’ve also marked some other places I want to see in South America.)

Will you tell me some things about you?



Why are you writing to me? According to everyone at school, I’m a freak.

Dear George

I quite like freaks.



a dream of my past

I drive out of Sea Ridge early on Friday afternoon in Gran’s car. It’s old – a 1990s dark blue Volvo – but it’s mine. It was Gran’s idea for me to move in with Rose and as a way of encouraging me to go, she gave me transport.

In one of our sessions, Gus, my counsellor, asked me to imagine how I’d feel leaving the ocean. ‘Light,’ I’d told him, thinking about the road winding away from the sea. Gran’s house is built so every window catches a glimpse of water. I wake every morning in the blue briny air and have to remember that I hate it.

In the city I won’t have to run into my ex-boyfriend, Joel, or the teachers I’d disappointed, or the friends I’d drifted from. I wouldn’t have to see people from the beach lifeguard club where I’d worked before Cal died, or see the kids I’d taught to swim at the local pool.

But everything’s working against relief today – the colour of sky, the light. It’s the exact time that Mum, Cal and I arrived here three years ago. We looked for the ocean as we approached, the way we always did, spotting it first in small triangles and then in deep scoops.

Cal had one of his atlases open on his lap, an old one, drawn in the nineteenth century. He’d found it at a second-hand store that day. I turned to the back seat and saw him smoothing his hands across the pages of the Southern Ocean, paler at the edges, dark blue in the deep.

We pooled facts about it as we drove. Fourth largest ocean. Has seventeen thousand nine hundred and sixty-eight kilometres of coastline and an area of twenty million three hundred and twenty-seven thousand kilometres squared. An average depth of between four thousand and five thousand metres. I remember the three of us went quiet for a moment, excited by the scale.

In the boot there’s a box of Cal’s things that Gran put in there before I left. I wonder if the atlas is amongst his things, but push the thought away. I didn’t want the box with me but Gran didn’t give me a choice. It’s full of items that Gran can’t categorise so she wants me to sort through it. There’s a question mark on the side of the box and the word miscellaneous written under that. I hate that Cal’s life ended as a set of boxes with words written on the side like sporting goods, hobbies, computer equipment and entertainment. I think about pulling to the roadside and hurling it over the cliffs.

Instead I drive faster. I take the turn inland and push the car as fast as it will go. The shrubs and the water move backwards in a blur, and I imagine that time is rewinding, back to when the world was some other place. I keep my eyes on the road ahead and wait for the relief of concrete, and the absence of sea.

It’s getting dark by the time I arrive and I miss the first turn-off to Gracetown on the freeway, so I have to get off at the next exit. This means I have to drive back through Charlotte Hill along High Street, past Howling Books.

I haven’t been back to the city since we moved. I crawl with the traffic and have the strangest feeling – like I’m driving through a dream of my past. Small things have changed: Beat Clothing is now Gracetown Organics. The DVD store is now a café. Other than that it’s the same.

When I pull level with Howling Books, Henry’s sitting behind the counter on a stool: heels hooked on the rung at the bottom of it, elbows on knees, book in hands, completely focused. The only sign that three years have passed is that I don’t want to kiss him. There’s a mild urge to kick him, but that’s about it.

Amy’s not there, but she’ll be around, somewhere close by. I might not have replied to Henry’s letters, but I read every one. I held them together with a fat rubber band, shoved far at the back of my sock drawer. I know he and Amy kissed on that last night of the world. I know they started then.

Before the traffic moves, Henry comes outside to take in the books that are on shelves in the street. The breeze shifts his hair around. It’s got that same blue-black shine. I watch him and test myself, but no matter how I stare, there’s no haze in my chest, no flicker in the skies.

I think back to those first few months in Sea Ridge, when every time I thought about him I burned with anger and embarrassment. When the only thing that took the blush off my skin was the sea.

I’m relieved when the traffic moves.

Rose lives a block back from High Street, which is crammed with shops selling coffee and clothes and records. The north of the city always felt like the second-hand side of town to Cal and me, and we liked it. Over the river, in the south, there are wide streets and new clothes, but if I have to live in the city, I prefer it here. The cinema shows old and new films, walls are covered in graffiti, crooked powerlines cross the sky.

Rose’s last flat, over the road from the hospital, only had one bedroom. When Cal and I stayed there she put a mattress on the lounge room floor for us. Her new place is an orange-brick warehouse with CAR REPAIRS written in faded letters across the outside. There’s a wooden door on the left, and double wooden doors on the right, which must be where they drove the cars in.

Rose is my favourite aunt – she was Cal’s, too – but she has always been the most elusive. She appears and disappears. When she appeared in Sea Ridge she was always mowing the lawn or cleaning out the garage or smoking in the dunes. When she disappeared, it was always to somewhere exotic – travelling through Africa, working in London, volunteering in Chile.

Once I asked her why she didn’t have kids.

‘I never wanted them,’ she said. ‘I’m too busy. Plus, I swear too fucking much.’

But I know she didn’t mind Cal and me being around. I’m told that after I was born, I cried all the time; Rose would stop by after her shift at the hospital and hold me, so Mum and Dad could get some sleep. Mum would wake in the night and hear Rose reciting the periodic table. ‘It’s the only story I know,’ she’d said.

Before I get out of the car I send Mum and Gran a quick text to say I’ve arrived, then I put my phone on silent and take my suitcases out of the boot. I leave Cal’s box where it is, locked inside.

‘I heard she gave you the car,’ Rose says when she opens the door. ‘How’d it feel to drive here?’

‘Pretty good.’

‘You were scared the whole way, right?’

‘Half the way,’ I tell her, looking around. It’s messy because she’s renovating, but that’s not the problem. ‘There are no walls,’ I say, and she taps on the outside one.

‘There are no indoor walls.’

It’s one huge room with polished concrete floors, the front all windows. There’s a kitchen in the back right corner and two spaces at the front set up as bedrooms.

I can see straight into Rose’s life now. Her bed is unmade, a blue mess with a chest of drawers next to it and a shelf full of her medical books. Her clothes, mostly jeans and t-shirts, are lying on the floor or half out of drawers. There’s a clothes rack with some little black dresses, some long boots underneath.

My corner of the warehouse is near the front windows. There’s a bed with a pile of sheets on it, a chest of drawers and an empty clothes rack.

‘Obviously the long-term plan is to have walls, but until then we’ll just have to respect each other’s space. The bathroom has walls.’ Rose points to a metal door near the kitchen.

I look at where she’s pointing and try to be comforted by that fact.

