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Authors: Elsbeth Edgar

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BOOK: The Visconti House
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One of the boys nudged another and jerked his head in her direction. “Here comes the kid from the haunted house,” he jeered. “Seen any dead people lately?”

The others started laughing, and Laura hurried by. When she reached the locker room, she was relieved to find Janie Middleton and Kylie Jackson unpacking their books. She smiled at the girls and walked into class behind them, feeling almost as if she was one of their group.

“Have you finished the math homework?” asked Kylie as they all sat down.

Laura nodded.

“It was hard, wasn’t it?” Kylie frowned as she unzipped her pencil case and began arranging her pens on the desk.

Laura nodded again. Actually, she had found it easy, but she was not going to say that out loud — not when she knew that Kylie Jackson had found it difficult.

Mr. Parker strode into the room, a pile of papers under his arm, his bicycle clips still clamped to his legs. Without waiting for the stragglers to take their
seats, he began handing out work sheets. “I suggest you begin right away,” he said. “I’ll be collecting these at the end of class. Those who haven’t finished can see me at lunchtime to explain why.”

Laura finished early and was gazing out the window, her chin cupped in her hands, dreaming of the dragon book she was writing, when Mr. Jameson, the principal, came into the room. He was followed by a tall boy in oversize shorts and a too-small sweater. The boy glared defiantly at the class, and they looked warily back at him, taking in his roughly cut hair and the way his fists were clenched by his side.

“This is Leon Murphy,” said Mr. Jameson. “He’ll be joining 8A. I am sure you will make him welcome.” Kylie giggled, and Mr. Parker fixed her with an angry frown.

That’s the boy I saw,
thought Laura, staring. He must be Mrs. Murphy’s grandson — but why would he be staying with her? At that moment his eyes flicked over her, and she felt her face redden. Furious with herself, she looked away to the patch of blue sky she had been dreaming in just a minute ago.

“Leon, come and sit down here next to Peter,” she heard Mr. Parker say as Mr. Jameson left the room.
“Peter, I want you to look after Leon and show him around.”

There was an undercurrent of stifled laughter, and the boy behind Peter poked him. “I can’t, sir,” said Peter. “I’ve got soccer practice at lunchtime.”

“Mike, then.” Mr. Parker turned to a large boy who was busily working on his assignment. Mike jumped. He opened his mouth, then closed it, nodded, and went back to his work. The boys in the back row sniggered again, and when Mike reluctantly led Leon from the room at the end of class, one of them called out, “Fatso and Skinnybones.” Mike flushed, but Leon just continued walking as though he had not heard.

Leon was ahead of Laura when she came through the gate after school. He was running his hand along the fences, his shoulders slightly hunched. Laura slowed her steps so that she would not overtake him, and when she arrived at Mrs. Murphy’s house, he was already inside.

The front door was open, however, for the first time that she could remember. Looking down the dark hallway, she saw a heavy curtain hanging in the middle and shivered, wondering what was behind it.

The next day Laura noticed that Leon was no longer walking around with Mike. He was not walking around with anyone. In class he sat alone, and during recess and lunch he sat outside the bike shed and read. She was not the only one who was aware of Leon’s behavior. While they were changing for gym, it was all that Kylie and Maddy Patterson could talk about.

“Did you hear?” Maddy whispered as she pulled her gym clothes out of her bag. “Leon Murphy’s father is a criminal. I bet that’s why he had to move here.”

“No.” Kylie’s eyes widened with curiosity. “What do you think he did?”

“Killed someone, I bet. Leon Murphy looks like he has a father who killed someone, doesn’t he?”

“I don’t know. What does that look like?”

“Leon Murphy!” They both started giggling.

“Girls!” Miss Stevenson called sharply from the door.

Although she had not been part of the conversation, Laura felt as though she, too, had been rebuked. How did they know about Leon’s father, anyway? She grabbed her sneakers and pulled them on, looking over at Maddy’s long legs and wishing that hers were lean and tanned, too. She lifted her head and was engulfed in Kylie’s spray-on deodorant. The scented mist was everywhere, making her cough and feel slightly sick.

“Sorry,” said Kylie, and she started giggling again.

Laura hurried outside, wondering what it would be like to find everything so amusing all the time. She looked back at Kylie and Maddy, sitting together on the bench. They never seemed to worry about anything.

“Twice around the oval and then back here for basketball drills,” shouted Miss Stevenson. “Hurry up, now — get a move on.”

Laura groaned and began moving slowly toward the sports fields.

“Running, Laura,” Miss Stevenson called after her. “Not daydreaming. You should be halfway around by now.”

Laura broke into a reluctant jog, her thoughts jolting around her head in a mantra of discontent.
If only I didn’t have to go to school. If only I could just stay
home. If only I didn’t have to go to school.
She looked up and saw Leon, sitting alone under a tree. How come he doesn’t have to run? It’s so unfair. The mantra began again.
If only I didn’t have to go to school.

As if everything wasn’t bad enough, Miss Stevenson asked her to return the equipment to the staff room after gym. It was the last class, and by the time she was crossing the school yard, her bag heavy on her back, almost everyone had gone. She remembered the cheerful bustle of her old school, with all the parents and students milling around after the last bell. The only sounds she could hear now were the harsh cries of the galahs circling overhead and the soccer team training on the oval in the distance.

Laura headed home, walking quickly, absorbed in her sense of injustice, her eyes fixed on the sidewalk, until the sound of approaching footsteps made her turn. Shocked, she saw Leon Murphy coming up behind her, limping. His shirt was torn, and his left eye was swelling. He shot her a hostile look as he passed and, for a moment, all Laura could think of was the conversation she had overheard. Could it have been true? Was his father a criminal, and was Leon just like his father? She looked around nervously. There was no one nearby.

