At the hotel, I spotted a text message on my phone from Ricky.
Hope trip’s cool, bruv – and you’re doing OK. Saw Olivia touching new intern’s arse. He’s taking her to a tribunal for sexual harassment.
I smiled at the thought of Olivia getting her comeuppance, and wanted desperately to tell Ricky how hard things were at that moment. But I knew under my friend’s façade lurked a sensitive soul. He’d only feel helpless being so far away.
Trip’s OK. Wish you were here.
I received a quick response, as though he was sitting over in the UK, phone in hand, waiting for me to reply.
Me too! Saw Esme. She didn’t even speak. Miss her. Miss you keeping me sane.
I thought about Esme. Perhaps I should have done more to make her realise Ricky was one of the good guys. I didn’t like her, and because of that I’d decided she was wrong for my best mate. I’d sabotaged their relationship, happy when she ran out of his life.
I bashed down my guilt, telling myself she wouldn’t have listened to me even if I’d tried to explain. But what if she had? What if she loved him? I texted him again.
Send me Esme’s number. I’ll contact her.
Sod off, Isaac. If I can’t have her, you can’t.
The thought of having Esme made me gag. I was about to reply, when Cillian coughed to get my attention.
‘I’m all set up, mate,’ he said, sitting in front of a neatly laid out Cluedo board on the table by the window.
‘Right,’ I said, putting down my phone. I would sort Ricky out later.
I sat down opposite Cillian.
‘Before you say anything,’ he said, picking up the red counter. ‘I want to be Miss Scarlet.’
‘Whatever floats your boat,’ I said with a smile, picking up Reverend Green, and putting the counter on my start point on the board, and noting Mrs White. ‘Blimey, she’s been killed off in later versions of the game,’ I said. ‘Replaced by Dr. Orchid.’
We argued for five minutes about the rules, before playing for half an hour. Eventually Cillian said, ‘I think Mrs White and Professor Plum took Mr Black into the kitchen and stabbed him with the dagger. They then dragged him into the study, where Mrs White bonked him on the head with the candlestick, and Professor Plum broke both his legs with the lead piping.’
‘You’ve never played this before, have you?’ I said.
He leaned back in his chair and folded his hands behind his head. ‘I have indeed, many, many times.’
‘You have not.’
‘OK, no, you’re right. I’ve never played it before. Always wanted to as a kid, but Mum preferred Monopoly. She thought it was more educational, and would help me with my maths. She was always raving on about how useful numbers were. How I’d get a good job, like her, if I knew my maths.’
I smiled, and handed him the rules. ‘Read them properly.’
He shook his head. ‘I don’t need to.’
‘Read them, Cillian, or I’m not playing.’ I folded my hands behind my head, mirroring his defiance, and leaned back in my chair.
Five minutes of reading, and what followed was a pretty decent game of Cluedo. I’d forgotten how much I’d enjoyed it as a kid, when Dad invented comical stories about the characters to make us laugh.
‘What did I tell you?’ Cillian said later, as he cleared away the game. ‘There’s nothing like a game of Cluedo to put the colour back in your cheeks.’ He smiled. ‘I’ll take it back to reception.’
He left the room, the game under his arm, and as the door closed, sadness enveloped me like a blanket of fog. My chest tightened, and tears stung my eyes. How dare I enjoy myself when I have no idea where Mum is? How dare I feel upbeat when my dad’s dead?
I took the picture Derek Blake had given me from my pocket, knowing I needed to go into the photograph, even if it meant witnessing my father’s death. I needed to see what had happened that day. It might lead me to my mum.
I studied the photo more closely. My parents weren’t smiling the way they were in the picture I’d taken from Aaron’s wall. Mum looked tired.
‘I’m going in,’ I said to Cillian, when he returned, waving the picture under his nose.
‘Are you sure?’
‘It’ll be traumatic,’ he said. ‘I’m not sure it’s a good idea.’
‘But it might hold clues to where my mum is.’
He fixed me with a searching stare. ‘You’re absolutely sure?’
