Stronger Now by Nicole McLean – Extract

Stronger Now

  CHAPTER ONE

When I was born, Mum wanted to call me Sunshine. ‘Like bloody hell,’ my dad laughed. ‘No one is going to call my daughter Sunshine. Let’s call her Nicole.’

I guess my mum knew that I was going to be a happy soul. I’ve always been a pretty positive person. I think I had a phase when I turned thirteen or fourteen, as you do – developed a bit of attitude, spent most of my time in my room or on the phone to my girlfriends, that sort of thing – but mostly I was just a happy little chappie.

I grew up in Montrose, in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. My dad, Jim, was a mechanic and a car salesman. My mum, Merry, started out as a hairdresser but stopped working when she had kids. There were a lot of kids in our family: I have three brothers and two sisters. Adam is the oldest, nine years older than me, then Clint, Andrew and me. My sister Robyn is four years younger and then there’s Stephanie, who’s the baby of the family. I’ve always loved having such a big family.

Montrose is at the foot of the Dandenong Ranges, a beautiful stretch of mountains on the edge of the city. When I was young, back in the eighties, it was almost like living in the bush; it was really green and there was plenty of space. We had a big house with a pool and all the kids had their own bedroom, and the door was always open for family and friends.

More than anything, what I remember about growing up is music. There was always music in our house. We weren’t sitting around the campfire with banjos or anything, but Dad usually had a bit of Neil Diamond or Meat Loaf playing, or there would be music coming from Clint’s room – The Church or The Cult. Adam was into Jimmy Barnes and Cold Chisel, and you’d walk into the family room and Stephanie would be in there dancing around to The Wiggles. I loved to sing and dance and I was always putting on shows for the family, roping in my cousins whenever they were over. My dad’s brother had four kids and they’d come over just about every weekend. We’d get together and work out little dance routines to the Village People or Whitney Houston, then get all the adults into a room to watch us put on a show.

‘Oh shit, not again,’ they’d grumble.

‘Just one, Mum!’ I’d swear black and blue. ‘We’re just gonna do one.’

Four tracks later, they’d finally pull the plug.

There was always some kind of party going on at ours. My dad was quite the entertainer, so New Year’s Eve was always at our place. They weren’t the kind of parties that finished at one o’clock, either – they’d still be going at five in the morning. Dad loved having people around him and I guess Mum just went along with it. And if we weren’t having people over, we’d all go off and meet up with the family somewhere else. We’d drive over to see Gran and Poppie – Dad’s mum and dad – and the adults would get stuck into a card game while my cousins and I got yet another dance routine under way. It was a pretty social life.

When I was younger I was closer to Dad than Mum. I thought he was a crack-up. I must have got my sense of humour from him, as we tend to laugh at the same things. He worked from home for a while, fixing cars, and I was always out the back in overalls, under cars or locking myself into them. I was a bit of a tomboy, but mostly I just wanted to hang out with my dad. I adored him.

If we were ever naughty, Dad would break out the greatest hits:

‘See, that’s the problem with you kids, you take it too far!’ he’d say.

‘If I have to pull this car over, you’ll regret it!’

‘You won’t find that so funny when you have my foot hanging out your arse!’

He had a whole collection of classic expressions and us kids would start giggling the minute he brought them out. His lectures were the stuff of legend at our place.

The other thing Dad was famous for was humming along to music when he didn’t know the words. Every song had the same lyrics, ‘Lah dee dee dah dah dum dum dum.’ And if he did try to sing the words, he usually got them wrong. Back in the nineties, All-4-One had a big hit single called ‘I Swear’. The main lyrics were pretty much that, I swear this and I swear that. Dad loved it, and he went out and bought the CD single. We had to listen to it over and over again in the car, and every time he sang along, my dad would go, ‘And I knoooow . . .’ Every time. ‘No, Dad!’ we’d yell. ‘It’s not I know, it’s I swear!’ He just didn’t get the concept. If he heard it now, he’d probably still get the words wrong. He’d sing them loud and proud.

