The Tally Stick

Carl Nixon is part of WORD Christchurch 2020 Spring Festival

Fiction, Extract, Featured, For Adult Readers
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Carl Nixon

Sep 08   ●  32 min read   ●  Penguin Books NZ

A gripping new novel from one of our leading writers.

A compulsive and chilling novel about subjugation, survival and the meaning of family. “Up on the highway, the only evidence that the Chamberlains had ever been there was two smeared tyre tracks in the mud leading into the almost undamaged screen of bushes and trees. No other cars passed that way until after dawn. By that time the tracks had been washed away by the heavy rain . . . It was a magic trick. After being in the country for only five days, the Chamberlain family had vanished into the air. The date was 4 April 1978.” In 2010 the remains of the eldest Chamberlain child have been discovered in a remote part of the West Coast, showing he lived for four years after the family disappeared. Found alongside him are his father’s watch and what turns out to be a tally stick, a piece of wood scored across, marking items of debt. How had he survived and then died? Where was the rest of his family? And what is the meaning of the tally stick?

tally stick historical a piece of wood scored across with notches for the items of an account and then split into halves, each party keeping one

family a set of parents and children, or of relations, living together or not.


THE CAR CONTAINING THE four sleeping children left the earth. From the top of the wooded bluff where the rain-slick road had curved so treacherously, down to the swollen river at the base of the cliff was easily sixty feet. There was no moon that night only low, leaden cloud clogging the sky. The car, as if suspended, hung in the air. For a fraction – of a fraction – of a moment. Very soon the children would begin to fall. Toward the tops of the trees. Toward the headlong water rushing between the boulders. Into the future. 
The only person who was awake was the driver, the children’s father, John Chamberlain. His long, narrow face was visible in the dashboard light. He was staring 
forward at the headlights as they probed east over the seemingly endless forest toward the mountains, fat, diamond drops of rain slanting through the beams. His expression was, more than anything, even more than fearful, disbelieving. Both hands still grasped the wheel as if he remained in control. Perhaps he believed there might, even then, be a manoeuvre he could perform, a secret lever known only to a few he could fumble for, yank; something, anything! he could do that might save his family. Behind him, one of the children groaned and shifted in their sleep. 
“Julia.” John’s voice was a dry whisper.
The children’s mother was in the passenger seat, her chin tucked, bird-like into her shoulder, head resting on a cardigan pressed against the door. Earlier, she had unbuckled her safety belt – it had been uncomfortable – and it coiled loosely across her shoulder and down into the shallow pool of her lap. She was dreaming about horses. Three, brindled mares were wheeling in formation in a dry, barren field. White dust rose around them, swirling higher and higher. Faster and faster the horses ran as if trying to escape the dust they themselves were throwing into the air. In Julia’s dream the horses’ hooves were impossibly loud. 
John wished there was time to apologise to his wife. He wanted to say sorry for 
many things: the long hours he’d been keeping at work; that petty argument about the wallpaper; the woman in Tottenham who Julia knew nothing about. Mostly he was sorry for bringing the children to this country. This God forsaken backwater. Julia hadn’t wanted to leave London. He had pressured her (that was the right word to use, pressured – he could admit it now). He had insisted that this job was a stepping stone. A place to land lightly before moving on. He had promised her a future with postings to the New York office, perhaps Paris. They would hire a nanny once they were settled into the new house in Wellington. A picturesque little city. “It’s only two years at the bottom of the world,” he’d said. “Think of it as an adventure.” In the end Julia had come around to his way of thinking. She was a good wife. A fine mother. 
Hours earlier, the family had stopped at a small village to eat a dinner of steak and 
chips. Julia talked about getting a room for the night. Perhaps they could walk up the valley the next morning with the other tourists to see the face of the glacier? Excited by the idea, the children looked up from their meals. 
“It’s just a wall of dirty ice,” he told them, pushing aside the plate with his thumb, his 
food half eaten. “There’ll be nothing to see. Besides, I’m sure this rain isn’t going to stop, not before morning. We should push on.” 
