A near-future Australia has been devastated by a virus, the survivors clinging to life however they can.
Finn is a survivor.
Two years since his parents died and the rest of the locals fled, he and his dog Rowdy are the lone occupants of what was once a thriving holiday town, we assume on Victoria’s southern coast.
Finn, who guesses he is almost sixteen, has a routine. He surfs, he dives for abalone and lobster, he traps rabbits, and collects a few eggs from the town’s now feral chickens. His hidden store of tinned food is carefully rationed.
But there is more to survival in this new Australia than finding food.
Wilders – armed gangs – roam the countryside, and Finn is on constant alert for the day they find and invade his town, tearing it apart for hidden food.
But when someone does crash into Finn’s life, appearing on the beach when Finn is out riding his board, it’s not, at first, the Wilders. It’s a girl. Sick, terrified and running from the Wilder who held her as a slave, Rose blunders into Finn’s town one winter afternoon.
She’s a Siley. An asylum seeker from Afghanistan
And the Wilders are close behind. Because the virus has killed far, far more girls and women than men, and Rose is too precious to lose.
And so begins Finn’s new battle for survival. Against the Wilders who have followed Rose into his town. Against the blood poisoning that is ravaging Rose’s frail body. And most dangerous of all, when Finn treks into the mountains and forests to the north, where the Wilders rule.
Because somewhere out there is Rose’s little sister, Kas, and Finn has promised to find her and bring her to safety.
But is there safety anywhere in this lawless Australia? And is there anyone out there who Finn can trust as he risks everything to keep a promise to a girl he hardly knows?
The characters in The Road to Winter are authentic and three dimensional, they live in a terrifyingly believable world, and their choices and struggles ring true.
In this world the reader is confronted with what it means to be a desperate survivor, whether born in Australia or having fled here from elsewhere. And what it means – for Rose and Finn and Kas or even perhaps one day us – to find sanctuary, or to be met with fear and hate.
A book for our time, that takes root in the memory.
On the spur of the moment, Adelaide Longley walks out of her expensive Melbourne boarding school and boards the train home to her country town.
We might expect Addie’s family to be upset, even angry, but the relationships in this family are warm, supportive and depicted in rich detail. They want Addie to make good, on her terms.
Now the local girl who was so smart she won a scholarship, has to reconnect with her old friends at the local high school, find a job, and think about her future.
This is a gentle, leisurely story, that relies on the characters drawing you in and keeping you hooked. This is pretty well guaranteed when the teens in Emyvale wrestle with the universal questions of life, love, friendship and their futures, as they negotiate the last year of high school.
Will my grades be good enough to get me into my preferred course at my preferred uni? Do I really want to go to uni? Do I want to travel first? How do I follow my dreams when my parents expect me to stay on the farm?
And, even, sadly, what if my parents expect I’ll never amount to anything?
Addie has rejected the narrow confines of her school’s expectations, but what now?
She (sort of) buckles down to studying at home for her finals, falls (sort of) in love with Jarrod, is firmly steered into a part-time job, and falls easily into the old rhythms of country town life.
This is a book for older teens, as Addie and her friends begin to explore their sexuality, but much is left to the reader’s imagination.
What is beautifully written into the story is the power of friendship, the knitted togetherness of community across generations, and the joy of finding, striving for and following your dreams.
It is one thing to be a fifteen-year-old English girl caught up in a mid-air plane hijacking.
It is quite another to be able to recreate that experience decades later in a novel which puts the reader right there as one of the exhausted, terrified passengers.
Miriam Moss achieves just that.
As the fictional Anna, she retells her own 1970 experience flying home to boarding school in England, when her plane is hijacked and forced to land in the Jordanian desert.
Seated either side of Anna are Tim, aged nine, and David, 17. Better friends Anna couldn’t have been given, as they and the other passengers fill in the tedious, boring, terrifying hours. Water is rationed. Food hardly exists.
The hijackers make the stakes clear. Their colleague in custody in the UK will be released, and the passengers freed – or the passengers will be blown up with the plane.
The heat, the cold at night, the hunger and thirst and sweaty filth on the plane almost become the reader’s experience.
Thanks mostly to the indomitable Tim, the story is also alive with unexpected humor.
Because the fictional cast of passengers, crew, and hijackers are the most memorable takeaway from Girl on a Plane. Moss creates them as fully realized human beings, with their fears, their courage, their weaknesses, their personal stories.
And like Anna, by the time we evacuate the plane, we may understand that some people’s stories are not as straightforward as we thought.
I was riding up my street, coming home from school. I always needed to stay pretty wide awake on the bike. There were no sidewalks in my neighborhood, my street was narrow, and drivers in Gulistan were often looking at their phones.
This day an old guy was wandering up the middle of the street. I rode up beside him and slowed down.
‘Salamat siz, Atalar. Hello, Grandfather,’ I said politely, stopping my bike.
‘Salamat sen, bala. Hello, son.’ He didn’t look surprised to meet a foreign kid.
But he did look lost, so I said in Gulsha, ‘My name is Joel. Can I help you, sir?’
‘No. I am going there,’ he said, pointing.
It looked like he meant past the end of my street, but why? There wasn’t a lot of anything out there.
Just fenced-off old ruined houses where a faded billboard said some developer one day was going to build a fancy estate.
‘Makul. Okay,’ I said. What was I going to do? Just ride home and leave him in the middle of the street?
A car was coming slowly from the direction of the Main Road, and the old guy was right in its path. I gently pulled him against one of the high garden walls that nudge the edge of the asphalt.
The car stopped and a lady and a man got out.
‘Oh, Apa,’ the guy said. ‘Kayda barasez? Dad, where are you going?’
The lady spoke to me in Gulsha. ‘I only left the apartment to pick up the children from school, and somehow he got out.’
‘Maqul,’ I said. ‘I thought he was lost.’
‘Oh, not really,’ the son said. ‘We used to live up there.’ He pointed like his father had. ‘You know, the old neighborhood. But the government moved us years ago, into an apartment block on Main Road.’
They were gently taking Atalar to the car, but he didn’t really want to go. I felt sorry for all of them, but I didn’t think about them any more after they left.
Not until about a week later and I saw the old guy walking up the street again.
He was walking a bit faster, and more like he knew where he was going this time.
I rode up beside him and said hello.
‘Hello, son,’ he said in Gulsha.