I matched his gaze. ‘Never been more certain of anything in my life.’
He thought for a moment, before taking out the potion. ‘You’ll have to go in as Aaron,’ he said. ‘You obviously can’t go in as your parents.’
‘OK.’ The thought was daunting, but my need to know more powerful.
I sat on the edge of the bed and Cillian handed me the potion. He placed his hand on my shoulder, as I took a hesitant gulp of the liquid.
My ears attune to the environment. Through Aaron’s eyes I see snakes slithering out of view as he walks, and bushes rustle with wildlife. It’s hot, and the area has a rainforest atmosphere.
‘Keep up,’ Aaron calls, peering over his shoulder at Derek and Sue Blake. Derek’s putting away his mobile phone, and the two crumple to the ground, next to golden wattles.
‘Go on without us,’ Derek calls, his skin glistening with sweat. ‘We’ve got blisters the size of balls on our heels.’
Aaron doesn’t argue. ‘OK. We’ll meet you on our way back,’ he says. ‘Not far now to the canyon.’
My parents are a few yards ahead, their backs to Aaron. They’re both wearing khaki shorts, T-shirts, and hiking boots. Dad’s wearing one of his baseball caps, and mum is sporting a blue wicker hat.
‘Mum, Dad, it’s me,’ I cry, heart racing. They’re so close I can almost touch them.
Aaron overtakes, and climbs over a padlocked gate.
‘I’m not sure we should go that way.’ Mum points to a danger sign. ‘We’re already too far off the normal route. I wasn’t happy when we climbed those fences.’
Aaron glances back, and I see Dad taking a swig from a hip flask, his camera round his neck.
‘Patrick, you don’t need that,’ Mum says, her attention diverted. ‘It’s dangerous up here. You need your wits about you.’
‘Listen guys.’ Aaron leans on the gate, looking far too sure of himself. ‘If you want to see the best parts of the mountains, you have to take shortcuts. By which I mean, risks. You have to ignore the fences and signs – Aus is far too much of a nanny state with all its regs and rules.’
‘But have you been this way before?’ Mum asks, moving closer so she’s right beside Aaron - right beside me. I’m here, Mum. It’s me. ‘Do you know it’s safe?’ she goes on.
‘Of course,’ he says, not meeting her eyes.
‘But you haven’t even got a compass or GPS,’ Mum goes on, looking about her. ‘You said when we booked that you would have. I’d have brought one, had I known. What if we get lost?’
‘I don’t mean to be funny, lady. But who’s the tour guide here?’ Aaron says. ‘You or me?’
‘Don’t worry, Kate,’ Dad says, placing a steadying hand on her arm. ‘I’m sure Aaron knows what he’s doing.’
But he doesn’t, Dad. You’ve got to turn back. Now!
‘I’m not so sure.’ Mum turns to him, her face full of concern. ‘I don’t mind trying different things, you know that. But this doesn’t feel right, Patrick.’ She looks back at Aaron. ‘You just don’t seem prepared.’
‘To be honest, mate,’ Dad says, ‘my wife has a point. Maybe we should turn back.’
Mum lowers herself onto a moss-covered log in the shade, and takes a long drink from her water bottle. She pulls sun-cream from her bag, and slathers it onto the back of her neck.
‘The canyon isn’t far,’ Aaron says brushing his hair back from his forehead, and I feel his impatience to get going. ‘Can you hear the waterfall?’ he says, and my ears tune in to the sound of cascading water. ‘I thought you guys wanted to get the full Blue Mountain experience – well it’s not far now.’
I know Dad can hear it too. He looks at Mum, his eyes brightening. ‘I’ll just go a bit further, Kate,’ he says. ‘Take some photos. You stay here.’
‘Patrick, please don’t.’ Her eyes are dark with worry. ‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this.’
Listen to her, Dad.
He crouches in front of her, and takes her hands in his. He kisses each hand in turn, and then her lips. ‘It’s the chance of a lifetime, Kate,’ he says, a plea in his voice.
