There are worse places to be, I tell myself as I look down at the wet, sandy tennis ball in my hand. Like back up at the beach house with Laney and Lucy and their dozens of bottles of new nail polish and Sweet Valley High books and Duran Duran albums. Or on the yacht with Dad yelling at me to move now, pull this, don’t touch that, leave the bloody life jacket be, lean further out, stop being chicken shit. Or ignored by Mum and her friends, fussing over hands of canasta and damp glasses of sweet wine spritzers before lunch.
“Flog it for six.”
“You can do it, mate.”
Beach cricket is normally every kid for himself, no cheering, just a bloody-mindedness to get the kid with the bat out so you can have your turn. And stay at the crease as long as possible.
But this is no ordinary morning.
“Not just a century before lunch,” Gibbo explains, pushing his glasses up his zinc-creamed nose when I step up to bowl the last over. “Dougie’s gonna be the first kid ever to make a century at Point Roadknight. The before lunch bit is just icing on the cake.”
Gibbo doesn’t play: the combination of the glasses, the zinc cream and the sweat on his nose and generally being unco. But he knows more about cricket than every other kid on the beach put together. So he’s carved out his place down here as official scorer, umpire and general historian. He can tell you everyone’s average, the number of days we’ve been rained out, how many wickets I took last year and the number of hours we spent playing on any given week.
There’s five minutes left before we head back to our various temporary homes to eat white triangle sandwiches, drink cold green cordial and let our mothers smother more sunscreen on us as we chafe to get back to the beach. Well that’s how I imagine it is. At our place I’ll sneak in, grab whatever I can to eat and race back to the beach before Mum realises I’m not with Dad, or Laney and Lucy spot me.
Five minutes. Five runs. Six balls to bowl.
It’s going to be over before lunch one way or the other. I look down the churned up pitch to Dougie, wondering how I came to be the one he’s facing down. I look at the battered stumps and imagine putting the tennis ball through them, like I’ve already done three times today. I weigh up the pros and cons of a short bounce or a long bounce on the hard sand left by the retreating tide.
Or bugger it, I could just throw under arm and let him thump it out into the surf for six. Let Dougie claim his moment of glory. At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter to me.
They only tolerate me because I can bowl as good as, if not better than, most of them.
“Amazing natural off-leg spin,” Gibbo commentated from the footpath, when he saw me throwing a ball against the garage door two years ago and invited me down to their summer-long game.
So each year my bowling action and the fact I can’t hit to save my life, so I don’t hog the batting order, gain me entrance to the game on the beach. Charlie says it’s really only because the Connors, who had two sons, sold up at the summer before we arrived and they were short bodies in the field. Gibbo tells me Charlie is full of shit.
It’s Jimmy who starts the chant: Dougie—clap clap clap—Dougie. It’s infectious and one by one the others join in. I throw the ball up and down as I’ve seen the other boys do and wait for the chanting to die out.
I’ve no idea what the deal is, with throwing the ball up and down, see no point to it, but I do it anyway. I’ve learned in the last two summers you find your place blending in; everything else is, as Gibbo says, icing on the cake.
So I let Gibbo write my name in his battered 5th grade exercise book as Laurie Norris, not Lori Norris. Under Dad’s cast-off blue cabbage hat, the zinc cream and the baggy Star Wars t-shirt I could be one of them.
I stop throwing the ball and look down the pitch.
Don’t let me bowl like a girl, I pray, or a spastic. Don’t let me embarrass myself.
Dougie’s so bloody sure of himself: he expects to make his century. He remarks the crease, leans down, hunches confidently over the bat and beats it against the sand two or three times. Then he winks at me and grins. My cheeks flush, not that anyone is going to see it under the green war paint.
I turn away from the grin and count out the steps of my run up, but lose count after four because Dougie’s wink burns through my temporary anger at his arrogance, replaced by my sisters’ tittering about Doug Fearnley and how they want to kiss him this New Years Eve. Dougie this, Dougie that.
Dougie—clap clap clap.