I got off the bike and walked beside him. How had he got here? Must have caught a bus and then tottered up here from the College Park shops.
His poor family. He had as much road sense as a toddler.
I looked back down the street, and, yep, there was the son’s old blue Mazda wobbling through the potholes towards us.
The lady and the gentleman got out, pretty stressed.
This time I felt really sorry for them all.
‘I locked the door!’ The lady said, like I might be judging her. ‘I don’t know how he opened it!’
‘Well, he’s safe now,’ I said.
‘Ha. Rakhmat. Yes. Thank you,’ the son said.
I asked, ‘Why does he suddenly want to come back?’
‘Oh.’ The man chewed his lip. ‘Our fault.’
The lady said, ‘He heard us talking. The houses are finally going to be bulldozed. There will be nothing there any more.’
‘When Apa heard that, he was upset,’ the son said. ‘He kept saying he had to go back and “find it”. Find the house I suppose.’
‘What if you drove him there and showed it to him?’
‘Joq.’ He shook his head. ‘We did that. He wanted to go into the house, and the area’s all fenced, and too dangerous.’
So they put him in the car, and we all said, ‘Khosh, goodbye,’ and they thanked me again, and they left.
Well, the lock on that apartment door really needed fixing, because only three days later, there was Grandfather walking up my street again.
All the exercise was doing him good. He was walking a bit faster and more in a straight line, but still in the middle of the road.
The son and daughter-in-law had been right about the bulldozers. I’d started hearing them this morning as I was getting ready for school.
‘Salamet siz, Atalar,’ I said, as I got off my bike beside him.
‘Salamet sen, bala. Qandai sen?’
‘Oh, I’m fine, thank you. Kayda barasez? Where are you going?’
He pointed in the direction of the old ruined neighborhood. ‘I have to find it!’
‘Makul. Okay. Find what?’
‘Shhh!’ He put his finger over his lips and looked around as if we might have a dozen people listening in. There was nothing in the street except two stray dogs, and several houses away, a bored security guard scratching his elbow.
Then around the corner came the blue Mazda, bouncing at speed over the potholes.
Grandpa, you are going to be in so much trouble this time.
Grandpa crushed a piece of paper into my hand. ‘Tapmak! Find it!’
I pushed the paper into my pocket. ‘If I find it, where do you live? What is your address?’
‘Block Seventeen, Entrance Four, Apartment Nine.’
The Mazda squealed to a stop. This time the lady was in tears, the guy was nearly chewing his lip off, and we finally introduced ourselves.
‘Menin atim Joel,’ I said as the son shook my hand.
‘Ramiz,’ he said.
His wife gave me a tired smile. ‘Menin atim Kinaaz.’
So then it was, ‘Come on, Dad,’ again, as they led him to the car.
I was left standing in the street with my bike, watching the blue Mazda make a tight back-and-forward turn and head back towards the Main Road.
The bulldozers had been working all day. Was there anything left up there, anyway?
I rode past my house, up to the old neighborhood.
Well, there weren’t bulldozers, to start with. There was one tracked yellow excavator loading rubble into a truck.
How would I find Grandpa’s house? The street signs had long gone, and so had a lot of the house numbers.
I smoothed the paper out. 639. Okay. I wheeled the bike along the road, finding numbers neatly painted on house front walls, slopped on gate posts, screwed onto front doors, stenciled on electricity poles. When there were numbers.
I pulled the bike through a gap in the fence and walked along a street inside. I was getting the pattern. It took me less than ten minutes, and I was standing in front of Grandpa’s house.
Green plants crawled over a lot of it, the open triangle between the iron roof and the top of the side wall had exposed the ceiling to the weather. Windows were broken and the front door had been bashed in.
‘Tapmak! Find it.’ What did he mean?
Not, Find the house. Ramiz had shown it to him. Today I’d seen things left behind in other houses – furniture mostly, but pictures on the walls, religious items, small stuff that maybe meant a lot to someone, once.
I pushed open the bashed-in door and walked around inside. Couldn’t see anything. Well, nothing that Grandpa might want. I opened the door of a small metal fireplace, had a good look, felt up the chimney, and only got a filthy charcoal hand.
I checked the kitchen cupboards and the cupboard in a bedroom. Nothing. I went back outside and looked up at that gap under the roof.
Down the street was a long panel of metal fence lying in a yard. I dragged it back to Grandpa’s and stood it up like a ladder. If it broke, I could think of several horrible ways I could get hurt.
The ceiling was strong wooden planks. I walked all over it, looking for anything he might have hidden when it was a closed space. Nothing. I went down the ladder as carefully as I’d gone up, and laid it back on the ground.
Was there a shed or any other place to hide something outside? Nope.
I rode home, cleaned myself up, did my homework and had dinner with the family. But I kept thinking about Grandpa.
The thing was … okay, he didn’t realize he was walking in the middle of the road and could get hit by a car. But he had the smarts to break out of his apartment, catch a bus, and find the route to his old house. He’d also thought ahead, remembered me, and written the house number down to give me.
He wasn’t totally doolally.
Which meant, I had to take him seriously.
So, next day in school I wondered every spare minute about where Grandpa might have hidden … what?
After school, I went back. The excavator had made a lot of progress in twenty-four hours. What had been houses yesterday were now heaps of bricks, concrete, broken timber, and twisted roofing iron.
The wrecking machine and I arrived at Grandpa’s house about the same time.
The heavy diesel engine revved and spewed black smoke and the tracks squealed and clanked.
The operator extended the long steel arm, opened the bucket jaws, ripped a small tree out by the roots and tossed it aside. He didn’t see me or the bike. He would have been shocked if he had.
He raised the bucket high, lowered it onto the iron roof and dragged it off with a screech like the end of the world.
I was inside now, protected by that strong wooden ceiling, desperately trying to think of one last place I could search. The floorboards? No. No sign of a trapdoor.
The bucket hit the bedroom wall with a crash, followed by the roar of falling bricks and a rumble as they bounced across the floor. Hit the wall again and another roar, the ceiling sagging over my head, the house filled with clouds of dust and grit.
But I’d heard something. Under the roar of the falling wall, the screech of the tracks, and the growl of the engine I’d heard one, other, distinct sound that wasn’t any of those.