He wasn’t strict, Dad, but he had certain ways of doing things. When my brother Clint was struggling to learn his times tables, Dad would send him out to the games room to study them. Clint would be out there for hours. Dad tried that on me plenty of times, but it didn’t work. I never managed to learn my times tables.

‘Nicole, you can listen to a song and pick up the lyrics just like that. But you can’t learn ya times tables. Sing ’em! Put them in a song,’ Dad would say.

He also tried to teach us about money, teach us to be responsible, but he and Mum probably undid all that work by buying us whatever we wanted. It wasn’t like we just walked into the kitchen and demanded something and Mum would run us up to the shopping centre to get it, but if we had a birthday coming up or we were persistent, we got what we wanted. I even got a car for my sixteenth birth­day! They never said no. We weren’t spoilt, but my parents weren’t struggling and they didn’t want us to go without.

I always had nice clothes, too, because my mum loves shopping. She loves nice things, and keeps the house lovely and clean. I think she was obsessed with cleaning, actually – the washing machine was running twenty-four hours a day. Mind you, with six kids she had a lot of clothes to wash. She’s such a hard worker; I have no idea where she gets the energy from. When we were younger, she was always on the go, running us here, there and everywhere. She had that sticker on the back of her Toyota that said ‘Mum’s Taxi’. It was true, god love her, she was always doing some sort of drop-off or pick-up. She has always put her kids first.

In summer we’d holiday at Rosebud on the Mornington Peninsula. We had a mobile home at the caravan park, and we used to stay for four weeks over Christmas. Dad would work during the week and then come down on the weekends, and Mum would wrangle the lot of us in the meantime. We’d shop, eat out and go to the beach, and even down there Mum was forever doing her taxi run. She’d drop me off at Gunnamatta Back Beach at nine o’clock in the morning then come back to pick me up at five. She left me with a bit of money for lunch and spare change for the pay phone in case I wanted to get picked up early – there were no mobile phones back then. I’d spend the whole day down at Gunnamatta with my mates, mucking about; when Mum came to collect me at the end of the day I’d be covered in sand and tired out.

I felt safe growing up, and loved. When my dad put us to bed, he had a little saying for each of us.

‘I loved you first,’ he’d always say to Robyn.

‘You bring great joy to my life, Nicole,’ he’d say to me.

It’s only as you get older that you realise that kind of love isn’t necessarily the norm.

I did dance classes for years, from Grade Two until I was about seventeen, at the nearby Boronia Academy of Dance. The dancers on Channel 10’s The Early Bird Show with Marty Monster all came from my dance school. God, I wanted to be on that show when I was little, but I was too young to try out. I think that’s why I tortured my family with so many lounge-room performances.

I was active, I suppose, but not sporty. My friends were all into netball, but it wasn’t my scene. No one looks good in those skirts! And when the netball girls did that skirt-over-the-tracksuit-pants look, it was horrendous. That’s not for me, I thought, no way. I was a cheerleader instead, for the Kilsyth Cobras basketball team. Every second Saturday, Mum would drive me down to the stadium and I would cheer my heart out – a good little Aussie kid, rooting for her side.

School and me were a funny fit. I loved it, but I really only went there to hang out with my friends and make new ones. I was an A student when it came to socialising! And it wasn’t just the students I got on with: I made friends with the teachers too. ‘G’day, Mr Smith,’ I’d call out in the corridor. ‘How’s it going?’ I’d always get a smile or a wave in return.

I learned enough at school to get by and pass tests, but that was about it, so I wasn’t the best study buddy. As we lined up outside the classroom, my friends would say, ‘Bags not sitting next to Nicole!’ Apparently I was a bit of a distraction.

My favourite subject was drama, of course. In Year Ten I scored the lead in our school production. I was Miss Kitty, a tough-talking saloon owner in a musical called How the West Was Warped. I loved getting up on stage and belting out my songs. I loved being the centre of attention! Mum said I was born to be on the stage and it’s true, I really did feel right at home. It was a great laugh.

