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Authors: Georgia Blain

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BOOK: Darkwater
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seven

Fact: Amanda Clarke was murdered.

I crossed out the entry as soon as I wrote it. The words were too bald. On the next line I rewrote the sentence.

Theory: Amanda Clarke was murdered.

If I was going to treat suicide as only a possibility, I needed to do the same with murder, no matter how much more frequently the word was now being uttered.

In the days that had immediately followed her death, it seemed everyone wanted to avoid discussing the possibility she had been deliberately killed, particularly the adults. Like Jude, most people talked of foul play or perhaps whispered that they hoped ‘something awful' hadn't happened to her. Although Sonia, Cassie and I had uttered the word ‘murder' out loud, it had been like touching something hot. We had approached it with caution, hoping that when we said it, it would lose some of its burn, cooling down with the utterance.

To really contemplate the possibility was terrible, and yet gradually people seemed to be accepting that this looked likely, letting the fear into our lives.

At school, the first formers had been advised not to walk home alone, and I saw them clustered in anxious pairs at the school gates. Many were being picked up by their parents. But it wasn't just the younger years. Jude insisted on driving Sal and Sonia home, and she wanted them to tell her where they were at all times. Even Dee had a talk to us.

‘I'm not going to stop you doing what you normally do. Just be a bit more careful. Things like keeping the front door shut when you are home by yourself. Not coming home too late on your own. Or calling me if you are.'

‘Why?' I asked, wanting her to say it.

‘It's a precaution.' And then seeing I was going to push her further, she gave me that look. ‘Just humour me. For once.'

Amanda Clarke's death had unsettled us all.

Joe had a form photo on his desk. I took it out when he wasn't there and held it under the light, wanting to catch a glimpse of who she really was beneath the smooth olive skin, dark brown eyes and hair, and clean white smile. I had known that face all my life but I had never known her. It was like looking at a stranger.

What would have made someone want to kill her?

Joe once told me that Amanda had a ‘dangerous side'.

‘That's what makes her so sexy,' he added. ‘She likes to take risks.'

Sometimes I would see her catching the bus into town. She would be out of her jeans and T-shirt and dressed in a skirt, high sandals, make-up. She looked much older than Kate or Cherry. Once, only a few weeks ago, I waited at the bus stop with her, and we talked. She told me she was going for a job interview, sales assistant in a clothes store.

‘They've cut off my allowance,' she said, grinding a cigarette out on the footpath. ‘I used to be able to nick a few bucks from Roxie, but not any more.' She rolled her eyes, grimacing as she did so. ‘The purse is empty.'

I was surprised she was telling me this, but there was something in her anger that made her want to talk.

‘I mean, it's not like they have to stop buying clothes or going out for dinner.' She fidgeted with the strap of her bag, stepping out onto the road to see if the bus was coming.

Moments later, a car pulled over, and someone leant out. I couldn't see his face clearly, but he looked like he was older, a friend of her father's probably, and he offered her a lift. She was gone, leaving me alone at the bus stop, and feeling very much like a little kid.

Since she had died, I found myself wanting to recall every detail, certain there was something missing from the picture, aware that I had no grasp on the whole.

I was thinking about her while I waited for Nicky Blackwell. It was a couple of days after I had overheard Jude talking about the police investigation on the phone, and in the intervening time I too had begun to see her death as murder, despite not wanting to, and despite having made sure that I termed this as only a theory when I wrote in my diary.

It was a realisation that disturbed me.

I stepped away from the gloom of the tree and out into the clarity of the afternoon sun. There was no one else around and I didn't like feeling nervous in a place I had never thought of as threatening.

The entrance to the school is at the bottom of a long steep dead end that leads to the river. You would only ever come down here if you were a student, teacher or parent. There are no houses, shops or even a park, just a sharp rocky outcrop of sandstone and thick scrub, the kind that Dee would want to save. The school itself is on flat land, a huge expanse of treeless oval, with the classrooms forming a semicircle around the side that isn't on the river.

‘They'll want to develop this one day,' Dee said on the first morning she dropped me here.

It's not a large high school but it's become known as one of the roughest in the region. Mr Castle's approach to keeping order is a strange one. Each day we are given new notes about how long boys' hair is allowed to be, the amount of jewellery we can wear, how high girls' skirts can rise, appropriate footwear; it seems there is no end to the ways in which our appearance can be regulated.

Most of the time Joe and I just throw these out. On the occasions when we forget, Dee looks at them, rolls her eyes and chucks them in the bin.

