First came Chernobyl, the nuclear power station that contaminated most of Europe. Then Fukushima, pounded into radioactive rubble by a tsunami. And now … Broome?
Burnt-out scientist Lena Whalen is attending a conference in Broome on Worm Turning, a new nuclear-waste reprocessing plant fast-tracked after a recent disaster. Everyone loves award-winning Worm Turning – a certain Great Power even says it’ll take full responsibility for any pollution or security problems. Unfortunately it’s lying about why.
Lena’s techie sister Jessie arrives for a holiday, but when life onshore becomes surprisingly threatening their only refuge is skipper Simon’s old lugger. Unfortunately Simon is lying too.
Floating just off Broome is a blue boat with two corpses and a lethal cargo. The grand gala opening of Worm Turning is just days away, and a distant cyclone called Cyril is on the move.
And Lena discovers being stuck on a committee isn’t her worst nightmare after all.
The wooden boat drifts.
The sea is still, the waves are slow ripples. The hull rolls just enough for a steel drum to softly clang one way, then the other, between the mast and the side of the old Asian fishing boat, someone’s hard-scrabble livelihood.
Yet those on board do not have the look of labourers: they were once plump men with soft hands. The one in the cabin leans forward on the table, his head on his arms. The other lies on the deck, fingers over his eyes as if wiping away tears.
I’d like to imagine a shower of rain had swept in to cool the man on the deck, to mingle with his tears and offer him a final drink, and ease him through that agony of vomiting and voiding and weeping burns. I hope it rained and gave him a moment of comfort, but I don’t expect it did.
Then in the dimness I notice a small heap of powder glimmering blue, and the hair on my scalp lifts.
Was it only three days ago I thought my life dull?
Jessie’s plane has already landed when I get to the airport. The terminal is just a large, airy shed and from the door I can see my sister waiting by the conveyor belt, wearing her usual black T-shirt and jeans, a backpack over one shoulder, her long dark hair up in a pony-tail.
She grabs a suitcase and comes towards me grinning. We hug and I take the bag.
‘Wow, Jess. Kitchen sink?’
‘Didn’t know what to bring.’
‘Well, you only need the minimum here. Can’t you feel the heat?’
Just then we emerge from the terminal and she gasps. ‘Holy fuck, Lena, it was only six degrees when I left Melbourne.’
‘Welcome to Broome, little sister. I doubt it’s ever hit six degrees here.’
As we drive out of the parking lot I put the air-conditioning on full blast and say, ‘The hotel’s not far. Let’s get you registered then we can sort things out.’
‘This evening, the welcome event. A tour of Worm Turning with nibbles and refreshments. You don’t have to come if you don’t want, but I got you a ticket –’
‘Do we get Chernobyl champagne and Fukushima finger-food?’
‘Oh God, Jess, don’t say things like that at the conference. Except to me of course.’
‘Cool. Hey – food, wine and a big hole in the ground. Who could ask for more?’
It’s the first time we’ve met up in nearly a year. I work in Sydney, Jessie in Melbourne, so my conference here in north-west Australia is a great excuse for a holiday together. The rather nice hotel, with its pool set in a swathe of green above teal-blue Roebuck Bay, doesn’t hurt either.
While Jess unpacks I return to the endless last-minute tasks of the committee. Event organisers are handling the registrations so I mainly run around sorting out mislaid presentations and soothing ruffled feathers. Finally everything seems to be on track for tomorrow and I go back to my room for a shower and change.
My new grey linen sheath that seemed so smart in Sydney appears drab in colourful Broome. I try to do something with my red-blonde hair, pulling it up into a bun then letting it hang to my shoulders, but even that looks dull. I look dull. My life is dull. I sit down with a sigh.
Jess knocks and I let her in. She glances at my dress. ‘Haven’t you got anything more festive than that, Lena?’
She’s changed into black jeans and a silk tank top, set off by scarlet lips, dark eyebrows and cheekbones like cut glass.
‘You should talk,’ I say. ‘Haven’t you got a single garment that isn’t black, Jessie?’
She grins. ‘Not one.’
We gather with the others at the front of the hotel and take our seats in a luxury bus. I nod at my fellow committee members and a few friends, surprised at how many people are strangers, but after all this is an inter-disciplinary conference – geologists, biologists, physicists, even the odd economist.
Arnold, the committee chair, checks everyone on his list is present, then the doors close with a whoosh and the bus departs. We head out on a road going north.
Jess and I settle back and catch up with the latest on friends and family. She’s my baby half-sister: my parents divorced when I was ten, and when I was twenty Dad married Suyin and had Jess. I’ve always adored her.
She works for one of the massive Internet companies, the consistently cool one she says. She doesn’t even have to leave her beautiful apartment in central Melbourne to go to work either, they do everything remotely. Once I teased her about holding meetings via hologram and she said, ‘Next year.’ I don’t think she was joking.
We pass through a landscape of orange-dust pindan and small gum trees, the indigo sky above blending with a hazy lavender horizon. The scrub isn’t the dry grey-brown I’m used to seeing around Sydney either: here it glows with lime, emerald and silvery jade. After a couple of days in the Kimberley I’m still not used to the vividness of the landscape, the rich blues of the sea, the rust-reds of the soil. Even Jess, usually unimpressed by nature, keeps turning around to stare.
The road isn’t sealed but it’s wide and glides smoothly beneath us and we reach the Worm Turning plant in less than an hour. At a big T-junction we drive onto a sealed road. The verges are beautifully landscaped, with sculptures scattered among flowing shrubs.
After a short time I see enormous steel gates ahead of us guarded by a surprisingly large cluster of soldiers in black. The bus slows. In a clearing to one side is a little camp of tents and chairs with a fireplace in the middle.
Suddenly there’s a group of people running along beside the bus. They’re yelling at us and waving placards reading Our Land Not Yours, No Nuclear Plant, Stop Digging in Sacred Ground!
Some of the protesters are silver-haired Sea Nomads but most are Aboriginal. In Sydney I know only two Indigenous people – a girl from Wagga doing a doctorate and a boy from Redfern in my honours class. They’re handsome, coffee-coloured kids – bright as buttons, my grandfather Mike would have said. But these people are dark, their faces plain, passionate, furious.
The bus stops for a moment at the gates and I realise a large white-haired man outside is gazing at me. Our eyes meet and I can’t turn away. He nods thoughtfully as if he knows me. Then he smiles, a glorious open smile illuminated by his long white beard, and I can’t help but return it. What a lovely man – why on earth did I think ‘plain’?
With a roar of acceleration the bus rushes through the gates. Looking back, Jess and I can see the soldiers pushing into the group, swinging their weapons viciously at the outnumbered protesters. We turn to each other, horrified.
‘Wow. That’s overkill for some bits of cardboard,’ she says.
I nod, thinking of the white-bearded man and his lovely smile.
The bus goes quickly along a road bordered with manicured bushes then turns right into a large car park. We halt and get out into the afternoon heat. We’re met by three tour guides, the leader a young, cool-faced woman. Our beefy bus driver greets her and takes her aside, speaking quietly. She turns back to us.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Geo-Garrod’s newest plant, Worm Turning,’ she says. ‘Our apologies for that little unpleasantness at the gates. Professional agitators that’s all. We’d like to point out this land was acquired legally via compensation to the traditional landholders.’
‘So what was that about, then?’ says Jess. Sometimes I wish she’d let other people ask the awkward questions.
‘There’s always a disgruntled few,’ says the woman. ‘Didn’t get their share I expect. Now we’d like you all to climb aboard for the tour.’
Three small buses painted in the red and green of Geo-Garrod Ltd are waiting for us. Jess and I are towards the end of the queue so, when we get aboard our bus we have to sit with other people. I’m beside a pleasant-looking young man – well, most people seem young to me now I’m in my fifties. He’s lanky and bearded, with curly brown hair and a long sensitive face.
I nod and say, ‘Lena Whalen,’ and he replies, ‘Matthew Rossi.’
‘And what’s your field, Matthew?’ I ask.
‘Um,’ he says, rubbing his forehead with his hands. I realise he’s upset.
‘Are you okay?’
‘Oh, a bit appalled at what just happened at the gates,’ he says. ‘Those people are friends of mine.’
‘Yes, it was horrible. Do the soldiers always pile into them like that?’
Just then the bus doors shut and we drive past the main building to the rear of the plant. It’s a startlingly modern complex, with curved red and green steel shapes along the facade that seem to echo the surrounding landscape.
‘The guide said the agreement for this land was legal,’ I say tentatively.
‘Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she?’ Matthew laughs softly. ‘But, no. They paid some opportunists for their signatures – all blacks look the same to them after all. But they keep refusing to talk to the real custodians of this land, those people outside the gates.’
‘Isn’t there some tribunal they can appeal to?’
‘Are you kidding? No, the Sea Nomads lawyers have done what they can but so far …’ He turns and smiles wryly at me. ‘You’re not from around here, obviously.’
‘Ah. Well, things are different here in the west. A lot of people would just love it if this state separated completely from Australia. They hate land rights law – any Commonwealth law – and they think they’d all be rich if they could do whatever they liked.’
‘Western Australia’s closer to Asia than the eastern states. It’s always had a secessionist streak but now the mining roller-coaster has really brought the crazies out to play.’
‘I had no idea.’
‘Now there’s only a couple of Independents stopping the politicians from giving it a go. God knows what would happen if …’ Matthew shrugs. ‘Anyway. Sorry to be depressing.’
The guide taps the microphone and says, ‘Welcome, ladies and gentleman. Here you see Worm Turning’s innovative nuclear reprocessing plant, many times smaller than similar facilities due to Geo-Garrod’s patented technology. The plant has already received international awards for its engineering and architecture.’
