MY MOTHER WAS a worrier. She speculated endlessly about whether her pie would be considered the best at bake sales or if the ladies at the hairdresser truly liked the way she kept her hair. She worried about whether my manners were good enough to make me stand out among the local children.
But her worry didn’t seem to extend to my safety. I was able to wander our little town of Briggs as I pleased. There wasn’t really anywhere for me to get in trouble. One pub, a local grocer and a park in dire need of an upgrade were about the extent of my choices beyond the tiny school.
The church took centre stage in my hometown: pristine white with stained-glass windows and a lawn of bright green grass, framed against a backdrop of saltbushes, spinifex and ghost gums. I went there under sufferance every Sunday, and after mass I listened to my mother talk with the other ladies wearing enormous hats. The subjects ranged from the most eligible bachelor in town to whether the moon landing would take place this year rather than next, at the turn of a new decade.
‘Just as long as the Yanks beat the Russians,’ old Mrs Halford would say, and agreement always followed.
No amount of begging got me out of attending or of wearing a horrid, scratchy suit.
‘You’re going to be the talk of the town in a few years, my Wallace,’ my mother said when I walked out in that awful thing.
I highly doubted it. The few kids who went to the town’s small school teased me for my crooked nose – apparently I’d inherited it from my father, though I didn’t recall him having that feature.
‘Such a brave man,’ Mother said at every Sunday service, and the women hummed like they always did whenever she talked about Father in the Vietnam War. It seemed some of them were too polite to disagree because I’d also heard their whispers about the war being pointless. ‘Fought and died for his country. It’s thanks to men like him that my baby boy is still safe.’
I stayed quiet. I’d happily have traded that safety to have my father still with me – but with the help of his old cane, Mother had taught me to keep my opinions to myself.
Sundays made my freedom on Saturdays all the sweeter. I disappeared into the bush whenever I could, ignoring the sun as it turned my white skin red.
It was on one of those Saturdays when I came across a bend in the Carlton River. I’d been following it deeper into the bush, making tracks where there were none.
A willow was half torn up from the ground, its naked roots exposed to the dry air. Its sweeping branches brushed the water’s surface like a thoughtful fingertip.
Balanced on a solid branch was a girl. She looked at least my age, or maybe a year younger, around nine. She held a homemade fishing line and was reeling in a sizeable cod.
Her skin, unlike mine, was dark enough not to burn, but light enough to plainly show the bruises on her arms. They didn’t seem to bother her: she hit the fish hard against the wood, the wet slap louder than the cicadas. One swoop, and it stopped its writhing.
She climbed back to the bank, where I noticed a pile of wood inside a stone firebreak. Within minutes, she had it crackling, the red and yellow of the flames bright against the dirt and dry grass.
Slipping a knife from her pocket, she gutted the fish with ease. I felt a bit ill at the sight of the flesh and bone being ripped from its stomach; drops of blood slithered down the girl’s forearms.
She skewered it and held it over the fire, turning it over and over.
As I watched in fascination from the shade of ghost gum, I took an unwitting step forward.
It was then that she saw me, her brown eyes suddenly terrified. She scurried backwards, saying words under her breath that would’ve had Mother whipping my hide if she heard me say them.
‘Sorry, sorry!’ I jumped back as well, shocked at the reaction I’d produced. I was never a solid boy, a bag of bones really, which made my crooked nose stand out even more. Combined with my reddened skin, I thought I looked more funny than fearsome. ‘I didn’t mean to, you know, I just…’ I trailed off, not knowing what to say. I was just curious. And lonely.
She stopped a good distance from me. Her eyes were striking, more black than brown. Her dark-blonde hair contrasted with them, and her nose – well, it was perfect.
Then something seemed to click and she cocked her head. ‘You’re Wallace. The boy they pick on.’
I hoped my growing sunburn hid my blush. ‘Yes,’ I whispered. Had I made a mistake by stopping, by hoping to make the acquaintance of someone who might have a kind word for me?