As the excavator prepared for a third assault, I ran into the bedroom, threw bricks aside where I’d heard that high, metal clang! and scrabbled madly in the rubble. The rusty yellow bucket came in, dragging the mess out, and I was digging with my bare hands only a yard from it, and the operator didn’t even know I was there. He hooked the bucket through the window, dragged the last of the wall away, and I saw grey metal among the bricks on the floor, grabbed it and ran for my life out the front door.
I collapsed in the wild garden, shocked and shivering, my hands scraped raw and bleeding, the vibrations of the machine throbbing through the ground. But I’d found it. I’d found the brick-sized metal box Grandpa had hidden inside the bedroom wall.
I collected my bike and walked home, the box in my hand, my legs wobbly.
Mum saw me walk in. ‘Joel! You’re covered in dirt and grit. You look like you’ve been underground!’
‘Nearly. I’ve been up there where they’re pulling down those old houses.’
So I told her, and she listened, looking sympathetic about Grandpa and his family, then horrified at what I’d done. I showed her the box.
Living in Central Asia had made my Mum resilient. She said, ‘Well, brush yourself off a bit – comb the lumps of cement out of your hair at least – and we’ll go and search for this apartment.’
So she drove down Main Road, and we read the numbers stenciled on the run-down apartment blocks. We found ‘Seventeen’, and Mum parked in a dirt car park beside the kiddies’ playground. Women taking their washing off the drying lines stared at the two foreigners.
‘Seventeen’ was a long building with a big ‘4’ over the last door on the right. A man came out and left the door to close itself. We ducked in behind him, and climbed the concrete stairs. On the third landing we knocked on the door of apartment Nine.
Ramiz opened it. ‘Joel!’
I could hear a TV somewhere behind him, with a children’s program.
‘Salamet siz, Mr Ramiz,’ I said respectfully. ‘This is my mother, Laura.’
So he and Mum and then Kinaaz all said, ‘Hello, nice to meet you,’ in Gulsha, and I held out the metal box.
‘I found this in your old house. I think it’s what Atalar was looking for.’
They stared at it, eyes wide, mouths open.
Finally Ramiz waved his arm for us to come in, and pointed down the hall, and we went down there. Grandpa was sitting on an old brown couch in a small shabby living room. I went over and presented the box with two hands, carefully laying it in his lap.
He looked at it for a long time, slowly picked it up with shaking hands, then tears trickled down his cheeks. It was like the box had brought itself to him. Grandpa had tried so hard to get to it, and it had called out, Here I am!
Maybe I was hardly in this story at all.
Grandpa closed his fingers over the combination lock, and without hesitation rotated the correct numbers, the lock fell off and he raised the lid.
Even standing back I could see it was folded papers, and a few old photos. He took them out, one by one, unfolding the papers, looking at them and handing them to his son.
Ramiz took them, started reading, and had to go and sit in an armchair.
‘What are they?’ Kinaaz asked him.
‘Investment certificates, bank accounts, I don’t know what all of them are.’
‘This is money? That belongs to us?’
‘To Dad. I think. To us, our family.’
I looked at Mum, and she gave a tiny nod towards the door.
Gulanis always offer cups of tea and biscuits to visitors, but this wasn’t the right time.
Better for us to quietly leave while they were distracted.
It was the gentle growl of a light plane flying low over the city that snapped me around, eyes searching the sky. We don’t see a lot of them in Central Asia. And, more weird, the sound didn’t come from the usual flight path in and out of the Khan Sharif airport.
We can see that flight path from our high school, and the planes we see are commercial airliners or military aircraft. Or, sometimes, rich people’s private jets.
But this was a single engine light plane, banking away from the city center, and it looked like towards the school in the middle of the lunch hour.
Six hundred of us were outside, kicking footballs on the sports field, playing volleyball or tennis on the courts, or just hanging out.
I saw a lot of other kids stop dead, too, and just stare up at the sky. Not just a quick check, but like, ‘What’s going on?’
We were getting our phones out, sweeping the sky till we found the plane, coming at us head on. Now it was like, ‘What the hell?’
It was dropping altitude, and suddenly kids started running off the sports field, racing for the buildings, screaming, ‘It’s coming down!’
I backed against the Science Block, keeping the plane firmly in the center of my screen. No question it was coming down on the sports field. I was sweating, my hand holding the phone was shaking. Could a plane land there? Could it? Safely? But why? Why was it even over the city?
Instinct kicked in. I’m a journalist’s son. I had to get this. This was a story. I hoped like hell it wasn’t a tragedy. Just a story, okay? Please, just a bit of drama. Bust the plane up, maybe, but no-one hurt.
It looked like that might happen. Coming in over the fence. All the grass ahead. Then the plane bucked like a saddle horse gone rogue. Engine roar. Nose up. Wing down. Dropping sideways like a shot bird. Sickening crunch as plane impacts ground. Small bits in all directions. Silence.
Me running, phone camera fixed on the wreckage growing bigger, filling the screen. Maybe someone is alive. Maybe I can do something, anything. In the distance behind me I hear shouts and screams. Other students are running towards the plane too. All of us with our phones out. All of us hoping we’ll find the pilot alive.
We stop. He isn’t. He isn’t alive, and he isn’t alone. Two dead guys. The pilot and his passenger.
From behind us teachers are shouting, calling us back to the buildings.
One of the boys beside me throws up on the scarred grass.
‘Come on,’ one of the others mutters. ‘Nothing we can do.
‘Yeah. Let’s go.’
They straggle away. I would, too, except my Dad is a foreign correspondent. He tells the world about wars and earthquakes and terrorism and governments who have dirty secrets they want to keep secret. I’ve been marinated in trauma reporting.
I’ve just never seen trauma until this second.
With some teacher bellowing from the buildings, ‘Joel Fleming! Get back here at once!’ I’m filming the two guys in the plane. I’m filming the pilot, who has a small, neat blue-lipped hole between his headset and his right eye.
I’m filming the passenger, who has a pistol in his right hand.
I’m filming the backpack behind the seats that has visible wires, and I’m pretty sure contains explosives. I want to check and make sure, but I think I’m lucky it hasn’t suddenly decided this would be a good time to explode and take out the nasty foreign kid with the camera.
I back away, and not because the teacher is still shouting himself hoarse, and the sirens that have been screaming closer and closer are now inside the school carpark.
Through a mist of tears I look at the pilot who refused to fly into whatever building the terrorist targeted this morning. Who innocently took a charter job, and is now dead on my school’s sports field. Who wouldn’t risk crossing the flight path of a passenger jet, so tried to come down here.
