Juliet Blair

Juliet Blair has seen many changes in her native Sydney. (Her school transport was a steam train.) A teacher by vocation, she has taught languages and ESL from Kindergarten to Year 12, while bringing up three boys. Her credits to date include short stories in Woman's Day and other mass market magazines. Now, in retirement, a new career beckons. It's never too late!


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IP Picks 2010 Judges' Report on Arlo and the Vortex Voyage

Inner West Courier


So there I was, at ten past midnight, sitting like a seagull on a rock. A very wet rock.

I was wondering whether Kate would show up, and whether it would be better if she did or she didn’t, and feeling like a complete nigel.

My name isn’t Nigel, by the way. It’s Arlo, which is just as bad. I’m called after a folk singer from the distant past, like the seventies or something. Get used to it. I had to.

She was ten minutes late. Maybe I should go home, I thought. A deserted beach at night – there’s no place lonelier. And it was freezing cold, too. I tied the string of my hoodie tighter. It didn’t help much. And what was I there for? To do some midnight rock-climbing. I hate rock-climbing, even in the daytime.

Kate loves it. What we had planned for tonight was nothing to her. “It’s a cinch,” she’d told me. “Even for a beginner. And the rock shelf is only half-way up. Perfect viewing platform.” Perfect for her, maybe.

I wanted to do the climb in the afternoon, but there’s a ‘danger, falling rocks’ sign there, and Kate said that someone would be sure to stop us. “No, it has to be midnight,” she said. “It’s nearly as bright as day, with the floodlights, and there aren’t so many people around.”

I moved further into the shadows. Kids hanging around the beach at night attract attention. Not that I thought I was a kid – I was thirteen, after all – but that’s what a guy in a car had just yelled at me: “Watch where you’re going, kid!”

The more I thought about this climb, the less I liked it. But Kate was set on it. She said she had something to show me.

“It’s hard to explain. It’s a sort of spiral of tiny lights. You can hardly see it at all in daylight, but in the dark you can’t miss it.”

“I’ve never seen anything like that.”

“Neither have I. Or I hadn’t till last Saturday. I call it the Vortex.”

It sounded dangerous to me, like something that would suck you in if you weren’t careful. I stepped back and looked up, but of course I couldn’t see anything. Only the tower of the castle, with the moon rising above its tooth-edged stone battlements.

Is it a real castle? As if. This is New South Wales, not Transylvania. No, it’s a community centre, built by a mad mayor from Scotland with a passion for all things mediaeval. Or rather, it’s one half of a community centre.

It was split in two, fourteen years ago, one night when there was a terrible storm and an earthquake. The other half of the castle disappeared, along with a headland, a small bay and the land behind them. The newspapers called it the Cataclysm, and the name stuck.

The sign over the door of the building, which once read ‘SCHOOL OF ARTS’, now reads ‘SCHOOL O’. I think it would have been better if we’d kept the other half. Then it would have read ‘F ARTS’.

The castle may be phoney, but the sinister atmosphere is real all right. Some people say that the ghosts of the people who died in the Cataclysm still haunt the place where they were last seen. Seventy people, waiting out the storm in their houses, thinking they were safe. One of them was Kate’s great-aunt Norma.

You’d have expected something to be found – debris, bodies, washed up later perhaps – but no. All the houses, animals and people were lost without trace. All the people but one.

His name was Warren Mills. He was found on a beach in Tasmania, barely alive, battered and broken, amid the wreckage of his boat. Strangest of all, it was four years after his disappearance. Where, and how, had he been living for those four years? No-one knew. And Warren couldn’t tell his story. Brain damage, memory loss, speech defects – he held his story locked inside his mind, and no-one could discover it.

He was still living in Southcliff, in a shack, looking after himself in a basic way, a scruffy old loner to be greeted and then left to himself, as he preferred.

“Oy, Arlo! What’re you standing there for? You’re getting all wet!”

Uh-oh. Kate. Rock-climbing was on.

“Just being haunted by the ghosts of the Cataclysm.”

“Why would they bother haunting you? Forget it. Just a sec, I’ve got to put my rock-climbing shoes on.” She took off her sneakers and tied them to her belt.

Kate had brought a pile of equipment with her: ropes and webbing and clips, and two shiny helmets.

“Helmets?” I said. It made the climb seem more dangerous.

“Have to. I promised Dad I’d never climb without one.”

She was stuck on obeying her dad, but she hadn’t told him a thing about the climb we’d planned for tonight. I hadn’t told mine, either. For obvious reasons.

I tried on the blue helmet for size. Not bad. Kate’s helmet was red. The rock-climbing shoes she was putting on were thin and delicate, like athletic ballet slippers. I looked at my clumsy sneakers and felt more doubtful than ever.

“Kate, is this a good idea? If anyone sees us, we’ve had it.”

“Who’s going to see us?” Kate stood up. “There’s nobody here. Not a soul.”

“Euarrgh.” The sound came from the other side of the rocks. We both jumped. Then we heard the clanking of a bucket.

“Warren,” we said together.

Warren it was. Shuffling and grimacing as always, carrying a bucket and a fishing rod, he came into view round the cliff.

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