‘You don’t like it?’ she asks.

‘I do. It’s just not what I expected.’

But what I’m really thinking is, there’s nowhere to hide.

I don’t have much to unpack, and there’s no food in the house, so Rose and I leave for the supermarket. I’m thinking about the warehouse on the way and wondering what I’ve let myself into. I’ve gotten used to being alone and doing my own thing – walking to the beach, skipping school to sleep, crying if I want to, in my room where no one sees.

‘I’m talking to you,’ Rose says.


She points through the windshield. ‘We’re here. You get the trolley. I’ll meet you inside.’

Rose isn’t much of a cook so we buy things that I can make or things we can heat. It feels good to shop in the city, and not in Sea Ridge, where everyone knows everyone, and everyone still gives us looks. This supermarket is new. Cal and I never stood in the chocolate aisle deliberating between peanut or plain M&M’s. Rose doesn’t deliberate at all as it turns out. She puts both bags in the trolley.

‘Your gran says you’re not eating enough,’ she says, and we keep moving. ‘She also says you’ve turned into a zombie who hides in her room, sleeps all day and spends her nights at the beach with her mother, who has always turned into a zombie.’

Rose throws cans of tuna in the trolley while I’m trying to get a look at myself in the cake tins to see if I do actually look like the undead. The news isn’t entirely good.

‘She has no idea what a zombie actually is,’ Rose says. ‘So I wouldn’t worry.’

‘Cal introduced her to zombies. Shaun of the Dead is her top movie of all time.’

‘Jesus,’ Rose says. ‘We didn’t even get to watch TV when we were growing up. Now she’s watching Simon Pegg films and telling me my niece needs to have sex. But don’t worry,’ she says, looking at my horrified face. ‘I set her straight about that. I told her to leave you alone.’


‘I told her zombies don’t have sex.’

I put down the cake tin and we keep walking. Rose moves along the aisle complaining about the volume of Gran calls she’s had lately and how every one of them has been about me. ‘Late at night, early in the morning,’ she says, throwing crackers into the trolley.

Gran and Rose have fought for the sake of fighting all the way back to when Rose was three, or so the family history goes. According to Gran, Rose swears too much, works too much, and doesn’t come home nearly enough.

‘If she’s sent you to me, you’re in trouble.’

‘I tried to pass Year 12,’ I say, in an effort to defend myself.

‘If you were trying, you’d have passed. You could pass Year 12 with your eyes closed.’

I think of myself lying out the back of school when I should have been in class – the sun on my face and the warm grass on my back. ‘My eyes were closed most of the time.’

‘Life starts again,’ Rose says, as if that’s something she can order.

When we get back to the car I notice a flyer tucked under the windshield wipers advertising a band called The Hollows. I know immediately that it’s Lola’s band. It’s the name she and Hiroko chose back in Year 9, when it existed only in their imaginations. It was written all over the covers of their exercise books, their folders, their school bags. Lola designed t-shirts and had them printed before the band officially existed.

I study the flyer while Rose packs the last of the shopping bags into the car. There’s a picture on it of the two of them at a bus stop, waiting with Lola’s bass and all of Hiroko’s percussion instruments. ‘Old friends,’ I explain to Rose.

‘Old friends write,’ a voice says, and I look up to see Lola standing there.

It’s not all that surprising since she lives close by, and she’s obviously here putting band flyers under windshield wipers. It feels like a small miracle, though, as if she’s slipped through the air from the past: short and curvy, long brown hair and olive skin. I want to hug her, but if I do that I might spill everything and cry right here in the parking lot.

‘It’s been too long,’ I say to fill the silence.

‘Way too long,’ she says, twisting an earring that looks, in the dimness of the car park, like a small nail. ‘I thought you might be dead.’

‘I’d have told you,’ I say. ‘If I were dead.’

She doesn’t smile, but she stops twisting the nail. If I told her about Cal, she’d forgive me immediately, but she’d feel guilty when there’s nothing to feel guilty about. Plus, it doesn’t feel right to blurt it across a grubby car park while Rose is packing toilet paper into the car.

‘Year 12 sort of took over everything,’ I tell her and she steps forward a little and touches my hair as if she’s just noticed that it’s short and bleached now.

Her eyes roam all over me, over my black t-shirt and jeans, over my skinny frame. She’s in a short silver dress and I try not to look as faded as I feel. ‘You don’t like it?’ I ask, running my hand over my hair.

‘I like it,’ she says.

‘Are you forgiving me?’

She stares for a while and then takes the flyer from my hands. ‘The Hollows are playing at a place called Laundry tonight,’ she says, scribbling her phone number on the paper. ‘Henry’ll be there, and if you’re really sorry, you’ll come anyway.’

She gives me back the flyer, kisses me on the cheek, swings her leg back over her bike and cycles off before I’ve got time to think of an excuse and say no. I can hear her shouting, ‘Thank God you’re back,’ as she pedals away.

I tell Rose about Lola and Hiroko as we leave the car park. Lola’s on vocals and guitar. Hiroko plays the glockenspiel and some other percussion instruments I can’t name. They do some covers but mostly they write their own songs. As I talk I can see the two of them in class, passing notes with lyrics written on them while the teacher isn’t looking.

I put the flyer in my pocket. I miss Lola, and I want her to forgive me, but there’s no way I’m going to Laundry tonight. Life’s depressing enough without seeing Henry and Amy kissing.

‘Speaking of old school friends,’ Rose says. ‘I bumped into Sophia the other day – your friend Henry’s mum? It was good timing too. I’d just found out that the job I got you at the hospital fell through, and when I mentioned it to her she offered you a job at Howling Books instead.’

Rose is speaking quickly, so it takes me a while to absorb what she’s saying, and then think about what it means. Working next to Henry for eight awkward hours every day. Even if we work different shifts, there’ll be no avoiding him. He’s always in the bookstore. He sleeps in the bookstore. He’ll be lying on the fiction couch talking constantly about Amy.

‘No,’ I say.


‘No,’ I say again, more forcefully. ‘Thanks but no thanks. Tell Sophia I found another job.’

‘Have you found another job?’

‘Obviously not.’

‘Then you’re taking this one. You start at ten, tomorrow morning. Sophia said she was looking for someone with people and computer skills, and that describes you perfectly.’

‘I no longer have people skills.’

‘This is true, but I chose not to share that with her. I didn’t share anything else, either. They don’t know about Cal. They don’t know you failed Year 12. They think you’re taking a year off before university. All they need is someone to catalogue the stock and create a database. You can do that, right?’

