Colin did just as instructed.
He parked as far from the building as possible, and close to the road and trees. Next he got out of the car and began strolling toward the roadside pub, like any man looking for a late drink in the bush. He could hear the cheerful, steady roar of drinkers’ voices, that tone you get near closing time.
As he approached the entrance, a spray of gravel landed at his feet. Then a voice. “Psst. Colin. Are you Colin? Over here!” He looked to the side and saw a youngish woman in a plain white dress, partially obscured by a trellis. She was gesturing to him. He looked about, then stepped toward the woman.
“Are you Deb? You’re not supposed to be here yet.”
“I know, I know. There’s been a change of plan. My decision.”
“We can’t change the plan!”
“We have to. Two of the men in there know me. If they see my face, it’s all over.”
“You’re from way out of town. Same as me.”
“I know their truck, the one with the Penrith stickers. It’s them! They deliver water tanks all over the state. I used to serve them at a highway servo when I waitressed there last year. If they see my face, it’s all over.”
“Don’t let them see your face. The customers are only meant to get a glimpse of you as everyone’s leaving. Keep to the plan. Just step from behind those trees, out where I’m parked, talk to me briefly, jump in the back seat – and we’re gone. That’s all they’ll see, and that’s all they’re meant to see.”
“But what if they do see my face? We could go to jail, for all I know.”
“It’s not that serious, Deb. It’s only a stunt, not a crime.”
“If we’re found out, it’ll be the end of the whole Girl in White thing. Nobody will ever believe it again. How popular will we be around here? How will the bikies take it? Look, maybe we should call off the whole thing…”
The man thought for a moment.
“They told me you know what you’re doing. You’re in charge, they said. Okay, we can do half a job. I’ll drive you to the spot and the cameras will pick you up. Which is the main thing, I suppose.”
“That’s just what I was trying to suggest. Can we go straight away? I’m cold in just this white dress…and if one of those men makes out my face…”
“Let’s go. Let’s just do this and hope we still get paid.”
They walked to the man’s car. Just as they were getting in, the man in front to drive, the woman in the back, there was a sound from the pub. A couple of drinkers had stepped outside for a smoke. They watched the man and woman departing, even giving them a wave.
“It’s okay,” she hissed. “They’re not the water tank guys.”
“Let’s give them a good look at you, then.”
The man wheeled across the gravel toward the road, leisurely, to give the onlookers more time to see them.
“Lucky, eh? Just what our employers wanted.”
“That’s something they should have arranged. As well as hiring us, they should have hired the witnesses.”
“Oh, well, they got them for free. And it means fewer people in the know. They don’t want people in the know. It mustn’t look too controlled, they said. By the way, do you always have this many opinions?”
“Always, I’m afraid.”
After a few minutes driving in silence, Colin looked around and asked:
“Nervous at all?”
“No. It’s easy money. I’m just a bit cold.”
“Isn’t that dress a kind of uniform? Aren’t you supposed to look a bit more, you know, oldy-worldy?”
“It’s an old white dress. That’s enough. If I walked around like someone out of Charles Dickens it might be overstating, don’t you think? ”
“Well, you look dated, which is the main thing. But what would I know? I can’t tell the difference between 2012 hipster and 1950s unmarried secretary.”
“That’s the whole idea of being hip. You pick the thing that’s least hip – and do that.”
“Irony, eh? I’m from the seventies myself. We only did blatancy in the seventies…Deb, when I drop you off, how do you disappear?”
“Infra-red cameras don’t get much detail and I know where they’ve been placed. I’ve got a roll of black stocking material under my dress, and I’ve been practicing with it. I just pull it over my body after I walk through the cemetery entrance, turn left into some trees – and I’ve disappeared!”
“You’re not worried about…being alone in a cemetery?”
“I just walk to the other side where there’s an old dirt road. One of the bikies will be waiting for me.”
“But you’re early. He may not be there yet.”
“I’ll wait. There are no such things as ghosts, Colin. That’s why we have to do all this.”
“I suppose so.”
“I wish there were ghosts…”
“No idea. Maybe…maybe it would explain things…I just wish they were real, so certain things made more sense.”
He drove on, pensive.
“You don’t believe there ever was a Girl in White or White Lady or whatever?”
“Of course not, Colin. It’s like one of those urban myths. Except it’s the bush.”
“Assuming there were ghosts, how could the Girl in White persuade a bloke to take her, if she was looking and talking like a ghost?”
“Well, Colin, as you know, some men…”
“Okay, okay…but assuming it wasn’t like that. Who gives a ride to a ghost? I’d run the other way.”
