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Dancing on Knives

Kate Forsyth

  About the Book

  At twenty, Sara is tormented by a terror so profound she hasn’t left her home in five years. Like the mermaid in the fairytale her Spanish grandmother once told her, Sara imagines she is dancing on knives. She feels suffocated by her family, especially her father – the famous artist Augusto Sanchez – whose volcanic passions dominate their lives.

  Then one stormy night, her father does not come home. His body is found dangling from a cliff face. Astonishingly, he is still alive, but the mystery of his fall can only be solved by the revelation of longheld family secrets.

  At once a suspenseful murder mystery and a gentle love story, Dancing on Knives is about how family can constrict and liberate us, how art can be both joyous and destructive, and how strength can be found in the unlikeliest places.

  For my mother, Gilly, my sister, Belinda,

  and my dear friend Sarah

  – the three bravest women I know


  Thirty-odd years ago, a sixteen-year-old girl began scribbling down a novel in an old exercise book. She called the novel Monk’s Gate.

  Twenty-odd years ago, a twenty-six-year-old woman took the novel she had been working on for ten years and rewrote it as her thesis for a Masters of Arts in Writing. She called the novel Sea Changes.

  Ten years ago or so, the novel was published as Full Fathom Five.

  One year ago, while on tour with my publicist, Peri, I told her about this book that had taken me twenty years to write and which had been published under my maiden name, Kate Humphrey. Amazed that she had never heard of it, Peri asked me to send her a copy. I dug one out and sent it to her. I soon heard, to my amazement, that my publishers, Random House, wanted to re-publish it.

  With some trepidation, I re-read the book for the first time in ten years. It was a strange experience – I remember so well those hopeful scribbles in my teens, my dogged persistence in my twenties, my joy when the book was finally published in my thirties.

  However, I was glad to bring a fresh eye and all I have learnt in the years since to the story. It was impossible not to make changes, and I know the book is better for it.

  So now, thirty-odd years after I began, I am very proud to bring you the fourth and final incarnation of that novel I began on my school holidays when I was only sixteen. It is now called Dancing on Knives …

  ‘I know what you want,’ said the sea witch; ‘it is very foolish of you, but you shall have your way, and it will bring you to sorrow, my lovely princess. You want to get rid of your fishtail and have two stumps instead so that you may walk about like a human being, and cause the young Prince to fall in love with you, and win him and an immortal soul besides … I shall prepare a potion for you. You must swim to land before sunrise, sit on the shore and drink the draught down … it will hurt … every step you take shall feel like stepping on sharp knives … but first you shall have to pay me …

  Have you lost your courage? Stick out your little tongue and I shall cut it off …’

  ‘The Little Mermaid’

  Hans Christian Andersen



  About the Book

  Title Page


  Author’s Note


  Tide on the Ebb

  Troubled Waters

  Low Water

  Tide and Time


  Tide at the Flood


  About the Author

  Bitter Greens

  The Wild Girl

  Copyright Notice

  Loved the book?

  Tide On The Ebb

  high tide – 1.6 m

  10.47 pm, Good Friday

  low tide – 0.5 m

  4.40 am, Easter Saturday

  Sara was afraid of many things. Some had names and a shape. Darkness. Loneliness. Madness. Others woke her at night with a start, slick with sweat, listening, listening to the hammer of her heart. These fears – nameless, shapeless, voiceless – were the most frightening of all.

  Her brothers called her a wimp, and a baby, and sometimes a fucking useless girl. It did no good. If shame could stop Sara from being afraid, she would have found courage long ago.

  On that storm-dark night, Sara felt the familiar wrench of anxiety beneath her breastbone as she sat at the kitchen table. It was Good Friday, a day when most families would be enjoying the long weekend together. Not her family, though. Sara was alone.

  Her hands were clumsy, shuffling the shabby pack of tarot cards. She held them close to her chest for a moment, breathing deeply in an effort to quieten the banging of her pulse. Automatically she counted under her breath. One. Two. Three. Four …

  Sara laid three cards face down on the table. She sat, staring at them. The only sound was the rattle of rain on the tin roof, the constant low hum of the ancient fridge. Slowly she turned the first card over.

