Bill’s Wishing Well
My dad named his record shop after an old song by a band called the Millionaires. The guy who produced it, Joe Meek, was famously bonkers and the song, ‘Wishing Well’ (Decca, 1966), was as rare as it was weird. Dad had it on a compilation. He didn’t like to admit to this (compilations are cheating) but it meant I got to hear it. ‘Wishing Well’ was poppy and bent. It sounded like it was recorded underwater or on the moon. Dad used to say the only reason he even opened up in the morning was on the slim chance that someone would sell the single in. Every other week he’d get that hopeful, pathetic look. ‘It’s coming,’ he’d say. ‘I can feel it in my waters. You’ll see, kids. Everything comes in eventually.’
And Gully and I would go, ‘Yes, Dad,’ but we never believed it would actually happen. This is the story of how it did.
It’s also the story of a wild girl and a ghost girl, a boy who knew nothing and a boy who thought he knew everything; and it’s about life and death and grief and romance. All the good stuff.
But first the specs – as Gully would say.
It was just Dad and me and Gully living in the flat above the shop in Blessington Street, St Kilda. We, the Martin family, were like inverse superheroes, marked by our defects. Dad was addicted to beer and bootlegs. Gully had ‘social difficulties’ that manifested in his wearing a pig-snout mask 24/7. I was surface clean but underneath a weird hormonal stew was simmering. My defects weren’t the kind you could see just from looking. Later I would decide they were symptoms of Nancy Cole.
I’d known Nancy three months. She was nineteen and sharp as knives. I was fifteen and fumbling. We met when Dad hired her to clean the shop and the flat. I remember her walking into my room with the vacuum hose slung around her neck, sloppy and insolent like a bad boyfriend’s arm. She opened her mouth and all this stuff poured out. Did I know that sharks could switch off half their brains? That the average person farted fourteen times a day? That deep in the suburbs middle-aged couples were having sex dressed as plush toys? And I, who never said anything much to anyone, said, ‘Bullshit!’ Soon enough we were gas-bagging, lolly-gagging and the dishes didn’t even get a look in. Dad had to let her go but she kept coming around.
Nancy’s laugh was an unexpected heehaw that went totally against her glamazon appearance. ‘You’re all right, kid.’
Kid, that was what she called me. Or little sister, or girlfriend, or dollbaby, or monkeyface. Sometimes she even used my name – Skylark, Sky – all in that drawl that felt like fingernails on my back lightly scratching itches I didn’t even know I had.
Up above the weird
One hot night near the end of November, Nancy and I were up on the roof. We’d eaten our tea al fresco (Mutha’s microwave roast); washed it down with some of Dad’s homebrew – nicknamed Old Dunlops because it tasted like tyres and made me stupid after two sips – and now we were talking about weird ways to die.
Nancy went first. ‘Year Nine. Richard Skidmore. Killed by a piano.’
‘Bullshit!’ I called.
‘Truth. His dad was a removalist. Richard was helping him one day when a piano slid off the truck and squashed him. All the girls were in love with him after that. They wore his picture around their neck and called themselves The Girlfriends of Richard. The crazy thing is he was nothing before that. He had pimples and he played clarinet and he wasn’t even that good at it.’
She took another swig of Dunlops and mock-shivered. ‘Your turn.’
Nancy’s ‘your turns’ made me nervous. Her ‘what else’s’ were even worse. I could never match her. My weird deaths were fictional. All my stories had soft edges.
I told her about the book I was reading.
‘In the first chapter Freddie Frenger Junior, the “blithe psychopath”, breaks a Hare Krishna’s finger when he tries to give him a flower at the airport. And the Krishna guy dies from shock.’
‘Truth. Think about it. When you stub your toe it kills, and that’s just a stub. Imagine a clean break . . .’ I grabbed her finger and fake-wrenched it. Nancy let me hang onto it for longer than I needed to make my point.
The roof was my favourite place. It wasn’t a roof garden or anything grand. It was more like a perch for stargazers or suicides. We had everything we needed up there: fairy lights and cushions and vintage opera glasses for talent-spotting. We had the portable record player and records my mum left behind: psycho-sweet ballads by guys with cleft chins, domestic pop by ladies in lounging pyjamas.
Nancy put on Dusty Springfield doing ‘Spooky’, so cool and mysterious and infinite. Nancy sang along, trucking her feet and wheeling her arms. After a while she stopped.