‘That man is an idiot,' she says.

As the last of the teachers left the car park, I decided I might as well give up and go home. I'd been kidding myself thinking Nicky was going to turn up. I picked up my bike from the ground, kicking at the giant gnarled roots of the Moreton Bay fig, and then, as I swung my leg over the cross bar, I saw Lyndon heading out of the grounds.

I nodded at him, and he just looked at me.

‘Yeah?' His arms were folded.

‘Nothing.'

He barely paused before turning towards the hill.

Moments later, Nicky was there, skateboard under his arm, leaping over the now closed entrance gate, one hand propelling him to the other side.

‘Detention,' he told me. ‘Every day this week.'

I presumed Lyndon had been held back as well.

Nicky winked at me. ‘You're still up for it?'

‘Sure.' I hoped I sounded more nonchalant than I felt.

‘Brought my old board with me.' He tucked his long hair behind one ear, and waved his other hand towards the ground. ‘Just for you.'

I looked at it, uncertain as to what I was meant to do.

‘So, you a goofy or a natural?'

I had no idea what he meant.

‘Stand on it and let's see.'

I stepped on, wobbling precariously, and then as the board began to roll, I found myself clutching the shoulder of his Miller shirt, pulling myself towards him.

‘Steady.' He righted me with his hand in the small of my back. ‘You can't just throw yourself at me like that.'

‘Ha ha.' I managed to keep myself still, trying to turn my face to one side so he wouldn't see my blush.

‘You're a natural,' he told me. ‘Left foot forward.'

I jumped off.

‘Had enough already?'

A slight breeze had come up from the river, bringing with it the smell of rich mud, and from across the oval, the freshness of grass clippings. The day had begun its shift into evening, and as I looked behind me to the hill, I told him that I wanted to be able to skate that – I pointed to the steep dip – and if he wasn't willing to help me, I was sure I could figure it out myself.

He just looked at me and smiled. ‘One step at a time.' And picking up the board, he began to walk towards the school gate.

I followed him, ducking low as we passed the window of the staff room in case there were still teachers in there. School was out of bounds once the gates were locked, not that the rule was always obeyed.

When we reached the netball courts, he dropped his board to the ground.

‘Time for a demo.'

He took long smooth pushes to gain momentum and then, turning sideways, he put his other foot back near the fishtail. He made it look simple, smooth and easy, his whole body moving in a single fluid motion.

When I finally managed it, skating with a slight wobble from one end of the court to the other, he whistled.

‘Crap,' I sighed. ‘How am I meant to cope with any kind of slope?' And I looked up at the clear expanse of sky in exasperation.

He was sitting in the long grass by the side of the courts, legs stretched out in front of him, and he smiled slowly as I walked towards him, holding out the board for him to take.

‘Next lesson will be the art of the tic tac toe.'

Next? I didn't want to remind him the deal had only been for one lesson. Instead I sat beside him, not too close, but near enough to see the fine golden hairs on his forearms, white against the darkness of his tan. He was tapping out a tune on his knee, jiggling one leg up and down in time, as he sang softly under his breath. I couldn't let myself think about where I was. The rush of the breeze through the grass, the soft colouring of the sky, and the gliding sway of the jacaranda branches high overhead seemed to be part of an entire world in motion, one that was gently rolling towards evening with perfection.

He stood up, taking his own board out of his school bag and putting the one he had lent me back inside. And then he changed his mind, offering it to me instead. ‘So you can practise.'

‘Are you sure?'

He told me he never used it. ‘Heap of shit,' he grinned. ‘Perfect for girls.'

I stopped with my hands on my hips. ‘What is there,' I asked, ‘about my anatomy that makes me incapable of skateboarding?'

Leaning against the school fence, he looked at me, his smile wry, his green eyes glinting in the afternoon sunlight over the river. ‘Doesn't seem to be anything wrong with your anatomy,' he finally said. ‘And your vocabulary isn't bad either.'

I've been known as something of a smart-arse for most of my life. It was a trait I'd inherited from Dee and we regularly sharpened our skills on each other. I knew how to make a quip, fast as lightning, giving me an air of confidence that could fool. But for the first time I was finding myself without a quick response. Silent, I just tried to fit the board in my bag, hoping I could manage it on my bike.

Kicking the rotten figs out from under my gym boots, I wheeled out onto the bitumen, still warm from the day's heat and cracked from the roots of the tree. He had one foot on his board and was ready to start the long push up the hill, but he turned to look back at me once more, the smile still on his face.

