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Authors: Christopher Currie

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BOOK: Clancy of the Undertow
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,' says Mum. ‘Titch, finish your cereal. Angus, don't speak like a hooligan.' All of a sudden, her harsh tone is absent, and she sounds like she's about to cry.

We all stop and mumble apologies, storing away the retaliations for later.

No one speaks to anyone else until Mum and I are in the car, pulling out of the driveway. Over the crunch of the gravel she says, ‘We do a good job, don't we?'

‘A good job?' I'm busy synching up my iPod for the drive and I don't really hear her.

‘Your dad and I? Our…parenting. It's been okay?'

I sense an impending Deep and Meaningful—a scene from a daytime movie where I'm a slightly faded child star, tears welling in my eyes, going
Are you and Dad… getting a divorce?

I decide to play it safe. ‘Your parenting's been fine. None of us are on hard drugs. Titch isn't pregnant.'

Mum lets a pause fall between us, the exact length of a failed joke. She pulls out onto the main road. ‘I just don't want any of you kids to be unhappy. Your dad doesn't either.'

‘Yeah, no, it's fine.' Cars are even worse than dinner tables for forced conversation. I start to wonder how much it would actually hurt if I opened the door and threw myself onto the nature strip. But because I'm basically a decent person, I say, ‘Is everything, you know, okay?'

Mum stretches her neck, and then her head snaps back into place. ‘Oh, fine!' she says, too brightly. ‘You know me, always worrying.' She laughs. It's not very convincing. ‘Your dad just gets so busy, and I get so stressed out. I just…want you all to know that we love you, no matter what happens.'

I notice Mum's taking the long way to Landsdowne, skirting around the edge of town instead of going straight through it. I don't say anything, busying myself instead with the iPod. Scrolling scrolling scrolling.


We pull up outside the gates just before ten. Faded green writing on the sign:
Landsdowne Research Station
. I feel myself relaxing, muscle by muscle. The whole drive over, Mum's been plying me in a slightly manic tone with the type of lame sayings you'd find on the insides of greeting cards. Being true to yourself, overcoming the odds. I have to ask her again if she's sure everything's okay but she just gives me more platitudes about staying strong and keeping my head held high, like I'm a synchronised swimmer on a losing streak.

She gives me an awkward, too-long kiss on the temple as I try to get out of the car.

‘Jeez,' I say. ‘You haven't put lipstick on my head, have you?'

‘You have a good morning, sweetie. Be true to yourself. Say hi to your friends from me.'

I give her my best salute and escape before she can land another kiss. Then I stand and stare at her until she drives away. She's always asking about my ‘friends' at the club, and I know that nothing would deliver her more pleasure—or me more horror—than her ever meeting any of them.

Every time she drops me off, all she wants is for me to invite her through the gates, and there's no way in hell that's ever going to happen.

She drives off and I keep standing there for a minute, enjoying a rare moment of solitude. It's these moments I love the most. Between two worlds, neither in parental care nor under responsible supervision. Not at home or at school or anywhere where I have to be
accounted for
. I love the thrill of this feeling. I love that I'll be away from here soon. Away from Barwen, my family, school,

Somehow, even the animal smell outside the gates is relaxing. I peer across the road at the feedlots, empty today and just a jumble of wooden railings and the sweet hint of stale dung. They have these insane livestock auctions out here each month, a whole pack of red-faced farmers in rodeo shirts and bent Akubras stacked in to shout at each other through the dust. I've only been once properly, with Dad when I was younger, when one of his cricket mates wanted to buy some breeding cows.

In those days, Saturday mornings were a negotiation. I'd endure a series of parental chores in exchange for a trip to the newsagents, where I'd buy a comic book or one of those magazines where you'd build a dollhouse or dinosaur skeleton week by week, the first issue being incredibly cheap and the rest of them mind-bogglingly expensive. Dad always started steaming at the price of the second issue so I ended up with a room full of abandoned projects: a single T-Rex rib-bone, a piece of lonely amethyst, a teddy bear's arm.

I turn back and head up to the wonky prefab cabin that serves as the station's reception office. The flyscreen's hanging open but I still knock, like I always do.