At the rear of the building we drive past a massive open structure full of loading docks and railway lines. It’s as dramatic and attractive as the front.
‘To your left is where the used nuclear fuel will be received from all over the world. After undergoing Geo-Garrod’s revolutionary new treatment, valuable radioactive material will be extracted and returned to its owners. The waste will be encased in inert material and disposed of in the famous Wormhole.’
The bus turns away and we drive along a sealed road through low bush. A double railway line leads from the plant, running beside the road.
Matthew says, ‘So what brings you to the conference, Lena?’
‘I was press-ganged onto the organising committee – I work in medical nuclear physics. What about you?’
‘Geology. Recently relocated to Broome from a lab in Perth.’
‘Must be a nice change,’ I say. ‘Why did you make the move?’
‘Oh, I wouldn’t stop pointing out the structure of this region isn’t quite as Geo-Garrod claims. Unfortunately my lab was in the running for a big contract from Geo-Garrod and once they got rid of me they landed it.’
I’m surprised he’s so matter of fact. ‘That must have been a bit … rough.’
‘Turned out for the best,’ he says. ‘I’ve set up a small local consultancy now. Family here, too.’ His sensitive face is still and I wonder if there’s more to it than that.
After a kilometre or so we halt in a car park and get out. We climb a flight of stairs onto a timber platform and I see Jessie through the small crowd and wave. She smiles and goes back to showing something on a mobile to a young man, who seems more interested in gazing at her smooth brown shoulders.
Our guide says proudly, arms outstretched, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, this is Worm Turning’s famous Wormhole.’
I move to the railing with everyone else and look forward and gasp. I’d always assumed the Wormhole was some sort of ordinary mine, but it’s a vast open-cut wound in the earth. Railway lines spiral several times around the sides then enter a tunnel at the bottom and disappear.
‘The excavation is half a kilometre deep,’ says the guide. ‘Below the surface is a maze of tunnels spreading down a further half a kilometre, where the waste will be permanently stored.’
‘My goodness, that’s marvellous,’ says Arnold, the committee chair, his bushy white eyebrows almost meeting his hairline.
‘Sales of mineral sands from the excavation have helped fund the plant and mining will continue for some time yet, however the initial phase is complete. The Wormhole is now ready to begin storing nuclear waste and it’s large enough to do so far into the future.’
‘When do operations begin?’ asks someone in the crowd.
‘After the grand gala opening next week.’
I stare at the structure, astonished by its sheer scale.
‘Amazing, yes?’ says Matthew quietly beside me.
‘Not at all as I’d pictured.’ I look at him, curious. ‘But you don’t like it.’
‘No. Something’s wrong with the whole thing and it could be dangerous.’
‘All of us. They’ve systematically lied –’
‘Dude!’ A plump young man in a black T-shirt slaps him on the shoulder. ‘Didn’t think you’d have the nerve to turn up. Man, you’re a glutton for punishment.’
‘I think I’ll just go and see my sister,’ I say, and slip away through the crowd. Matthew Rossi seems like a sweet guy but it sounds as if he’s got a bit of a chip on his shoulder.
I move to the railing again. What an enormous hole, all that soil – mineral sands, I think the guide said – dug up, shipped away and sold. And that was just a precursor to the main event, the revolutionary new reprocessing plant.
I turn and contemplate the red and green steel building in the distance. What an audacious scheme.
The conference welcome event is held in a vast reception foyer at the front of the plant. They serve us exquisite canapés and what may be the best champagne I’ve ever tasted. I chat to people I know and get introduced to dozens I don’t. It’s all a bit of a blur after the second glass, but very pleasantly so. As always, Jess is perfectly at home chatting to a bunch of techies.
On leaving the plant later I tense as our bus passes through the now floodlit gates. The ominous soldiers are still there and as the lights glitter on their insignias I realise they’re American, not Australian.
The protesters are back in their camp – I see moving shadows against the flickering fire – and I hope they’re all right after the pounding they took today. From what Matthew said they have good reason to protest.
Jessie has fallen asleep on my shoulder, tired after the flight from Melbourne. I brush my cheek against my sister’s hair for a moment and smile to myself, content to be with her again.
Non-technical people find her difficult. She asks awkward questions and finds it hard to bother with people who can’t keep up with her crystalline intellect. She’s in her thirties now and I worry she won’t find the right sort of guy to settle down with, someone who’ll love her and let her be her own slightly eccentric self.
But then, who does get to find that special guy? I sigh.
Street lights are flashing past the windows and we’re turning into the brightly-lit hotel car park. I shake Jess gently and say, ‘We’re here.’
The doors whoosh open and we stumble out of the air-conditioned bus into the hot, humid evening. Arnold calls out, ‘Don’t forget, everyone, nine a.m. start on the dot tomorrow.’
People say goodnight or wander off to the bar overlooking the bay, but I’ve eaten canapés enough for a four-course meal and Jess says she has too. We briefly consider the prospect of a swim in the turquoise pool but decide it’s time to crash out instead. It’s been a long day.
I hold up the card showing zero minutes remaining but the speaker ignores me. I stand and go to one side of the stage with his gift, hoping he’ll take the hint.
‘Let me just revisit …’ he says. God, I hate chairing at conferences.
‘I’m afraid we’ll have to cut it short here, Dr Wilson, we’ve run out of time,’ I interrupt. ‘I’m sure anyone with questions will take them up with you at morning tea. Would you all please thank Dr Wilson for that very interesting presentation.’
I give him his gift (some techie toy) and start clapping, and the audience follows without obvious enthusiasm. The man I call Dr Tedious sits back in his seat with a cross expression. From earlier talks I know his question would just be the usual dick-waving, so it doesn’t bother me to end the session now. We’re ten minutes over time as it is and delightful coffee scents are wafting in from the foyer.
At the break I stand quietly in the background and gaze at the attendees – mainly men of course. Occasionally I meet another female scientist, but as a woman in my field I’m usually pretty lonely. I’ve done my best to learn the matey tribal customs over the years, and most of the time I fit in. Roughly. Every now and then it’s painfully brought to my attention I never really can.
After the break my chairing duties are over so I’m able to relax and listen to the talks. I sit not far from the auditorium door – never know when a discreet departure might be welcome, especially if the jargon gets excessive. I check my program for this session and see the first presenter is the young man I met yesterday, Dr Matthew Rossi speaking on Geomorphology of the Dampier Peninsula: a New Perspective.
Lanky Matthew takes the stage. After the usual problem with his slides – I think, come on support folk, does this have to happen every single time? – he settles in and gives a calm, efficient talk. It’s something about structures deep in the land, unrecognised instability, unusual minerals.
I don’t follow the details, but alerted by his words yesterday I realise he seems to be proposing something unwelcome to the mood of the audience. The geologists in particular don’t seem very happy. I know many are employed by Geo-Garrod, and I wonder what’s making them cranky. It doesn’t sound like revolutionary stuff to me, but then what do I know about the geomorphology of the Dampier Peninsula?
He finishes. ‘I’m happy to take questions.’
Excellent speaker I note, ended well within his allotted time. The chair points at one of the raised hands and someone says, ‘Look, Matthew, you’ve been trotting this out at the last few conferences and I just don’t see how you can defend it any more. Surely the work of something something indicates something?’ (I’m paraphrasing here.)
‘Dave, they’re not looking at this model, criticisms have focused on the older model.’
‘A lot of good results have come out of that one,’ someone interjects from the floor.
‘One at a time, please,’ calls the chair.
A new speaker stands. ‘We all know the recent model has major flaws. You can’t base predictions on that.’
‘It’s not based on the discredited part of the recent model,’ says the young man patiently. ‘This is the latest extended model.’
There are a couple of groans of contempt from the audience, and the chair says, ‘Thank you Dr Rossi, for that most interesting presentation,’ and gives him his speaker’s gift. There’s a scattering of applause.
Matthew leaves the stage, looking down. Poor guy. Science is brutal.
After lunch it’s time for my own talk, an overview to bring the non-physicists up to speed. Although I’ve spoken many times it’s always a bit nerve-racking, but soon I settle in.
The good stuff first: the atom is your friend. Radiation for medical imaging, scanning, diagnosis, treatment. Reactors to heat steam, drive turbines, create power. Then the not so good: nuclear waste, accidents, fallout. Rotting old plants nobody wants, shiny new ones too close to fault zones. Exposure, survival rates, promising drug treatments.
I talk about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki children, the Chernobyl kids, the Fukushima babies, the whole new generation from Hanford yet to come: always the children. I don’t emphasise the fact there’s not much anyone can do when particles, fast and invisible, overwhelm living tissue.
Finally here, Worm Turning. The new plant to relieve the pressure of all that nuclear waste which so urgently needs reprocessing after the Hanford incident. (That’s the term the spin doctors prefer to disaster, but I’m not sure even that comes close – perhaps mega-something might work?)
I close the talk by simply saying Worm Turning seems like a good idea. The audience approves and I get away with just a minor intellectual mauling from Dr Tedious.
Afterwards I pour a cup of tea and sit on a balcony overlooking Roebuck Bay, and wonder how there could be so many shades of blue-green in that water. Teal on the horizon, turquoise closer in, jade and aquamarine near the shore; and colours without names that recall gemstones and stained glass and ancient tiles. So beautiful.
In the auditorium some economist is extolling the benefits of the nuclear industry but suddenly I can’t cope with the buzzwords. I sigh and find myself puzzling over how I got to this low point in my life.
Jessie’s mum Suyin worked in medical physics and the subject fascinated me. I knew radiation in medicine was invaluable and life-saving in so many ways, and as a research student I loved the intellectual puzzles of my studies. But research requires a focus on statistics rather than people and that abstraction insulated me for a long time.