Now is the wrong time to be thinking about kissing Dougie. Anytime is the wrong time to think about kissing Dougie. I don’t want to kiss Dougie. I want to bowl him out.
When I turn, I realise I’m far too far back. It’s a stupidly long run up, something Sam or Kenny would do to show off. They’ll assume I’m trying to be just like them—look at me, look how bloody good I am all the way back here. I groan.
The chanting ends. The fielders reposition themselves: Lano as wicky and the rest spread between the cliffs and the water line. I take three slow steps and then run. The ball spins out of my hand, lands a metre from Dougie’s feet, clips a foot-shaped mark in the sand and swings to shoot around between the bat and his legs to take out the middle stump.
There is dead silence. I drag the hat off my head, look down and wait for Gibbo to call it a no ball. When he doesn’t I feel sick.
I just bowled Dougie, five short of his century.
The bravado of doing is replaced by the horror of having done.
“Clean bowl,” Gibbo says, and makes notes in his book, slapping it shut against his hand with an awful finality.
Dougie shakes his head and smiles. “Early to lunch then,” he says and pulls up the remaining stumps, like nothing important happened.
The rest of the boys stand around stunned. Charlie and Sam glare at me. Kenny points at me and runs a finger across his throat.
“Seeya back here at one-thiry,” Gibbo says and Dougie lopes off, cricket bat and stumps under his arm. I wonder if there will be white triangles and green cordial waiting at his house; if there will be a parent there to care a girl stole his century.
* * *
It’s three days before I see Dougie again, drifting in and out of the New Year’s Eve crowd down at foreshore caravan park, where we’ve all congregated to see the fireworks. I’m standing next to Laney and Lucy who are giggling, pointing in Dougie’s direction and turning away every time he glances in theirs. It’s so pathetic that if we weren’t in public I’d do the finger down the throat thing.
They take it in turns, daring each other to go up and talk to him. Neither of them will; what would Dad say? All show and no punch. What a waste all their preening in front of the mirror was. You’d think by now they’d realise nothing makes our dead straight hair curl. They’d have done better to just crimp it to fuzz. Or not bothered at all, like me.
When Dougie breaks away from the Roadknight gang and makes a bee-line for us, Laney and Lucy don’t know what to do, so they giggle and then force themselves to stand up straight, stick their non-existent chests out and keep giggling behind their hands.
“Wanna go for a walk, Lori?” Dougie asks.
Laney and Lucy turn on me in disbelief, then hate when I go with Dougie, even though I don’t want to. As soon as our backs are turned they start bad mouthing me loud enough for everyone to hear. I imagine their words melting me like the Nazi guy in Indiana Jones until I realise it’s nothing compared to what Douggie’s gonna rip through me, for what I did to his century.
We don’t say anything as we walk around the fringe of the crowd. And the longer neither of us says anything, the more I dread what will be said when Dougie opens his mouth.
He takes my hand when we reach one of the paths through the trees leading down to Main Beach. I hesitate, think of Kenny and his slicing finger, picture all the boys from Roadknight down there waiting.
“I told my folks I’d kinda stay around,” I say, the words barely audible.
“I don’t hate you,” he says. “If that’s what you think. Kenny was a wanker for doing what he did. Jeez, he should have known better.”
“I didn’t mean to—”
“You’ve got guts Lori, you know that. None of those other dickheads would’ve done what you did. They’d have fumbled a catch, let it go through for six, stuffed around getting the ball back to the wicky, gone easy one me. They’d have let me get the century because they’d have wanted the same. But I’m not them. I wanted to earn it.”
“I’m sorry I stole it from you.”
“It just wasn’t my day. Hell, Bradman went out for a duck in his last match. The boys say I was robbed, but I wasn’t. At ninety-five I still hold the record. The Book of Gibbo says as much.”
I try not to smile, but I can’t help it. I love the idea of The Book of Gibbo. I imagine our sports teacher getting up to educate us from the Book of Gibbo like the nuns babbling from The Bible.