I didn’t have big dreams for when I left school, really. I read Dolly and Cosmo magazines growing up and I loved fashion and make-up and all of that stuff, so I wanted to be a hairdresser or do something in the beauty industry; I thought giving people new looks and making them feel good about themselves would be a great job. But I didn’t end up doing that because by the time I left school I had a full-time job waiting for me, at a school uniform shop called Waldron’s.

I was fourteen when I started working at Waldron’s. The shop owner called my Year Nine coordinator, looking for a student who might be responsible enough to go and work for them. My good manners paid off in the end, because my teacher put me up for it. I made pretty decent money, for a teenager. I was on over twelve dollars an hour, with penalty rates on Thursday and Friday nights and all day Saturday and Sunday.

When it was time to leave school, I worked out that an apprentice hairdresser would make about a hundred dollars a week, which was less than I could make in the shop. I stuck with Waldron’s, of course. They had been good to me and I was fresh out of school – I wanted a decent pay packet! So no fancy hairdos for me – it was blazers and school ties instead. I think these things happen for a reason, though; in the end it was lucky I didn’t become a hairdresser, because I wouldn’t have been doing it for very long.

I must have been about sixteen when I got my first real boyfriend. His name was Aaron, and we were together for about four years. Aaron was three years older than me. He played footy with my brother Andrew; I’d seen him on the field and developed a bit of a crush. He was a great footy player. I didn’t speak to him much, not until I bumped into him one night at a party. We started talking and realised we had quite a few things in common – we’d grown up in the same area and knew a lot of the same people. There was definitely a spark that night, but Aaron and I didn’t start dating straightaway. Over the next few months, I’d see him here and there, and our relationship grew out of that. On the night of my deb ball we became an item.

Aaron was a real boy’s boy. His friends were like that, too – none of them had girlfriends when I met them. They were all into their footy and drinking, and that was about it. I hate to say it, but Aaron had a bit of a bad boy thing going on and I think that’s why I liked him at first. He was a good guy, but he had a lot of anger in him. If we were at a party and a fight broke out, Aaron was usually the first to jump in. He was very protective of me, which was nice, but he also had quite a jealous streak that caused many an argument. He was a bit of a boozer, too, and when he drank he could be hard to be around. He would become really aggressive. He never hit me or anything like that, but he might punch a wall and he’d say awful things to me. When he called me names I used to think, He doesn’t mean it, he loves me. I tried to convince myself that it wasn’t a problem.

It was years before I figured out that Aaron wasn’t right for me. Once I turned eighteen, my friends all started going out and partying, but I didn’t go. We’d go out for dinner with our mates but Aaron and I would head home afterwards, because if we went out to a club he’d get blotto and the fights would start. It got so terrible that I just gave up on going out altogether, so we’d stay in like a middle-aged couple while everyone else was off having a blast. Often we didn’t get invited to things because people were worried Aaron would pick a fight. He always managed to blame me when he lost his temper, too. When I think about it now it seems crazy I put up with it for so long.

All I wanted to do back then was have a good time, but Aaron was making me miserable. I became really mature around him. It was a reaction to how out of control he was, I reckon. If we went away at New Year’s Eve, down to the beach or somewhere, his mates would get drunk and rowdy, and it would always be me telling them to cut it out. I acted like their mum, and I even started wearing really bad, grown-up people clothes. ‘I’m not cool anymore,’ I’d complain to my friends. They always told me I was being silly, but I just didn’t feel good about myself. I started to think that maybe I deserved better than what Aaron had to offer. I used to watch my friends walk out of the pub with their boyfriends, arm in arm, having a laugh, while I was shoving Aaron in a taxi as he hurled abuse. It was really embarrassing. All I wanted was a boyfriend who would go out with me, dance the night away, and leave the club at the end of the night with a smile on his face and his arm around my shoulder.