‘She looks sad. Why does she look so sad?’
At first I thought she was talking about Dusty but then I saw where she was staring. The poster had appeared the week before on the wall opposite the shop. It was a stencil of a girl’s face, three feet high below a concrete sky. She had black hair and eyes. Her lips were slightly parted and a single tear trailed down her cheek.
‘I’ll bet she’s an actress or a model.’
Nancy nodded. ‘I’m going to ask Ray. He’ll know.’
Ray was Nancy’s flatmate. He was forty-something and worked for the council with a sideline selling books on a blanket near the Sunday market. He called himself an anthropologist, or, as Nancy put it, ‘He likes to watch’. Ray’s eyes went everywhere and he was always shellacking spit. According to Nancy, his at-home attire consisted of a faded kimono that was so short you could see his tackle.
Nancy tapped a cigarette out of her packet. She moved onto her second favourite subject – Her Great Escape.
‘There’s this village in Wales that got swept into the sea in the thirteenth century. I’m going there. I’ve nearly got enough money now.’
‘How can you go there if it’s underwater?’
‘Did I tell you about the chapel made of human bones? Czechoslovakia. And the hotel made of ice? Finland. I don’t want to see the world, kid. I want to see the weird.’
‘Uh-huh.’ I bit my lip. I didn’t want to think about Nancy leaving. Sometimes I would look at her and almost forget to stop. She had hair the colour of orange-blossom honey. It fell in perfect waves around her shoulders. My hair was short and dark and nothing. My look was nothing too. I didn’t have to wear a bra, and for that I was grateful. As far as I was concerned, the less stuff I had sticking out and drawing attention to me the better.
Night fell soft as a shrug. I was starting to flake. Even the palm trees looked tired, like showgirls standing around waiting for their pay. Nancy went back to her plate. She popped a carrot in her mouth and grimaced before spitting it over the rail. She held a potato, as if to launch it. ‘Do I dare?’
‘Be my guest.’
She pitched the spud. We watched it bounce off the meat shop awning and splatter on some guy’s shoulder. He stopped and looked up. We ducked, laughing. Nancy found the opera glasses and checked him out.
I took a closer look. The guy she’d hit was tall and thin – rakish – maybe eighteen. He had black-rimmed glasses and messy hair and vinyl patches on the elbows of his jacket.
Nancy clucked. ‘He’s gone into your dad’s shop. What if he robs it?’
‘He won’t get much.’
Below us the sign for Bill’s Wishing Well creaked in the breeze. The only people who crossed the threshold were vinyl tragics, weirdos and wayward tourists. I wondered which category the guy fit into.
Just then Nancy’s phone blared so loud it made me jump. She moved away murmuring and came back humming. ‘That’s Federico. I’ve gotta go.’
‘Which one’s Federico?’
‘Long hair, slight lisp, magic dick.’
‘Don’t tell me.’
But she did anyway. ‘You know, like those inflatable dudes outside Crazy John’s that jerk every which way?’ She rocketed around spastically.
‘Is it a date or an assignation?’ I couldn’t remember the difference.
‘It’s a date.’
I tried to act jaded. I stole her stance, her slang, her style. ‘So go, lam, am-scray.’ My smile was unshakeable even as I was being ditched.
Nancy kissed me lightly on the lips. She smelled like tea-rose and tasted like Muthas gravy. A weird combination but it worked.
‘Don’t worry. It’ll happen for you.’
She put on her mirrored shades even though it was night. For a moment I saw myself reflected. I looked like a small, dark thing. Like a possum or a raisin. I’d never been kissed, never had a boyfriend. I didn’t even know any guys other than Dad and Gully. Before Nancy I never smoked or drank, what I knew about sex you could ice on a cupcake.
We took a last look down just as the guy in the glasses was leaving the shop. He had his hands stuffed in his pockets and a poetic lope and a brooding, careworn expression on his face. I got all of this in seconds under streetlight. He paused in front of the girl on the wall. In the dim light it looked like he was part of the poster.
‘Hey, pretty boy!’ Nancy hollered over the rail. ‘Want to party?’
He looked up without even the hint of a smile.
Nancy’s lips twitched. ‘Serious boy. Definitely yours.’
She said it like it was the end of something but actually it was the beginning.
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Excerpted from Girl Defective by Simmone Howell. Copyright © 2013 by Simmone Howell.
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