“Maybe a ghost would speak and move like any other person. Why does a ghost have to be slow and stilted? Is there some rule for that? It’s as likely a ghost would talk like a normal person as like Boris Karloff, don’t you think? Also, what stops a ghost talking about normal things? Why is a ghost supposed to know everything that happened and will happen – but nothing about the present? Anyway, there’s no Girl in White…and there are no ghosts.”
“You know the story?”
“One of the stories. There are always several versions of these things. The main one – the one we’re re-creating tonight – is that a woman dressed in white asks a lone motorist for a ride to Dunham. For some reason, she wants to sit in the back seat. Her first appearance was around 1960, I think. Anyway, she’s young, okay looking, he agrees to take her. They drive along as far as Arcombe Cemetery. Then she suddenly asks him to stop. Incidentally, Colin, don’t forget to stop a bit jerkily, for the cameras…”
“I know, I know.”
“Anyway, she tells him she has friends at a farmhouse adjacent to the cemetery, she jumps out, walks through the entrance and disappears. He wanders around looking for her, can’t find her or a farmhouse, then drives away. After that, he does nothing – at least in this variation. Remember, Colin, you do nothing after you drive off. Let the witnesses and film footage do the work. No-one knows the cameras are there, so no-one can say it’s just a stunt. But if you try to follow it up by phoning around after me, drawing attention – then it will look like a stunt.”
“I get it. We don’t overwork it. Along with the film footage, my anonymity and silence will do the trick. You seem on the ball, young lady. So, tell me: why do you think someone is paying my mates and their bikie associates to organise all this, and to trick the television people?”
“Maybe because the Girl in White Festival used to earn Dunham a fortune after it started in the seventies? It was the biggest supernatural attraction after Fisher’s Ghost, and one of the biggest annual festivals in the whole country. It means millions for Dunham, but now it’s losing ground to other events. Someone wants to make sure that the air show and rodeo get thousands more attending. Getting those big country music stars to show up costs more every year. The town and investors need publicity badly. Paying us a bit of cash is easily worth it.”
“I don’t know anything about this part of the world. You’re not from here. How do you know all this?”
“I shouldn’t. But my big problem is that I’m curious. Always too curious. The internet was invented for me, I’m sure. Also, I know how and why people hire bikies. If anything goes wrong, the respectable types don’t know us. If we open our yaps, the bikies know where we live. Colin, you and I are working for the Girl in White Festival. And for Channel 8. This segment they’re doing on the supernatural is supposed to be scientific, but it’s part-paid advertising for the festival. What the channel doesn’t know is that their secret cameras are no secret. We’re going to make sure they pick up something sensational. No-one is compromised. A harmless stunt. Everyone wins.”
“Why doesn’t the network just stage the whole thing?”
“Because it’s now owned by a Hillsong bible thumper who won’t let them do things like they used to. Anyway, we can do a better job, can’t we? And the fewer people who know, the better. You said that yourself.”
Colin shrugged, kept driving.
“Makes sense. Nobody would give out that much cash for a prank. I just wonder how you know so much.”
“I’m a busybody. I’ve always been one. I’m in the know because that’s my thing. What’s worse, when I find something out, something juicy, I have trouble keeping it in.”
“You’ll have to shut up about this little stunt.”
“I will. I’ve learned my lesson hard. What about you, Colin? You don’t seem like the normal conman or bagman or driver for the Angelitos – or whatever.”
“I’m worse than a conman. I’m a lawyer. But I’m reformed.”
“Disbarred. I hope you’re not going to do your busybody thing with me. Look, I signed some papers I shouldn’t have signed. It was either disbarment or run for parliament. Disbarment was more dignified.”
“So, you work for the Angelitos?”
“No way. I work for mates. Mates who fix little things, like this. The bikies are occasional partners, employees, employers – just depending. I’m no heavy, if that’s your concern. I actually put in a tax return. What about you?”
“Keep an eye out to the left, Colin. Not far to go. Maybe five minutes. The cemetery is supposed to be easy to spot…What were you saying?”
“I wonder what you’re doing working with blokes like me, on jobs like this. You don’t look like a typical Angelitos’ girl.”
“I’m their posh one. Colin, the truth is, I lost my profession. Because I’m a busybody with a busy mouth. I was sacked with a very big sack. No references, bad name et cetera. Threatened with prosecution, even. Now I’m taking what I can get. Like you.”
“What did you do that was so wrong, Deb?”
“Nothing. I saw, and talked about what I saw.”
“Sounds like you. What line of work?”
