Firstly, happy publication day to Amanda Hickie, Before This Is Over is out today! Secondly, welcome to my stop on the blog tour for this great new release; I’m honoured to be hosting the publication tour stop and I have something very exciting to share with you today – not just any book extract but the whole first chapter! I have read and reviewed Before This Is Over, so I can guarantee you’re in for a treat. Make yourself a cuppa, get comfortable and enjoy…
A normal family. A quiet, leafy street. A terrifying epidemic.
It’s been coming for a while: a lethal illness. With sons of five and fourteen to look out for, Hannah has been stockpiling supplies, despite everyone telling her that it’s unnecessary.
Then it arrives.
At first there are a few unconfirmed cases. Then a death. Now the whole city is quarantined. But Hannah’s family is not yet safe behind their locked front door…
Basics soon become luxuries, and neighbours become hazards. There are power cuts, food shortages and an ever-growing sense of claustrophobia. How will the family cope?
How would you cope?
How far would you go to protect your children?
Hannah drew the sheet around her face and nose so that
it caught a pocket of her breath and warmed the air. She
sank into the mattress, as if the bed were wrapped around
her, around both of them. She felt Sean’s bulk beside her,
impressing his shape down into the bed and up into the
bedclothes. Cocooned together. Her dozy mind moved
around the house, expanding the cocoon to encompass
the boys as well. She tried to pull herself back into sleep,
think herself deeper into the bed – but sleep slid away
every time she got close.
She leaned over Sean to look at the clock, making noth-
ing more than a pretense of trying not to wake him.
‘It’s too late to go back to sleep, hon, too early to wake
up.’ He whispered but his voice was alert.
‘How long have you been awake?’
‘Not long. I didn’t want to disturb the boys. Don’t
want them up any earlier than they have to be.’
She felt the hyperawareness and nausea of overtired-
ness. Every time either of the boys went away, sleeplessness
broke out. Ever since they were little. Even for a sleepover.
She had woken up last night, she couldn’t remember how
many times, with some specific dread in mind – a bus
crash, a swimming accident, a teacher turning away for a
second, Zac following instructions to some terrible conclu-
sion that she just stopped herself from imagining in detail.
Three hours’ drive was too far away.
The teachers seemed competent but she didn’t know
them. If there was a crisis, if hard decisions had to be
made, Zac would be just another one of the kids.
She ran through a list of warnings for Zac in her mind.
About washing his hands and not kissing anyone (not
that he showed any signs of being interested in kissing),
not following along if his instinct tingled, the numbers to
ring in an emergency. It was important he knew she
trusted him, but what if the one thing she didn’t tell him
was the one thing he needed to know?
And then there were all the things she couldn’t influ-
ence, the people she couldn’t give a stern lecture to. The
bus driver falling asleep, the air-conditioning in the hotel
spreading germs, something Zac would have no control
over, something she couldn’t prevent with cautionary
words. The luck of where he sat determining how he fared.
‘He doesn’t have to go.’ It slipped out, so softly she
wasn’t sure Sean had heard.
‘He’ll be fine,’ Sean whispered curtly back. ‘He’s not a
little kid. He went last year, he was fine.’
‘The school should have postponed it.’
There was silence for a moment from Sean, an impatient
silence. ‘It’s not like he’s going to Bangkok. There isn’t a
single case in Canberra. There isn’t really even a case here
yet. Do you want him to be the only kid who doesn’t go?’
‘It’s not like this is important.’
Sean’s whisper became sharp. ‘It is to him.’
Why was it so hard to see the times she should have dug
in her heels, except in hindsight? It was Pascal’s wager, the
tiniest chance of danger to her kids weighing heavily
against a very large chance of looking a bit foolish.
From deep in the house she heard Zac’s bedroom door
slam and the sluggish thump of his feet in the hall. Sean
dug her in the ribs. ‘Time to get up.’
As Hannah came down the hall, Zac was in the doorway
of the kitchen, silhouetted by the weak rays of the
not-quite-risen sun. His edge was clear and solid. Watch-
ing him, her eyes relaxed. Yet again he took her by
surprise, his slender height filling the door, his arm up,
hand lazily touching the lintel. Her round and squidgy
boy had been pulled out to a long strand.
Sean was a few paces into the room, his form dark in
the shadows of the kitchen. He seemed solid compared to
the slight, bright mirror of his son. They were saying the
easy, normal, meaningless, repetitive things that had
become habit. Words that started and ended everything.
Zac’s clear young voice, so light it almost blew away
before she could catch it, broke through Sean’s soft, low
rumble. As she slid past, Zac pulled closer to the door
frame to let her by. He loosely held a piece of toast.
‘That’s not all you’re having to eat?’
‘It’s too early for food.’
The colors in the room shifted blue as she turned on the
light. She made herself a cup of coffee to drink while she
made Zac’s lunch, going back to the cupboard for extras –
a muesli bar, some crackers, a bag of chips. Just in case.
