‘Begin Again’ by Grace Finlayson has won the undergraduate section of the 2013 QUT Creative Writing Prize. Here is Grace’s prize-winning entry.
Mel said she liked to do things twice. She told me everything is easier the second time around. Mel was beginning year five for the second time. She was twenty minutes late on the first day. Mr. Ward made her stand beside his desk and apologise to the class for wasting our precious time.
‘It’s coz the power in our van went out. So don’t blame me,’ she said. Mel took the seat in front of me. Her dark brown ponytail prickled with static against the red plastic chair and I wondered what was wrong with her. Mel stared out of the window most of the day, watching magpies hop along a steel bench, and empty packets of chips drift by. Mr Ward drew messy diagrams on the whiteboard that I tried to copy into my book. Mel played with the hairband she kept around her wrist, stretching it between her fingers and twirling it around. She didn’t even open her pencil-case.
I knew Mel last year. She was one of the soccer girls who I didn’t want to talk to. Mel scored all the goals.
‘The small ones are always the best at this age’. That’s what I’d heard the coach say to someone’s mum. But I guess Mel wasn’t good at everything.
I’d convinced my parents I was too old to go to after-school-care anymore. I was sick of eating the sour orange slices they gave us and playing the skateboarding video game that they wheeled into the hall on a trolley. Now I’d walk home instead.
After three o’clock, in the bag shed, I squeezed my water bottle over my face, washing away a thin layer of sweat leftover from lunchtime. Mel’s bag hung next to mine.
‘You gonna play this year?’ she asked me. I was on the soccer team last year, but only because I was a fast runner. I’m pretty sure I never even helped to score a goal.
‘Yeah. Maybe.’ I said. I’d heard what Mel had said about Jessie last year. I didn’t want to stick around. I started walking. So did Mel. She followed me out through the school gate. I sifted through the swarm of plastic backpacks and kids swinging muddy jumpers over their head. Mel was still beside me when we waited to cross the road.
‘You going home?’ she asked.
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Are you?’
‘Yeah, to Scully’s,’ she said.
Then I knew what she’d meant in the morning about the power in the van, Scully’s was the caravan park down the far end of town. I must have raised my eyebrows because then she said, ‘Mum and Dad and I are living there, just for a bit.’
I’d never stayed in a caravan. My parents didn’t like going away for holidays. They said it caused too much trouble and I agreed. One summer we drove to Adelaide and they argued the whole way until I started crying and told them they were ruining everything.
‘That’s cool,’ I said to Mel. A car covered in dry mud drove by, its tires screeching like an angry cockatoo as it turned round the corner.
‘You can come over, if you want,’ said Mel. For those few seconds, before I said anything, Mel looked like she wanted to take something from me. Scully’s was by the ocean, only a few streets down from my house. I knew my parents wouldn’t be home until the news on TV had already started so I told Mel I could come and check it out.
As we got to Scully’s, the ground turned that peppery mixture of grass and sand. We walked through rows of vans and tents, between piles of deck chairs and surfboards. Everything smelt like it had been smothered in sunscreen or barbequed for too long.
Mel’s mum, Trish, was hanging out the washing on a piece of blue string that was tied between two gumtrees. Their white van had a sticker above the windscreen that said my other car is a Ferrari.
Trish pushed us inside with the back of the empty washing basket. The caravan had two sets of bunk beds and there were cupboards on all of the walls. Trish made us lime cordials with water from the small sink. Mel and I drank from the yellow plastic cups. The edges were prickly and smelt of cheap detergent. Then Trish opened the pantry and took down a bottle of something that looked like blackcurrant juice. She poured it into a tall glass and drank it in three mouthfuls with her back turned. I saw that their pantry cupboard was stacked with packets of two-minute noodles, cans of baked beans, and individually wrapped chocolate biscuits. The kind of food my mother would never let me eat, even on holiday.
Mel explained that they were only in the van while they waited for their new house to be built. It would be a big two-story place out in the new suburb.
‘It’ll be ready in about three months now, hey Mum? My bedroom’s gonna be massive and Dad says he’ll put in a pool later.’
My dad hated the new suburb before the land was even cleared. He told me nobody wanted the town to grow. Dad said it didn’t make sense, stretching something for more than it’s worth.
‘Can’t even smell the ocean from all the way out there,’ he said. On the highway, on the way to Melbourne, you have to drive past the new land. I’d seen the bulldozers and other trucks move back and forth across the dusty ground, clearing new paths between metal fences that divided the nothingness into different sections. There are billboards to catch the highway drivers with words like escape and country living next to women who smile in ways that you never really see in real life. Everything on the billboards is counted in money and steps, stage 3 planning, $20,000. I guessed that Mel’s house would be one of the first to appear, springing up from the sandpit of dust and clay.