Then in the nineties I went to work with a humanitarian group supporting the Chernobyl children, the thousands of kids suffering with radiation-induced cancers, and after that I couldn’t regard people as an abstraction any more. It damaged me professionally, of course: now I’m stuck at the middle levels of academia and know I’ll go no further. I don’t have the right attitude, you see.
My hair flutters in the warm breeze and the reflection in the glass catches my eye. I wonder how others see me – a confident organiser who stands in an auditorium and tells eminent scientists what to do? An academic who speaks with calm authority on complex subjects? A quiet woman who moves unnoticed in the background of other people’s lives?
Max used to say I reminded him of confident, lovely Helen Mirren. I doubt anyone would think that today.
Jess doesn’t attend the talks because she’s got teleconferences with Beijing and Tokyo, but when dressing for the dinner that evening I tell her about Matthew Rossi’s words at the Wormhole and the odd atmosphere during his presentation today. She’s vaguely interested, but as it doesn’t involve computing she doesn’t really care.
She’s wearing some black slinky thing with a cutaway back. I search my luggage for something that might make me feel slightly attractive, with zero result. I put on a brown dress.
‘Lena, what is this?’ says Jess. ‘Brown? You used to wear such pretty things. You’re still not grieving for that creepy Max? You’ve got to get out and find someone new.’
Drawing on my eyeliner, I shrug, which is something of a mistake.
‘I’d like to, but so far …’
‘Well, tonight’s your lucky night, I bet,’ says Jess confidently.
She is so wrong.
The dining room is bedecked with flowers, a jazz quartet softly playing. Jess and I are a few minutes late, which is unfortunate as everyone else has managed to find seats with friends. The only table with spare places is the boring one with the committee and official guests. And pariahs I note, seeing Matthew sitting awkwardly alone.
I sit down between him and a man with a shaved head, and Jess sits to his other side. Across the table is the chair of the committee, Arnold, with his busy white eyebrows. The waiter pours us wine.
Arnold says, ‘Lena, we’ve had marvellous news – the Minister will be able to join us this evening after all!’
Oh damn, I think. I was hoping to avoid her.
‘Now do let me introduce everyone,’ says Arnold. ‘Glenn Garrod, this is Dr Lena Whalen from our organising committee.’
I look up in surprise. The shaved-head man is the notorious owner of the Geo-Garrod plant? He’s in his sixties, more attractive than he appears on TV, his eyes friendly, his shoulders solid in an open-necked shirt.
‘And Dr Matthew Rossi –’ Matthew nods.
‘And …?’ asks Arnold.
‘Oh, sorry,’ I say. ‘My sister, Jessie Whalen – Professor Arnold Sanders, chair of the committee.’
Arnold’s eyebrows go up. ‘Sister?’
I explain. ‘My father remarried. We’re half-sisters.’
With his usual tactlessness Arnold’s eyebrows remain up.
Jess says, ‘Yes, my mother was Chinese, Dr Sanders, that’s why.’
‘Indeed, of course.’
People arrive and mill around at the door. ‘Arnold, I think they’re here,’ I say. He leaps up and goes to greet them.
Hell. Oh, hell to the thousandth power of hell.
Arnold proudly escorts two people to the table. ‘Everyone, do let me introduce the Honourable Alise Berg, Minister for the Industrial Environment, and her new chief of staff, Brigadier Max Leopard.’
My stomach clenches.
Greetings, handshakes. Alise is wearing a blue silk suit that looks both professional and exquisite. Her platinum hair shimmers to her shoulders, her heart-shaped face is so perfect I want to slap her. She’s on charm automatic until she sees me.
‘Good heavens, Lena,’ she says. ‘It’s certainly been a while. You’re looking …’
‘Hello, Ice. Yes it has. How’s James?’
‘Fine. And I’m sure you have so much to talk about with Max –’ She waves her hand at her new chief of staff.
‘Hello, Max. I see you’ve moved up in the world,’ I say lightly, my heart pounding.
‘Dr Whalen.’ He nods stiffly, his eyes looking past me.
Jess stares at him with loathing.
‘Don’t tell me you’re still cross with each other,’ Alise says. ‘You’ll be able to get that divorce soon enough.’ She smiles sweetly. ‘We must all move on.’
Thankfully they do.
I take a swig of wine. God, I hadn’t expected –
Glenn Garrod says quietly, ‘You’ve clearly met the Minister before.’
‘Oh, Ice? Yes, did our doctorates at the same time. But she dropped out, preferred politics instead.’ (And my first sweetheart, James. That still stung.)
‘Ice? Ah, Ice Berg.’ He’s amused. ‘And the Brigadier?’
I take another swig. ‘My ex-husband, or soon to be. I’d heard he’d been promoted but didn’t realise it was onto the Minister’s staff.’
Max Leopard? If he’d been named Alpha Male he couldn’t have been more butch, with his severely handsome face and his mysterious past. Too late I realised the only mystery was his compulsive lying. Thank heavens I never changed my name to his as he’d wanted. Lena Leopard? Great stripper name.
‘You’re a nuclear physicist Lena, I believe?’ says Garrod.
‘Oh. Yes, but not your sort, I’m on the medical, human exposure side of things. Fuel reprocessing’s way out of my league.’
He leans towards me with the full force of his famous charm. ‘Don’t be modest, I read your latest paper in the Journal of Physics. It was excellent.’
‘Thank you, Glenn. Surprised anyone’s read it.’
‘I made certain I was across everyone’s specialities before agreeing to speak. Don’t want to be drawn and quartered tomorrow.’
I grin ruefully. ‘There’ll always be someone who won’t like what you say.’
‘Half the country in my case.’
‘Wasn’t it seventy-six percent in that last survey?’
‘Ouch. Let’s not be too precise here.’ Garrod looks at me, eyebrows raised. ‘You’re one of the seventy-six percent?’
I’m a little flustered by his proximity but it’s easy to take refuge in formality, my second nature. ‘Neutral really. On principle it’s odd to build the plant in such an untouched part of the country, but at least that means it’s safely isolated. And it certainly needed to be built – the levels of unsafe nuclear waste are just appalling.’
‘And of course you must admit our disposal technique is a first,’ he says.
‘Yes. Rather neat, that – almost a closed loop. Very impressive, at least from the limited information you’ve released about it.’
‘Commercial secrecy must take precedence over scientific openness,’ he says. ‘But I can promise you our plant does exactly what we’ve said it does.’
‘Well, it’s desperately needed, so congratulations on the innovation. We had a tour of the grounds yesterday and it was very impressive.’
Garrod nods, pleased. He leans down and takes something from a briefcase.
‘If you’d be interested in attending the opening ceremony next week, I’d be delighted to see you there. Invitations for you and a friend with my compliments,’ he says, handing me two ornate cards.
‘That’s very kind. But I thought it was supposed to be a highly exclusive event,’ I say jokingly.
He grins. ‘It certainly is, and damned tedious too. You might improve things a bit.’
I smile to myself as I tuck the tickets in my bag. Despite my brown dress the shroud of middle-aged invisibility hasn’t quite settled over me yet.
The Minister comes back from glad-handing the room and sits down beside Garrod, demanding his attention. I’m relieved to see Max is at another table. He’s seated beside Dr Tedious and I’m not sure who to feel sorry for. Neither of them, I finally decide.
A man in uniform arrives and sits down beside the Minister.
‘Oh, there you are,’ says Alise, touching his arm. ‘Everyone, this is Colonel Wayne Zukowski, liaison for the US government at Worm Turning.’
He’s boyishly handsome with crew-cut hair, about my age I suppose. Arnold introduces us all and the entrée arrives.
I’m enjoying the food and music but realise there’s a silence to one side. I’d noticed Matthew speaking to Jess earlier but she seems to have gone quiet, probably mentally working through some technical problem.
I turn to Matthew. ‘I enjoyed your talk today.’
‘You must have felt lonely then,’ he says, amused.
‘Most of it went over my head, but it sounds like an area of disagreement.’
His gaze flickers past me and I glance around too, but Glenn Garrod is deep in conversation with Minister Berg.
Matthew says quietly, ‘I think they’ve got the geology wrong. The Dampier Peninsula isn’t as stable as they claim and they’ve misrepresented the field analysis and –’ he shakes his curly head, ‘something’s wrong and I don’t understand it.’
I’ve met a few scientists convinced they alone have the Truth but he doesn’t sound like one of them.
‘How certain are you?’ I ask.
‘I’ve been visiting this region for years, spent months camping in the country. As a geologist I’ve done dozens of field trips and kept up with the latest research. And as a friend, I’ve sat down with the elders and listened, really listened – ’
‘The Aboriginal elders, some of the people in that protest camp. They know more about what’s under the surface of this land than anyone.’
‘What, compared to modern science?’ I say lightly.
A look of pain comes over his face and he goes to reply but Alise’s voice cuts across the table like a scalpel.
‘So, Lena – how’s academic life treating you?’
‘I’m enjoying it, Ice. It’s – dynamic.’ I’m sick of the treadmill but I wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction of knowing that.
‘I was terribly sorry to hear about you and Max,’ she says, as intimately as you can get across a dinner table full of people hanging onto your every word.
‘And James?’ I ask. ‘Pity that didn’t work out. What’s he doing now?’
‘Oh, an embassy, somewhere,’ she says tightly. Poor James – a brilliant physicist but she’d forced him into the Diplomatic Service, then dumped him.
‘And Environmental Industry? Oh, sorry, Industrial Environment?’ I say. ‘So hard to tell one from the other nowadays.’
‘The environment as a recreational resource is under another portfolio, as I’m sure you know perfectly well, Lena.’ Her eyes are cool. ‘It’s my responsibility to deal with the harsh realities of industrial growth and economic benefit.’