A smile lit up her face. Unlike the other kids’ teasing smirks, this was a genuine smile, as warm as the fire.
She took a step towards her fireplace. ‘You like fish?’
I nodded enthusiastically.
‘Don’t mind usin’ your hands?’
I’d never done it before but said, ‘Not at all.’ Another child wanted me to stay. She wasn’t chasing me off with mean words, painful sticks and hard stones.
She nodded to the branch she’d been fishing from. ‘Take a seat while I finish cookin’ it.’
I wasn’t as sure on my feet as she was, but nothing would deter me. I made my way out to the perch without falling in.
She followed, holding the fish, now browned to perfection. ‘Here you go.’
For someone else, it might have been nothing. To me, it was like being offered a best friend.
We munched in easy silence before I held out my hand to her.
‘Introducing myself properly. My mother says that’s the polite thing to do.’
She raised an eyebrow as she took my hand. Her fingers were calloused, but her touch was exceedingly gentle. Yet I knew she had to be strong: I’d seen how easily she killed the fish.
‘My name’s Wallace Lewis Carver. Judith’s my mother.’
‘Maxine,’ she said.
‘What’s your middle name?’
‘What about your surname?’
She scratched her chin; she seemed to have to think about this. ‘Benson?’
The name took a moment to lodge in my brain. ‘Cain Benson’s the new priest, isn’t he? But you can’t be his daughter?’
She looked at her hands. They were swollen and a couple of her fingers bent at awkward angles.
‘More his…charge,’ she said, as though placing a secret in my hands.
I didn’t understand what she meant. Later, sometimes, I selfishly wished I never had.
But I could see she was sad, so I said, ‘Well, I’m glad he came.’ I licked my lips; an exaggeration. ‘Otherwise, I’d never have tasted such good fish.’
She giggled. ‘I’m glad too, Wallace Lewis Carver. I’m glad too.’
‘Just Wallace is fine.’
‘I like Wally better.’
I laughed. ‘Well, I like Maxi better. They can be our codenames.’
‘Yeah. If we’re the only ones who call each other that, we can identify each other wherever we are.’
I’d read every book about friendships that I could. Special friendships always started out with nicknames meant for only those two friends. I was determined that this was going to be one of those.
She cocked her head again. ‘I think I’d recognise you anywhere.’
Those words weren’t said nastily, the way they usually were. Instead, for the first time, I felt that the way I looked – my constantly peeling skin, my crooked nose – wasn’t something I needed to hide.
THE NEXT DAY, I saw her at church. She sat in the front row, hair in a bow, wearing shiny black shoes and white socks. A long-sleeved dress hid the bruises that I knew decorated her arms.
Father Benson read the story from the Bible about Abraham preparing to sacrifice his only son, Isaac.
‘We can’t always understand what God asks of us,’ he said. His booming voice made my ears hurt. ‘All we need to understand is that we must listen, without question. Our love is for Him, first and foremost. Everything will fall into place after we accept this truth.’
Forgetting where I was, I nudged Mother.
‘That’s Maxine in the front,’ I whispered, undeterred. ‘She’s my friend.’
That caught her attention. She blinked at me, bewildered, before looking over to where I pointed. ‘O-oh. Darling. How…how nice. Where did you meet her?’
‘When I went exploring yesterday. She’s Father Benson’s charge.’
‘Oh.’ Mother nodded. ‘Well, what a generous, holy man, taking a girl like that into his care.’
I didn’t know what she was talking about, but was pleased that she seemed to approve of my new friend.
When Father Benson exited, Maxine was right behind him, her eyes down.
I whispered: ‘Maxi!’
Her head shot up; she stared at me. For a moment, I was terrified that she wouldn’t want to speak to me in front of other people, that she only wanted to be my friend when no one else could see.
But her face lit up. ‘Wally. It’s so lovely to see you again.’ She smiled and gave a tiny wave.
