The Voices

The Voices

by Susan Elderkin


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In the remote, blood red dust of the Australian bush, thirteen-year-old Billy Saint finds guidance—not from his parents or their Western culture—but from the landscape itself. He turns to the outback, drawing the only joy he’s known from simply watching and mimicking the kangaroos. On his trips alone to the bush near his home, he begins to hear the Voices of the country, inscrutable figures that are alternately repulsed and attracted by the modern world. Alone, they squabble with themselves and the Wind, ever slighted by the Aboriginals who no longer hear them. They turn to Billy, sensing that he, although white, may be their last hope for survival. But it is Maisie, an enigmatic and ghostly Aborigine girl, and a friend to the Voices, who befriends Billy on one of his forays, and together they explore the land and each other’s worlds, leaving the Voices to wallow in their sloth and despair. As Billy ventures further into the untamed land, his parents are drawn deeper into their own private miseries, unable to reach out to their son before he drifts away. Confused by the quiet desperation at home, and terrified of the power he finds in the Voices of the bush, Billy flees to the relative safety and quiet of an underground mining community. The cacophonous sounds of the mine drown out the Voices, and he begins to feel relatively safe within this new community.

Ten years later Billy is alone in a hospital, recovering from gruesome wounds of mysterious origin. Protecting him from the prying of the doctors, who believe him a dangerous schizophrenic responsible for the mad beating of a man on a train, is Cecily, an aboriginal nurse, and in her Billy finds an unlikely ally as he struggles to piece himself back together. For it is Cecily who understands what his wounds signify, even if she has never seen them on a white man before. Shifting between his hospital stay and the childhood that lead him there, The Voices unfolds into a mesmerizing exploration of the relationship between a man, the land he loves, and the spirits of the country, struggling to be heard before it is too late.

With her haunting and psychologically complex tale of one boy who has internalized the trauma and the schisms of his land and its history, Elderkin boldly exposes the long and forceful arm of institutionalized injustice, and the inescapable hold of collective memory. The Voices is an extraordinary accomplishment.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802141705
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 10/28/2004
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 323
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Voices

By Susan Elderkin

Grove Atlantic, Inc.

Copyright © 2003

Susan Elderkin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8021-1757-0


the voices

it comes from the inland desert

A warm wind is blowing tonight.

It comes from the inland desert and it's heavy with red dust,
handfuls scooped up and cradled tight against its chest. So far
the plain has been as seemingly endless and without modulation
as an ocean at sleep: crowns of spinifex hug the flat; the
occasional sun-bitten gum tree, stripped of its leaves, reaches
out of the earth like a claw. But now a sandstone escarpment
rises from nowhere like a submarine emerging from the deep,
and the wind pulls up short, whirls around in an eddy of
indecision, sprinkling a little of its precious cargo on the
land. Which way will it go? First it gusts to the right, then to the
left, and here, sheltering within a patch of grey box and scraggy
cabbage gums it finds a crooked tin roof rusted to a pink and
orange patchwork. It circles the house in a double lasso, finds
an open window at the back, plays at bellying the curtain in and
out. Then slips inside.

It's a small, square room. Rectangles of white-bordered
posters glimmer through the mealy grey air. Their edges snake
where they haven't been fully stuck down. Along a shelf is a
row of stones, small enough to fit in the palm of a child's hand.
Near the far wall a spray of blond hair crouches on a pillow like
a spider. There's the sound of shallow, fretful breath.

Suddenly the hair flies into the air, hangs suspended for a
moment like a ball at the top of its toss, then drops back down
again - a fresh corner of pillow this time, a little cooler than
before. Maybe now he'll be able to get to sleep. But no: a
second later the hair flies up again, an elbow jabbing angrily at
the sheet.

This is Billy, we say.

Ah, says the wind, so this is him. What's all the tossing and
turning about? Is it the heat?

No, no, he's used to that.

Was I making too much noise in the cabbage gums?

No more than usual. Look, just there, on the bridge of his nose.
See that dent?

Like a drawstring tugged tight?


A gathering up of his confusion?

That's right. All the unanswered questions.

I see, says the wind. No wonder he can't sleep.


Still don't know what you lot are bothering with him for.

Though curious enough at first, the wind doesn't really care
about this boy - and why should it? It has no need of people; it
doesn't depend on them like we do. Instead it curls around the
room looking for something to disturb, a loose sheet of paper to
flutter to the floor, a pencil to roll off a chair. But the contents of
this room are disappointingly static. On the floor by the bed is a
thin, hardback book called The Universe, face down, its pages
buckled and trapped beneath it. On its cover is a picture of
the planet: swirls of white and blue and green like blobs of ink
twirled round with a nib, and all around it is the perfect
blackness that sets the scenes for this boy's nightmares - more
like sensations than nightmares, when gravity has lost its hold
and he's falling through space, arms lashing out for something
to hold onto, all the time falling faster and faster and still the
blackness goes on, plenty more where that came from - ah yes,
an infinite supply. Will it ever come to an end?

We've all had dreams like that, sneers the wind. They aren't
anything special.