John had been told this part of the country was a natural wonder, a remnant of 
prehistory, but all they’d experienced in the three days they’d been travelling was relentless rain and grey coastline, mountains hidden behind cloud and undercooked chips. If they’d bought a ticket, he would have asked for his money back. It had been dark when they left the restaurant. As they made the bowing dash to the car the neon ‘vacancy’ sign outside a motel was smudged to the point of illegibility by the heavy rain. He’d never seen rain like it. Drops as big as marbles. Monsoon rain. 
He had driven them down the coast, heading toward the only pass through the Alps 
this far south. Even on full the wipers fought to clear the water from the windscreen. The three eldest children had cocooned themselves in the back seat with pillows, sleeping bags and a woollen blanket. Lulled by the vibration of the engine and the timpani of rain on the roof they’d quickly fallen asleep. The baby, Emma, had taken longer to settle. She was lying at his wife’s feet in a portable bed, a sort of fashionable, hippy papoose that zipped up to the baby’s chin. It had been given to them by Julia’s sister, Suzanne, as a going away present. At the time John had believed the bed to be a waste of precious space, however it had proved surprisingly useful. Emma’s grizzling had dissolved into soft snuffling and then silence. 
The map claimed they were following a highway, but to John it seemed more like a 
side-road. There were no more towns, no streetlights, not so much as a lit farmhouse window in the distance. The road eventually led them away from the coast. For miles at a time trees, grew right up to the edge of the seal, sometimes with branches draped with moss, all of it flashing into existence in the headlights before vanishing behind. Everything was drowning beneath the incessant rain. No headlights loomed bright in the rear mirror. No other cars passed him going north. 
John hadn’t seen the water on the road until the last moment. It was flowing in a 
broad fan at the end of a straight along which he had unwisely accelerated. His foot jabbed at the brake and he felt the car begin to slide as he fought the drift. Wrestling the steering wheel achieved nothing; the car had its head and would not be persuaded. Still travelling fast, they left the road. The tyres bit into the narrow strip of mud and shingle at the same time as the bonnet thrust into the soft folds of the forest. By rights, they should have hit a tree and halted in a jolting mangle on the side of the road where they would have been found in a matter of hours. Instead, the car slipped between the trunks like a blade. The only noises were the engine, the rain, and the long scrape of twigs on metal. On they ploughed, down a steep slope, crushing ferns and snapping saplings to where the cliff above the river had been hidden from the road. Avoiding the last significant impediment – it was a granite rock as big as a washing machine – by only a few inches, the car pushed eagerly on. Sprung. 
Found the air. Where it hung. 

For a fraction of a moment the headlights shone east over the forest. Diamonds 
glittered in the white light. One of the children shifted and sighed in their sleep as the windscreen wipers began their downward arch. It had all happened so quickly that John had not yet made a coherent sound. 
It’s true, he thought, everything does slow down at the end.
Pulled by the weight of the engine, the car leaned forward. The headlights angled down, revealing white water and shadow boulders. 
They began to fall. 
When Julia finally turned her head to look at him, John could see fear filling her eyes, like water into a blue-tiled pool. He tried to reach out his hand to her. He wanted to reassure her, but moving had become too difficult. If only the safety belt didn’t press so hard across his chest. He could almost reach. 
The way John said her name frightened her even more than the untranslatable expression on his face. Seen over his shoulder the world outside the car was a nightmarish kaleidoscope rushing up at them. Unbidden a prayer flashed through her mind. It was to a god she had not believed in for years, not since she was a girl. The rejected god of her mother. In a fleeting invocation – really just a wish – Julia implored someone more powerful than her to save them. Please make it that I haven’t woken up after all. Let me still be dreaming. 
The car fell faster. It began to pitch and yaw. 
Julia Chamberlain did not notice when her husband finally succeeded in gripping her arm. Her last thought before she died was for the baby lying at her feet. 
John Chamberlain’s last thought was also about the children. He hoped they were still asleep. He didn’t want their final moments to be filled with fear. Most of all he didn’t want them to know
he had failed them.
the car


