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KYD MEMBER GIVEAWAY: We have three copies of The Coconut Children to give away, thanks to Penguin Random House Australia. KYD Members, simply email [email protected]com.au with the subject line ‘The Coconut Children’ and your contact details by 11.59pm 31 March 2020 to enter.

On the day of Vince’s release, you could hear his laughter thun­dering through the entire neighbourhood. It was February 1998. The centre of summer. The timbre of his voice shook the trees and rumbled through the streets, tearing through the delicate seams of silence. He was with his posse of old friends, the type of kids that carry knives in their back pockets. Maybe it was a trick of the light but it was almost as if he had never left – there was Vince, sipping on his sugarcane juice. There was Vince, with his gleaming gold necklace, the jade Buddha nestled content­edly between his newly defined pectorals. There was Vince, with his sunny smile and over-gelled hair, lying in the Woolworths trolley as somebody less important pushed him along. There was Vince, never less than vibrant, always pulsating, always looking as though he was about to break out of his own body.

He leant his head against the back of the trolley and looked up. As though the sky were an upside-down valley of fine powders, he sucked in a violent breath and closed his eyes to ecstasy.

‘The air smell different?’ his friends asked, amused. They watched how his face, once young and boyish, caught hold of the light, how it transformed again and again with every ripple of sunshine, as if to resist its own identity. What kind of secrets did the past two years hold?

Vince’s body rocked to and fro against the rattling trolley cart which rushed into gusts of air. He smelled the cooking that seeped from the houses and the stench of soiled mattresses on the curb.

‘Nah,’ he said finally. ‘Smells like home.’

What kind of secrets did the past two years hold?

Everybody was his friend. The stray cats with swollen eyes purred as he tossed them fried chicken. The Bible-swinging madman on the street corner, Vince smiled at him too. There was no pity in his eyes as he watched the man preach the Book of Revelation to a gathering of pigeons; he was so unlike the other passers-by who scowled and lowered their gaze. Even the sun reached down from its interstellar home to touch Vince’s skin and beam into his eyes, saying, Look at me, look at me.

Cabramatta welcomed her son back with quiet rejoice. The sidewalk trees, which usually surrendered under the battlements of dusty brown apartment buildings, seemed to straighten their spines. Further up the street, front yards spilled with offerings to him. Those who lived in their own houses took advantage of every inch of property that bore their name. In their gardens, they planted massive lime, dragon fruit and mango trees. Families boasted bathtubs of fish mint, coriander and sawtooth herbs and draped luscious winter melons on hardwood arbours. While their neighbours were cultivating personal rainforests, the apartment dwellers chafed within the confines of old bricks and concrete slabs. Some were fortunate enough to enjoy garden views from their balconies, but those who lived in units which faced inwards could only stare miserably into each other’s eyes as they hung their laundry out to dry.

The trolley-cart came to a halt and Vince jumped out. He crept into a garden and stared in awe under the dappled shade of a mango tree. He intended to only take the lone fruit that had fallen on the grass, but the others hung lowly on the branches blushed before him, draping the sunshine over their voluptuous figures, beckoning. He tore the two chubbiest mangoes from the tree, scooped the mushy one up from the ground and hopped back into the trolley. After prying apart the golden skin, he drank from its gently fermenting flesh. Then he whipped out his pocket knife and carved into the others. (He only ever used this blade for stolen homegrown fruits. In times of combat, he was imaginative with his choice of weaponry – he knew, for example, that the handle bar of the trolley cart he was riding in encased a usefully weighty pole.) Vince grinned as he offered slices to his friends, his mouth and fingers dripping with sap and syrup.

In times of combat, he was imaginative with his choice of weaponry.

Mothers stood vigilantly, perched atop their apartment balconies like hawks. Across the neighbourhood, little boys set down their Pokémon cards and peered through the blinds, silently praying for a miracle: to grow up as big and strong as the neighbourhood menace. The glossy lips of prepubescent girls breathed life back into his name. Vince. The legend was alive and let loose on the street.

