I live in Banville, a small town that begins and ends at no discernible point in the middle of bloody nowhere. My name is Sarah Vale, and I’ve got a story to tell you. It’s a story set in Banville, and the setting is important. We all come from somewhere. The dirt beneath our feet when we take our first steps is no less a part of us than the hand holding ours as we waddle along the path. I learnt this the hard way. You can take the girl out of the country, but not the country out of the girl, as they say.
There are plenty of stories told about Banville already, but they are just fairytales for the tourist brochures about the quaint gold rush town where all the houses are painted in heritage colours. Where you can buy jars of cumquat marmalade at the corner store with handwritten labels and chequered fabric bunched over the lids like little shower caps. Where the pub serves Devonshire tea on Sunday mornings and lamb roast on Tuesday nights, with a bread and butter pudding for dessert. And the publican, Reg, is a jolly red man with swinging jowls like a bulldog, who has a joke for every adult customer and a lollipop for every child. Where the main street is lined with sweeping silver gum trees and the verandahs in front of the weatherboard shops have bench seats covered in crocheted rugs and old tin Pauls milk signs leaning tipsily against the fence railings.
All those stories are true. But there is a lot more to Banville that the day-trippers do not see. It begins about two blocks behind the main street, going west as the crow flies. If the crow knew better it would fly swiftly in the opposite direction, as far away as it could get. But it’s only a crow. Here, two blocks west, you will see a sorry excuse for a park, a dusty triangular patch of land littered with empty chip packets swirling about in the hot breeze, and a broken swing dragging in the dirt. At the edge of the park, a homestead sits, looking over the wasteland in its lap. You can imagine that once it would have been majestic, surveying the town from this proud perch. But it has aged, like everything else. Now it has peeling grey paint and dirty windows and rusted guttering riddled with holes. There’s a ring of trees crowding around it, drooping down and huddling in like bent old ladies in green cloaks with their arms around the building, sheltering it from the world. If only they could. That’s my house, so we will start there. It’s as good a place as any.
I wasn’t going to stay at school that day. I didn’t feel like it, and I had a library at home that was better than the one at school anyway. My grandfather was an arsehole, but he loved books. And here is what I’d noticed: If I dropped into school for the morning rollcall and then walked right out the front gate again when my name had been ticked off, nobody said a word. The trick was to do it with confidence, walking exactly as I would if I’d had permission to leave, looking casual, unhurried, bored. Bored was not difficult.
Mum was usually still in bed when I left, a lump under the bedclothes, and she didn’t stir that day, not even when I dropped the old cigarette tin with loose change in it right onto the wooden floorboards. The cigarette tin was one of my many stashes of money. I had them placed at various points around the house so I could always access cash quickly, for food or to pay Elspeth Mackey at the post office for whichever outstanding bills happened to be hanging the lowest over our heads that month. A strange thing happened to money in my house, if I didn’t get to it first. It liquefied, turned amber, or sometimes clear. And then the electricity got cut off again.
The cigarette tin was ingeniously hidden, if I do say so myself. In the lounge room was an old armchair with faded red roses on it and a brown velvet cushion stuffed permanently into the crevasse where the back met the seat. The obvious choice would have been to hide the tin behind the cushion, because nobody ever moved it. But I liked to go the extra mile. So I cut a slit in the arm right down low so that you could only reach it if you stuck your hand down the side of the cushion, and I nestled the tin in there amid the foam stuffing. A great length to go to, you might think, for ten dollars in coins. But ten dollars could feed us for several days, if I was careful.
Another good place I’d found was in the curtain rod. A rolled five-dollar note could fit snugly in the hollow. I also had a cut-out section in the heel of my school shoe, if you lifted the piece of fabric that lined the sole; there you would find four two-dollar coins. Also, three dollars fifty in the trick pocket I had sewn into the arm of my raincoat.
I had finally paid off our annual rates bill that month, painstakingly chipping away at it, turning up at the post office with handfuls of shrapnel until we were clear. And I’d done it. Which meant nothing much, to ordinary people. But to me, it meant there could be dinner on the table that night. A normal dinner, with meat and two veg, maybe even dessert. Even if dessert was just hot milk with sugar and vanilla essence.
