It was the cold that made her fall. She was going home, cutting across the park and there was still frost on the ground, the grass solid and glistening from that morning and the previous days of icy mornings. Her breath hovered in the air in front of her.
It was nearly five, already getting dark and the fog which had drifted like powdery ash around the town for weeks was down again. She was on her way back from school; late because she’d been in the art room. Her class was making a mural they’d planned together to fill an empty wall of the assembly hall. The general theme was New Zealand, though they’d argued about that, some of the kids wanted it to be about Alexandra while others thought that was way too narrow and boring — not everyone comes from Alex, dickhead — but they’d sorted it and now they were working on what was to be a giant mosaic of paintings and prints and photographs.
Using the words was Serena’s own idea. She could see it in her head; all the words coiling up and across, intersecting the images. She was the one who was putting together the slivers of poems, the fragments of news pulled out from the local paper, the words Miss called colloquialisms, all of them joined and jumbled together with the fonts mixed up so you had something like: ‘sweet-as the something-special smell of you when the sun Big Frost Hurts Clyde Couple Marry cakes the steady drum-roll sound you make when the wind as House Burglary Bungled, Burns drops’.
She was walking fast, hunched against the cold, her hands shoved low into her pockets. The words were what she was thinking about: fitting what she already had together, figuring out what she still needed and where she would find it.
Big Frost Hurts. Clyde Couple Marry.
Shit, it was freezing. She already had a cold: her nose was running, her eyes watering. What if you fainted out here or twisted your ankle so you couldn’t move? How long would it be before your snot froze and the tears on your eyelashes turned into little threads of ice? She needed a hat, a woolly knitted hat with stripes of cool colours. Maybe she’d pick one up at the op-shop.
Sweet as. Sweet as.
When the dog came hurtling up at her she was thinking about the words and the cold and the hat. She recognised the dog, just about everyone in the town knew that dog, and while her rational mind understood it had to be a good, well-trained dog that wouldn’t hurt her, the way it careered out of the mist and darkness frightened her and she staggered backwards, slipping on the slithery grass and fell.
Then he was there, taking hold of her arm and helping her up.
She didn’t need him to do that. She felt stupid and embarrassed.
He picked her bag off the ground and handed it to her. ‘You okay?’
‘Uh, yeah. I just kind of skidded.’
He whistled for the dog and clipped the lead onto his collar. ‘Sorry about this fellow. He gets a bit over-excited.’
He glanced at her as he was turning to go. She saw him hesitate and then he stopped and seemed to be looking at her more closely. ‘Aren’t you one of the Freemans?’ he said.
‘Yep, that’s me,’ she said, ‘just another bloody Freeman.’
She didn’t know why she’d said that. Only, she’d wanted to sound upbeat and confident, not like some little kid who’d been so scared by a dog she’d fallen right over. But now that word, bloody, that had spurted out of her mouth seemed to vibrate uncomfortably in the mist and quiet. He stared at her for a moment and then he grinned. Okay, okay, he understood it was a joke.
‘You’re Lynnie’s sister?’
‘Yeah. Except now we have to call her Lyn-nette.’ She made her voice and face snooty, showing off a bit because he was still grinning like he thought she was funny.
‘Lyn-nette, eh? Is that right? And you are?’
‘Uh.’ She was flustered, couldn’t think what he meant for a minute. ‘Oh. Serena. I’m Serena.’
He looked at his watch, ‘You heading home from school? You’re a bit late, aren’t you?’
She wanted to say it wasn’t against the law but that sounded too cheeky. ‘I’ve been in the art room.’
‘Yeah? What’ve you been doing in the art room?’
So she told him and his eyes didn’t shift away, like he was thinking about something different. He listened like he was really interested. ‘Well, good for you. Nice to meet you, Serena,’ he said. He turned and walked with the dog towards the car with the blue and yellow squares. She hitched her bag up and kept on going.
That was the first time.
Just another bloody Freeman.
There was Lynnie and Darryl and Jesse and Todd, then there was Serena. She was the baby of the family. Good thing the bastard left when he did or there would’ve been more of them.