‘At what expense?’ says Jessie suddenly. ‘I thought any serious cost-benefit analysis across the entire human and environmental economy, not just political cherry-picking, gives a very different measure of those harsh realities.’
‘I’m sorry,’ says Alise. ‘And you would be –?’
‘Jess Whalen. Universal secure system interconnections.’
‘My goodness, what a big title.’
‘It’s not a title, it’s not even a discipline. It’s what I do.’
Alise looks at me. ‘Of course, now I remember. You have that strange blended family, don’t you Lena? Your sister, yes?’
I nod and mercifully the main course appears. We finish without further breaches of protocol, although I can see Arnold is already planning I won’t be on next year’s committee. That’s fine by me, there probably won’t be a next year anyway. This conference is basically a one-off to reassure the public the best minds in the country have considered the new plant at Worm Turning and given it the scientific thumbs up.
Apart from Matthew Rossi, that is. Interesting.
The table is partly empty now as people circulate. Alise is charming her way around the room with Glenn Garrod at her side, and Jess is over chatting to a bunch of techies clustered around some hand-held device.
Wayne Zukowski nods affably at me and I say, with my helpful committee hat on, ‘Are you stationed permanently at Worm Turning, Colonel?’
‘For the immediate future, ma’am.’ His voice is attractively deep.
‘I suppose it’s usually pretty quiet out there.’
‘So long as the protesters keep their distance, certainly. But there’s always the threat of terrorists.’
‘I thought it was so remote there’d be no chance of that.’
‘I beg to differ, ma’am. It’s under the protection of the US Government and our agreement with your people is pollution and security, a world first. But this remote coast, right next to China?’ He shakes his head regretfully. ‘You need us and by God, we’ll look after the place like it’s our very own territory. We signed on the dotted line to do just that.’
‘We’re not precisely right next to China,’ I say gently, and he smiles as if I’m joking.
‘As good as.’ He refills my wine glass. ‘Now do tell me all about Sydney, ma’am.’
Luckily people drift back to the table before I have to sum up five million people and thirty square kilometres of civic infrastructure in a few words. Dessert is served along with more enthusiasm from Arnold, then the excruciating evening is finally over.
At least I didn’t have to talk to Max, and the bigwigs are leaving after the Minister’s speech tomorrow. They’ll be back next week for the opening of Worm Turning but with luck I won’t meet him again.
Jessie and I go to my room for a cup of tea. She flings herself down on my bed as I turn on the kettle. I think of the look of loathing she gave Max and say hesitantly, ‘Did he ever try anything on with you, Jess?’
‘Who, Maxie the creep? Just once. I broke his finger.’
‘Good on you. He said it was from playing football.’
‘Well, he wasn’t going to start telling the truth any time soon, was he?’
I smile. ‘Did you have a good chat with the techies?’
‘Techies? I’d have got more sense out of Madame Iceberg than them. They imagine their stupid new device is advanced.’
She rolls her eyes and says, ‘Wait a min, got something for you.’
She goes to her room and returns with a small box. We sit together on the bed as she opens it.
‘Now this is advanced,’ she says with satisfaction. ‘I’m doing field testing.’
As far as I can understand, Jessie’s speciality is somewhere between hardware and software, devising human-scale devices with unprecedentedly secure communication capabilities (her words). But that doesn’t look anything like the contents of the box: two wrist cuffs with intricate designs made of gems and coloured enamel, and two rings covered with flat blue moonstones.
‘Jess, they’re gorgeous.’
‘Here, put this on.’ She taps a couple of points on one cuff and it opens, then she closes it around my left wrist. ‘And the ring too.’ She slips it onto my middle finger. Both the ring and cuff fit snugly but as I move my wrist the cuff flexes, the colours shimmering.
She puts the other cuff and ring on her own slim hand.
‘Yeah. See that small green stone on the inside of your wrist? There. And the array of enamel dots above it? Watch.’
She taps several points on her own cuff. I feel a tickle against my wrist. She walks into my bathroom saying, ‘Touch the green stone then hold your hand near your head.’
I do and her voice in my ear says, ‘Way cool, eh?’
‘Oh, wow, they’re phones. Jess, that’s brilliant!’
‘No need to yell. I know they are.’ She comes out of the bathroom grinning. ‘Three years in design, first prototypes and now I’m testing them to destruction. I call them comcuffs.’
I kiss her in delight. ‘Comcuffs! You amazing thing, show me how they work.’
‘First off you need to know the code to open the cuff. It has a small display on this panel and the ring has lenses for photos and videos too. When the cuffs connect to networks they hide the data inside other traffic, looking like a sort of digital static. They’re virtually invisible and untraceable.’
‘Jess, I can’t believe it. Dick Tracy watches, but pretty ones.’
‘A bit better than that, thank you very much,’ she grins. ‘But listen, Lena. They’re seriously secret.’
‘Okay, secret, got it. Now show me all the magic.’
I awake at dawn, emerging from a delicious dream. I haven’t touched a man for a long time and I yearn for contact: belly on belly, warmth, stubble, sweat – I groan in frustration. I want to be open, known, sated. That’s what my body wants at any rate. The rest of me says no. Trust again? No. Let someone come that close again? I don’t think so.
I decide to go for a walk. The air is fresh and cool, the sky clear blue and gold-tinted to the east. My head clears as I stroll down the small hill from the hotel to the town.
I look out to the bay from the road. That’s not the postcard scene you might imagine but it’s still beautiful – blue-green water lapping on a muddy red shore lined with emerald mangroves. This is old Broome, not the glossy resort at Cable Beach a few kilometres away.
Near the road, half-hidden by trees, I can see a cluster of small dusty buildings, an Aboriginal community. On the town’s green oval I’ve seen groups of dark-skinned people sitting under the trees or walking unsteadily or arguing furiously. The contrast could not be more brutal: my colleagues in the cool luxury of the hotel, these people with lives of such hardship. Two interlaced worlds, each of them invisible to the other.
I turn towards the small rise to Dampier Terrace, facing onto the bay. It’s so quiet all I can hear is a car in the distance and a couple of seagulls. I notice a display of two luggers once used for pearlshell fishing and gaze at them with interest.
This is the first time I’ve been to Broome but I have an odd connection to the place – my grandfather Mike Whalen grew up here between the wars. His mother even owned one of these big wooden boats and his father used to build them. Mike would sometimes say my eyes were the colour of Roebuck Bay, and seeing those turquoise waters now I recognise the compliment.
I’m sure every family has its secrets, funny and sad, and Mike was ours: I didn’t even meet him till I was twenty. He’d had a fling many years ago with my grandmother and to everyone’s surprise – including his – it turned out he was my dad’s real father.
My darling Nana would say, ‘Well, it was just before I got married after all, and my husband died in the war and I didn’t have the foggiest I was pregnant to Mike, oh heavens.’ And then she’d blush crimson and Mike would hug her.
I grew up in a small country town where my studious dreams puzzled everyone. My parents were divorced: Mum was happy with her new partner, and Dad, well, complicated doesn’t come near it. But Mike, an engineering professor, was the only person I knew who understood my love of science, who understood me; and he fitted into my family as if he’d always been part of it.
His death a few years ago has left me with a bizarre sense of emptiness. While I’m perfectly aware he was a kind, perceptive man, with that knowledge there’s no emotion: I can’t feel Mike’s comforting warmth any more. A psychiatrist told me this was just the result of shock and would pass with time, but it hasn’t yet.
I wander into a side street and around the corner, past the open-air cinema where Mike used to watch black-and-white movies as a boy. I’d hoped this visit to Broome might re-awaken my sense of that dear man, and I try to imagine him here in this place he once loved.
But I can’t feel him here. I can’t feel him anywhere.
The final day of the conference, thank heavens, but it’s the big one. First up the Honourable Minister for the Industrial Environment with a long, dull version of her ‘economic benefit’ speech from last night. Jess was right, it’s just cherry-picking with no genuine accounting of the real cost, human or environmental.
Bored, I look at Jessie’s comcuff and flex my wrist to make it shimmer. Even if it wasn’t a fabulous device it would still be lovely. Jess and I have been practising talking to each other with the cuffs – a casual hand to the head and soft sub-vocalising, and no one else has noticed a thing.
Applause at last, then the next speaker, charming Glenn Garrod from last night: the owner of Geo-Garrod Ltd and instigator of this new fuel reprocessing project. He’s wearing a loose tie, the sleeves of his sky-blue shirt rolled up. He looks competent, approachable.
He begins, ‘You’re here to discuss Worm Turning and that’s a good thing. People need to know how safe it is. How environmentally smart it is. How it can protect us by reducing the tonnes of nuclear waste that threaten us all. So, a reprocessing plant – what is that?’ (He’s speaking to the journalists in the front row.)
‘The world is full of nuclear power stations – we’re stuck with them but I’ll certainly say here and now, I’m glad to see the more efficient new facilities already in production.’
A scatter of applause, and a colourful slide comes up on the screen.
It shows uranium fuel burning tidily inside a reactor, the reactor heating steam, the steam driving turbines, the turbines creating electricity, the electricity making a family happy as they pick flowers and smile at each other.
If only it were that easy.
Garrod continues smoothly. ‘As we all know, nuclear fuel has a limited life and becomes waste after a few years of use. For a long time that waste was kept in vast numbers of storage drums – until recently, of course, when the shortcomings of such a scheme were discovered in the most terrible way possible.’
He grasps the podium and lowers his voice. ‘Well. The Hanford Incident. We all saw the tragic videos. And we can only pray those parts of Washington State and the Columbia River become habitable again one day.’
He wisely doesn’t show a slide of what happened to the people of Hanford. Not many happy families there.
Garrod stares fiercely at the audience. ‘Suddenly we found ourselves with a global crisis. Thousands of tonnes of waste urgently needed reprocessing, far beyond the capacities of existing, conventional plants!’
