Alannah, sitting on her mother’s bed in the lotus position. It is morning, raining. She feels unwell – queasy, leaden – but does not complain. All over the printed duvet cover there are flamingos in bandanas, facing right, facing left. Alannah’s mother is putting out items on the bed, arranging them around her daughter’s folded legs, wordlessly. Three piles of clothes, four magazines, two pill bottles, a phone charger, a stack of cotton knickers. Alannah is embarrassed by the sight of her mother’s frayed and faded underwear. A few wispy strands of elastic have come loose from the pair on the top of the stack. The waistband is torn. She looks away. Down to the carpet, where a wheelie suitcase is lying on its back with its mouth thrown open. Up to the curtains, which are still drawn even though it is light. She hears cars passing, an electric scooter hurtling across the uneven footpath. She hears the mechanical front door of their apartment building followed by the dog that barks, sadly, every time it clunks.
Alannah, bowed and folded, surrounded by pink birds, haloed by the yellow ceiling lamp. She has limp brown hair and wide-spaced eyes and a weak chin. She is ten. She has been ten for a month and she does not like it. She carries the weight of her extra digit like a chain-mail vest. She hunches her shoulders as if recoiling from the cold metal. Her mother is twenty-nine. Alannah calls her by her name, Maia, except for when she is upset, and forgets, and calls her Mum. Maia has blonde hair with the sides shaved and a tattoo of a man’s name across the notch at the base of her throat, Reuben. Maia and Alannah live together in the apartment with Reuben, who also has tattoos but hides them beneath an ironed white shirt every weekday morning and leaves at precisely eight to drive Maia’s car to work. Reuben is not Alannah’s father, though he has been around for years. Alannah can remember back when Reuben and Maia were kind to each other. Nowadays she hears them quietly shouting in their bedroom at night.
This morning Alannah and Maia are leaving the apartment and going on a journey without telling Reuben and Alannah is both worried about where the journey will take them and pleased that she does not have to go to school.
Alannah, standing in the daylight and the rain on the footpath. Maia stands beside her, just a few centimetres taller. The main door of the apartment building clunks behind them and the sad dog barks. Maia says they are going to stay in a holiday home that belongs to one of her friends from work. Cathy, she says, who had cancer last year. It’s in a nice place, she says. A nice place in the countryside, by the sea. The wheels of the big suitcase clatter as they walk in the direction of the bus station. Maia yanks it through the shallow puddles and the splashes spot her soft shoes. At the end of the street Alannah looks over her shoulder and up to the balcony of their apartment on the third floor. She sees the sunflowers she grew in pots in the summer, their heads hung. She sees a fat gull land on the balcony railing, eyeing up their dry hearts.
Alannah, on the bus. There is a faint smell of nappies and vanilla. There are no two free seats together by the time she and her mother board. Maia sits beside a teenager who has his coat balled into a pillow against the glass. Alannah goes a few seats further back and chooses an old man in a basketball cap who smiles at her. He has a walking stick between his knees and his lumpy fingers knotted over the handle. He is archaic to Alannah. He speaks in a barely decipherable language, repeating himself. He tells her an elaborate story about how he once plucked a hair from a horse’s tail. He lets go of the stick to flap his hands; his eyes shine. If she ever finds a hair from a horse’s tail, snagged in a gate, a hedge – he tells Alannah – she has to put it in a glass jar of water, the biggest she can find, and screw the lid on, as tight as she can, and wait for three weeks, and see what happens.
What happens? Alannah says.
But the old man just cracks a black-toothed smile and repeats himself. She is relieved when he reaches his stop. She moves into the vacant window seat. Outside she can see fields and sometimes trees and sometimes the coastline rising in and out of sight. There are grey birds in a flock as fine as smoke. There is a hollow building with light pouring out through the empty windowpanes. The rain has stopped. People get off and on the bus and then only off.
Alannah, on the asphalt beside a solitary petrol pump, waiting for the door of the bus’s luggage compartment to open. Maia is explaining that there aren’t any taxis and so Cathy’s neighbour is going to pick them up. As soon as the bus pulls away they see a large man bounding towards them. He has a beard, a woolly jumper. He reminds Alannah of the sort of dog that looks ferocious at a distance and then runs up with its tail wagging. He is Michael, he says. He has the key for them. Do they need anything in the shop? Alannah focuses on the pattern of his jumper as he talks. There are reindeers and snowmen in white against a jagged landscape of Christmas trees. Michael scoops up the wheelie suitcase and throws it into the back of his jeep. In the back of his jeep there are two sacks of cow nuts, a mallet and an orange rope, long and loose and twisted. In the shop he talks loudly to the woman behind the counter while Alannah follows her mother down one side of the only aisle and then back up the other. Maia picks out a loaf of bread, two cans of tuna, a block of cheese, a bottle of wine. Alannah picks out a big bar of chocolate and a bag of popcorn kernels. At the counter they can hear Michael roaring with laughter.
