‘Attention’ was shortlisted for the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
I was on the news again – the first time in more than a decade. My girlfriend and I were eating dinner on our laps – macaroni cheese from the freezer – and there I was, the lead story. The footage was twenty-six years old and Jacinta did not recognise me. She stabbed at her plate, blowing on each forkful before putting it in her mouth. Our microwave, bought at a garage sale, cooked unevenly, and we were always scalding ourselves.
‘Police are following a promising new lead in one of the country’s most well-known cold cases,’ the announcer said. ‘Nicholas Bright, aged six, disappeared in Tongariro National Park in 1991 while camping with his family. His body was found buried in deep bush a fortnight later, but no one was ever convicted of his murder. Now, however, a tip-off from an anonymous member of the public has thrown up information that could finally solve the decades-old mystery.’
Then they played the re-enactment: dressed as the missing boy, I walked along the edge of the river and began to make my way up a narrow track into the bush. It was mid-February the day we filmed, the heat of the river stones flaring up at me as we shot take after take. The cracked mud was as hard as fired clay beneath my sneakers, which were almost exactly the same as Nicholas Bright’s, and the bellbirds were calling from the canopy, too camouflaged to see.
‘No wonder they never found him,’ said Jacinta. ‘That kid’s acting stinks.’
‘As a matter of fact,’ I began, but she was laughing out loud by this stage, pointing at the screen with her fork.
‘Jesus wept. Someone should have abducted him; given him acting lessons at gunpoint.’ A piece of her macaroni landed on my sock. She didn’t notice.
‘Mum and Dad wouldn’t let us go to the playground after that,’ she said. ‘Not by ourselves. And definitely not to the bush, or the big storm-water pipes we used to run through. You could stand up in them. You could hear every word you said echoing back at you. All your little secrets.’
‘They weren’t paying attention,’ I said. ‘The Brights – they can’t have been. I mean I know it’s terrible, but they must accept that they’re partly to blame.’
‘Who are you?’ said Jacinta.
On the screen I stopped at the mouth of the track, shading my eyes with my hand. I was peering into the dark bush, wincing as I hitched up my Spiderman backpack; I’d stayed out in the garden too long the day before, playing swingball with my brother Jonty, and my shoulders and neck were crimson with sunburn. When the director saw how bad it was he said perhaps they should get another boy, but my mother told him I’d be fine: the Spiderman costume I’d be wearing – which was almost identical to Nicholas Bright’s – would cover up the worst of it.
Later, when we were driving home and I was holding the safety belt away from my skin, she said she could have killed me.
‘As a matter of fact,’ I said to Jacinta, ‘that’s me.’
‘What?’ she said, blowing on another blob of dinner.
‘Him. The actor. That’s me.’
‘Don’t be stupid.’
She chewed for a moment, squinting at the boy on the television and then back at me. ‘You?’
My mother had high hopes for me. She contacted the Turangi Academy of Stagecraft to persuade them to accept me even though I was a long way off ten. When they refused to bend the rules, even for a child who showed such promise, she employed a young drama student to teach me juggling, tap-dancing, clowning and mime. I don’t think he could do any of those things himself; mostly he read to me from library books with names like Too Many Plates in the Air! and Clowning Around while smoking clove cigarettes, but he told my mother I had star quality. I must have been a shit of a kid, expecting applause every time I hauled myself along the monkey bars, or strangled ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ with the recorder, or said Don’t have a cow, man.
They had a psychic there the day we shot the reenactment. She wore a long purple skirt with little bits of mirror sewn on it, and earrings made from peacock feathers, and her eyes were dark and mysterious because she’d drawn them like that.
‘I’ll just watch,’ she said. ‘Just ignore me.’ Every now and then she crouched and held her fingers to the ground as if feeling for a pulse. She was carrying a grey school-sock – the kind we wore pulled up to the knee in winter – and once I saw her hold it to her cheek.
The victim’s mother was there too – Mrs Bright. Her lips were crooked with pink lipstick, and she’d knotted a scarf over her dirty hair like the Queen when she took the corgis out. The director asked her a lot of questions: where exactly had they sat for lunch when they were at the river? Did Nicholas look down at the ground when he walked, or up at the sky, or at the world around him? Did he swing his arms; did he have a spring in his step? Was he a happy boy, a quiet boy? Would he have skipped stones, paddled in the shallows, hunted for fish?
Mrs Bright leaned her head to one side as he spoke, taking in his every word, but she paid me no attention. I was not used to that. I stretched my mouth open as wide as it would go, wide enough to turn myself inside out. I did some star jumps. I said Mah meh mee moh moo and This black bug bled blue-black blood while the other black bug bled blue. Still she ignored me.
‘This is your moment,’ said my mother. ‘Remember not to act like you’re acting. You are Nicholas Bright. You’re not Aaron; you’re Nicholas. You’re out with your family having a nice time, tra la. Oh look, an interesting stone. Oh look, a skeletonised leaf. That sort of thing. Keep it natural. Be real.’
As soon as we started shooting Mrs Bright called out, ‘No! No, that’s wrong!’
