Felicity McLean’s The Van Apfel Girls are Gone is out this month from HarperCollins. Part mystery, part coming of age story, The Van Apfel Girls are Gone is set in a distant suburb on the encroaching bushland, over the long hot summer of 1992. It’s the summer of the school’s Showstopper concert. The summer Tikka Molloy never forgot. The summer the Van Apfel sisters disappeared.
Blackly comic, sharply observed and wonderfully endearing, this is Picnic at Hanging Rock for a new generation, a haunting coming-of-age story with a shimmering, unexplained mystery at its heart. The following extract is from Chapter 3.
We lost all three girls that summer. Let them slip away like the words of some half-remembered song, and when one came back, she wasn’t the one we were trying to recall to begin with.
Spring slunk off too. Skulked away into the scrub and there, standing in its place, was a summer that scorched the air and burned our nostrils and sealed in the stink. Like the lids on our Tupperware lunchboxes.
‘Jade Heddingly says if it gets hot enough your shadow will spontaneously rust,’ I reported.
‘It’s spontaneously combust!’ my sister crowed. ‘Jade Heddingly is an idiot and so are you, and anyway your shadow can’t combust or rust or nothing. Your shadow is always there, dummy.’
‘Not in the dark.’
Mum was right: you can’t see your shadow in the dark. She stood at the kitchen sink ripping the heads off bottlebrush stems. Flitch, flitch, flitch. She snapped the dead blooms off at the neck and dropped them into the sink, where their fine spiky hairs were the same ferrous red as the scabs we picked off our knees. It was the year the Cold War ended. The year they stopped making Atari 2600s forever. I was eleven and one-sixth, but it wasn’t enough. By then we’d learned shadows vanished in the dark.
‘What else did Jade tell you?’ Laura said.
She waited until Mum went into the laundry before she asked the question, so that the two of us were left alone at the kitchen table where we were pretending to do our homework.
I was eleven and one-sixth, but it wasn’t enough. By then we’d learned shadows vanished in the dark.
‘About anything. Go on, what else did Jade say?’
Jade Heddingly was fourteen, which meant she was old enough to wear braces on her teeth but not so old that she used those teeth and her tongue and the rest of her mean mouth to stop saying ‘arks’ instead of ‘ask’. Jade kept saying it wrong long after the rest of us had left behind ‘hostibul’ and ‘lellow’ and all those other word jumbles we said when we were little kids. ‘Why didn’t you arks my opinion?’ she would whine. As if that would ever make you change your mind.
‘What else did Jade say?’ I echoed.
I leaned in before answering: ‘She told me that to hide a dead body you bury it six feet underground and then bury a dog three feet above that.’
‘So that the police sniffer dogs will only dig as far as the dead dog, and they won’t find the body below.’
‘That’s gross!’ my sister squealed.
‘Well, you arksed.’
‘Is it true?’
‘I don’t know,’ I admitted.
‘Did she say anything else? You know, anything about – you know.’
‘Yeah, I’m sure,’ I said defensively.
‘Jade doesn’t know anything about it,’ I added.
She didn’t know nothing about nothing. What we all knew – even as far back as that – was that the valley stank. Jeez, it reeked. It smelled like a sore. Like something bad had been dug out before the sky was stitched back over, low-slung and bruised and suffocating.
They never did work out why.
It wasn’t Ruth’s fault, but. That valley had smelled bad long before any of the Van Apfel girls ever went missing there. Even from our house high on the western rim, the stench would waft up the gully and smack us in the face on a hot dry day, and they were all hot dry days once the Cold War had ended.
That summer was the hottest on record.
That valley had smelled bad long before any of the Van Apfel girls ever went missing there.
Back in those days the valley had only been developed in pockets. It was dissected by a cutting where a skinny, two-lane road wound down and around and across the river and then slithered up and out again, but the real excavation work had been done long ago by something much more primitive than us. The valley was deep and wide. Trees covered both walls. Spindly, stunted she-oaks spewed from the basin, swallowing the sunlight and smothering the tide with their needles. Higher up there were paperbarks, and tea-trees with their camphorous lemon smell. Then hairpin banksias, river dogroses and gums of every kind – woollybutts, blackbutts, bloodwoods and Craven grey boxes, right up to the anaemic angophoras that stood twisted and mangled all along the ridge line.
At school we called the valley the ‘bum crack’.
We steered clear of the Pryders and the Callum boys and the rest of that handful of kids who lived in the shanty-style shacks in clumps along the valley. But the strangest thing about the place wasn’t the kids who lived there. It wasn’t the silence, or the way the sunlight sloped in late in the morning and slid out again as soon as it could in the afternoon. No, the awful part was the shape of the thing. Those terrible, fall-able cliffs. The valley wasn’t V-shaped like normal river valleys; instead the whole canyon was a hollowed-out ‘U’. It was almost as wide at the bottom as it was at the top, as if an enormous rock had been chiselled out but somehow we’d gone and lost that too. It was a fat gap. A void.
Even now its geography is only worth mentioning because of what’s not there.
I used to spend hours down there on my own. I’d go when I was bored – when my sister was at Hannah’s – and when the wind was blowing the right way for a change and the stink wasn’t so awful. I’d pick fuchsia heath flowers and suck the nectar out of their tiny pink throats and then I’d pretend they were poisonous and that I was going to die. Back then dying was nothing to be afraid of. At least, that’s what Hannah once said her dad said, and her dad was told it by God. But then Hannah’s dad had never actually died and so I said: ‘What would your dad know?’
What none of us knew – what we’ll never know – is what happened to Hannah and Cordie that December.