  The Emperor. Sara’s eyes widened a little. This was her father’s card. It was uncanny that it should be the first to be turned, when she had laid out the cards on her father’s behalf. Sara pressed both hands to her heart.

  Then she reached down and turned over the second card. Tower Struck by Lightning. It meant change, conflict, catastrophe.

  Very slowly she turned the third and last card over. The Hanged Man. Transformation through sacrifice, a growth towards wisdom.

  Sara did not understand the configuration. It did not lift the shadow of foreboding that had engulfed her all afternoon. With her hands pressed hard against her heart, as if trying to stop it from cracking open her ribcage, she sat unnaturally still, unnaturally stiff, staring at the pattern laid out before her.

  The cards had once belonged to her grandmother, Consuelo. The smudges of her fingerprints were still there, the smell of her spices. Augusto said his mother was descended from gypsies, that she had the power to see into the future. Sara had always thought she had inherited Consuelo’s fortune-telling eyes. Why else did the cards speak to her so clearly? Why else did she dream such strange and terrible things?

  The sound of footsteps on the wooden boards of the verandah jerked her into movement. She swept all the cards off the table, wrapped them in a piece of old white silk, and hid them in an old wooden box. She thrust the box amongst a clutter of recipe books, unopened envelopes, dog-eared magazines and bills, on a shelf above the sink. She stood then with her back to the sink, her hands once again pressed hard against her chest, watching the door.

  The flyscreen creaked open. Sara’s brother, Joe, stepped through, shrugging off his jacket irritably, water streaming from the oilskin all over the floor. Although he had been christened Pablo Diego Jose Francisco, in honour of Picasso, Sara’s brother would only answer to Joe. He was small and thin, with thick brows drawn over eyes of a startling green-blue colour, and an eagle nose too large for his narrow face. Although he had been born only two years before Sara, he seemed much older than twenty-two. Already there were wrinkles about his eyes, and two deep lines struck between his brows.

  ‘Dad still hasn’t come home,’ Sara said.

  Joe did not look at her. He hung the oilskin on the back of the door then took a beer from the fridge. With his free hand he grabbed a saucer from the drainage board and set it on the table, then felt in his shirt pocket for his cigarettes. He sat down heavily, lit his cigarette with a scrape of a match, and took a long drag. He then cracked the beer and drank as deeply. The knuckles of his hand were reddened and scraped. He sighed and shut his eyes.

  ‘It’s getting so late. Where could he be?’ Sara’s voice was shrill.

  ‘At the pub would be my bet.’ Joe did not open his eyes.

  ‘But it’s Good Friday, the pub won’t
be open.’

  ‘At the golf club then. Don’t they have some band on tonight?’ Joe took another gulp of his beer.

  ‘But you know Dad hates the golf club.’

  ‘If it’s the only place open serving grog, Gus’ll be there. Besides, town will be full of tourists. He’s probably trying to pick up some city bird for the night.’

  Sara hated the way her brother called their father ‘Gus’. His name was Augusto. It was the name of the first emperor of Rome. There was nothing majestic or venerable about the name ‘Gus’. Besides, Joe shouldn’t talk about their father that way. She crossed her arms about her breast, hugging herself close. ‘Something’s wrong, I just know it,’ she said, hating the way she sounded.

  ‘Gus’ll be fine. Stop worrying.’ Joe sucked on his grazed knuckles.

  ‘But he’s been gone for hours. And it’s pouring with rain.’

  ‘It wasn’t raining when he left. He’s probably hanging out somewhere waiting for the rain to blow over. You know he hates to be uncomfortable, and it’d be bloody uncomfortable riding home in this piss-down.’ Joe blew out a cloud of blue smoke, regarded it for a moment with eyes half-squinted shut, then waved it away as he got to his feet. ‘Where are the twins?’

  ‘Watching telly.’

