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Authors: Georgia Blain

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BOOK: Darkwater
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It was when I turned into Alexander Street that I saw him again. Lyndon. He was at the bus stop. For a moment I thought about turning back, but if he caught me I would feel like a fool. I pedalled on, hoping he wouldn't look up. It was impossible to hide, and it was just as I rode past that I knew he'd seen me. He stood up, and I veered away from the gutter, ashamed at my alarm, as he spat on the ground with an aim that was sure.

twelve

Fact: Amanda had arranged to meet someone on the afternoon she died.

Or at least that was what Joe believed. Which made it a theory really.

I wrote these words late at night, unable to sleep. Downstairs, Dee's party continued, despite the police having come with a noise complaint. There was no more music, just loud laughter, shouts of farewell and the occasional smashing of glass on the slate floors. From outside, there was the slam of a door as another person left, followed by the screech of car tyres. I wished they'd all hurry up and go but I knew it would be a while before silence finally descended.

It was a Sunday, the week after the Greenwood Bush victory. They'd originally planned a celebration in the pub opposite the reserve, a get-together after the fact to thank everyone for their work. Dee was looking for her bag, swearing under her breath as she lifted up the cushions on the chair and checked, one more time, at the foot of the stairs, when the phone rang.

‘Bugger,' and she picked it up in the hall, wanting only to get out the door.

I didn't hear the beginning of the conversation, but I did hear her as she swore, loudly and clearly.

‘What an arsehole.'

I paused in my pan clattering (I was burning chops for dinner), aware that this had the potential to be interesting and wanting to make sure I didn't miss out on a word.

Dee laughed then. ‘I guess you have to see the funny side. Why let him ruin our night? Tell everyone to come here.'

Joe asked me who she was talking to, and I shrugged my shoulders, slapping the chops onto the plates, making sure he got the blackest one. The peas followed, still sitting in a pool of water, and then the pumpkin.

He poked at his meat with his fork. ‘That's bad. Even for you.'

‘Well there's nothing else.'

Dee had hung up. She stood at the doorway, arms folded, and told us there'd been a change of plans.

‘I know.' My mouth was full of peas and my words garbled. ‘All those builders union guys are coming too?' I remembered them at the demonstration, covered in tatts.

She nodded. ‘If they're good enough to help us, they're certainly good enough to come and celebrate with us.'

‘What happened to the pub?'

She had to do a ring-around so she didn't have much time to explain. It was Len Atkinson, Cherry's dad. Apparently he owned the Pier Hotel and had told the manager the Greenwood Bush people were barred from entering. If they were going to stymie his development proposal, there was no way they were going to have a party at one of his pubs.

‘Not that we'd want to anyway,' Dee added. ‘If we'd known, it's the last place we'd have picked. We don't want to be putting any money into his coffers.'

Everyone arrived within the hour. I had never seen our house so crowded. I'd also never seen so many plastered adults. Dee turned the stereo up and there was dancing on the patio, mothers of our friends doing the Hustle with builders, builders doing the Bus Stop with each other, and at one stage I even saw Dee in the kitchen smoking a joint with the guy who was head of the union. Dee was laughing. ‘We won,' she kept saying and although he was grinning, he did eventually lean in and tell her it was only the battle they'd won, the war was going to go on and on.

‘And it'll get dirtier and dirtier.' He drew back on the joint and then stubbed it out on the edge of the sink, the sizzle of damp leaving a trail of wet black ash. ‘We're up against an almighty force. The developers who want to keep ripping up our cities and making more money are hand in hand with politicians. How else do they keep getting the green light for their projects? They hand money over to the right people, get the go-ahead, start developing and everyone's happy. That force isn't going to let a bunch of builders stop 'em. Not when they're doing so well out of it all. We refuse to work on their sites and they bring in the non-union guys, the scab labour who'll do the job for them. So we pull our men off their other jobs in protest. As our blokes lose more and more work there'll be rumblings of discontent, and then, who knows? I just hope we don't become ripe pickings ready to be pulled apart.' He wiped his forehead, surprised by his own doom and gloom, and then held out his arm to Dee. ‘But tonight we celebrate...'

I watched them weave their way through the crowd, Dee picking up Tom on the way, and then out to the dance floor.

In other corners, people gathered, smoking, drinking, talking. I overheard Amanda's name more than once. Sometimes there were guesses as to what had happened, snippets of overheard conversations. She was involved in drugs (this from a woman drawing back on a joint), she'd topped herself, she was raped, it was a serial killer; the gossip grew wilder and wilder as the night wore on. I walked away.