When you read books — novels, Miss always corrects her — where there are families who haven’t got much money, nine times out of ten, they’re special. They’re honest and worthy and inventive and they laugh a lot and love each other and are all so clever that it makes up for them having nothing.
Well, the Freemans were special as well. All the boys had been up in court, driving without a licence, driving under the influence, pinching beer out of the neighbour’s garage, drunk and disorderly. Darryl’d been in more trouble than all the others put together. It was never Darryl’s fault, though, it was always someone picking on him, blaming him when he hadn’t even been there. The cops had it in for him. Yeah, right. Dropkicks; that’s what she called them. The dropkicks.
And just before she ran away, Lynnie’d been caught nicking nail polish at the chemist’s but Mr Johnston who owned the shop had felt so sorry for her he said he wouldn’t press charges. Lynnie said he’d even let her keep the nail polish because he could see she’d learned her lesson and was really sorry. Lynnie could always come up with a good story. She could even cry when she needed to.
All of the Freemans had been in trouble one way or another. All of them except her and she was going to keep it that way.
She’d tried so hard to keep it that way.
The other thing in those novels about poor families is that the mother is especially special. Like sometimes she’s super-talented and writes books or paints amazing pictures or sometimes she’s just really wise and kind. But she’s always beautiful. Despite the lines on her forehead and the little threads of grey in her hair from all the worry, she’s always beautiful.
The especially special thing about Serena’s mum is that she’s always either picking the wrong men or helping herself to the ones who are supposed to belong to other people. Serena’s mum says when it comes to men she just can’t help herself, she just can’t do without her cuddles.
Hence, there are kids at school who don’t talk to Serena because of their dads going around for little visits with her mum. Hence, from time to time, there’s a fair bit of yelling and screaming at their place and the phone ringing with neighbours saying they’re calling the cops. Hence, the occasion of the brick that Mrs Green, alias That Stupid Bitch, chucked through Serena’s mum’s bedroom window.
Hence. She loves that word. Hence, whilst, hitherto, aforementioned.
The Freemans were special, all right. They even got special treatment. Like on the first day, every year at primary school, Serena’s new teacher would be up the front of the room calling out the names on the roll, glancing up and looking over each kid, marking off the name. Then they’d get to her. Serena Freeman? They’d skim their eyes over her, just like they did with all the others. Then it hit them. That name they’d just called out. Freeman, oh shit, a Freeman. Whack! The recognition would hit them and their eyes would start darting and sliding, checking her out as if she had horns growing out the top of her head.
Can this one write its own name yet? Does this one wet its pants in class? Does this one bite? Does this one steal?
You get used to it. Those ‘oh fuck not one of them’ or ‘oh that poor little kiddie’ expressions on teachers’ faces followed by them keeping a close eye. High school was better. More kids. More teachers coming and going. More anonymity.
Tell you what, though, after all those ‘oh fuck, oh that poor wee kiddie’ faces, it was fairly amazing to come across a teacher like Miss who seemed to think she was on the same level as the others. Not only the same level, but someone who had good ideas, someone you might even like to have a chat with. Someone special.
Those afternoons she went to Miss’s house. Three afternoons, only three, but they were special. Coffee and cinnamon smells, cups with pink flowers, a piano, shelves filled with books. And Miss sitting on the wooden chair with the red cushion, leaning forward, listening to her. Really listening. ‘And so, Serena, what did you make of our Mr Pip?’
Don’t get her wrong. She’s not saying what happened was because of Miss, nothing like that. But if it hadn’t been for her she’d have kept her distance. Because she understood he knew all about them, everything: the dropkicks and her mum and the brick and the men. She’d even seen him right outside their house, his car parked on the kerb, talking to Darryl. But the way it was with Miss talking to her and lending her the books, it made her think she was better than that, not just one more of those dodgy kids. Miss liked her, so the fact that she had another adult who seemed to like talking to her as well didn’t seem all that surprising.