When I dropped the tin I clenched my fists and waited, holding my breath, alert and tense. My mother needed her sleep. The night had been busy. I grabbed my bag and left, joining the tail of the train of kids traipsing up the hill to the school, peeling out of their front yards to meet their mates and walk together in laughing, swearing knots. They were so easy with each other, nudging and jostling and sharing cigarettes and swigs of Coke. I walked by myself. I tried to keep my head down, blend in, but Cameron Wolfe spotted me. He always does.
‘Saaaarah . . .’ he called, and came up behind me. I felt him before I saw him, the air growing thicker around me. He slung an arm around my shoulders and leant in close, breathing hotly in my ear. I tried to slip out of his grasp but he pulled me close to his side and grabbed my chin in his hand so I had to look at him. His eyes were bloodshot and had flat brown pupils like muddied creek water and pimples erupted in swollen clusters along his jawline. He smelt of cigarettes and cheap deodorant, and something else beneath that; something that made my stomach tighten. Cameron Wolfe had been tormenting me since he could walk, lying under the table in Home Corner at kindergarten to catch a glimpse of my knickers as I played.
‘Don’t run away from me,’ he said, slipping an arm around me so his hand cupped my shoulder. Dirt was embedded under his fingernails in little dark slivers. The flesh under the bed of the nail looked an absurdly plush pink in comparison. I tried to hold that in my mind, this part of him that was clean. Cameron turned to his friends and grinned. ‘Be nice, Sarah baby. I could be your next customer.’
He let his hand fall over my shoulder so it was resting just above my breast. I breathed shallowly so I didn’t have to take in any of his stink. It was too hot to be so close to anyone, I would suffocate. His friends laughed and whooped, circling around us tightly. They were all boys, except for Andrea Price and Marjorie Wilkinson. Andrea was reasonably new to Banville; her father had moved here to teach music at the primary school. Teachers got paid more for a country posting. It would want to be a lot more, to come here. Marjorie Wilkinson’s father was a lawyer and her mother, Monica, was secretary of the Parents and Friends Committee and the Better Banville Tourism Board. She was also the chairperson of the committee, and coordinator of the Grevillea Festival, the biggest event of the Banville business and social calendar, as well as sole journalist and editor of the local newspaper, the Banville Courier, issued monthly. ‘Uniting the Banville community!’ read the masthead of the paper. Apparently it made a very absorbent foundation for garden mulch. Last year, the Li family, who owned the fish and chip shop on the main street, had hosted a Chinese New Year celebration in their restaurant and invited everyone in Banville. It was all fun and games until Mrs Wilkinson saw Marjorie and Joshua Li kissing out the back on the concrete slab where Mr Li butchered the chickens. That was a little bit too much unity for Monica. She grabbed a wad of tissues from her purse and rubbed at Marjorie’s mouth, howling at her that she would get ‘infected with the Chink germs’. It was quite a show. Everybody except Monica Wilkinson knew that it was a bit late as far as germs were concerned. Marjorie had shared her personal bacteria with just about every boy in our grade.
She and Andrea moved up the hill a bit, dawdling, but still watching. The last of the other students disappeared through the gates, and their shouts and laughter faded. The street was empty, quiet and still but for us. Andrea looked uncomfortable, like she wished she was somewhere else, but Marjorie was focussed on Cameron, her eyes following his every move. I could feel the itch of sweat prickling my scalp. I tried to catch Andrea’s eye, but she wouldn’t look at me. She had helped Tommy Johns and me thread worms onto hooks for bait at the creek one Sunday a few weeks back. She hadn’t talked much, but I’d thought she seemed nice. I would have to revise that. Salvatore D’Angelo slapped Cameron on the back and leered at me, moving in to my other side. I hissed at him like a feral cat, and swung my elbows around, trying to land a blow somewhere.
‘Easy, tiger,’ Cameron said, and locked me under his arm.
‘Yeah, hasn’t your mum taught you anything, Sarah?’ Sal leant in, his face close to mine. ‘First rule of business: the customer is always right.’
Cameron looked around at his friends. He smiled. ‘So this is right,’ he said, and fitted his whole palm over my breast. I gritted my teeth and swallowed hard, and Cameron pinched me and pressed his crotch into my hip. The other boys sniggered. I summoned all my energy and pushed back, trying to twist away, but he held me too tight, strong and stubborn like a bull. From somewhere behind me, I heard the laughter of a girl.
‘Show her what else is right, Wolfey.’
‘Yep, get her in training. Her mum’ll need an apprentice.’
