Published this week, Ballad for a Mad Girl is Wakefield’s fourth book and ventures into areas including mental health, grief and teenage friendships.
The following extract is from the first chapter, where Year 11 and 12 students from two schools are facing off in an annual challenge at their local quarry. Central character Grace Foley, 17, is representing “Swampie Public”, but in the middle of her dangerous walk across the pipe she experiences something strange – and then she can’t get rid of the voices and visions.
It seems the ghosts of Swanston, including that of her own mother, are restless.
THE gully looks bottomless tonight. Some say Hannah Holt is buried in the gully, her uneasy spirit slipping from crevice to shadow, sniffing for fear, and when she smells it she’ll pull you down by the ankles with her teeth. We all know the stories are spread by grown-ups to keep us away from the quarry, but this is the first time I’ve ever thought about Hannah Holt, or William Dean, before I’ve crossed. I can’t help wondering whether he closed his eyes when he jumped, or met the rocks with them wide open.
‘Over a minute,’ Pete shouts. ‘Don’t bother,’ he says to me, but Wentz is coming back, on his feet this time, and he’s moving fast.
‘I got it.’
‘How can he see where he’s going?’
Wentz blinks in the glare of a dozen sets of headlights and a haze of dust. Why he would choose to attempt the record on the return is beyond me. But his arms are loose at his sides as if he’s going for a stroll around the block. At over six feet, almost a foot taller than me, his steps are longer. He’s making it look effortless, and effortlessly walking the pipe takes a whole lot of practice.
The Sacred Heart students, anticipating a record time, swarm the grille.
‘Damn,’ Pete says. ‘I think he’s broken it.’
‘Is it legal? Can he do that?’ Kenzie groans. ‘Grace, don’t even think…’
‘I got this,’ I tell her. Now, the buzz.
‘Thirty-two flat,’ Gummer says, leaning over Pete’s shoulder. ‘If you’re going to beat that, Gracie, you need a death wish.’
It’s my turn. I’ve never really been tested before. It can be done, two steps for one.
Wentz holds out his hand as I pass. We brush knuckles. We’ll never be anything but rivals, but it is an impressive time. The Hearts step away to give me space, but step up their insults to rattle me.
‘Practice run first,’ I declare. ‘I’ll challenge on the return.’
Wentz nods to accept and Pete slaps my back, but Kenzie makes a strangled sound and walks away. The image I take with me as I slip through the grille is of Kenzie taking Mitchell by the hand and leading him to Pete’s car.
‘Be careful,’ Amber calls.
The first section of pipe is slick with beer and spit. I kick off my shoes, step across the wetness and begin moving — evenly, but not too fast — feet turned out, arms outstretched. Beneath, the steep sides of the gully drop away. I block out the shouting, stare ahead at the distant midnight sky and keep the pipe in my peripheral vision. The stars give enough light if you trust them, but looking down can give you the sense that you’re not moving at all.
I’ve done this a hundred times, maybe more.
A gusty breeze tugs a strand of hair into my eye. I blink it away. I’m twenty metres out now, almost to the halfway point where school sucks and Jeff loves Denise. There’s a ragged concrete join in the middle that’ll trip you if you don’t know it’s there — I bend and perform a walk-over to clapping and cheers.
There’s a sudden hush. Heart speeding, I finish the distance at a jog, all windmill arms and graceless feet, to clutch at the grille on the far side. Just enough to press close to Wentz’s time but not quite enough to beat it. Pete calls out my time but I’m not listening; it doesn’t matter. I never meant to win first time around.
I set my feet in a starting position and lean forward, squinting. The headlights on the other side are brighter than I expected but I’m ready, sparked with adrenalin, fear at my back. I let go of the grille, moving with the breeze, pulled into a slipstream. The concrete is cool and alive, like a serpent. I run, touching down lightly on the balls of my feet, no thought of slipping, knowing that Wentz’s record will fall only minutes after it was set and Sacred Heart will lose again. I laugh and the breeze dries my teeth.
Don’t look down. The pipe is only an inch from the ground. It’s not convex, it’s a bridge, a mile wide. It’s not far.
My feet are sure, my breathing steady. I try to focus on the faint glitter of stars so I won’t be blinded by the headlights — but it’s as if they’ve heard me: one by one, the headlights turn off. The universe disappears. An old scar on the cornea of my left eye — always with me, like a tiny drifting cloud — is all I can see.
I stop, steady myself, blink. Stretch my arms and wait for the edges of the world to come back. Fear is in front of me now, and to the side, above and below.
‘Turn on the lights!’ If I can just hear a clear voice, see a single beam of light, I’ll find my sense of direction.
Where have the stars gone? Where is the sky?
I’ve forgotten the time — I’ve already lost — and I’m thinking about falling. A low whistle: something small and hard hits the back of my head. I drop to a crouch, feel for the pipe and straddle it with my palms pressed flat. The concrete hums with vibration.
‘Are you crazy? Are you trying to kill me?’
No reply. Another near-miss missile; a beat later, the sound of whatever it was skittering onto rocks.
‘Kenzie?’ The breeze snatches my breath and blows it back like a ghost. ‘Pete?’
After long seconds the stars reappear. Has the sky darkened? A soft blue-tinted mist has swallowed the edge of the quarry, the cars, the people. Can they see me? Do they know I’m stuck? I fumble in my back pocket for my phone but it isn’t there — it’s still in Pete’s car. I can barely feel my feet but I dare to look down. They’re dangling; they seem far away, and in the dim light my ankles are crisscrossed with welts and scratches.
I call out, gagging on a wave of bile. The fear — I’m dizzy with it. My thighs are numb and tingling from the freezing pipe; my hands are losing grip and sensation. I drop my eyes to the gully below: a dragon’s yawn, and the rocks, the rocks like teeth. A lone shadow separates from the rest before the mist snatches it away with cool fingers.
I hear them now, screaming from the other side, but I’m so tired. I want to close my eyes and slip into the sweet, powdery blue. I glance down: I can just see my hands. Where they grip the pipe, there’s a single looping word and a tiny drawing of a black bird — hundreds of times I’ve crossed the pipe, but I’ve never seen it.
I trace the word with my finger. It shimmers. A sharp impact near my ribs knocks me sideways and the pipe seems to buckle and twist. My legs lose grip. Close by, someone is sobbing as if their heart could break.
I see a shape through the mist, a hand solid enough to be real. To reach it, I have to let go.
Copyright Vikki Wakefield; edited extract from Ballad For a Mad Girl, Text Publishing, RRP $19.99.
Vikki Wakefield, who lives in the Adelaide foothills with her family, is also author of All I Ever Wanted and Friday Brown, both of which won the Adelaide Festival Literary Award for YA Fiction. Friday Brown was also shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Awards, as was her most recent novel, Inbetween Days.