2020 Thunderbolt Prize for Crime Writing: Winning Submissions
True Blue, by Kerry James
The River, by Richenda Rudman
The Late Guardian, by Roderick Makim
The Dead thing, by Eva Mustapic
"Monster in the Dark: The Murder of Betty Thomson Shanks" by Alyssa MacKay
The River, by Richenda Rudman
The Late Guardian, by Roderick Makim
The Dead thing, by Eva Mustapic
"Monster in the Dark: The Murder of Betty Thomson Shanks" by Alyssa MacKay
By Kerry James
‘I hafta go to the torlet, now,’ Nola said.
Mum shifted Johnnie, the toddler, around on her hip so his heels wouldn’t hit the bump in her front where the next one was now well on the way. She looked drained after a couple of hours of the weekly shop with us kids in tow.
‘There’s no toilet around here, pet.’
‘There is a torlet, across the park.’
‘That’s a norful place, Nola. You’ll need someone to go with you.’
Who? Marlene, the eldest, was down the street with the shopping list, and probably gossiping with the sales girls who weren’t much older than she was. Mervyn, below her in our line-up of kids, hadn’t come to help, which was typical of him. I came next. Then there was Sharon, who was above Nola, but still only just going on eight.
With all these kids, you’d think there’d have be a man about, but dad was away again. This was our code for him doing time -- for six, or twelve, months. I lost track of how long, on account of the fact that he was so often not here, even when he wasn’t there. It was the pub, the dogs, the betting shop, or the dreaded garden shed. It seemed he only came home to plant another kid for mum to feed and care for before he was off again.
Mum’s tired eyes came to rest on me.
‘Sharlene, you’ll have to take Nola if she’s really bursting. But just look at you! Have you been at me new box of Reckitt’s Blue already? Bless me beads. If only one of youse kids was normal. You look like you’ve got on blue lipstick, and you’re drooling. A gob of blue’s dribbled right down yer front.’
‘Where I had me molar out hasn’t healed up yet. It keeps leaking.’
‘We paid that dentist good money, and he still done a lousy job. But why do you have to eat that bloody laundry blue-bag stuff for? It’ll kill you.’
‘I only used me teeth to tear the wrapper off to get at the square.’
‘What’s the big attraction?’
‘The wonderful colour: deep, bright, like the sky, and blue as heaven.’
Reckitt’s brilliant Blue laundry tablets did tend to get everywhere when I got hold of them, and relieved the grey haze of our lives. My pinafore was grey, Nola’s and Sharon’s smocks were grey, and Marlene’s dress was the same colour, although she’d brightened hers up with an old red belt she’d got hold of. Mum had been given a heap of curtaining material by a local charity, and she’d run up all our dresses. Otherwise, as she said, we’d have had nothing to wear.
‘‘Muuum, I gotta go, now.’
Nola’s face had gone red. She shoved her damp little paw in mine and looked up in her trusting way. I wrapped the precious blue tablet best as I could, and stuck in my pocket.
‘Take the stroller, Shar. We’ll wait here. Nola can’t walk fast, and I want you out of that place real quick. Mind how you go. The stroller’s old and it’s now got all me vegies in it. Oh, and me new rolling pin’s stuck under the back of the hood. So, go careful with it all.’
I plonked Nola on top of spuds and carrots, next to a cabbage and caulie mum had bludged from the grocer, and pushed the clunking old machine off as fast as I could. We crossed over to the park and down to the public toilets. As we got near, I almost spewed from the smell of urine and I don’t know what else what hit me. Only the part nearest the entrance was even usable. The rest of the place, towards the back, had become a dump for old junk: blankets, rags, cardboard packing boxes, and a whole lot of other stuff that was too dark to make out. I shoved Nola into the first open cubicle I came to, and shut the door.
‘Can you manage by yourself in there, Nolie? I’ll be right outside.’
‘Okay, Shar,’ Nola said.
A rasping breath sounded behind me. As I turned, a man crouched in a kind of den made out of piled-up cardboard lurched out at me. He had a coat on but, as he stood up, I saw that his old feller was already out and waving about, all purply, and ready for business. He opened his gob for air, and showed his thick yellow tongue and a few black stumps of teeth. As he come at me, he knocked into one of the back wheels of the stroller, and squealed it sideways.
‘You okay?’ Nola said.
‘Right as rain, love. Just turning our chariot around to leave.’
I got the rolling pin from under the hood. As the man struggled to get his balance, I smashed the heavy wooden pin down on his dick and then, without thinking too much, whipped it up again right under his chin. I must of got him in the Adam’s apple. I moved that fast he didn’t even cry out; he just went over backwards and fell behind one of the cardboard humpies he’d crawled out of.
I pushed the stroller hard against the door to Nola’s cubicle, and went back to him. His eyes were only slits now. His mouth was gaping and his cheeks were working in and out, as he fought for air. No way, perv. I took the Reckitt’s Blue square out of its wrapper in my pocket, shoved it over his goanna tongue, and as far down his throat as far as I could reach without gagging myself. He made a sort of choking sound, and never moved after that.
I went to the basins, got one of the leaking taps to work, and washed ooze off my hand and arm. I rammed the rolling pin into the back of the stroller, pulled out the old bit of towel stuffed down there, that did us for wipes and that, and dried off.
‘I been finished for ages, Shar. Wotcha doin’?’
‘Wetting a cloth for your hands. Guess there’s no torlet paper in there, but I could dry you with the other end of it.’