A new slide appears, an artist’s concept of the red and green factory we’d visited the other day, more glossy than the real thing and set in lush countryside rather than the Australian bush.
‘The solution the world was crying out for? Worm Turning! We had it – our fast, secure plant with its patented technology. Worm Turning can take all that lethal waste and break it down into a small active source and a chunk of stable remainder. Then we return the source to its owners and bury the remainder on-site in our other great innovation – the Wormhole.’
A slide of the Wormhole at sunset appears. It looks like an abstract painting in a glamorous penthouse rather than a great wound in the earth.
Garrod spreads his hands, smiling disarmingly. ‘Look, people, doing this stuff is bloody expensive. But Worm Turning pays for itself. Next to a superb source of mineral sands, we’re mining it, shipping it away, recouping the expense and even making a profit to keep our shareholders happy.’
He leans forward and says emphatically, ‘And that stable remainder is buried deep inside the Wormhole mine forever and ever. It’s win-win-win for all of us!’
The last slide is a graphic of ships – somehow happy ships – converging on Worm Turning, which is also greening the desert, saving the planet and no doubt bringing about world peace.
‘And this new era starts in just a week: a week until the future begins. Thank you.’ Garrod steps away from the podium to a roar of applause.
Bloody clever, I think, then I see movement near the front of the auditorium.
A deep voice calls out, ‘You’re destroying sacred ground, Garrod, you’re breaking the serpent’s back! It’ll turn on you in the end!’
Garrod chuckles and returns to the microphone. ‘I guess that’s the real meaning of ‘worm turning’ but I don’t think it’s going to fly here. Wondered when you’d pop up, Paddy old mate.’
I see several security guards heading down the front. They converge on a small group of Aboriginal people – a middle-aged woman, a young man and a large white-bearded man, the one calling out. The guards march them to the exit near me then stop for a moment to listen to something on their earpieces.
I suddenly realise the white-bearded man is the protester I saw at the plant. Our eyes meet and he nods thoughtfully and smiles delightfully, just as he did the other evening. The guards start pushing their captives roughly towards the exit. They pass through the doors to the foyer outside and I get up and follow them.
‘That’s enough,’ I say. ‘I’m from the committee. Leave them with me, please.’
‘We’re supposed to eject them,’ replies one guard.
‘I’ve got the responsibility here. Go back to the auditorium, you’re needed there.’
They shrug and leave. I look at the three surprised ejectees.
‘So,’ I say, surprised myself, ‘can I offer you a cup of tea?’
The white-bearded man laughs. ‘Sure you can.’
We sit on the balcony with our tea, looking out to the bay. A new speaker is on stage so everyone else is still in the hall.
‘I saw you on the bus the other night,’ says the man. ‘But I know you anyway.’
‘I don’t think so,’ I say. ‘I’ve never been to this part of the world before.’
‘You got relatives around Broome?’ asks the woman.
‘No … oh, my grandfather grew up in this place – and I think his half-brother came back to live here, but that was years ago.’
‘Liam,’ says the man. ‘Liam Whalen. Good mate of mine.’
‘That’s him! Was him. How on earth did you know?’
He grins. ‘Not blackfella magic – just your name tag. A fine painter.’
(He was, too. Granddad gave me some of his famous brother’s paintings and I treasure them.)
‘Welcome,’ says the woman. ‘Welcome to country, cousin.’ She has friendly eyes and a dramatic silver streak down one side of her hair.
I laugh. ‘I’m not really a cousin –’
The white-bearded man says, ‘Yes you are, you just don’t know it yet. Lena, is it? I’m Paddy Bull, this is Maggie Everett and that’s Aidan Cooper.’
Aidan smiles. ‘Hiya, Lena.’ He has dark arched eyebrows, perfect cheekbones, close-cropped hair and a silver earring.
‘So what were you yelling out to Garrod in there?’ I ask Paddy, to stop myself staring at beautiful Aidan.
‘I told that bugger he was breaking the back of the serpent, messing with sacred ground. It’ll hurt him in the end.’
‘Sorry, what do you mean?’
‘Look. There are things I can talk about and things I can’t,’ Paddy’s brow creases. ‘But what I can say is, there’s a serpent deep underneath. Runs from the top of the Dampier Peninsula, past Worm Turning, past Broome to south of here. If you break it, dig into it, interrupt it, then it’ll be bad for everyone. Really bad.’
‘But that’s –’ I can’t say superstition to these lovely people.
‘They think we’re just against change for the sake of it,’ says Aidan.
‘Here’s the man,’ says Paddy. ‘He’ll tell you all about it.’
Lanky Matthew is coming towards us, grinning. ‘I see you’ve met my friends, the elders. This is what I was trying to explain last night.’
Assumptions. Got to lose my big-city assumptions: these aren’t naive outback folk. Aidan is a paramedic, Maggie a primary school teacher and Paddy a drug and alcohol counsellor for his countrymen. Paddy and Maggie are clearly elders, but Aidan?
‘An elder is someone with knowledge, and responsibility for that knowledge,’ Maggie explains.
We’re sitting in a quiet corner in the cafe. I don’t want to be interrupted by anyone from the conference as they stream out for coffee: I’m fascinated by my new companions. My ‘cousins.’
‘Let’s put it in scientific terms, Lena,’ says Matthew. ‘Knowledge of this land has been passed on by Indigenous people for the last fifty thousand years or more – initiations, legends, even the stories we invaders were allowed to hear. It’s not mythology. It’s a code – part social structure, part natural science.’
‘Okay,’ I nod. ‘Codes makes sense to me.’
‘The codes preserve a wealth of knowledge of geological structures above and below ground. What the elders have told me aligns precisely with research and my own observations.’
Paddy looks exasperated. ‘Well of course it does, Matthew. Jeez.’
‘There’s a large aquifer, a deep subterranean watercourse the length of the Dampier Peninsula,’ says Matthew in his quiet voice. ‘And the Wormhole is right over the aquifer – if they break into it the flooding will devastate the mine. Worst of all, the stored material will pollute the aquifer.’
‘But why haven’t their surveys found it?’
‘They haven’t gone deep enough, and now they won’t because they’re certain there’s nothing to find.’ He shakes his head, puzzled. ‘Slow acceptance of research I can understand – but there’s something else too, something very odd going on.’
‘It’s a long story – ’
Maggie laughs. ‘I’ve heard all this before. My cue to go, got a class.’
‘And me,’ says Aidan. ‘On duty soon.’
‘I’ll leave you to it as well,’ says Paddy. ‘Lovely to meet you, Lena.’
We stand and I shake hands with these three fascinating people I met such a short time ago. I feel something I can’t identify but it makes me surprisingly happy.
‘See you later, cuz,’ says Aidan.
Matthew and I sit down again; he’s all elbows and knees. ‘Cuz?’ he asks.
‘My grandfather came from here, and his half-brother – my great-uncle – was partly Aboriginal.’
‘Whalen? Not Liam Whalen?’
‘Yes. I had no idea that would matter so much.’
‘Family’s everything here. But you don’t have to be family to become family.’
I laugh, then realise he’s perfectly serious.
‘So what’s this odd thing about Worm Turning, then?’
‘Some background,’ he says. ‘Years ago a gas refinery was proposed north of here at James Price Point, though the Aboriginal name is Walmadan. There were massive protests. Heard of it?’
I shrug. ‘No, sorry. There are so many industrial projects and protests but usually something gets worked out. Is that what happened?’
‘No, backward and forwards for years, but bit by bit the infrastructure’s been built up.’ He rubs his bearded chin slowly. ‘Look, I’m a geologist, I like the idea of minerals being used for human benefit – but there’s already a refinery like that in the Pilbara, and for the locals a gas plant just means damaging the valuable tourist economy.’
‘So what’s a gas plant got to do with Worm Turning?’
‘The basic infrastructure at Walmadan was already in place when the reprocessing project burst out of the blue. The protesters were caught off guard and the whole thing got instant approval.’
‘The Honourable Minister Berg, I suppose.’
He nods. ‘And then the Americans got in on the act. Terrorists, security, the same tired old bunch of bogeymen.’ He shakes his head. ‘I have never seen a project move so fast, every legal safeguard was bypassed. Most reputable geologists can’t believe it.’
‘What about the ones at this conference?’
‘Most of them work for Geo-Garrod. Didn’t you know?’
I’m surprised. ‘No. I thought this was an honest review. But it’s not?’
‘I’m the token nay-sayer, but it’s a whitewash. The basic science hasn’t been done and protections aren’t in place, legal or social. And it’s on appropriated Aboriginal land.’
‘Apart from the social aspect – and come on, Matthew, it’s just a bit of bush – haven’t the Americans guaranteed they’ll take full responsibility for security or pollution?’
‘Yes. That’s what scares me,’ he says. ‘When have they ever taken responsibility for their own pollution, let alone anyone else’s?’
I laugh, then stop in surprise. He’s right.
‘And,’ Matthew says hesitantly, ‘it’s not just a bit of bush, Lena. It’s stolen land, beautiful land with great importance to the Kimberley. Something’s wrong with how this was done and why it was done in that particular spot.’
I say dryly, ‘Okay. I agree it doesn’t sound very ethical. But that’s not strange in itself, just business as usual.’
‘Perhaps so, but other things worry me too. They’re lying about what they’re digging up, for instance. You heard Garrod announce they’re selling the mineral sands at a profit?’
‘You don’t believe him?’
He shakes his head. ‘There are deposits of that stuff everywhere. There’s even a worldwide glut at the moment, no reason for anyone to be paying big money.’
‘So what’s actually in the sands?’
‘Mostly titanium and zircon. Titanium goes into paint and zircon yields zirconium.’ He smiles. ‘But you’d know all about that.’
