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Authors: Christopher Currie

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BOOK: Clancy of the Undertow
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I realise I've got my hands down the sides of my boots where the elastic has wafered. I need new shoes. I'll never impress anyone with old boots and old clothes and an old bike. I glance at my watch but already know I have to leave. Sasha gets out of the car and stretches sort of the way a cat stretches, every muscle shivering out. She's cut her hair since last week, framing her face with straight edges. Someone said she goes to Brisbane to get it done. Most local girls go to Classic Cuts or Real Beauty, which are basically the same place because any girl who goes in there comes out with identical skanky highlights and claw-nails and eyelashes like a giraffe. They're all fake tanned, too, but not Sasha. She's pale. Whenever you see that crowd together, smoking outside the Cri or by the council building or outside Macca's on the weekend, Sasha always stands out, like a vampire in a wheatfield. Black hair, black jeans. She's with Buggs, but only because it makes them a crazy famous couple.

Buggs is from a family that's been here since the town was settled and his uncle used to be the mayor and half the town is run by his other uncles and cousins. His last name is Pfister, which is hilarious, but no one's allowed to make fun of him because of who his family is even though his first name is actually Barnaby, a fact that made me laugh for five straight minutes when I found out. Buggs is a massive douche. He works in his dad's auto shop, but he's never really there. He spends most of his time tinkering with his own car, or sitting at the front bar of the Cri. He's super thin and stooped over, and his nose is almost flat to his face, but he's somehow the coolest guy in town, which is why Sasha is with him. Must be.

All the guys are laughing by the half-pipe and I hear cans opening and bottle caps flipping off and I get up and leave before anyone sees me. I take one look back and Sasha's leaning against Buggs like he's a useful tree, smoking and staring off into her own middle distance, her transformation complete. Daytime travel agent to nighttime smalltown royalty. I dig my nails into my palm and stifle a huge, self-pitying sigh. She'll never notice me. I'll never even be a small part of her world.

3

I cycle back up the dirt path, not bothering to get up off my seat as I judder across the tiny stones. What's the point? I pedal furiously up the hill and cut in behind CityView Motel's carpark. Throw my bike over the fence and drag it up the cow paddock. As always, I can't tell what's a divot and what's a cowpat but I plough on regardless. There's a crowd of cockatoos dotting the grass white and they flap madly as I walk through them, flying up as a big swarm, circling one of the two huge eucalypts on each side of our house. Late summer is brimful with birdscreech until even after dark. Titch is there by the front steps standing in a puddle of water he's made by letting the hose run.

‘Turn that off,' I say.

‘Mum said I could.' He has on one of his stupid skater caps, decorated with skulls.

‘You're wasting water.'

‘There's no restrictions,' he says. ‘La Niña is in full effect.'

Titch is turning into such a smart-arse. Where once stood my fun little brother now stands the chrysalis of a bogan butterfly. ‘Dad home?'

‘Yeah, but he's steaming.'

Great.
Steaming
means Dad's had a bad day and he isn't happy about it.

A little while ago, middle of winter, just after Dad'd come off compo and was doing traffic work, he came home and we were out front chopping wood and when he got out of the car we started laughing because his sweat turned into steam and it looked like his head had been on fire. He swore at us something chronic. Since then, a
steaming
Dad is not a good thing.

‘That's perfect,' I say. Dad in a bad mood means Mum in a bad mood, meaning I can't be in the least bit fed up with my stupid boring life without getting a long lecture on the inherent value of something.

Titch sinks further into the mud and I hope to God he keeps sinking.

Inside the house I can already feel the tension. Dad's fluoro workshirt is hanging on the chair, a smear of jam on the breast pocket. I can picture him flinging it off before disappearing for a long shower—more steam from under the bathroom door.

‘Clancy.' Mum's standing by the sink, new rubber gloves nearly glowing green.

‘Hi,' I say. ‘What's going on?'

Mum makes that face where her cheeks pinch up towards her eyes: to a stranger, a smile. ‘I need you to go and get your brother.'

‘Titch is out the front. I'm not cleaning him up though.'