For whatever situation it was she couldn’t foresee. Zac
wouldn’t eat any of them, and in five days’ time the lunch
bag would come back with the extra food intact.
She turned the radio down low so as not to wake
Oscar. A case in Sydney would have been the lead story,
but there wasn’t one. All she got was Newcastle and no
change, more people sick but no confirmed cases since
that lone woman last week. And Thailand and Britain.
Actual cases but too far away to be the justification she
needed to cancel Zac’s trip. Too far away, too hard to
grasp, meaningless numbers. There would be nothing
official from China, yet again.
When Sean and Zac paused in their conversation, she
found herself saying, ‘Do you have your phone?’
‘Is it on and charged?’
‘Yes, Mum.’ A slightly impatient smile.
‘Okay then.’ But she couldn’t just let him go. ‘Be
‘I always am.’
‘Do you have some money, just in case?’
Sean, leaning against the wall, swiveled to her. ‘I gave
him money. He’s fine.’
‘Don’t do anything you don’t feel comfortable with.’
Zac turned back to face her, his smile wider now, and
good-natured. ‘I’m not going to be running around in the
middle of the night, Mum. I promise.’
‘Of course not. Just stay safe.’ She watched him as
he rifled through his bag, checking against a list from the
school. His face was pinker now, so alive, as the sun took
over from the cold fluorescent light. All she had to do to
make this feeling disappear was tell him he couldn’t go.
Sean watched Zac. ‘What’s the holdup? I thought I’d
be rid of you by now.’
‘I haven’t got my MP3 player.’
‘I thought they said no electronics.’
‘Yeah, but they didn’t mean it. It’s not like it’s worth
anything.’ He rolled his eyes as he closed up the bag, then
threw it over one shoulder and loped through the door to
‘Quietly,’ Hannah whispered loudly to his back. ‘Oscar’s
‘He’s fine, you’re fine, we’re fine. So relax.’ Sean leaned
back against the door frame.
‘I know, but . . .’
‘No but.’ He looked her in the eye. ‘If you hurry back
we might even get in a cup of coffee before Oscar wakes up.
A whole cup of coffee with no kids actually in the
She pushed past him and he followed her in silence
until she paused at the front door, reluctant to let the day
officially begin. ‘So, I should drive really fast.’
‘That’s right, safely and really fast.’ He swung open
the front door and stepped back to let Zac through.
‘And if I had a real phone I’d have music because Mum
says I have to take my phone. So, you should write me a
note, ’cause if I get in trouble it’s your fault.’
‘Not a hope. Behave yourself and do all the stuff your
Hannah gave Sean a quick kiss. As she got in the car,
she turned for one more look, but the door was closed.
They drove to the school in comfortable silence. Zac was
absorbed in his inner world. Just a couple of years ago it
was hard to get a word in edgewise, but now he kept his
thoughts to himself until they were well-ordered. He’d
done his own packing and she was tempted to check
whether he’d had the foresight to take a fleece. It had been
on the list and he knew it was a few degrees colder in
Canberra. It would be a learning experience – no one ever
died of getting a bit chilly, although, at the moment . . .
no, they really didn’t.
She couldn’t help herself. Some things were too impor-
tant. ‘Don’t forget the hand goo.’
‘Use it a lot.’
‘I will.’ He wasn’t really paying attention, but she’d
The streets were still empty. It felt odd to pull into a
parking space straight in front of the school, as if she
were taking something not rightfully hers. Two hours
from now the buildings would look the way she was used
to, hidden behind double-parked cars as kids jumped out
and ran for the gate.
Zac pulled his backpack out of the car as he stood up.
He waited for her to come around to the curb, and they
walked together into the asphalt yard and stood side
by side. A knot of kids congregated in front of the wait-
ing bus, their high, chirrupy teenage voices drowning out
the muted murmur coming from the small clusters of par-
ents. She looked around for a friendly face, but if she was
being honest with herself, she didn’t really know any of
Zac’s friends’ parents.
Zac stood facing no particular direction, as if he didn’t
know whether to join the clump of kids or be with her.
The two of them were matched in their awkwardness.
She wanted to push him towards the group, but he had
his own pace. His body had started to mature, but every
emotion was still expressed, unfiltered, on his face and in
the way he stood.
As she stared into the distance, the figure of a woman
walking towards her impinged on her thoughts. Someone
familiar, someone she had met before, although she couldn’t
quite place where or who. Possibly Daniel’s mother, she
thought. She hoped. They had definitely met more times
than could justify Hannah’s not remembering her name.
The woman came to a stop next to her, and side by side,
in the moment before either felt compelled to say some-
thing, they looked at the kids. Hannah leaned slightly back,
trying to retrieve an air gap between them.
‘Is Zac as disorganized as Daniel?’
One right at least. ‘If there are undies in his bag, it’ll be
‘This is embarrassing, but I’ve forgotten your name.’
Thank Christ. ‘Hannah.’
