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Authors: Christopher Currie

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BOOK: Clancy of the Undertow
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‘OWWW!' Titch makes it sound like I've chopped off one of his fingers. ‘That
really
hurt!'

I slam the door behind me. ‘It's too early,' I say. ‘We don't need to be up yet.'

‘You hurt me! I'm telling Mum.'

Jesus Christ. ‘Let's get some breakfast, hey?'

‘MUM!' Titch shouts, still lying on the floor, ‘CLANCY PUNCHED ME AND PUSHED ME OVER AND IT REALLY HURT!'

‘You're such a little baby. I didn't even punch you.' I realise then I've left the paper outside.

Mum appears at the top of the stairs with almost superhuman speed. Her hair's a bird's nest of dirty blonde. ‘Do you know what time it is?' she says.

‘CLANCY PUNCHED ME.'

‘Mum, I need to talk to you.'

‘SHE PUNCHED ME!'

‘I don't care,' says Mum. ‘Your father is trying to sleep after an awful few days and you two are making noise like animals.' She grabs at her head. ‘Just keep quiet.'

‘Mum, I need to talk to you. It's about…what happened.' My brain fizzes.

‘Darling, I can't right now. I just need another hour's sleep, and then we can deal with it.'

‘CAN I WATCH CARTOONS?'

I close my eyes. Why is this crap always on
me
? ‘I was
trying
to keep Titch inside,' I say, ‘because someone's spray-painted our front wall.'

‘Cool!'

‘Shut up, Titch.'

Mum's hand falls to her side. ‘What?'

‘And my bike. Someone's run over it. It's busted it up and they left it in the front yard.'

‘I see.' Mum gathers up her dressing gown, changes her voice into a teacher's. ‘Titch, you can watch cartoons but keep the volume down.'

‘Sweet!' Titch springs up, his debilitating injuries magically vanishing.

Mum comes down the stairs.

‘What does the graffiti say?' Her face is scrunched up like she's thought of something disgusting.

‘It's not spelled very well,' I say.

She pushes past me and goes out onto the verandah. Her face goes white. ‘Oh no,' she says. ‘Oh no. Do
not
tell your father.' Her finger's pointing at me like I've already told him.

‘The paper's there too. His name isn't in it.' I pick it up from the front step and hand it to her.

She scans the front page, the disgusted look never once leaving her face. ‘We've got to clean this up,' she says. ‘We've got to get rid of this before your dad gets up.'

‘What about my bike? How am I going to get to work?'

‘Put it under the house or something.' Mum looks at the graffiti again. ‘Bloody monsters.'

12

Mum has to drop me into town for work and the whole way she keeps asking me if I'm sure I want to go. We spent nearly an hour trying to clean off the graffiti and we both still smell of metho.

‘I'm fine,' I keep telling her. ‘It's fine.'

‘But you don't have to, sweetie. Not with everything that's going on.'

‘There's no one else who can work, though.' This isn't entirely true. Eloise could probably easily have worked today. There was no way I was staying home, though. The atmosphere was toxic and without my bike, work was my only way out.

Mum hits me with a few greeting-card racks' worth of motivational quotes before we finally arrive. She parks a few blocks away from the shopping centre entrance.

‘Now you stay strong today, Clancy. Don't forget, you're a wonderful person.'

‘Right. Yep.' I make my escape, reaching into the back seat for my backpack so I don't have to make the moment last any longer.

‘Remember your soul is only—'

I slam the door. I feel bad about this, but only slightly. One of the best things we learned in physics is how
nature abhors a vacuum
. Mum, in one of her manic moods, is pretty much the same. She keeps talking to fill up any empty space.

I walk through the sliding doors and straight away realise the shopping centre's air-conditioning has broken down again. Instead of the usual wave of coolness there's stifling warm air. Bloody great. The air-con breaks down at least once a month, and it means people are going to be in shitty moods which means I'll sell even less than usual which means six hours of complete and utter boredom.

I raise an eyebrow at Knife Guy, but he looks like today has already defeated him. Pewter-handled letter-openers and the trapped heat of a couple of hundred people, not a great combination. I go up the escalators and everyone I see looks tired and worn out. I slump up to the Beauty Station and get a shock when I see Eloise standing behind the counter.