‘That’s orlright. But Shar, I’ve broke me pants!’
I pushed the stroller away, and found Nola looking terrified and standing with her duds around her ankles.
‘It’s okay, Nolie. Mum won’t be angry. The elastic’s gone in ‘em, that’s all. Think you’re due for another pair, anyway. Those look like some I wore.’
She gave me a wobbly grin that blew my heart away. She was such a tiny, timid, little kid. I tied a knot in the busted elastic to keep her pants up, smoothed down her smock, and chucked her into the stroller. I then raced her out the door shrieking ‘yee-ha!’, and yippeed and yelled like a mad cowpoke all the way back across the park. Nola was tickled pink. She’d had her wee, and was no longer frightened about getting into trouble over a pair of duds that were more holes than material. She added to all my noise the merry squeals that only kids with squeaky-clean, clear-as-glass, consciences have. If anyone was around, they’d of thought we’d been at a funfair, and that the dark entrance to the toilets led to Luna Park, with a big, blue mouth, wide open and laughing, waiting to delight us, instead of what was really in there.
As soon as we got back, mum put Johnnie in the stroller instead of Nola, and we set off for home. Nola was as happy as a clam, but Sharon started in.
‘Why can’t we get a bus, mum? I’m tired.’
‘No money for fares is why,’ mum said. Her lips tightened like a chicken’s bum. ‘Stop whinging, Sharon. You’ll set Johnnie off. We’re all tired. It’s not that far now, and I’ve got youse something real nice for tea.’
When we got home, mum slung the vegies in the kitchen sink to wash them. She then took one look at the rolling pin she pulled from the back of the stroller, and scrubbed it down hard. My gut was knotted up the whole way back, and now it fair turned over. Had she seen stuff on it? Blood, whiskers?‘Why yer washing new stuff, mum?’ Sharon asked.
‘The rolling pin isn’t new, Sharon. The shop man gave me an old one he had when he seen how bad Mervyn had splintered the one I took in. But I reckon this one’s harder and heavier than me other one, and will make a proper job of anything that’s needed of it. And… and … ’ Mum paused for effect like a magician. ‘Because I saved money on a roller, I could get youse … this!’
She whipped the paper off a fragrant new loaf of bread still warm from the baker’s oven, and put it on the table end up, in the country way she’d always had. So, that’s where the tantalising, homey smell was coming from. It’d been a while since we’d had fresh bread. We usually copped anything from day-old loaves to what tasted like week-old stuff she could get even cheaper.
She smiled at the oohs and aaahs, buttered and jammed each slice, and sawed it off underneath, before handing out bits one by one. I got an extra thick slice together with a funny twisted-up kind of look from mum.
Sharon, of course, was onto it like the snippy little terrier that she is.
‘Why’s Shar got the biggest slice?’
‘Because she’s the biggest one here, except for me, and she looks whacked after pushing that heavy stroller such a long way. Sharlene, you’re dribbling again, too, down the side of your gob, and onto your chin.’
‘Where me tooth was is hurting, mum.’
‘Well, after you get this down, the little ones are going to bed. And you’re due for a bath, so give me all your clobber. If I get yer clothes washed now, I can dry them by the fire to be ready for tomorrow.’
After the kettle boiled for a cuppa, and the tale of Nola’s underpants had been retold at length, I went off to the bathroom. By the time I came back again in my nightie, mum had the washing sloshing around in the old twin tub machine, Marlene was home, had eaten her slice of bread and jam, and was shooing the youngest ones to bed.
In our room, Nola and Sharon slept head to toe in the bottom part of a double-decker bunk. I slept on the top. A corner of the room was curtained off so Mervyn could have his privacy because he was a boy. Strike me! As if I wanted to see his bits, especially after today. In the bedroom, Marlene shared the big bed with mum when dad was away, and Johnnie slept in a crib at the side. When dad was home, Marlene or me went into Mervyn’s corner, and Mervyn had the couch in the front room, where he got to stay up, or, at least, stay awake, until the wireless went off.
Just then, Mervyn burst in.
‘Sumthin’s happened down at them park torlets, mum. Police are there with flashin’ lights, and have roped it off, and everything, to stop people from gawkin’. But a bloke told me that an old feller in there is dead, murdered likely. Somethin’ was shoved down his throat so he couldn’t breathe.’
‘Doesn’t surprise me in that place, Mervyn. I told you not to go anywhere near there at night.’
‘Aw, mum. Me mates and me just happened to be passing, that’s all. Anyway, this same bloke said the police will have a helluva job, because the heavy traffic there started at dusk. So many blokes was in and out, trampling the dirt on the floor, that it was like a stockyard before anyone even noticed the old dead bloke. He was kinda hidden away under a pile of rubbish. You can read all about it in tomorrow’s newspaper.’
‘There’s no money here for newspapers, Mervyn.’
Mum untied a scarf from around her neck and wound it around my face from under me nose to me chin.
‘What yer doin’ that for?’
‘Shar’s got a sore mouth from where that tooth was taken out last week.’
‘Ew! Yuk! All bloody.’ Mervyn made a face.
‘Shar’s only ten, and she’s been a sight more help to me today by pushing that stroller around than you have, Mervyn,’ mum said.
‘Is this all that’s left for tea?’
Mervyn stuffed the rest of the bread and jam into his mouth.
‘You’re getting on my wick, Mervyn. Just settle down, find something on the wireless, or do your homework, would you?’