In the end, it took a bit of a shock to make me end it with Aaron. We were at a party one night in Boronia, a suburb near Montrose. I’d driven us there and he was supposed to drive home, but he was off his chops. ‘Looks like I’m driving us home too,’ I said to him. It was pretty obvious that I was annoyed, but Aaron didn’t say anything. He was too wasted to care.

A bit later, a mate of his came up to me and said, ‘Where’s Aaron? I haven’t seen him in a while.’

Turned out Aaron had decided to drive himself home. I was furious with him. I’d only had that car for a couple of months and I’d taken out my first-ever personal loan to buy it. I rang Mum and Dad in tears and asked them to pick me up. When they arrived, I told them what had happened. Dad looked disappointed. ‘You’ve got a lot of decision-making to do, miss,’ he said.

That night, Aaron ended up running my car through a fence. At first I was so angry at him I couldn’t think straight, but after that I was just sad. I really loved Aaron. Mum and Dad had liked him too – he was a hard worker and would do anything for me – but I realised I could never change the other side of him. Like Mum would say, a leopard never changes its spots. I knew all of a sudden that it wasn’t going to get any better and I had to end our relationship. It broke my heart to do it, but I knew Aaron wasn’t right for me.

He didn’t take it well. He threw stones at my bedroom window one night, trying to get me to come out and talk to him, and I found him asleep in my car the next morning. He was devastated for a while and I felt really bad for him, but I knew one day he’d move on and find a girl who loved and suited him better than I ever could. My parents were pleased I’d broken up with Aaron too. It wasn’t like they said, Hallelujah, it’s over! But they definitely thought I had made the right decision.

Pretty soon I realised it was all for the best. When I broke up with Aaron, it was like my life started again. I was twenty years old, I felt young and free, and all I wanted to do was enjoy my life as much as I bloody well could. And that’s exactly what I did.

Waldron’s made me a store manager when I finished Year Twelve. I’d been there for about four years by then and I knew what I was doing. I made a pretty good manager, too. I was young, but I knew how to run a team and I didn’t throw my weight around. We were all there to do a job, I figured, and we could all do it with as little fuss as possible.

They gave me the Dandenong store first, which was really quiet, then they moved me into the Hawthorn store on Riversdale Road, close to all the private schools in the eastern suburbs. You wouldn’t believe what private school kids spend on their uniforms! Six-hundred-dollar blazers, school hats, school leotards, PE gear, you name it. They’d have school bathers for training and separate bathers for competition, and none of it was cheap.

There was a lot more to sell in Hawthorn, but even there we only had one peak sales period, around Christmas. The rest of the year I was selling a packet of bloomers here, a packet of socks there. It wasn’t very inspiring. I loved retail, but I really wanted to get out of school uniforms and into fashion.

I made the jump at about the same time that I broke up with Aaron. I got a job at Katies, working as the deputy manager at the Greensborough store, and it was brilliant.

I couldn’t have been happier. Everything was so much bigger at Katies; I went from cash registers to computers overnight and we were busy all the time. Retail was booming back then and Katies was a great place to be, right in the middle of everything. I met all sorts of people, not just grumpy school kids and their poor harassed mums. The women who came into Katies were shopping for themselves, so they were usually in a great mood. I got to dress people and make recommendations about clothes, and generally had a good laugh with my customers. I loved it.

At about this time, my good friend Sam moved in with a girl called Natalie Goold. Nat and I knew each other from high school but we weren’t all that close. Anyway, Nat was living at her dad’s place and Sam moved in to her spare bedroom. I started hanging out there quite a bit, and for some reason Nat and I just clicked.

You know sometimes when you meet someone and you just hit it off? Nat and I were like that. We thought the same way. We laughed at the same jokes. We were two peas in a pod. Not that we were exactly the same sort of people: she was a careful thinker who loved facts and figures, whereas I tended to follow my gut. If it looks good, do it, that was my motto. But we complemented each other, Nat and me. Nat could get us anywhere in Australia by map and I would supply the car and the driving tunes. Together, we were loud and fun loving. When Sam went overseas to travel, Nat and I became best friends. Before you know it, we were inseparable.