  ‘And the brat?’

  ‘Tessa’s in her room.’ Sara spoke with a subtle stress of reproof in her voice.

  Joe grunted and went out of the kitchen, the door banging behind him. Sara followed him, chewing at her thumbnail.

  The hallway was dark, the only illumination a flicker of colour coming through the half-open door of the living room. Inside, two tall, gangly, red-headed boys sprawled on the couch, drinking beer. They looked up briefly as Joe and Sara came in, then returned their gaze to the television.

  The living room had big picture windows and high ceilings with ornate cornices that once must have been beautiful. Now, though, the walls were stained and riddled with cracks, the cornices were leprous with damp, and the carpet was worn and stained. The television was at least twenty years old and flickered and buzzed constantly. Set in front of it was an old sagging couch, covered in a rough, tweedy fabric of a colour Augusto called provincial beige. There were two matching armchairs, the fabric so worn on the seat and arms that the yellow foam beneath showed through. Before the couch stood a coffee table with rusting metal legs and a pseudo-timber top that was at least twice as old as Sara. A cane magazine rack by the side of the couch was crammed with magazines, newspapers and second-hand Mills & Boon books. Most of the magazines were several years out of date, as Sara knew all too well.

  Paintings covered the walls. In the uneasy sputtering of light from the television, the weeping women and laughing clowns and marching soldiers sidled disconcertingly in and out of shadow. There were no curtains on the window, nothing to draw against the windy tumult outside. Sara, hugging herself by the window, could see sharp black branches tossing against a lightning-white sky. A long, low grumble of thunder. She shivered.

  Joe flung himself down in the armchair. ‘Anything on?’

  ‘Nah,’ Dylan replied, not looking away from the television. He was the elder of the twins. Like Dominic, he was dressed in dirty jeans, his lank red hair hanging down over the collar of his flannelette shirt.

  ‘Sar’s got her knickers in a knot over Gus,’ Joe said. ‘Any idea where he is?’

  ‘Nah,’ Dylan said again. ‘Pub, probably. He was in a pretty foul mood – I’d say he’s gone to drink it off.’

  ‘Pub’s shut.’

  ‘Oh, yeah. Dunno then. Golf club?’

  ‘Dad hates the golf club, he thinks it’s God’s waiting room,’ Dominic said.

  ‘Only place to get grog tonight,’ Dylan said.

  ‘Then that’s where he’ll be,’ Dominic said.

  Both boys seemed even more sullen than usual. It had, however, been an unpleasant afternoon. Sara’s uncle and her uncle-in-law had come together for some kind of confrontation with Augusto. Alex, her maternal uncle, held the mortgage over the farm and was always threatening to foreclose. Recently he seemed to spend more time at Towradgi than he did at his own home and so it was not unusual for him to come and shout at Augusto. But her uncle-in-law Harry had no reason to come. He was married to Sara’s aunt Maureen, who had not visited them since the memorial service of her sister. Sara’s mother.

  Sara had been so startled to see Harry that she had crept outside the window of Augusto’s studio, trying to eavesdrop.

  ‘You’d better start packing,’ she had heard Alex say. ‘I want you all out of here! Come Monday, I’m calling in my loan.’

  Sara had not heard any more than that, stumbling away in shock. Surely Alex hadn’t meant it? Surely he couldn’t be so cruel? He knew Sara had not left the farm in more than five years. He knew that she couldn’t go anywhere.

  Hail rat-a-tat-tatted against the glass. Sara gazed out the window, hoping to see the bright eye of her father’s motorbike zooming down the valley road. She had been watching and listening for her father all afternoon. Ever since he had slammed out of the studio after the argument. At first all Sara had wanted was her father to come so he might reassure her they were not to be thrown out on to the street. As the storm blew in, her needs had grown simpler. She just wanted her father home.

  ‘It’s pouring down out there,’ she said pleadingly. ‘He could’ve had an accident.’

  ‘Rotten night,’ Dylan agreed.