Hannah stared at the gaggle. Zac had moved to the
outskirts, watching. She could see him unconsciously
matching his body language to the other kids’, laughing
at something as the others laughed. The group had wid-
ened, fanned out just enough to include him, and while
he relaxed a little, he stayed listening, head to one side.
Her heart jumped and she realized she was smiling,
almost like she was in love.
Susan’s hand bumped the back of hers. Cold fingers.
The touch was so light that normally it wouldn’t register
at all. Susan was clearly unaware she’d done it. ‘Isn’t it
terrible, the news from overseas?’
‘Oh, yes, horrible.’ Hannah tried to think of something
more salient to say, but she couldn’t get her mind off the
spot on her hand, the spot that had been touched. It could
be the cold morning, but she felt a lingering sensation of
damp. A wet touch would transfer germs better than a
dry one. She had to fight the urge to rub the cold away
with her other hand. Even if it didn’t look strange, it would
do nothing but spread the germs.
She edged slightly away. On the Internet it said that she
should keep a meter between herself and anyone else.
Surely that wasn’t enough. Surely a cough or a sneeze
could travel farther, but it might at least reduce the
accidental bumps and incidental spit.
‘What about Thailand? We were there at Christmas.
Graeme got sick – Bali belly, and then he was dehydrated –
but the hospital was terrific. Last night, there it was on
the news. You could barely recognize it, there were peo-
ple dying in the corridors. And it was so clean and normal
when we were there. We were right there.’
Now Hannah’s hand was hanging. She fixated on it,
couldn’t take her thoughts from it long enough for it to
move freely. There was a wipe in her bag, but pulling it
out to clean her hand now would seem rude.
Zac had broken away from the larger group. He was
chatting and laughing easily with two other boys, then
stopped to look around. His eyes landed on her, looking
for her. He walked over self-consciously and stood slightly
too far away.
‘Well, bye, Mum.’ He generously allowed her to hug him.
‘Be good, enjoy yourself, try to learn something.’
Everyone else was lining up in front of the bus doors.
If he didn’t hurry, he would be last and end up next
to some kid he didn’t really know for the next three
His back was pressed against the glass of the bus win-
dow. The boy on the other half of his seat was almost
touching him. Another two on the seat in front and two
behind. At least five kids within a meter of Zac. He leaned
closer to the boy in front to say something, breathing the
same air. She had forgotten to tell him about the one-
meter rule, and even if she had, there wasn’t enough room
on the bus to keep his distance.
He looked so capable, suddenly so much his own per-
son. She had made him and now there he was – complete,
The bus lurched forward. The kids, some despite
themselves, looked out the windows to their parents.
Some waved, some just looked. Zac was still talking to
his friends and didn’t look back, only raising a hand
slightly and giving her his confident smile once the bus
had almost pulled away. She stood and watched until
they were out of sight.
The narrow school gate was clogged with leaving par-
ents who had stopped in groups to talk. She had to weave
through, trying not to be touched and not to breathe too
She skirted a toddler hanging on to the tether of his
mother with one hand and smearing his snotty nose with
the other. Her pulse skipped again. But it was a cold
morning – that made noses run. She looked for anything
else that might be a symptom, even the memory of a
cough or a sneeze. There was no way she would have
missed it if someone coughed. The chance that she was
looking at the first case in Sydney was minuscule.
Not every sneeze was Manba, that was what she had
to keep telling herself. But not everyone who had Manba
had symptoms. Any of these healthy-looking people
could be in the early stages – or be an asymptomatic
carrier – and you wouldn’t know.
This was how bad things happened – by ignoring her
instincts. If something went wrong, she would always
know she’d had a choice to stop him from going. She had
to hold herself back from running after the bus.
Every kid did this. All the kids went, the teachers
would look after them, Zac was safe. She knew that.
She told herself that. But still Hannah felt she had
It was too late now. It was done.
The cold nip of the car door handle took her by surprise.
She glanced at the clock – seven thirty, even though the
bus was supposed to leave by seven. Still enough time to
get home and get Oscar ready. As much out of habit as any-
thing, she turned on the radio for the news. She felt jumpy,
maybe just eager to get home.
There was more traffic on the road now. As she passed
Oscar’s school, kids were already arriving. A harried-
looking father dropped two small girls at the gate of the
before-school care center.
The voice from the radio pushed itself to the front of
her attention. ‘ . . . organizers believe they have now iden-
tified all attendees. However, a small number have still
not been located. The World Health Organization has
offered assistance to any government whose citizens
attended the conference . . .’
The wind had picked up a little, and the kids looked
like small blue-and-white bundles with their arms
wrapped around themselves.
‘. . . on farms all over Britain, thousands of animals
have already been put down. Protesters gathered in Lon-
don are claiming that the cull will do nothing to reduce
the spread of Manba without a significant drive to
identify wild animal vectors. Wide-scale testing of non-
domestic animals in the Manchester area has begun . . .’
Gwen had asked her yesterday if their cat caught birds.
