Authors: Christopher Currie
Christopher Currie is a Brisbane writer. His first book, a novel for adults called
The Ottoman Motel
, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize and the Queensland Literary Awards in 2012.
Clancy of the Undertow
is his first YA novel.
The Text Publishing Company
22 William Street
Melbourne Victoria 3000
Copyright Â© 2016 by Christopher Currie
The moral right of Christopher Currie to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted.
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright above, no part of this publication shall be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.
First published in 2016 by The Text Publishing Company
Cover and page design by Imogen Stubbs
Cover photograph by Miquel Llonch / Stocksy
Typeset in Sabon 11/16 by J & M Typesetting
National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry
Creator: Currie, Christopher, author.
Title: Clancy of the undertow / by Christopher Currie.
ISBN: 9781925240405 (paperback)
Target Audience: For young adults.
Subjects: Love stories.
Dewey Number: A823.4
For Roy Fox, who taught me the power of curiosity, the benefit of patience and the importance of empathy.
She's got this nearly chinless face, which isn't as bad as it sounds because she's European and her nose bends over in a poetic way. And she's small, birdy, gorgeous. She dresses in silk blouses the colour and texture of cream. Pencil skirts that have an actually pencil shape: that sort of perfect thing.
Eloise and me. She's thirty-two, voluptuous, perfect. I am sixteen, with the physique of a tree frog.
This is the two of us, our top halves poking out above the makeup counter. Our island in a shopping-centre sea. Usually, we're both here only on a Saturday; the other six days we split. During the holidays I'm Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays and on these days, pretty much nothing gets sold. For some reason this is okay. I spend my time giving people directions to other shops, and the rest of it perfecting doodles and playlists in the notebook which is supposed to be for the takings and customer orders.
It's better than school, but only because of the air-conditioning. Eloise is the only reason I stay here, that I put up with the days of boredom and humiliation in this retail prison.
Eloise is the only reason anyone comes to the boothâor rather, the Beauty Station. She purrs and preens over the country women who waddle up from the International Carvery to have their gravy-stained faces primped and poked by this mysterious European queen. And they all leave with the Full Beauty Package (
not that you need it darling, but the men, eh? They want a little colour to your cheeksâ¦
) which will require replenishment in just under a month's time. Every Saturday we make the week's takings in the three hours everyone in town turns up to buy the family groceries.
It's late afternoon now, Thursday. Eloise has come in to check inventory when she knows it will be quiet. The shoppers are all but gone and it's back to the head-crushing tedium. The only thing keeping me going is my afternoon visit from Reeve. Today he ambles up in his dark blue uniform about three-thirty. He has in his hand something that purports to be a juice, but whose colour would seem to place it outside the plant kingdom.
âWhat's the two-oh-three?' I say to him.
âIt's all on the down,' he says. âNuthin' but goddam happers, whackin' out and fliptoppin'.'
I nod knowledgeably. âStreets be a jungle, yo.'
Reeve takes a sip of his drink, closing his eyes as he takes in the sugar. His face can only devote itself to one activity at a time. After he swallows, he laughs. âHow's business, ladies?'
Eloise folds a handtowel and nods. âSecurity Guard Lewis,' she says. âHow are you?'
Reeve nods back. âVery well, thank you.' We're never sure when Eloise is joking.
âAnything we can help you with today?' I say. âI could offer you a lovely foundation to set your complexion off against your uniform. What colour would you call your shirt?'
âOcean of despair.'
I snort. Eloise clears her throat beside me. She has banter tolerance of exactly one minute.
âBetter get back to it,' I say. âTime waits for no tan.'
Reeve groans. âAwful, Clancy. Just awful. What time you closing up today?'
âDarling,' says Eloise, âI feel there will be more sales before the day is out.' She flutters a hand up against her face.
âFive-thirty then,' I say, trying to hide my tone of resignation.
âAll right,' says Reeve, âwell I might see you once more, crime waves permitting.' He gives us a lazy salute and strolls off.
When Reeve is out of earshot, Eloise leans over to me. âHe is quite something, that boy.'
I cluck my tongue. âHe's
âAh, to be young again, Clancy!' Eloise claps her hands together, swooning.
âJeez,' I say, feeling my neck flush red because it clearly hates me. âHe's just a friend.'
âAh, well, it is better to have lost in love than ever more.'
