At the Kill Your Darlings First Book Club event in July, Jock Serong will discuss the inspiration behind his debut novel, Quota, a mystery novel set in a remote coastal town. Read an excerpt below from this atmospheric and intriguing book. 

The reefs were called Gawleys Kitchen, though Barry had never met anyone who could tell him why. When the swell rolled silently up from the southwest, the surfers would head out there. Some of them paddled the whole stretch from the foot of Antonias cliffs. Mostly they used tinnies or jetskis. On flat days the reef and its creatures belonged to the divers. Hefty crays and glassy-eyed trumpeter, shot through the gill rakers.

To the north and east of Gawleys, to Barry’s left, the bay opened up again. A wide, docile bowl stretched out towards the cape, thirty or more k’s away. As it curved away from town the land came round parallel to the prevailing swell and the waves turned to long, straight lines sweeping right to left below Barry’s cliff-top perch. They ended their run at the eastern end of the bay, finally unburdening the last of the Southern Ocean’s mythic fury on the sand. No one went there. Hardly anyone would walk a dog that far. The trail riders wouldn’t take their horses down there; the swell dumped deep piles of kelp that clogged the beach. Dirt bikers and the odd fox shooter, that was about it. Barry had been there. But then he had a natural curiosity about things.

‘Okay then Darlene.’ Lou had someone new on the line. ‘Which poison is said to have killed Socrates?’

Bugger. Hemlock? Or nightshade? The callers were going down like they’d been strafed. Arsenic, strychnine, cyanide; some stoner reckoned iocane powder.

Something about Gawleys.

Something out there in the dark wasn’t quite dark. Barry made the mistake of looking at the lighthouse again, then had to blink away the purple spot in his vision, violet-violet-pink-white-gone. The water surface had the look of a grubby mirror, streaked with a blacker grey where the reef peered through.

Hemlock. It just sounded… ancient. Laurel wreaths and hemlock. Togas. He glanced down. Soy on his shirt, the sort of thing Deb used to tease him about. ‘Did you get any of it in your mouth, dear?’

Lovely Deb, tired and warm. Gone last spring, and with her all of the order and domesticity in Barry’s life. The alcohol interlock device now clipped to the dashboard represented the loss and the pain that still echoed. He’d taken very hard to the stout in the weeks after the funeral, one schooner chasing another as he reassured the sympathetic. Yes, doing very well, thank you for asking. Eyes creasing, close enough to a smile.

He’d been warned about driving home from the pub. Taken aside, told it had to stop. He’d just accepted the warning like he accepted the condolences and concern. In the end he’d left the local cop no choice but to book him; the great irony being that once he’d lost his licence he completely lost interest in the grog. Like it had served its purpose, putting him off the road, then gone on to tap some other poor bugger on the shoulder.

The time without his licence didn’t worry him all that much, aside from missing his drives out to Antonias. The interlock, though, that was an assault on his way of life. It seemed to choose exactly those times when he was most comfortable to start up its furious screeching for a sample of his breath—horn blaring, lights flashing—until he pulled over to satisfy it, feed it like some mewling infant. Minutes would pass before he could gather his frightened thoughts and restart the car.

He fumbled around under the drivers seat for the binoculars. Took a moment to focus and find his target in the blackness. He could just make out low lines of whitewater on the outer edge of Gawleys, when he found the thing that had caught his attention.

There was no fixed light on the reefs—couldn’t be, they were too exposed. The fishing boats had a red port light, green starboard, and white all round.

But this was orange, and it was moving. Larger, smaller. Moving or flickering? It was irregular somehow, getting bigger then fading again, then pulsing brightly. It was still a long way off, well over the back edge of Gawleys. The beam of the lighthouse, a cold white shaft through the air, caught it once, then again. Barry knew he was looking at the gunwale of a boat, the side of the cabin. And the idea came to him quietly like another answer. The boat was not where it was supposed to be.

He snapped the radio off. Tried the high beams but they bleached out somewhere in the middle distance. A sheet of newspaper whipped past the front of the ute as though it had taken fright. Barry noted its path—the wind had arrived from the south-west again, punching a violent gust into the stillness, followed by a long stream of colder air. The heavy calm of the evening was done, and a change would reassert the order of things.

He turned the lights off and waited patiently for his eyes to figure it all out. Leaning forward now. Squinting until he felt a little ache under his eyebrows where the binoculars were pressing. He scrunched the greasy paper bag into a ball and fired it backhand at the dark space where the dog lay curled. A moment or two later, light and dark resolved themselves into shapes, and the shapes made sense.

He picked up the phone from the passenger seat and started dialling.

Kill Your Darlings First Book Club: Quota
Wednesday July 23
6.30 for 7pm

The First Book Club is free, but bookings are required.
RSVP to [email protected] to confirm your place.

Happy Valley: Design, Books, Art
294 Smith St

Collingwood 3066

Purchase Quota through Text Publishing.