Authors: Steph Bowe
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction
She was going through a hippie phase, sticking it to The Man, wearing beads and skirts with little mirrors sewn in and practising meditation in the hope that she’d start astral travelling. Spencer thought she was a sad caricature of a hippie, but Bridie was convinced of her individualism. She’d also started speaking in accented English, as if she were French, in spite of the fact that she’d only ever lived in Australia and had no contact with anyone of that nationality. She emphasised every second word she uttered in an attempt to seem especially meaningful and profound. Bridie was someone who made you pay attention to her, even if she behaved in a ridiculous way in order to do so. This was probably what had attracted Spencer to her in the first place, when he’d started school as a five-year-old, and Bridie, in the year above him, had adopted him. Bridie had a big enough personality for both of them, and so much to say that she’d never have enough time in her life to get it all out, which meant less pressure for him to say anything.
Spencer had tried his best to dissuade her from dropping out, but once Bridie got her mind stuck on something, that was where it stayed. Bridie always followed through, and it was both a great and terrible trait.
During her year of finding herself, she worked as a hairdresser’s apprentice, which she quickly grew tired of—there are only so many times you can shampoo hair before you lose your mind, or so she told Spencer. She also trained as a barista, shaved her head when she went through a Buddhist phase, read tarot cards for gullible new-age types at markets, and volunteered as a lifesaver. During the latter job, she became so distracted by the boys on the beach that she saved no lives and was eventually asked to leave—but she got dozens of mobile numbers and had plenty of dates afterwards, so it wasn’t in vain.
After a year, Bridie decided to go back to school. Being an individual was becoming exhausting. She started Year Eleven at the same time as Spencer did, and it was as if she’d never left at all. Except all the teachers resented her and all the students treated her like a legend. Spencer did not become cool by association, for which he was grateful.
The spotlight is not where he wants to be.
‘This is my friend Spencer,’ Bridie says loudly, over the locker-room din. She’s speaking to the girl he saw on the bus that morning, all dark-blonde hair and grey eyes. She smiles briefly at him and steps back to avoid the stampeding exit from the locker room at the second bell. Moments later, the three of them are the only ones left standing there.
‘This is Nina. Her dad’s teaching here. And she’s in Year Eleven.’
‘Hi,’ says Nina.
‘Hey,’ says Spencer. He has trouble looking directly at her. She probably thinks he’s really shifty. He turns to Bridie. ‘I know you can get by on charm alone, but I get in trouble if I’m late to class. So I might head off.’
Bridie sighs. ‘Don’t be so rude. I’ll just come by your class and flutter my eyelashes at Ms Pope and tell her you were showing the new girl around.’ She shrugs. ‘The reason we’re here talking to you is not because of your amazing charisma, but because Nina has Community Service fifth and sixth period, and she’s got the vet hospital, same as you. So, can you show her the way there after lunch?’
‘Absolutely,’ he nods. ‘But I do have to get to English.’
‘So impatient.’ Bridie shakes her head. ‘Slow down and enjoy life. Schedules are for sheep.’
‘And people who don’t want to fail high school,’ says Spencer. ‘Which I know you’re not fussed about but I am. I’m not planning on pursuing a career as a socialite.’ Spencer fixes his gaze on Bridie. He still can’t actually look at Nina.
Bridie sighs as if she is privy to the secrets of the universe and the meaning of life, and as if whatever Spencer is doing is just not in line with it. ‘Okay. Nina will meet you here at the end of lunch. I know you’re distracted by
and such, but don’t forget.’ Out of the corner of his eye, Spencer sees Nina smile.
Bridie does a dramatic David Hasselhoff twirl (her head staying completely still as she turns on her heel, her hair flicking out around her like she’s in a shampoo commercial) and leaves the locker room. Nina gives Spencer a brief half-wave, a smile left on her face after Bridie’s weird performance, and leaves too.
Spencer gets to English late, having dropped his books twice on the way down the hall, but Ms Pope just waves at him midway through reading an excerpt from
Is his heart rate elevated because he hurried or because he’s stressed, or because of something else? It takes five minutes of listening to Ms Pope talking about Heathcliff and Cathy until it’s back to normal.