Marleen looked over at me. ‘Mum, why don’t I sleep in Shar’s bunk tonight, and she can be in the big bed with you, where you can keep an eye on her? She does look a bit crook.’
‘That’s good of you, Marl. The kid could do with a long rest, for sure.’
‘She’d do the same for me. We gotta look out for each other, don’t we?’
Marlene patted my hair, and hauled Mervyn away. It was like a team of dodgem cars had left the room when he stopped jumping about. What with everything, I’d started to shake, and I didn’t want them to see.
‘Keep the scarf on, Sharlene. I don’t want your dribble stain on me pillowcase. It’s still runnin’ a bit blue. I checked the pocket of your pinny before I threw it in the wash. What’d you do with the wrapping paper?’
‘You didn’t leave any of it there?’
‘Check on Johnnie, and then hop in the big bed. I’ll come in as soon as I finish up here.’
And that was that. I cried and babbled all night, and mum rubbed my back and let me cry some more. If I dropped off, I woke up sweating and moaning. And the whole time, mum was there awake, and never left me.
‘Put all this out of your mind, now, and get on with school, Shar. Nola doesn’t know a thing, does she? She come back not one bit upset. But you best give the Reckitt’s lark away for good now. You don’t need it any more, anyway, love. You’re true blue, all through.’
Mum hugged me to her as if I was all the stars in heaven fallen into one old nightie. I grew up a lot that night, and come out of it stronger. Quieter maybe, and sadder. And not Nola, nor nobody else, ever asked me nothing about what happened at that torlet block. Dad never come back home neither and I can’t say I missed him. I don’t think mum did much either.
By Richenda Rudman
A winter Hills Hoist
turns thin towels like grey clouds
and shudders the small shape of a baby’s sleepsuit.
The yard is a zoo of broken things
where two men with shirts that clutch, their ties insolent,
stand with another, caught and cuffed,
wearing his flanny like a brand.
This is the last curling portrait of my father,
lying at the bottom of a sponge bag, packed for my mother’s palliation.
This photo is when the sinkhole took us
down a subterranean river
rushing under more towns than a circus.
From this day, I learnt the stars,
the criss-cross of them as we travelled at night;
me, in the backseat, painting a new signature in the air;
my mother driving,
her shoulders raised like fists--
until the new town where she would mime a widow,
clean as her nursing shoes, quiet as a pause,
where I would fuse through catch and kick.
And in the places we lived, the same mise en scène
appeared, like instruments on a surgical tray,
so we wouldn’t bump in the night.
And in the places we lived, eventually,
a geyser would shoot from the subterranean river.
Once, my best and fairest face, facsimile of my father,
shone front page in the country paper--
same day as those never to be released.
Then, with simple maths, the dark confetti of my father fell,
deepening the lines of longitude on my mother’s face
as she marked the calendar with a new departure date.
And this is my life, where there has been no record of him,
until my mother’s sponge bag is packed for palliation.
There is no record of him,
but a vibration beneath my feet, the distant noise of river running.
And this is why, when I ask at the gate if I am on the list,
there is no record of me.
Non-Fiction & The New England Award
The Late Guardian
By Roderick Makim
Excerpts from the journal of Mortimer S. Harrow, Legal Clerk of The Old Bailey, 1791.
The Guardian was ever late. She could never arrive where she was needed, when that need was greatest. A small tragedy, inevitably eclipsed by the more spectacular tragedy of her final chapter.
The Guardian: a 44-gun Roebuck-class warship of the Royal Navy, bristling with the Empire’s martial spirit, ready to reaffirm Britannia’s rule of the waves around those recalcitrant colonies of the Americas…and launched in 1784. One year after those colonies won their independence.
One year too late to make a difference.
She lay in ordinary for years, a useless warship without a war and by the time someone had the notion she could be used to transport convicts to the Empire’s latest colony of New South Wales, she was again too late. Too late for her to join the First Fleet, whose ships were destined for the pages of glorious history. Instead, she joined the ill-fated Second Fleet in 1789. Along the way, she was late leaving Cape Town, taking almost two weeks to resupply for the second leg of the journey. Two weeks, enough time for that strange Southern Ocean to send icy winds from the bottom of the world to batter any vessel brave enough to venture forth. When the iceberg appeared, Lieutenant Riou was late in deciding to veer away, and the ever-late Guardian’s fate was finally sealed.
Her story should have ended there. Stricken by a mountain of ice in the Southern Ocean and sunk to the sea floor. All souls lost.
The reason that was not the end of The Guardian’s tale is the reason I am here on this stinking whaler, tracing the same voyage. I have sailed on The William and Ann for one month exactly and I must admit severe distaste for my surrounds. Yet I bear with me an important document. The Royal Pardon for the convict Hugh Lowe, the man Lieutenant Riou commended to the Crown with the very highest of approbation. The lowly convict. The saviour of 62 souls aboard The Guardian. The ones who abandoned ship are the ones who died. The ones who stayed the course survived.
Riou called The Guardian the most beautiful ship he ever sailed, and perhaps that beauty moved beyond the aesthetic to the moral. A commander true and brave, and sailors the likes of which made our Empire great. Certainly, her holds must have held a better breed of criminal. She must have done, else how do you explain Hugh Lowe?