Now I know Dougie doesn’t hate me, I’m glad my name is in the Book of Gibbo alongside his:
Dougie 95 b. Laurie
“There’s the rest of summer to chase those runs,” he says.
I’m so lost in silly thoughts of the Book of Gibbo, I only half hear him and I don’t expect his lips to land on mine. He tastes of HubbaBubba Original and when he puts his arms around me, smells of salt and new cotton t-shirts. Above us the fireworks go off. I don’t stop kissing him to watch them. I can see them exploding behind my eyelids.
Someone tells Laney or Lucy they saw me kissing Dougie down in the trees. They tell Mum and Dad and I’m banned from going down to the beach for a week. A week’s grounding would bother Laney and Lucy, it would eat into their precious social lives… but I just read, write in my diary, watch The Goonies and count down the days quietly.
Laney and Lucy, along with some of the other girls, take up residence on the beach in my absence. Sprawled on carpets of Hang Ten beach towels, soaked in Reef Oil, they show off their Rip Curl, high-cut one-piece togs. It’s as far from The Hill at the MCG as you can get.
Dougie and the rest of the boys aren’t interested, couldn’t care less about them. They take it in turns to have pot shots at their new, adoring crowd. Sam hits Laney so hard a bruise comes up on her leg and the coconut-oiled fans retreat and regroup. Over their nail polish and Sweet Valley High book covers, in-between oohing and aahing over Duran Duran and the success of their new curling iron, they plot to go to Main Beach where the real men are: the surfers.
Even though Dougie is okay with what happened, I still find it hard to believe the other boys will be happy to see me back on the beach. At the end of the week, Gibbo turns up at our door and we walk down to Roadnight together. No one says a word. No welcome back, or piss off. And I’m okay with that. My name is added to the batting order again. I bowl my allotted overs.
But it’s the mornings I really look forward to, when Dougie and I meet up before everyone else makes it down. He teaches me some batting skills, gives me a chance to actually get a feel for the bat and the rhythm of the oncoming ball. He watches my bowling action and the combined effort of watching and bowling for me, cleans up his technique. Before summer ends he’s taking a dozen wickets a day and my run rate is climbing. But Dougie doesn’t get close to the hallowed one hundred again.
The day he leaves for home he comes by our place and we exchange addresses. I’m not sure if I want to kiss him again: my head says one thing, my heart says another. He looks confused too. It doesn’t matter. Laney and Lucy are hovering in the background, watching, so we say good-bye and pledge the next summer will be even better.
“That century is mine for the taking.”
“Not if I get there first,” I say.
“And probably will.”
He winks and grins.
His bike rattles as it bumps through the gutter at the bottom of our driveway and he disappears down the road.
* * *
High school is a culture shock and the Norris triplets are something of a novelty. Laney and Lucy are in their element, lapping up the attention. They have star quality zing. I’m happy to linger in their shadows. It makes my day when I hear someone talking about the Norris twins in the toilets after Ash Wednesday Mass.
While Laney and Lucy play minor celebrities, I take up softball. The coach gushes about my hand-eye coordination and uncanny aptitude for the game. It reminds me of Gibbo in the driveway of the beach house when I was ten, saying I was a natural.
Just before Easter a letter arrives from Dougie. I’m the first one home, so Laney and Lucy don’t see it among the bills. I sit on my bed, my heart pounding, imaging every word I want to be written in it.
I’m still on my bed crying when Laney and Lucy come home.
“Dougie has leukaemia,” I sob, his letter now wet and crumpled in my hand. They shrug and ask who’s Dougie.
Later, when Laney and Lucy are asleep, I turn the light on and smooth his letter out, reading the same paragraph over and over again: There’s only one thing in this world that’s ever beaten me and that’s you Lori. After that, the Big L is gonna be a breeze.
He invites me to his thirteenth birthday party and I take a succession of buses and trains to get from Brighton to Altona. His smile is still the same, his eyes as blue and calm as the sea, but his skin is pale and shrunken around his head, or maybe it looks like that because all his hair is tucked under the black beanie. We’ve been writing every week, but he’s never really told me what it’s like, how the leukaemia’s actually affecting him. And now’s not the time to ask.
