The school bell rings and a deep-blue sea of wool uniforms flows down the hill. White blouses poke out and in like sea foam. Three girls trickle off. Miramar girl is walking her bike alongside. Newtown girl cannot ride a bike. They are walking to Hataitai girl’s house.
Newtown girl and Hataitai girl lead the way into the tunnel. Miramar girl follows with her bike. She yells just to hear her voice echo. Newtown girl and Hataitai girl tell her to stop. The three of them try to leave a wide enough space for other bikers to pass, but every time one comes towards them, they find themselves pressing their bodies up against the tunnel wall – a whip of wind sending hair into their face. Walking through the tunnel always takes longer than they expect. Miramar girl and Newtown girl breathe in deep: they love the tunnel’s petrol smell. Hataitai girl breathes shallow, and only through her mouth. She’s sure she can taste it. She’ll spit on the ground when she’s out.
Cars honk and toot and beep. You know why everyone honks in here? Newtown girl asks.
Some myth about a dead chick. Hataitai girl never believes Newtown girl’s stories.
No, it’s not a myth, she was real. Her name was Phyllis Symons.
I don’t know about this, what happened? There are lots of things Miramar girl doesn’t know. They are always teasing her about it.
So in 1930, this girl called Phyllis meets this guy called George. George Errol Coats. She’s sixteen and he’s twenty-nine.
This sounds bad. Hataitai girl believes in the half-your-age-plus-seven rule.
It is. His wife just died and he’s got six kids living in an orphanage. He’s working at a building site in Aro Valley, and Phyllis brings him and the other guys a cup of tea. She lives with her parents in Mortimer Terrace.
My sister flatted in Mortimer Terrace. She said it was all mould and rats. Miramar girl’s sister is a cool girl. Everything the girls know is from Miramar girl’s older sister.
So Phyllis and George hit it off. She hasn’t got much else going for her. Teachers say she’s “backward” at school. They say she’s a simple girl.
Like Miramar girl. Hataitai girl nudges Miramar girl and Miramar girl shouts Hey! then laughs. Miramar girl loves it.
Eventually she has a fight with her parents and moves in with George. He lives on Adelaide Road, in a boarding house. By her seventeenth birthday, she’s pregnant.
Oh no. None of the girls want to get pregnant when they are seventeen, or eighteen, or nineteen. Past that, they’re not sure.
In June 1931, she disappears. George tells their landlady that Phyllis has gone back to her parents, but he tells another guy she’s staying at her brother’s house.
George leaves the Adelaide Road place. Some guys clear the room out, and there’s a letter under the mattress. They pass it on to Phyllis’s parents. The letter is depressing, it looks like a suicide note. “Mr Coats is out of work but does his best to keep me in food.” She talks about wanting to go home. “You could never imagine how terrible life is…” Her parents call the police.
A car horn blares extra loud and the girls jump.
While George and Phyllis were together, he’d been working on the construction of the Mt Vic tunnel – this tunnel. He loses his job around the time she disappears. He asks his workmate to leave a shovel out for him. He says he has to bury a dog.
The girls’ school ties have begun to feel tight around their necks. They pull at the knot but it won’t loosen.
He’s seen digging at the site. All work on the tunnel stops. Crowds gather to watch the search for Phyllis. There’s 600 people by the time the pathologist arrives.
What’s a pathologist? Miramar girl struggles with the pronunciation.
They work out how people died, Hataitai girl explains.
Phyllis is found face down, with her head wrapped in a scarf. The pathologist reckons she was forced to kneel, then hit over the head with a spade and tipped into the hole. She tried to get up and was hit again. Her body’s hunched up, suggesting she tried to escape but suffocated in the soil. She was buried alive.
The girls swallow hard. They feel the petrol fumes dark and gross in their throats.
In court, George claims he found Phyllis dead. He says they went walking at the tip and she ran off. She jumped to her death, and he buried her in a panic, scared that he would get the blame. He says she was always talking about suicide, and though he admits to hitting her once before, he says he only did it because she asked him to. There’s evidence that he tried to abort the baby.
Please tell me he went to jail, Hataitai girl says.
He got death for murder, though he never stopped saying Phyllis had killed herself. His last words were: “I am innocent. I trust in the Lord.”
Fuck that. Hataitai girl’s arms are folded tight across her chest.
People say that the tooting in the tunnel began in honour of Phyllis, or to scare off her ghost. She’s buried in an unmarked grave.
The girls step out of the tunnel and into the afternoon light. They pause to pull up their tights. When they get to the Four Square, they’ll buy ice blocks and a dollar mix.