I doubt there can be any Lowes huddled below in the hold of the William and Ann. This sad hulk, as unlovely a vessel as ever to be graced with the King’s flag. A 370-tonne whaling ship, squat and ugly and well-suited to the ugly task of transportation, groaning with spite and misery. The phantoms of her past haunt the William and Ann – the stink of rotting blubber and burning whale oil seems soaked through the very wood, and no amount of scrubbing can scour it. She holds 188 convicts below deck, 34 sailors and one legal clerk above it, all under the command of Eber Bunker. I confess to an instant dislike for the loud American that the subsequent five weeks at sea have done little to assuage. He seems to delight in questioning my beliefs. I also hold a suspicion as to why he is here in the first place. Why is he in the employ of his new nation’s enemy, transporting convicts to another new colony? It is not so long ago our criminals were being sent to the Americas.
When may a crime be forgiven? How long does atonement last? How great an act must a man perform for his society to deem his sins absolved? It is a line of questioning with which I am uncomfortable. I believe the Rule of Law to be paramount, the very foundation of our civilisation. A man commits a crime, he is found guilty and must pay the penalty imposed by an impartial court. That is a world that makes sense. How can any subsequent act of the criminal overwhelm the justice of the court and supersede the Rule of Law?
On the other hand, who am I to argue with a Royal decree? The crimes of Hugh Lowe, expunged by the King’s Pardon through conspicuous heroism. I wonder how many of the wretches below are praying for disaster to strike the William and Ann, such as struck The Guardian. Hoping to receive the opportunity to perform their own acts of heroism, to win their own freedom. Should such an opportunity arise, I wonder how many would truly grasp it? Is Hugh Lowe uniquely worthy of the pardon I carry to the farthest edge of the Empire, or was he merely fortunate?
Captain Bunker thinks me mad.
“Fortunate?” he cried, when I put my line of questioning to him over supper. “You think anything about The Guardian was fortunate? The iceberg ripped a hole the size of a longboat in that ship and within minutes, 16 feet of water had filled the hold. They were finished. And your man Lowe saved them. Dived into that freezing water and plugged that rent with every bit of floating debris he could find. He should have died down there – do you have any idea how dangerous it is to stay under water in a sinking ship? Cannons and caskets floating around, any one of which could trap him with any heave of the waves? He bought them enough time to tear down one of the sails and wrap it under the hull, but even then, his work was not done. The sail caught on the splintered hull and who was it to swim down again to free it? Your man Lowe. And even after that, what was left for him? 60-odd men on a crippled ship, held together with cloth and caskets, supplies ruined and 400 leagues back to dry land. 400 leagues, slowly sinking into the Southern Ocean, Lowe and the rest of the convicts manning the pumps around the clock. Nine weeks, back to the Cape of Good Hope. Nine weeks on a sinking ship. And after that – straight back onto another convict ship to complete the journey and take up his sentence, splitting rocks in Sydney Cove. If you call that fortunate, you’re even more of the daft Imperial pen-pusher than I took you for!”
A convict died tonight. Beneath our feet, down in the hold. The captain and I took our supper in his cabin to converse over a tote of rum, as has become our custom. I believe neither of us really thinks much of the other, but any conversation after months at sea is better than none. Our supper was set to the sound of low, broken moans. The sounds of a man who knows death is upon him.
“What great crime do you suppose that man committed, to die like that?” Captain Bunker asked. “In the dark, in chains and stinking bilge water, a thousand miles from anyone who ever gave a damn about him! Where is the justice in that? Where is the justice in your precious rule of law now?”
I admit, the question bothered me long after I returned to my bunk for the night. The dying convict moaned along with the ship all through the small hours, seemingly desperate to see one last dawn. Alas, the dawn arrived too late.
Another convict died today. It was troubling, but I believe I have a satisfactory answer to Bunker’s question. It resides in the very document I carry to New South Wales. While the law can be harsh – must be harsh, to safeguard all that is good about this Age of Progress – it is also just. The pardon of Hugh Lowe proves it. It proves that a man, no matter his station, may improve his lot. Even a convict may win his freedom, should he act in a manner which demands it. Hugh Lowe rose above his lot, in a moment of panic and pain and he saved many lives. Now I carry his freedom in my satchel, all the way from London to Sydney Cove. I carry with me nothing less than the proof that our very system makes sense.
Bunker disagrees, of course.
“Just?” he exclaimed. “If it were truly just, your man Lowe would have been pardoned on the very spot. On the very spot!”
I know the captain for an excitable man, but even so his vehemence on this matter took me by surprise.
“Is it not reasonable for matters of law to be considered and ratified in their appropriate place?” I asked. “Lowe has his pardon, under the Royal Seal, ratified by the courts and mentioned in Parliament. No-one may now take it away from him. It may not have arrived immediately, but it arrives secure, with all the weight of the pillars of civilisation behind it. Surely, that is worth it. It will only be a year’s wait, by the time we arrive in Port Jackson. What is one year, compared to that security?”
Bunker stared at me, as if I were some newly discovered species of man.
“You don’t know, do you?” he asked. “You don’t know what life is like for these convicts. You have listened to them dying beneath you, yet you haven’t seen. I tell you, life does not get better for them once they get off these ships. Life under the lash is no life at all. A life of splitting rock, hauling stone and timber to build your own gaol. A life of starvation, disease, thirst and constant pain. A life of dodging strange animals in a strange land, as well as the spears of the native warriors. And ever the fear of the lash – the retribution of petty tyrants in red coats who demand a man look down as they pass. Only a year, say you? A year of that might change a man. A year of that might break him. The Hugh Lowe who saved The Guardian might not exist, by the time you arrive with that pardon.”