Alannah, in the front seat of the jeep, squashed between Maia and the passenger window with the shopping at their feet. There’s a cardboard lemon and a grubby face mask dangling from the rear-view mirror. Michael pops his phone into a holder on the dashboard and hangs one arm out the opposite window. The road is narrow and the unruly bracken whacks his elbow. His phone is strangely small. It rings twice during the journey between the village and the holiday home. The ringtone is unlike any Alannah has heard before. It seems antiquated, a sequence of sharp notes, tunelessly tumbling. Michael has to pull his elbow in to answer it, and then in the middle of a sentence he lifts the phone away from his ear to wave at a man on the road. He beeps the horn. He pauses the jeep at the mouth of a narrow, rutted path and the engine idles as he points out a sandy beach that has appeared miraculously at the edge of the fields.
You’d walk down here easy, Michael says.
He points out his own house as they pass. It’s a beige bungalow with arches and columns. There’s a derelict farmhouse out the back and a swing set on the front lawn. A sheepdog rushes out to chase the jeep. Alannah sees that it has one black eye and one blue eye.
My two-headed dog, Michael says, and lets out his roaring laugh.
Alannah, outside the holiday home, beneath a sickly palm tree. She had imagined a cottage, but this is a substantial farmhouse, brilliant white and square.
If you need anything at all now, Michael says.
Maia thanks him for the tenth time and dabs the number of his phone into hers. She smiles her purse-lipped smile, as if she is posing for a photograph. The holiday home is bigger and cleaner than any house Alannah has ever seen. All over the place there are nautical-themed souvenirs that look brand new. There are green glass buoys in rope nets on the walls and model ships on the windowsills. In the kitchen there are fish-shaped fridge magnets and shell-shaped ashtrays. There is more food than they had expected – posh muesli, a jar of olives stuffed with anchovies, a biscuit tin with an unopened packet of Viennese whirls inside, a big bottle of rock shandy. There are three different guest bedrooms but Maia says it would be polite to take the one with two single beds so that they make as little impression as possible. She dumps the wheelie suitcase on the red shag rug between the beds and flings it open.
Alannah, on the narrow, rutted path down to the sandy beach, a few paces behind her mother. Maia is carrying a towel that she took from the hot press of the holiday home, rolled up under one arm. There are clumps of tall-stemmed yellow flowers lining the path and they make Alannah think of the balcony and the apartment and she can’t believe that everything is still there as they left it and Reuben has not even arrived home from work. The path down to the beach meets a band of stones slippery from the morning rain, and then sand. Alannah and Maia walk slowly to the end of the beach and back again. They find a fish head, a poo with a ribbon of tissue paper stuck in it. The way the weed lies on the sand is strange. It has layered up into loose sheets, blanched and crumpled like old, pale skin. There are three plastic bags beneath the ring buoy, bulging with rubbish. There are two deep holes above the tideline; it is not clear whether they have been made by an animal or a man. There are hardly any gulls, less than in the city. Alannah and Maia sit down in the sand. They look out to sea and Alannah tells her mother the story that the old man on the bus told her.
What do you think happens? she says.
I don’t know, Maia says. I guess it swells up and comes alive or something.
Alannah, on the sand, in the lotus position, the damp soaking through her leggings. The sun comes in and out. Low waves roll and break. They have been at the beach for almost an hour and nobody else has arrived. Maia stands up and declares that she is going for a swim. Alannah watches, embarrassed, as her mother strips to her underwear. She looks back towards the road and sees that the only houses overlooking the beach are the holiday home and Michael’s bungalow and Michael’s ruin. She turns back as Maia sinks into the dark water, bit by bit, until she is only a head moving rhythmically, getting smaller. Alannah looks down to her runners. All the tiny perforations of their breathable fabric have been filled in by grains of sand. She finds a skinny, pointed stick and starts to prick the fabric. When she looks up again there are two heads. One has Maia’s blonde bun; the other is sleek and perfectly rounded, like a full, black moon rising from the surface of the water. At first Alannah just stares. Then she sees the black moon swivel and show its snout. A seal. She untwines her legs and pushes herself onto her feet and as she does a second seal appears.