‘Did I get the roster wrong?'

‘No darling,' she says. ‘I just had some things to do.'

‘Oh okay.' I stash my backpack away. Now I don't even have the station set-up—which I can usually stretch out to a good hour—to delay the boredom. If I was by myself I could pass the time in my own way. With Eloise hovering over me, it means thousands of menial tasks.

‘I am taking stock, darling,' she says. ‘Inventory.' She's got on this tiny black jacket over her blouse that doesn't really seem to serve any purpose other than to restrict the movement of her arms.

‘Didn't you do inventory last week?'

‘But you know, darling, it is a job that is never finished. Every day you sell more, our stock changes, and
wallah
!' She snaps her fingers.

‘I suppose. But I can finish set-up. You could get a coffee, or…'

‘No no no. There is always so much to be done!' She touches me on the side of the face, brushing my hair lightly. I shudder, but not because it's unpleasant. Her perfume is musky and perfect.

I start to put out the sample boxes and make up the float. One of the starburst-shaped price signs has fallen apart so I start to make up a new one. All the time, Eloise ticks her pen against her clipboard behind me, doing sums in her head.

‘Darling,' she says eventually. ‘Tell me. How are you this morning?'

I turn around. ‘Good thanks. How are you?'

‘I am fine, you know, above my aches and pains.' Eloise rubs her hip: part of a catalogue of mysterious European ailments she often alludes to. She says, ‘I do not wish to pry, darling, but I have heard about your father. A terrible accident.'

My skin tightens. It makes sense now. Why she's come in early. ‘Well, yeah,' I say. ‘It's…not good.'

She puts a hand on my arm. ‘I am sure it will be all right, Clancy. You tell him I'm thinking of him, and if there is anything I can do to help…' She trails off, in the way you sort of have to when you're offering condolences.

I'm actually struggling then to think of when her and Dad would've met. I want to ask how she knows about Dad's involvement in the accident, but it's not too hard to work out. Eloise and the local florist—a tiny loud lady called Gaby who wears gaping linen shirts—have a regular wine date each afternoon at the Cri, sitting in the corner, shrieking with laughter. Gaby is the central cog in Barwen's gossip machine.

‘Thanks,' I say. ‘I'm sure everything'll be fine.' I start to think—worryingly—that maybe Mum was right. Maybe I should've stayed home.

We spend the first few hours with no customers and I alphabetise the already perfectly ordered sample cards and wipe down the Hollywood mirror—trying more than ever to avoid my reflection, my crumpled car-door hair and mouth-full-of-toothpaste face—and all the while Eloise doesn't seem to do any inventory checks but instead stares off into the depths of the shopping centre, tapping the pen intermittently on the clipboard. She clucks her tongue at people as they walk past and soon I realise some of them are regular customers.

I start to observe a worrying pattern, which is confirmed just before midday when our first customer of the day finally approaches us. It's a woman called Raylene McCarthy, who has facial eczema and swears by an expensive cream Eloise recommended to her. She comes up to the counter pushing a shopping trolley containing her rat-tailed twins Bronson and Braden. They're both little turds who're in the same grade as Titch, but who make my brother look like a model citizen. Back when I was into skateboarding—by which I mean dressing like a skater—I hung out with their older brother Troy, who was pretty cool. But these kids…jeez.

‘Raylene,' says Eloise, upping her accent. ‘How are you, my darlink? How are my little
bambinos
? Growing so fast!' She waves to the twins, who just stare back, breathing through their mouths. They try to rock the trolley over.

‘Stop it you two!' Raylene waves a lazy open palm behind her, catching Braden on his ear.

‘What can I do for you today?' Eloise says to Raylene. ‘Your skin is looking wonderful but I have some new serum from France that could light you up!'

Raylene squints up one eye, the other trained squarely on me. ‘Eloise,' she says. ‘I would just like to register my extreme disappointment.' Eloise begins to respond but Raylene holds up a starfish hand. ‘I think in light of
recent events
, it's in poor taste to continue to employ
certain people
.'

‘
Excuse moi?
' Eloise puts down her clipboard.