I can do it, I admit. I just don’t want to do it.

I don’t want to explain the humiliating situation with Henry, but since I don’t have a choice I tell her about liking him, about the last night of the world, Amy, the letter, my declaration of love, his ignoring my declaration of love. Any other human would understand why I couldn’t take that job.

‘You’ll just have to get over it.’

But Rose is not like any other human.

‘You want to hide. You want to be miserable, but that’s not happening. You’re taking the job at Howling Books. You’re not spending even one day lying on your bed staring at the ceiling.’ She parks the car opposite the warehouse. I get out and slam the door.

I’m more determined with every bag that I take inside that I’m not working with Henry. ‘It will be deeply, deeply annoying. It will be humiliating.’

‘It’ll be life,’ Rose says. ‘And you have to jump back in sometime.’

‘I’d rather clean toilets. Let me clean toilets. I beg you. Let me look for a job cleaning toilets.’ I start shoving cans onto shelves.

‘You still like him,’ Rose says, passing them to me.

‘I don’t still like him. I don’t like anyone.’

Maybe some people have loads of sex to help them get over their grief, but I went the opposite way. I broke up with Joel. I haven’t kissed anyone since the funeral. I don’t want to kiss anyone. I don’t want to see anyone kiss anyone. I definitely don’t want to see Henry kiss Amy.

‘This is my condition for you living here,’ Rose says, her voice running under my thoughts. ‘You get up every morning; you go to work. You either do that, or I enrol you in Year 12 again. You’re eighteen, so you can decide what to do. You can stay here and do what I say or you can move out.’

I put the last can on the shelf.

‘I’m sorry,’ Rose says into the quiet. ‘I didn’t mean it to sound that brutal. We’re all just so fucking worried about you.’

I go into the bathroom and shut the door because it’s the only door to shut. I stand looking at myself in the mirror. I’m someone I recognise but don’t. I cut off my long hair about a week after the funeral. It was a strange night. The thing I remember most about it is the sky. I hadn’t seen one like it before. Flat and starless, as though the world had become a box with a lid on it. I couldn’t sleep. I sat on the balcony, staring up for a long time, knowing there were planets and stars and galaxies, but not believing in them anymore.

I like there being a line between the Rachel I was before Cal died – the girl with long blonde hair, the scientist, the girl who wore dresses because it was easier to strip down to bathers underneath – and the Rachel with cropped hair, the one who doesn’t wear bathers anymore and doesn’t care what she looks like.

‘I just want you to be you again.’ Rose taps her nails on the door and calls my name. ‘Do you remember that day,’ she says, and I know what day she means without her naming a date or a place or a time. She starts to describe it, and I want her to stop, but I don’t want to make a big deal about it. Nothing much and everything happened.

Rose had come to visit in the summer before I started Year 12. She’d arrived home from Chile, turning up in the early morning the way she usually did, appearing in the kitchen with coffee and croissants and the papers. It was summer. Hot by first light. We ate on the balcony, and Rose told us she’d visited Cape Horn, the headland at the southern end of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago in Chile. Beyond that are the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica, separated by the Drake Passage. ‘The connecting point between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans,’ Cal said, reading from the screen of his phone, pushing up his glasses with his knuckles, scrolling through more information. While he read from the screen, Rose put her feet up on the balcony and said, ‘First trip. Wherever you go, separately or together, wherever it is, I’ll fund it.’

Rose didn’t make promises she didn’t intend to keep. Cal and I started planning. We’d go together, that much was certain. I’d wait till he finished Year 12. The hard part was deciding where.

‘The offer still stands,’ Rose says tonight. ‘Pick a place.’

I pick the past.

The bathroom is too small. Rose keeps tapping. The strange girl stares from the mirror. I think about how good it would feel to get in the car and drive again, to concentrate and not think.

I unlock the bathroom door and come out.

‘Can we at least talk about it?’ she asks, and I tell her sure, we can talk.

‘But tomorrow. Tonight I think I’ll go to see Lola’s band.’

I take the flyer, and Rose gives me a spare key to the warehouse. She looks worried, so I kiss her on the cheek. ‘Relax. You got through to me. I’m living again.’

‘I’m not an idiot. You’ll drive around all night to avoid talking.’

I think she’s about to yell some more, but instead she thinks for a minute and then relaxes against the counter. ‘Okay.’ She picks up an apple. ‘Go out. Good idea.’

‘Thank you,’ I say, and I’m on the way to the front door when she calls to me.

‘But take a picture of Lola on stage. Text it to me,’ she says and bites the apple. ‘Show me proof of this life.’

Too smart for her own good is how Gran describes Rose: too adventurous, too honest, too unconventional, too loud. These are the qualities I love about Rose. Until now, when they’re working against me. I’ll have to go to the club, but first I drive around to old places, putting off the inevitable for a while longer.

Everything seems the same: the streets, the shops, the houses. I pass Gracetown High, where Mum taught Science and I went to school. Cal went to a private school across town that had a good music program because he played the piano.

I park outside our old place on Matthews Street, a three-bedroom Californian bungalow, painted cream. Whoever lives there now has kept our chairs out the front and the plants, but there are different bikes leaning on the side, and different cars in the driveway.

The back of the house was glass when we lived there. I remember Cal and me sitting in the lounge room one night when a summer storm started. Cal and I both loved storms. We loved the accumulation of charge in the air, electricity building in the clouds above and on the earth’s surface, moving towards each other.

Cal was interested in science, and he was good at it, but he didn’t love it, not the way that I did. He liked science because of all the possibilities, but he believed in other things like time travel and the supernatural. I remember once we had this argument about whether ghosts existed. Cal thought they did. I thought they didn’t. Mum explained to us why, according to the second law of thermodynamics, they couldn’t exist. ‘Humans are a highly ordered system and once we’re disordered beyond repair, we don’t reorder.’

Cal chose to believe in them anyway. I sided with science.

But after the funeral, after everyone had left the church, I stayed, waiting for Cal’s ghost. I still didn’t believe in them but I had this crazy idea that because he did, they might be possible. ‘See, Rach. I’m here,’ I imagined him saying, as he held up his arm to show the sunlight shining through. Ghosts are nothing but dust and imagination, though, and eventually the funeral director told me I had to leave. There was another funeral starting soon.

I think about Rose’s ultimatum. Stay here or go home. Cal’s everywhere, but at least in the city I won’t think about those waves that took him.

The dreams of the silver fish make me sad, but they’re not the worst ones I have. The worst are where I’m tangled in the water, screaming his name, hauling him onto sand, desperate to give him my breath.