Nat was a joy to be around and loads of fun to go out with, and we thought we were hilarious together. We’d split a bottle of Jim Beam on the weekend and head out to a nightclub in Ringwood called Jooce, or to the Ferntree Gully Pool Hall. If we were feeling a bit cashed up, we’d head in to the Geebung Polo Club in Hawthorn and treat ourselves to a cocktail or five. We partied like mad. Nat was working at the Commonwealth Bank and I was full time at Katies, and when Friday rolled around we were your typical working girls: the minute the clock struck five, it was straight home from work to shower and doll up, and then out we went for a night of drinking, dancing and laughing ourselves stupid.

We were hanging out with a group of blokes we’d known more or less since high school. There was Michael – Mick – who was Nat’s boyfriend, and a couple of other blokes who played football with Aaron at the Olinda Football Club. One of them was a guy called Luke, who was Aaron’s best mate.

The first time I met Luke properly was back in high school. My girlfriend Sam and I were on our way to a party when she told me the plan had changed and we were going somewhere else first – we were heading over to Luke Beasley’s place. I’d seen Luke around at parties and stuff, but this was the first time we were introduced. I remember it really well. Quite a few of our mates were crashed out in Luke’s bedroom drinking and smoking while Luke’s mum and dad were right outside the door. I found it a bit shocking, to be honest. Our house had a strict no-smoking policy, for one thing – my parents would have had a heart attack if they’d found a lighter in my pocket, let alone ciga­rettes. Luke’s place was a whole other world and it really opened my eyes. I realised all of a sudden that not everyone in our neighbourhood had the same upbringing as me.

Luke was kind of strange, too. He was really quiet and at first I thought he was rude. When we hung out at his place, the TV would be on and Luke would usually be glued to the footy. He wouldn’t even talk to his friends half the time. Sam and I ended up round at his place a lot, and I noticed he was always like that, which was weird for me because I was such a chatterbox. I thought he was quite arrogant, that he looked down on people or some­thing, but he wasn’t showy like a footy player. He didn’t grandstand, and he didn’t exactly dress for success or wear aftershave or anything like that, he was just who he was. But I think he thought he was pretty good.

Luke and I ended up seeing each other quite a bit after I hooked up with Aaron, but I didn’t really feel like I knew him any better. I still thought he was up himself. Looking back now, I think I couldn’t quite work him out and that bothered me. With me, what you see is what you get, but Luke played his cards close to his chest.

It seemed like Luke was always around, but I would never call him up or hang out with him one on one when we were teenagers. It wasn’t until Aaron and I broke up that we became mates. Aaron was pretty heartbroken, and he stopped going out with our friends because it was easier for him if he didn’t have to see me. Some nights Nat and Mick wanted to stay in and do the couple thing, so Luke and I would go out together, along with his mates Dean and Ben. It worked out fairly well: I’d find girls for them and they’d spot blokes in the crowd for me that they thought were alright. I was the one doing most of the work, mind you; they were all quite protective and no one was really good enough for me as far as they were concerned. Although they did try to hook me up with the occasional loser, just for a laugh. They could be idiots, those guys, but they were great fun. I spent a couple of years going out with them virtually every weekend, and half the time the four of us would just end up crashing out at Luke’s place at the end of the night. We were all best mates.

One night, sometime around the end of September 2001, our crew had been out for our usual Friday night fun and it was my turn to be the designated driver, doing the rounds of dropping people home. I dropped off Nat and Mick then pulled up in front of Luke’s place. He was always the last stop. It was still kind of early, only half past ten, and Luke said, ‘I don’t really want to go home yet.’

‘Me neither,’ I said. ‘Let’s go for a drive.’

We headed towards Chapel Street in Prahran, and on the way we drove past St John’s church on Toorak Road.

‘I want to get married in that church one day,’ I told him.

‘I want to get married there too!’ Luke said.

‘No way.’

‘Yeah, I really, really do,’ he laughed.