‘No offence to you, Eloise,' says Raylene, ‘but I will not be shopping here while you continue to employ
certain people
.' She swivels both her blackcurrant eyes to Eloise and half-grins like she's super proud of her tact. ‘I'm sure you understand.'

‘Is that so?' Eloise's voice changes. It's slower and suddenly deeper.

‘Yes, that is so. There are certain elements in this town that need to be discouraged, and I'm not the only one who feels this way. We shall not be supporting businesses who choose to side with certain elements.'

I try my best to stay calm, to not look at anyone, but my heart is nearly thumping through my chest. Bronson has his hands down his pants, rummaging around his Jim Beam shorts with the manic concentration of a hopeful prospector. I hope he breaks it off.

‘Let me make one thing clear to you,' says Eloise, stabbing the air with her pen, ‘I do not, nor have I ever, supported
any
level of discrimination or small-mindedness. I respect of course your right to shop where you want, but I disagree one hundred per cent with your reasons for doing so. You can tell anybody you like that I will not be changing any staff here. I will continue, with my current sales force, to sell beauty products of the highest quality to anyone who wishes to buy them.'

Raylene doesn't say anything for a moment, then scratches her cheek with a quick movement. Her skin flakes off like fancy salt. She didn't expect Eloise to react like this. She clearly thought her tabloid consumer-power bluff would not be called. ‘It's all overpriced anyway,' she says, huffing out her words. ‘You're welcome to her.' She flicks her hand at me. ‘Underhills have always been trouble. Tucka's been a bad egg since forever. A criminal element we don't need.'

Right, I think, that's bloody it. I go to move out through the swinging door at the side of the counter but Eloise grabs my arm with a surprisingly strong grip. I snap my head around but she just signals to me with a lowered palm, like,
it's not worth it
.

Raylene huffs and turns away. She tries to swing the trolley around back the way she's come but the twins use their instinctive grasp of resistance physics to push all their weight the other way, rendering the trolley impossible to move. I snort a laugh but Raylene—clearly used to the behaviour of her shithead sons—pushes the front of the trolley instead and wheels it briskly backwards towards the supermarket.

‘Thanks,' I say to Eloise. ‘You didn't have to, you know…'

‘The ignorance of this town sometimes!' Eloise slaps her forehead. ‘I am sorry you had to hear that.'

‘It's fine.' I smooth down my shirt like I'm dusting myself off. ‘She's probably right, though. Maybe I shouldn't be the, um, face of the business for a little while.'

‘Nonsense! There is nothing wrong with you working here.'

‘But you heard her. Everyone's going to think the same thing. I mean, no one's come to the counter all morning.'

‘It will be fine, darling. People will forget about this whole episode in no time.'

‘Maybe. But I don't want to hurt your business.'

Eloise nods. ‘It's your choice darling. But please know that I will always want you here.'

My heart breaks. She's one of the good ones. Which is why I say, ‘I just need to probably be with Mum and Dad. For a little bit.' Which is sort of true. Maybe.

13

It's only as I'm walking back through the shopping centre that I remember I have no bike and therefore no way of getting home. I'm convinced everyone I walk past is looking at me, judging me and my family. There's no way
everyone
can already know, is there? Surely not everyone can think my dad is guilty without even knowing the whole story? For crying out loud,
I
don't even know the whole story.

I get a strawberry Big M from a vending machine, even though they're cheaper in the supermarket, and go outside to sit on one of the benches near the bakery. It's so much cooler in the open air. My makeup feels separated from my face by a layer of sweat. I find a napkin in my backpack and wipe as much off as I can. I pull out my iPod—a hand-me-down from Angus with a grey screen so scratched up you can hardly see what song's playing—and navigate to a playlist called
Shitty Day 14
. My
Shitty Day
playlists, of which there are nearly thirty, are not—as you might think—filled with songs designed to make me feel better, but rather songs that celebrate sadness and pity. The first one I titled
Now That's What I Call Suicidal!
but I thought it was a little over the top.

I lean back on the bench and close my eyes, letting the music wash over me. A heavy weight lands beside me and I jolt alert to see a big blue uniform sitting beside me and inside it Security Officer Reeve Lewis. He points to my Big M. ‘A good drop, that.'

BOOK: Clancy of the Undertow
3.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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