A.J. Fitzwater’s queer WWII shapeshifter novella is out on 8 June. Read an excerpt from the first chapter below…
A piece of night complete with tiny stars flashed amongst the sun-dappled trees. A dog, Tea decided. It must be a dog, that fast and low to the ground.
But this dog made a sound like it was chuckling and whistling at the same time.
The dog had been shadowing Tea for a good five minutes. She squinted into the roadside pines, ready to throw her heavy suitcase.
A wolfish yip. Tea froze.
No wolves in New Zealand, except the zoo, isn’t that right, Robbie? “Sure, no wolves, weird or otherwise, or bears or tigers out in the wop-wops.” He hadn’t sounded convincing as he’d kissed her on the cheek, boarding that train to catch the ship to sail to … where? Somewhere far north of the equator. Somewhere he would exchange shearing clippers for a gun.
This piece of furry night wasn’t a weird wolf, but the way the dog stalked her was not entirely canine. She knew this with the same certainty that used to rush through her blood in the moments before her twin brother came home from being in a fight, again, or in those quiet times when they sat on the shed roof throwing pebbles into the creek near their house on the hill in Dunedin.
Magic? Now that was silly. Besides, how could anyone believe magic existed with someone like Hitler in the world?
“You a good boy?” Tea called into the thick roadside greenery. Her voice squeaked. Annoyed, she wet her mouth. “Come on out, there’s a good boy.”
That’s what you say to farm dogs, right, Robbie?
Nothing. No panting. Not even that strange, jaunty whistle-huff.
The rushing pressure in her temples subsided and Tea sighed. Maybe she was too hot and tired. Her new floral dress pulled too tight under the arms. She dropped her suitcase. It was heavier than it had been that morning. Another sigh as she eased her left heel out of her new leather shoe which she’d had to stuff the toe of with newspaper. Blisters. Botheration. Well, at least they’d match the hardening calluses on her hands from the clippers Robbie had taught her to handle before he left.
Gritting her teeth, she put the shoes back on and resumed her trek down the gravel road. Not the Land Service uniform she was still waiting on, but still: new dress, new shoes. It had taken a lot of clothing rations, but Mum had insisted, as well as using some of what she’d put aside for Robbie’s wedding suit. To Tea, it was out of place. Even her twenty-first birthday dress had been a hand-me-down.
Her mother had insisted. “Who knows what handsome farmers you’ll meet! You’ll be home from that silly job and married in a jiffy!”
Robbie hadn’t called joining the Land Service silly. He’d been proud of his sister when she told him she had applied to be a land girl, alongside the other women’s war services.
“You’re doing your duty for King and country,” he’d said, supplying her with a hug that left her uncomfortable but comforted at the same time. Mum wasn’t big on hugs. “It’s tough work. Heavy work. But I know you can do it, what with all you did looking after Grandad. And I know he would have been proud too.”
She squeezed her eyes shut, and peach light softened her lids. Grandad. Taken by something wet and phlegmy, something that felt yellow. The Great War had eaten him from the inside out and she was worried that this war would eat Robbie, too, now she couldn’t take care of her ‘baby’ brother. At least when he had been out shearing, she knew he was only a day or two away. Now he was too far away for her to make a difference. He may as well have been on the moon.
She didn’t even have a photo of either of them, to remember. Mum didn’t like those ‘soul-stealing things’.
“Toughen up, girl.” Tea could hear her mother’s voice in her head.
Grandad hadn’t been tough in those last days. He’d lost the ability, or maybe the will, to talk, the only sound coming out of him that awful, rattling cough.
“I’ll punch Rommel for you,” was the last thing Robbie had said as he boarded the train, laughing at her downcast face. Mum had expressed her disapproval of punching and pouting; it was especially bad behaviour. Such an admonishment sounded ridiculous considering the arms Robbie would be taking up.
Stop. None of that. She wasn’t a child anymore. She had her war duty to do, like any good girl. All of her fantasies about the world holding a secret in store for her came from those silly books Grandad had shared with her. Elves, mermaids, dragons, monsters, fairies and queens. There were no such things. It was time to grow up. She had to know her place.
But with the men gone, the call for the women to do their part, her place had been turned topsy-turvey. Every step down this road was a step towards the unknown. Tea had a job to do, if she could only find the MacGregor property. And get away from the strange dog.
She blew her frizzed front curl out of her eyes. The latest fashion for painstakingly manicured rolls would never survive the North Otago heat. She giggled at the thought of Betty Grable wrangling sheep as she paused again and extricated from her purse the envelope embossed with the Women’s War Service Auxiliary seal.
The address in the letter gave her no clue as to how far she still had to go. If she weren’t careful, she might get completely lost, walk all the way up the Pigroot, and end up in the middle of Central Otago nowhere. The Palmerston concept of ‘road’ differed greatly from that of Dunedin. “Up thataway,” the station master had nodded when no-one had been at the train to meet her. “Five miles or so. Not far.”
Her blistered heels protested that ‘not far’. Now she wished she had stopped at the tea rooms for a cuppa.
She hadn’t seen any vehicles since she’d left the main road, the valley steadily growing narrower and steeper alongside the Shag River, but that wasn’t unusual considering petrol rationing had been in place for almost a year. Only sheep and cows stared or scattered at her approach.