She’d explained that Mr Moon certainly recognized birds
as a source of food, but if it didn’t come out of a can, it
wasn’t worth his effort. Gwen had looked unconvinced.
Hannah hadn’t bothered to point out that Manba wasn’t
bird flu and she should worry instead about whether Mr
Moon caught bats.
‘. . . reports that airport employees are refusing to
unload passengers from a plane originating in Bangkok.
A short time ago, the minister for immigration said a
decision would be made soon on whether the passengers
will be allowed to enter the country. In the meantime, the
plane is being supplied with food and water . . .’
She thought of all those people returning from holi-
days. So close to being home after such a long flight,
but still stuck in a metal tube. Imagine being sent back
to a forced vacation in a disease zone. Well, at least it
wasn’t summer, so the plane wouldn’t heat up too fast
as it sat.
‘. . . is advising anyone planning overseas travel to post-
pone their journey. People who must travel are advised to
stay away from areas where large groups congregate,
including tourist attractions and conferences . . .’
No one she knew would get sick, she had to believe
that. The outbreaks overseas would die out. And every-
one would complain about panicky scientists, who would
insist that we still needed to be prepared for next time.
And that would be it.
Or it wouldn’t.
And she was prepared. Except that in three hours Zac
would be three hours away and she had no control over
Newcastle Hospital, airport security, government policy,
The news continued – a story about a film star, sports,
and weather. She switched it off.
As the car turned onto the driveway, she noticed again
the way the facade spanned the property, presenting a
united front with Gwen’s half of the semidetached house.
Its thick front door deadened the sound from the street.
Even the side passage between their house and Natalie
and Stuart’s was barred by a tall wooden gate. An
unbroken barrier to keep out noise, dust, draft, people,
The solidarity was broken only by the paint. Heritage
hues of Brunswick green and Indian red on their side
abruptly changed to a particularly powdery shade of lav-
ender on Gwen’s. Otherwise, they were mirrors.
As she walked through the front door, she could hear
the happiness in Oscar’s high voice, carried all the way
from the back. Sunlight through the kitchen window
washed the room in a golden glow. At the stove, Sean
leaned over a sandwich toasting in the frying pan.
‘You call that breakfast?’
‘I see four food groups here, if you count fat.’ He lifted
the corner of the sandwich with a spatula and a trickle of
melted cheese oozed out. ‘I’ll make you one if you’re nice
She planted a swift kiss on his cheek. ‘Will that do?’
‘Payment in full.’
The top half of the room was warm and humid, filled
with steam from the kettle, but air from outside still crept
in under the back door. Oscar sat at the table in his
frog-covered flannel pajamas, one size too big. Unlike
Zac at the same age, for Oscar five was still young enough
not to think they were uncool. He had rosy spots on his
cheeks, but his naked feet were pinched with cold.
‘Did you see him leave? We wouldn’t want him to
sneak back.’ Sean winked at Oscar, who giggled.
‘He was fine. The bus was late but they eventually left.’
‘And no one was panicking. They breathed in, they
breathed out, the world is the same as it was yesterday,
isn’t it?’ She chose to ignore him. ‘Isn’t it? Oscar, ask
Mummy if the world has changed.’
‘Mummy, has the world . . .’
‘No, it hasn’t, the world hasn’t changed.’ She begrudged
him a smile. ‘No disaster struck, the bus left, everything
is the same. Today. But tomorrow . . .’
‘Tomorrow is tomorrow. Today, nothing has changed.’
He slid her toasted sandwich onto a plate and held it out
to her. ‘Breathe. You’re the only one panicking. He’s fine.’
He stopped with the spatula hovering over his sandwich.
‘What date is it?’
‘Are you sure? Crap, I missed my sister’s birthday.’
‘It’s still yesterday there.’
‘I’ll ring her from work. What’s the time difference?’
‘I don’t know. Day is night, use the Internet.’
She got to the hospital just before her appointment time.
The main building was new – all glass and exposed con-
crete. Wide public spaces that meant you might be on
time when you arrived on the grounds but were late by
the time you walked through the front door.
Her doctor was housed in a side wing, an old building
that had somehow escaped being knocked down. Its
entrance was homier, less grand than the main entrance,
but today it was covered by a large red X of electrical
tape, holding in place a sign that read CLINIC OPEN. USE
The main entrance was impersonal and, regardless of
the weather or the signs forbidding smoking within ten
meters of the doors, there was always a knot of gowned
patients, cigarettes in hand, just to one side. As she
reached the edifice, she noticed that the contingent was
larger than usual and all gathered around one door, the
only door that wasn’t covered with more red tape. Thicker
smoke to walk through.
The crowd jostled for position in front of a harried
individual wearing a hi- vis yellow vest. A disgruntled
woman walking past Hannah said, ‘They tell me I can’t
see my brand-new grandchild. What a lot of nonsense
It became clear as Hannah waded into the crowd that
it formed a kind of disordered line. The man in the vest
held up his hand to the person in front, who seemed to be
berating him, and called out, ‘Anyone with an appoint-
ment?’ Hannah put up her hand tentatively. ‘Fill in the
form, then go to one of the desks inside.’ He went back to
The form consisted of a plain A4 page printed in black.