Then Leon stumbled. He leaned over to catch his breath, and at once Laura felt ashamed of her suspicions. She hesitated, wondering what to do. He probably wouldn’t want her to do anything, but he looked as though he was really hurt.

“Are you OK?” she asked. Leon did not reply, so she repeated the question, a little louder this time.

Leon bit his lip and straightened up. “I’m fine.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing.” Laura stood peering at him, and he snapped. “I’m all right; you don’t have to stare at me. You can go. And you don’t need to feel sorry for me, either.”

“I don’t.” Laura averted her eyes from the cut on his forehead, which was oozing blood.

“I’m all right.”

“I can see that.”

“I am!” He glared at her, then shrugged and began to hobble on.

“So what happened?” she repeated, falling into step beside him.

“It was just some kids at school. It was nothing. I shouldn’t have gotten involved.”

“What did they do?”

Leon looked at her, his gaze measuring. “They took
my book. They took my book and threw it around.” He paused, still watching her. “It was my father’s book,” he said at last, and continued walking.

Laura felt her mouth drop open, and she quickly closed it. That was the last thing she had expected. “Did you get it back?” she asked, hurrying after him.

“Yes.”

There was something in the way Leon said this that made Laura think the kids would not take his things again. She suspected that Leon was not the only one with a black eye. “How many were there?”

“Four.” They had reached the crossing at the dip in the road. Mrs. Murphy’s house was on the other side. “I gotta go,” he said. “Keep this to yourself, OK?”

“Of course,” replied Laura.

Leon pushed the gate open and was halfway down the path when Laura realized that she had not asked the most important question. “Is it all right?” she called after him.

He looked back at her, puzzled. “What?”

“The book. Is it all right?”

Leon’s eyes darkened. “It’s torn,” he said, his voice suddenly trembling with anger. “They tore my father’s book. I hate them. I hate them all.”

He disappeared around the back of the house,
and Laura braced herself for the sound of a door slamming.

It didn’t come. Leon closed the door very gently.

The hill to her house usually seemed steep to Laura at the end of the day. This afternoon, however, she was almost at the top before she realized it. Her mind was focused on Leon and his father and the book. She felt as though they were all parts of a pattern that she couldn’t fit together — and she wasn’t sure that she wanted to. In fact, the more she thought about it, the more she was sure that she didn’t. Laura didn’t want anything to do with Leon Murphy.

She looked up at the heavy iron gates in front of her and breathed a sigh of relief. Once she was through those gates, she would be safe. Then she could forget — forget about school and the town and Leon Murphy. Particularly about Leon Murphy.

It was overcast, and the lights were on in her mother’s studio. They shone through the dark leaves of the rosebushes, warm and inviting. Laura crunched
down the gravel path and pushed open the door to the kitchen. It was empty and filled with shadows. Piles of newspapers covered the table, and the smell of stale coffee hung in the air.

It was also cold. They had no central heating, just the huge fireplaces in the cavernous rooms and two little space heaters that they had bought. “This is Australia,” her father always said as she and her mother huddled around the heaters. “We don’t need central heating.” He said this even when the wind was slipping under the windows and the rain was beating against them. Laura knew that he said it because heating would cost too much to install. Now that her parents didn’t have permanent jobs, they were always having to think about money.

She grabbed an apple from the bowl on the tall sideboard and continued through to the studio. This was the largest and grandest room in the house. It had once been a ballroom, and the old oak floorboards were still there, as were the ornate patterns in the plaster ceiling. The elaborate paintwork had long since gone, however, and so had the velvet curtains and candelabra.

Now it was filled with chunks of stone and metal. It was where her mother worked. It was also where
they all relaxed and entertained and where, curled up on the sofa at one end, Laura did most of her homework. Laura was always finding corners in the vast rooms where she could make a small space of her own.

“Hello, honey bear. Was today as bad as you expected?” Her mother blew her a kiss and continued to chisel the large piece of stone in front of her.

“Yes,” replied Laura. She dumped her bag by the window and slumped onto the sofa, drawing a knitted blanket around her. It smelled of comfort and home.

“Well, here’s some good news to cheer you up. Harry just called. He’s coming to visit.”

Laura immediately brightened. She liked Harry, and it was always fun when he was there. “When?”

“Next month, for the long weekend. And he’s bringing a friend.”

“Oh.” Laura wasn’t sure if this was good news or not. Some of the people Harry knew were very strange. “What sort of friend?”

“I don’t know. Some sort of singer, I think. Or an actor? I don’t remember.” Her mother frowned, running her hand down the rough stone. “Do you think I’ve gone in too deeply here?”

“No. Tell me more about the singer.”

“I don’t know any more. He just said she was a singer — I think.”

“She!” Laura bit into the apple thoughtfully. Harry had never brought a woman to stay before. “Well, I just hope she’s not like that poet who walked around in a top hat and jester’s boots.” She giggled. “Or that philosopher who kept telling us the world was about to end.”

“Yes, he was a little trying,” agreed her mother, smiling. “But I’m sure Isabella will be very nice. Do you mind if we don’t eat for a while? I just want to finish this section before dinner.”

“Mom, we always eat late,” said Laura as she started dragging her schoolbooks from her bag. “But it’s all right. I don’t mind.”

And she didn’t. When she was at home, everything was fine.

BOOK: The Visconti House
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