Extract: The Dry by Jane Harper
Even those who didn’t darken the door of the church from one Christmas to the next could tell there would be more mourners than seats. A bottleneck of black and grey was already forming at the entrance as Aaron Falk drove up, trailing a cloud of dust and cracked leaves.
Neighbours, determined but trying not to appear so, jostled each other for the advantage as the scrum trickled through the doors. Across the road the media circled.
Falk parked his sedan next to a ute that had also seen better days and killed the engine. The air conditioner rattled into silence and the interior began to warm immediately. He allowed himself a moment to scan the crowd, although he didn’t really have time. He’d dragged his heels the whole way from Melbourne, blowing out the five-hour drive to more than six. Satisfied no-one looked familiar, he stepped out of the car.
The late afternoon heat draped itself around him like a blanket. He snatched opened the back-seat door to get his jacket, searing his hand in the process. After the briefest hesitation, he grabbed his hat from the seat. Wide-brimmed in stiff brown canvas, it didn’t go with his funeral suit. But with skin the blue hue of skimmed milk for half the year and a cancerous-looking cluster of freckles the rest, Falk was prepared to risk the fashion faux pas.
Pale from birth with close-cropped white-blond hair and invisible eyelashes, he’d often felt during his thirty-six years that the Australian sun was trying to tell him something. It was a message easier to ignore in the tall shadows of Melbourne than in Kiewarra, where shade was a fleeting commodity.
Falk glanced once at the road leading back out of town, then at his watch. The funeral, the wake, one night and he was gone. Eighteen hours, he calculated. No more. Keeping that firmly in mind, he loped towards the crowd, one hand on his hat as a sudden hot gust sent hems flying.
Inside, the church was even smaller than he remembered. Shoulder to shoulder with strangers, Falk allowed himself to be ferried deeper into the congregation. He noticed a free spot along the wall and darted in, carving out a space next to a farmer whose cotton shirt strained taut across his belly. The man gave him a nod, and went back to staring straight ahead. Falk could see creases at his elbows where the shirt sleeves had until recently been rolled up.
Falk removed his hat and discreetly fanned himself. He couldn’t help glancing around. Faces that at first had seemed unfamiliar came more sharply into focus and he felt an illogical rush of surprise at some of the crows’ feet, silver-streaked hair and gained kilos sprinkled throughout the crowd.
An older man two rows back caught Falk’s eye with a nod and they exchanged a sad smile of recognition. What was his name? Falk tried to remember. He couldn’t focus. The man had been a teacher. Falk could just about picture him at the front of a classroom, gamely attempting to bring geography or woodwork or something else alive for bored teenagers, but the memory kept flitting away.
The man nodded at the bench beside him, indicating he would make space, but Falk shook his head politely and turned back to the front. He avoided small talk at the best of times and this, unquestionably, was a million horrific miles from the best of times.
God, that middle coffin was small. Lying between the two full-size ones only made it look worse. If that were possible. Tiny kids with combed hair plastered to their skulls pointed it out: Dad, look. That box is in football colours. Those old enough to know what was inside stared in appalled silence, fidgeting in their school uniforms as they edged a little closer to their mothers.
Above the three coffins, a family of four stared down from a blown-up photograph. Their static smiles were overlarge and pixelated. Falk recognised the picture from the news. It had been used a lot.
Beneath, the names of the dead were spelled out in native flowers. Luke. Karen. Billy.
Falk stared at Luke’s picture. The thick black hair had the odd grey line now, but he still looked fitter than most men on the wrong side of thirty-five. His face seemed older than Falk remembered, but then it had been nearly five years. The confident grin was unchanged, as was the slightly knowing look in his eyes. Still the same, were the words that sprang to mind. Three coffins said differently.
‘Bloody tragic.’ The farmer at Falk’s side spoke out of nowhere. His arms were crossed, fists wedged tightly under his armpits.
‘It is,’ Falk said.
‘You knew ’em well?’
‘Not really. Only Luke, the–’ For a dizzy moment Falk couldn’t think of a word to describe the man in the largest coffin. He mentally grasped about but could only find clichéd tabloid descriptions.
‘The father,’ he landed on finally. ‘We were friends when we were younger.’
Feature image: Jane Harper (c) Nicholas Purcell