‘Why,’ Mother said, ‘she speaks so beautifully.’
Maxi and I were inseparable after that, as much as we could be. She understood people’s comments better than I did, but she never wanted to explain them to me.
‘Let’s just play,’ she would say.
She was rarely at school. The names she was called when she did come were more cruel than anything anyone called me.
‘The white can’t take out the nigger in you,’ I heard Tommy Wales tell her. ‘Halfie means you’ll never be fully good.’
‘You’ll never be any good,’ I told him.
‘Want me to make your nose more crooked, Carver?’
Maxine stood straight up, moving herself between me and Tommy.
‘Just you try it,’ she spat, rising up to her full height. She was much taller than me.
Tommy snorted and swore, but he wasn’t game to push things any further.
ON SATURDAYS, INSTEAD of going into the bush, we spent my pocket money at the corner store.
‘Come in with me this time,’ I begged her one morning.
‘Mr Stanner won’t let me in, Wally, you know that.’
‘Why? You’ve never done anything wrong. I bet he doesn’t even know you.’
‘That never matters. Just get the lollies. Milk bottles for me.’
‘Fine.’ But I was sad I couldn’t show off my best friend.
The local policemen, Sergeant Miles and Constable Hanson, entered the small shop not long after me. I always found Sergeant Miles’ height intimidating, so I made my purchases and scurried out as fast as possible.
Outside, Maxi was kneeling on the pavement, stroking the soft fur of a German shepherd. The dog’s eyes were closed with pure happiness and he was leaning against her; he could just about have knocked her over with his enormous size.
‘You’re a honey, you are,’ she murmured.
‘Where’d he come from?’
‘He’s mine.’ The shop door creaked and out stepped Constable Hanson. His cropped hair was receding and his teeth looked too big for his face. I’d always liked him.
Maxine backed off straight away, her head dipped to the ground. She always did this around adults. ‘Sorry, sir.’
‘Don’t be sorry, little missy.’ Constable Hanson knelt down to her height and pulled some sausage meat from the brown paper bag he held. ‘Would you like to feed him? He’ll be your best friend for life – he’s got no loyalty to me!’
I giggled, but when I turned to Maxi, she looked terrified. She didn’t seem to want to step any closer to Constable Hanson.
‘I’ll hand it to her,’ I volunteered, taking the meat from his hand.
Maxi’s smile was so dazzling, it gave me a feeling in my chest I’d never known before.
‘Thank you, Wally,’ she whispered. She glanced again at Constable Hanson for permission to go back to his dog.
He nodded and grinned, but his glance lingered on her arms. I saw that her bruises were more pronounced that day, some turning into angry welts. ‘You’re more than welcome, little missy. He seems to like ya.’
‘Like’ wasn’t even close. The dog’s tail started to wag as Maxi approached, his soulful brown eyes all adoration as she fed him the sausage piece by piece, patting and talking to him.
‘What’s his name?’ I asked.
‘Donovan,’ Hanson said proudly. ‘Named after my granddad.’
‘Donovan,’ Maxine murmured, wrapping her arms around the dog’s neck and burying her face in his sun-warmed fur. She looked as content as I’d ever seen her.
BUT THE NEXT Saturday, Maxi didn’t meet me at our usual spot by the old park. I used the wobbly metal slide as a lookout, climbing to the top and gazing up and down the street. Maxi was nowhere to be seen.
Summoning all the bravery I could in my lanky body, I ran down the slide and on to the cottage behind the church where Father Benson lived.
Father Benson had intimidated me from the moment I’d met him in church, the first weekend I’d met Maxi. Mother had made sure to introduce me.
‘Wallace.’ Father Benson’s voice had been no quieter than when he delivered his sermon, even as he leaned down to my diminutive height. ‘You are acquainted with Maxine, yes?’
My words had caught in my throat as Mother’s hand had gripped my shoulder tighter, her fingernails digging through my scratchy suit.