‘Clancy, yes, good, hello.' George Parry's voice comes from inside the cabin.

My eyes adjust to the dim light inside and he's sitting behind the reception desk, his thin hairy legs crossed underneath. He looks up and he's wearing wraparound Polaroids, even inside. Part of his eternal outfit. He grins and all the bristles of his beard seem to rearrange themselves. Eight-year-old me would've freaked out because he looked so much like one of the Banksia Men from
Snugglepot and Cuddlepie
. It wouldn't have surprised me to learn that his beard was a completely separate organism engaged in a symbiotic relationship with its host.

‘Hi Mr P,' I say.

‘Got a good one today,' he says. ‘Going to dip our heads in the creek, see what's biting.'

‘Good thing I brought my shower cap, then.'

‘No worries at all, Clancy. No worries at all.' Mr P has a habit of responding to a sentence that you haven't actually said. He gives me this weird look, like he's trying to read something on my forehead. ‘Head up to the tank, hey,' he says. ‘Be up in a sec.'

I walk out of the office, rubbing my brow. There's probably Vegemite up there. I have a talent for that. Mr P's left the gate unlatched so I push it open, stepping up onto its base so it swings me out with it. There's all these awesome warning signs stuck to the gate about hazardous chemicals and fruit flies and fire ants. I jump over the cattle grid and go over to the shed where you have to clean the soles of your shoes in a tray of detergent.

I can see the others up at the Tank, a big green reservoir the size of a small house that supplies all the water to the station. Everyone's here already. Back when the club started, back when Angus was in it, every kid wanted to be part of it.

I joined, of course, just as it was becoming uncool, just as everyone suddenly realised they could hang out at the skate ramp or at the Bellie Park grandstand and waste their lives. Now—as much as I never admit it out loud—Nature Club is the sole refuge of loners, nerds and general misfits.

There are seven of us who come regularly, but we're such an awkward group, I've never really considered us ‘friends'. Nathan and Andrea I know because they're in my grade in school and Glenn is a few grades above. There's a brother and sister, Tom and Olive, who are home-schooled and one younger kid who never talks and who in my head I call DD, because he always wears denim overalls over a denim shirt. Mainly, we don't talk unless Mr P's there.

I wave to them as I walk over, keeping my head down, like
hello everybody at once so I don't have to say hello individually
. No one says anything, except Nancy.

‘Hi Clancy!' she says.

Nancy is new. It's only the second time she's come to Nature Club. She's just moved here and she's starting school next term, in my grade. She's bright and loud and friendly and I have no idea what she's doing with us.

‘Hi Nancy.'

‘Hi Clancy!' she says. ‘It's pretty funny, hey. Nancy, Clancy.' A joke already very tired. She laughs a bubbly laugh and I hate her. I don't need anyone bubbly this morning. I need good old-fashioned silence and social awkwardness. Nature Club usually delivers this in spades.

‘You look like you haven't had your coffee yet,' Nancy says, one hand on her hip. It's the same pose I've seen girls at school do. Taken from some sitcom where eye-rolling and freezing your body at hieroglyphic angles is considered the height of wit.

‘Something like that,' I say.

‘I know
need my caffeine!'

I give her a look, like,
just because our names rhyme doesn't mean you shouldn't piss right off
. She's been trying to buddy up to me ever since she arrived.

‘How's your week been, anyway?' she says.


Finally, thankfully, DD sniffs up a massive booger and normality returns.

Glenn says, ‘I—I wonder what Professor Parry has in store for us this morning?' Glenn has air moss hair and wiggles his fingers every time he speaks. ‘Perhaps the wonders of the turbidity wheel.' Glenn is the oldest of us and has perfected the sort of deep, affected sardonic tone reserved for the serious
Star Trek
fan and the relentlessly teased.

Mercifully, Mr P then clomps up behind us, rubbing his hands together. ‘Right then,' he says. ‘Let's get to work.' He hands out these plastic discs with long lengths of string attached. Glenn makes a humming noise because apparently, yes, these are turbidity wheels.

‘You all got your notebooks?' says Mr P.