I check the address of Laundry, and start the car.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

Letters left between pages 44 and 45

8 December – 16 December 2012

Okay, Pytheas, I’ll write back, but only because I feel sorry for you. What kind of guy likes freaks?

I’ll tell you about me, but first I have some questions. Who is Pytheas? Have we spoken before? Why do I never see you putting letters into the book? I’ve been watching very closely.


Dear George

Are you always this suspicious? I don’t mind, but I wonder if you trust anyone. You’re always on your own at school. I asked to sit at your table in the cafeteria once. You looked at me, said sure, and then got up and walked away. Not exactly welcoming.

So, Pytheas – I’m glad you asked. He lived in 300 BC, and he was the first person (at least on record) to write about the Midnight Sun. He’s the first known scientific visitor to the Arctic, and he was the first person to record that the moon causes the tides.

You never see me putting letters in the book because I’m incredibly stealthy.


P.S. I saw that you marked the United States on the map – I’d like to go there too. My sister and I would like to dive off the coast of California some day.

Okay, Pytheas: things about me.

I like the bookshop. I read a lot. Some favourites are Hugh Howey, Kurt Vonnegut, Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, John Green, Tolstoy (just read Anna Karenina), J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, Melina Marchetta, Charlotte Brontë and Donna Tartt. Lately (you know this) I’m getting into the mash-ups of the classics (Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, that kind of thing).

I like dumplings. My birthday is the first day of winter; I actually like being cold (everywhere except my feet). Music-wise I like The Finches, Jane’s Addiction, Amber Coffman and Wish.

I’m sorry about that day in the cafeteria. I don’t remember it. But if I’d known you were you, then I would have hung around.


Dear George

Thank you. I accept your apology. If I ever get the courage to walk up to you again, I’ll be expecting a warmer reception.

I actually do understand. I changed schools too – but I’ve made a good friend now, so it’s bearable. I think you’d like him, I know he’d like you. You’re in his English class, and he thinks you’re interesting. He liked the book report you gave on Liar. He told me you said fuck and didn’t realise it.

I haven’t heard of those bands, but I downloaded some of their music. I like Wish. They sound kind of dream-like. Have you heard of The Dandy Warhols? I think you might like them.

I read a lot of fiction and I like comics, but I love non-fiction. Like I said, I’m into time theories. I’ve been reading a lot about the growing block universe. I don’t entirely understand the theory but I like trying to get my head around it.


P.S. I do like freaks, but I don’t think you’re one. Or, if you are, it’s in the best possible way. You’re gorgeous. (I’ll never tell you who I am now.) I like the blue stripe in your hair and I like how you give answers in class and don’t care what people say. I like how you’re always reading interesting stuff and I like that you work in a bookstore.

P.P.S. I’ve left a book in the Letter Library for you. It’s one of mine, so you can keep it – Mark Laita’s Sea. It’s one of my all-time favourites. I’ve marked the North Pacific Giant octopus. It can change its appearance and texture to look like even the most intricately patterned coral. Its life span is only about four years, which is actually longer than other species.

Dear Pytheas

So I read up on the theory of time you mentioned. If I believe the growing block universe theory, then I have to believe that the past actually exists. So while I’m here in the present, I’m also there in the past? That makes NO sense, Pytheas. And if the past exists like a place does, why can’t I travel to it?

Thank you for the book. It’s very beautiful. Are the photographs enhanced? The fish seem unbelievably bright. I’ve been looking at the pictures in almost complete darkness, with a small torch to shine on the fish. I feel like I’m underwater. Have you done that?

The giant octopus is amazing, sure. But my favourite photograph is of the jellyfish. I go to the aquarium sometimes to watch them. They look like ghosts in the water.

Thanks for all the compliments you’re giving me – I’d give some back but I can’t (obviously). Lately I’m distracted in class, because I can’t stop wondering who you are. You don’t seem like you’re one of the popular kids (I mean that in the best possible way).

Are you ever planning on telling me who you are? Or will we keep writing like this forever?


Dear George

I thought it might be getting weird that I’m at school and you don’t know who I am. But I just can’t tell you. I’m worried that if you knew, it might change things, and I don’t want to stop writing.

I like the jellyfish too. Did you know that they’ve been in the oceans for more than five hundred million years? There’s a lake in The Republic of Palau, Jellyfish Lake, that’s flooded with them. My sister wants to dive in Palau – but not in that lake.

The growing block universe does mess with your idea of time, doesn’t it? Think about it like this – the universe is growing, and as it grows, slices of space-time are added to it. As slices are added, you move forward. Travel to the past is impossible, though. Space-time moves in one direction – forward.



a watched phone never rings

Our opening hours at Howling Books are flexible. We’re open by ten in the morning, and we stay open till at least five, but sometimes we’ll stay open later. We’ll almost always open up for a late-night book emergency.

We close on Friday evening, though, because that’s when we have our family dinner at Shanghai Dumplings. Tonight, I’m bringing in the rolling shelves we keep on the street, getting ready for dinner, when Lola walks in and says she’s just seen Rachel.

I don’t need to ask her which Rachel she’s talking about. There’s only one Rachel. The Rachel. Rachel Sweetie. My best friend who moved away three years ago and forgot all about me.

After she left I wrote her letters – long letters – telling her all the news about the bookshop. I wrote about George and Mum and Dad and Lola and Amy. She sent me one-paragraph letters back, and then the letters turned into one-paragraph emails, and then she added me to group emails, and then she stopped writing altogether.

‘She’s ignoring me,’ I’d say to Lola every time Rachel sent her a long email. ‘Has she said anything to you?’ I’d ask, and she’d shake her head. Lola is a shit liar. Rachel had said something to her but since Lola was too loyal to tell me I was left to wonder.

‘She’s cut her hair short, and bleached it,’ Lola says, and now I’m trying to picture Rachel and I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to wonder what she looks like or what she’s doing. ‘I still don’t know why we stopped being friends, but we did, so I don’t really want to hear about her.’

Lola turns her back to the counter and hauls herself up on it so she’s near the mint bowl. She takes one and says, ‘She’s back and I want to hang out so you need to get over it.’

‘I’m over it. I’m completely over it. I’m over that she wrote to you and not to me. Completely over that she wouldn’t take my phone calls. More than completely over that she left town without saying goodbye.’

‘The way I heard it, you texted her and said you’d slept in.’

‘Is that why she hasn’t written? Because I always sleep in. I’ve slept in almost every day of my life and Rachel knows that. She could have driven past the bookshop on her way out of town, woke me up, and said goodbye.’