Upstairs Joe was in his room. He'd stretched the phone through from the hall, the cord trailing along the corridor and under his door.

If I leant close to the wall, I could overhear him, his voice a low murmur above the David Bowie playing on his stereo. He was talking to Kate, not saying much at first, just idle chat about school, work, the weekend, and then as I was about to go and lie on my bed and read, I heard him mention Amanda's name. She was gone but it seemed she was still always there, right at the centre.

Lying on my bed, I took out my journal.

Fact:

I crossed the word out as soon as I wrote it.

Theory?

We were in a land that lay between the two. There had been something between Amanda and Lyndon. Whether they were secretly seeing each other or were simply friends, I didn't know. I remembered Lyndon's anger and my conversation with Nicky. If I were in the police force, I'd be wanting to dig a little deeper, to find out more about what their relationship was.

I looked at the blank page in front of me, and decided I would dispense with any attempt at classification. I could only write what I heard, taking care to weed out what was clearly improbable and, from what was left, draw my own conclusions. As I wrote the date, there was a knock on the window.

Joe was outside on the sunroom roof, the summer evening heavy, the sky smattered with stars. I swung my legs over the ledge and dropped down next to him. From below us came the sounds of the party, the boom of the music, the high laughter and shouts, and the pop of champagne corks. Someone lifted the needle off the record player, the scratch loud through the speakers and then dropped it down heavily on the same song. There was a cheer of appreciation and a chorus of voices singing in unison.

Joe looked at me, raising his eyebrows. ‘Don't reckon we'll get much sleep.'

I drew my knees up to my chest and scratched at a sore that had only just healed. I'd got it practising on the board the other day.

‘I was in detention this afternoon.' When I spoke it was partly to impress him, but also because I wanted to open up a conversation about Lyndon.

He took a moment to reply. ‘What for?'

‘Castle.'

He nodded in understanding.

‘Lyndon was there as well.'

He looked across at me, his eyes glinting in the light from the bedroom above us. ‘So?'

I remembered when Lyndon used to come and stay. They both must have been about eight, skinny boys with knobbly knees and freckles, and gaps in their teeth. Today, in the detention room, when he'd had me backed against the wall, Lyndon had seemed like a man. Over six foot tall, muscular, and the smell of him thick and sour. I'd been scared.

‘He said none of you hang out with him any more.'

Joe stared out across the rooftop. He picked up a small piece of gravel and flicked it towards the gutter, where it landed with a ping.

‘It's different.'

‘Because of Amanda?'

He nodded.

‘Apparently Amanda used to meet him after detention.'

He glanced across at me, his look sharp and quick. ‘Who told you that?'

I recounted the fight I'd had with Lyndon.

‘On the afternoon she died, I asked her to meet me at about four-thirty.' Joe spoke slowly. ‘She told me she couldn't, she'd arranged to see someone. She was all agitated.'

‘Did you tell this to the police?'

‘Of course I did.' He turned sharply. ‘The very first time they spoke to us at school. I told them everything. That I didn't know who she was meeting, that she was anxious, all of it.'

‘Didn't she tell anyone?'

Joe was quiet. From below us there was a shriek, and then the smash of a bottle. The record player was turned up another notch, and then there was a loud crackle from the amp, followed by a low boom as the speakers blew.

At least that would shut them up for a while.

With the music gone, we heard the police sirens coming up the main road and then turning into our street.

Joe stood up. ‘I thought none of us knew who she was going to see.'

It took me a moment to realise he was finally answering my question.

‘You know, it didn't make sense at first. If she wanted to meet someone in secret, why would she pick the waterfront? And then it was only the other day that I realised Wednesday was the day none of us went there. Kate and Cherry had gymnastics, Stevie had to look after his little brother, and I usually have maths coaching.'

‘What about Lyndon?'

The doorbell rang below. There was a theatrical hush as everyone waited for Tom to finish talking to the police. I could hear every word. There'd been a complaint about noise.

‘Probably Len Atkinson who called.' There was laughter at the comment.

Tom assured the policeman that it would be quieter now.

‘Stereo's rooted.' It was the same joker from the crowd. ‘Probably Len who pulled the plug. Len, Len, where are you, mate?'

Next to me, Joe ran his heel along the tar, tracing a long swooping line over and over. He was thinking.

‘I don't know if Lyndon was on detention that day or not,' he eventually said.

I didn't quite get what he was trying to piece together.