I lie awake once more. It cannot be so. Hugh Lowe will not have been broken by the year past. Even if it were so, the pardon I carry will restore him. It must.
Another convict died today. I went below, in the stinking dark and witnessed his passing. I asked him how he came to be here. He said he stole a pig, that he might eat, and now he will feed the sharks. Gallows humour, but later that afternoon the man’s body went over the side and the dark shapes in the water flowed in fast. That night, I did not sleep. The nights are long, and my eyes do not leave my satchel. It is all I have, to guard against the barbs of Captain Bunker and the groaning misery of this godforsaken ship. In that satchel is Hugh Lowe’s salvation, and my guardian. I must stay the course.
Another convict died today.
Another convict died today.
Another man died today.
The nights grow shorter and the days are warm. The sun soothes the William and Ann, as we draw ever closer to Sydney Cove. Even Bunker has brightened.
“Only seven!” he tells me. Seven men have died in the five-month journey, and Bunker calls this a triumph. When I consider that one quarter of the 1006 convicts transported on the Second Fleet did not live to see New South Wales, I cannot help but agree.
Oh! The captain has finally told me why he is here, skippering a British whaler, stuffed full of convicts bound for the colony built to replace his homeland.
“The problem with the old world is that it is all stuck in place,” he told me over a double measure of grog. “The people are all held in place by the inertia of centuries. The Americas were a way out. People could suddenly rise to wealth and land and influence their forefathers could only dream of. And this place, it will be the same. Only there will be even more opportunity, because less people will come. A journey of six months will keep them away. I am only a whaler, Master Harrow, but I tell you this: I will not die a whaler. I will die like one of your Lords in this new land, in a fine house and a grand estate I could not see the end of, even if I stood atop a tower.”
The rum and the fine weather must truly have softened the man’s disposition, for he continued most charitably:
“Even your man Lowe might die a Lord in a place like this. After you give him that pardon, he could rise considerably in the new colony. By all accounts, he has the constitution for it. Once he has his freedom, a man like that could be anything he wants, in a place like this. I might even hire him myself,” he said.
“Are you not concerned that we will find him a broken man?” I asked.
“Ah…” he smiled infuriatingly, “…it has only been one year.”
We have arrived. The clear blue water of Port Jackson and natural beauty of the harbour give way to a deep unease when I see the people of Sydney Cove. The marks of starvation are upon them. Deprivation and desperation. I clutch my satchel as I fly off the William and Ann with nary a word to Captain Bunker. I make much haste to the Governor’s office, stumbling over rough-hewn stone steps, holding salvation in my arms.
Hugh Lowe, saviour of The Guardian in December 1789. Executed in Sydney Cove, July 1791. He stole a sheep, that he might eat. The clerk in the Governor’s office told me the sentence was carried out a month before my arrival.
“The preservation of our stock was an object of so much consequence to the colony, that it became indispensably necessary to protect it by every means in our power. Every means! Had any lenience been extended to this offender on account of his previous good conduct, it might have been the cause of many depredations being made upon the stock, which it was hoped his punishment would prevent...” he trailed off this lengthy, over-officious justification for killing a man, perhaps seeing something in my eyes.
Late. One month. One year. One life.
I wandered off alone into a land that makes no sense, below trees I do not recognise.
Somewhere above, a strange bird sounds a mocking call.
The Dead Thing
By Eva Mustapic
I woke up in the woods.
The sunlight was soft and golden as it fell towards me. The grass was long and swayed in the breeze, and the trees twisted and sighed around me. Insects crawled over my fingers and tickled my palms.
A woman sat in front of me, carding her fingers through the grass and dirt. When she looked up at me, her eyes were clear and deep, but her smile was bright.
I looked down at my body. I was relaxed, leaning back against a tree. I tried to move, and couldn’t.
“You can’t move,” she said. I agreed.
“How did I get here?” I asked.
She watched me closely, her deep eyes looking right into me.
“You came here with people. You were a person too, back then.”
“What happened to them?”
“They left here as people still. You stayed here as a dead thing.”
“A dead thing?”
“Of course, silly. You’re a dead thing now.”
She smiled. “Because you died, silly.”
“No,” I said. “Why did I die? Did they kill me?” I asked. “Was I murdered?”
She tilted her head.
“Does it matter? The way it happened won’t change the fact that it did.”
“I need to know.”
She said nothing.
“What’s my name, then?”
“You don’t have a name. You’re a dead thing.”
“I don’t want to be a dead thing.”
She gave me a sad smile. “You already are. Nothing can change that now. But don’t worry. It isn’t so bad.”
I watched her. “Are you a dead thing too?”
Her smile lost its sadness, turning mischievous. “Not exactly.”
“You look like a person.”
“Do I look like a person, or do people look like me?” she asked, looking at the ground beside her. Reaching down, her slim arm disappeared into the earth, before slowly pulling a brown field mouse back out through the entrance to its burrow. The tiny creature was moving slowly, its glassy eyes blinking sluggishly. It lay in her palm, unbothered by being disturbed. She brought it to her lips and kissed it softly, a look of quiet admiration on her face. The mouse closed its eyes again, and this time, they didn’t open once more. Its hands were still, and its tail hung limp off her hand. I watched as she gently put it back in its den.
She smiled at me again, resting her hands on her knees.
“Around here, yes. Though I haven’t been called that in a long time.”