‘You do seem to be over it,’ Lola says.

‘But you know what she did instead? She sent me a text saying that my copy of American Gods was on the front steps of her house. It rained before I got to her place. It was totally ruined.’

‘Lucky you work in a bookstore and you have five other copies on the shelf and two in your personal collection.’

‘Not the point,’ I say.

She passes me a flyer. ‘The Hollows are playing tonight at Laundry. Which is, for your convenience, just across the road.’

Lola and Hiroko have been playing together officially as The Hollows since the Year 11 formal. Unofficially, they’ve been dreaming of the band since Year 8. They’re a little like Arcade Fire meets The Go-Betweens meets Caribou and they’re good.

They play at Laundry on the Friday nights when the club has live music. The owner is a friend of Lola’s dad, so Lola made a deal with him – The Hollows play as support act to the main band and get a percentage of the door that’s taken before ten.

She slides off the counter. ‘Full disclosure: I asked Rachel. You should come and patch things up with her.’

I tell her I’ll try but I’m pretty sure patching will not be a possibility. You can’t patch up someone forgetting about you. For the rest of your life you’ll always be worrying that they’ll forget about you the same way they did before. You’ll always know that they’d be a hundred percent fine without you but you wouldn’t be a hundred percent fine without them.

I lock up after Lola’s gone and head to Shanghai Dumplings. On the way, I distract myself from thinking about Rachel by thinking about Amy. I’ve had my phone on silent all day and deliberately not checked, because it’s a truth universally acknowledged that a watched phone never rings, especially when you’re waiting on a text from your ex-girlfriend.

There’s a missed call from her, but no message.

I’m thinking about whether or not I should call back when I walk into Greg Smith. I’m looking down, and he’s standing in my way, so my shoulder knocks into his. I ignore him and keep walking. Greg was in my class at school and every time I see him he makes me question the universe. He’s a complete idiot but he’s got supernaturally white teeth and perfect hair. Why reward the idiots? Surely if you don’t want the idiots to win, don’t make them good-looking.

‘Heard Amy dumped your arse,’ he calls after I’ve passed him. I find it’s best not to engage with Greg. But every time I see him, I engage anyway. I engage when he calls my sister weird. I engage when he calls me weird. I engage when he calls Lola a lesbian like there’s something wrong with that. I engage when he says that all poetry is shit. I’m willing to admit that some poetry is shit. If Greg wrote poetry, his poetry would be shit. But Pablo Neruda, T.S. Eliot, William Blake, Luis Borges, Emily Dickinson – just to name a few – are as far from shit as you can find.

‘She didn’t dump me, actually. We’re still together. Flying out on 12th of March,’ I tell him, and keep walking before he can say anything else. He’ll find out sooner or later that I’m lying, but it’ll be sometime when I’m not standing right in front of him. One of the great things about finishing high school is that you can finally get away from the dickheads.

I’m only in a bad mood till I get to the restaurant. We always get the pork dumplings, the pan-fried dumplings, the wantons with hot chilli sauce, the salt-and-pepper squid, the prawns and greens, and spring rolls.

Since Mum left, we’ve kept up the tradition. She’s moved out of the bookshop but she still comes to dumplings, and for an hour at least we’re a family again.

Mai Li’s working the door, the same as always. Her family owns the place. I know her from school. She’s studying journalism this year, but her main love is performance poetry that she writes on her phone while she’s walking around. I can’t work out if she speaks like a performance poet or if that’s just the way I hear her.

‘How be life, Henry?’ she asks, and I tell her, ‘Life be shit, Mai Li.’

‘Shit why?’

‘Shit because Amy dumped me.’

She stops handing out menus to customers and gives the news the pause it deserves. ‘Life be fucked then, Henry,’ she says, and gives me a menu. ‘I think they’re fighting.’


‘No one’s eating. They’ve been yelling,’ she says, and I start climbing the stairs.

Mum and Dad don’t yell. They’re the kind of people who quote literature and try to talk about their problems. Even when Mum was leaving, they didn’t yell. The silence in the bookshop was so loud George and I went next door to Frank’s to get away from it, but even when they were alone, I’m pretty certain they fought in silence.

I arrive at the table and see that Mai Li’s right – they are fighting.

Usually at Friday-night dinners we talk non-stop and about books and the world. Last week we started with George. She’d read 1984 by George Orwell and The One Safe Place by Tania Unsworth. She’d started The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

The first rule of our family book discussions is you can’t spend forever explaining the plot. You get twenty-five words or less for that but endless time for what you thought about it. ‘Orwell – a world controlled by the state. Unsworth – set in a world after global warming. McCarthy – father and son surviving post-apocalypse.’

I asked her what it was about those terrible worlds that fascinated her, and she thought about it for a while. The thing I love about George is that she takes ideas and books and the discussion of those things seriously. ‘It’s the characters, mostly, not the world. It’s how people are when they’ve lost everything or when it’s dangerous to think for themselves.’

The conversation turned to me, and what I’d been reading. Where Things Come Back, by John Corey Whaley. I’d brought the book with me so I passed it around. I didn’t want to give away too much so I just told them it was about Cullen Witter, a guy whose brother disappears. The book starts with the narrator talking about some of the first dead bodies he’d ever seen, and after that opening, I couldn’t stop reading.

Mum talked about Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, and she looked sad when she explained to George and me that time is the goon because it pushes us around. George had to look up goon to find out it meant a kind of gang member. Dad had read the book and he looked sad too and it occurred to me that maybe love is the goon that pushes us around. ‘Maybe,’ Dad said when I mentioned it to him later. ‘But I like to think of love as being slightly more forgiving than time.’

Tonight is a whole different thing. There’s no book talking. Dad’s stabbing a prawn dumpling straight through the middle. ‘We need to talk to you,’ Mum says, which is the same way she brought up the divorce. ‘We need to talk to you’ is never good news.

‘Your mother thinks it’s time to sell the shop,’ Dad says, and it’s pretty clear it’s something he doesn’t want to do.

‘There are people making serious offers,’ Mum says. ‘We’re talking substantial money.’

‘Do we need substantial money?’ Dad asks.

‘Second-hand books aren’t exactly a thriving industry,’ Mum says. ‘What were the takings today, Henry?’

I put a whole dumpling in my mouth to avoid answering.

It’s true that second-hand bookshops aren’t thriving and it’s clear Mum thinks they won’t thrive again. Like Amy says all the time: Wake up and smell the internet, Henry. But does that mean we should sell? I don’t know. ‘Substantial’ and ‘money’ are two words that make a strong argument.