I nod. ‘Zirconium’s used to clad nuclear fuel rods in reactors – lets the radiation pass straight through.’
‘But to get zirconium out of zircon they have to remove traces of hafnium, and that has quite the opposite action,’ he says with an odd intensity.
‘Yes.’ I say, puzzled. ‘Hafnium absorbs radiation so it’s used to control nuclear reactions. It’s not much good for anything else though.’
He leans forward and says quietly. ‘What about the induced gamma emission of hafnium-178?’
I look at him in amazement and burst out laughing. ‘Oh, come off it, Matthew. You don’t believe that tired old urban myth, do you?’
‘The US Defense Advanced Research Agency put millions into studying it.’
‘DARPA puts millions into lots of things, it’s their idea of loose change. And just like the imaginary hafnium bomb, they go nowhere.’
‘So you don’t find it strange the idea was ridiculed, the results practically buried?’
‘No,’ I say. ‘It was absurd.’
‘The Chinese and Russians don’t think so. They’ve recently done some interesting work.’
I’m surprised. ‘Really? I didn’t know that.’
‘Doesn’t get much publicity. I’ll email you the papers. What’s your address?’
I tell him, wondering if he does have a chip on his shoulder after all.
He taps my address into his mobile then looks up at my doubtful face and says, ‘I’m not crazy, Lena, I promise you.’
He’s a lovely young man and I’m probably being a bit hard on him.
‘Matthew,’ I say gently, ‘This is tinfoil hat territory, you know?’
‘I used to think so too,’ he says. ‘But there’s something else – the data they’ve published for the mineral composition is completely bogus.’
‘A friend of mine did the initial analysis and told me about it privately,’ he says. ‘Then she was suddenly transferred and given a promotion, so now she couldn’t care less.’
‘Good for her.’
‘A lot more effective than telling her to keep quiet, I admit.’
I smile. ‘Warning. Conspiracy theory alert.’
‘But I went to look for myself,’ he says. ‘I know the area well and it was easy enough to get through the fence, take my own samples, do my own tests.’
‘Geo-Garrod claim it’s the standard yield, one or two percent hafnium. But the Wormhole mineral sands have closer to twenty percent. It’s a stunningly rich motherlode, nothing else like it on the planet.’
He spreads his hands and says quietly, ‘So I keep wondering. Who wants this stuff so badly – and why?’
The conference ends that evening with lots of hand-shaking and back-slapping and promises of eternal collaboration. I help with the usual committee tasks, sorting out loose ends with the venue organisers, finding lost bits of audio-visual gear, pulling down banners, picking up appraisal forms, gathering water-glasses – all the glamour of global scientific interaction.
In the night Jessie and I go out to a small open-air restaurant for dinner. The air is humid but a breeze cools us down. Over a light meal I tell her about my strange day, meeting my ‘cousins’ – hers as well – and Matthew’s concerns. She says she likes his sequence of logic about the hafnium (Jess likes sequences of logic about anything).
We get the dessert menu. ‘The apple thingy might be nice,’ I say.
‘Mmm. Looks a bit like your mum’s speciality.’
‘Oh, I got an email from Mum last night. They’re leaving the boat for a few weeks and having a holiday in Cairns. Should be lovely for them.’
Jess looks up and says, ‘Enough of all that. What about you, Lena?’
‘You. Now this massive exercise in reality avoidance is over, what are you going to do?’
‘Pick up the dropped threads of my research. Carry on teaching, supervising postgrads. The usual.’
‘And is that what you want to do?’
‘Oh, Jess, I don’t know. My research isn’t going to be as useful as I’d hoped. I’ve got no new ideas. I’m fed up with teaching kids who don’t like learning.’ I sigh. ‘Why did you have to ask me such an awkward question?’
‘To hear your answer.’
‘So you could hear your answer.’
I bury my face in my hands. After a moment I say, ‘I was hoping to ignore the disaster of my professional life for a week or two while we have a holiday.’
‘Okay. Ignored as of now. The apple thingy does look nice.’
I gaze at her with exasperation. Literal, sweet-natured Jess.
Next morning I wake up still puzzling over Matthew’s concerns about hafnium in the Wormhole sands. But I decide to worry about it later – there’s probably a reasonable explanation, there usually is. Once again I go for an early-morning walk to the old town while the air is still cool.
I admire the glamorous jewellery shops and their displays of large creamy pearls, then along the foreshore I notice an old jetty stretching through the mangroves on Dampier Creek. I step onto it and walk carefully out to the end, seeing tiny red crabs in the mud below scuttling away in panic at the noise of my feet.
No one else is around but I feel safe and unusually content.
I sit at the end of the jetty and play with the comcuff Jessie gave me, touching the buttons she said were for taking photos. It’s not difficult at all. The lens is one of the moonstones on the ring, and the images appear, wonderfully sharp, on a wide silvery gem on the inside of my wrist. Then I try to sort out the video setting, and after a few false starts I’m charmed to see a view of pink clouds moving in the morning sky.
I lean back on my arms and take a deep breath and enjoy the peaceful scene. The rust-brown mud looks richly fertile and the roots of the glossy green mangroves reach like fingers into the air. Birds flitter past and the red crabs shuffle busily between their holes.
I close my eyes and feel myself relaxing deeply; as if I’m sinking into the jetty, the mud, the teeming life all around me. It’s a new and strangely pleasurable sensation. A long time passes, but it doesn’t seem to matter because I feel so content.
Then I hear something moving in the mangroves and come alert, imagining crocodiles. But it’s just a man wading slowly through the ankle-deep water. Damn. I was enjoying being alone.
He sees me and waves and I wave back politely. He comes towards me carrying a fishing rod over his shoulder and I realise it’s the young Aboriginal man I met yesterday, Aidan Cooper.
‘Heya, Lena,’ he says, as he gets closer. ‘Great morning, eh?’
‘Hello, Aidan. Yes, it’s just beautiful. Had any luck?’
He shakes his head. ‘Nah, not today.’
He splashes back towards the shore. I follow, retracing my steps on the old jetty. When we meet he says, ‘Cafe up the road’s just opened. Want to get a coffee?’
‘That’d be good.’
He puts on his sandals and we walk together to an arcade with small shops. We get the coffees and sit at a table on the footpath. I can’t help but notice how striking he looks, with his cropped hair and that rakish silver earring. The shape of his face and his golden skin show mixed ancestry too, like a lot of people I’ve seen around Broome – not Aboriginal alone, but white and Asian as well.
I say, ‘Do you do much fishing?’
‘Not much – relaxation mostly. Some of my rellies think I’ve gone soft and couldn’t last a day in country.’
‘Your relatives still hunt for food?’ I ask, surprised.
He grins. ‘Yeah. They run a trekking company for rich tourists.’
‘Oh.’ Another stereotype bites the dust.
‘Always overbooked. Deadly food.’
He notices my puzzlement. ‘Means great, fantastic food.’
‘Ah.’ I sip my coffee. ‘And you’re an ambulance paramedic, you said?’
He nods. ‘Yeah. Started as a volunteer then went into a training program. I really like being an ambo.’
‘Can’t imagine somewhere as peaceful as this with too many emergencies.’
‘Lot of drugs and alcohol, Paddy Bull’s pretty busy. Not just an Aboriginal problem of course, across the whole community,’ he says. ‘I guess that’s how it is everywhere now. But all up, yeah, this is a pretty good place to live.’
‘Deadly?’ I say lightly, and he grins.
‘So what about you then?’ he asks. ‘Your first time back home, you said. How are you finding it?’
‘It’s not really home. I’m from South Gippsland but I live in Sydney now. It was only my grandfather’s family who came from here.’
‘Just a holiday, then.’
‘Ah, you might surprise yourself. Hard to leave this place.’
‘I have my work back in Sydney,’ I say. ‘Interesting stuff.’
‘Yeah, must be.’ I think he knows I’m lying.
‘I hope Paddy and Maggie are all right after yesterday,’ I say. ‘You were pretty brave taking on Geo-Garrod in public. Are they big employers around here?’
He shakes his head. ‘Nah. The plant’s mostly automated, which doesn’t help the kids needing jobs. But the real problem is what it’s doing to country. The Sea Nomads have helped us, supported a couple of court challenges, but we didn’t win. Now the damage is massive and soon there’ll be no going back.’
He puts down his mug and leans towards me. His eyes are amber beneath the dark arches of his brows.
‘And I’m worried about what Matthew’s been saying, Lena. You know about this stuff, so what do you think about the mineral sands with the – what is it, hafnium? Could they really make a bomb out of it?’
‘It’s not my area, Aidan. All I know is the theory sounded plausible some years ago but fell apart in experiments. Matthew says people are still working on it, but I expect it’s like the dream of perpetual motion or cold fusion – realm of crackpots.’
‘Whoa, bit harsh there,’ he says, grinning.
‘Well, science is harsh, it has to be. But personally, I just hope any new sort of bomb stays as impossible as possible.’ I smile at my own words. ‘Dopey thing to say.’
‘You need that holiday, I reckon.’
‘Think I do.’
‘I’m taking time off too, annual break,’ he says, finishing his coffee. ‘You going on that lugger cruise later today? I’ll be crewing – they’re mates of mine.’
‘Yes I am, should be a good trip,’ I say. ‘It’s so lovely here.’
‘But not all paradise, remember. Summer’s always bloody hard work and though it’s autumn now it’s still stinking hot, hasn’t rained a drop for weeks. Then there’s the tropical cyclones too, of course.’
‘Cyclones? In April?’
‘My grandfather told me about being in a cyclone when he was a kid,’ I say. ‘He said boats were sunk, houses blown away. But I guess buildings are much stronger today. Cyclones aren’t really a problem, surely?’