“Not many people are claimed in the woods here. I mainly take care of the plants and animals.”
“You only take care of the woods? What about the rest?”
“The rest of the world?” she said, laughing. It was a light, happy sound that reminded me of the sunlight shining through the trees. “People have the silliest ideas! The world is too big for me to take care of it on my own! I take care of these woods and everything in them. Others take care of other parts. The world is cared for, but not by one.”
She watched me, eyes crinkled at the corners from her smile. Her eyes were a rich brown, warm like the earth, but deep and old, older than eyes should be. Her skin was dusted with freckles and her nose and cheeks were sun-kissed.
“You’re not what I expected,” I told her.
“What did you expect?” she asked playfully. “For me to be cruel? Cold?”
“Silly.” She shook her head. “Most of us aren’t scary at all really. You shouldn’t be scared of Death.”
“Why? It’s the end.”
She raised an eyebrow, amused. “Have you ended, dead thing?”
I looked at her.
“You can’t have life without Death. Life loses its meaning.”
She ran her fingers through the lush grass. “I maintain the equilibrium. The cycle of life. Death allows new life to come from it.”
“Will I be alive again one day?” I asked.
“You’re a dead thing now, silly. You can’t be alive.”
“So I’ll be here forever?”
“If you want to be.” She curled her fingers as a ladybug crawled across them. “Your body will continue the cycle. The woods won’t waste you, don’t worry. You can stay as long as you like.”
“Most dead things just fade away,” she said softly. “It doesn’t hurt. You just slowly stop being you, and then stop being anything.”
With that, she stood, giving me one last smile over her shoulder as she walked off into the woods, the leaves enveloping her softly but quickly, and leaving me to my thoughts and the animals.
The flies came first. They buzzed and crawled around me, tickling me with their legs. I watched as a fox emerged silently from the trees, padding over with interest. It nosed at my legs and chest, its fur soft and warm. The fox swished its tail at the flies and decided I wasn’t worth the trouble, just as silent leaving as arriving. I was sad to see it go.
I watched the sunset through the trees, red and orange and gold and pink and yellow. The flowers turned away as the sky faded to lilac and soft blue and an impossibly deep navy. The stars came out and covered the sky like a canvas, and the moon shone so brightly I could barely look away.
I grew cold as the night did, and listened to the chirping of the crickets and the rustle of small animals around me. The trees still whispered and sighed.
Death came by, following the same fox I saw before as he stalked through the undergrowth, hunting. She smiled at me, but melted away into the night before I could speak.
The next day, things began to crawl inside me as well. I didn’t mind. It didn’t hurt. I watched the beetles wobble on barbed legs as they climbed over me. I could barely feel them. Just the faint scratch of their legs on my cool skin.
Death came by again, greeting me with a smile.
“This place is beautiful,” I said to her.
She smiled at me, eyes full of sunlight.
“I’d never been to a place like this as a person.”
The sunlight dimmed. Her lips curved down softly. “People don’t understand the cycle the way they need to. You keep pushing your limits with your medicine and technology. Turning back the clock never really works. Life is wonderful, but when it’s time, it’s time. You can’t cheat Death.”
She turned away and left as quietly as she had arrived.
The more time passed, the less I noticed it passing. I watched a rabbit run past, and then a sapling sprout and grow across from me. I realised that one must have taken a second, and one must have taken a week. The realisation might have taken me a month. I couldn’t tell how long it was until I spoke to Death again. The sapling was a small tree.
“Do you think people are bad?” I asked her.
She seemed surprised. She turned away from the small bird she held, which lifted its head, blinked, and managed to flutter away before she could catch it. She shook her head and sat down. “No, of course not. Certainly not all people, but maybe some.”
“Do you think I’m a bad person?” I asked her.
“It’s hard to be a bad person when you’re not a person at all.”
And I wasn’t a person anymore. All that was left of my body was my bones, bleached white from the sun and then blackened by the earth. A mouse had stolen one of my remaining teeth, and I knew it was somewhere close by, tucked away underground.
I considered this. “Back when I was a person, then.”
She tilted her head and looked at me.
“Why does it matter?”
“I don’t know. It feels like it should be important.”
She thought for a moment.
“Why would you think you were a bad person?”
“People left me here for a reason.”
“Why would their reasons have anything to do with you?”
“Maybe I did something.”
“Well you can’t do anything now. I don’t see the use in worrying.”
She didn’t smile. Instead, she slowly tilted her head to the side, and frowned in a way that made me think she hadn’t frowned in a long time.
“Dead Thing…” she said slowly. “Do you think I’m a bad thing?”
“You’re Death,” I said. I thought about what that meant. “I think you’re kind.”
Her frown softened.
“I like you,” I said, and then she smiled, and everything was all right again.
“I like you too, Dead Thing. I think we’ll be friends for a long, long time.”
The weather cooled and the air crisped, and a fox’s panting breath now left steam in the early morning air. The insects picked me clean and left me my bones. I thanked them. Moths rested their wings in my eye sockets, and a spider spun its web inside my hollow ribcage. I wondered why I was left to the woods. I asked the twisting trees, but for all their knowledge, they did not know. They slowly wrapped their bark and roots over me, cradling me in sympathy and calming my mind. The trees whispered, and time stretched, quickened and slowed. I was part of the woods now, and here I would stay, always the same and forever undiscovered. No-one ever came looking, and without answers, the questions slipped away.