Which was why the next time she saw him when she was walking home she stopped and patted the dog. He asked about the mural and she told him about the newspaper headline she’d just found. Most Earthquake Damage Caused By Shaking.
‘Hey,’ he said, laughing. ‘Good one.’
And, yeah, she’d liked talking to him. That time and the time after — that was in the park as well — he’d asked about school and the mural and stuff and they’d kind of chatted a bit with the dog running around, well, he was nice to her, wasn’t he? Then there was the next time when it started to rain while she was walking home and he’d pulled over and said he was going her way, did she want a ride? He never talked much himself, but he listened and he laughed about what she said, like she was really, you know, funny and clever. ‘You’re a bright girl, Serena.’
She didn’t see him all that often so she didn’t think it was weird him taking notice of her. It was only occasionally, never more than once a week. She thought maybe he liked to talk to her so he could find out the kind of stuff that was happening around school.
That’s the way it was. That went on for ages. She’d be walking home and he’d be there.
‘You’re a bright girl, Serena.’
She thought — anyway, she hoped — that him turning up more often was a coincidence. Happenstance. That was a word she’d just found. It was happenstance.
It wasn’t that. It couldn’t be. Everyone in the whole town knew who he was. Knew what he was.
She’d had the talks from Lynnie: Guys think they can do anything to us and get away with it because we’re rubbish, so you be careful who you talk to, eh. And don’t you get in anyone’s car, Serena, and if anyone tries to put his fucking hands on you, you yell. Yell hard as you can, right? And if that doesn’t work, kick him in the balls. Don’t trust anyone. Guys, they can’t keep it in their pants. He never did or said anything that felt wrong or scary. Okay, he was a man and yeah, she talked to him. A lot; she’d started talking to him a lot. And, okay, sometimes she got into his car. But how could she say no if he pulled up beside her and said he was going past her street, hop in? Saying no, well it would be kind of embarrassing and rude. Anyway, he was old and he was married. She’d seen his wife heaps of times when she was in the school library helping out with the other volunteers, putting plastic covering on the text books. She’d seen her hands smoothing down the tape, seen all the rings embedded with little diamonds which came right up to the knuckles of her fingers.
‘You’re a bright girl, Serena. Pretty too.’
He’d told her, being in the job he was in, he needed to watch out for kids. He was always at school for the sports days and the interschool matches and prize-givings. She told herself that was what he was doing with her. He was watching out for kids. Maybe, though she didn’t like to think that way, he was watching out that the last of the Freemans didn’t go the same way as the others.
She thought about talking it over with Miss. Except they never talked about personal stuff, not ever. Miss seemed to Serena to be the kind of person who lived in her head, not that she was cold or unfriendly but she knew a lot and she liked talking about ideas and facts. She wanted Miss to keep on respecting her: Miss treated her as an equal so the thought of saying to her, ‘There’s this man who keeps turning up wherever I am, he’s kind of pestering me’, well, that felt so wrong because maybe Miss would start to see her as this needy kid who couldn’t manage her messy, stupid life.
Guys, they can’t keep it in their pants.
How could she ever talk to Miss about anything related to that? Worst of all, Miss might start asking her questions, might insist she told her who it was and then she’d think she was making it all up. Because how could Miss believe that he would be after her? How could anyone? At prize-giving he sat right up on the stage and he gave out some of the prizes, shaking kids’ hands while Mr Jensen, the principal, stood beside him nodding and smiling. She’d ridden past his house on her bike. It was massive with a three-door garage and a spongy-looking lime-green lawn and his wife’s SUV parked on the tiles outside.
She changed the way she walked home from school, ducking in and out of streets, zig-zagging across parks and tracks until she got there. She stopped going to the pool at night, stopped going to the movies.
Then, over the next week or two, she saw him only a couple of times. Her heart started thudding but he’d just give her a wave, kept on going as he drove past. She’d been crazy. It hadn’t been anything. It had all been in her head.
It was over.
Excerpted from Swimming in the Dark by Paddy Richardson. Copyright © 2014 by Paddy Richardson.
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