‘Yes, sir,’ I managed. I didn’t know what to say except, ‘She’s my best friend.’
How he and Mother had laughed: the priest as if I’d made a grown-up joke, and my mother more nervously, like when she worried I was about to embarrass her.
‘You might even believe that for a couple of years,’ he said, and Mother laughed harder, more desperately.
Still, I refused to let this one and only interaction keep me away from my best friend today. I ran all the way and knocked on the cottage’s splintery door.
It took a while before I heard the heavy tread of Father Benson’s boots and the door opened at last.
There he stood, wearing his starched white collar and a stained white stole. ‘Wallace,’ he said, and his voice sounded quieter without the echo of the church.
‘Yes, sir,’ I said, bowing my head. The gesture felt more like something to do with kings and queens, but I didn’t know what else to do. ‘Can Maxine come out and play?’
There was a pause, and he leaned heavily on the doorframe, his thick throat moving under his stiff collar as he swallowed. ‘Maxine is out today, I’m afraid,’ he said at last.
‘She’s not with me, though.’ It took some courage to point this out. But Maxi would never leave me behind.
‘No,’ he said. ‘She’s not.’
I felt a blush rise in my cheeks and cast my eyes down. ‘You might want to clean your boots before church tomorrow, sir,’ I said before I could stop myself. If Mother had heard me be so forward, I would not be able to sit comfortably for a good week.
But rather than being angry at my bluntness, Father Benson seemed worried, brows too low on his forehead. ‘Yes, yes. Good point, Wallace.’
And then he closed the door.
When Maxi wasn’t in church the next day, I tugged on Mother’s sleeve. ‘I’m worried. Maybe Maxine has run away? Or gotten hurt somewhere?’
Mother looked uncomfortable: in fact, she looked the same way I knew I looked when our teacher asked a maths question I didn’t know the answer to. ‘She’s probably gone walkabout, Wallace.’
She sighed through her nose. ‘Really, Wallace, why must you always take things so far? Maxine is part of a people who aren’t like us. That’s all there is to it.’
I had no idea what she meant, but I understood her tone. More questions would see me kept indoors for the rest of the day. So I stayed silent.
When the service finished, my mother made her way towards her group of friends; Father Benson was already there.
‘Mother.’ I followed and tugged her sleeve again.
Her lips pursed. ‘Now what, Wallace?’
‘Is it all right if I stay behind and help tidy up?’
Her expression transformed. ‘Why, of course! My, you do impress me, my darling.’
I pushed aside my guilt for lying as I ran inside, pausing briefly at the little altar with its three statues of Jesus. My favourite one showed him cuddling a lamb, his face peaceful and serene. I refused to look at the statue of him hanging from the cross, painted beads of blood flowing from beneath his crown of thorns.
I crossed myself and prayed for forgiveness for lying. ‘Please don’t let this change how you treat my dad upstairs,’ I begged.
I crept through the door to the side of the altar, through Father Benson’s sacristy and out towards his cottage, glancing from side to side to check the coast was clear. When I reached the weatherboard house, I climbed on top of an old wooden crate to peek into one of the windows.
The tiny room was bare, save for a small set of drawers. A tangle of sheets and one pillow were tucked in the corner.
And there, curled up on the raw wooden floors, was Maxine. She was dressed in something rough and vast that looked like a sack. And I couldn’t see her face.
Hands shaking, forcing down a steadying breath, I tapped on the glass.
Her head popped up: one eye was swollen closed, but the other opened wide with surprise, and her split lips formed the smile I’d seen the first day I’d met her. She mouthed my name. Wally.
Before I could think, I had the window open and was climbing in beside her, pulling her into a hug. She felt small.
‘Who did this to you?’ I growled. ‘Was it Tommy? If it’s Tommy, I’ll kick his hide into next week.’
‘No,’ she whispered. ‘It wasn’t Tommy.’