I duck my head for a moment in respect, and slowly turn back to the school buildings, cutting a straight course through the dozen or so emergency vehicles screaming across the grass.
The teacher meets me, purple and spitting with rage. I don’t hear him. Behind him the kids and teachers are massed and in collective shock, staring at the plane, the emergency vehicles, and now the military vehicles spilling out personnel. Of course, most of the kids are not too much in shock to be filming everything.
I snapped out of whatever daze I’d been in, and thumbed my screen with fast jabs that sent the video to Dad.
About then the Principal ordered us all back into the central quad area of the school, where we couldn’t see the plane any more, and I wasn’t sorry. I knew too much about what was in that cockpit. The guys who’d gone out to the plane with me hadn’t looked as close as I had.
We all got told to sit down, packed in tight on the grass, the pavers, or benches if we were lucky. The teachers were all talking on their phones, then to each other, then back on their phones. Staring at us. More muttering to each other. No-one knew what to do. The staff must have training for all kinds of dramas, but maybe not this. All this week and next, the trauma counselors were going to be busy as squirrels in autumn.
Busy with the teachers, before they ever got to us.
Everyone’s phone was screeching with incoming calls from parents. Word had got out all over the city. Kids were in tears answering calls. Voices up at least two octaves. Parents were in total panic. They were trying to get to the school but had run into military road blocks.
I texted Dad and told him about the road blocks, too. I’d never supplied him a story before.
But today some terrorist had decided to fly a plane and explosives into … What? The Presidential Palace? Department of the Army? The Parliament? Or was it called Congress? I couldn’t remember. Didn’t matter. He’d planned on some big, important building, but all he’d achieved was to mess up our soccer field. And kill an innocent man.
My parents both rang me. ‘I’m okay,’ I told them. ‘Just sitting in the quad. Did you send out my story, Dad?’
‘Of course. Well done. Well done! There’ll be updates, but yes, your video’s the first report. Now, you sure you’re okay?’
‘Sure. Just sitting around with my mates. We’ll probably be back in class any minute.’
That was a lie, of course. I felt terrible. I was shaking like I had a fever. Couldn’t get the image of the cockpit out of my head. But I wasn’t telling him that. He’d think I was soft.
Right then, these military types came walking fast into the quad. Not armed, but covered in badges and eagles on their epaulettes and stuff, so we knew they were high ups. Everyone got very quiet.
One of them barked out in English, ‘Who was filming the plane on their phone?’
Um, like… everyone? Are you stupid?
‘Who filmed the plane that landed in the school?’
The purple-faced teacher was looking around for me. I ducked behind someone and looked at my sneakers.
‘Who has filmed the plane?’ shouted the officer.
Nobody moved. Nobody answered.
‘Then everyone will hand over their phones! Now! Every phone! Hand them over!’
Just like I thought. Governments want to keep their secrets, secret. He couldn’t possibly know one of us had filmed what they’d also found by now – that backpack. And the gun. But we’d all filmed the result of that gunshot – a plane calmly coming in to land suddenly convulsively out of control, and crashing.
And so the government was doing what governments everywhere do. Keeping an event secret, from their citizens and the world, because it made them look like not totally in control.
Except … Was this guy living in some previous century? The images had already gone out to everyone’s social media friends.
‘Hand over your phones!’ he ordered the kids sitting right in front of his shiny black shoes. They hunched down and left their phones hidden. He shouted louder, and way at the back Vitaly pulled out his phone and held it high, filming the officer going off his brain.
That really upset him, and he raved and yelled for Vitaly to stop filming and give him the phone. Wing Yan and Farida pulled out their phones and started filming, then Suvash, Ismaila and Sven, and then all of us were pulling out our phones, holding them up, filming the three officers.
For maybe five seconds they just stood there, then they turned like on a parade ground and marched back towards the fallen plane and the dozens of vehicles and crowds of workers and officials that must be out there now, hidden from us by the Science Block.
Phone power. Phones get a bad rap, sometimes, but that day they told the truth to the world, and truth is always power.
I didn’t know how the dog was going to kill me, exactly. Drag me in front of a bus? Knock me over backwards and smash my skull? Rip me apart with his huge teeth? Poison my bloodstream with rabies-infected drool?
We were headed for the park, because my biological father – which is all he was – had said the German Shepherd had to be walked. Had to learn to behave and had to get exercise. The previous owners hadn’t known that, and Kaiser was a teenage brat with enough attitude to send a juvenile remand center into lock-down.
A car turned into the street, approaching slowly over the potholes to save the suspension, and I squeezed back against a wall. I mean, the street was that narrow, with high concrete walls and sheet iron gates.
At the last minute Kaiser jumped out of the vehicle’s path. Pity, that. Then he tried to chase it, wrenching my arm.I moved off, dragging the dog as he danced backwards, watching the car disappear.
How had this happened? I was an ordinary Australian kid, who lived in a suburb where the roads were wide and smooth, there were lawns and gardens and footpaths. That was a week ago.
Now I was walking in a street like a prison exercise yard.
A donkey cart passed us, Kaiser tried to chase it, and when I didn’t let him, he went crazy, spinning on the end of the leash. I clamped my teeth hard as he spun in a blur of black and gold, barking like a truck crash, and the hard surfaces slammed the sound into my ears until they throbbed with pain.
Why had I picked fights with my mother’s new boyfriend? So Harry was a pig. Weren’t all her boyfriends? I could’ve ignored him, couldn’t I? No. I hadn’t. So he’s mad with me and he says, ‘It’s me or Connor!’
Well, she chose the boyfriend, didn’t she? ‘You’re going to go and live with your father,’ she said. ‘It’s time Andy took some responsibility for you!’
And I’m in shock, and it’s almost like, Who in the world is Andy? Because I’ve never even seen a photo of him, never had any contact at all. And it’s like, ‘Pack your life into one suitcase, we’re going to the airport.’ Nearly.
Oh, and, by the way, where does Andy live?
You are kidding? Central Asia?
She was not kidding.
It still seemed like science fiction to me that I could get in a plane – or two planes – and a few hours later walk off the plane into a totally different civilization. One I desperately wanted out of first chance I got.
How long before my mother ditched the boyfriend? How long before I could go home?
And what was Andy thinking, buying me a dog?
