The culprit was never found. For years after, George dreamt of the blue-tinged body, the floral dress bubbling with air as the river flowed beneath it. He seized her ankles and dragged her to shore. On his haunches he retched on the loamy earth, the smell of putrefaction in his nostrils. His breathing was laboured as he flipped her over and gasped. It was Hetty Noble, the older sister of a friend. Her mouth was open in shock as if she’d glimpsed the devil himself. Her pale blue eyes stared, a film coated them. Tendrils of black hair clung to her neck. George retched once more, clutching his middle.
Rutherglen was quiet the day Hannah arrived. She walked the main street batting away flies, wearing her one good dress. The sun beat down on the corrugated iron awning above her and the heat felt like a heavy blanket. A wind blew the dusty earth in jagged swirls and she felt grit in her eyes. She passed an old woman pushing a vinyl shopping cart, a drooping straw hat pulled down low on her forehead.
‘Good afternoon,’ said Hannah.
‘Afternoon,’ replied the woman, her gaze on her shoes.
‘I’m looking for Frank Noble’s place? I’ve a position there, as a tutor?’
The old lady stopped and narrowed her gaze. She reached up to adjust her hat and a pair of shrewd blue eyes studied her, deep set amidst charcoal shadows and a filigree of lines.
‘Them kids are out of control. You’ll need the hand of God to whip them into shape. Barely know how to count to ten, I’ve heard.’
Hannah waited, and the woman continued to stare. ‘Goodness gracious, you look like someone used to live here. How very strange.’
‘Um, the house? How can I find it?’
‘Up the hill, old weatherboard. Number 10. Green letterbox with a plastic robin on the top. Can’t miss it.’
‘Thank you,’ said Hannah, ‘I appreciate your help. I can’t seem to find the address in my bag.’
She walked on. Some wobbling men emerged from the pub and gave her the once over. There was a low whistle. One of them, an older man, clipped the ear of the youth next to him and eyed her. He paled and stood immobile, his mouth falling open.
Hannah shivered and strode faster, emerging from the shade of the awning and following the road up the hill. Perspiration seeped into the collar of her dress as she climbed. The raucous call of magpies shattered the silence, hidden in the foliage of the ghost gums lining the road. Below she spotted the winding brown snake of the river. It winked stars of light.
The green letterbox was covered in rust and the robin sat on an angle. At the end of a gravel drive stood the house, its weatherboards in need of new paint. Hannah took a breath and propelled herself forward, a queer ache throbbing in her stomach. The house was familiar. She knew if she went around the back she would see a swing set and a rusted car claimed by the weeds and the elements. The house had appeared in her dreams.
She rapped on the door, her mouth dry. The floor inside creaked and a thin man with sunken cheeks answered, two bright spots of red flushing his face. On seeing her, his colour faded to grey and he gripped the doorframe.
‘Hetty, Hetty it can’t be you…’ Tears streamed down his face and three unruly children gathered around him, their eyes wide.
‘I’m Hannah,’ she answered. ‘I’m the new tutor.’