Lesley jumped as the school bell rang. She looked up from her maths study notes. Natalie was nowhere to be seen. Lesley joined the queue at the classroom door as calmly as her thumping heart would allow. So much was riding on this final exam.
Is Natalie even going to show up?
The door opened and the class filed forward with all the enthusiasm of factory workers on a Tuesday and took their seats. An unkind thought tickled Lesley’s forebrain. Natalie is going to fail the maths test. And I will be going to the Gold Coast with Uncle Garry for the whole school holidays without her. The thought brought a smile.
Lesley and Natalie were cousins. Born within a week of each other thirteen years ago to a pair of sisters scarcely older than Lesley and Natalie were now. Uncle Garry, only a few years older than his sisters, had done his best to help out.
Seeing that Natalie was struggling with maths, he had come around every Saturday morning to tutor them both and promised to take them to the Gold Coast for the school holidays if they got a B+ or better on this final exam.
Usually Natalie stayed over when her mother Barb was working at the local bar. But Natalie had been sneaking out almost every night this week while Lesley sat at her desk, studying. Lesley had kept the secret. Natalie didn’t have to issue any dire threats about snitches getting stitches. Not after a lifetime of well-aimed and well-timed punches to the gut. Natalie was a master at picking a moment when no one was looking. Lesley never complained anymore. No one cared. Except perhaps Uncle Garry, but Lesley could never quite pluck up the nerve to confide in him.
The clock ticked one minute past the hour, and there she was.
Natalie swaggered in just shy of actually late in the new skirt she had forced Lesley to take up on the weekend. Short enough to show too much thigh but long enough to escape a uniform infringement.
“Alright class.” Ms Norman monotoned. “Final maths exam. I hope you’ve been studying.” Her scornful gaze flicked around the under-achievers in the room. Most flinched away.
Ms Norman walked to the back of the class and moved forward placing stapled sheafs of paper face down on desks.
Natalie quietly picked up her pen and flipped back the corner of the test paper. As Ms Norman passed, Natalie scribbled her name, staring straight ahead the whole time. With an enviable sleight of hand, she swapped her paper with Lesley’s behind Ms Norman’s broad back.
Lesley’s heart sank. Of course she would do this to me.
She took a deep breath. You can’t do Natalie’s test for her. Just put up your hand. Tell Miss. The evidence is right there in front of you. Natalie’s name is on this paper. If you don’t tell Miss right now, then you are cheating too. Sure. Natalie will kick seven bells through you for dobbing her in. But you can’t do this. You can’t. You can’t.
“You have until the end of the period. Turn over your papers and begin.”
Of its own accord, Lesley’s hand turned over Natalie’s test paper and picked up the pen.
When the bell rang at the end of the lesson, Natalie deftly swapped the papers back. Despair deepened as Lesley looked along Natalie’s half-hearted guesses and blanks. Ms Norman set down her Mills and Boons novel and heaved herself out of her chair. She started to collect the papers from the opposite end of the classroom.
Hope thumped in Lesley’s chest. She snatched up her pen and corrected as many of Natalie’s wrong answers as she could. Her memory, fresh from writing them on Natalie’s paper, supplied the correct answers.
A kick from under table and the pen popped out of her grasp. It clattered along between the desks and rolled toward the front of the classroom taking all hope of Uncle Garry’s promised trip to the Gold Coast with it.
Ms Newman picked up the paper in front of Lesley and paused.
Has she spotted it? Lesley prayed hard that that this whole sinful sham would be played out in front of Mr Hardcastle the principal and Natalie would be exposed as the bullying bitch she is.
“You forgot to put your name on your paper.” Cold disappointment washed down Lesley’s gullet.
“I dropped my pen Miss.”
“Here. Use mine.” Natalie said brightly.
Again, Lesley’s cowardly traitorous hand moved of its own accord, took the pen, signed the test paper and sealed her fate.
“Alright, class dismissed. You can collect your graded papers on Friday.”
That Friday night was the once-a-month dinner when the girls, their mothers and their Uncle Garry got together. Aunty Barb’s new boyfriend Billy was joining them. And there would be only one topic of conversation.