‘It always is, Patrick.’ She sounds sad, and I wish I could speak to her – hold her.
‘It’ll be the last time, I promise.’
The irony in his words cut through me.
Mum looks away and nods, then dashes her arm across her forehead. ‘Just be safe,’ she says.
He smiles before rising and heaving himself over the gate, and I desperately want him to look back at Mum. I will him to at least wave, but he and Aaron continue walking without looking back.
‘Breath-taking,’ Dad says, as they reach the canyon.
Aaron leads the way onto a high narrow ledge. Behind them is yellow-orange sandstone, in front a cascading waterfall, and panoramic views, below a deep, narrow chasm.
They edge along the ledge for a while, before Dad steadies himself, and begins snapping photographs.
‘Worth it, yeah?’ Aaron says with far too much pride. But before Dad can answer, the ledge begins to crumble beneath their feet.
I feel the panicked thud of Aaron’s heart, and the blood surging through his veins as he gets a foothold, and holds his hand out to help Dad. His eyes scan the area, searching for a way off the ledge and back to safety. He knows things have got out of hand, and he’s scared.
‘This is reckless.’ Dad’s voice is shaking as he twists on the narrow ledge. ‘We shouldn’t have come up here.’
‘You chose to come,’ Aaron yells.
‘Thought what?’ Aaron spits. ‘That it was fine to ignore danger signs and climb fences put there to keep us safe?’
‘I thought you knew what you were doing,’ Dad yells, the spray of the waterfall coats his tanned face. ‘I trusted you.’
The next few minutes are like a nightmare I can’t wake up from. My dad slips and loses his balance.
‘No!’ Aaron screams like an echo.
He reaches for Dad’s hand, but it’s too late. I watch through the blur of Aaron’s tears as my father falls to his death, the sound of his cries swallowed up by the thrashing waterfall.
I know the contorted fear on my dad’s face will live with me forever.
I was back in the hotel room, lying on the bed, tears streaming my cheeks. The conflict was agonising. Part of me wanted to go back – see it all again – so I could attempt to reach out my hand – save him – but the other part knew I never could.
‘I wish I’d never gone into Phototime,’ I said to Cillian. ‘I wish I’d never seen my dad die.’
‘I’m so sorry, son,’ Cillian said, searching my face as though pleading with me to tell him what to say to put things right.
But there were no words.
I turned on my side, and cried quietly until my eyes were swollen, and I finally fell asleep.
That night I dreamt in black and white – the picture blurred and fussy – out of focus – finally waking at 4 a.m.
There was a text message from Ricky on my mobile. He’d given me Esme’s mobile number.
Remember she hates you, Isaac. As do I.
I replied, annoyed by how stupid he was being, but tried to remember he had no idea what I was going through. He wouldn’t dream of being such an idiot, had he known.
Half glad of the distraction, I replied right away.
Just thought I’d contact her to explain weeding-gate.
Oh, I see. Cheers, bruv. Not sure she’ll listen to you. See previous text - she hates you. I love you.
I began texting Esme.
Esme. This is Isaac. Ricky wasn’t doing weed in the garden. He was weeding the garden. In fact he was pulling up dandelions to impress you. Forgive him. I think he’s still in love with you.
It felt good to be making him happy; a tiny ray of sunshine in the
darkest of skies.
I put down my phone, noticing Cillian wasn’t in his bed. I became aware of water running in the shower. He clearly couldn’t sleep either, and I wondered, for the first time in a while, if he would ever come to terms with losing his brother - if anyone ever really gets over losing someone they love.
The thrashing water behind the door became unsettling, making me feel cold and desperate as I thought of Dad – and I was glad when the water stopped. Moments later, Cillian appeared wearing a white bathrobe, a towel around his head in a turban.
‘You all right, son?’ he said, with a reassuring smile.
‘Does it get any easier, Cillian?’ I said, through a lump in my throat.
‘It will in time,’ he said. But for the second time, I heard the uncertainty in his voice.
