This extract is taken from a novel in progress.
Pete lives in Meagre Street. One street in the grid of neat orangebrick houses all built to one plan – three steps up to the front door, three bedrooms, three steps down to the backyard, three cement pavers to the hills hoist. In some, the toilet is the laundry and the laundry is the toilet. Pete lives in Meagre, I live in Bird. Follow the black on white street signs. Meagre turns into Summer, turns into Bird.
Pete makes the best bikes; sits in his garage mixing stolen parts till they work. Then paints them navy or black, as if they’re model tanks. His masterpiece is a dark-blue single-gear racer with back brakes and flat handlebars. He lets me ride it; sometimes he lets me take it home.
‘She corners neat, hey,’ he says, head down so his fringe hangs in his dark brown eyes, as if I might laugh. ‘She’s the acest bike ever,’ I say. We go so fast and – wind in my mouth – I am flying.
There are ten times more boys than girls on the streets. Most of the other girls are inside with their Greek and Maltese mothers – blinds drawn so the furniture doesn’t fade; their houses polished and dark and filled with waiting smells: boiling rice, reducing tomatoes. End up there and you’ll be sitting in your socks next to strangers who used to be your friends, their smart mouths emptied by watchful mothers’ eyes, all of you scared you’ll give yourselves away. My place is gold: Mum and Dad at work, free rein in the pantry, house pre-impregnated with Dad’s cigarettes, which means feet on the couches, ashtrays and bowls of raw no-frills-brand vanilla cake mix on our laps, the television screaming full-bore.
The only other girls on the streets are Narelle (Bird Street) and Megan (Summer Street), loping around in their dark blue, skin-tight Faberge jeans and Mötley Crüe halter-tops that I’m not allowed to have. Narelle goes out with Pete. Megan goes out with whoever. About to leave the pool change rooms, they check themselves out, smile at the air like it’s the boys, smile at me standing there in my glasses and one-piece like they’re sorry, but too bad for me. Summer after summer, I try to be them, lying splay-legged in the backyard, begging the sun to beat the coconut oil into my blinding white skin, till it’s red and raw and then like sheets of wet bubble-wrap that I pop and peel, leaving me right back where I started, white as fresh paper. With oil, without, one hour, four; it makes no difference, so I move on to other things. Things from Dolly and Smash Hits. Cyndi Lauper has orange hair cut crooked and short. Madonna wears fifty necklaces and a bubble skirt. Things that divert your eye so it’s not me that gets hit, just my clothes, the ones I chose for myself.
Hang a left at Summer and the next corner’s Meagre. The party on Saturday is at Pete’s house, halfway down the street. Walk up the drive, it’s in his garage – ’cos hosing spew off the concrete is easier than cleaning carpet, even if the carpet is covered with nailed-on sheets of pebbled plastic in high-traffic areas. Saturday morning, Mum’s late for work, flinging things out of her handbag, searching for car keys that are in my pocket.
Frayed purse, bleeding lipsticks, handfuls of receipts. ‘This is ridiculous.’
‘Mum.’ I touch her on the shoulder so she turns and looks at my lips. ‘I have to stay at Vesna’s tonight, to finish our assignment on Saturn.’ She lost most of her hearing when she was five, after an infection in her brain called meningitis.
‘What? Satin? What do you want satin for?’ Her eyes on my face, her hand still searching inside her bag. She never learned to sign, as hearing aids gave her slips of sound. She speaks almost normally.
I speak slow, she can lip-read really well. ‘The planet, Mum. Saturn? For school? Vesna’s dad will pick me up.’
‘Who?’ she tips her bag upside down. If she won’t look she can’t hear.
‘Here’s the phone number.’ I wave a piece of paper with a phone number between her eyes and her bag. It’s Pete’s but could be anyone’s – Dad and my brother are away shooting and she’s so hopeless on the phone.
She takes the paper, looks up at me. ‘Whose house?’
‘Vesna’s. You know, Vesna Regallo? From my year at school?’ She frowns down at the paper, up at me.