Nina is standing by Spencer’s locker at the end of lunch (he didn’t forget), smiling brightly at everyone who says hello to her. She hasn’t seen him yet, and Spencer takes the opportunity to look at her properly. Her smile is nice.
‘Hey,’ she says. Her smile is even nicer when it’s directed at him.
‘Hi. Are you ready to walk down?’
The vet’s is about five minutes away, along one busy road and one leafy, tree-lined avenue. The town’s important facilities are central, which means you can get from school to the shopping centre to the pool in a matter of minutes. Houses and apartments sprawl out around them. Spencer explains this town-planning design to Nina, stammering the whole time. When he’s finished, he realises what a terribly boring thing it is to talk about.
The school’s volunteering program is just an excuse for the school to get rid of all the Year Eleven students for two hours every Tuesday, and give local businesses free labour. And calling it Community Service makes it sound like a punishment. But Spencer’s happy not to be stuck in a classroom.
He wracks his brain for something else to say. Later on he’ll think of a million conversational topics, all manner of witticisms, but right now his mind is mostly blank, and the few things that do come up are inane. But the silence is excruciating, so he asks a pointless question anyway.
‘Has your first day been good so far? Do you like Evandale?’
As if she’ll be honest
She’s probably been asked that thirty times today already
‘Yeah, it’s been good,’ she says. ‘Fairly similar to all the other schools, really. Teachers seem decent, everybody’s sort of interested in me because I’m new.’ She smiles again.
Spencer is wondering how Nina will fit into his vision of their school as a galaxy, with each big-personality-person as a planet and their group of friends orbiting around them as moons. Bridie is a planet without any moons—she just randomly pulls people in. And Spencer is Pluto. Spencer is more far-flung than Pluto. Spencer is space junk. Nobody wants to orbit space junk. New people like Nina are moons that have not yet started orbiting anybody.
Spencer has never shared this mildly nonsensical analogy with anybody, and he’s not about to share it with a girl he just met.
‘Did you choose the vet’s or did The Caro assign it to you?’ Spencer asks. ‘When kids hear they’re just going to be cleaning stuff, they don’t really volunteer. I was the only one who picked it this semester.’
He specifically picked it so that he didn’t have to be around kids from school whom he sees enough of already. The repetitive sweeping and cleaning and scrubbing require enough concentration for him not to think about anything else. It’s supposed to be work, but for him it’s more of an excuse not to think.
‘I chose it,’ says Nina. ‘I wasn’t warned about the cleaning, but I don’t mind.’
‘Are you planning on becoming a vet?’ he asks.
‘Yeah, actually I am. Well, I think so. I like animals. They’re, uh…uncomplicated. What about you?’
‘I have absolutely no idea,’ says Spencer. ‘Which makes me just like about ninety per cent of our year. I guess I could be a vet. But I don’t know if I’m smart enough to get the marks. And I’d be a bit clumsy for doing surgery. I do like animals. My dad’s nudging me towards accounting but I’m terrible at Maths. I just chose volunteering here over tutoring young kids, because they scare me.’
‘You’re scared of young kids?’
‘You’re not? I have a little sister. They’re crazy. I would not voluntarily try to teach them stuff. They’d eat me alive. I guess you don’t have a little sister?’
‘No, I have a younger brother. He’s twelve. He’s obnoxious, but it’s tolerable.’
worse,’ he says.
Nina laughs. ‘So what’s it like at the vet’s?’
‘Yeah, it’s good. The vet nurses are nice to me.
It’s sad when animals die in surgery though. And when they get brought in to be put down, that sucks. They brought in this really sweet dog once, a stray. I’d seen lots put down before. It was always heartbreaking, but this one was so happy and energetic and I couldn’t let it die. So I took it home.’ He laughs. ‘Mum was a bit pissed off. At first. But she came around. He’s a gorgeous dog. His name’s Chance.’
Nina smiles again. ‘That sounds familiar. How old is your sister?’
‘Eleven. No, just turned twelve. I think? Fairly sure she’s not thirteen yet.’
Once they get to the vet’s, Nina introduces herself to Joseph the receptionist and Spencer heads off to start his weekly sweeping and cleaning and scrubbing. They cross paths a few more times during the afternoon but Spencer doesn’t dare engage in any more conversation. Socialising is just too exhausting.