But this boy beneath the sheet, this boy that we are starting to
love, has more than his fair share of solitary fears. He is small
for his age, skinny. The wind ruffles the edge of the sheet so
that we can get a peek - yes, there it lies, meek and pale as a
cracked brazil nut just out of its shell. Any day now he will turn
the corner, sprout hair, an Adam's apple budding in his throat,
those arms and legs shooting out and down until they're long
and gangly with heavy hands and feet on the ends - just like
his father's, too big and clumsy to be much use. But he's not
quite ready yet. A thin arm whips up as he flings himself onto
his back, exposing a slight, honey-brown torso, ribs showing
through like the roots of a tree. Fingers curled on the pillow, as
if he wants to ask a question.

Excuse me, Mrs Tucker, I don't understand.

What don't you understand, Billy?

Any of it.

What do you mean, any of it?

Her irritation curbs his confidence but doesn't shut him up

What we're doing here. What it's all about. Who 're
supposed to go to for the answers.

See the anxious eyeball flickering beneath the lid? It is as if he
refuses to make the transition into adolescence until he gets
some answers. And who can blame him? Not us. Certainly not

Such ridiculous questions, mutters Mrs Tucker.

It doesn't make sense, that's all. How am I supposed to know
what's right and what's wrong? I don't know who to ask.

Even as we watch he begins to slip, the muscles in his cheeks
sliding into softness, the delicate mouth crushed against the
pillow where a little pool of dribble will collect before morning.
In a snap of a finger, he's gone. Ah, what a shame, Billy, we
appear to have run out of time. Jiss have to wait until tomorrow,
won't we?

Rebutted by Mrs Tucker, the useless cow.

Before our eyes, the unconscious body draws its extremities in
towards the warmer core: the knees pulling up, the elbows
folding in, the freckled nose burrowing down. And so the
questions draw in too, their curious searchlights aimed now at
his steadily thumping heart. If there are no answers out there,
they will just have to make do with whatever they can find inside
him: instincts, primeval knowledge - whatever they call
them these days. Perhaps they will be found stencilled into the
walls of his gut, secreted down blood-red tunnels, tucked inside
folds of tissue like fossils.

A tightly twisted spiral of a snail shell preserved in all its
wondrous detail. Palaeozoic, Mesozoic, Cenozoic. All these
epochs hidden inside the body of little Billy Saint.

The bridge of his nose is smooth now, perfect as the bowl of a
spoon. And the wind is bored. There's nothing to play with here
and it wants to move on - it's what winds do, after all - and
we'll go with it, although we'll be back to see this boy again.
Once we've made up our minds, we never back down - and
anyway, who are we to be choosy these days? The wind takes
one last spin around the room and then, childishly, when
we're not looking, darts behind one of the slouching posters so
that it flops right off the wall, doubling over in a little
thunderclap of stiff paper, and the boy sits bolt upright in his
bed, blinking in surprise, sees nothing but a disembodied square
of pale curtain floating at the window, hears a quick rustling of
the gum trees outside.

And then everything goes quiet.

part I part I 7

the largest pair of knees

-How long you gunna take to fill that bedpan?

He opens his eyes to find himself confronted by the largest pair
of knees he has ever seen. They are bold and black, the skin
paler where it's stretched over the humps, darker in the dips and
hollows. They are not a perfect pair: the left is more bulbous
than the right. It is as if they had been crafted by hand.

His eyes travel upwards. Thick, folded arms struggle to extricate
themselves from beneath a heavy wedge of breast. When he
reaches her face he sees that she is a full-blood. Her solid,
protruding brow reaches right over the black eyes like the
overhang of a cliff.

The nurse squints up at a bag of saline hanging from a metal
stand. A plastic tube dangles down and disappears beneath a
bandage on the back of his hand. Her lips move, counting drips.
Four, five, six. Nine, ten, eleven. Then she flicks up the edge of
his sheet with a finger and gives a small, breathy cry of

- Get a move on, wontcha.

She is sharp with her high-pitched words, as if they are prickles
in her mouth she has to spit out.

He turns away from her, mortified.

It's the position.

Want me to get it moving?

Out of the corner of his eye, he can see that she is wriggling her
forefinger: a child's imitation of a mouse. Instinctively, he jerks
his buttocks away and almost slips off the pan.

Ya kiddin.

She waits just long enough for him to realise his mistake.

You bet I am. You'd hev to be prettier for that.

She relishes the look on his face, practically licks her lips at it.
Eyelids lowered to contain her satisfaction, she turns her body
in the way that heavy people do, moving the chair to one side to
save herself the job of stepping around it, and saunters off, her
high-boned arse swilling from side to side like brandy in a glass.

She's smiling to herself, he can tell. At the door of the ward she
looks around and sniggers again.

Cecily thinks the whole business is hilariously funny. Billy can't
remember the last time he gave someone so much cause for
amusement. He knows her name is Cecily because she has a
badge pinned to her uniform. It hitches up the thin cotton fabric
so that one breast looks higher than the other. The uniform is
made of pale-blue graph-paper hatches.