Their forks clinked quietly under the sound of Natalie’s proud chatter to Barbara and smug grins at Billy.
Lesley couldn’t put her finger on why Billy gave her the creeps. Aunty Barb had certainly brought home worse than him before. Lesley felt his gaze sliding away from her and back to his fidgeting hands in his lap when she looked up.
Lesley pushed her chicken parmigiana around the plate. It was her favourite, but tonight her stomach was in knots.
I’m going to tell, she thought. Right here. Right now. I’ll tell Uncle Garry that Natalie made me cheat.
The meal came to its end in its usual fashion by Uncle Garry putting both his huge hands down beside his plate with a gentle thump and declaring, “Shelley, that was the best darn chicken schnitzel ever.”
“It was a chicken parmigiana, Garry, you first class bogan.” Lesley’s mum shot back the standard countermove in this old family game.
“So girls …” Lesley tried very hard not to jump. Billy had seen it though, and he leaned back, put his hands behind his bald head and stretched out one foot under the table. It brushed against Lesley’s leg and she hauled inward on a startle. She looked up at Billy who left his foot where it was and looked her up and down. Natalie shot an angry glare at Billy and then at Lesley.
“Girls?” Uncle Garry repeated.
Lesley put down her knife and fork and slid her chair back a bit, just out of Billy’s reach.
“Yes, Uncle Garry?” said Natalie, with her ‘good little girl’ mask firmly in place.
“The maths test, girl! Your ticket to a whole two weeks on the Gold Coast. With me!” He put one hand on his chest and stretched out the other through the back wall in the approximate direction of the promised land of sun and surf and rollercoasters.
“I got an A+ Uncle Garry. Been studying real hard.” Natalie sat back with a simper.
“Really?” Uncle Garry’s heavy brows joined together in a frown. “That’s quite a step up.”
“Well done sweetheart.” Aunty Barb, sitting next to Natalie, leaned over and squeezed Natalie’s shoulder. “Knew you could do it. Nothing wrong with that brain of yours when you use it.” She put her cheek against Natalie’s and they mimed a kiss.
“Isn’t that great, Billy.”
Billy looked up. “Yeh … great.”
Aunty Barb leered across the table at him. “Two weeks all to ourselves! Party time.” She winked an eye heavy with blue eyeshadow. Billy gave a quick false smile.
“Nat, have you got the papers there love?” asked Uncle Garry.
Natalie bounced up from her seat and fetched both test papers from the dresser.
“And what about you Lesley?” Garry asked as he took the test papers from Natalie. Lesley exhaled. She couldn’t say a word in her own defence. The total failure that was her character was summed up perfectly in the C+ on the second test paper.
“What is it Garry?” asked Shelley.
“It’s a C+” Uncle Garry’s brows knitted together in a frown.
“What?” Shelley gasped looking at Lesley for the first time that evening.
Aunty Barb snickered.
“May I leave the table please?” Lesley’s voice was raspy and hollow.
“Not yet love.” Garry’s words were kind, but his tone was firm. “Natalie.”
“Yes, Uncle Garry?” Natalie sat up straight.
“How many square metres are in a hectare?”
“Pardon?” Natalie asked. Lesley froze in panic tinged with hope.
“It’s question number five if that helps.” A hush deepened over the table as Barb and Shelley tuned in.
“Lesley. I know you know the answer, because we covered that one together last week. And yet on your paper, the answer is not just wrong.” He squinted a bit closer. “It’s in Natalie’s handwriting.”
Natalie looked thunderous. She shot a murderous look at Lesley.
What! I didn’t say anything, Lesley wanted to shriek back at her.
“Lesley!” said Shelley. “What did you do?”
The siding of her own mother against her stung sharper than any slap.
“Shelley, don’t be too hard on Lesley,” Uncle Garry said sternly. “We all know that Natalie can be hard to say no to.” He dropped the papers on the table.
“I’m sorry ladies…” he was talking to Barb and Shelley now, “we can’t be condoning this.” He sat square to Natalie, looking her straight in the eye as no one else dared to do.