‘Broome’s been stupidly lucky for a long time,’ he says. ‘But a direct hit would be like an atom bomb. Not much at all would be left standing.’
He frowns slightly. ‘Look, I’m not trying to wind you up, but keep an eye on the weather. For instance, there’s a low a thousand kays north-east right now. It’ll probably wander off into the Indian Ocean as usual. But if you hear it’s coming closer, pay attention.’
‘To something a thousand kilometres away?’
I get back to the hotel in time for breakfast. Today we’ve got the end-of-conference event Aidan mentioned, a sail along the coast on an old Broome lugger. This is for the people who aren’t immediately leaving town: I assume Garrod and Berg have already flown out and taken my rat of a husband with them.
I’m just pouring a cup of tea when I realise the rat in question is hovering at the restaurant door. I’m even more surprised when he comes over and sits at my table.
He clears his throat. ‘The other evening I noticed Garrod giving you invitations to the opening of Worm Turning next week.’
‘Yes, I’m very well, thank you Max, so is my family. How are your parents?’ I ask.
‘I haven’t got time for pleasantries –’
‘That’s true.’ My throat hurts.
‘Lena, listen.’ His jaw tightens. ‘Please.’
I don’t think I’ve ever heard him say that before.
‘It’s not a good idea for you to attend the event,’ he says firmly. ‘I’d rather you didn’t.’
‘Why not – bad for your image? Iceberg’s been taking the piss?’ I’m suddenly angry. ‘Get lost, Max. I’ll go if I want.’
His fists clench and I remember the rage beneath the smooth surface. He says, ‘You stupid bitch. I’m trying to help you.’
‘Yeah?’ My heart’s pounding.
‘Jesus. Look, I don’t think it’ll be safe. Too many interests colliding. Protesters, psycho Yanks, hyped-up security out in the middle of nowhere looking for a fight.’
‘At the gala? I suspect the only danger’ll be blindness from all the diamonds.’ I’m suddenly puzzled. ‘Psycho Yanks? Don’t you mean Iceberg’s best buddies?’
He licks his lips, his eyes evasive. Here we go, I think, what crap’s coming up now?
‘It’s just a feeling …’
‘Feeling? Christ, Max, you’ll be cuddling kittens next.’
I’m furious to realise my eyes are stinging. I just wanted to get through this bloody conference and have a peaceful holiday. The last thing I wanted was to talk to this horrible man again.
‘Look, I just don’t trust that Yank terrorist bullshit,’ he says bitterly. ‘They don’t even believe it themselves nowadays. I can’t work out why they’re throwing such resources at this stupid little project. They’re in a depression, their own country’s knee-deep in shit, it’s all crumbling roads and illiterate kids. I just don’t get it.’
With a shock I realise he’s sincere. I say, ‘Perhaps it’s not such a stupid little project. They might see it as getting rid of the nuclear shit, at least.’
He scoffs. ‘Lena, you and your mates might care about nuclear waste, but governments don’t give a fuck. Despite Hanford, the longer the problem’s swept under the carpet the better they like it. Exploit the environment, move on, let someone else pay for the clean-up – that’s how they’ve always done it. What’s changed?’
‘The problem’s so big to me I guess I forget most people just don’t care.’ I look at him. ‘You really think it could be dangerous at such a public event?’
‘The whole thing makes me uneasy and I don’t know why,’ he says, a touch pompously. I’m astonished to hear him admit there’s something he doesn’t know.
Hating myself for placating him, I say, ‘Look, I’m not desperate to go, all I want is a quiet holiday. I’ll see how I feel when the time comes.’ I change the subject. ‘Congratulations on your new job. How’s it going with Minister Berg?’
‘Not easy.’ He frowns. ‘She’s too bloody cosy with Colonel Zukowski. And she’s playing both ends against the middle … except most days I’m not even sure what the ends – or the middle – are. I just do what I’m told,’ he says with a shrug.
I gaze at him for a moment: his dark hair is less perfectly trimmed than usual, there are a few wrinkles on his shirt and he seems to have mislaid his defining self-assurance. I reject a sympathetic urge and stand.
‘Well. Thanks for the advice, Max. I’ve got to go now.’
As I’m changing into shorts and T-shirt for the boat trip, I think about Max’s odd demeanour. Did he mean what he said or was he simply trying to manipulate me, as so often before? I sigh and wonder how I could ever have become involved with such a strange man. A military man.
But it made a kind of sense. Granddad Mike saw me as light-hearted – and I was, when I was younger – but I was also the child of a man damaged by the Vietnam War. Dad’s rages, his silences, his bitter unhappiness hurt us all, and when my parents separated it was a relief. Later, Dad found a certain contentment after marrying Suyin, but as I grew older I knew I both loved him and feared him still.
My boyfriends were mostly blithe spirits so I managed to avoid serious commitment, and I wasn’t desperate for kids – Jessie, my little half-sister, was baby enough – but in my heart I hoped it might yet happen. In my forties, I was witty, attractive, content in my world. Then I met Max.
He was charming. He seemed someone I could at last rely upon. His mind was good, he read widely and his hinted-at exotic past fascinated me. I felt I’d found my life’s partner and we spoke of having a child.
To him I think I was a challenge – a pretty woman with a brain he’d joke, as if it were an inconceivable combination. He’d always murmur my title, Dr Whalen, when introducing me. For a time I think he was proud of me.
We married after a passionate year together then everything changed. I refused to be told what to do, even by a substitute father. He had some odd fantasy of wifely submission – well, that worked out about as well as you might imagine. Our sex life ended. He said I was demanding, disgusting, ridiculous. There were outbursts of rage: I was proof of his own failure.
I discovered he lied, compulsively, about everything. If he forgot to pick up bread, none had been baked that day. If he didn’t ring, his phone was out of order. If he was going somewhere for just a moment he’d disappear instead for hours, and respond with disdain if I asked where he’d been. Most painfully of all, he denied he’d ever wanted a child.
After a long time trying to cope, the confusion and sorrow overwhelmed me and I couldn’t stop weeping. I found a kind psychiatrist, took medication, struggled to understand. My shrink said Max was a narcissist – lacking empathy, a liar, a fantasist – but having a name for it didn’t help.
At last we separated and I began to build a new life. I tried, at any rate.
Jessie is coming on the boat trip too. She says she wants to see how the comcuffs operate in sea air but she’s already mentioned they’re waterproof so I think she just likes the idea of a sail. I know I do. I’ve never been a sailor but the few times I’ve boarded a boat I’ve felt a surprising sense of contentment.
In the small bus taking us to the port I tell Jess about my chat this morning with Aidan. She says she hopes we get to see a cyclone in action and I say I’d rather not. I don’t mention Max, I want to think over his puzzling warning first.
The bus rolls onto a beach and halts. We splash enjoyably through the shallow water to an aluminium boat, a tinny. To my surprise Matthew Rossi is in charge of it. He’s not dressed for a conference today – instead he’s wearing a lurid tropical shirt which Jessie gazes at in disbelief. She’s in her usual black of course, a tank top and linen shorts beautifully draped on her slim frame.
Matthew starts up the engine and ferries us out in two trips to the moored lugger. Not far away is a Sea Nomads yacht with its distinctive golden sun logo against a blue background. The silver-haired crew on board wave to us and we wave back.
Sea Nomads are retired high achievers who refuse to settle for a quiet life. Instead they pit their lifetimes of experience in law, business or government against the juggernauts of mindless development, and judging by the hysterical invective of the shock jocks they’re really starting to have an effect. Mum and her partner Mitch are Sea Nomads on a boat in Queensland and I’m proud of them.
As we approach the lugger I see it’s about twenty metres long, the bow beautifully curved like an old-fashioned clipper-ship. Sparrow is written in large white letters on the bronze-green hull. Sparrow? What an odd coincidence.
The sides of the lugger are low and part of the railing slides back, so it’s just a step up to reach the deck where Aidan is waiting with a helping hand. With his silver earring and dashing looks he reminds me of a pirate, Hollywood-style.
‘We’ll have to stop meeting like this, cuz,’ he says, smiling. ‘Whoa, watch your step there,’ he adds as the lugger sways and I almost fall. Jessie is ahead of me so I grab her arm for balance. Aidan looks at me with one dark eyebrow raised.
‘Aidan, this is my sister Jessie. Jess, this is Aidan. He’s sort of your cousin.’
Jess greets him in a surprisingly friendly way. Maybe Broome’s starting to relax her at last, although Aidan’s charm could well be a factor.
After everyone is aboard Matthew closes the railing and ties the tinny to the stern of the lugger – along with Aidan he’s apparently part of the crew. They move around quickly, releasing and coiling ropes. The engine starts and I see a man with steel-grey hair near the rear of the boat.
Matthew moves past and I joke, ‘I didn’t know geologists moonlighted as sailors.’
His quick grin appears. ‘The skipper’s my uncle. This lugger's the main reason I like living in Broome.’
The engine rumbles and we start out to sea. The crew hoists the cream-coloured sails and they fill with wind. Matthew assembles the passengers, nine or so of us, runs carefully through a safety drill and shows us how to use our life-jackets. He produces bottles of sunscreen and insists we all put some on. Even in April the sunlight is fierce and I’m glad of my hat.
We leave Roebuck Bay behind and motor past the rocky orange bluff of Gantheaume Point then along beautiful Cable Beach. We keep moving north near the coast for a time then turn westwards out to sea. The skipper cuts the engine and suddenly we’re coasting along under sail alone. The intense quiet is breath-taking.
The deck is timber, the deckhouses painted glossy white. Jessie and I sit on a deckhouse while Aidan tells us about the old pearling lugger, calling the boat ‘she’ until it begins to seem oddly right. He says she’s called a ketch because the taller of her two masts is towards the bow. The masts themselves carry large rectangular sails with tangles of ropes going in every conceivable direction.