‘Even the town bike starts out with training wheels.’
‘L-plates, like.’ The boys clutched their stomachs and wheezed with laughter. Cameron smiled but looked distracted, as though he wasn’t really listening, and slid his hand down to cup my bum. Bile started to rise in my throat and tears needled behind my eyes so I fixed them shut and tried to think of something else. He couldn’t hurt me if I wasn’t really there. And I couldn’t let him see that I was upset; he fed on that. Better just to stay still and quiet, like a dog playing dead. Lately, these episodes had been happening about once a week.
I craned my neck away from Cameron and looked into the Montepulciano yard across the road. A currawong swooped down from the guttering that rimmed the roof of the squat brick cottage and landed on the netting shrouding the tomato vines at the front fence. It perched on a stake and watched me with yellow eyes. From the open window at the front of the house, a ginger cat arched its back and then jumped onto the grass of the yard, lowering its belly down to the ground and slinking through the grass towards the bird.
Go, I tried to signal to the currawong with my eyes. It cocked its head at me. The cat was gaining ground, head held taut, eyes narrowed. Cameron was saying something and his mates were laughing and egging him on but I kept my eyes on the bird. I could have held it in my two hands and felt its tiny heart beating under the warm feathers of its underside. The bird hopped over to the next stake. The cat paused, and then continued its pursuit. Cameron’s hands slid down me and I pictured them leaving a trail of dirt in their wake and cringed. He grabbed my wrist so hard that a loud sound came from me, a low moan like the sound the possum had made when Tommy and I found it caught in a snarl of barbed wire down by the creek, the pelt on her stomach peeled back to reveal the wet, pink heave of her failing organs. The currawong started at the noise I made and took flight, circling over my head. I followed it with my eyes, moving my body slowly around so I faced Cameron full on.
‘That’s it, baby. I knew you’d come around,’ he said, and began to guide my hand down. The other boys moved closer, and I could hear them breathing. As Cameron drew my hand over his stomach, I brought my knee up and rammed it into his crotch as hard as I could. I felt my kneecap connect with the sponginess between his legs and I ground it in, smiling into his twisting face. His eyes rolled back in his head and he doubled over and fell to the ground.
‘You fucking little bitch,’ he said, surprised. ‘You fucking little bitch slut.’ A dribble of saliva rolled out of the corner of his mouth and pooled, glistening, on the bitumen under his cheek. Sal grabbed my wrists and pinned them behind my back, and someone else took hold of my ponytail and yanked my head back. I saw a flicker of pink as a painted fingernail grazed my cheek. Across the road at the Montepulcianos’, the gate creaked open and Mrs Montepulciano ambled over to the letterbox. A purple scarf was tied over her hair. She lifted the lid, peered inside, then shut it again. She glanced over at us, at Cameron still curled up on the road with his hands cupped over his groin, and then at Sal with his fingers cuffing my wrists. He let go. Mrs Montepulciano turned away, but didn’t go back inside. She began to pinch the yellowed leaves off a shrub that was poking through the fence.
‘Les’ go,’ mumbled Sal to the others. Two of the boys grabbed Cameron under his arms and hauled him to his feet. He stood, slumped and panting.
‘You shouldn’t have done that, Sarah,’ he said, and his voice was hoarse. He bent over at the waist again for a moment. I looked at the greasy waves of black hair tumbling over his scalp like wet tar. When he straightened again, he pursed his lips and hawked a gob of phlegm onto the ground at my feet. Over the road, Mrs Montepulciano started humming to herself, off-key.
‘C’mon, let’s go,’ Sal said again. His family was Italian. They would be hearing about this. He started back up the hill towards the school. The others followed him, and Cameron limped along behind them. Marjorie carried his bag, as loyal and stupid as a pack mule.
‘I’ll see you,’ Cameron said, turning back after a few metres. His face split into a grin and I saw his teeth, the same yellow as the leaves Mrs Montepulciano was picking off her shrub. I shrugged, but I couldn’t keep my eyes on his, and he laughed as he turned around again. I stayed where I was, trying to breathe normally. At her fence, Mrs Montepulciano stopped plucking off the dead leaves. She turned her face up to the sun. A gust of hot wind came and fluttered her apron over her lap, and she held out her hand and released the leaves into the breeze. They spiralled up and up, spinning and flitting above her roof, and I thought of Cameron’s teeth, plucked from his mouth and launched into the sky. I watched them until they disappeared. When I looked back down again, Mrs Montepulciano was gazing at me. She smiled a little, and then turned and walked back down the path and into her house. She closed the door behind her. Up at the school, the bell started to ring. I tucked my hair back behind my ears, shouldered my bag and started up the hill.