“A kind of nursing work: clinical studies, pharmacological testing. Hence my white dress. It’s a relic of those days. You…you want to get back, Colin? Into your profession?”
“Hmm, to tell you the truth, Deb, law is so boring that they’re losing a lot of us to synchronised swimming. Do you mind if I smoke?”
“Amazing. Everyone objects these days, or tells you some complicated way to blow your the smoke.”
“It’s fine. Everyone I know smokes. Everyone but me.”
Colin lit up, tried to blow the smoke through an opening at the top of his side window.
“Don’t worry. I’m used to it. Everybody smokes around me.”
“I wish I had your friends, Deb. Tell me, do you want to get back into your profession?”
“I loved my work. But what I really want…I don’t know what I want. People like me, we get on a round. We don’t know, finally we can’t know, what we want. It’s some kind of mental trap. Hard to explain.”
“So, you’re a whistleblower?”
“I suppose. But I can’t say why I did it. Nobody is pure-hearted, me least of all. Partly, I wanted to stop something bad happening to babies, partly I was just being me. That’s the problem: others might think me heroic, but I feel guilt for being like I am, for handling things stupidly. I don’t know how much of what I did was altruism, how much was attention seeking, excitement seeking, resolving boredom in a job that was endless detail and repetition. Now, I’m on on this round, can’t stop or get off…”
“What did you see, and then talk about?”
“A drug under trial, a drug that affected mothers and babies. I saw it going wrong, and said something. Said it loud.”
“Ah, like thalidomide, back in the old days.”
“Yes. Like that. Very much like that.”
“What was it called, this drug?”
“It was called Distaval. You won’t have heard of it.”
“Distaval…Distaval…maybe I’ve heard of that. Is it banned now?”
“Sort of. Banned for what they were using it for. Not as banned as me. It has some uses, for leprosy apparently. Maybe I should take some…Colin, I can see the stone arch on our left. When you draw level to it you’re supposed to stop fast for the cameras. Like I’d suddenly begged you to stop. Get ready.”
“Well, Deb, I’ve enjoyed our ride and our chat.”
“Me too, Colin. Remember, when you follow me into the cemetery, no talking. We can’t be sure the television people haven’t placed microphones. You can call out for me, but don’t call me by name. After five minutes, just go back to the car and drive off.”
“Easy money, Deb. Ready?”
He hit the brakes and the car lurched to a halt right outside the stone arch of Arcombe Cemetery. It was just a small and decrepit portal – there was no longer a gate – with the twisted remains of a metal spike fence to its sides. Maybe some local farmers had found the straighter spikes useful as fence pickets.
“Here we are, Deb. You know, if you’re ever passing through my end of Sydney…”
She leaned forward, put her mouth close to his ear. There was no warmth coming from her, however. No warmth from her face or breath. She had to be dangerously cold.
“Colin, people like me, we’re on a round, like I said. We don’t know what we want. Maybe you know how to get me off this round. It’s like there’s one obvious exit or dismount point – but it’s the only thing I’m not allowed to see. I can’t get off this round, not on my own. It’s a treadmill: no progress. I can’t give myself credit for the stand I took because I know what I’m like. All I see is my impatience and boredom, my big-noting – not the good I was doing. I’m more furious with myself than with the people who sacked me. It seems in some way they were right…but how could they be right? They were so obviously wrong! It was bloody Distaval!
“Colin, I give the impression of being in the know about everything, I seem to be handling things – but I can’t get off this round. I feel there’s something I’m not accepting, something so big, so close, I can’t see it – though I can see everything else. Maybe you know how, more as a man than a lawyer. I can tell you have a brain, a powerful one, and other qualities too. But, even if you can help, I just don’t know how I can get to see you again…I don’t have a home where people can reach me. I need a home again, a home that’s mine. The case should have been settled, in a way it has been; but I’m still on the outer, still kicking myself for the big-noting way I handled it. Sorry, Colin, I’m doing it again: boring myself and everybody else. I just keep going over the same ground, time and again, don’t I? I’m sorry.”
He wanted to respond, but she had moved, moved so quickly. He hadn’t heard her shift in the seat or work the door handle. Now she was outside the car.
The door snapped shut of its own accord. Too late now. He watched her walk round the back of the car and head toward the blackened entrance. As she passed beneath the arch, she did indeed disappear.
Colin wanted to spend a minute just smoking, but knew he had to look restless and concerned, in case a camera was registering his movements.
