This week KYD is showcasing extracts from this year’s Unpublished Manuscript Award shortlist, who are spending the week fine-tuning their work in an online intensive as part of the KYD/Varuna Copyright Agency Fellowship. Read extracts from the other shortlistees here!
In the early hours of one morning, a teenage boy named Nish is found dead on the rocks at Crest Cove in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, and the police suspect foul play. Indira is a university drop-out with a drinking problem, who has alienated her friends and family after the death of another teenage boy, five years prior—her own brother. Once, Indira played a piano accordion with rainbow keys that could raise the dead. Now, her childhood friend Mo needs Indira’s accordion to find out how her brother drowned at Bronte. But Indira gave the accordion away long ago. Can she, along with her ex-boyfriend Will, track down the instrument and solve the mystery of what happened to Nish?
There is a stranger in my bed. I am heavy with the weight of the night before, hammers falling against my temples and my mouth full of the taste of a boy whose name I can’t remember. I do remember enough about last night to know that he was awkward and hesitant and did nothing to make me forget the feeling I am always struggling against—that I’m in a speeding car with no brakes. I stand over his side of the mattress and drop one of my heavy-soled Timbaland boots, beside him. He does not move so I plop down beside him, making the mattress bounce. He finally stirs and rubs his eyes.
‘Oh, good, you’re up,’ I say with false cheer.
He yawns and stretches. I’m wearing a thin tank top, and he runs finger along my exposed shoulder blade—he’s tracing my tattoo. It’s an intimate gesture, something that Will used to do, and it irritates me. I shrug away from him.
‘I have to go,’ I lie.
‘Oh, I guess I’ll–’
‘Go? That’s too bad,’ I say in a monotone.
Once he has stepped into his jeans, I pass him his wallet and keys. He has a wiry build, blond hair, and the way he cocks his head towards me makes me think of a bird desperate for crumbs. I am no closer to remembering his name as I shepherd him towards the door and when he kisses me, I barely respond.
I do remember enough about last night to know that he was awkward and hesitant and did nothing to make me forget the feeling I am always struggling against—that I’m in a speeding car with no brakes
It’s only when I open the door that some kind of emotion other than regret filters through my body, and it has nothing to do with the nameless boy. Mo is standing in front of me, her hand poised to knock on the door. Her face is rounder than I remember, but her hair is still a mess of curls, swept into a high bun which doesn’t do much to stop strands from falling out. She wears clear round glasses that amplify her piercing gaze. Mo has always squinted—a habit she developed when she refused to increase her prescription as a child, and it’s now her way of viewing the world. Never satisfied, she is always searching for a way for things to fit better together.
‘Hi Indira,’ she says, and I recognise the old power play in using my full name. She knows it puts me on edge.
‘Moumita,’ I say, returning the favour. ‘What are you doing here? Is everything okay?’
‘No. Can I come in?’ she answers, moving past me and into the flat as I remain silent.
I exchange a look with the boy, who is still loitering by the door. ‘I’ll…just go, shall I?’ he says, drumming his fingers on the door frame. ‘I’ll call you, Indie.’
‘Don’t worry about it,’ I say with a bright smile. His face falls as he registers what I’ve said, and I close the door in his face.
‘He seems nice,’ Mo says mindlessly. ‘Is he your boyfriend?’
She is offering me a way to cover up my sex life, but it’s always been something that bothers her, not me.
‘No,’ I answer.
Mo shrugs; she doesn’t care and it puts me on guard. It is unlike her to pass up on an opportunity to tell me how to improve myself.
As if she has heard my thoughts, Mo continues, ‘My brother is dead.’ She takes a seat at the dining table and picks at the sleeves of her woollen jumper. ‘Do you still have your piano accordion?’
It’s the last thing I expected her to say. I should be surprised or horrified or angry…I should feel something at the news of the death of a boy I’d held on the day he was born, but I am numb. I haven’t seen Mo’s brother, Nish, in years. Back then, her brother and mine had been inseparable. Both scrawny, nerdy kids, they had struggled to find a place at the elite private school our parents had sent them to. I remember Nish as a sweet, self-effacing kid. When he spoke, he paused with an earnest look, evaluating your response before he continued. On the other hand, my brother Ajay, had a natural charisma the other boys eventually warmed to. Ajay was loud, the kind of large personality that could either flatten or shelter others. But he’d always had a soft spot for Nish—and despite being two years ahead of Nish at school, he’d looked out for him. After Ajay’s death, Nish was inconsolable. That’s what I’d heard, anyway. I’d not stayed with our family and friends for long enough to find out, and now, after four years, Mo and I are standing in the same room, both adults with younger brothers who had never reached adulthood.
‘What do you mean?’ I say, although her meaning is quite clear. ‘What happened?’
‘He was found at six am this morning, just up from Crest Cove. Face down on some rocks. Some dog walker found him before the water washed him away,’ she says flatly, brushing crumbs together on the tabletop with her fingers. ‘I need to know what happened. I need to know how he died.’
Crest Cove. Four streets down from where my family lived, six streets away from Mo’s old house. Her family had moved into a small flat in western Sydney after they had hit some difficult financial times. Still, her parents had remained adamant that Nishant should stay at Barton Grammar, and once Mo had finished her own private education, they decided to pool the extra funds to put Nishant into Barton Grammar’s boarding school, to save him making the long commute during his later years in high school. It would destroy Mo’s parents to know that their boy had died, such a short distance from the school they had struggled so hard to ensure he could attend.
‘Was he—did he drown? How did he get there? It’s not like Nish to wander off,’ I say, though picking holes in her story isn’t going to make Nish any less dead.
‘That’s what I want to find out. Indie, I need your piano accordion,’ Mo says, this time with more force.
I shake my head. ‘I can’t… I don’t have it. I sold it.’
‘Sold it?’ Mo says. She is now so pale that I am absurdly guilty. ‘How could you?’
‘Sell a dirty old thing that’s brought me nothing but trouble for money? To cover a little bit of rent? Yeah, I must’ve been nuts.’
We are slipping into old territory now, where Mo maps out the appropriate parameters of our lives, and I am always on the outside, trying to find a way to fit in.
Mo looks around the studio apartment, taking in the huge arch windows, exposed beams, wooden floors. Mo has always loved architecture. Under my influence, however, the studio looks like a squatter’s den. There is rubbish everywhere, and the mattress sits in a corner, directly on the floor (buying a bed frame has always felt unnecessary) and it won’t escape her notice that the bed is unmade, the sheets still crumpled.
‘What is this place anyway?’ Mo asks.
We are slipping into old territory now, where Mo maps out the appropriate parameters of our lives, and I am always on the outside, trying to find a way to fit in. Mo is a Sydney law graduate, a prize-winning debater, and as my mother is fond of telling me, Mo now works at the Environmental Defenders Office… Mo has always loved a cause, and if I’m not her favourite thing to fix, I’m at least on the shortlist. It was exhausting growing up with someone who soared to such heights, and I do not want to try to fly in her orbit now.
‘My boss knows the developer,’ I say. ‘They’re going to turn this place into a restaurant, once the licence comes through. I’m just crashing here till I work out my next move.’
The truth stands like a wall between us. Me working out my next move is process that began two years ago and has no apparent end. To my relief, she changes the topic, though it’s barely an improvement.
‘Well do you know who bought it?’ she asks.
‘I don’t know, it was in a garage sale.’ I lie to her easily, like this is the nineties and people still sell things without the internet.
Mo stands up abruptly, sweeping up her bag in one motion. ‘Sorry I came. I’ll let you know when the funeral is.’
And then she’s gone.