UP ON the highway the only evidence that the Chamberlain’s car had ever been there were two smeared tyre tracks in the mud leading into the almost undamaged screen of bushes and trees. No other cars passed that way until an hour after dawn. By that time the tracks had been washed away by the heavy rain, which despite John Chamberlain’s prediction back in the restaurant let up shortly before morning. It was a magic trick. Having only been in the country for five days, the Chamberlain family had vanished into the air.

The date was April 4, 1978.



April 4, 1978


KATHERINE WAS RIPPED from sleep into darkness and chaos. Noise! Pain! Wrenched, jolted, shaken, bashed, tumbled and pierced with no sense of front or back, down or up, this way or that. From inside an unfolding explosion she couldn’t tell where she ended and the world began. In this placeless confusion before this started and after it stops meant nothing. There was only the everything-everywhere-always-has-been- and always-will-be -Noisepain. How long it went on like that – seconds, a minute, even hours – she couldn’t tell.
Until ….
The movement had stopped. Katherine took her first shuddering breath. And another. Heavy darkness through which she drifted, barely conscious. What was that sound? Wind? Water? Perhaps that was it, yes – water. Water gushing from the taps into the long, white curve of the bath in the upstairs bathroom at home in Horton Street. Much louder than that though, and all around her, as though she had her ear right up to the tap, or maybe there were many baths all being filled at the same time? She could also hear inside the roar of the perhaps-water metallic creaks and groans as if a train was slowing into the station. She must have fallen asleep on the tube on the way home from Saturday shopping with mother. A train crash, she thought without any emotion. I’m on the tube, that’s why it’s so dark, and the train has come off the rails. Or maybe someone blew up a bomb. She’d once overheard her parents talking about bombings in the city. Some poor people had died. The Irish, they were the ones who were blowing things up, although she didn’t know why. Mother had sounded worried. Father told her it wasn’t something they should discuss in front of the children.
Someone was calling her name from far away.
“Katherine. Wake up.”
She opened her eyes. Closed them. Tried again. In fact it did make a difference, although only a small one. Yes, a little light was coming from somewhere, milky and cold. But her eyes felt like doll eyes that would only roll open when her head was lifted. Something was squeezing her chest. It hurt when she breathed, sharp stabs which she could see as red flashes even when her eyes were closed. Her neck also hurt when she turned her head. Everything was painted in oily shadow and her eyes slipped off the shapes pressing around her. All she could tell was that she was in a small space. 

