The following is an extract from The Cuckoo's Cry, a compulsively gripping lockdown thriller by bestselling author Caroline Overington. Enjoy.
Don Barlow was home alone, watching the evening news, when he heard a knock on the door. Glancing at the copper clock on the wall, he saw that it was getting close to 8 pm, which wasn’t late in the normal scheme of things, but Don wasn’t expecting anyone, and 8 pm was still late for unexpected visitors. Maybe not when you’re young. But as much as Don didn’t want to admit it, he was no longer young, which shouldn’t be taken to mean that Don thought of himself as elderly either, because who ever does? Maybe when you’re in your nineties you’ll say it proudly, but Don was only a few weeks shy of seventy.
In any case, he rose from his armchair and made his way down the flattened carpet of his big old house by the beach in Bondi, thinking it would probably be Malcolm’s wife from next door, maybe with a dual pack of toilet paper under her arm, or else a pump bottle of sanitiser to give him. But no, when Don looked through the peephole, he saw a much younger woman, more like a girl, and one he didn’t recognise, at least not immediately. She wasn’t facing the door, the way people normally do when they’re waiting for someone to open up; she was standing side on, looking back over her shoulder as if to make sure nobody was watching her. She wasn’t wearing a face mask or gloves. She was wearing a black hoodie with the hood up, and a pair of skinny jeans.
Don flicked on the porch light and, without hesitation, opened the front door, leaving only the security door with its long bars between them.
‘Hello?’ he said.
The girl turned towards him. She had a round open face with pale blue eyes and a tiny silver ring in her nose.
‘Hello,’ she said.
‘Can I help you?’ said Don.
‘Are you Don?’ The girl took a step towards the security door, making small fists around the square-shaped bars.
‘I’m Don Barlow.’
‘Okay. So, you don’t know me. I’m Morgan,’ she said.
‘And what can I do for you, Morgan?’ said Don, a bit confused.
‘Okay,’ she said again. ‘Like I said, you don’t know me, but my name’s Morgan and we’re actually related.’
‘We’re related … how?’ said Don, now genuinely bewildered.
‘I know. I’m going to have to explain it. But I’m in trouble. Can I come in?’
When Don looked through the peephole, he saw a much younger woman, more like a girl, and one he didn’t recognise, at least not immediately‘I cannot believe you just let her in.’
That’s what Don’s adult daughter, Danielle, would say when he called to tell her what happened.
‘Somebody comes to your door late at night and you just let them in?’
But what was Don supposed to do? The girl had turned up, she’d said she was in some kind of trouble, and he’d really felt he had no choice other than to open the door.
‘The kitchen’s down here,’ he’d said, leading the way from the front door towards the back of the house. ‘We should sit and talk.’
‘I should wash my hands,’ said Morgan. ‘That’s what everyone’s saying, isn’t it? You have to sanitise wherever you go?’
‘That’s what they’re saying,’ agreed Don, although, like many, he privately wondered how much of what he’d been seeing on the TV about the developing pandemic was fake news.
‘I’ve heard it’s going to get worse,’ said Morgan. ‘I’ve seen some pictures on Facebook, from China. They’ve got bodies piling up.’
‘Well, I don’t know how much of that we need to hear about. But the bathroom’s this way,’ said Don, indicating a door off the kitchen.
‘Do you want me to take that?’ he added, nodding towards the oversized olive-green duffle bag with the faded brand name, Country Road, that Morgan had carried into the house.
‘It’s okay,’ she said. ‘It’s all I’ve got in the world.’
Morgan went behind the bathroom door. Some minutes passed. Don made himself busy in the kitchen until Morgan emerged, looking shyly around, her hands still pink and wet from scrubbing.
‘Take a seat,’ said Don, indicating a pine chair.
Morgan shoved the duffle bag between the legs of the chair, and sat.
‘Let me get you something to drink,’ he said. ‘What kind of thing do you like?’
‘Okay, so, do you know what would be really great?’ she replied.
‘A hot chocolate. But probs you don’t have any.’
‘Well, let’s not rule it out yet,’ he said, turning towards the high cupboards above the kitchen bench. Reaching them was easy. Don was a lanky man, with long arms and legs.
He was an unfussy dresser too, and was clad that night as he was most nights, in fleecy tracksuit pants with a flannel shirt tucked in at the waist, a pair of fuzzy socks and sheepskin moccasins. He was nearly bald but for a few silver strands he kept pasted to his head, and he had a prominent Adam’s apple that peeped out above his collar.
‘I always used to keep Milo,’ he said. ‘The grandkids used to demand it. I don’t see them as much anymore, but maybe I still have an old tin …’ Then, ‘Ah-ha!’, because he’d
found one. ‘And who knows,’ he added, using a spoon to pry off the lid, ‘it might still be good.’
But no. The Milo had gone hard.
‘Does it seem all right?’ he said doubtfully, passing the tin to Morgan.
‘It’s probably fine,’ she said, shrugging. ‘That stuff lasts forever … Can we chip some off?’
‘We can try,’ said Don, taking the tin back. ‘But maybe we should put sugar in with it. Sugar masks a lot of sins.’
‘My mum used to do that,’ said Morgan. ‘Put sugar in Milo when I was little.’
‘Then we’ll give it a go,’ said Don.
The Cuckoo’s Cry by Caroline Overington ($19.99), published by HarperCollins.