‘Angus. I need you to get Angus.'

‘Why?' My older brother is living at home
temporarily
, which means—knowing Angus—probably forever. The rule is he has to make his own dinner unless he tells Mum otherwise. He hardly ever does. Stays out late just about every night.

‘Can you just go and get him?' Mum's cheeks have flushed, twin comets against her skin.

‘What's going on?' I say it more serious this time, in the voice I use when I'm trying to make sense of people. My feet are already aching in my boots. The last thing I want is to cycle across town looking for my dropkick brother.

Mum turns back to the sink. ‘Just do it, Clancy. It's important.'

‘Jesus. Can you just make him buy a phone?'

Mum throws up her hands, as if this means something.

‘How'm I supposed to know where he is?' I say. ‘I have to go out on my bike in the dark?'

‘You know where he'll be. He can drive you back.' The tone in Mum's voice is heavy and weird.

I perform an offended pirouette and tramp back out of the house. I've tried words with my parents. Now I just use silence.

4

I clip on my front light and coast back down the hill. I'm always the one who has to do the responsible stuff. Titch is too young and Angus is too unreliable. Still a year before I can drive and I'm the only person in our family responsible for getting things done. Dad works weird hours now he's on the road crew and Mum hardly leaves the house if she doesn't get any teaching work. Still, Mum's right—there's no doubt where Angus is at this time of night. Up the top of the observatory, drinking, smoking pot and planning the next stage of his severely unambitious life.

I pedal hard down through town and out past Red Rooster and KFC. When the streetlights stop I switch on the weak front light and close my eyes down the hills. Angus'll pay for me having to do this. On top of whatever ragging Dad's going to give him. He probably parked Dad in last night or used up the shampoo or ate the last of the salt and vinegar chips—any number of things Dad would want to haul him into line for. Dad's job means he gets to stand still for hours at a time in the middle of nowhere, stewing over the smallest things us kids have done wrong. Especially Angus, who in Dad's eyes is constantly wasting his time. Which is, basically, entirely accurate.

Six months ago Angus quit uni. He came home two weeks into his course complaining that his teachers were
biased
. I told him they were probably biased towards people who actually did work, and he moped about that for days as if I hadn't just pointed out a basic true fact. Now when he isn't on the couch at home he's out wasting his savings at the Cri or various dipshit gathering points around town, concocting intricate schemes that won't work. He disappears overnight sometimes, doing God knows what.

I tap the brakes when I see the pilot light up ahead and coast to a stop at the bottom of the observatory. Despite its name, it's basically just a steel tower with a platform on top, a set of metal steps going up four storeys on the side of the highway. It has some sort of scientific significance, like, where it's placed you can see certain stars or something, but no one ever goes up there for anything to do with astronomy.

I ring my bike's bell at what I hope is an annoying volume and shout up, ‘Angus you gotta come home!' and I can see him up there, the lit tip of a joint hanging in the air.

He doesn't say anything so I get off my bike and kick the base of the metal stairwell. ‘You gotta drive me home! Mum made me come out here to get you cause Dad's steaming!' I hear him laughing. ‘Angus!' I shout again. ‘Can you finish jerking off and get down here?'

I hear the clang of feet on the steps. ‘Jesus,' he shouts. ‘Queen of comedy.'

‘Hurry up.'

He slides down the last set of stairs like a sailor on a submarine. ‘What's happened?' he says. His hair's all messed up by the wind and he's wearing one of his disgusting tank tops from Dollars and Sense that says
Fat Kids Are Harder to Kidnap
.

I shrug my shoulders. ‘Mum just says you have to come home.'

Angus rubs his hands together. ‘I'm kind of busy.'

‘With what?'

‘Planning the Big Hunt.'

I give him a look, like
that again?

‘Whatever,' I say. ‘I'm hungry. Dad'll probably just give us a talk about hanging the toilet paper the right way round and we can all get on with our lives.'

Angus shakes his head. ‘This family,' he says, with the world-weary tone of someone who has never had to take responsibility for anything his entire life.