Her head suddenly spun and she felt her stomach push up into her throat. Her mouth opened by itself and she felt the vomit gush warm down her front and smelt the acid tang. She felt ashamed and wondered what father would say.
She thrust a hand in the direction of Maurice’s voice.
“Don’t! That hurt.”
Her fingers fumbled over something soft.
“Stop it!”
She could see her brother’s face now although his body was still lost in the dark. He wasn’t far away as she’d thought, but very close. And Tommy too. He was right there, blinking up at her.
“We’ve been in a crash,” Maurice said, sobbing.
“We’ve been in crash,” he repeated, louder. “My leg’s hurt.”
“What happened?”
“A car crash.”
“The car? What happened to the car?”
“You’re not listening! You’ve got to wake up properly.”
Despite everything, Katherine felt the habitual anger. Why did Maurice have to talk to her like that? Did he always have to act so superior? Besides he was the one who was talking too quietly. She could barely hear what he was saying over that constant shushing sound.
“The car crashed,” she said slowly, unravelling the idea as she spoke.
“Yes, while we were asleep. There’s water. You have to help me. My leg’s stuck.”
She understood now. They’d crashed in the night. They were all jammed in together in the back of the car.
“Mummy,” she said. And then louder. “Daddy.”
She tried to shift herself so that she could see past the front seats with their high headrests. The pain in her chest stabbed and flashed when she moved. She gasped and sank back. All she could see was part of the windscreen showing above the headrest. It was cracked in a thousand places and crazed white. The light was coming from outside, leaching through the milky glass.
“Mummy,” she said again. And then louder so that they would be able to hear her,“Daddy.”
“They can’t hear.”
“Stop shouting,” said Maurice angrily. “He won’t wake up. You have to help me.”
“I can’t see. Daddy?”
She could smell poo mixed in with the reek of her vomit and taste blood in her mouth.
“The water’s cold.” Maurice made a choking dog sound that scared her.
What was he talking about? How could there be water? They were inside the car. She remembered it had been raining very hard as they drove. Did he mean that rain was coming into the car?
“Stop closing your eyes. You have to wake up properly. Look at me, look down here.”
Down? Yes, she understood. Maurice wasn’t sitting next to her after all. He and Thomas were down. She was up. Blindly her hands fumbled over her body. Her safety belt was there, still buckled. It was holding her in place, stopping her from falling. Which must mean … the car was ….. lying on its side.
“Stop it!”
Maurice shifted before he screamed.
“What’s the matter?”
He could only whimper.
“Maurice? Mo?”
“My leg. It’s stuck. We have to get out, the water’s freezing and I think it’s gettingdeeper.”