We pulled over, because we thought for some reason that the church might be open. It wasn’t, of course, but we stood next to each other on the front steps and I looked over at him and joked, ‘Well, this is what it’d be like if we got married!’

When we were standing on the steps of the church, Luke smiled at me. Luke is really handsome, with lovely dark eyes and hair and a gorgeous smile. He’s always really clean-looking, somehow, like he’s just stepped out of the shower. I’d always thought he was a bit of alright, I guess, and there had probably been a spark building between us for a while, but I guess I wasn’t really paying attention. I tend to just take things as they come. But at that moment, standing on the church steps, I realised I was in serious trouble. I took a breath, turned around and walked back to the car.

The problem was that by that point, Luke had a girl­friend. She was the younger sister of a good friend of mine and their family was really close to ours – her dad and mine were best friends. I practically lived at their house growing up; I was there every weekend and most nights after school. Any girlfriend is bad news, but this particular girl was almost like a sister to me.

Luke and I drove around for a while, down towards the beach in St Kilda, then we headed back to Luke’s place in Boronia. I pulled up outside his house, and the next thing I knew Luke was leaning over to kiss me. We ended up spending the night together.

The next morning I completely freaked out. I couldn’t handle what I’d done to my girlfriend. I knew there was no excuse for it, and I was terrified of what she would do if she found out. I was terrified of what her sister and parents would think of me. I felt terrible about it, and I decided straightaway that I would forget it ever happened. I’m not saying it was the right thing to do, but I wasn’t brave enough to face the consequences.

Things were weird between Luke and me after that – I almost died the next time I saw him, I was so uncomfortable

– but we both agreed to keep it to ourselves. I didn’t tell anyone, not even Nat. Luke and his girlfriend broke up a couple of weeks later, though it wasn’t because of me. I still felt horribly guilty, but I couldn’t bring myself to confess. There was nothing going on between the two of us, it was strictly a one-off event, so why turn everything upside down and upset everyone? Eventually I stopped thinking about it and things went back to normal. Luke and I were just mates again and the whole incident really was behind us.

Or so I thought.

Almost eight months later, the cat was out of the bag. Bizarrely, Luke’s now ex-girlfriend received a letter from someone saying they had seen Luke and me together that night. They said they’d seen me kissing him in the car, then leaving Luke’s place early in the morning. For a long time I didn’t know who had sent that letter or why they did it, not until a friend came round to my place years later. ‘How was it when I wrote that letter?’ she said, as if it were all a big joke. ‘We were naughty when we were little, weren’t we?’ I couldn’t believe it. She had no idea how much trouble she’d caused.

After she got the letter, Luke’s ex called me out of the blue, sobbing uncontrollably. ‘This letter says you slept with Luke when he and I were together. Someone saw you.’ I freaked out and lied about it, swearing that it wasn’t true; in the long run, this only made things worse. I don’t know if she believed me then. She wanted to believe me, I think.

Soon our friends all heard about it; they didn’t know what to think either. Most of them decided it was bullshit, but then Luke came clean with his ex and things really blew up. I got another phone call. She called me all kinds of names and told me she hated me. It was horrible. I was miserable with guilt and felt like an idiot. I had lied to everyone and got caught out. I had never done anything like that before, and knew I would never do it again.

The thing is, I do think that everything is planned out for us. When I look back now, I believe fate was already working. It would have been awful if we’d hurt and lied to people over something that turned out to be just a one-night stand, but the fact is that there was something going on between Luke and me. I didn’t know how serious it was at the time, but I knew it was something.

After our friends found out about us they were pissed off and we were ostracised for a while; as a result, Luke and I started spending a lot of time together again. We were practically living in each other’s pockets, hanging out every weekend. I had my mate back. The problem was that I liked him more than a mate.

He went to Adelaide on a footy trip sometime in Septem­ber 2002 and he was texting me every day. What are you up to? … Guess what I just saw … Miss me? You don’t text someone every day when you’re whoring around with your footy mates, I thought.