‘Come on, let’s do the grand tour,’ Aidan says.
We carefully clamber down the narrow steps at the stern into one of the two deckhouses. It holds a compact kitchen he calls a galley, with a table and built-in seating and ingenious little cupboards and shelves everywhere.
We climb back to the gently rolling deck and walk forwards holding onto what Aidan calls the shrouds, which sound rather funereal to me. Near the bow is another deckhouse with solar panels on top for the boat’s electrics. Below it are the bunks, a bathroom and a toilet, and Aidan shows us how to use the water pump without causing a maritime disaster.
The engine is hidden away in a cramped room running between the galley and the sleeping quarters. In the old days it would have held an air pump, Aidan tells us, for the diver in his helmet and rubber suit searching the ocean floor for pearlshell; a perilous life of accidents, illnesses and cyclones.
When we emerge again on deck it’s almost a surprise to see the glorious blue-sky day. Then trays of delicious nibbles and plastic flutes of bubbly emerge from the galley and after a while everything seems simply perfect.
Jess and Aidan get into a light-hearted argument over some sort of technology, so I leave them to it and wander around, chatting occasionally to the other passengers. I think about the boat and tell myself no, must be a coincidence. Sparrow would have been a fairly common name, after all.
Matthew said earlier we might see some whales, but right now I’m charmed by the pod of dolphins diving and swimming beside the moving lugger. I tell myself they’re not really smiling, but they certainly seem to be having fun.
We head further out to sea, the land just a sliver behind us now, the breeze ruffling my hair and the waves gurgling against the hull. I sit near the bow enjoying the air on my face and remembering the lovely sense of deep relaxation – so unusual for me – I’d felt this morning on the jetty.
As the boat gently rises and falls I find myself thinking about the concept of sea – in my field we talk of seas of electrons or seas of instability between islands of elements. Here, I’m charmed to notice, the gently moving sea seems to spark off a glimmer of insight into a problem I was researching before I came to Broome, and I think, yes, that might work.
After a long, peaceful time I wander back towards the stern and say to Matthew, ‘This is just amazing. Thank you so much.’
‘You should thank my uncle, it’s his lugger. Simon, this is Lena Whalen. Lena, Simon Rossi.’
‘What a beautiful boat this is,’ I say to the man at the tiller. He’s wearing sunglasses so it’s hard to see his expression. He grunts something that appears to be agreement.
He’s tanned, hawk-nosed, his grey curls untrimmed, his shoulders the sort that might be a nice place to rest a weary head. About my age too. In my small academic world, attractive men of my own vintage rarely come along and if they do they’re usually partnered. Is he wearing a ring? No. Stop gawking.
‘Do you think we’ll see any whales?’ I ask.
‘Maybe,’ he says.
‘It’s odd this boat is named Sparrow,’ I say. ‘My grandfather’s mother once owned a Broome lugger called Sparrow. Could it be the same one?’
‘Doubt it,’ he replies.
His face has laughter lines, but he’s not smiling. Okay.
I move away and lean against some ropes and watch the water. The wind crackles a sail.
Hell. All my serenity is gone and I’m back in the endless loop of the past: Max’s rejection, any man’s rejection. I’m so sick of it. Who cares if some stupid boat-driver doesn’t like my scintillating conversation? Dickhead, I can just hear Jessie saying.
I sigh. I’m not petite or skinny or adorably inept, and I refuse to pretend I don’t have a mind. It’s never been easy finding compatible partners and now, after the disaster of Max, it seems hopelessly daunting. Still, I must try. Enough mourning, Lena.
After a long time sitting quietly, I yawn and realise I’m tired, lulled by the boat’s gentle sway. The sun is low in the sky now. As well as the dolphins I’ve seen two turtles and a yellow sea snake but so far, no whales. I’ve had some nice chats with other passengers too but now everyone is quiet, sitting around the deck lost in their own thoughts or gazing at the horizon.
I suddenly notice Matthew is speaking urgently to the skipper, Simon. He’s pointing at something and I turn and see it too: a boat in the distance. It’s not moving and no one is on deck.
Simon starts the engine and we motor for a time until we’re closer. We slowly circle the other vessel from perhaps fifty metres away. It’s larger than the lugger and made of blue-painted wood. It has a long cabin at the stern, a single mast, and the deck rises to a sharply pointed bow.
As we come downwind of the boat everyone murmurs and exclaims as a terrible smell sweeps over us. I see Simon and Matthew exchange looks and speak quietly to each other. We motor upwind, away from the smell, and stop.
We gather around the tiller. The only sound is small waves pattering on the hull.
Simon asks, ‘Do we have any doctors aboard?’
No one responds, so I say, ‘I have medical experience.’
Aidan says, ‘I’m an ambo, Lena, might be better – ’
‘No, Ade, it’s important the crew stay here,’ says Simon. He glances at me. ‘All right. Life-jacket on and come with me.’
I pull on the lifejacket. Matthew and Aidan haul the tinny back to the side then Simon climbs down into it and I climb after him. He starts the outboard motor and says, ‘I want you to steer. Can you do that?’
‘Yes, of course.’ Dickhead, I think as I sit beside the tiller.
Matthew hands down some heavy coils of rope which Simon piles beside him. He tells me how to engage the engine and we start. After a wiggle or two I keep us moving in a straight line. We close the distance to the other boat on slow revs as Simon carefully uncoils the rope behind us.
I’m curious. ‘Why didn’t you bring Aidan? An ambo would more useful than me.’
He suddenly seems to notice how Neanderthal he sounds.
‘Sorry. The boat needs at least two crew to sail it safely and if I’d brought Ade along and something unpleasant happens here,’ he nods his head towards the blue boat, ‘that’d only leave Matty to get everyone back to port.’
‘Do you think something unpleasant will happen?’
‘Well, you can smell it,’ he says. ‘You know what’s there.’
An old ladder is dangling near the bow of the blue boat. Simon climbs it then leans down and says, ‘Pass me the tow-rope.’ I do so and he ties it securely to the boat, then I hand him the tinny’s mooring line to fasten too. After that I climb the ladder. He steadies me as I step on board then we stand, stunned by the ghastly smell. It surrounds us like sewage. We glance at each other.
‘All right?’ he says, looking pale. I nod.
We move along the deck and on the far side we find the source of the smell. What was once a man is lying there, his hand on his face. Flies blanket his body, buzzing like white noise, and what they don’t obscure is glistening brown and black and red.
Simon steps to the side of the boat and vomits with quiet efficiency. I do too; despite my mental preparation there’s no way in the world to stop it.
‘Holy Jesus –’ he says. He wipes his mouth on his sleeve then pulls out a handkerchief and gives it to me to wipe mine. He takes a small camera from his pocket.
‘All right. Better get some pictures before disturbing anything.’
As flashes from his camera light up the evening, I take images with Jessie’s comcuff behind his back. Concentrating on which buttons I need to push helps me stop thinking about the pathetic corpse sprawled in front of me.
Between the side of the boat and the wooden mast is an open steel drum with foam padding. With the boat it rolls one way, then the other, making a soft clang each time. It looks like the packaging for several shiny metal cylinders lying near the man’s body.
The cylinders are about the size of large soft drink bottles and remind me of something, but in the horror of the moment I can’t think what. I can see one of them has been forced open, presumably with the hammer and chisel lying beside it.
A coarse white powder spills from an aperture in the cylinder and is scattered on the deck. The breeze lifts the lighter grains eerily every now and then and blows them against our legs. I feel uneasy. Just the ghastly situation, I think. Keep calm.
‘We’d better check inside too,’ says Simon with a tone of resignation.
I follow him along the side of the cabin to the stern. The steering wheel is out in the open, and in front of that is the cabin door. In the gloomy decrepit room we see a table to the left, and a man lying with his head on his arms. He too is covered in droning insects.
Another broken-open cylinder is on the table and a pile of the powder is on a small mirror, chopped finely with a razor blade.
I say, ‘Were they sniffing that stuff?’
‘Looks like it.’
Simon snaps photos and I discreetly take images with the cuff, but neither of us wants to stay a moment longer in that hot stinking room. We go back to the deck and I can’t help but gaze at the body again.
The poor bastard’s hand is over his eyes, as if he was weeping when he died out here in the pitiless heat, and I remember Aidan saying it hadn’t rained a drop for weeks. In the dimness I notice a heap of white powder near the man’s hand and suddenly the hair on my scalp lifts.
The powder is glimmering with a soft blue light.
Simon whispers, ‘Is that shit glowing?’
‘Oh fuck,’ I say, backing away, my voice shaking. ‘We’ve got to get out of here!’
I hear the clang as the boat sways, and stare towards the bow.
‘Look!’ I point at the steel drum, rolling against the mast, with the hazard symbol for radiation just visible on its side.
‘I think this powder’s caesium-137,’ I say. ‘I recognise the containers now – we’ve got to get off the boat immediately, I’m not kidding!’
‘Didn’t think you were.’
We turn and dash along the deck, back to the ladder. Simon helps me over the side and as I’m climbing down I stop, and with the handkerchief he gave me I take off my sandals and throw them into the water, then step into the tinny barefoot.
‘You too,’ I say, and before he gets in he pulls off his deck shoes and throws them away, along with the handkerchief.
He starts the engine and we roar at high speed back to the lugger. My heart is thumping in terror. I’ve spent my career protecting other people from radiation but had never imagined I’d have to face it myself.
I can see Simon’s fierce profile against the evening light. Is he as frightened as me? Probably not. But then, he has no idea what we’re up against.
I think of the coarse powder scattered around the deck, blowing onto us, and I feel sick again.