‘Do you have an appointment today? Have you returned
from overseas in the last two months? Have you developed
a cough in the last week? Have you had a fever in the last
week?’ She ticked them off.
Inside, the normally spacious foyer was cut in half by a
dotted barrier of white desks. They demarcated the normal
soup of life and germs she had left outside from an unac-
customedly empty and sterile world of illness. She handed
her filled- in form to the woman at the nearest desk. The
woman addressed herself to the form, as if Hannah were a
bystander. ‘Have you been away in the last few weeks?’
‘Have you been unwell in any way this week?’
‘Is this your signature?’
The woman gestured to a pump bottle of hand
sanitizer on the desk. ‘You have to clean your hands
before you go through.’
Hannah hesitated. ‘Has something happened at the
hospital? Is that why all the extra fuss?’
The woman looked up. ‘We should be doing this all
the time, if you ask me, not just when there’s some crisis
Past the desks, it was suddenly quiet. In the long corri-
dor through the main building to the clinic wing, she
passed only purposeful staff and others like her, late for
The waiting room was as full as always but eerily
silent. Even in normal times, she had noticed, people
spoke to each other in whispers. Most came with a com-
panion but they rarely chatted, as if they couldn’t find
words up to the task of conveying any more than what
had to be said. The dominant sounds were usually the
crash of trolleys and nurses calling or laughing, but today
even those were muted.
The volunteer was missing from the hot drinks trolley.
In her place was a piece of printer paper with a handwrit-
ten sign reading HELP YOURSELF. Hannah never felt
comfortable accepting a drink, especially in recent years.
She thought the other patients looked at her, with her head
of hair and the spring in her step, questioning whether she
qualified for the club. She’d spent so much time waiting in
this room that she was no longer a guest – she could make
her own coffee. The doctors here gave people great chunks
of life that were tithed back in many small appointments.
The woman sitting opposite wore a bright scarf ele-
gantly. Her fingers were thin, the skin dry. The man next
to her held her hand gently. He looked worried. She just
looked tired. Hannah hoped they got called before
The scarf was vibrant, the way Hannah noticed cancer
patients’ scarves often were. A small act of defiance, a
stoic badge of bravery that said, ‘I may look like I’m suf-
fering, but inside I celebrate life.’ That was not for
her – she hadn’t wanted to wear her illness with pride.
She had hidden from it instead, trying to pass as one of
the ordinary. She hadn’t known what to do with stran-
gers’ looks of sympathy.
‘Hannah?’ A mix of question and exclamation. The
doctor was looking around myopically, as they often do
if they don’t know you.
As she stood, he half stuck out his hand. She looked at
it for a second, confused, considering the relay of germs,
one handshake to another. What about his patients on
chemo, did he shake their hands? Did he shake hands
with other doctors, and did they shake hands with their
patients? He morphed it into a gesture for her to go ahead.
A new doctor always meant having to recount every
detail of her diagnosis and treatment, almost justify her
presence. The first time, she felt like a friend had stood
her up for coffee, that her disease was no longer import-
ant. It was at least reassuring that she was routine enough
to be handed off to the trainees. She knew nothing good
came from that kind of importance.
He browsed her notes while she looked around. The
same combination of people – patient and doctor – sat in
rooms with exactly the same furniture up and down the
corridor, and in other hospitals, and in other countries.
Her extraordinary experience was common.
‘So, is this a regular checkup, or is there something
specific bothering you?’
She pushed aside the mortifying thought that she was
almost certainly wasting his time. ‘I was supposed to
come in a month, but I moved it.’
‘I’m surprised you could get in – we’ve been flat out.
Everyone thinks they’ll miss their appointment if the
hospital closes. At worst you’d be postponed a couple of
weeks.’ He looked back down at her file. ‘How long since
‘Eight years.’ Hadn’t he just read the file?
‘I wouldn’t miss one completely, but you don’t have to
worry about a bit of slippage.’ Reassuring smile.
‘I found a lump in my armpit. It’s probably nothing, I
mean, it was sore one day and then the next it wasn’t, so
it’s probably nothing.’
‘When was this?’
‘Last Wednesday. I had a bit of a headache last week.
I’m sure it’s only a raised gland.’
She sat on the long high bed while he prodded gently
under her arm with his fingertips.
‘I don’t feel anything.’
She had to rub around the spot for a few seconds before
she located it. ‘Here.’
‘Has it changed in size at all?’
‘No.’ Now that she was in front of a doctor, the lump
was the same size but felt much smaller.
‘Have you had a cough?’
‘Been in contact with anyone who’s had a cough or a
‘They wouldn’t have let me in the front door if I had.’
He looked directly and deliberately at her for the
first time. ‘Well, they would have, but you wouldn’t
be sitting in front of me.’ He pulled off the examination
gloves and washed his hands efficiently in the small sink.