Mel said her parents were always going to visit the house before it was finished. They would inspect the depths of the holes, test the texture of the stones that would pave a walkway to the front door and rub their hands up and down the wooden frames, making sure the walls were strong enough. Mel’s parents didn’t trust anyone.
Trish poured herself another drink. She pulled out a packet of Scotch Finger biscuits. There was only one left so she snapped it in half and gave Mel and I half each. I liked how the van had everything you needed.
‘You know I’m not repeating because I’m dumb or whatever,’ said Mel. She was running her finger around the rim of her empty cup. ‘Mum and Dad just reckon they put me into Kindy too early, so I’m too young for middle-school. As if I’d get bullied but.’
I pointed to a saliva soaked biscuit crumb that had just landed on the collar of Mel’s yellow school shirt. She looked down at her chest, picked at the crumb with her fingernail and flicked it towards the fly-screened window. Mel’s breasts hadn’t grown yet but she wore crop tops everyday, you could see the outline they made through her shirt.
I told Mel I understood. My cousin Tom in Adelaide was a repeater too. ‘He’s even dumber than Jerry,’ I said. Mel laughed. She had tiny teeth, as white as Tic-Tacs. Jerry Pickett had repeated year four and he also lived at Scully’s. But everyone knew that was a permanent thing. He had two younger brothers and a sister who were all still at the primary school. Somehow Jerry made it to middle school this year.
Mel and I started hanging out at school, but only sometimes. Georgia and Eliza thought it was strange. They didn’t like how I ditched them sometimes to sit with Mel at the back of the oval and watch the boys play soccer.
I stayed over at Mel’s caravan one Friday night. Trish made us minestrone soup that she heated on the one ring stove. She buttered a stack of toast and cut it into triangles. After we’d eaten, Trish turned on the little TV that lived wedged between the pantry and the microwave. Mel told her mum we were going for a walk.
‘Just round the park girls, alright?’ Trish said.
Mel’s dad was still at work. But I don’t remember hearing him come home to the van all night and in the morning Mel said he’d be out at the pier, hoping to catch a fish.
Mel said everyone at the park was in a bad mood because the tourist season was over. Over Christmas, backpackers and families and groups of high school kids had stayed for weeks. There was always someone to go down to the beach with and plenty of people for the regulars to gossip and complain about. An American guy had taught Mel how to play tennis with his son. They’d said she was a natural. On Christmas day, they’d cooked hundreds of sausages and an old lady had handed out little cards with pictures of Jesus on the cross and kissed everyone on the forehead. On New Year’s Eve, Trish and Mel led a bunch of drunk teenagers down to the beach so they could vomit where the tide was coming in and then they took them back to their tents where they slept like babies. Mel said they slept so heavily that they didn’t even hear the fireworks.
But since school had started the park wasn’t full anymore and the ocean breeze whispered through the empty lots. An old man was asleep on a deck chair with a radio playing country music in his lap. Mel and I sat on a picnic bench on the edge of the small cliff. We watched the surfers in the ocean. The sky turned pink as they finally came back to shore, dragging their boards behind them. We talked about the athletics carnival that was coming up.
‘Let’s go,’ Mel said. I did what she said because she was older than me, because she was different from Georgia and Eliza, different in the way she talked to me, in the way she seemed to know things.
Jerry was sitting outside the toilet block on a blue crate, picking at a scab on his knee like it was a piece of sticky tape on a birthday present.
‘Bet he just clogged all the toilets again,’ said Mel. ‘Such a feral.’
Jerry didn’t look up until we were right beside him. I could see the dirt on his hands that was beginning to mix with the blood coming from the open wound on his knee.
‘Hey Jerry,’ said Mel. She had the same look on her face that she had whenever she was about to kick a soccer ball.
‘Hey,’ Jerry said. When I was in year two, Jerry threw a hardback picture book at my head. He’d said it was an accident, he said he was aiming for the teacher.
‘What’re you doing?’ Mel asked him.
‘Nothin. What’re youse doin?’ Jerry looked at me, shaking his head to move his blonde hair, matted with sweat and salt water, away from his eyes.
‘Nothing. I’m so bored.’ Mel was talking as if I wasn’t even there.
‘Youse wanna come to the boatshed?’ Jerry asked.
‘Yeah, alright,’ said Mel.
Jerry wiped another bubble of blood from his knee and stood up. His skinny arms and legs unfolding like the wires of an umbrella.