  ‘And he’s on the Elephant. You know it’s always breaking down.’

  ‘Pile of crap,’ Dylan agreed.

  Sara twisted her hands together. ‘And he wasn’t going to town – he took his easel and sketchbook. He was going up Towradgi Headland.’

  This time Dylan looked away from the television. ‘You sure?’

  Sara nodded.

  Dylan looked at Dominic. ‘He should be back by now, surely? Maybe the motorbike’s broken down?’

  ‘Bad night to be stuck,’ Dominic agreed.

  Dylan grunted in his throat and stood up. ‘I suppose we’d better go look, just in case.’ Dominic got up too, stretching, yawning, and drinking down the last of his beer. The two boys put their boots on and slouched out of the room.


  Then Joe said, in a tone of long suffering, ‘I’ve been up since five-thirty and worked all bloody day. Give me a break, all right?’

  ‘You found time to go surfing,’ Sara said.

  ‘Give me a break!’ Joe cried. ‘It’s Easter fucking Friday, and I haven’t had a moment to myself since Christmas. Alex has been here every single day, going through the books, and I’ve been working my arse off trying to show him the farm’s still a goer. Why shouldn’t I take a few hours off if I want to?’

  ‘No need to swear,’ Sara said stiffly.

  Joe hissed out his breath, got up, walked to the window, and lit another cigarette. The flame shook.

  ‘I’m sorry,’ Sara said. ‘It’s just … I’m worried about Dad. He should be home by now. He didn’t tell me he was going out.’

  ‘There’s no point in fretting yourself to death over him, Sar. You should know better by now. Gus does just what he wants to do.’

  Sara said nothing. Joe dragged deeply on his cigarette, scowling at the television. ‘Gus’ll be fine, Sar. I wish you’d stop expecting the worst all the time.’

  ‘I’ve got a real bad feeling.’

  ‘You always have a real bad feeling.’

  Again there was a long silence.

  Joe sighed. ‘OK, I’m sorry. I know you can’t help it. I just wish …’

  Sara swallowed, pressing her fingers against her eyes. Automatically she counted under her breath, breathing in on the one and out on the two, in on the three and out on the four.

  Sara’s panic attacks always began with the helter-skelter of her heart. She’d feel both hot and shivery. Her limbs would be so weak she could scarcely stand, yet every instinct in her body shrieked flee, flee …

  The first
time it happened, Sara had been at school. Sick and trembling, she hid in the bathroom, sure something terrible must be about to happen. Nothing did. A cleaner finally found her, and she was sent home. She thought she must have been having a heart attack. The doctors said there was nothing wrong with her heart. Sara then began to fear she was going mad. They told her it was just an anxiety attack. ‘Try not to worry so much,’ they said. No-one told her how. Gradually the circle of Sara’s life had narrowed around her.

  Now she counted the in-and-out of her breath. After twenty-six, the pressure in her chest began to subside. Joe had sat down again, flicking through the TV Guide then throwing it to the ground. ‘Why is there never anything on?’

  Sara sat down in the other armchair and pretended to watch television, but all the time she was listening, listening.

  The thunder of boots on the floorboards. The twins came back in, cans of beer in their hands.

  ‘The Dodge has gone,’ Dylan said. Joe looked up, surprise showing on his face for a moment. ‘Dad must’ve come back at some point, Sar,’ Dylan went on. ‘There’s no need to worry. He’d only have taken the Dodge if he was heading into town.’

  ‘He didn’t come back,’ Sara said. ‘I would’ve noticed.’

  ‘The Dodge has gone,’ Dylan said again with a shrug.

  ‘I was watching for him the whole time,’ Sara said.

  ‘You must’ve gone to the toilet or something,’ Dylan said.

  ‘I didn’t,’ Sara insisted, but no-one was really listening to her.

  Dylan tossed Joe a beer, then sat down, putting his legs up along the couch. Dominic promptly sat on his legs, and Dylan tried to jerk him off.

  ‘Watch my beer!’ Dylan held it high so it would not spill.