She was wearing (as the police bulletins would describe her that day) a grey balaclava and scruffy clothes. Her two pigtails jutted out at odd angles, and she had tied them with blue scraps torn from her jeans. Her grey jersey was extra-large, and off the shoulder, revealing a dirty white tank top strap. Her fringe hung over her eyes, and the left one smarted irritably because of it. Her faded blue jeans had a tear in the right knee, and she was bare foot, toe nails painted pink. Her feet were dirty. And don’t forget her dimple, the ironic smile, head slightly turned to the left. This was the image plastered all over Northern Rivers in all the shops, police stations and hotels. You could also see, if you looked carefully, her attitude, that sassy challenge in her eyes that would not to let you get away with anything. Spunky, fierce Maddy Stevens.
They knew when she disappeared, because she’d just been singing in a music competition at the Brunswick Heads Hotel. Her mother had just missed her. Called her on her mobile, but it was switched off. As usual. Maddy, Maddy. Maddy. How many times have I told you to keep the bloody thing on?
But Maddy was stubborn. Wilful. Wild. She refused to be harnessed, tamed or to be at the beck and call of a mobile phone, her mother said.
The last person to see her alive was a man with the unfortunate name of Goose, the stage manager of the music festival. Goose, the guy with long greasy hair, dirty fingernails, rotten teeth, yes, he remembers her, wasn’t she the one with the long blonde hair? No. No, wait. He thinks he remembers her… the one who played Beatles songs? No.… no. Wait—you don’t mean that feral kid? Wasn’t that a boy?
But there were witnesses, whined her mother. Hundreds of them. How could she go missing in the middle of hundreds of people?
There was a storm, you see, a thunder storm. Hail. Dark clouds rolling over the sea. Rain like meteorites pelting into the red mud. Rivulets of mud. The Brunswick River drunk and disorderly.
That’s what people remember.
But no one remembers Maddy. She was invisible, even before she went missing.
One man saw—he thinks- he’s not sure—a yellow van… a woman? Or was it red? No, no, he can’t be certain.
Not good enough. Not good enough, said the interviewing officer, Sgt Maloney. We need hard facts.
Like mercury, she slips through everyone’s fingers. A ghost…Slips through the cracks. That’s her nature. Won’t be defined, pinned down to anything, her mother said. I knew something like this would happen, she said. She was always running off, so independent, so irresponsible… so… Maddy.
If only we could rewind to that moment, says the investigator. If only there was a Big God out there somewhere watching everything on a giant CCTV camera, recording everything, reading people’s thoughts. He would know. He could rewind time and stop exactly at that moment, show us. Here she is. Here! But then he wouldn’t need to. He would know where he was now, could see her, could show us where to look… in that six foot block of concrete, in the river.
So you think she’s dead, then, Sergeant?
Maybe locked in a small basement somewhere. But for God’s sake don’t tell her mother that.
Wasn’t that Big God watching that day? If he was, we have heard nothing from him.
So let’s rewind to the moment she was taken. Kidnapped. Abducted. Yes. She wasn’t just missing. She hadn’t just run off somewhere. All their worst fears were justified.
Goose, the stage manager with the tattooed arms and ponytail, ushered her to a stool and the mike. Her friends hadn’t shown up. Meaghan she understood, but where was Scratchy? Jai? Tomasina? And her mother was nowhere in sight. The audience, if you could call this beer drinking Sunday crowd an audience, had turned its back on the stage entirely. The only one paying attention to her was Goose, adjusting the mike, squinting at her pig tails, kicking the leads out of the way so she wouldn’t trip. ‘Try singing or talking,’ he said. She strummed a loud D chord. ‘Louder,’ he said. ‘Is your guitar turned on, honey? Perfect. Go for it. And don’t suck your hair.’
He leaned into her space to speak into the microphone. His breath smelt of fried onions and alcohol. ‘And now on stage we have the incomparable (yeah right!), indefatigable (why use that word if not to mock her, the creep?), uncompromisingly lovely (patronising jerk) Little Maddy Stevens!’ (Little? Little?)
But once on stage, Maddy felt much more solid. She brimmed with self-confidence. Her voice was bird like, and she hit the high notes with ease. Her guitar strumming looked effortless. She played with style. ‘This song is for Graham whoever, wherever he is.’
It was a great song, or so the school music teacher had told her, full of simple passion and over-complicated jazz chords (where did she learn how to play Ebsusmaj13th?). But no one was listening. She was just a waif kid. The Brunswick Hotel veranda was all Poinciana and tables and view. People struggled past each other with glasses of beer, with plates of fish and chips, yelling to be heard above all the noise (meaning her). Her mike squawked when she sang too close, and she kept bumping it with her guitar, to the annoyance of the party at table number one. Most people ignored her, laughed like Kookaburras, told their stories louder and louder as more and more beer flowed. One man on the left of the stage, beer in hand, stared at her, but his eyes were glazed and unfocused. Then she realised that he was checking out the tattered poster on the wall behind her, of the three missing girls. LAST SEEN at Ballina, Tweed Heads, Lismore, Byron Bay. PLEASE CONTACT SGT MALONEY OF Mullumbimby Police 66802116. In the sky, she saw kites bobbing and dancing against a backdrop of black clouds. People scurried across the bridge. She played two songs, and then her throat closed up. She choked on her words, blinked back the tears.