I had gone only a few steps along the river’s edge, but the director told me to start again, and this time slouch a bit. A few seconds in, Mrs Bright interrupted again, and again the director relayed her complaint to me: I needed to hum to myself, because Nicholas Bright was always humming to himself, and indeed showed great musical promise. On the third take she said, via the director, that my knees were too straight; on the fourth, that I was slouching too much.
Later, during the five-minute coffee-break, I saw her look my way at last, but she was frowning at me like a teacher, and before I knew what was happening she was striding across the set – that was what my mother called it when she told all her friends about filming the clip, though the river was real and the stones were real and the hot sky and the close cool bush and Nicholas Bright were real too, and at the same time already just a whisper, just a warning – at any rate, Mrs Bright was striding across the set and grabbing the neck of my Spiderman costume and saying Raglan sleeves. It should have raglan sleeves. I heard myself scream, high and girlish, and Mrs Bright yanked at the neck again and said This is all wrong.
‘I think you’re hurting him,’ the psychic called. ‘I think that hurts.’
‘How old are you, anyway?’ Mrs Bright asked me.
‘Eight,’ I said, ‘but I can play younger.’
She snorted, and then the director was at her side explaining that the costume was very close to Nicholas’s, and nobody would be able to spot the different sleeve seams on TV, because viewers at home would see it on a much smaller scale.
I looked around for my mother but she was sitting on a rock, keeping her distance. ‘Smiiiiiile,’ she mouthed at me, showing all her teeth.
‘So in a way,’ Jacinta said that evening while she was flossing, ‘it’s your fault Sandrine was made Lower North rep instead of me.’
‘Oh?’ I said. She often spoke of Sandrine, who was younger and pushier, and the daughter-in-law of the owner of the plumbing supplies place where they both worked.
‘If you’d done a better job of impersonating Nicholas Bright, he might have been found safe and well. If he’d been found safe and well, my parents would have let me play outside on my own. If I’d been allowed to play outside on my own, I would have developed a better sense of independence. Learned to show initiative. Grown my problem-solving skills. You know – the dragonfly effect.’
‘Whatever – they’re both insects. You see my point.’ She wound a new section of floss around her middle fingers.
‘To be fair,’ I said, ‘Sandrine does know her galvanised flanges and her adaptor spigots inside out and upside down. From what you’ve often told me.’
‘I just thought we’d be in a better position,’ she said. ‘You know. By this stage in our lives. I thought we’d have made more of ourselves.’
I knew she meant me; I knew she thought I’d have made more of myself. I had no intention of staying at the call centre forever, but the work was undemanding, and people seemed to respond to my voice when I asked them about their vacuum cleaners or their internet service providers. One woman told me I should be on the radio. Another said I should be doing ads for chocolate and moisturiser; whatever I was selling, she’d buy.
‘What about our children?’ I said. ‘One day. If we have them.’ Jacinta was thirty-seven, but we acted like we still had loads of time. ‘Will they be allowed to go to the adventure playground alone, and build forts in the bush, and run through the storm-water pipes?’
‘Are you fucking insane?’ said Jacinta.
‘That’s a wrap,’ said the director – or at least, that’s what I remember him saying, but perhaps I’ve watched too many movies about movies. I do know that I just stood there gazing into the bush, slouching a bit, humming, knees not too straight. Until my mother started clapping, I didn’t realise it was all over.
‘Well done, darling!’ she called. ‘Bravo! Bravo!’
I could see Mrs Bright murmuring in the director’s ear yet again, gesturing at me, and the director shaking his head and sweeping his hand high in the air to indicate the failing light.
When they first showed the clip on the news, our phone rang all evening. My mother sprang to her feet each time, calling, ‘I’ll get it!’ in a sing-song voice.
The phone was in the kitchen, and I could hear her through the stippled glass partition that you were meant to pass meals through, though we never did.
‘Thank you so much,’ she was saying. ‘How kind of you. Yes, yes we are. So very proud.’ And then, in her minor-key voice: ‘They simply weren’t paying enough attention. I mean I know it’s dreadful, but they must accept that it’s partly their fault.’ And back to the sing-song: ‘Oh, I can’t take any of the credit. We’ll have to see, but it is exciting, yes. Well exactly. All sorts of possibilities.’
I could still hear her after I went to bed, and although I could no longer make out the words, her laughter carried down the hallway – a three-note song that rose and rose and never fell.
She thought the talent scouts would throng to us after that. ‘Television,’ she kept saying. ‘Television. You could do years of am-dram and never get that kind of attention. It’s worth its weight in gold.’ She called Jonty and my father and me to the lounge every time the clip aired, as if it were the latest episode in a serial we were hooked on; as if we might find out something new. But every time it was the same: walk along the river, veer towards the track, stop, peer into the bush. Disappear.
It was the cadaver dog that found him. They showed the animal on the news – a golden retriever named Rory, whose nose could detect certain odours, certain gases, to an incredible one part per trillion. Even under water; even underground.