‘If she was meeting him and he was on detention, he wouldn't have been free till about four-thirty.'

I stood up as well. ‘You don't really think he would have killed her?'

He didn't answer my question. ‘Kate says Cherry knows.'

‘Cherry knows what?' I was even more confused now.

‘Who she was meeting.'

I looked directly at him. ‘Then she should go to the police and tell them.'

He nodded. ‘I know.' He looked out across the rooftops and the high tips of the trees, black, soft shapes in the night. ‘But she's weird, Cherry. You know? She only just told Kate that she knew who Amanda was meeting. Kate asked her who it was and she wouldn't say. I guess it was Lyndon. Maybe she's scared of him. I don't know. Kate told her to go to the police.'

He paused for a moment. ‘She hangs around Kate all the time talking about Amanda. It's like she never wants to go home.'

From downstairs there was the sound of someone drunkenly singing, followed by the shatter of another glass.

Joe had turned to me and was anxious now. ‘You should be careful.'

‘Me?'

‘Yes. Don't go saying this stuff. Don't go stirring Lyndon up.'

‘Of course I won't.'

He hoisted himself back up the window ledge, swinging his legs around and dropping back down into his bedroom.

‘And you make sure Cherry goes to the police,' I insisted.

He didn't answer.

I slid back down against the wall and stayed out there on the rooftop for a little longer, our suburb spread out before me, a few lights on in some of the houses, others dark now, and beyond that, the river, like a long, dark bruise wrapped around the peninsula.

thirteen

The builder asleep on the couch didn't even stir as I tried to find an unbroken glass the next morning. Every ashtray was overflowing, and there were sticky pools of beer on the floor, ants drunkenly weaving their way in wobbly lines across the slate. I opened the windows and the sliding glass doors that led onto the patio, hoping the thickness of the stale smoke and alcohol would dissipate. In the kitchen, the sink was full of empty bottles, the cereal packet was open on the bench and as I went to pour it out, I realised it had become an ashtray, all the Rice Bubbles gone, replaced by stubbed-out cigarette ends. I looked in the cupboard for bread but that was finished too.

‘It's a pigsty,' I told Dee, who had a pillow over her face and the curtains tightly drawn against the fierceness of the sun. ‘They were animals.'

She didn't look up. ‘Really bad?' she asked.

‘Really bad.'

Sammy was curled up at the end of her bed, taking advantage of the fact that Dee was oblivious to her presence. She thumped her tail gently, and I scratched the soft fur under her chin.

I wanted Dee to write me a note saying I was excused from detention. Even after everyone had gone home, I had lain awake, anxious about encountering Lyndon again and trying to figure out a way of getting out of it.

‘It wasn't fair,' I protested. ‘You know what Mr Castle is like.'

She did but she wasn't interested. ‘I can't do that.'

She'd sat up now and she looked terrible, her make-up smeared across her face, mascara circling her eyes, lipstick cracked and bleeding in the corner of her mouth. I pulled back from the sourness of her breath.

‘I don't want to go,' I insisted.

She glanced at me through the fug of her headache. ‘What's going on?'

‘Nothing.'

‘Then leave me alone.' And she lay back in the tangle of bedclothes, pulling the sheets over her head.

I made sure I slammed the door loudly behind me, leaving her and Sammy in the darkness of that room.

Outside, the sharp clarity of the air was a relief after the house. From further down the street I could hear someone starting up a lawnmower, the rich petrol mingling with the sweetness of the grass clippings, and I breathed in deeply. My bike was where I had left it the previous evening, near the gate and under the tree where Tom had once hung me a netball hoop to practise. The hoop was still there, rusted and askew on one nail only.

Down the road, a van had pulled into the Jacksons' driveway. They had no kids so I didn't really know them, but I nodded at Mrs Jackson as she looked across at me.

‘Quite a party a last night.' She grimaced in the direction of our house.

‘We told them to turn it down.' Shrugging my shoulders, I tried to smile. ‘But you know what parents are like. Never obey you. Joe and I are going to have to ground them.'

The driver of the van had stepped out now, and as he slid the door shut I saw the words:
Security systems. Your safety. Your peace of mind.

‘Have you been broken into?' I asked.

She shook her head, lowering her voice, ‘It's what happened. With that poor young girl.'

Amanda, I wanted to say. Her name was Amanda.

‘I just want to be careful.' Mrs Jackson signed the piece of paper the driver had given her. ‘And you children should be as well,' she added. ‘I really wouldn't be roaming the streets the way you do.'