Oh, and there was the shadow and chuckle of the dog again. The shadow wriggled as if a heat shimmer rose from the road, a shimmer echoed in the strange squiggle that settled in her belly.
“Bother and damnation,” she said.
Enjoying the sound of her blasphemy, she said it again, louder, though her heart sped. Would someone leap out of the trees and slap her for her impudence? Or would her canine shadow take it upon itself to bite her?
The whistle-huff again, like the dog was laughing directly at her thoughts. Tea stared into the trees, tried her own whistle – a terrible, slobbery thing – but the dog didn’t appear. With a sigh and a wiggle of her shoulders against the unladylike sweat dripping down her back, she read her letter once more in an attempt to soothe herself.
The seal should have been that of the Women’s Land Service, but the office said they were still in the process of changing to the official name. No matter how much she’d squeezed her eyes tight and wished, it didn’t turn into the seal of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps or Women’s Royal Navy Service.
She’d volunteered early for the Women’s War Service Auxiliary, hoping to be manpowered to somewhere fancy like Wigram or Ohakea. Even the WAAF station at Taieri would have been great, if a little close to home. But, tempted by a rousing speech from MP Mary Grigg to a little-attended afternoon tea at church, and Robbie’s love for the countryside, she had forwarded her name to the Land Service. How strange it had been when the recruiter focused on her posture, dress, and quality of her shoes! How on earth would any of those help on a farm? Surely her nimble
gardening fingers and heavy-lifting ability from nursing Grandad were more important.
She’d felt conspicuous on the train with her lack of uniform or even a badge – the Service alluded they would be forthcoming if she survived one month on the job. All she had were ugly gumboots and overalls to denote her call to duty, and she didn’t want to show them off to the other girls in their trim blue uniforms and smart hats.
“Oi! Gittin beyind, ya filthy mongrel!”
Tea flinched, and her purse shut on her finger. She yelped. Who would use such filthy words as a greeting to a girl? “Hello?”
“Who’s that?” A figure pushed through the tall, fluffy toetoe, weapon propped casually on one shoulder, prancing dogs at his heels.
Tea gulped down the taste of her heart. It wasn’t a weapon, just a spade.
“My name is Dorothy Gray. I’m looking for the MacGregor farm. Can you help me please?”
The heavy rhythmic thunk of hooves. A horse too big for the pallid boy atop pushed through the tussock and picked its way onto the gravel road. She bit her lip, annoyed at her surprise. This isn’t Dunedin anymore, Tea. You must pay attention to the smells, like Robbie taught you.
Dogs rushed her legs, but they danced rather than nipped. They were good dogs. And they were dogs, she was sure of that smell. The other dog, the strange one in the bushes, had smelled like … starlight.
How silly, she admonished herself.
The older man, dressed in sagging dusty pants and a red bush shirt, stepped to the fence line. His spade clanged against the wire; ‘number 8’, Robbie had called the ubiquitous fencing material.
“I’m MacGregor.” He sized her up too slowly for her liking. “Gray, huh? I know a shearer named Robbie Gray. You his thing?”
Tea set her shoulders like Robbie had taught her too. “I’m his sister. I’ve been sent here from the Land Service.”
“Huh. That’s right. Was expecting you on the evening train. Hmm. Robbie said something about a sister once. Didn’t expect a girl to follow in his footsteps.” MacGregor eyeballed Tea in a way that made her scalp prickle despite the warm spring afternoon. “You’re awfully dark for Robbie’s kin. You not one of them lazy mowrees, are ya?”
Tea didn’t hesitate; Mum hated such inferences, too. “No, sir. I simply take the sun easier than he does. We’re twins.”
“Huh.” MacGregor looked unconvinced. “Gonna have to put that hair of yours up. None of those pins and rollers round this place.”
“I understand, sir.”
“You better have your gear, girl.” MacGregor lifted his chin at her attire. “Them gloves are useless out here and Mrs MacGregor don’t have time to be wasting on mending and frilly sewing.”
“Yes, sir. These are my Sunday clothes, sir.” She hefted her suitcase. “I have overalls and such, from the Land Service.”
“Fine, fine.” MacGregor waved her words away like a fly. “A boy and girl twin, you say? You don’t got Robbie’s hair or much of his face.”
“Fraternal twins, sir,” chipped in the skinny boy on the horse. He too had been watching Tea too close for her liking. The shivery rush of blood made her vision tunnel and she had to take a deep breath. “Means they don’t always look the same. Like Robbie can have brown hair and Miss Gray can have black.”
MacGregor grunted and kicked at one of the dogs snuffling near his shoes. It yipped and slunk away with a baleful backward glance. Shame pinched at Tea’s throat.
The boy bent forward a little and tipped his floppy brim hat, showing off big ears and a peeling, beaky nose. She was glad he couldn’t offer a hand from that height; he might crumble at a stiff shake. Or a breeze. “Nice to meet you, ma’am. Robbie told me a lot about you. I’m Grant Stevenson.”
The prickle went through her scalp again. And Robbie didn’t tell me anything about you at all, Tea thought.