He has an urge to use her name - both out of a desire to feel
those Cs on his tongue, and to show that he likes her, that he
might soften for her - but he hasn't had a chance yet, and he's
not one to force these things. She reminds him of the women
from back home, with her harsh voice and her air of absolute
disinterest in what's going on around her. She has a way of
standing still amid the scurrying, her gaze skimming the tops
of people's heads.


It doesn't suit her one bit, he decides, the hard rim of the
bedpan digging into his coccyx. Far too delicate, ethereal a
name for someone so solid, so real.

A woman in a flapping white doctor's coat, her hair scraped
back in a severe bun, sits on the edge of his bed and looks at
him with unconcealed impatience. She has introduced herself
simply as Ann, as if everyone should know who Ann is, what
Ann does. Only by scrutinising her badge does he discover
that she's a psychiatric consultant, and that her full name is Ann
Gould. Billy responds with contempt: she, after all, is the one
who talks to the freaks.

- Can you tell me what you remember? she asks, rearranging the
pink and green forms on her clipboard.

Billy's not in the mood. He suspects that any probing will push
his already sketchy memories even further into the shadows. But
she presses him, says there's a cop coming along shortly who
will bully him into giving a story, any story, so he might as well
get one worked out. She prompts him, as if he were a child.

This incident on the train. There was a fight, yes?

Surely the other bloke's filled you in already.

- I need to hear your side of the story. The hows and whys of
it. I'm not a fucken philosopher.

She raises the narrow arcs of her plucked eyebrows, lets the
disdain spill freely from her eyes. Bullies come in many
disguises, he thinks. He sighs.

Yeh, we had a fight, he says.


That man, the American tourist, and me.

Describe him, please. For the record.

- Big and fat. Video camera slung over' is shoulder. White
knee-high socks, freckled thighs. About as much subtlety in him
as a fork-lift. He tails off, fragments of memory beginning to
surface now. He lets them go, a separate strand from the story
he is going to tell her.

Go on.

He wouldn't get out of me way. He was sittin in me seat.

Sitting in your seat? But you didn't have a seat -

- And so you had to hit the bugger, interjects Cecily. Unseen by
either of them, the black nurse has crept into the curtained-off
cubicle and is rearranging the glass of water and box of tissues
on his bedside table, even though neither has been touched.
Evidently she hadn't wanted to miss Billy's account.

- He was that shocked you'd have thought he didn't know what
fists were for! She is holding back a snigger but it escapes, a
little gumpf of a snort, and she decides to give in to it. She
stands up straight and wipes a tear from her eye. - Oh, you
shoulda seen his face when they brought im in! It was like 'e
was saying, This wasn't in the tourist brochure!

Billy can sense a stiffening in Ann's body at the foot of his bed,
forcing herself to sit out this interruption in good humour. Her
pointed features are pinched shut like the clasp on a purse.

Cecily -

- Seemed to think Billy had bin planted out in the bush for their
entertainment, part of the tourist show. Out to your left is a wild
bushman, a very lucky sighting, you don't see em often.

Cecily, I want to hear Mr Saint's version of events. She nods at

Go on.

Billy shrugs. He was enjoying Cecily's jokes. - I don't
remember any more, he says. Everyone was staring at me. I
don't know why.

Ann cocks her head. - I can tell you why, Mr Saint. You were
blistered from the sun and rank as a five-day-old carcass. The
driver of the Ghan Express saw you lying between the steel
sleepers, as though you were waiting either to be hit by the train
or to be carried back towards civilisation. Towards life. If he
hadn't been going so slowly it would certainly have been the
former. I don't think you appreciate how lucky you are.

Cecily is blowing her nose now with a cotton hanky and Billy
smiles as he watches her blocking one nostril and then the other.
She doesn't look like the women back west any more. She is
just a nurse, at home enough here to disrupt the doctor's
interrogation and not care. Billy is impressed by her, how she
has found a niche for herself in this white institution, hoisting
herself firmly out of no-man's-land and dumping her
bulky frame down here as if she had never doubted her right to
it all along. - I was thirsty, Billy says quietly. I didn't want to
die. I was looking for a drink of water.

And so you thought you'd hitch a ride.

She bores in with her determined eyes. Billy turns away,
scrutinises the cream and tan geometric pattern on the curtains
by his bed.

Do you remember anything else at all, Mr Saint?

Yeh, I do. They were playing Casablanca on TV.

Afterwards, Cecily wheels him to the bathroom and positions
him squarely in front of a full-length mirror. She says she wants
to get him neatened up before the cop arrives. The bathroom is
a large, rectangular room, fitted out for the elderly and infirm - metal
rails either side of the toilet, a raised plastic seat. Billy
hadn't thought he'd find himself using a bathroom like this just

He slouches in silence while she opens a cabinet and takes out a
pressurised can. She squirts a ball of foam on to her palm and
offers it to him as if he were a horse, a white cloud cupped
beneath his mouth. He sits there sullenly, intent on his
humiliation. She waits a full half minute then she picks up his
chin and slaps the foam against his jaw. Specks of it spray out
like the froth of a wave hitting rock.

Excerpted from The Voices
by Susan Elderkin
Copyright © 2003 by Susan Elderkin.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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