‘You haven't told me.'

I looked at him, puzzled.

‘Your name. Louise? Diane? Jessica?' He had his head cocked to one side, and he rubbed at his chin with the palm of his hand, the mock quizzical expression on his face enough to make me also smile. ‘A deal's a deal.'

I hated my name. I always had.

‘Why?' I used to ask Dee. ‘What mother imposes a lifetime of suffering on her child?'

‘What mother doesn't?' she would always reply.

I kept my face impassive, daring him to mock me. ‘Winter,' I finally said. ‘It's Winter.'

I was used to it, the jokes about the cold, the rain, the frost; I'd heard them all. I'd been through it each year as new teachers got to know who we were, as I had to respond to rollcalls, or answer to directives. I waited for what would follow, but he just turned his back on me, waving as he did so.

‘Nice,' he called out, the wheels of his board almost drowning out that one word, and he began to push himself, in smooth, easy glides towards the peak of the hill, leaving me alone in the oncoming evening.

I waited for a moment, not wanting him to think I was following, and then I headed out of there as fast as I could.

eight

Fact: The police want to question Amanda's friends again.

That was a truth, and around it there hovered a whole host of ugly possibilities. Did they think one of her friends knew what had happened to her and hadn't said? Worse still, did they think one of them had killed her?

Dee said they were simply treating her death as suspicious. Suspicious meant she was either murdered or had killed herself. At least that was how Dee explained it to us. And the police had to investigate both options thoroughly.

Two detectives had visited us the night after I had my first skateboarding lesson. They had called Tom during the day to arrange a time. ‘They promised it will be informal,' he had assured Dee. ‘They're talking to all of her friends, and thought it would be best if they had a chat to Joe at home.'

Dee didn't respond at first. She was leaning against the kitchen bench, arms folded, a fine sheen of sweat across her face from the heat of the dishwashing water. Her hair, which is curly, had gone even frizzier in the humidity, the long reddish ringlets escaping from the scarf she had used to tie it up.

Tom was still in his tennis clothes. He always played on Fridays after work. Dee used to join him, but in the last six months she had stopped. She was a terrible player and it bored her. ‘Besides,' she explained. ‘I have too much to do.'

She put the tea towel down. She had seen Roxie at the greengrocer's that afternoon. ‘Poor woman.' Dee shook her head. ‘I didn't know what to say to her.' She unplugged the water from the sink. ‘And that stupid cow who's taken over the grocer's wouldn't let Roxie pay with a cheque. She said the last one bounced. Even if it did, which I find hard to believe, she could have been a bit more tactful, or let it go considering the circumstances. I just told her to put it on our account and that Roxie could fix us up when she wanted.'

Joe was sitting at the kitchen table, his back to the window, the night sky soft and dark behind him, listening to Tom and Dee's conversation. I looked at my brother, and noticed, not for the first time that week, how tired he seemed. There were dark bruises under his eyes and a fine line of acne across his jawbone. I had heard him wake two nights ago, his voice cracked and broken as he called out in his sleep. It was Tom who went to him, sitting with him in his room for what had seemed like a while but probably wasn't that long. The night always plays strange tricks when it comes to measuring time.

‘Is he all right?' I asked as Tom crept back past my room.

I was sitting upright, worried.

Tom stayed with me, running his hand through my hair until I lay down again, eventually able to sleep.

The police arrived only moments after I had said I was going to do my homework. The knock on the door was sharp and brief, and I crept out onto the landing. There were two men; they were both tall and appeared to take up all the space in the hallway, their voices loud and booming.

I knew I should go back to my room and not stay, listening to every word. But, holding Sammy close to my chest, I sat perfectly still, pressed against the banister, hidden by the darkness of the upstairs landing, able to hear the conversation in the kitchen clearly as their voices carried up through the night-time quiet of the rest of the house.

They asked Joe how long he'd known Amanda and what his relationship with her had been. He stumbled slightly on that question, wanting to be honest but embarrassed to admit he had always had a crush on her. He didn't confess in the end, and I was glad. It seemed to me that it wasn't what they were angling at. They just wanted to know which of the two they had been – friends or boyfriend and girlfriend. The never-never land of hopeless love had no place in the notes they were no doubt taking.

Joe told them about Stevie and how he and Amanda had been together for almost a year, and how she ended the relationship. ‘But I don't think Amanda was that upset. Well, not about Stevie anyway. They hadn't been arguing. He was kind of too young. Too nice for her.'