5

My bike's bouncing around in the tray of Angus's ute because he hasn't got any rope and I keep looking back, expecting it to fly off onto the road at any moment.

‘It's fine,' he says. ‘Don't you understand basic physics?'

‘Like you do.'

Angus is chewing on like eight sticks of gum. They're wadded up in his cheek and he probably thinks it's cool because it looks like tobacco or something. ‘How was work?' he says.

‘Okay.'

Angus bats his eyelids. ‘Venn are you goink to be keeping zee lipstick on darlink? You are zo attractiff!' I laugh, despite not wanting to. Angus smirks. ‘Is Dad actually steaming or is Mum just playing happy families?'

‘Dunno. Didn't see him when I got home. Mum looked pretty upset though.'

‘Right. Let's hope it's over quickly, then.'

‘Gotta get back to the tower? Polish your telescope?'

‘Piss off.'

‘I hear Pluto's right up in Uranus.'

Angus sighs. ‘You think I'm just wasting my time, don't you?'

‘What else would you call it?'

‘Re-evaluating.'

I put my feet up on the dashboard, which I know he hates. ‘Failing, more like.'

‘Give us a break, Clance. I've got my whole life to work out what I want to do. I'm planning something pretty important.'

‘Chasing made-up monsters.'

‘As if. I've done the research. Just have to put it into action.'

‘And this is your big plan.'

‘You won't be laughing when I'm on the news.'

I don't dignify this with a response. Every few years some drunk spots a cow in the hills outside of town and says he's seen a giant cat. Back in the seventies was when it all started, according to Dad. Some blurry photograph of what was probably a big rock got everyone obsessed with what the paper called the Beast of Barwen. People went out on weekends to try and photograph it or trap it but of course came back empty-handed. Angus has been obsessed with it since coming back home, spending hours on the computer at the library looking at psycho conspiracy sites.

The thing is, he used to love nature: in a proper, real way. He was top of his class in biology—needless to say the only class he was
any
good in; used to watch David Attenborough docos over and over the way other kids watch cartoons. He was the reason I started going to Nature Club. I joined back when I actually admired my brother, but my interest coincided with Angus activating his inevitable male douchebag chromosome and reclassifying anything to do with science as
nerdy shit
.

I still go to Nature Club, but Angus's interests have morphed into making money and finding ‘the truth', two vague philo-sophies melded together by various dodgy internet forums and the modern male obsession with Going to the Mines to Earn Easy Dollars.

We drive in silence until we reach the centre of town, where Angus is obliged by some unspoken idiot rule to wind down the windows and cruise slowly up Aggery St. There's a small crowd spilling outside the Cri. I see Buggs's broken head but Sasha's nowhere to be seen.

Suddenly one of them points at Angus's car and shouts out, ‘Hey, dickhead!' and Angus grins but then Buggs gives him the finger and the rest of them follow suit.

‘Step out the car!' Buggs shouts, walking towards us. Angus slows down but he seems to realise the same time as me that the crowd isn't ragging on him in a friendly way.

One of them goes, ‘Hey dickhead, you wanna watch the road!' and another one goes, ‘Y'old man oughtta watch the fucken road!' and they're coming right at us and I hit Angus's leg so he plants his foot and we lurch forward. As we speed away I hear a scraping sound and when I look back I see the front wheel of my bike disappearing over the side of the ute's tray.

Angus is driving fast and shaking his head like he's just seen a puzzle he can't work out. He hoons up the hill too fast and when we come down the driveway Mum's out on the verandah with a torch that's useless because the lights are on anyway. When she sees the car she motions us towards the house.

‘The hell's going on?' says Angus.

Mum comes right up to the window. ‘Get inside,' she says. ‘Both of you. Right now.'

We get out and she pulls us in with one hand on each of our wrists and doesn't say anything when I tell her about my bike. We go through the door and into the empty lounge room.

‘Seriously, Mum. What's the deal?' Angus puts his hands on his hips, unintentionally mimicking Dad's default pose.

Mum looks suddenly shaken. ‘Just…are you both okay?'

‘Yeah,' I say. ‘We're fine.'

BOOK: Clancy of the Undertow
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