‘And I need some money. Please.’ Exaggerate the lip-purse for the P. Tongue hard against your top teeth for L. Mouth grimacing the E.
She looks away, shakes everything out of her bag, ‘I’ll get the sack at this rate.’ She slides the junk across her bed. ‘Write down the address and put it on the fridge … here.’ Coins on the pillow.
I take the money and walk out, saying a thanks that no one hears. But at least we can hear her: questions, instructions called out from wherever she stands, making us run to her like we’re the SWAT and she’s the disaster. I wait five seconds in the hallway, pull her keys out of my pocket and re-enter her room.
‘Mum.’ My hand on her shoulder.
She turns her harassed face to mine. ‘What now?’
I hand her the keys and mouth kitchen: lips tight against your teeth, then pouted out.
She sighs, stuffs everything back inside her bag, kisses my cheek, bolts out the door and I’m free.
The party starts at lunchtime with potato cakes and glasses of rum and Coke. The soundtrack’s AC/DC and someone’s thrown in a bag of Mars bars they got on five-finger discount. Narelle should be here, seeing she’s Pete’s girlfriend, but she’s away at some beach with her parents. Megan’s here, and this weekend it’s Chris giving her mouthto-mouth. Yobbo and Robbie and John and Eddie are talking about motorbikes and whether we’ll go riding tomorrow behind the grid, where the paddocks are flat and dusty as cracked old plates; perfect for dirt-bike races.
I wonder if Frankie will get back in time so I can have another go at riding the new Kawasaki he got for his eighth birthday – 60cc and green as a pea. Usually girls just sit on the back, chests and thighs crushed into hot skinny rib-cages, our arses vibrating up our spines, but last week Frankie said he’d teach me to ride for myself. ‘It’s easy,’ he said. ‘Don’t be a chicken.’ I took off, and he jumped up and down with his arms in the air so I opened the throttle, though I was packing shit. The engine screamed. Wow. I turned, headed back to Frankie, thinking, I can’t wait to show the boys. And as I got closer I realised Frankie wasn’t cheering, he was swearing, and tears were streaming down his dusty little cheeks because the brand new engine was about to blow. How was I supposed to know you can’t open the throttle in first? How was I supposed to know about gears?
Six o’clock and Yobbo’s older brother Steve pulls his Holden into the driveway, buck-teeth above the steering wheel. About to finish his fitter-and-turner apprenticeship, the only one old enough to drive. For some reason he has a crush on me, and he gives me the sheepish look the boys all give their mums. I feel sad and guilty and a little bit sick.
The sun goes down and it’s cold in the garage, wind knifing under the roller door and through the gaps in the galvanised iron. Megan and Chris leave. The music’s loud and Steve starts doing his famous Cheech & Chong.
‘I’m freezing to death,’ I say to Pete, pushing myself into the corner of the old vinyl couch they keep in the garage. He goes inside and comes out with a blanket, drapes it over my legs, sits down next to me and hangs a massive grin from his earlobes. ‘So Sonya, you have a boyfriend yet?’
He knows I don’t have a boyfriend. ‘Don’t be an idiot,’ I say, which makes his grin split and stretch.
‘I don’t know why,’ he says, staring at my lips with his ever-ready eyes. ‘I mean, you’re so … cool and smart.’
‘Yep, that’s me,’ I say and raise my glass of Bundy and Coke. ‘The Coolest Smartest Chick in Year Eight, the colour of a matchstick and blind as a bat.’ Best to get in first.
Steve’s watching us as he switches from Cheech to Chong, moving his arse from one chair to another, indicating which one he’s being.
Pete – Narelle’s boyfriend Pete – moves closer. ‘Any room in there for me?’ he says.
I blink, about five times. ‘You can’t be that cold,’ I say above the swarm of pissed butterflies stirred up under my skin. ‘And don’t you have a couple of bikes to make?’ I point at the pile of frames and chains in the corner. I smile. ‘Go on, get back to work, you slack-arse. Make me a bike just like yours.’