The thing about our family is we all get a vote, so Mum and Dad can’t make this decision without us. George is staring at her plate with ferocious intensity, like she’s hoping she can make it into a portal and disappear. I’m guessing she hasn’t cast her vote yet. She plays Scrabble with Dad every night, and she loves reading in the window with Ray Bradbury on her lap. But she misses Mum so much I’ve heard her crying in her room. She’ll vote with me, because she doesn’t want to take sides. That makes mine the deciding vote.

‘Do you want to work in the bookshop until it dies, Henry?’ Mum asks, and Dad says he doesn’t think that’s a fair question, and she says he’s free to make a counter-argument, and he says, ‘If we all gave up on the things we love when it gets hard, it’d be a terrible world.’ We’re talking about more than books, here, which is why George is voting with me.

I look into the future – twenty years, say – and I know it’s unlikely we’re still making a go of it. I see myself sitting behind the counter reading Dickens in Dad’s spot, talking to Frieda, the sun coming in the window, lighting up universes of dust and the relics that are second-hand books. I see myself going off at night to work a second job to pay the bills, like Dad’s had to do more than a few times over the years. Eventually, I see a world without books, definitely a world without second-hand bookshops. I have a flashback to Amy and me talking when she loaned me the money to pay for travel insurance. ‘If you want to have a life, Henry, you need to get a proper job.’

‘How bad is it really?’ I ask Mum. She does the accounting. She’s the practical one who thinks about the future.

‘It’s bad, Henry. We barely make ends meet some months. I want to be able to pay for George’s university fees next year. I want to retire some day. I want to leave you and George with a future.’

And suddenly it’s a no-brainer why Amy broke up with me. I’m destined to be unemployed. She’s destined to be a lawyer. At the moment, my plan is to live with my dad and my sister long-term in the shop. Her plan is to buy her own flat. The reason she broke up with me can’t be as simple as that, but it must have something to do with it. I hardly ever have money to take her out.

I love second-hand books; I love books. But if things are as bad as Mum says then selling’s the best thing for all of us. ‘If there’s a huge offer on the table, maybe we should just think about it,’ I say, avoiding Dad’s eyes.

‘Maybe we should just talk to the agents,’ Mum says and she takes our silence as agreement.

George goes to the bathroom, mainly to avoid the discussion. While she’s gone Mum tells me that she’s hired a couple of people to catalogue the books so we know what stock we have. ‘You know one of them, in fact – Rachel.’

I don’t have to ask her which Rachel. Again, there’s only one Rachel.

‘I saw her aunt in the supermarket last week,’ Mum says. ‘She told me Rachel was moving back to the city, but the job Rose lined up for her at the hospital café fell through. Rachel’s good with computers, so I told Rose she could have the job.’

I listen to Mum and try to think about what conditions would have to exist for Rachel to accept a job working with me at Howling Books. Maybe she suffered a blow to the head and she’s got amnesia.

‘I thought you’d be happy,’ Mum says when I don’t respond. ‘You’re best friends.’

‘That was before she moved,’ I tell her. ‘We haven’t spoken in years.’

‘Should I un-hire her?’ she asks. ‘I don’t think I can un-hire her.’

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to see Rachel. Lying if I said I hadn’t missed her. And if she’s taken the job then maybe she feels the same way. ‘Don’t un-hire her,’ I tell Mum as George comes back and says she’s not hungry anymore and wants to go home.

Mum leaves with her, so it’s just Dad and me. We sit at the table with too many dumplings and a whole heap of quiet. ‘You’re disappointed,’ I say. ‘I haven’t officially cast my vote yet.’

‘We all have a vote. We’re all part of the decision. Don’t look so worried.’ He puts his hand on my shoulder. ‘I’m not disappointed in you.’

‘I read an article that said second-hand books will be relics eventually,’ I tell him, still trying to make excuses for how things went tonight.

‘Do you know what the word relic actually means, the dictionary definition?’ he asks, offering me the prawn crackers.

I take one and tell him I don’t know.

‘It means sacred,’ he says, breaking his cracker in half. ‘As in “the bones of saints”.’

The Great Gatsby

by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Letter left between pages 8 and 9


To my love

If I knew where you were, I would post this letter. But I don’t, so I will have to leave it here. I know how you love F. Scott. More than you love me, I think. I searched every inch of the bookshelves. I feel certain you’ve taken our copy. We bought it together. Don’t you remember? So it wasn’t really yours to take.

Your letter arrived. It was better than a text, I suppose, but you’re wrong. It wasn’t the kinder way to end things. It would have hurt just the same if you’d said goodbye to my face, but it would have stung less.

Where have you gone, my love? After ten years together I think knowing this is more than my due. Write me one line to let me know where you are. So that I do not wonder, for the rest of our lives when I imagine you, what is the background to your face.



shit days generally get more shit

I walk back from the restaurant towards Laundry thinking about Rachel and the bookshop, about whether or not I should sell, and about what I should do when I see her.

The problem with the bookshop is that selling makes sense. I’ve been thinking it for a while now. Mum makes a good argument, and she’s always been the practical one in the family.

The problem with Rachel is that I don’t know what to say when I see her. I don’t know if I can be her friend again if she doesn’t say that she missed me, or give me a good explanation as to why she didn’t write. I don’t have a whole lot of dignity, but I’ve got some.

I’m worrying about this when I walk straight into her. We collide on the street, and I’m in the middle of apologising before I realise it’s her.

The first thing I think is: thank God she’s back. The second thing I think is: she’s grown up gorgeous. She always was gorgeous, of course, but she’s grown up even more gorgeous than I thought she would. There’s something different about her, and I can’t stop my eyes from roaming all over her, checking out the changes – her hair’s short and bleached, she’s wearing an old black t-shirt and black jeans, she’s taller, or maybe it’s just that she’s thinner, or maybe it’s both.

‘Hi,’ I say.

‘Hi,’ she says, and then looks away, like she barely recognises me.

‘Henry,’ I say. ‘Henry Jones. Best friend for seven years. Ringing any bells?’

‘I know,’ she says, still not really looking at me.

She takes a flyer from her pocket and unfolds it. ‘I’m here for Lola,’ she says, and I can’t help feeling the end of that sentence is, ‘not you.’

‘Same,’ I say. ‘Yep. I’m here for Lola. Who is,’ I tell her, ‘my best friend now, since my other best friend left town and forgot all about me.’ I scuff at the ground. ‘How much time does it take to write a letter?’