I went to get him from the airport after his trip, and Luke started telling me about some girl he had picked up in Adelaide. I pretended I didn’t care.

‘I told her all about you,’ he said. ‘I told her I had this really cool friend back home in Melbourne.’

‘What on earth were you talking about me for?’ I asked.

‘I saw something that reminded me of you.’ He shrugged.

When I asked him what it was, he told me he couldn’t remember. I was disappointed that he’d hooked up with another girl, but Luke was a free agent. We weren’t going out, we hadn’t even kissed since our night together the year before, so it wasn’t like he owed me anything. But I was actually really jealous that he had been with someone else, and secretly pleased that he had been talking about me.

That night I hung out at Luke’s place. He went off to have a shower and then we settled in to watch a movie, crashed out on his couch. We had a cuddle, but that wasn’t unusual; I cuddled plenty of my guy friends when we were hanging out. There wasn’t anything sexual about it, we were just a very affectionate group of people. It didn’t feel quite the same this time though. I had my head in Luke’s lap while we watched the film, and then, when it finished, I turned my head to look up at him and he leaned down and kissed me.

Over the next couple of weeks, Luke and I saw each other regularly. Of course, I didn’t tell any of my girl­friends; the situation with his ex was still hanging over us, and it seemed sort of wrong that we were off merrily enjoying one another’s company. It didn’t feel wrong when I was with Luke, but you know what friendship groups are like. It can all get a bit weird and political. I thought it was better to keep it under wraps until we figured out exactly what we were doing.

Luke sent me text messages every day, but there wasn’t anything unusual about them, just asking what I was up to and so on. I think I was too scared to try to talk to him about what had happened; I thought if I made him talk about it I might scare him off. I was thinking about him all the time, though. I was distracted at work, thinking about how much I liked him. As I said, he was hot, with lovely dark hair and mysterious dark eyes. He was also really funny. When we were together we laughed all the time. By that stage, I had realised that he wasn’t really arrogant. He was shy, and maybe a little guarded. He wasn’t scared to give his opinion, and that could make people uncomfort­able because what he said wasn’t always what they wanted to hear. But he was a great bloke when you got to know him. He made me really happy. I thought he liked me too, but I just wasn’t sure.

One night in September, after a big session at the Ferntree Gully Pool Hall, we all crashed out at Nat’s place – on a night like that everyone would just grab a pillow and find a spare bed. Luke and I shared a couch and spent the rest of the night chatting, quoting lines from movies and giggling over stupid jokes. It felt really natural, being with him. I loved his company

The following Thursday, I picked Luke up from his place and gave him a lift to indoor soccer. It was my last chance to see him alone for a while. I had my cousin’s engage­ment party on the Friday night, and first thing Saturday morning I was leaving for a two-week holiday in Bali. We didn’t talk about much during the drive. I asked him what he wanted me to buy him while I was away and what he had planned for the next couple of weeks.

When we pulled up outside the sports centre, I said, ‘I’m not coming in. I’ve got to get home and pack.’

‘No worries,’ he answered. ‘Have a really good trip.’

With that, he leaned over and kissed me, but kissed me good and proper.

I woke up the next morning and my head was still spinning. I don’t know if I want to go, I thought. I had to go into work that day, and I told a few of the customers that I was going away.

‘You must be so excited!’ they said.

‘Yeah, not really,’ I told them. All of a sudden I felt nervous about the trip.

I ended up calling Luke that afternoon and told him I had to see him again before I left. ‘Why don’t you come around to Nat’s place tonight?’ I suggested. After the engagement party, my brother Clint was going to drop me off at Nat’s place. Her dad would take us to the airport on Saturday morning.

‘How am I going to drop in there without it looking a bit funny?’ he asked, but he said he would come.

Sure enough, when I got to Nat’s that night, there was Luke on the couch. Mick was there too and the four of us sat around chatting and watching telly for a few hours. Eventually, Nat and Mick said it was late and they were off to bed.

‘Yeah, might crash here too,’ Luke said.