Sitting at the kitchen bench in her pyjamas, Sonia poured us both an overflowing bowl of cornflakes. Her mum and dad had been at our house the previous night, and her mum was still in bed, the door firmly closed. After I'd finished eating, I told Sonia to get dressed.

‘Let's have a go on the board.'

She wasn't keen.

I was agitated, my anxiety like a fizzy poison, the worry about seeing Lyndon in detention, my conversation with Joe about Cherry, and then Mrs Jackson saying nothing was safe had made me addled, and I couldn't sit still.

She shrugged her shoulders. ‘If it's what you really want, I guess we've got time.'

She didn't take long to get dressed, tugging down her uniform so that it just covered the tops of her thighs, and then doing up her sandals. She wanted to go back and get her lip gloss but she relented.

‘Even though I'll look like a dog all day.'

I rolled my eyes. ‘It takes more than make-up.'

We rode together, through the back streets, talking as we weaved across the road. I had known Sonia all my life and although there were times when we irritated each other, there were also times of ease, where we didn't need to say all that much, we just hung out, both at home in each other's houses, and with each other's families. Once Tom and Dee went away for a week and I stayed with Sonia, sharing a room with her and Sal, getting up and going to school together, eating the same packed lunches. I liked it and I can't say I missed my family or my home.

But lately, it seemed she and Cassie had become more interested in appearance, and working out what was in and what wasn't. I hadn't changed in the same way. They had been my best friends for so long that I couldn't imagine hanging out without them, and yet times like this, when we simply rode, barely talking, were now rare. More often we bickered, irritating each other with our endless differences.

As we reached the top of hill that lead down to the waterfront, we both let our bikes drop to the ground.

I put my board down and offered her first go. She didn't really want to, but she stepped on, losing balance halfway down and leaping off as the board took off without her. She didn't chase it. And I ran down the street, only to find it hadn't stopped in the gutter where it usually did, it had rocketed down the steps.

‘Come with me.' I was surprised at how nervous I felt about going down there.

Sonia picked herself up from the ground and followed. I waited before taking a couple of steps, only to realise she wasn't right behind me. She was up the top, shifting from foot to foot, and staring up at the feathery jacaranda leaves splayed across the high morning sky.

‘Are you coming?'

She nodded, biting on her lip. ‘You know, I don't like going down there any more.'

I could only agree with her.

‘Not since Amanda, and then last time, when Lyndon was there.'

I told her I just wanted to get the board. ‘It won't be far. And there's both of us. We'll be fine.'

We walked together down the first flight of stairs. I could see she was on edge and so was I, ears finely tuned to any sound, eyes alert, so much so that when we heard a cough, I jumped and Sonia screamed – shrill and high, like the panicked screech of a bird.

‘What was that?' She grabbed my arm, wanting only to run.

There was no one behind us and no one in front.

‘Who's there?' I called out, trying not to sound afraid. Sonia's nails were digging into my wrist and I pulled away from her, taking two more steps down.

He was there, right behind the wall of his garden, and when he jumped and said ‘Boo!', his huge face red and open-mouthed right next to me, I felt the air sucked right out of my lungs, and I tried to scream but – fortunately – made no sound.

‘It's only Bradley,' I called out, laughing with relief, and he laughed too, wondering what the joke was.

‘It's only Bradley,' he repeated. ‘Only me.' He came right up to the bars of the gate, reaching out to touch me. ‘Whatcha doing down here?' he asked, his skin clammy on mine as he tried to keep hold of my hand.

I looked up to the top of the stairs, through the knotted branches of the trees, smooth-limbed and pale-wooded, to see if Sonia was there, my heart still thudding with a panicked beat.

She'd done a runner.

I turned towards the waterfront and realised you could see the whole sweep of the river from here.

‘Where's your friend?'

I thought he meant Sonia and I told him she'd pissed off on me, but he was shaking his head, blowing raspberries as he did so.

‘No, no, no.'

I didn't know what he meant.

He ran his fingers along the metal rungs of the gate, humming to the thrum it created, and then he looked at me again. His smile was wide, and there was a gap between his front teeth.

‘I love her.' He rubbed at his heart.

And then I remembered. It was Cassie he was talking about.

‘She's not with me,' I explained.

‘Oh.' His whole body slumped. So much so that I reached through the bars and took his hand. ‘I'll bring her soon,' I promised.