Later that morning, Cillian piled his breakfast plate higher than the Eifel Tower, and ate in silence, whilst I nibbled on a slice of watermelon. I couldn’t bring myself to talk about what I’d seen in Phototime. It was far too painful, and I was relieved Cillian seemed to sense that, and didn’t push me to talk.
After breakfast, we drove to Aaron’s bungalow. I wanted to confront him, tell him what I knew.
Once there, we headed up the path, and I pounded the door with my fist. ‘Aaron!’ I yelled. ‘Aaron, I need to talk to you.’
Cillian put his hand on my shoulder. ‘He doesn’t seem to be here, Isaac,’ he said.
I continued to bang until my knuckles hurt.
‘Isaac – son,’ Cillian said, taking hold of my clenched fist. ‘Maybe we should go to the cops.’
‘And say what? That I’ve been into a photo and know what happened to my dad.’
‘Fair point,’ he said. ‘But we could get someone to come and check out these tours. Put an end to them.’
I was about to say it was far too late for that, when the door opened.
‘What’s all the noise about?’ It was Lisa, slim and small in skinny jeans, a cropped top, and a cap over her plaited hair.
‘Can we come in?’ I said.
‘What for? She sounded defensive. ‘We told you all we know.’
Surprising myself, I pushed past her and made my way to the lounge, Cillian on my heels.
Lisa dashed in behind us. ‘You have no right to barge in like this,’ she said. ‘This is our home. I’ll call the police.’
‘Not if I call them first,’ I said. ‘Your brother’s responsible for the death of my father. He could be done for manslaughter, Lisa. I want to know the truth. Where’s my mum?’
She took a deep breath, and sat down. ‘I have no idea,’ she said, picking at her fingers, refusing to meet my eye.
‘Your brother led my dad somewhere he shouldn’t have gone to. It’s his fault he’s dead!’ I was aware I was yelling. ‘He shouldn’t even be in business.’
‘Now wait a minute,’ she said, rising, her eyes narrowing to slits. ‘Your dad has – had – a tongue in his head. He chose to take that tour, and you can’t prove otherwise.’
My heart sank. Was she right?
‘Now get out,’ she yelled.
‘We’re wasting our time here, Isaac,’ Cillian said, and I knew he was right. The brother and sister were guilty as hell, but it was clear Lisa didn’t know where my mum was.
Outside in the car, Cillian rang the police, and I listened as he told them how The Prowess of the Blues were running tours without proper safety regulations, taking tourists to restricted areas.
‘Will they do anything?’ I said, as he hung up.
He shrugged. ‘They said they would pass on the information to The Blue Mountain Police, who take things like this very seriously.’
We sat in the car for some time in silence, my adrenalin racing too fast to drive. I looked at Cillian, who was facing forward, so still.
‘Do you think she could be at the canyon, Cillian?’ I said. ‘Up there in the mountains.’
‘Do you want to go look? We can go together.’
I shook my head. ‘The Blue Mountains are vast. Where would we begin searching?’ My voice broke. ‘I refuse to believe she’s up there,’ I said. ‘Because If she’s been there all this time, without contact…’ My voice trailed off. It didn’t bear thinking about.
‘Keep positive, son,’ he said. ‘Can you think of anywhere else she might be?’ He screwed up his face, as though searching his thoughts. ‘Think, Isaac. Where would your mum go?’
‘They travelled the world.’ I shook my head. ‘How can I possibly know which places were more important to them – to her? I wouldn’t know where to begin.’
We continued to sit in silence, and I could almost hear Cillian’s mind whirring. Mine had drawn a blank.
‘Adaminaby?’ he said, suddenly. ‘You said she was at her happiest there.’
‘Happy valley.’ Hope surged through me. Could she be there?
Cillian’s eyes brightened. ‘I reckon we could be there before nightfall, if you put your foot down.’
‘Sounds like a plan,’ I said, indicating to pull away. I wasn’t sure he was right, but at least we’d be doing something. ‘Let’s grab our stuff from the hotel, and get going.’