She stared into the shadows that had been hiding everything except her brother’s head and shoulders and they transformed into water. It was flowing through the inside of the car. Katherine saw the baby’s bottle, still half full of milk roll and bob. She recognised a waterlogged pillow, a sodden blanket, a bloated copy of Famous Five go Camping, which she’d borrowed from the family they’d met in Wellington on their first night. Reaching out her hand – no, down, – she touched the water. A river. That was the noise she’d been hearing all along. The car had crashed into a river. 
Katherine fumbled for the buckle on her safety belt and through good luck the catch immediately clicked open. She felt herself slipping and then the strap was under her chin, chocking her. She turned her head and it scrapped painfully across her ear. She slid, legs first, to the door of the car, which was now the floor. The freezing water gripped her and she gasped. It reached to her knees.
“Get off me!” said Maurice. He tried to push her away
Tommy’s elbows and shoulders jammed into her and he whimpered, the first soundshe had heard him make.
“Tommy? Are you hurt?”
He didn’t speak but at least he was standing up and was mostly out of the water.
“It’s going to be all right,’ said Katherine in their mother’s voice. “Maurice, you haveto try and pull your leg free.”
“I told you, I can’t, it’s stuck.”
She reached beneath the water and felt with one hand along her brother’s leg. The water was to her shoulder by the time she found his shoe. She would need to hurry, her fingers were already going numb.
“Don’t!” he yelled into her ear.
“I need to feel.”
“It hurts.”
She tried to ignore him. There, that was Maurice’s running shoe. And, that, a metal part of the seat – the track thing that let the seat slide backward and forward. Her hands fumbled for understanding of how her brother’s leg was trapped.
“I need to undo your shoe lace.”
“Be careful.”
With the shoelace untied she gave a tug. Maurice screamed again and hit her across the face with the back of his hand.
“Don’t!” she said.
With his foot out of the shoe, her brother’s leg came free. He felt cold and clammy as she pulled him from the water. He stood on one leg as the three children pressed together shivering in the small space of the side-on car. 
Now that she was standing, Katherine could see her father. He was slumped over the wheel, his face turned so that he was looking towards where mother should be sitting. For some strange reason mother wasn’t there anymore. 
She must’ve already escaped. She’s climbed out and gone to get help. Of course she’s taken baby Emma with her.
“Daddy,” said Katherine.
Reaching between the seats she tugged at her father’s shirt. He didn’t move. Maurice watched grimly and without comment. 
It’s all right, this happens in the movies all the time. When someone gets a bang on the head they are unconscious, just for a little while. 
Soon father would groan and sit up and shake his head. He’d have a headache and probably an egg on his forehead from hitting the steering wheel. The lump would probably need a bandage out of the first aid kit in the boot, though before that happened he would help them all out of the wrecked car. Then father would find mother and Emma. After that he would go and get help.
“Stop it, said Maurice scornfully. “We have to get out. You need to open that door.”
Reaching above her, Katherine grabbed the handle and pushed as hard as she could. The door groaned and shifted a few inches.
“Help me.”
Together they pushed. Despite the twisted chassis and battered panels, the door flopped outward with a metallic squeal. Maurice and Katherine both raised their hands above their heads, thinking it was about to fall back, but the door stayed open. Heavy rain fell into their upturned faces. 
Katherine was the first to scramble up and out. Only when she was balancing on the door did she realise her glasses were gone. Not that they would’ve helped much in the dark and rain, but she had worn them from before she started school and was hopeless without them. This much she could see. One headlight, only just out of the water, was still glowing. That was the only light. Below her was a white-capped wave that was pushing into the roof, holding the car against a large rock. All around her was the river. It was churning and frothing and cresting between the rocks. The roar of rushing water that had been loud in the car was deafening. Mixed with the sound, was the rumble of stones being herded along the riverbed. 
She gripped the metal harder. If she fell she’d be washed away before she could even cry out. She tried to understand what was beyond the patch of rock and water she could see. Twisting her head, she looked behind her. That was the widest part of the river. There was no hope that way. In the opposite direction was the rock that the car was leaning against. Beyond that she could just make out what she thought might, perhaps, be trees.
She looked down at her brothers’ upturned faces. “There’s a big rock. I think we can climb onto it.”
“Can you see the road?” said Maurice
“It must be there.”
She held out her hand. “Give me the blanket.”
For once, Maurice didn’t argue with her. When he passed it up the wool was so heavy with water that he had trouble lifting it. She wrung it out on the edge of the door as well as she could even as the rain soaked back into the wool. Helping Thomas climb was difficult. He didn’t seem to understand what she wanted him to do. When he was finally out he sat next to her on the door and stared blankly. 
Maurice turned out to be even harder. He breathed in rapid gasps, making sucking sounds every time he shifted his injured leg. Twice he screamed and slumped back. When at last he was up too she pointed into the darkness.
“There. Do you see?
“We can go over these rocks, there.”
“Are you sure?”
“Come on.”
Getting from the car onto the rock turned out to be no more difficult than stepping from a train onto the platform in the Underground. Mind the gap, Katherine thought. Maurice kept his arm around her shoulder. With Thomas following like a puppy they had saved from a sack, the children moved over the rocks in fits and starts. 
They were out of the river. Shivering uncontrollably they stared back at the car’s headlight, their clothes clinging to their bodies. Rain fell into their faces, plastering their hair across their heads. Their hands hung by their sides, water streaming from their fingertips onto the rocky ground.
“Father will wake up soon,” Katherine said quietly. “He’ll follow us. And Mother too,” she added, feeling guilty that she’d left Mother out, even for a few seconds. Maurice said nothing. He blinked the water off his eyelashes. 
Katherine knew that headlights ran on batteries. If you accidentally left the door ajar, as Mummy had once done, the small inside light stayed on and that was enough to drain the battery. Father had warned them about that at the start of the trip. So it stood to reason that the battery would eventually run out leaving them in complete darkness. She turned and looked behind her. All she could see was the slanting rain and the looming shadows of nearby trees.
“We have to get out of the rain,” she said.
Maurice didn’t reply. He slumped to the ground and his chin sagged to his chest.
He glared up at her. “What?”
“We have to find somewhere out of the rain, or I think we’re going to die.”

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