‘Oh yeah. This is Tara,’ said Mel.
‘Hey,’ I said.
‘Hey,’ he said.
When adults talk about the boatshed they mean the restaurant in town. The one that has karaoke on Friday nights and was once in the newspaper because people got food poisoning from their chicken burgers, but they didn’t lose any customers. When people like us talk about the boatshed we mean the old one near the pier that’s rotting away.
We started walking, out of the park grounds and down one of the nature tracks. The boatshed had a triangular roof, like the kind you imagine when you draw houses, simple and even, not like real houses at all. Seagulls were standing on the edge of the pier by the shed. We walked along to the end. It was weird, the way the three of us were walking together. Not saying anything. Not really going anywhere.
Jerry sat down at the end of the pier. The water here was dark and calm and that meant it was deep. One of the seagulls had a small metal rod sticking out of its body, behind its head, near where its wing began. Jerry moved towards the seagull, crawling on his knees. He placed his palm, the one he’d used to wipe the blood, over the seagull’s body. He kept his fingers together, as if he were wearing a cricket glove. Two of the other birds flew into the sky and hovered above us. Jerry used his other hand and slowly turned the metal rod that was inside the seagull.
‘Jerry, what the hell?’ said Mel. She laughed.
Jerry didn’t listen. I couldn’t speak. The seagull looked like it was trying to squint.
When I was small, Mum used to read me a book about a seagull. The seagull’s name was Samantha and the story was mostly about how she didn’t understand the colour of her feet, why they were different from the other seagulls. But really, it was because she hadn’t grown up yet. Samantha had to learn to be patient.
Mel and I crouched down, closer to the bird and to Jerry, who was still holding the rod. It wasn’t much bigger than a pin. It must have been part of a fishing hook or a net, something used to catch something. The tips of the seagull’s wings were quivering but it wasn’t trying to get away.
‘Pull it out,’ I said. It needed to be saved. Jerry turned the rod again. His movements were precise, and seemed well thought-out, as if he were playing with a model train set. But then, as Jerry turned the rod again, he pushed it further inside the seagull, until the tips of his fingers were right against the bird’s dirty white feathers. It opened its beak. Then shut it again.
‘What’re you doing?’ I said. But I sounded like I didn’t really care. Mel started to laugh again. Jerry started to pull the rod back up. I imagined it sliding through the seagull’s insides, like a knife slicing through raw meat. As the rod came out, and it was maybe three centimeters long, the bird finally tried to fly away. But Jerry kept his hand over it, pushed down on the back of its neck. Its legs buckled and collapsed under themselves. Jerry made the bird sit down on the pier with us. It was really dark now.
Then Jerry started laughing but it turned into a hissing sound, coming through his teeth. The rod was covered in the seagull’s blood, but it was too dark to see what colour it really was. He held it over the other side of the bird’s body and pushed it in, puncturing its feathers like a car tire.
‘Jesus,’ said Mel. She wasn’t laughing anymore. I didn’t want to be there anymore. Jerry pulled the rod out again, pushed it in again in another spot. Parts of the seagull’s insides were now on its outside.
‘Why are you doing it again?’ said Mel.
‘I hate these birds,’ said Jerry.
The seagull tried to flap its wings again, tried to beat Jerry’s hands away, but he was too strong. Now there were five, or maybe more, holes in the seagull’s body. I could feel myself trying to breath deeper and faster for the bird, as if just by looking at it I could keep it alive. Then the bird closed its eyes. It was as if it was deflating, like a plastic beach ball. Jerry didn’t stop. Jerry killed the seagull because he didn’t stop and Mel and I stood watching, silent, not sure of the moment when the bird had actually died.
‘Far out, Jerry’ said Mel.
‘Who cares?’ Jerry said. He picked the bird up by the end of its body, its head dangling down to the rotting wood. He threw it out to the ocean. The other seagulls had flown away.
We started walking back. I still wasn’t sure if Mel was my friend, or if I was hers. I thought about walking straight home. I wondered how long the rod had been inside the bird. I wondered if its name was Samantha.
I’m still wondering how the seagull would have liked to die, if it had had the choice. Sleeping, curled in a bush somewhere. Or falling, mid-flight, into the middle of the ocean.
When we got back to the park, Jerry went off somewhere. He didn’t say goodbye. Without any streetlights, the park was lit with floodlights and torches, candles and the glow of portable TV screens.
‘How much longer are you here for?’ I said.
Mel didn’t answer. She just looked up at the black sky, and waited for something to happen again.
Grace Finlayson is a Brisbane-based writer who has read at the Brisbane Writers Festival and Avid Reader.