The Emerging Authors Award
Monster in the Dark: The Murder of Betty Thomson Shanks
By Alyssa Mackay
In the spring of 1952 a despicable murder left the community of Brisbane shaken and disturbed. The laidback country town was changed forever by what would become one of Queensland’s most baffling mysteries.
‘Two days ago the foulest crime that ever diminished the name of an Australian community was committed here in Brisbane.’ Archbishop James Duhig spoke to a gathering of more than 240 people at St Stephen’s Cathedral. ‘Betty Shanks died in defence of her virtue, and her heroism deserves public recognition by everyone in the community no matter what their creed or nationality.’
On 19 September 1952, Betty Thomson Shanks disembarked a tram at the Days Road terminus in the respectful, working-class suburb of Grange. It was 9:32pm on Friday night. She had spent the day at work in the city, where she was a clerk for the Commonwealth Department of the Interior. Dressed in a red coat to guard against the cool evening, 22-year-old Betty may have spent the journey looking out the window at the familiar streets of the town where she grew up. A young woman who was passionate about her studies, she might have been thinking about the business management class she attended that evening, and was probably keen to get home after a long day.
As Betty began her short walk past the neat and tidy weatherboard cottages lining Thomas Street, she would have seen the lights of her house at the intersection only a few hundred metres away. There was no moon that night and the glow from the street lamp was obscured by several large, leafy bauhinia trees. As Betty passed through the shadows of those trees, she was savagely attacked.
Two screams pierced the quiet night, startling residents who were listening to the radio, reading a book or getting into bed. ‘It was just as though somebody had rushed out and grabbed somebody,’ one witness said. A few of them peered out the window, checking the street for signs of movement. One of those people was Constable Alexander Stewart, who heard the screams not long after he went to bed. But when he looked out his bedroom window, he saw only darkness. He concluded the strange cries must have been kids mucking around in the Wilston State School playground opposite — a common occurrence.
Meanwhile, Betty’s parents, David and Elizabeth Shanks, were wondering why their usually reliable daughter hadn’t called to say she was running late. ‘It was so unlike Betty not to ring, if she had changed her plans, that I knew something was wrong,’ Mrs Shanks said. But they didn’t want to embarrass Betty by raising false alarms. She was an adult. Perhaps she’d gone to the pictures with friends. ‘Midnight came and we waited until after the last tram and still she hadn’t come. We felt she must have some reason and she would have to come by taxi now. So we watched for a taxi and listened.’ When Betty still didn’t return, the anxiety became too much to bear. Mr Shanks called Betty’s lecturer, Edward Milliken, who confirmed that after class he’d dropped Betty at the tram stop on Lutwyche Road — he often drove his students home, or to nearby tram stops. True dread set in. Betty should have been home hours ago. Fearing the worst, Mr Shanks called the police. Mrs Shanks then accompanied two officers as they drove around the suburbs, searching tram stops and parking on Thomas Street to check the school grounds, unaware of the heartbreaking truth — they were only metres away from where Betty had been attacked. Finding nothing, they returned home and continued their excruciating wait, praying Betty would walk through the door with a simple explanation for her absence.
On Saturday morning, Constable Stewart got out of bed early, in preparation to paint his house. He went outside to collect the newspaper when something stopped him in his tracks. ‘I saw the body of the girl, lying just inside the footpath fence,’ he said. She’d been thrown over the low, wooden-railed cyclone wire fence of the yard next door and badly beaten; head injuries so severe a tooth had been dislodged and propelled through the fence onto the footpath. Pamphlets, cigarettes, and make-up were strewn across the grass — the contents of her handbag — and her clothes were blood-stained and in a state of disarray. Constable Stewart immediately contacted the Criminal Investigation Branch.
The gut-wrenching news that Betty had been found dead caused her father to collapse from grief and shock. A large number of investigators rushed to the site, followed by a parade of cars down Thomas Street — locals trying to get a glimpse of the crime scene. No one could fathom how something so shocking and violent could happen in their quiet, peaceful community. Even more unthinkable was that it had happened to a suburban sweetheart from an honest, hard-working family.
Betty had been a few weeks away from her twenty-third birthday. She was a scholar, graduating with an Arts degree from Queensland University and second-class honours in psychology. She was the only female student in her night classes at the Commercial High School. She was passionate about human civil rights and was the Treasurer for the Queensland Civil Liberties League. She loved her family and was a beloved daughter, and a supportive sister to her little brother. She had a particularly fond relationship with her father, a WWI veteran who lost his leg in battle. ‘My husband will be lost without her,’ Mrs Shanks said after Betty’s death. ‘They were particular pals.’ Her aunt described her as a ‘real home girl who did not bother with boys’. She was in no hurry for marriage or children. Betty enjoyed shopping, seeing films and going on holiday with friends. In her spare time, she enjoyed reading and music. ‘She was the type of girl everybody loved,’ said Mrs Shanks.
Two large, bloodied handprints stained the fence of the yard where Betty’s body was found — a mark left by the killer, who’d made his ambush before vanishing into the night. A post-mortem confirmed Betty had died from asphyxia caused by strangulation. Her injuries were consistent with having been kicked about the head: there were traces of boot polish on her face and her jaw was broken. While there was evidence of sexual assault — her undergarments had been removed and her skirt pushed up — she had not been raped. Betty’s wallet was missing, suggesting a robbery, however, she was still in possession of a sapphire ring and a gold wristlet watch which had stopped at 9:53pm. It’s likely the watch received a blow during the attack which caused it to stop — a chilling timestamp of her death.