‘He’s gotten bigger, taller. I heard all he’s been doing in there is training.’

‘What got him in there in the first place?’

‘Who’s he coming for now?’

‘Look at his arms!’

Sonny watched from her bedroom window. Held her breath and the windowsill for dear life. For her, Vince’s return was some­thing like a crack of light entering a prison cell. Since he had been taken away, it seemed a mist had settled over Cabramatta and their suburb had gone to sleep. The world was only awake when Vince was there to see it.

Now he was back. Wearing the same t-shirt he had left in, his back muscles rippling under the translucence of worn cotton, a few small holes revealing more intimate areas of skin, by courtesy of some peckish moths. And as Sonny watched him laugh with his mouth wide open and his neck craned as if in defiance of the sun, she tried to figure out what exactly this could mean for her. She hoped that maybe he would catch her eye and stop mucking around for one second, hold her gaze and make some kind of telepathic promise. Like: You look beautiful, I’m going to rescue you from your crazy mother. But of course, she wasn’t in his line of sight and he was too concerned with pulverising glass bottles as he raced down the footpath to notice her anguish. Besides, she wasn’t even sure if he remembered who she was. Sonny receded from the window, relieved she couldn’t be seen like this. Framed by glass. Stuck in her bedroom. Soiled by the unspeakable.

For her, Vince’s return was some­thing like a crack of light entering a prison cell.

The procession passed. He was gone. How careless he was, to leave a girl wanting to slow dance with his shadow and not even stopping to ask for her hand. Sonny had trouble falling asleep that night. She tossed and turned, conjured up all sorts of fanta­sies. See: Sonny walking along a crowded street, skipping and giggling with the incandescence of a little girl, Vince’s arm easy over her shoulders. When she woke up, she thought to herself, Shit, this isn’t how I was raised – to aspire to be under the arm of a boy, and a street boy at that! The kind that sold stolen car parts as a hobby and had developed a stomach for alcohol ever since he was twelve, the kind of street boy who, if you stripped him of his hair gel and booming voice, probably resembled some kind of mangled cat.

Was Vince the only one that had entered her heart? It was true that in the last couple of years, she had fallen in love with practically every male creature to have ventured within a five-metre radius of her. The KFC employee with bright green braces, who gave her a look of tender understanding when she had confessed to him her deepest desire: six Wicked Wings and a regular coleslaw. The curly-haired boy whom she’d witnessed help an elderly man with his groceries up a broken escalator. This one had a special place in her heart. She carefully memorised his facial features and body measurements, had kept the image of him in her mental depository for over a year now. Revisited him every so often to freshen him up and keep him from fading into a shadow. Whipped him out on a rainy day.

But by far Sonny’s most serious commitment to date was to her Chemistry teacher. Mr Baker had a wispy tuft of hair left on his head, a protruding stomach and an odd nasal voice. In spite of these minor deformities, her nonexistent contact with boys her own age translated into acquiring a taste for older, wiser, physically unattractive men.

She pined for the 75 minutes of class with him three times a week, during which he called out her name for the roll. She would have to mentally prep herself, clear her throat and chant a mantra or two before the crucial moment. She never answered straight away, always waited for him to look up and scan the room before she said ‘Here’ and he found her. Ah yes, that little twinkle in his eyes, that slightly lifted brow, that look of bemusement, curios­ity, perhaps even desire. Here was ample material to mull over when she was alone, making Mr Baker a convenient target for the violent ammunition of her love thoughts. In her mind, their affair was so artfully conspired that they had managed to keep it a secret even from reality.

This is an extract from The Coconut Children by Vivian Pham, published by Penguin Random House Australia. The Coconut Children is available now at Readings.

KYD MEMBER GIVEAWAY: We have three copies of The Coconut Children to give away, thanks to Penguin Random House Australia. KYD Members, simply email [email protected]com.au with the subject line ‘The Coconut Children’ and your contact details by 11.59pm 31 March 2020 to enter.