Pete picks up the edge of the blanket. Steve gets to his feet and hunches over, screaming Jimmy Barnes into his fist. He never can decide who he wants to be. Everyone’s laughing, and Pete pulls the blanket over our heads so no one can see what they all know we’re doing.
‘Where’s Sonya? Is she hiding behind those glasses,’ he says, feeling round for the arms and pulling them off my face. ‘I’ll just put them here, in my pocket, where they’ll be safe,’ he says and then pushes his lips into mine.
Early in the morning, we come up for air. The cement’s a beach and there’s been a massive storm. We tiptoe around the strewn bodies. He walks me and our favourite bike, up Meagre and down Summer, till we get to the corner of Bird. The sky’s been wiped clear, night and cloud scraped away by a giant windscreen wiper.
‘I’ll see you later,’ he says into all of that light, ‘at the tracks?’ I nod and rake my orange fringe to one side.
‘And tomorrow,’ Pete says, ‘wanna wag school with me?’ He drags his flannelette shirtsleeve across his nose.
He’s choosing me. I pick blue nail polish off my thumbnail. Me.
‘I’ll come over.’ His eyes search for someplace to hide: runners, fence, gutter, footpath, powerlines. ‘Don’t tell Narelle yet.’
‘I’m not an idiot,’ I say and then we’re smiling, his eyes on my lips, which feel worse than next-day sunburn.
‘You can have the bike …’ He pushes the handlebars towards me.
I look at the bike, back at him, his black hair flopping in his eyes.
He nods, shifts his dick as if I can’t see, as if I don’t know it spent the whole night trying to bust out. They say that makes it ache and might even turn it blue.
‘It’s yours,’ Pete says, letting go of the bike. ‘I put a chain-guard on. So your skirt won’t get caught.’
I look down, it’s sparkling chrome and looks brand new.
I let myself in. Mum’s still asleep. I am quiet, though it doesn’t matter. I close my bedroom door and open my diary. I try to describe my best friend’s boyfriend, how he’s wet and smoky, the smooth steel frame of my new bike, the chain-guard sparkling with his intention. I touch a finger to my chafed lips and the skin feels like the wood of a newly harpened pencil. I try to see Narelle. I write: User. Robber. Liar. But the words just sit there, black-on-white things. I try to see Pete, anything will do. But there’s just his mouth, his address and the bike. I retrace our steps, plot our route: Meagre. Summer. Bird. Just the names of our streets. I push my glasses back up my nose, rub my finger across my lips. Meagre. Summer. Bird. The letters pool and collect and suddenly each word is real, a word someone chose and wrote down on a form: Meagre Street, Spit Street, Lake Bogan Avenue. And now we’re all marching around their private joke. I snap my diary closed, jam it under my mattress in the place Mum never finds it, and there are six hundred Holly Hobbys all frozen across my wallpaper. Row after row, jammed so close together that if a single Holly dared to move they’d all topple like dominoes. My oldest friend, the main character in my kindergarten rhymes (Holly Hobby’s gone all sobby cause her friends all called her snobby). My stomach lurches like it’s me who’s being pushed over. Pete lives on Meagre. I live on Bird. There are big things inside my ribs. His smoky wet tongue, the steel of the frame, a brand new chain-guard he bought just for me. I feel sick, like Pete’s grown goofy buck-teeth and turned into Steve. Meagre summer bird.
I walk to the kitchen for a glass of Coke. I look into the mirror next to the fridge, scrape my orange fringe to one side. Bit of gel and it should be okay. Maybe I’ll feel better after a sleep. Maybe I’ll go to the tracks, force Frankie to teach me the gears; I’ll swap him a pack of Fantales. But then again, maybe not. I could always stay inside like the other girls and close the curtains on the entire joke. I could jump on my bike and fly solo. I could give it back. I take a sip, smile in the mirror. But, maybe not. Three gulps and the Coke is gone. I lick my sore lips and the stinging expands, like it’s wings.