‘I think we can be fairly confident that you don’t have
She opened her mouth to object, but he continued
along the well-worn groove of his speech. ‘There are
plenty of minor germs around and they don’t take a break
because a big one comes along. If it would help you sleep
we can do a blood test, but it’s extremely unlikely that
you have anything. It’s quite normal for someone with
your history to feel anxious at a time like this, especially
given the constant media barrage. The important thing is
not to worry too much. It would be a good idea not to
listen to the radio or watch too much television news.
And don’t go home and hit the Internet. I can give you a
list of reputable websites for virus information.’ He
reached the pause for patient reaction.
‘I know I don’t have Manba. I just want to be sure it’s
not a return of the cancer.’
He looked surprised. ‘Cancer? No, I don’t see anything
to be concerned about. You’re’ – he looked down at the
sheet – ‘eight years and, ah, three months since diagnosis.
And while you can never say never, I think you can be
very pleased with how well you’ve done.’
She realized he’d closed her file. There were more
important cases, even for him. He had dismissed her.
She threw her keys on the hall table and watched them
land on a pile of briefing documents, as if to remind her
that they were waiting to be read before she could start
on the manual. Soon, if she wanted to be paid for it this
month. What the hell, Kate wasn’t expecting anything
out of her today.
The house could do with a clean and she had to get
something for dinner, but right now she needed coffee.
She still had an overtired buzz and a slight headache, but
she was home.
They should be here. Not only Zac – all of them. The
house was empty.
All the years they had saved to renovate. When she got
sick, having the money didn’t seem so important any-
more. And then she realized it couldn’t wait. For some
people it was a long-deferred overseas adventure, others
rang everyone they loved but had never told. For her, it
was creating this home that would keep her family if she
When she chose the paint color or the size of the pan-
try, she saw them. The light from the garden fell mottled
on the benches and the wall, and the color was happiness.
Everything was as it should be. She could hear the echoes
of the boys laughing at the table. Here, she saw them
making dinners, sitting around for Sunday breakfasts.
Sometimes it was the boys and their friends at the kitchen
table, sometimes just Sean. She built it for them, and
where were they? Not here. No one was here.
With a plunger full of coffee in one hand and a mug in
the other, she let herself out the back door and headed
to the office in the garage. Like all the houses in this
row, theirs backed onto the tiny laneway.
She heard a car pull into the neighbor’s garage and,
after a pause, the garden-side door open. Hannah con-
sidered whether to pretend that the fence provided
privacy, but it was Natalie, not Stuart. ‘Hi, how’s things?’
She raised herself on her toes to smile over the fence.
‘Oh, extra busy. Everyone thinks they have Manba.’
‘Give it time, they probably will.’
‘That would be easier, I could send them to hospital.
Now all I’m doing is ordering tests and trying to talk
them down. Oh, wasn’t today the big day? Did Zac get
off all right? They didn’t cancel it, did they?’
‘They got off fine.’
‘They are so grown- up at fourteen. I can’t imagine I’ll
ever think Ella is old enough for a school camp. Stuart
says he’s not letting her out of his sight till she’s thirty-five.
When he’s not saying she has to leave on the day of her
eighteenth birthday.’ Natalie paused for a moment. ‘I
guess that’s only a few years off for Zac.’ She reached her
back door but hesitated with her hand on the lever. ‘Many
of the people overseas, the ones who’ve died, have had
‘I guess that makes sense. It’s a relief that we’re healthy.’
‘So what I’m saying is, you should take care.’
Even though she hadn’t achieved anything, by the time
Hannah arrived to pick up Oscar, the bell had gone and
a fan of kids streamed out the school doors.
Hannah spotted Oscar on the far side of the playground
with his friend Dylan, chasing each other like pint-sized
satellites around Dylan’s mum. She smiled at Hannah as
she made her way across the yard. They had almost covered
the distance between them before Oscar caught sight of
Hannah and broke off his circling to run straight at her,
his sprint ending as he slammed into her with a hug that
nearly knocked her over. She murmured, ‘Careful, Oscar.’
‘Sorry, Mum. Can Dylan come over today? His mum
says he can, but she says you have to say so.’
Dylan’s mum gave Hannah a shrug.
Oscar had spent the day in a classroom of kids doing
she knew not what, but even so, Dylan was a potential
reservoir of germs.
‘I don’t know, Oscar.’
Oscar drew out every word. ‘Oh no. You never let me
have anyone over.’
‘That’s not true, Oscar. Dylan came over last week.’
‘But that was last week.’
Dylan’s mum broke in. ‘You know, Oscar, today isn’t a
good day. Maybe we can do it a different day.’
‘But you said–’
‘Oscar,’ Hannah cut him off, ‘a different day.’
By the time they reached the gate, Oscar’s dark mood
had evaporated. He doubled his journey each time he
skipped forward and ran back to her. ‘Can I have a
He ran the length of each block, stopping at the cor-
ners for Hannah to catch up. The unalloyed joy he could
get from the promise of a chocolate bar made her smile.