My target that morning was a park at the top of the street. Not much of a park, but better than the street. It was long and narrow with paths and a few flower beds and trees but mostly scruffy grass. As we got closer, I could hear a loud, snarling whine, and my ears pricked up like the dog’s. I knew that sound!
A kid had a radio controlled car, bright red, burning along the paths, turning, and then screaming back the way it’d come. I stopped to watch. He was pretty good with it. I forgot about the dog. The RC car was finally something familiar from the world I’d left.
I was standing on the grass beside the path, the car was leaping towards me, wheels bouncing on the rough concrete, and Kaiser shot out of the blocks like Usain Bolt. His huge jaws seized the speeding car and crunched through the red plastic while the engine screamed and the wheels spun in a blur.
I snatched the car from his jaws as the kid cut the engine, and we stood facing each other in the shock and sudden silence.
The kid was Central Asian, mid-teens like me, expensive clothes. The way he balanced on his feet and the set of his shoulders told me he could handle himself in a fight.
The only local word I knew was Rakhmat – thank you. It didn’t seem quite the right thing to say in the circumstances.
He walked over to me and I silently held out the mangled car. He looked at it, and looked at me, and the dog.
‘Wow,’ he said. ‘He’s fast, isn’t he?’
‘I’ve never seen anything like that.’
I shook my head, slow and serious and sad. You bet I hadn’t, either. ‘Look, I’m really sorry. I’ll replace the body. If you tell me where I can buy one.’
‘Oh, there’s a shop in the new mall.’ He was fingering the holes in the plastic like he was sort of awed.
Kaiser, having saved our lives from a dangerous monster, was sitting beside me with a big, drunken grin.
I said, ‘Okay. Maybe I can get in there and buy a new body …’
He shook his head and laughed. ‘Don’t worry about it. My father is happy to buy parts for my cars. Where are you from?’
‘Oh, really? I’m Zuwail, by the way.’
‘Where do you go to school, Connor?’
‘Khan Sharif International School.’
‘Oh! I attend Princes College. We play football against your school.’
Kaiser was on his feet again, whining and dancing around, bored with waiting.
‘I better go. I really am sorry about the car.’
He laughed again and held out his hand. ‘Connor! I said don’t worry! I will see you again, okay? I’m here often after school. Just hold the dog close next time!’
I shook his hand. Even teenage boys are a bit formal in Gulistan, apparently.
I dragged Kaiser away, through the park and back down our street, between the high garden walls and metal gates. It didn’t seem quite so much like a prison exercise yard now.
I’d met a neighbour kid my own age, who pretty clearly might become a friend.
It’s 1946. Poland is in ruins after the Second World War. Happiness is scarce. A fourteen-year-old juvenile named Felix is stranded in his own mind. A prevailing addition to Morris Gleitzman’s Once series, Maybe follows directly after the novel Soon. Gabriek is the middle-aged guardian of both Felix and Anya who is a recalcitrant pregnant teen. They are hopelessly trying to clutch onto what’s left of Felix as he escapes to a foreign country.
After supposedly murdering a revenge-crazed Polish killer’s brother, Felix finds himself voyaging across the world in order to survive. With the experience of his partisan training, Felix performs field surgery on a wounded Australian soldier after fatal contact with a bullet. His heroic actions are recognised by an Australian named Ken, and he is given the opportunity to escape to Australia. Soon enough, Felix is traveling across the globe on a World War II Lancaster bomber and it doesn’t take long to discover an unwanted stowaway onboard. Anya smuggles herself onto the plane in an attempt to escape separation from her baby. What she didn’t know was that she was about to experience her first plane crash, “Below us on one wing there’s suddenly fire of a different color. Yellow and red flames, pouring out of both engines” (Maybe page 105). Even though the two teens survive, they are now stranded in a desolate Australian town.
Morris Gleitzman grasps the true meaning of determination, risk and optimism and embeds them into this novel. War and terror weave around his words, setting a fearful yet sanguine story. He explores themes of family and friendship, as well as the aftermath of war. Felix feels lost many times along his journey:
I stare through the Perspex for ages. It’s all there. My whole life. Getting smaller and smaller. I can’t actually see everything, all the places and all the people I’ve been lucky to have, but I can see them in my imagination. The orphanage. The cellar. The farm. The forest. All the places that have given me good protection. Mum, Dad, Zelda, Barney, Genia, Doctor Zajak, Yuli, Celeste, Gabriek, Anya. And now I’m leaving them all behind (Maybe Page 88).
This novel carries many important and beneficial traits. Morris has composed Maybe as if the reader is inside Felix’s mind and reading his thoughts. He is able to turn the Holocaust from a merciless topic into a cheerful and humorous one, which enables young readers to enjoy the novel. As well as captivating vocabulary that establishes the tone, this narrative possesses many plot twists which keeps the reader enthralled.
Morris has hidden and weaved many morals and meanings into the novel Maybe. Optimism and perseverance are the most perceptible, but family connections and gratefulness are some apart of the hidden morals. Felix confronts many traumatic experiences during his lifetime but remains optimistic and finds the positive in every situation. Morris has authored this novel to express how important it is to be grateful for what you have while you have it because it could disappear within an instant. These values remain in place for the rest of someone’s life and are essential to teach at a young age.
His relationship blossoms over time with Gabriek, which he views as a father figure, as time passes by:
Gabriek looks hurt. “Felix,” says Anya. “Don’t be a jerk.” She’s right. Normally I’d say sorry to Gabriek for being rude and unkind. But I’m too upset. All the special people in my life except for Gabriek and Anya have gone. Gabriek said we’re in this together. Two days ago he said it (Maybe page 67).
Gabriek treats Felix like his own son and genuinely cares for him even though they argue. This strengthens the story’s moral on family connections. When they part, Felix feels lost and lonely since Gabriek isn’t there to ease his anxiety and comfort him. This relationship benefits the two characters and the story significantly. Anya and Felix undergo a slightly undiscovered romantic relationship. Felix unearths subtle feelings for Anya and admires her courage and bravery throughout the story. Felix never expresses these feelings, so they remain friends.
Gleitzman demonstrates similar characterization, theme and styles of writing as the other novels in the Once series. Mostly desperate and hopeful, he has written it through the eyes of Felix which is a vastly impressive skill. Morris Gleitzman has composed this novel to explain the importance of continuing positivity in bleak situations to youthful readers. It holds many essential lessons that are portrayed creatively through writing.