Some people realised the ‘noise’ had stopped, and looked up in surprise. She acknowledged the polite pattering of applause from table four. She smiled hard, the frown creasing her forehead, and she ducked her head in what was meant to be a bow. Stood up, banged her guitar against her knee, her head against the mike. Great. Great exit, Maddy. Goose placed his sweaty hand on her damp back to usher her off stage for the next act, Kaila, the 11 year old golden haired princess. The audience whistled and applauded. Maddy struggled through the crowd with her guitar. One or two smiled. Sweet, said the man who had been staring through her.
She hunted for her mother. Of course she wouldn’t be here. Of course not. She’d have to hitch home again as usual.
She did see the bright coloured hippy kombi from the stage, with its peeling stickers for peace (War is Terrorism) and a nuclear free world and organics and Free Tibet, the peace signs dangling from the mirror, and the woman who stood beside it, blocking her passage.
‘I love that song you sang.’
She crinkled her eye against the sun. Her sceptical look.. ‘You could hear it from here? I couldn’t hear myself.’
‘Crystal clear. You didn’t have a monitor speaker on stage?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Did you write that song? Is it original?’
The woman’s grey hair was straight and long, as if she still thought she was a young beauty. Her nose was hooked, much too long, and her skin serrated as if someone had scrubbed it with a cheese grater. A witch, Maddy would have thought when she was younger.
‘Such talent!’ The woman reached out a bony hand and tousled Maddy’s hair, mussed it as if she was stroking a puppy. Maddy pulled away. ‘And who’s Graham?’
‘A boy I… know.’
‘Saw you at the school concert, dear. Byron High, was it? Yes, you look surprised. You sang ‘The Water is Wide’ so sweetly, with your head to one side, with an Irish accent. Amazing. You made me cry.’
‘Really?’ Maddy ran her tongue over her braced teeth, moved the guitar to her right hand, looked up nervously at the blackening sky. Thunder boomed; the earth shook.
‘You should make a CD of your own work. Have you recorded that song?’
‘My son has a studio; you should ask him, you really should make a CD. Funny, his name is Graham too.’
She stared into the woman’s eyes. ‘Graham?’ Graham?
The woman’s eyes were grey as the sea on a wintry day. Greasy strands of hair fell over them. ‘He’d be thrilled. I’ll give you his card if you want… in the van. Just a minute.’
‘Thank you, then I must go. I….’
But the word Graham unsettled her. Graham, you say? Graham?
On cue, the rain began to spatter heavy and hot onto the Kite Festival. People ran for cover. The woman’s hand gripped her arm. ‘How are you getting home? Someone waiting for you?’
‘My mum was supposed to be here, but…. I have to go.’
‘I’m going to Mullum. You want a ride? Can’t let that beautiful guitar get warped in the rain. An Ovation, is it?’
Maddy was shielding it with her body, hunching over it, her bare shoulder cold and wet, her hair making her look like a drowned possum.
‘Come, sweetie, I’m going to Mullum. Stuart Street. I’ll take you home.’
‘How do you know where I live?’
The woman opened the door and took the guitar from her and slid it into the front seat. ‘Quick.’
The crowd had dispersed, but some people lingered under the eaves of the shopfronts. Some kites still flapped in the sky. It was a passing storm but you could get drenched here in minutes. And so Maddy climbed into the stinky, mouldy kombi (as she would later describe it) and placed her guitar on the towelling in the back where the windows were blacked out. The van was decked out as a camper with bedding and stickers and swinging beads, unchanged since the sixties, Maddy guessed. This woman must have once been a beautiful sprite with long flowing blonde hair and beads. But the smell made her gag. Stink and sweat and unwashed mouldy clothes. Ugh. This woman must live in this camper, must have lived in it for forty years. Probably from Nimbin.
But the rain was fierce now, blinding, beating against the bonnet and windshield. ‘Thanks, if you could just give me a ride home, I’d….’
‘I’ll take you to your door. Graham would like to meet you.’
The woman leaped into the driver’s seat—she was sprightlier than she looked–and started the engine. She smiled as Maddy tried in vain to find the non-existent seatbelt, and drove off with a lurch into the road towards the Pacific Highway.
The last thing Maddy felt was the hairy hand around her neck and mouth on the left side, and the last thing she saw was the woman nodding grimly to someone in the back. Maddy was pulled backwards over her seat and into the darkness of the van.