On their way back to school to catch the late bus, they encounter everyone leaving, walking in the opposite direction. Some kids from Year Eleven say hello to Nina, and almost everyone looks straight through Spencer. He doesn’t mind at all. In fact, he wishes the walk back were longer so he could talk more with Nina. But it’s probably for the best—the more opportunity he has to speak, the more opportunity he has to say something moronic.
It’s autumn, and the weather’s crisp, the ground littered with leaves. It’s not quite winter-coat weather yet, more a layers-and-a-scarf chill. Still, Spencer’s glad to get out of the wind and onto the bus. He congratulates himself on surviving another day of school, only today feels a little bit different, a little bit better. Maybe it’s just the fact that his hot jam doughnut from the canteen wasn’t still frozen on the inside like it usually is when they get the microwave setting wrong (nor was it tongue-burning hot); or the fact that Nina actually spoke to him and he doesn’t feel like he made a total fool of himself. He is actually feeling lucky today. Like everything is and will be okay.
Then he gets a text from Bridie:
Hold up the bus! There in two minutes, must discuss Maths with you!
Which means Bridie is coming to his house to copy his Maths homework, despite the fact that he’s barely any better than her at it.
He asks the bus driver to wait two minutes for his friend, and the bus driver raises his eyebrows. But when Spencer says it’s Bridie McGregor they’re waiting for, he agrees to wait for one minute. Spencer realises that Bridie’s supposed ‘influence’, which she speaks of so often, can actually come in handy.
Exactly seventy-seven seconds later (not that he was counting while the other students on the bus groaned), Bridie bounds onto the bus, throws everyone a beaming smile, dives into the seat beside Nina and immediately launches into a very animated conversation. Spencer sits down across the aisle from them and sighs.
It’s still a good day
, he tells himself.
When Nina was fourteen and Tom was ten, when they were living in yet another town, in an apartment with bamboo floors and bad seventies wallpaper, Sophia had taken them out during the school holidays for a day of sightseeing and theft.
‘We could have a show,’ said Sophia, as they sat at a table in the window of a crowded cafe. She shuffled a deck of cards. ‘We could be magicians. Sleight of hand stuff. You always see street performers involving their kids, don’t you? Probably earns them more money.’
‘I think it’s called child slavery,’ Nina said. She was used to her mother’s moods and knew that going along with things was always easier than fighting back against her irrational behaviour. Tom’s education in petty theft was her focus that day.
‘I don’t think you know what child slavery is, Nina. Helping out your parents doesn’t really count. We could put you in a sparkly dress. And Tom in a tuxedo, wouldn’t that be adorable? You’re getting a bit old now, but he’s still young and cute.’ She drank the last of her coffee, glancing out the window.
‘I don’t like dresses.’
‘We could always put Tom in the dress.’ She paused, frowned. She spread three cards on the table in front of Nina. ‘You know I’m kidding, don’t you?’
‘I don’t remember being half as difficult as you when I was a teenager. I dread what Tom will be like in a few years. I’ve spoiled you kids. I think it’s important you have struggles when you’re growing up, to develop character.’
‘I’m just tired. Why
, Mum?’ She nodded towards the crowd intent on a busker near the intersection outside the cafe window. She couldn’t see Tom, but he was there, somewhere. ‘Why don’t we nick DVDs from JB Hi-Fi or something? That stuff’s insured.’
‘Personally, I think shoplifting lacks finesse. We might as well take up ram-raids while we’re at it.’
An hour earlier they had been dancing around the living room practising finagling wallets out of pockets. Tom thought it was a great game, but was incredulous that, even in a crowd, someone wouldn’t notice their pocket being picked. Nina had been taken along to busy events and taught the tricks of the trade years earlier, but was no longer as quick nor as slight.
She knew that petty theft wasn’t consistent with the ideology that her mother used to rationalise bank-robbing. The money in the wallets of individual people was certainly not insured and would be missed. But her mother had a bad habit of burning through their money quickly, and making exceptions to their rules when it suited her. This was a lot easier to organise than a bank robbery and a lot easier to get away with, especially on short notice.
Sophia shuffled the cards around. ‘Pick the queen.’ She grinned at Nina. Nina pointed a card out and Sophia flipped it. ‘You’re too good at this.’