A pandemic named COVID-19 is currently devastating many people around the world and many more are passing away from the fatal disease. In the novel, Felix experiences many disturbances far worse than a pandemic but still springs back with even more enthusiasm and optimism. Many people can currently relate to feelings of disorientation and uncertainty, which is exactly what Felix experiences throughout his voyage. Morris Gleitzman articulates this novel to relate to anyone around the world.
To conclude, Maybe demonstrates how someone can confront so many false hopes and still be able to recover. Morris Gleitzman authors this novel to be optimistic even though the topic is so sour, which enables many young readers to enjoy it, even at its darkest times. Many children can learn not only about the history of our world but how to remain positive when conditions are bleak.
Tiny and Nola should never have met. Tiny scrounges for food on the streets of Sydney, Australia, and is driven to steal sanitary supplies from a pharmacy. Nola and her friends are picking out $1000+ dresses for their Year 12 formal in a trendy Harbourside boutique.
But Tiny hears the writing group at homeless shelter Hope Lane has a free supper, and Nola needs a mandatory volunteer gig to pass Year 12.
On the surface, they couldn’t have anything in common, but out of fear Tiny and Nola have both made bad choices that hurt their families deeply. Neither will read out their creative writing to the group, but as they shyly exchange their poems to be read later, friendship and courage grow.
This is a tough book, peeling back the reality of life for people on the streets. There are drug and alcohol references, though Tiny avoids both.
One of the most striking qualities of this book is the cast of memorable “secondary” characters. Nola’s Dad deserves a book of his own.
But it is the courageous members of the Hope Lane writing group who hold centre stage, fighting rejection, self-doubt and the tug of the past as they set out to prove that, ‘Books can save anyone. If they’re the right ones.’
After Nana died, he was all by himself in England, and we, his family, were over here in Central Asia. My Mum and Dad both have jobs here, and we couldn’t go home to keep Grandpa from being lonely.
He’d never been out of England in his whole seventy-two years, so it was a shock to us all when he phoned to say he’d bought a plane ticket, and he was on his way to Gulistan.
‘It’s just crazy!’ Mum said. ‘I’ll be at work all day, Dad’s at work all day, and you three are at school. What’s he going to do? Sit around watching movies-on-demand for eight hours?’
I said, ‘He won’t mind. What does he do at home, anyway?’
‘He’s got friends, Zachary! He has a routine! He goes down to the pub. He goes down to the betting shop. There’s none of that here!’
‘He’ll know that. He’s coming to see us, not visit Ladbrokes.’
‘He won’t know that,’ Dad said. ‘He’s got no idea the world can be so different to what he knows. He thinks even Scotland is a foreign country.’
I didn’t like to say, So do the Scots. But I got Dad’s point. When we all came here three years ago, foreign country took on a whole new meaning.
We didn’t get to talk about the problem of Grandpa a lot more, because less than a day later, there he was. He walked out of Arrivals dragging a brand new green suitcase, and looking totally confused.
‘I told you,’ Mum said, almost grinding her teeth. ‘He thinks he’s mistakenly landed on Mars.’
But my little sisters and I just shouted, ‘Grandpa!’ and raced past Security to hug him.
He looked around, saw us, opened his arms, and the confused look became total happiness.
I stopped wondering if he might have done the wrong thing. Of course he should have come. My parents worry too much.
So we drove him home, and he sat in the front beside Mum, looking out the window at a world so untidy and unfamiliar and colourful, saying, ‘My goodness,’ from time to time. I thought that was pretty accepting, considering how wild the traffic is, how the market stalls crowd to the very edge of the bitumen, and pedestrians walk onto the road without looking.
We got home, and he greeted our Gulani cook like an old friend, looked around Chloe’s bedroom she’d given up for him, and nodded like he approved of it all.
So that first evening went okay, and after dinner Mum explained about us all being gone all day tomorrow. If he was disappointed, he didn’t say so. Dad showed him how the TV worked, and he could get the BBC World Service, or stream movies, and Grandpa said that was fine.
Except it wasn’t fine when Chloe and Francie and I got home from school, and Grandpa was missing.
‘When did he go out?’ I asked the cook.
‘About two hours ago.’
‘Did he say where he was going?’
‘No, Zachary. He didn’t say.’
‘Did he say when he’d be back?’
Francie took charge. She’s nine, and she’s into that. ‘Get your bikes. We spread out. Zachary, take the middle of College Park. Chloe, you take the streets to the west, and I’ll ride up the streets around here. Got your phones? Go!’
That was smart. He couldn’t have gone far, could he? Could he?
Face it, Zachary, in two hours he could be anywhere in Khan Sharif.
Well, not if he was walking. And he wouldn’t just get on a bus in a strange city, not knowing where it was going, would he?
Yes, maybe. Because we’d never thought he’d get on a plane and come to Gulistan.
I was riding up my street thinking all this, and thinking that any of the neighbours I was passing could have invited him in for a cup of tea, and I wouldn’t know.
Chloe phoned in. ‘I can’t see him anywhere, Zachary.’
‘Keep looking, but don’t go too far from our house.’
I’d ridden along three streets and looked left and right down others, and still no sign of him. Up ahead was our little neighbourhood park. Ah-ha!
I stopped the bike and pulled out my phone. ‘Okay guys. Target visual. All units stand down and return to base.’
‘Is he okay?’
‘YOU FOUND GRANDPA?’ You can actually hear Francie talk in capitals.
‘Yep. All good.’
He was sitting at a park picnic table with three local guys about his own age, one flat English tweed cap among three little round caps, bent over two checkerboards.
‘Hey, Grandpa,’ I said.
‘Zachary! Great to see you, son.’
‘Great to see you, too, Grandpa. We didn’t know where you were.’
‘Well, I was here. It’s just like the UK, Zachary. Indians down at the park!’
I shook hands with his new friends. ‘Salamet siz,’ I said to each one.
I explained, ‘They aren’t Indians, Grandpa. Indians come from India. This isn’t India.’
‘Phttt!’ Grandpa said. ‘I don’t mind where they come from. People are all the same.’
Well, if we all had that attitude, we’d have a peaceful world, wouldn’t we?
‘Um, I think we better go home,’ I said.
So he shook hands with the guys, and I taught him to say, ‘Khosh, goodbye,’ there were more smiles, and we walked home.
Mum and Dad were already home, and they weren’t too happy, at all.
‘Dad! You could have got totally lost, and we’d have no idea where you were!’