‘I wrote letters,’ she says.

‘Yeah, thanks for those paragraphs with basically nothing in them.’

‘You’re welcome,’ she says, and points over my shoulder. ‘The line’s moving.’

We pay our money, get our wrists stamped, and walk inside. The club’s set up in the shell of an old laundromat: the machines are spread around the bar and in some corners you can still smell cheap detergent and half-dried sheets. It’s small, so I’m not following Rachel; I’m walking behind her to the bar. Still, she turns back to look at me like I’m a stalker.

I don’t understand. I’ve missed her. Even now, when she’s acting like this, I miss her. ‘How can you not have missed me? How is that possible?’

For a second I think she’s about to admit that she did. She almost smiles. But then she says instead, ‘It’s a complete mystery.’

‘You were about to admit it. You were about to say, “I missed you so much I cried at night. I kissed your photograph daily.’’’

‘I didn’t take your photograph with me,’ she says, and points across the room to an empty table. ‘Look. I see some friends.’

I’m watching her sit alone rather than talk to me when Lola walks over. ‘Have you seen her?’ she asks.

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘And she was very rude. Nothing like her old self.’

‘She was always kind of rude,’ she says.

‘No, she wasn’t. She was funny and smart and loyal. A little over-organised, sure, with all those notes she took in class, and the way she alphabetised the books in her locker, but everyone’s got something and it worked in my favour over the years. I still have the notes she took for me when I was sick that time. Everything neatly labelled –’

‘Who are you talking about?’ Lola asks, cutting me off.

I point over to the table, where no one’s sitting anymore. I wonder whether I imagined her. ‘Rachel.’

‘I’m talking about Amy,’ she says, and I notice she seems worried. ‘You haven’t heard the news?’

‘What news?’

‘The bad news,’ she says. ‘The bad, bad, bad news. The extremely bad news.’

Now I’m worried. Lola’s not prone to exaggeration. In fact, she’s prone to de-exaggeration. ‘All I ask, is that you make it quick and merciful.’

She closes her eyes and tells me, ‘AmyiswithGregSmith.’

Because of the way it’s all crammed in together, it takes me a while to separate the words. ‘Amy’s with Greg Smith?’ I repeat when I finally understand. ‘And by with, you mean . . .?’

‘Holding hands, kissing. They’re on the other side of the bar.’

It doesn’t compute. Greg Smith is the kind of guy who thinks it’s funny to steal a guy’s clothes and towel after swimming and then post a picture of him on Facebook while he stands there naked, asking a teacher for clothes. Greg Smith is an idiot of gigantic proportions. Amy couldn’t like Greg Smith.

‘How do you feel?’ Lola asks.

‘Like I’ve just had every single one of my organs harvested while I’m still alive.’

‘Good to know you’re not overreacting. I have to go play. Don’t get drunk. You’re an idiot when you drink.’

It’s true. I am an idiot when I drink. But if there was ever an occasion to be an idiot, this is it.

It’s a truth, universally acknowledged according to George, that shit days generally get more shit. Shit nights roll into shit mornings that roll into shit afternoons and back into shit starless midnights. Shitness, my sister says, has a momentum that good luck just doesn’t have. I’m an optimist but tonight I’m coming around to her way of thinking.

I push my way through the crowd towards the bar and by chance Rachel’s standing there when I arrive. I’m hoping I look so pitiful that she’ll feel sorry for me and end this stupid fight. ‘I’m having a really bad week,’ I say. ‘I’m talking extreme badness.’

‘Not interested, Henry,’ she says, and walks off in the direction of the stage.

‘Is that the girl?’ Katia, the bartender, asks after I order a beer, which she lets me put on a tab because I tutored her for free in English. I started the year after Rachel left, so she knows all about us. ‘That is the girl,’ I tell her. ‘That’s Rachel, my ex-best friend.’

‘The one you secretly love.’

‘I don’t secretly love her.’

‘You don’t talk about a girl as much as you talked about Rachel if you don’t secretly love her.’

‘I love her. I’m just not in love with her,’ I say, and drink my beer fast. I order and drink another one faster because at the moment I would like nothing more than to be a bystander in my life: observing the badness but not feeling it. I order and drink, order and drink and the blur under my skin feels more than good, it feels great.

Until I turn to my left and see Amy and Greg sitting together on Laundry’s old locked-together chairs, holding hands. She seems so happy. She’s laughing and looking at him the way she looked at me that first night together in Year 12. Completely focused. Leaning close. Red hair falling loose on a long green dress.

He looks gorgeous, too, the fucker. The lights are picking up and reflecting the whiteness of his teeth and making his hair look extra shiny. I see myself in the mirror that runs along the back of the bar – my hair is doing that defeated thing and my teeth are the white of an average person. I’m in the clothes I’ve been wearing for the last couple of days – my Bukowski Love is a Dog from Hell t-shirt, and jeans.

‘No wonder she doesn’t love me,’ I say to Katia. ‘My whole body looks slept in.’

‘Shakespeare, that girl is not for you.’

‘She’s my soul mate.’

‘Then I am seriously worried for your soul,’ she says, and goes back to serving the other customers.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard that Amy isn’t right for me. Rachel never liked her. Lola didn’t either. Hiroko politely tells me it’s not her place to judge, but she makes for the door whenever Amy’s around. George isn’t so polite. She says Amy turns up at the bookshop when she’s lonely and disappears when she’s not.

It isn’t like that, though.

It’s more like she can’t stay away from me any more than I can stay away from her. I’ve always taken Amy back. I will always take her back. I might tell myself that I won’t, but when she shows up at the bookshop it feels like it’s something that’s out of my control. She’s my destiny. She’s not some total moron’s destiny.

I stumble through the crowd towards them, trying all the while to figure out what to say when I arrive. The words to get her back exist; I just have to work out the order of them.

I’ve drunk away my sense of order, though. I’ve drowned it out, so I stand in front of them with nothing. I stare and sway for a while and then I gesture towards their looped hands. ‘This is so . . . disturbing. He’s – it’s – Greg Smith.’

‘Henry,’ Amy says, and because Greg stands without letting go of her hand, she’s pulled up with him. They’re looped together when a week ago, Amy and I were looped.

‘I don’t understand. He’s a complete idiot. Look at him.’

But as I say it, I look at him. I take a good long look at Greg Smith. He’s handsome; he’s well dressed; he wouldn’t have had to borrow the last hundred dollars from his girlfriend to buy his round-the-world ticket or run a tab he’ll never pay for at the bar. No doubt he’s paid for Amy’s drink, straight up, with cash. He’s going to university. He’s studying law. He has a life plan to go with his white teeth.