“Natalie. There’s no Gold Coast holiday for you,” he said.
Natalie exploded with rage. She stood up, knocking her chair backward and stormed off.
“Garry, you promised!” Barb howled.
“Sorry Barb. Cheating’s cheating. Can’t be allowed.”
Barb scoffed and crossed her arms under her sagging bosom.
“Now Lesley,” Uncle Garry leaned forward over the table. “You can’t let Natalie push you around like that.” His words were kindly spoken. If anyone would understand, it would be Uncle Garry. “But you cheated too. So there’s no Gold Coast holiday for you either.”
No Gold Coast. The rage evaporated leaving a frozen well of fear in its wake. I’m stuck with Natalie for the whole school holidays.
Lesley’s anxiety gleefully supplied scenarios on how Natalie might exact her revenge. Maybe she would hold Natalie down and put Billy’s pet python on her face. Or put a spider down the back of her shirt.
Or maybe Natalie would make her sweat for two whole weeks and then, on the first day back at school, pour chocolate milk down the back of her skirt to make it look like Lesley had pooped herself.
Lesley looked up into Billy’s smirking eyes. “Tough luck kid. But you know, chin up.” He placed a clammy hand on her knee. Lesley shot to her feet and fled. The sounds of the escalating fight at the table rang in her ears.
The next two weeks were a constant nightmare of DEFCON 2 level alertness. And like a soldier on high alert Lesley practiced her drills. She secured her sleeping quarters with a chair under the door. She checked her shoes before putting them on. She looked behind every door. She never read more than ten pages or sat still for more than five minutes.
She pulled every playdate and sleepover favour she possibly could. The end of the holidays was almost here.
Lesley shot upward of the couch dropping her book on her foot. Shelley leaned down and picked the book up. “My, you’re jumpy darling.”
Shelley drew her daughter into a hug and ran a cool palm across Lesley’s sweaty brow. “What’s wrong?”
An overwhelming urge to confide slackened Lesley’s tense muscles. Held tears froze her throat. Even if her voice would work, she had no idea what she would say.
Shelley dropped down a few inches to Lesley’s eye level. Her warm brown eyes were ringed by heavy kohl and licked with three shades of grey eyeshadow. “You got yer rags, luv?”
Lesley shook her head. Yet another brag that Natalie held over her. Natalie had got her first period six months ago. Along with boobs and hips, all on the same day.
“Don’t worry. Your time will come. Enjoy it while you don’t have it!”
Lesley looked up at her mother’s piled up hair do. Her heart constricted. She knew what was coming next.
“Anyway, me and Barb are heading out tonight.” Don’t say it. “And you’ll be staying over at Barb’s with Natalie.”
“Oh don’t be like that Lesley. Yer not old enough to stay home by yerself yet. That’s the law.”
Lesley put all her fears into a single look of reproach at her mother.
“Don’t worry. Billy’s staying in tonight to look after you both. Hurry up and get your bedroll.”
Lesley stood on the footpath outside the overgrown garden of Natalie’s house. Lesley slid her bedroll off her back and looked along the street to the park at its end. It was a fine evening. No sign of rain. Long neglected hope suggested the beginnings of a plan.
The car horn hooted. Lesley was too strung out to jump. Aunty Barb came bustling out in her best going-out frock. All perfume and make up and springy curls. She dropped a kiss on Lesley’s head as she passed and jumped in the car with her sister.
Billy lounged in the doorway, framed by the dim light inside. A shadow made of shadows. He gestured into the house with a lazy nod.
The TV flickered in the corner of the living room. Natalie stared at it with singular intensity, sunk deep in the lounge as though the force of the TV transmission had pinned her there. She swivelled her thousand yard stare at Lesley. Lesley surprised herself by holding the stare.
Natalie’s eyes were red rimmed and held less venom than Lesley expected. There was something else there too. Something Lesley had never seen before.
A thump from the kitchen broke the stare down. Billy was pulling food out of the fridge to make way for beers.