‘You can’t just wander around like that, Dad!’
‘Actually,’ I said, ‘The guys with him were pretty sure he came from this house, and they would have brought him home in a bit.’
‘That’s not the point,’ Mum said. She gets cross when she’s had a scare.
She hadn’t had half the scare I had. After all, before she even heard he was missing, I’d found him.
So the next day the girls and I got home, and no Grandpa.
‘He went to the park,’ our cook said.
So I rode up to the park, and he wasn’t there. His three Gulani friends weren’t there, either. Two women were sweeping the path for the City Council.
‘Kim izdeymiz?’ they asked. ‘Who are you looking for? Your grandfather? He has gone to the tea shop by the bus stand.’
I mean, there is nothing wrong with drinking tea down by the bus stand, but why can’t he stay home and watch movies on Netflix?
So I rode my bike down there, and of course the shops near the bus stand, well …. it’s chaos and it’s noisy. There’s loud local music, and buses revving, and half the car park is taken over by women and some men with little stalls, selling home-made fast food, newspapers, second-hand clothes and little kitchen gadgets and toys.
Between the convenience stores, and the butcher, and the tandoor bakery, and the mosque, there’s a tea shop. At the front is a huge shiny brass pot of boiling water, with a tittle tap at the bottom. Old men sit around wooden tables, and hanging on the wall are dozens of little blue metal teapots and white china cups.
Grandpa was with his three friends, drinking tea and playing backgammon.
A boy my age isn’t really welcome in the tea shop, but I sat on the end of the bench and someone put a cup of sweet milky tea in front of me.
So Grandpa and I walked home again, and that night all our family went out to a really nice restaurant that has the best Gulani food in town. It was a great evening, and we talked until our throats hurt, about Nana, and about Grandpa’s home town and his friends, and about the mad things he did when he was young.
So, of course, next afternoon he wasn’t at our house when the girls and I got home from school.
‘He went to the tea shop,’ our cook said.
Good grief! He’s only got about three words of Gulsha, how does he even communicate?
So I went to the tea shop, and – surprise, surprise – he wasn’t there.
‘He’s gone to the kino,’ one of the customers told me.
The cinema! Good grief! Which cinema? And they only screen local Central Asian movies. Okay, sometimes Hollywood blockbusters, but dubbed into Gulsha.
Why can’t he stay home and watch movies in English on Netflix?
‘Don’t worry,’ the customer told me. ‘His friends will take him to your house.’
Oh, right. Right. So we’ve handed over care of Grandpa to three old guys whose names we don’t even know.
So he came home about an hour later, looking a bit dazed. Apparently it had been some sort of singing, dancing musical with no plot he was aware of, but some beautiful scenery and a romantic kind of road trip. I showed him a couple of photos on my screen.
‘Yes! Those were the leading actors.’
‘Yeah. Central Asia’s most popular movie star couple. Their kid goes to my school.’
‘Really?’ I think he was impressed by having such a close brush with fame.
Next day was Saturday, and we drove out of the city and showed Grandpa the countryside – the neat farms with rows of poplars along the canals, the shepherds on horseback watching herds of sheep and cattle.
Grandpa shook his head at the undersized little cows. ‘They’re not like the fine beasts we have back home,’ he said.
That seemed to be the only criticism he had about anything in Central Asia.
We drove up into the foothills, and he admired the forests and the views back down to the plains, and enjoyed the lunch in a nice tourist hotel.
He leaned back in his chair when the meal was over, a large white napkin covering his lap. ‘I’m very glad I came here to see you. It’ll be a lot easier when I’m back home, having a picture of it all in my head. Knowing how you live here, and what a grand place it is. I understand why you want to be here. It makes sense now.’
So we drove back to the city, took a detour past our school so he could see that, too, and he was very impressed. Well, it is a nice-looking school.
On Sunday we drove to the airport. As we hugged him, all of us had a few tears, and then Grandpa flew back to the UK.
And that’s how my Grandpa, who had never even been to Scotland, discovered Central Asia.
The bike ride with my brother was months ago, but the bad dreams still come. I still wake up in a sweat in the dark.
We’d just wanted to get out of the house, to breathe some fresh air. We weren’t looking for trouble.
Yeah, we do live in Central Asia. Sounds a bit dangerous or exciting, yeah? But our neighborhood is quiet. Life is school, family, sport. Hanging out with friends. Pretty much like your life.
Why do we live in Central Asia? Dad’s a foreign correspondent, and from here he travels really quickly to breaking stories – riots, elections, revolutions, earthquakes, wars, whatever.
But Gulistan is a quiet country, mostly. Not a lot of dramas, so Dad and Mum settled our family here.
So, the day I’m talking about, the rain had been pelting down for a week. All the sports fields were muddy swamps.
Otherwise, right then I would’ve been playing football for my school.
I looked out the window and saw the rain had nearly stopped, and I was going mental in the house playing Skate with Joel.
I said, ‘Hey. The rain’s easing off. Let’s go for a ride.’
‘Nah, Ben It’s too wet.’
‘Come on. You’re supposed to be keeping fit.’
‘Nah. If you don’t want to play this game, get Motor Storm or something.’
I took the controller out of his hands and pulled him to his feet. ‘Let’s ride, little brother.’
We got the bikes, opened the gate and rode down the narrow street where the potholes had been breeding like vermin under the pounding rain. Deep, sharp-edged, they could wreck a wheel rim if you hit one.
Joel called from behind me, ‘Ben? You want to go and see if there’s water in the canal?’
‘There won’t be. It’s just a disused irrigation canal. It’s half blocked.’
‘We can look.’
‘Okay. If you want.’
We rode that way, turning out of College Park, Joel whingeing about the rain. ‘It’s running off my helmet, into my ears. The wind’s going right through my jacket. I’m freezing.’
‘Toughen up, Joel!’
‘You ever notice rain has sharp points?’
I started laughing. ’No. Never noticed that, ever!’
We were passing little shops, the kind that just sprout up in Central Asia where there’s a space and some local official will take a bribe to shut his eyes. They sell cheap groceries and hardware, and colorful plastic kitchen stuff. Butchers with a cigarette in their mouth chop up meat on huge wooden blocks. You can buy every kind of local takeaway food.
People even set up little stalls on the roadside, creating a bit of shelter under plastic sheets tied to trees or power poles or fences. Cars driving past spray water over everything. I think it’s harder being poor in Asia than in Australia.