‘What do you mean?' The policeman's voice was softer now, coaxing. He was probably leaning forward, trying to appear kind, although the reason for his visit was always going to stand in the way of any attempt to be human.

‘I don't know. Amanda was just more edgy than him. Older. Not in years. Just in the way she was. She was into trying stuff.'

Joe told them the little he knew, even describing how she'd been on the afternoon she'd come back here, a couple of days before she died.

‘What about her girlfriends?' It was the other policeman talking now. ‘Had she had any arguments with them?'

In the silence that followed, I could only presume Joe was shaking his head or thinking. Eventually he explained that Kate was her best friend, and they never seemed to argue. ‘Then there's Cherry, I guess,' he added.

‘Tell us about Cherry.'

‘Cherry just hangs with us.' There was the sound of a chair shifting, the wooden legs clattering against the slate floor. ‘But she's no one's friend. I mean we go to her house and she comes to our places, but it's not like she's really close to any of us. Although in the last few weeks, Amanda had been hanging with her a bit more.'

‘Do you know why?'

‘I guess she was at more of a loose end when she broke up with Stevie. Maybe she felt sorry for Cherry. It was kind of weird. I guess we just all felt she was filling time and that she'd soon get sick of her.'

One of the policemen wanted to know why.

‘Because Cherry tries so hard. And the more you try, the less people are interested.'

From across the hall, I heard the lounge-room door open. Dee was coming out. I moved back, closer to the wall.

She went into the kitchen to ask Joe if he was all right, and to remind him that she was happy to sit with him while he was interviewed, if that was what he wanted.

He was fine, he told her, doing little to hide the impatience in his voice. The door shut gently and the other policeman spoke: ‘Can you tell us a bit about Lyndon?'

Joe was silent.

From the hallway outside the kitchen, I heard Dee cough slightly, and I knew she too was listening in.

‘Why?' Joe eventually asked.

‘We just want to know more about Amanda. It helps to understand how she died and why. And obviously her friends are a big part of that picture.'

‘They weren't really close.'

Neither of the policemen said anything for a moment. Up in the darkness of the landing, Sammy squirmed in my arms. I put her down on the floor and watched as she nosed open Dee and Tom's door with small insistent pushes.

‘But he is part of the group?'

Joe must have nodded.

‘And so they obviously had some contact with each other.'

Again, there was no verbal response from Joe.

‘Did they like each other? Dislike each other? Do you think Lyndon had–' and the policeman paused here, searching for the right phrase – ‘the hots for her?'

I squirmed slightly, knowing Joe would have as well. There was nothing worse than adults trying to convince you that they speak your language.

‘Not that I know of. But then he doesn't tell me much any more.'

‘And why's that?'

‘Don't know. He's gone kind of distant with all of us. Has been for a while. His life is...' Joe paused for a moment. ‘But you'd know about his dad and his brother.'

I thought back to the afternoon, only a few days ago, when I had seen them all down at the waterfront, and the way they had seemed uncomfortable with Lyndon. He had been angry. And they had been wary.

‘We've been told there was something going on between Lyndon and Amanda.'

Joe's response was immediate. ‘No way.' And then: ‘Who told you that?'

Neither of the policemen answered.

‘What makes you so certain there wasn't anything between them?' It was the younger policeman asking the questions now.

‘We just would have known. I mean we all hung out together. There would have been no reason to hide it. And they never seemed – you know–' now it was Joe searching for the appropriate word – ‘affectionate with each other.' He paused for a moment. ‘Unless she started seeing him when she was with Stevie and she didn't want him to know.' His voice trailed off as he considered the possibility. ‘I mean, you just don't know. You don't ever really know anyone, I guess. She was Amanda, but who knows what she really thought or felt.'

I stood up slowly as the policemen thanked Joe for his time. My legs were stiff from having kept them crossed, the pins and needles in the soles of my feet making me walk with a heavy lumbering stride that Dee heard.

She called out from the bottom of the stairs: ‘I thought you had homework.'

‘I thought you did too.'

She wasn't amused.

My desk light was still on and my diary open at the entry I had begun before the police arrived. On the floor near the end of my bed was the skateboard Nicky had lent me. I nudged it out with my toe, letting it roll beneath my left foot as I opened my maths book and began the long list of equations set for us to complete over the weekend.

BOOK: Darkwater
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