Everyone nods except for me. Crap. A notebook, Mr P often tells us, is a scientist's most important tool. Nancy, who's standing next to me, says, ‘You can have some of mine,' and rips out a bunch of pages from her expensive-looking journal.

‘Thanks,' I say, my cheeks going red as she hands them to me.

George Parry runs us through the morning's experiment and as he does I realise I haven't even brought a hat or sunscreen or any of the things I always remember to pack the night before. For some reason this really unsettles me, and as Mr P's talking I'm not listening because I'm trying not to cry. I pinch myself on the leg, like
harden up, you idiot
, but it just makes it worse. I don't want to cry. I don't want to be the person who stands out. I don't want to rely on someone else. I think about last night. Mum's face. The desperation in her voice. What happened to Dad? Why was—

‘All clear, then?' George Parry claps his hands and I nod automatically.

I try to breathe. I want to be back home, in my room, face down on my bed.

‘All good, Clancy?' Mr P. says. ‘Know what we're doing?'

Everyone's staring at me like I'm an alien. I must look terrible.

I feel Nancy grab my hand. She says, ‘We'll do ours together. We'll have to share a pen.'

‘Thanks,' I say, and am astonished when I realise I actually mean it.


The creek's a five-minute walk away, behind the last building of the station. Mr P holds down the loose wire of the fence so we can step over it and follow the unofficial track down into the valley. None of us says anything about how different the back entrance to the station is from the front. No warning signs on the fence. No disinfectant.

On the way to the creek I drop behind the others, but Nancy stays with me.

‘You okay?' she says.

‘Yeah.' I'm still fighting the overwhelming urge to cry. ‘I'm just…I'm just tired.'

‘Fair enough. Nothing that can't be cured by
the wonders of the turbidity wheel
, though.' She wiggles her fingers like Glenn.

Despite myself, I smile. ‘Thanks for the lend of the paper,' I say, holding out the torn pages.

‘That's okay.' Nancy spins her wheel in front of her, its black and white segments whirring together into grey. We make our way down the slope together in silence until she says, ‘I don't want to, um—if you want to walk by yourself, that's cool.'

‘No, it's okay.'

‘I just—it's that thing where you've lived somewhere your whole life and then you have to start again.' She keeps spinning the wheel until the string gets tangled up. ‘I've never had to, you know,
make friends
. I just sort of…collected them back in Brisbane. When you grow up together or you have neighbours or whatever.' She squints up at the sky. ‘Sorry, I'm talking about nothing. I tend to do that.'

‘It's fine,' I say. ‘Don't worry about it. I can imagine…' Could I imagine? At least in Barwen, I guess, I know where everything is and how everything sort of works. I think about all the stuff you'd have to learn again if you moved. Still, why anyone would move
Barwen is beyond me.

‘Your mum came for work, right?' I say.

‘Yeah. The boarding school. Vice Principal.'

‘Ugh, all those boys cooped up together.'

‘I know.'

‘What did she do in Brisbane?'

‘She was teaching, but, um, she needed a change.'

‘So she came here?' I open my eyes wide, like

‘Well…I mean, is Barwen that bad?'

I pause for a moment. ‘It's worse.'

‘Oh.' Nancy's voice falters for a moment. She slows down.

I look back at her and she seems momentarily deflated. ‘It's not
bad, though,' I say, feeling sorry for her. ‘I know who does the best hot chips. I've done a fairly comprehensive survey.' This elicits a small smile. I like Nancy a lot more now I can see her positivity isn't permanent. ‘Also, at the video shop, which we somehow still have, there's this loophole where you can basically get a free overnight if you do it right.'

‘Wow,' she says. ‘Just like in Paris.'

I snort. ‘Exactly like Paris. And you've got to know which public toilets you should
visit, which is pretty much all of them.'

Nancy lets out a big laugh and I'm about to keep going with the joke but I catch myself. She's got these huge eyes which I've just noticed. I think about the stupid clothes I'm wearing and how I've had no sleep and how I must look like an escapee from a high-security scarecrow prison. Was Nancy laughing
me, or
me? Will she get on the phone tonight and laugh about me to her Brisbane friends?

BOOK: Clancy of the Undertow
7.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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