Up ahead I could see men and kids standing looking down into the old canal, so I knew Joel must be right, and there was water in it.
We rode over and joined the spectators. Yeah, water was boiling along, but not deep.
‘Where’s it coming from, do you think?’ I asked Joel.
‘From the river. I rode all the way there, once. With Aurangzeb. When the canal’s dry it’s like the world’s longest BMX track.’
Aurangzeb’s a Gulani on my football team, but he’s Joel’s mate, too. I said, ‘Really?’
‘Yeah. But the end of the canal is blocked with dirt now. The only way the river could spill into it is if it’s flooded right over the banks.’
We sat there in the light rain, both of us with one foot on the ground. The water was getting deeper. Out past the edge of town the river must be higher than I’d ever seen it, covering the sandy beaches where we go for BBQ fish lunches, spreading right out over the floodplain.
How deep was the canal going to fill? We settled down to watch, along with a growing crowd of Gulanis.
When the farmland was taken over by suburbs, a long time ago, the developers put concrete pipes into the canal and proper fill over them whenever a major road had to go across. But the minor roads dip down and cross on a ridge of packed dirt. So today we had pools and rapids and water rushing through pipes, and it was all a lot of fun to watch.
Kids threw sticks into the water and shrieked as they bounced and spun and raced away. Flood debris came along, too, all making a bit of excitement.
The water was still rising steadily. Looking upstream I saw the rapids over the dirt ridges were now just a bit of turbulence. Downstream the water had filled the first layer of pipes under College Park Drive.
Screams and shouts made me spin around. I couldn’t see anything except all the pointing, men running along the bank, until a head broke the water. My heart almost jumped out of my chest, like NO! I was frozen with the horror of that little head spinning round and round, racing down the canal, going under and coming up again.
Joel reacted faster. He was on his bike, accelerating down the canal bank, weaving through the running people. He can’t have had any idea what he could do except to get ahead of the child being tossed around in the filthy brown water. I followed, fighting my way through the frantic crowd.
The child disappeared into the pipes, and by the time I crossed the road he’d come out, still spinning around, and I didn’t know if he was dead or alive. Joel was way ahead of me, in clear space now, ahead of the child, riding as fast as he could along the muddy bank.
What does he think he can do? He isn’t going to dive in there, is he?
There was one more road crossing, one more set of pipes, and then the canal just ran on and on, I didn’t know where.
Joel was nearly at the road, but in front of him was a wide ditch full of rushing water that poured over the bank and into the canal. He twisted and flipped and flew over the water and up the bank to the road, spun left, braked and jumped off.
He lifted his bike out over the rail, held it by the crossbar, and dropped it straight down as a heap of debris arrived, pinning the bike across the pipes. Two seconds later the child slammed into the debris, his arms thrashed wildly, he clung on.
He was alive!
A shout went up from the crowd, and they crossed the ditch holding onto each other, terrified of being swept away into the canal. I crossed with them, feeling the strong, safe grip of Gulani men’s hands on my arms.
Below us the water fought noisily, angrily, against the obstruction, frothing and bubbling and reaching for the higher pipes.
In it all, the little boy was screaming, vomiting up water, coughing, and screaming until he had to take a breath, and screaming again. The sound would haunt me for months.
What could we do? No-one had a rope, it was too far to reach down, and he couldn’t last long. He’d drown or die of cold. The water was rising, the debris with it. He’d be washed through the upper pipe.
A man slid carefully down the concrete side of the canal, another man holding one of his wrists, then that man slid down to the water, his arm gripped, and I held my breath as this incredible human chain stretched out in the wild water towards the child.
The first man grabbed at his slippery little arm, but the child’s screaming grew more frantic, and he fought wildly to stay attached to his tree branch. In the struggle his head went under a few times, and I thought, He’s going to drown, for all the awesome guts of these guys. Joel was on the edge of the bank, and his body language told me what he was going to do.
I went in. I had no choice. Two strokes in the swift water took me to the little boy wildly thrashing one hand, fighting off the rescuer’s attempts to seize it. I hooked my arm under the skinny little arms, around his icy chest, and pulled him gently against my body. No way could I swim back now, one-handed against the current. I reached out to the nearest man, felt his strong fingers clutch my wrist, and the boy’s screams ripped my eardrums as I pulled him off the branch.
Now the water was fighting harder against my head and shoulders, as the human chain towed me slowly, slowly towards the bank, but all I thought about was keeping that little head above water.
It seemed to take forever. The flood wasn’t going to give us up without a fierce fight, and debris slashed and slammed us, but now I could hear excited shouting, the sound of men winning a battle, and suddenly my back was scraping the concrete and hands were grabbing me under my armpits, grabbing my clothes, and I was dragged clear of the water.
Someone took the child, holding him in his arms, kissing him and speaking softly in Gulsha, everyone crowded around, and they took him to a shop, out of the rain. A woman came out of a house with dry clothes, and helped rub the warmth back into him while he sobbed and called out for his mum and dad.
I had blood running down my back and arms. So did the other guys who’d gone into the floodwater.
It dawned on me now that no-one here was connected to the boy. They were looking upstream for anyone to come running to claim him. They’d risked their lives for a stranger’s child! I blinked back tears. Those guys should each get a medal. It had been nothing for me. I’m a strong swimmer. None of them were. I was sure of that. Swimming isn’t in Gulani culture.
Joel was standing with me, watching them too, shivering so hard in the cold rain he could nearly dislocate something. He’s muscled up a bit over the last few months, but there’s still not much of him. Always been a skinny little runt.
I said, ‘Come on, Joel. We need to get you home, and in a hot bath with a hot drink inside you.’ I picked up my bike. ‘Hop on the crossbar. I’ll give you a lift.’
‘Uh, Ben?’ He was wiping his face, wet from tears or rain I couldn’t tell.
D’you think Dad’ll say I’m irresponsible for losing my bike?’
What? Was he joking? Irresponsible? Seriously? But I looked in his eyes and saw, yeah, he was genuinely worried he might be in trouble when Dad got home. Amazing kid. He never has had any idea his quick thinking is something exceptional. I wished he was on my football team.
I said, ‘No, mate. He will not. He will absolutely be happy to buy you a new bike.’
Dad had seen enough death, enough horrifying things in the wars and disasters he’d covered.
I knew for a total certainty he’d say a lost bike was a very cheap price for a child’s life.