Until then, I hadn’t understood that Nicholas Bright might be dead. I knew that he’d gone missing, but I had pictured him hiding in the bush somewhere, building a fort from ferns and fallen logs, making himself a bed of moss. Staying up as late as he liked. Eating moths. I had pictured him hanging from the treetops on silk that poured from his wrists, snaring the bellbirds in vast shimmering webs and training them to sing human songs.
My brother was sitting next to me on the couch, and he leaned over and started to pick at the peeling skin on my neck. We’d been working on it for days; I had to stay dead still so that the pieces he stripped away remained as large and intact as possible. We kept them in an old Milk Tray box from Christmas – Jonty had lined it with my mother’s sanitary towels, which he found in her dressing table when he was looking for cotton wool. We assumed they were part of a first-aid kit, in case someone had a bad cut. Only now and then did Jonty let me handle the pieces of skin, lifting them from their soft white bed and holding them up to the window so I could wonder at the delicate patterns, the contour lines of a place I did not know. If we collected enough, I thought, we could make a whole new boy.
Watching my brother peel away my skin on the couch, my mother shuddered. ‘Oh, I can’t bear it!’ she said. ‘Aaron, how can you bear it?’
But all the sting had gone out of it by then, and it didn’t hurt a bit.
The camera went in for a close-up: Rory dropping a slobbery rubber hamburger at his handler’s feet, stepping back, growling at it, then giving a couple of yips of doggy joy and snatching it up again in his soft muzzle.
‘Never mind the bloody dog,’ said my mother. ‘They should be showing the reenactment again. It’s not as if they’ve caught the person.’
And they did still show it, occasionally, but despite the attention my acting career failed to take off, and my mother never really recovered. She refused to accept that my big break was not just around the corner. She sent my headshots and a copy of the reenactment tape to all the big agencies – even one or two in Australia – but I wasn’t what they were looking for at that time, or their books were presently full, or I was too young or too old. Eventually one of the provincial outfits she approached told her what the bigger, slicker places would not: I was damaged goods. Say we’re casting a fizzy-drink advertisement, the letter read. Or an ad for toothpaste, or spa pools, or crayons. No client is going to want the boy who played the murdered boy. The boy who filled our living rooms night after night as we ate our chops and mashed potatoes, who reminded us that our children are not safe.
She took to her bed, staring out the window at the peach tree that only ever produced runt and spotted fruit; they looked like little ears. She sent my father to Video Ezy to rent Home Alone, and she watched it over and over from her bed, sometimes with the sound off, and sometimes with it up so high that Jonty and I could hear it when we played swingball in the garden, bashing the tethered tennis ball until our wrists ached and we had to call it a draw.
‘You don’t have a signature move,’ she told me when I brought her a plate of scrambled eggs and toast soldiers. ‘You don’t have a unique selling point.’ The room smelled like unwashed hair and unscrubbed skin. ‘The eyebrows,’ she said, gesturing at the screen. ‘The hands to the face. The fake fear.’
After a month, when she did get out of bed, she decided to spring clean the house from top to bottom. She wiped the blowfly specks from the light fittings, dusted the artificial logs on the gas fire, polished the windowpanes with old newspapers that may or may not have carried photographs of Nicholas Bright. Under my brother’s bed she found the box of dead skin; it still smelled of chocolate inside, and the little fragments we had shucked off stirred in the draught of her breath.
‘Where did you get these?’ she said, her voice tight.
‘From Aaron’s shoulders,’ said Jonty.
‘From my shoulders,’ I said. ‘And a bit from my neck.’
‘Yes, a bit from his neck.’
We knew better than to lie to her.
‘Not the skin,’ she said, dumping it into the lid, which showed pictures of chocolates cut open and oozing their fillings. ‘Though that’s disgusting enough. These,’ she said, pointing at the sanitary towels.
‘I found them in your dressing table,’ said Jonty. ‘Sorry Mum.’
‘Sorry Mum,’ I echoed.
‘You mustn’t go poking around,’ she said. ‘Some places are off-limits.’
‘There were loads of them, though,’ said Jonty. ‘Like, if Dad slipped with the carving knife and cut off his finger.’
‘Or if you were knitting and poked your eye out,’ I said.
She started to say something, but thought better of it.
After that, she no longer encouraged me to sing songs for visitors, and I stopped looking to her every time I told a joke or parroted an ad.
The anonymous tip-off turned out to be another dead end; they’ve never found the person who killed Nicholas Bright. I see the clip director’s name now and then in the credits for reality shows, and the psychic has her own website, offering thirty-dollar tarot readings. Some days I think I might contact her, just to prove she’s a fake. Jacinta thinks we both should. We could get some career advice, she says; it’d be a laugh – though she’s mentioned it so many times, it’s not funny. She’s still in plumbing supplies and I’m still at the call centre, but every now and then, before I know where I am, I’ll grab some fruit from the bowl and start juggling. Or I’ll find myself tap-dancing down the front steps, or inching my palms across an invisible wall. Or I’ll sense a river nearby, and in front of me a dark track: I can’t make out what’s ahead, but behind me I feel something panting, and a wet muzzle brushing at my back.
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