At that moment, Mrs Parsons opened her front door. I couldn't see her, their garden was overgrown, a great tangle of rhododendrons and camellias under the shade of trees that stretched, gnarled and knotted in ivy, towards a sky that probably wouldn't have been visible overhead. It was a garden of shame, I thought, one in which you hid from the world, and as I realised this, I felt overwhelmingly sad.

‘You mustn't bother people,' Mrs Parsons said as she came out along the path, slippery with rotting leaves, to take Bradley back inside.

She barely looked at me.

It was fine, I told her. He wasn't bothering me.

‘He was telling me he was in love with one of my friends,' and I smiled.

She was about to lead Bradley away, her hand clasped firmly around her son's, and then she stopped, the expression on her face eager, but hesitant.

‘I couldn't ask you a favour, could I? I just need to get up to the shops,' she pressed her hand on my shoulder. ‘We have no milk, you see. I don't like leaving Bradley alone but he's so difficult to get in the car. If you could just stay with him for five minutes?'

I could see how much she hated asking, and I felt I had no choice but to agree. She told me the front door was open and to help myself to anything if I was hungry. She wouldn't be long, she promised. With her bag over her shoulder, she was out that gate quicker than I had thought possible, barely looking back as she made her escape up the stairs and onto the road where she would have parked her car. For an instant, I wondered whether she'd come back. The relief of being on her own must have been enormous.

‘Mum,' Bradley called, his face red as he opened his mouth wide and wailed. ‘Mum.' He gripped the gate and tried to open it.

‘Don't.' I seized his arm in an attempt to stop him, but he pushed me aside.

In her rush, she had forgotten to lock the gate behind her, and before I had time to do anything, he fumbled with the bolt, his thick fingers sliding it back. It squeaked as he pushed the gate outwards, and he stepped out onto the small path that led from his house to the waterfront stairs. He stood under the great sweeping shade of pale green plane tree, his hands held up in confusion as he called out for his mother again.

‘Come back in,' I tried to coax him. ‘She's just gone to the shops. She won't be long.'

But he ignored me, and I watched in dismay as he turned towards the waterfront, lumbering and heavy. His breathing laboured, he stumbled down the uneven stone steps, like a giant in a fairy story, crashing through the undergrowth.

‘Wait,' I called out, and I ran straight after him. My board was there at his feet and I picked it up as I told him not to go any further. ‘It's dangerous.'

He looked at me, wiping his nose with the back of his hand, and considering my words.

Overhead a magpie watched us, a bright stony eye focused on our struggle.

‘You go down there.' He folded his arms across his chest. ‘I've seen you.'

I did, I agreed, but not at the moment. ‘Bad things have happened down there,' I told him. I didn't want to be responsible for him at the waterfront; I just wanted to keep him at home until his mother returned.

‘Someone died down there.' He leant in close to deliver this last bit of news and I could see the pinkness of his tongue. ‘I know.'

‘Who told you?' I asked, hoping now to distract him with conversation.

He ground the tip of his finger into his chest, nodding his head up and down without answering me.

‘Well,' I said eventually, ‘that's why we shouldn't go down there, it might be dangerous.'

He looked at me, considering my words for a moment, and then he remembered why he had left home in the first place. ‘Mum,' he called out again, his voice high and anxious.

She might be home now, I suggested. We should go and look.

I turned back up the stairs, holding my hand behind me for him to follow, and I was relieved when I heard his footsteps, slow, but right behind me.

Mrs Parsons wasn't back yet. I knew she wouldn't be, but I told Bradley we should hunt for her in the house. ‘In case she's hiding.'

He narrowed his eyes, turning my suggestion over in his head for a few moments, and then he clapped his hands in glee. ‘Coming ready or not,' he called out as we stepped into the darkness of the front hall.

It was a house that people didn't visit, a place that was kept shut up from the light and the world. Thick velvet curtains were drawn across each of the windows, and the air was musty. In the darkness I could only just make out the large pieces of furniture, heavy sideboards and tables, wardrobes and dressers, making it difficult to edge through the spaces without knocking an elbow or stubbing a toe. Only the kitchen had any light, and I waited in there while Bradley looked, under beds, behind doors, in the folds of the drapes until eventually he gave up.

‘Where is she?' He was certain I would provide a response.

She would be back soon, I promised and I offered to get him something to eat while we waited.

He opened the fridge and looked at the contents. There wasn't much.

‘I like ice-cream.' He took a large tub of chocolate from the freezer.

I made him a bowl and then one for myself, despite the fact that I'd only just had breakfast. Dee never bought chocolate.

BOOK: Darkwater
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