Dougie’s the only one I know, but his friends don’t make a big deal about it. They go out of their way to make me feel part of the crew. It’s the sort of special treatment Laney and Lucy normally get and I find I’m not shy in the spotlight of their attention. I can talk to them, crack jokes, but I’m never far from Dougie.
We end up in the rumpus room, the lights dimmed and someone brings out the empty soft drink bottle. My stomach somersaults at the thought of having to kiss a strange boy: in front of all these almost-strangers, in front of Dougie. Perhaps he’s been practising—I wouldn’t put it past Dougie. He spins and it stops, pointing to me. There’s something new in his kiss and it scares me. It tells me all the things unwritten in his letters.
Everyone else is gone by 10.00pm. We’re sitting on the front lawn, wrapped in layers of coats and scarves, grateful it’s not raining, waiting for my Dad who is late again. Dougie takes my hand in his and spends lots of time tracing around my fingernails.
“It’s bad, isn’t it?” I say finally, because I have to say something. Afraid nothing will be said, and Dad will arrive.
He lets go of my hand and pulls the beanie off, runs a hand over the baldness.
“I’m not going to make it to next Summer.”
“Don’t say that.”
I snatch the beanie out of his hand and jam it over the incriminating nude nut. “You’re gonna be down on the beach at Christmas. You’re gonna hit that century.”
He starts to cry, quietly, so it’s only the heaving of his chest I hear. I put my arms around him and the two of us sit in the dew, rocking back and forth.
At 11:00pm we go inside. I ring home and get the answering machine. I’m used to being forgotten, being the invisible member of my family but this time I can’t go home. It’s not just around the corner. And Dad promised. I reminded him three times today. I even rang him at work.
“Stay,” Dougie’s Mum says. “And one of us will run you home in the morning. It’s no trouble, really.”
It’s a good lie: it’s not convenient. We live almost an hour away. Two and a half if you do it by bus and train. She smiles and squeezes my hand and I flush fluorescent, embarrassed that Dougie’s family see behind mine. That money and all the rest of it is just a nice veneer for a bunch of rotten, self-obsessed people.
I’m tossing and turning on the couch when Dougie taps me on the shoulder and then shushes me. He has a torch and motions for me to get dressed into something warm. We go back out to the rumpus room and he opens up his Dad’s booze cabinet. We sniff at the various bottles until we’ve got something we think we can both drink.
The sliding door out onto the patio squeals and we freeze, waiting for movement elsewhere in the house, but there is nothing. We set ourselves up, side-by-side on an old couch, the Coke, glasses and the bourbon on the pavers at our feet. Dougie pulls a packet of Winnie Blues from his pocket and a box of matches.
“Dad bought them for me,” he says. “You do the honours.”
He passes them to me and I unwrap them as he pours out the bourbon and coke. My hands shake when I pull the gold foil from the top to expose the ciggies, lined up like beige soldiers waiting to be incinerated. This world he and I inhabit is wrong: a world where his Dad buys him smokes, where he won’t see his fourteenth birthday, graduate from high school, go to uni, get married or do any of the things that aren’t even meant to be thought about, much less be important when you’re thirteen.
When I can’t get the ciggie lit he takes it from me and gets it going with one confident suck. And I think of when we stared each other down the length of a pitch, the way he hunched over the bat, the certainty he had. And how that seems a million years ago.
He passes me the ciggie and I suck too hard on it, double over coughing. Dougie laughs at me.
“Always going just that little bit too far,” he says and I start crying. The smoke stings my eyes.
He takes the ciggie from me and grinds it out.
“You’re still the only one to have beaten me,” he says softly and wraps a blanket around both of us. I rest my head on his shoulder and pray the night will stay, and tomorrow will never come.