The small knot of shops that they passed through on
the way home from school would once have been all
the necessities – a butcher, a greengrocer, a bank –
concentrated around the intersection. Now they were the
new necessities – a café, a Thai takeaway, a liquor store.
Only the pharmacy and Lily’s corner store ignored the
changes in fashion.
On the other side of the crossing, a tall, thin woman in
a long, straight shift dress meandered in their direction.
Hannah frequently saw her around the area, spewing
forth obscenities. The woman took an erratic course
along the path, peering around as if looking for someone.
As they crossed the road, Hannah took Oscar’s hand
and maneuvered him so as to keep herself between
him and the woman. She walked a little faster, tugging
gently on Oscar’s hand. Her arm jerked back, and she
looked to see him picking up something shiny from
‘Come on, Oscar, we don’t have time.’
‘Don’t touch that, it’s dirty.’
‘It’s a bead, it’s pretty.’
‘Now your hands are dirty.’
Oscar dropped the bead surreptitiously into his pocket
and looked at his hands in distress.
‘Don’t pick things up from the ground. You don’t know
what’s touched them.’
‘Can I still eat the chocolate?’
Dirty hands. If she said no, he’d have a meltdown, and
the woman was heading straight for them. ‘We’ll take it
home, you can wash your hands before you eat it.’ She
cursed herself inwardly – this was the kind of situation
she should be prepared for.
The woman’s hair was cropped so closely that her scalp
showed through. Hannah considered covering Oscar’s
ears, although that would only make it more of an inci-
dent for him. If they could get past quickly, if the woman
wasn’t too loud, he might not even register her. Hannah
braced for the tirade.
The woman’s voice was high-pitched, piercing, and
strangled. ‘Are you Jesus today? I am, I’m Jesus today.’
She reached a hand out to Oscar, and Hannah realized,
with guilty relief, that he wasn’t looking. Hannah had
never noticed how thin her arms were and wondered if
someone looked after her. Her hands were clean enough,
but her fingernails were crusted with dirt.
Hannah softly jerked Oscar back out of reach. ‘Not
today.’ She smiled at the woman, trying to divert her
attention from Oscar.
‘I am. I’m Jesus today.’ She seemed satisfied with Han-
nah’s answer. Something on the other side of the road
captivated her and she wandered onto the crossing, oblivi-
ous of them and the cars. Hannah loosed her grip on
Oscar and he shot into the corner store.
By the time she caught up with him, he was picking up
and putting down the different bars in turn, slowly read-
ing the words he knew to work out what each was. His
hands transferred the germs from the bead onto every
wrapper, which in turn would be transferred to the
hands of the people who bought them. ‘Mouse, look with
your eyes and not with your hands.’ Since when had she
become a compendium of parental platitudes?
Lily leaned over the counter. ‘He’s fine. It’s hard to
Hannah restrained herself from hurrying his decision-
making. That way led only to buyer’s regret, tears, and,
sometimes, another chocolate bar. Oscar walked all the
way along the shelf and back again before he hesitantly
stopped in front of a particular box and picked one out.
He took it to the counter and put it down in front of Lily.
‘He’s a good boy,’ Lily said to Oscar with a smile.
Normally Hannah would give the money to Oscar to
give to Lily, but today she handed Lily the coins herself.
She flinched when Lily picked up the chocolate and
pressed it into Oscar’s hand, embracing it with her own.
‘A good boy.’ Lily opened a jar of jelly babies, pulled
one out with her fingers, and put it in Oscar’s other hand,
cupping it with hers. Oscar had popped the jelly baby in
his mouth before Hannah got a word out.
Lily’s hand had held the coins that Hannah had given
her, that Hannah had received from who knows where,
that had been held by who knows who, like all the other
coins and notes Lily had handled today. And the jelly
babies. She didn’t want to think how many children’s hands
had gone into the jelly babies jar even in the last few hours.
Lily watched her looking at Oscar. ‘Every day more
cases. You make sure you look after this boy.’
Hannah walked the rest of the block and around the
corner as if the disease were on her heels. Oscar ran
ahead, pulled by the chocolate he couldn’t quite have. It
was safely unobtainable, in her pocket. He’d never been
so eager to wash his hands.
As they came through the front door, Oscar suddenly
said, ‘Why is she Jesus?’
‘I don’t know. I guess she thinks she is.’ Oscar seemed
satisfied and ran to the bathroom, leaving his backpack,
his hat, and his fleece dotted down the hall. Hannah let
the front door fall back behind her. It closed with a
Oscar came rocketing back up the hall, his hands held
out. ‘They’re clean.’
She looked at the water dripping off them. ‘You have
to dry them – germs like water. You gave them a big pool
to swim in.’
‘Okay.’ He was already halfway back down the hall.
‘And pick up your stuff and put it in your room.’ Oscar
was gone. ‘After you eat the chocolate.’