He gave her a toothy grin that did not extend to his eyes.
“Do something with all that, would you darl?” Billy pointed at the side of bacon and carton of eggs on the table. “I got mates coming round from the pub in a bit. They’ll want some grub.”
Lesley swallowed her surprise. “Okay. Be right back.”
Lesley trotted up to Natalie’s bedroom and opened the window. She looked down the veranda roof to the hawthorn tree. Only a short leap away. The possums made it all the time. And tonight, so would she. She’d pick her moment carefully, grab her bed roll, get out the window and down the tree and then? Well, she’d just shelter in the park under a tree for the night. It would be fun!
She thumped down her bedroll knocking over Natalie’s bin under the desk. A white plastic stick popped out. Lesley frowned, put it all back and turned to go back downstairs. Natalie was right behind her. Lesley jumped.
“Shut the window.”
A smack on Lesley’s cheek blurred her vision and the window slammed shut behind her.
“Get cooking, bitch. They’ll be here soon.” Lesley rubbed her stinging cheek and followed Natalie down the stairs.
Cringing from the spitting fat of the pan, Lesley served up platters of eggs, bacon, toast and beans. She heaped it all on the table in a pile just as three men reeled through the front door in a cloud of beery stink. They piled in on Billy with hugs and howls and grunts. They ignored Natalie and Lesley and fell on the food with slobbery grunts.
Lesley darted forward to grab something for herself. Natalie’s hand took her by the elbow with surprising gentleness and lead her away from the kitchen, up the stairs and back into Natalie’s bedroom.
Natalie wedged her chair under the door handle. She sat on her bed, saying nothing and doing nothing.
The sounds of the consumption were replaced by the scraping of chairs on linoleum, the shouty murmur of the television and clinks of bottles. The beery shouty banter increased in swells and roils. Natalie cringed at each shouting crescendo.
Natalie never cringes.
“I know what you’re planning Lesley.” A frozen stone dropped down Lesley’s spine. “But you can’t.”
Natalie’s hand slid under her pillow and pulled out something long and sharp. “You’re not going anywhere.”
Lesley looked desperately out the window past the hawthorn tree and toward the bush reserve.
“There’s going to be a lot of blood,” Natalie said. It was a statement not a threat. “But it’s going to be okay.”
The long sharp thing was a knitting needle.
“Mum did this once. I helped her. I cleaned it all up and no one knew.”
Natalie turned the knitting needle in her hand toward her own crotch and Lesley’s poor frozen brain threw out a connection to the white stick in the bin under the desk.
Natalie is pregnant?
A nasty streak yanked hard on Lesley’s heart. Do it. You deserve this. This is really going to hurt you. And it might even kill you. Good riddance.
Natalie curled inward around the knitting needle, bracing herself.
“No Natalie, don’t do it!” Lesley cowardice betrayed her again. “There’s another way.” But Lesley had no idea what that would be.
Slow heavy boot treads echoed up the stairs. Natalie’s head snapped toward her barricaded door. Lesley snatched the knitting needle and ran for the window. She wrenched open the window and threw the knitting needle out. Ting, ting-ting.
Natalie grabbed her hair at the crown yanking back her head. But the expected punch in the small of the back didn’t come.
The boot treads kept coming up the stairs and stopped outside the door. The two girls froze in their struggle.
“Jonno!” Billy’s voice echoed up to them. “Yer drongo. The toilet’s down here.”
After twenty panicked heartbeats the boots shuffled away from the door and slowly back down the stairs.
Lesley flicked her fingers backward into Natalie’s eyes. A tiny squeal and Natalie let go. She slumped beside her bed. Still full of fight, but beaten.
In the moment that stretched out between them, a plan formed.
Lesley’s held out her hand. “Natalie. Come with me. I can help you.”
Natalie looked up at Lesley’s extended hand with eyes full of suspicion tinged with hope.
“We can fix this.” Lesley drew Natalie to her feet and to her enormous surprise into a hug. Lesley threw open the window.
“We’ll hide in the park tonight. And I’ll punch you in the guts. Really really hard.”