We spent the night together in Nat’s spare bedroom, and I didn’t get a wink of sleep. We lay awake for hours just talking, and pretty soon it started to get light outside. ‘I’ll have to get up soon,’ I said.

Luke looked unhappy. He told me he didn’t want me to go to Bali.

‘Don’t be stupid!’ I laughed. ‘I’m leaving in about four hours.’

‘I really don’t want you to go.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because,’ he said, ‘I think I’m falling in love with you.’

I was stunned, but me being me – and to this day I don’t know why I did it – I gave him a bit of a punch on the arm. ‘Alrighty,’ I said. ‘Let’s talk about it when I get back.’

I think I was frightened of jumping back into something again, after Aaron. That wasn’t exactly a dream romance. I was happy with how things were going with Luke, but I didn’t think I needed to make a commitment then and there. There was no rush. We could figure it all out when I got home.

When I got on the plane I was hung-over and tired, but I couldn’t get Luke out of my head. I was nervous about what our friends would say when they found out about us, but I was really excited too. I was keen to go off and have a great holiday with Nat, but when I got home I was going to start a whole new life with Luke. It was pretty serious, I knew that much. He wasn’t just some guy I’d found at a club. After all the time I’d spent with him, all the years we’d been friends, I suddenly felt like he was the one.

We had a brief stopover at Sydney airport before we got on the plane to Bali, and I had this sudden urge to talk to Luke before we left. I told Nat I had to go to the toilet and snuck off to call him. His phone rang and rang. Come on, I thought, pick up, please . . . pick up! But Luke was at work, so it went to his message bank.

‘Oh hi, it’s just me,’ I said. ‘We’re about to board, but I just had to tell you something.’ I paused for a second and took a deep breath. ‘I think I love you too. I’ll see you in a couple of weeks.’

When I found Nat again she had an armful of maga­zines. We went off to buy some alcohol in the duty-free shops – a very important stop. We forgot to check the time though, and the next thing we knew someone was calling our names over the loudspeaker.

‘Natalie Goold and Nicole McLean, please make your way to the gate, this is your final boarding call.’

‘Jesus, is that us?’ I laughed.

We ran for it. We only just made the flight, too. I was totally exhausted, but I couldn’t have been happier.

 

Excerpted from Stronger Now by Nicole McLean. Copyright © 2012 by Nicole McLean.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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2 thoughts on “Stronger Now by Nicole McLean – Extract

  1. Carolyn

    I have just purchased Nicole’s book and will be reading it later today when I wake up from my post night shift slumber. I often think of Nicole and of Natalie as I nursed them both whilst they were in hospital. I guess I feel I needed to know that they are ok, and that they are getting on with life, and this book will show me that they are. I feel a tremendous connection with the Bali attack, because at the time of nursing these beautiful innocent girls, I was pregnant with my fourth baby. Already, when I had just given birth to my third child, 9/11 happened. And now Bali? Unbelievable! Today is the 10th anniversary since the Bali attack. I would love to have gone to the public ceremony in town but I need to sleep. So I will watch the news tonight, and I will read the rest of this book. I guess it is my way of knowing the girls are really ok. As a nurse, you want to help people in many ways, and this was one time I felt like a fish out of water. Perhaps through this book Nicole will be helping me.

    Reply
  2. Louis and Cleveland JONES

    GREETINGS DEAR NICOLE!!!!!!!!! I’m in love with you and your FABULOUS book, “Stronger Now”. Just bought it recently, as just something to read, and , I’m CRYING, as I read it, being a mere male aged 77, nearly 78, and can’t stop crying!!!

    You, truly are an INSPIRATION to EVERYONE!!! Your determination against all odds, is as a true Aussie, and I’m VERY proud of you and wonder who this other Nicole is, with the great naturally attributes, really is!!!

    So what you have succeed to do with you life, after Bali, is TRULY INSPIRING, dear!!!

    Our true LOVE TO YOU and YOUR FAMILY, Louis and Cleveland Jones

    Reply

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