At assembly, I slipped into a seat near the back doors and kept my eyes trained forward so that nobody else would talk to me. Which was pretty low-risk anyway. People didn’t generally speak to me – Cameron and his cronies didn’t count as people. A year eight girl hissed ‘moll’ at me as I shuffled past her to get to a seat. Her friends giggled and squealed.
‘You’re so mean, Kel!’
‘It’s not mean if it’s true.’
Assembly began. The principal got up on the low stage at the front of the hall and started to speak. Mr MacLachlan was tall and thin with a prominent chest and a fuzz of curly silver hair. He wore tortoiseshell glasses pushed down low on his nose and tilted his head back to look down at us through them. When he was angry, which was most of the time, his voice broke in the middle of sentences. He carried a black briefcase everywhere he went and rumours were rife about its contents. A whip? A guinea pig? All the girlie magazines that were confiscated from the boys? Ten thousand dollars in clean, crisp banknotes?
Mr MacLachlan roamed around the stage like an animal staking the borders of its territory.
‘Students, as you are aware, the Grevillea Festival is on the horizon. Accordingly, we have been asked to nominate a group of you to represent our school on the day. We will be selecting a boy and a girl from each grade. Only the most shining beacons of scholarly dedication will be chosen. Students who reflect the academic excellence and community spirit of our fine educational institution. Of course, these students will have to balance their Grevillea Festival commitments with their curricular demands at school. This will require great discipline.’
I stopped listening. He wasn’t talking to me, and now he had got on to his favourite subject. He’d be there for a while. The annual festival was Banville’s chance to make the Sydney news. It was billed as a celebration of the Banville and districts ‘community’, if that is what you call a collection of people who are geographically close, but would push each other in front of a train over the Under-8s footy results. Mainly, it was a chance to lure the tourists out from the city. And Banville had grevilleas planted all along the main street. I guess they had to call it something.
Mr MacLachlan must have realised his audience was drifting, because he raised his voice.
‘Discipline,’ he said, pointing at the rows of students before him, ‘will get you everywhere.’ His voice broke and squeaked out the last syllable. His eyebrows drew together and he twitched his head like a mosquito was nibbling at his ear.
‘Discipline!’ he shouted again, and the PA screeched, ‘is the mark of a strong and worthy person. A person who will achieve their goals and aims in life.’ He went back to his lectern and everyone shifted in their seats. His secretary, Ms Steph Bay, was at the side of the stage, nodding and smiling with her hands clasped in front of her bosom. Death Ray, the kids called her. She looked sweet with her golden curls and floral blouses but she had cold, empty eyes. She could spot a forged signature on a permission slip from ten metres away, and was the most unsympathetic sick room attendant imaginable. If you came to her bleeding profusely from a knife wound to the head she would grudgingly give you a Panadol and then send you back to class. She had a massive crush on Mr MacLachlan. Not reciprocated.
‘Discipline will lead to success of the mind. And of the body.’ Laughter trickled through the room like a draught from an open window. I scanned the rows until I found Tommy Johns, a few rows in front of me and to the right. He was leaning down and writing something in a notebook. He was close enough that I could see the curls of brown hair at the nape of his neck and his long skinny arms bent into the space around him. He was so tall, now. I made myself look away. I’d messed everything up.
When I turned back to the stage Mr MacLachlan was staring right at me. But I didn’t flinch. I stared right back at him until he turned away. What a hypocrite, actually getting up on stage and talking about discipline of the body in front of the whole school, in front of me, like he was a model of it, a paragon of bloody virtue. I had seen inside his briefcase just a few nights ago. He had left it on my kitchen table, so I felt perfectly justified in looking. And it wasn’t even locked. But all that was in there was a pack of chewing gum and a few stray paperclips. That would be fucking right. There was no mystery in this town for me anymore. I had seen every last secret laid bare in my own house, every briefcase in Banville gaping open. But I had missed one.
Excerpted from The Vale Girl by Nelika McDonald. Copyright © 2013 by Nelika McDonald.
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