He was back again, hands wiped but still damp. Hold-
ing the bar at the bottom, with the other hand she
carefully peeled it like a banana so that the wrapper never
touched the chocolate.
Oscar grabbed it and ran off again, ‘Thanks, Mum’
hanging in the air behind him.
She heard sounds from the living room. The world she
had just shut out with the door was leaking in through
the airways. ‘Television off until you’ve done your home-
work.’ She picked up the bag, hat, and fleece and tossed
them into the bedroom as she passed. When she got to
the living room, Oscar was on the floor in front of the
blank television, holding the remote.
As a treat, Oscar was allowed to stay up. When Hannah
suggested it, Sean raised his eyebrow, said, ‘Really?’ but
didn’t take it any further. He was the one who liked to
bend the rules. She drew the line closer, so the laxness
surprised him more than the bedtime. Calling it a ‘treat’
allowed her to gloss over the fact that she’d lost track of
time on the computer and had completely forgotten to
run Oscar’s bath.
Oscar came bouncing into the kitchen. ‘Can we eat
outside, like a picnic?’
Sean frowned. ‘It’s dark outside, buddy, and your din-
ner will get cold.’
They ate at the table over Oscar’s groans, but he
quickly lost himself in retelling his day to Sean. He kept
up a stream, Sean only having to throw in ‘Oh, really?’
and ‘What happened then?’ occasionally to keep him
going. Hannah had already heard these stories this after-
noon, which left her mind free to roam. She tripped upon
the realization that there hadn’t been a single moment in
the day when all four of them were together.
The absence of Zac was so strong, it felt like a presence.
Watching Oscar now, she found it hard to superimpose
Zac’s looks and personality on a body that small. But
he had been that little once and they had eaten in this
kitchen before Oscar was born, three around the table.
Two grown-ups and a five-year-old. Then it had just been
normal, now it could only be strange. In four years, Zac
would be an adult. By the time Oscar was Zac’s age, they
would be three around the dinner table again.
Before the renovation, where this table stood had been
a laundry. Then, the washing machine looked out on the
garden. The kitchen had taken up the other half of this
room, and its only view was of the side fence. The ghosts
of the old Zac, Sean, and Hannah sat at the ghost of the
old kitchen table, and the ghosts of the walls she had
pulled down cut the room in half.
Sean sat in the dark on the edge of one of the garden beds,
backlit by the string of colored fairy lights on the fence.
Next to him were two glasses of wine. He held one out to
her. ‘Here, I thought you might need this. To recover from
your big day.’ She sat down on the cold brick and let the
tension dissipate as she leaned into him. He was warm,
even through their clothes.
Light spilled from Natalie’s side of the fence, escaping
through the glass doors that spanned the back of her
house. Hannah could hear voices – they had friends over,
again. The sounds were reassuring, other lives going on,
completely independently of her own. She couldn’t make
out words but the voices rose and fell, sometimes inter-
rupted by an outbreak of laughter, maybe four people in
all. From time to time she heard Ella squeal. Hannah was
happier to sit in the quiet of her own garden listening to
the sounds of Natalie’s dinner party than to be at it. It
seemed odd that a doctor would have people over now,
with the case in Newcastle and everything happening
A thought drifted across her mind. ‘How was your
‘My sister? Oh, I couldn’t get on to her.’
Hannah sat up. ‘Did you try?’
‘It was late there when I got to work, so I missed their
day. I tried just now when you were reading, but no
answer. I’ll try her again before bed.’
‘Did you ring work and home? She’ll be at work
Sean shrugged. ‘I checked the time. I rang work – she
wasn’t there so I rang home.’
‘Why wouldn’t she be there?’
‘Because she’s on her way to work? Because she didn’t
go home? Because she drank too much last night and
slept through the phone? I don’t know.’
‘It doesn’t bother you?’
‘No, it doesn’t bother me. She’s hundreds of miles from
Manchester. Her biggest risk is being scared to death by
fear-mongering tabloids. She’s in no more danger than
us.’ He rubbed the back of her hand. ‘Which is none,
right? Which is as much danger as Zac is in.’
‘You and the doctor. You should get together and take
turns telling me I’m imagining things.’
‘Doctor? Did you have an appointment I forgot? You
didn’t say anything this morning.’
‘You don’t need to know about every appointment.’
‘Everything all right?’
‘Fine. Some young doctor who knows everything. He
thinks I’m a hypochondriac.’
‘You’re paranoid. That’s very different from hypo-
‘I know’ – he gave her a goofy grin – ‘it’s my only skill.’
How’s that for a book extract! Want to carry on reading?
*My thanks to Jenny at Headline for providing me with this extract to share with you all today*
About the Author:
Amanda Hickie was born in Sydney and has lived in Australia most of her life. In 2000, she moved for some time to Canada, and was living there when Toronto was one of two centres of a SARS outbreak. Observing the news, and the response of those around her, she became interested in what decisions a family might have to make to survive an epidemic on the scale of the 1918 flu.
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