âRight. Yep.' I duck behind the counter to look in a drawer that has suddenly caught my attention. I still can't decide whether Eloise actually doesn't know the real words to proverbs, or whether this is an aspect of the character she plays.
âYou just have to believe in yourself,' she says. I feel something in my hair before I realise she's stroking it. I jump, which is not easy when you're crouching, and then try to move myself away from her. My duck-waddle fails and I topple to the floor. I observe the complex ecosystem of dust and used cotton balls under the counter.
âAre you all right, darling?'
âAbsolutely,' I say. âCompletely in my element.'
The afternoon passesâ with no more customers, and I leave just after five. I change into my boots and hurry out of the shopping centre before Reeve can find me and we have to have a real conversation, without the social safety barrier of a large white counter between us.
Coming down the escalators the knife guy is there at his display table and he winks at me, his hand resting on the hilt of a dagger shaped like a dragon's head. For the umpteenth time, I realise I could just reach down off the escalator and pick up a blade and make the news. Not that I ever would, but sometimes I think it, just for the stupid thrill.
I leave through the big sliding doors and the afternoon humidity drapes itself across my face. I've just rubbed off the worst of the makeup in the shopping centre bathroom, leaving on what I hope is the right amount. Eloise has taught me how to apply makeup, but only in a way that suits her strong features. On my nondescript face, the dark eye shadow and dramatic slash of lipstick just makes me look like something from a straight-to-DVD horror franchise.
My bike is there on the rack, still somehow not stolen even though I leave the lock conspicuously undone. Dad refuses to buy me a new bike until this one âwears out' and so as usual I hop on my too-small red BMX,
written in huge pearlescent letters on the frame, and pedal out of the carpark. I often consider riding it out of town and abandoning it, but I'm a terrible liar and Dad would be able to tell and then I'd have no bike.
My stupid backpack keeps hitching up my shirt so I spend most of the ride holding it down until eventually I sling the backpack over the handlebars, and then it's hard to steer and so I have to go really slow and I can feel the drivers of the cars buzzing past judging me but that's just the way my life is. I turn off the main road and shudder over the unsealed path that runs beside the river. I pull up next to the play equipment and fling my bike into the dirt, hoping to encourage an irreparable crack in the chassis. No such luck.
Soon I'm sitting behind the skate park, with its stench of dust and petrol, pretending to read a book. All the guys are pretty much just silhouettes against the sky. One by one, they teeter on the lip of the ramp and drop away, their shape replaced by sound. The hum of wheels on concrete. The rest of them are huddled on the other side, making fume-tents with their shirts or smoking or both. It stinks here. There is, however, no better place to watch the vacant lot across the fence where the cars are gathering.
They're parked at mad angles, a protest to symmetry. More join every minute, appearing first as dirty clouds from behind the hill, then swinging into focus with carefully choreographed fishtails that send up even more dust. The crowd cheers each time a new car arrives. Everyone coming in from work. Or not-work.
Thursday is Student Night in Barwen. Named after the chalkboard claim the Criterion never takes down from outside its entrance. It's sort of a Barwen in-joke, because no one here really
, not in the sense Student Night usually means. A few adult learners at the TAFE, probably, but that's it. Still, tradition is tradition, and Thursday night means party night.
Finally, the car I'm waiting for arrives, and it gets the biggest cheer. A mustard-brown Monaro, flashing its lights. Buggs gets out, unfolding his body from his modified drivers seat that's positioned impossibly low to the floor. This always struck me as stupid, because the sun visor wouldn't keep the sun out of his eyes, but Buggs isn't known as someone who things through. He takes off his cap, smooths his hair, puts the cap back on. Predictable as hell. He kneads his lips, fishing in his pocket for cigarettes, striding over to a group of guys by the half-pipe. I keep my eyes on the car.
The tiny car light flicks on and my heart jags because she's there, painting Cleopatra edges to her eyes, peering at the rearview mirror. Sasha Strickland, leaning back to shuffle on a jeans leg, kicking one foot out at the evening air. All the guys have gone with Buggs to the edge of the skate ramp. Nobody looking at Sasha except for me. Nobody sees the three holes in her stockings that look like a ghost's face. I think of being a ghost, of being invisible. Being in the back seat as Sasha prepares for a night out. Leaning my ghost head close to her cheek and feeling its heat.