As I pulled back to look at her, I saw the print of a boot on her bag-dress and understood everything that had been right in front of me for the past few months.
‘We’ve got to tell Constable Hanson.’ I pulled off my scratchy jacket to wrap it around her. I knew her shivering wasn’t from the cold, but I had to do something.
‘It won’t matter,’ she said, her voice so quiet it terrified me.
‘Yes, it will, because you matter.’ I didn’t know how else to argue it.
‘Then I’ll make it matter,’ I said fiercely, and slipped my arm underneath hers. ‘Can you stand?’
She gave a cry of pain, but managed to get up, and I wished I was stronger. I was all she had.
‘You can’t climb out the window?’
She moved her ankle and hissed; it hung limp like a lame paw. ‘I don’t think so.’
I took a deep breath. ‘Then the door it is.’
‘No!’ she grabbed my arm. ‘I’ll manage with the window.’ It was as if she’d pulled a blind across the lines of pain in her face.
I boosted her up awkwardly and she spilled over the sill, flopping onto the crate outside with a slap like that poor caught fish.
‘I’ll talk to Constable Hanson,’ I told her. ‘I’ll tell him everything and he’ll believe me – they all will.’
But Maxi shook her head so hard that her curls whipped her bruised face. ‘They won’t, Wally. They won’t.’
‘Then my mother will,’ I decided.
She looked too tired to argue anymore. ‘Okay,’ she whispered.
I made sure she was safe in the saltbushes before I marched out to Mother’s ring of friends, puffing out my stupid little chest.
I REMEMBER MY mother’s horror. Her anger. Her embarrassment as I stood in front of most of the members of the local parish and demanded to know why Father Benson would hurt Maxine.
I remember the way Father Benson crouched in front of me. I remember the way he watched me, carefully; the way his mouth smiled while his eyes stayed icy; the way he ruffled my hair.
I had never felt more ill in all my life.
Without breaking eye contact, he said, ‘You’ve got a wild imagination, Wallace Carver. I suggest you would do well to pull it back and respect men of God.’ I saw his hands tighten by his sides and form enormous fists as he straightened himself up to his full height. ‘We are your guides to heaven, after all.’
Most of all, I remember the way Mother grabbed my arm and shook me hard, unable to bear the horrified expressions of all the women who stood nearby. ‘He will remember his manners after this, Father. I can’t apologise enough.’
‘Why are you more upset by what I said then by what he does?’
My words only made my mother shake me harder.
But Father Benson simply laughed and said, ‘Oh, don’t go too hard on him, Mrs Carver.’ He winked at me. ‘We’ve all lied once or twice in our lives, haven’t we?’
Suddenly, Maxine was by my mother’s side, tugging at her sleeve like I did. My heart sank at seeing her out in the open, so close to Father Benson’s hands.
‘Let him go, please let him go!’ she begged. She was close to tears. ‘I tricked him. It’s not his fault. Please, just let him go!’
Mother’s face twisted into something I could only describe as disgust.
Father Benson chuckled again. ‘Looks like we have two wayward charges on our hands,’ he said loudly, as if for the benefit of an audience. ‘What say we deal with these two separately, Mrs Carver? After all, what is love without some firm discipline?’
Mother looked so relieved to have been given this permission. ‘I couldn’t agree more, Father. I will see to it, I promise.’
‘No!’ I cried, wishing for more strength to push against my mother.
She cuffed me on the ear and hissed, ‘Enough, Wallace! You’ve caused enough of a scene today to last a lifetime! Accusing a man of God of such things, of all people! We’ll be lucky not to be run out of town.’
My vision cleared as I saw Father Benson calmly lay a hand on Maxine’s arm.
Father Benson began to walk towards the cottage with Maxine in tow. The worst thing was that Maxine didn’t fight. She walked alongside him, her eyes on the ground.
But then she glanced back and gave me a tiny wave.
Two best friends wishing to stay together in a world determined to keep us apart.