* * *
Dougie’s tired and ready to go, but he accepts the doctor’s slim promises of a last ditch-effort to stop the now rampant cancer devouring him. I see him a handful of times before the summer arrives. I wag school to sit with him in the hospital. He talks about all the summers at Roadknight and I listen. He asks me about softball and I tell him half-truths and lies, so he doesn’t know I’m not going any more. What’s the point?
Just before he falls asleep—on the day school rings my parents to find out why I haven’t been there for a week—he murmurs about kissing me on New Years Eve, laughing sleepily that it set off fireworks. I know I’ll never be able to see fireworks and not think of how it felt to kiss him the first time.
The last time I see him, he’s at home and I spend the night, sometimes curled next to him on the bed, my hand on his chest feeling the weak rise and fall, other times in a chair beside the bed. And as the night darkens, I remember the other night I spent here, only this time there is no booze or cigarettes or shared blanket and I know the night can’t last forever.
By morning he’s gone.
* * *
When we arrive at Point Roadknight after Christmas, a year of high school has changed everything; the cricket bats and stumps and meandering walks to the beach in the morning replaced by skateboards and surfboards and begging rides with older siblings to Main Beach. Sam and Charlie come over the first night we’re there to ask Laney and Lucy to La Bamba at the Scout Hall. They joke when the boys are gone it’s not just jaffas they’re going to roll down the aisle. I want to remind Laney that Sam thumped her with a cricket ball last year and she swore she’d hate him forever.
But what’s the point? No one remembers last year except for me.
The world without Dougie makes no sense. I see things too clearly now: Dad’s never home, Mum’s only interested in her charity work and Laney and Lucy—the pretty daughters, the popular girls, the ones who attend school, do as they’re told and sneak kisses with the right kinds of boys. Not boys who die in Altona.
They are the perfect daughters, the Norris Twins, who don’t chop their hair off, dye it black and demand a room of their own. They don’t yell, “fuck you all.”
My family, so absorbed in themselves they don’t realise someone I loved died.
I thought my heart was broken before I got here, but the crash of the waves and the wail of the seagulls, the laughter of kids splashing in the water and the rough touch of the sand, drive deeper rifts into it.
The morning of New Year’s Eve Gibbo lands on my doorstep: a foot taller, wearing contact lenses, his voice cracking, recognisable only from the smattering of freckles across his nose and the same tattered Grade 5 exercise book in his hand.
“We’re going down to play cricket,” he says and I see the black band around his arm. “For Dougie.”
We stand there, my hand gripping tight to the door. The impulse to slam the door in his face is overwhelming until I see my sadness reflected in his eyes.
“Everyone’s said yes, but no one knew how to come ask you.”
I think of all the entries from last summer in The Book of Gibbo and nod.
I gather up the remnants of the last three summers: the old blue cabbage hat and the almost empty pot of green zinc cream. The Star Wars t-shirt doesn’t fit any more, so I pull out a brand new singlet and pull it over my swimmers, pull on a baggy white pair of jersey shorts. I don’t bother with thongs. It’s time my feet toughened up. Only sissies walk to the beach in thongs.
Gibbo takes a black band from his pocket and helps me tie it on.
The boys are clustered just off the boat ramp waiting for us, all with matching black armbands. Kenny has the bat, Sam the wickets and Charlie is throwing a brand new tennis ball up and down. Roddy, Jimmy and Balls are standing looking up the expanse of sand, discussing how far we’ll have to go to have free rein without pissing off the sunbakers and families.
“Eh, Lori’s here!” Kenny calls out, and jabs the bat in my direction. “Good to see ya. Still putting Merv to shame?”
I blush beneath my green warrior strips.
Sam and Charlie nod hello.
I take a mental roll call: Danny’s not here and neither is Lano. Jimmy explains their families opted for somewhere else along the coast.
This year there is no one to replace those that can’t play.
Charlie tosses the ball in the air and I snatch it up.
“First to a hundred then,” I say and set off down the beach, the salt air and the smell of new cotton filling my chest.
by Jodi Cleghorn
First published in Tincture Literary Journal, 2014