I think about a lot of things, standing here. I think about how Amy probably hates kissing on the floor of the bookshop; hates that I intend to live there indefinitely with my dad and George. I have a flashback to me dressed in my second-hand suit for the formal, picking up Amy in the bookshop van. She said it didn’t matter, but maybe it did. Maybe a lot of things that I thought didn’t matter actually did. Maybe that’s why she keeps going away and coming back. She comes back because she can’t stop loving me. She leaves because I don’t have my shit together. I need to get my shit together. I need to get a better haircut and a decent life plan. I need substantial money.

‘We’re selling the bookshop,’ I tell her. ‘I’ll be able to move out when we get back from our trip.’

‘You’re not going anywhere,’ Greg says.

‘I am going somewhere. And Amy, I want you to come with me.’

Maybe it’s the light, but I don’t think it is. She looks unsure for second. One second of uncertainty tells me all I need to know. I can have her back if I change.

Greg pushes me then, just gently; just enough, and I fall backwards into a crowd that instinctively clears a space for me. I look up from my position on the floor at Amy, and she looks back down at me sadly. In those eyes I read something. I read that she wants me to change. If you change, her eyes are saying, I’ll come back.

I close my eyes to regain some balance and I feel hands pulling me upwards. I think it’s Amy helping, but when I open my eyes, it’s Rachel. ‘You want her back?’ she asks, and I tell her I do – I really, really do.

She leans in close, like she’s about to tell me the lost secret of love. ‘Then get up,’ she says quietly. ‘And stop being so pathetic.’


you smell of apples

I’m definitely not in love with Henry anymore, and it’s a relief. He smells the same – peppermint and cedar and a hint of old books. He sounds the same – gentle and funny. But I don’t get that same feeling. I don’t think about kissing him. I’m not fixated on his hair. I’m cured.

You’re having a really bad week? I think after I leave him at the bar. A really bad week ends in death, Henry. I don’t know what’s happened to you this week, but unless it involves death, it’s really not that bad.

Lola and Hiroko are onstage. I focus on them to take my mind off Henry. They’re playing a cover of Cat Power’s ‘Good Woman’. They’ve made it their own with Lola’s blue gravel voice and the sweet steel of Hiroko’s percussion. Hiroko’s taller than Lola, not shy but quiet. They finished each other’s sentences in Year 9, but tonight they’re speaking separately – their lines of music circle and add to the other. They’re starring in a dream up there, and I’m happy for them, but I can’t help wondering why some people get what they want and why some people don’t.

I take a photograph and send it to Rose; I send it to Mum, too, because a text means I can get away with not calling her tonight. She’ll be at the beach by now, and I don’t want to hear the ocean in the background. I turn off my phone and get lost in the music and the light-spattered club.

The set ends after a while. Lola and Hiroko climb down from the stage. Lola takes Hiroko’s water bottle, drinks from it, and hands it back to her. ‘Thank you,’ Hiroko says.

‘You’re welcome,’ Lola tells her, then turns to me and points at the bar. ‘Henry’s drinking.’

‘He’s having a bad week,’ I tell her.

‘Amy dumped him and now they’re not going overseas and she’s here somewhere with Greg Smith.’

‘Amy dumped him?’ I ask.

‘Amy’s always dumping him,’ Hiroko says, and Lola confirms it’s a regular occurrence.

‘We’ve got more sets to play,’ she says ‘so you need to look after him. If you still want me to forgive you, that is.’

‘I feel like I’m being manipulated.’

‘That’s only because you are,’ Hiroko says.

They get back on stage to talk about the next set, and I push my way through the crowd. Henry’s gone by the time I get to the bar but I look around and locate him stumbling across towards Amy.

‘I think Shakespeare might need some help,’ the girl behind the bar says, and puts out her hand. ‘I’m Katia.’

‘Rachel,’ I say, slightly distracted by her sheen of pink hair.

‘I know. Shakespeare told me about you,’ she says, opening and closing her hands, imitating Henry’s mouth going on and on about me. ‘He missed you,’ she tells me, and I like the thought. I really like the thought of him telling Katia just how much he missed me.

‘Amy’s no good for him,’ Katia says as we watch him rambling on in front of her and Greg. ‘He’s a nice guy. He tutored me for free in English.’

Henry is a nice guy. He might be hopelessly in love with a girl I don’t like. He might have been a coward three years ago. But apart from not knowing what to do when I confessed my love for him, he’s never actually let me down.

Greg pushes him. It’s more of a tap, really, but it’s enough to send Henry backwards to the floor. It’s hard to watch, so Katia closes her eyes for a second. I keep mine open. When it comes down to it, even after everything that’s happened, in a fight between Greg and Henry, I’m on Henry’s side.

Get up, I think. Get up and walk away from her. Tell her she’s not worth the ground you’ve fallen on. He doesn’t. I don’t think he can. He’s too unsteady on his feet.

Before I can change my mind, I cross the room. I tell myself it’s what any person would do for another person, whether they’re fighting or not. I’d planned on it being a quick exercise. I’d planned on heaving him up and leaving. He’s too heavy, though, and he’s not helping himself.

Greg and his friends are laughing, Amy’s laughing too, so I lean in and say quietly, so only he can hear, ‘You want her back?’

‘I do. I really, really do,’ he says, and I resist the urge to kick him into an upright position. Instead, I lean close to his ear, and say firmly, ‘Then get up and stop being so pathetic.’

He frowns, but he puts his arm around my shoulder and together we manage to get him in a standing position. I help him to a chair, but he’s in no state to walk, so I look around for someone to help me carry him home. Lola and Hiroko still have at least another couple of sets before they’re done.

I’m not asking Amy. I’ve decided to ignore her. It’s been a long time since the conversation in the bathroom, a long time since Henry chose her over me, a long time since I’ve loved Henry. It’s none of my business if he’s still making an idiot of himself over her.

But then she says, ‘Nice hair, Rachel.’

It has been a long time, but it turns out I do still have some things to say. I leave the hair comment for now, because I couldn’t care less what she thinks about the way I look. I skip straight to the point. ‘Guys might like you. Many guys might like you. But you’re not good enough for Henry. You have never been good enough for Henry.’

‘He thinks I am,’ she says.

‘Even smart people get it wrong sometimes.’

‘You still like him,’ she says, and it makes me angry, but not for the same reason it did three years ago. I do