The police were now faced with a task none of them would ever forget and unanswered questions that would haunt many of them to their own deathbeds. An enormous manhunt was launched as detectives tried to piece together the missing minutes between Betty alighting from the tram and the moment of her murder. ‘Either Miss Shanks was met at the terminus by someone she knew and delayed there, or the person walked with her to the spot where she was murdered, and there spoke to her a while before attacking her,’ Senior-Sergeant Norwin Bauer, who later became Queensland Police Commissioner, said at the inquest. ‘On the other hand, the murderer may have been lurking in the shadows at the murder spot and suddenly attacked Miss Shanks as she walked past.’ Within four days, police had interviewed more than two thousand people. Parolees and patients from the psychiatric hospital were checked, as were known sex offenders in Queensland. Seamen who were found to have been in Brisbane that night were traced overseas and questioned.
Reports of strange men — possible suspects — began circulating. A man in a brown suit loitering around the Days Road terminus that night, waiting for trams but not boarding any of them. ‘I’ve waited for a couple now. I’ll wait for another,’ he said when someone asked him if he needed a lift. A man making animal noises in Montpelier Street. A moon-faced man leaping a fence not far from the murder scene. A man with blood on his face and clothing, who was picked up by a taxi within walking distance from where Betty had been attacked. ‘He gave me the impression he’d been in a fight and wanted to get away from that particular spot as quickly as possible,’ said the taxi driver. None of these men ever came forward, despite numerous appeals through newspapers and radio broadcasts.
‘Everything is being done to catch the maniac,’ said the Reverend Samuel Summers at Betty’s funeral on 23 September 1952. More than 300 people attended the service at the Mt Thompson Crematorium. ‘Betty died in defence of her honour and virtue. She is an example to all young women.’ On the same day, the Brisbane Courier Mail warned women of ‘maniac danger’ telling them to ‘be escorted’. There was a sex maniac on the loose, said the police, who may strike again anywhere day or night. The people of Brisbane listened. They were afraid. If such a thing could happen to kind-hearted, innocent Betty Shanks, then no one was safe. Dusty keys were rediscovered and doors locked. Windows were firmly closed. Local streets were quickly deserted once night fell. Children cowered at the sound of footsteps in the street outside, fearing the monster in the dark had come for them.
The message that women shouldn’t walk alone is one we still hear today, where it seems the shadows of murdered women constantly darken our scrolling news feeds. Betty Shanks was one of the first in what has become a frighteningly long list of names in a culture of violence against women in Australia. Jill Meagher. Eurydice Dixon. Aiia Maasarwe. Brutal attacks on women who were walking alone at night. Something they’d done many times before. Something they should have been safe doing.
Was it really a ‘sex maniac’ who killed Betty, like the police had said? The brown-suited man? The man in the taxi who was covered in blood? Deeply disturbed at hearing of Betty’s murder, another woman felt compelled to write to the Brisbane Courier Mail to raise another possibility — the killer may have been an ordinary man. One evening, years before Betty’s murder, a man she recognised from school but had never spoken to walked her home from the Toowong tram. A seemingly polite and friendly man. Until he wasn’t. ‘It was a shock when his manner suddenly changed and he caught hold of me and held me tightly against him,’ she wrote. ‘He told me savagely to stop struggling... and when we reached our gate was most violent. I am satisfied and I am sure if hundreds of girls and women told of experiences with so-called apparently decent ordinary men, they would say: “Anyone could have committed that crime — not only the known criminals of that type. Circumstances, luck often prevent these common experiences from becoming worse.”’ While this woman was able to escape through her front gate, there was no opportunity for Betty to run; the attack happened so quickly that even her cries for help weren’t enough to save her. Was Betty the victim of a ‘common experience’, the likes of which was suffered by ‘hundreds of girls and women’ that had, due to ‘circumstances’ and ‘luck’ become much, much worse?
The Police Commissioner, Mr John Smith, spoke on 23 September 1952: ‘Justice must be done in this case. We will never give up. This was a brutal and cowardly crime and I can promise the public that the murderer will not escape if we can help it. This killer will be hounded relentlessly.’ But now, almost seventy years later, Betty’s killer still hasn’t been identified. Elizabeth Shanks died in 1962 following a series of strokes. David Shanks died three years later. They never learned what really happened to their daughter. And while theories continue to abound, none have been proven. The Queensland Police still offer a reward of $50,000 for information which leads to the apprehension and conviction of the person or persons responsible for Betty’s murder. And while there’s been a preoccupation, and for some, an obsession, with finding an answer to the question: “Who killed Betty Shanks?” perhaps people should also be asking, why did this happen and how could it have been prevented?
Today the suburb of Grange is a mix of old and new; some of the buildings that were there in 1952 are still standing today, while others have been demolished and replaced with unit blocks. Locals meet at trendy cafes, and renovated Queenslanders with million-dollar views make for prime real estate. As the years pass, many Brisbane residents no longer recognise the name Betty Shanks, but long-standing locals and their families still remember her well, some with their own theory on “whodunit”. While advancements in forensic technology and CCTV have made it easier for police to trace and identify certain perpetrators of sexual violence, it’s always going to be too late for the victims, and for their family and friends: the people who loved them and were cheated of seeing them live out their lives. Betty Shanks, like so many of the many women who came after her, were tragically robbed of their right to walk home safely and for that, there will never be justice.