After a delay, he got out of the car, flashlight in hand, and walked into the cemetery, as scripted. There was a sign just inside, explaining that the Arcombe Cemetery, by special arrangement with the Dunham Girl In White Festival Committee and the NSW Department of Heritage, was to be maintained in its 1960 condition, without additions or repairs unconnected with public safety. Caution advised.
For a few minutes, Colin walked around, calling out occasionally. Then he headed back to the entrance.
Just before the arch, he saw the clump of trees where Deb had supposedly turned after entering. He walked toward them. There were several ancient graves. The most recent by far bore the name of Harold Heenan, died 1961.
Colin cast his flashlight about for another minute, then walked back to the car. Trying not to overplay his concern, he looked about a little longer, along the broken fenceline.
Then he got back in the car and left, in the direction of Dunham, where he had a motel room booked.
When Colin fell into a deep slumber that night, he was helped there by the contents of the mini-bar. Why not? Either his “mates” or the Angelitos would be paying the bill. Before taking a drink, he had been giving himself realistic lectures about trying to hook up with a much younger woman who had more baggage than him. After numerous drinks, the head-lectures had stopped. When he fell asleep, he had a blurry image of a new life with that younger woman.
He was woken by his room phone.
“Mr. McCord, we’ve just had a request from a Mr. Papas that you turn on your mobile phone and call him immediately.”
“My phone is off? Oh, that’s right! I forgot. Thank you.”
Colin had indeed turned off his phone before last night’s operation, so as not to be distracted by people wanting to place bets with his “mates”.
He dialled and waited.
“Colin! Where are you?”
“In the motel, where I’m supposed to be.”
“Where did you go last night? What happened?”
“Nothing. It all went well. Except we had to go early. There were two blokes in the bar who knew her face, so we played it safe.”
“Deb and me. We went early, but don’t worry. Two locals clearly saw a woman in white getting into my car. I dropped her off, we acted our parts perfectly. If someone’s angry because we improvised…”
“What are you talking about?”
“Georgie, I’m talking about what I’m talking about.”
“Colin, Deb was left waiting. You weren’t there. She stayed in the bushes two hours after the pub closed. Then she had to phone a cab. She’s with the Angelitos now and she’s bloody furious. The Angelitos had a driver out back of the cemetery. He waited too. Do you think he’s not furious? And now you’re telling me you were there…and with Deb?”
Colin had spent a long moment just thinking. Then he fumbled about to prepare coffee, and thought again. Had he ever thought this hard? Maybe. He used to think hard and well, a long time ago.
He pulled out his tablet and checked if there was wifi connection. There was.
He spent some time staring hard at some pages he had called up on screen.
He shook his head continually, till it felt like it was becoming a permanent twitch.
“Hello. Chief Inspector Dibble.”
“Dibs, it’s Colin. Colin McCord.”
“You! How did you get my direct number?”
“Long story. Dibs. We’ve got quite a few of your numbers. It involves one of your officers and a ute-load of Tooheys New. Actually, it was more a truck-load…”
“Christ! What isn’t for sale in NSW?”
“You, Dibs. That’s why I’m ringing you and no-one else. I’ll make it short…”
“You certainly will.”
“Hear me out, Dibs. I want to be an anonymous tipster on this.”
“Sorry, most of our anonymous tipsters are mere dunny-rats. We don’t sink as low as lawyers.”
“Hear me out, mate. I think I’m in trouble, but this won’t be for my benefit…”
“And who benefits?”
“Well, you do. Maybe. And someone else. Maybe.”
“Get on with it.”
“Dibs, remember how the old pros used to get rid of bodies? They got rural undertakers to include the disappeared people in proper burials. Sometimes in the hole, sometimes even in the box.”
“Good, neat system, it was. But those blokes had commonsense. This modern lot have got their brains fried by cocaine. Doyles are getting sick of fishing up their victims. I always say, don’t take the lobster at Doyles.”
“Dibs, if you look in a certain old grave, I think you’ll find someone extra. Someone who got ‘disappeared’ a long time ago.”
“Someone who valued babies over her job. Then over her life.”
“How do you know?”
“Dibs, you know what Distaval is?”
“Yes, in fact, I do. I studied that scandal a bit, during training. Distaval is a brand name for thalidomide.”
“Dibs, I think we can do something for someone.”
“Well, tell me who!”
“Not sure of names. But it’s someone who needs…”
Colin recalled: needs to get off this round she’s on, this treadmill. Needs to stop, but can’t see how…keeps going over the same ground, time and again…Needs a home again, a home that’s her own…Something she’s not accepting, something so big, so close, it’s the one thing she can’t see…
“It’s just some girl, Dibs. She died fifty years ago. A Girl in White.”