Bleak morning, rain and cold, with the common room full and stinking with wet. Richard hauled off his jacket and it dropped with a slap. He slumped down on the couch next to Scott and Adam, obviously tired. ‘I shouldn’t have come in today. Man.’
Scott raised an eyebrow. ‘You been drinking?’
Richard shook his head. ‘There have been many excuses. But no. Stayed up real late doing, I don’t know. Doing not very much at all. Just couldn’t get to sleep.’
‘Is that stress I see on your brow, Mr King? Bloody hell. Thought you could handle anything.’
‘It just seems really soon. It is really soon.’
‘Two weeks, huh?’
Adam nodded. ‘That is soon. Wow. Are you nervous?’
Richard didn’t answer. Scott followed his gaze, dripping classmates in swearing circles as rain beat against the windows, and outside was the woodwork shop and then the field, rain-churned, heavy. Eventually he replied. ‘Things will be different over there.’
Movement by the door caught their eye. ‘Well, look who’s here,’ Scott said as Dennis came in. They all watched as he went sideways to join Shane by the stereo.
‘Hey,’ Richard said. ‘A thing. Caster are playing the Friday before the ball, before I go. I bought four tickets for us.’
Scott raised his eyebrows. ‘Are you serious? Caster are playing?’
‘Yep. It’ll be huge, and we’re going.’
‘How much do we owe you?’ Adam asked.
‘No, fuck, this is on me. Farewell gift.’
Scott broke out in a grin. ‘Damn! Thanks man! You said four tickets? Who, Lauren?’
Richard shook his head. ‘I’m going to invite Dennis. Is that cool?’
Adam nodded. ‘Yeah, great idea.’
Richard looked at Scott. Scott shrugged. ‘What am I, the wanker? Yeah, go ask him.’
Scott watched as Richard went over. He wasn’t sure what the hell to make of Dennis any more. It was like he’d gone over the dark side or something. Whatever made him happy.
They were only a few steps away, and Scott could hear everything. Shane punched the air enthusiastically. ‘Richie Richie, is a boofie, don’t look back he’s getting goofy!’
‘Hey Rich,’ Dennis said, ‘how are things?’
‘Good enough. You guys?’
‘Boofie! I made that up.’
‘We’re sweet, man. Wet, I guess.’
‘I’m like a condom!’ Shane rubbed his head vigorously.
‘Hey, Den, are you busy next Friday night?’
‘Why, what’s on?’
Scott watched as Richard adjusted around Shane’s presence. ‘A small farewell outing. The old foursome one last time.’
‘Boofie!’ yelled Shane. ‘Me wanna be old foursome! Ha ha ha ha!’
Dennis nodded. ‘Yeah, sure. I’m not busy.’
‘Good. I’ve bought tickets to Caster.’
Dennis was impressed. ‘Hell. Big man. Hey, don’t you guys have a game?’
‘We’re gonna go in afterwards.’
‘Yeah, that sounds excellent. Count me in. Hey, we’ll be along to watch tonight, too. Finals, huh?’
‘Finals,’ Richard said with a grin.
Tonight. Scott took a deep breath. Lauren was coming to watch. That meant he needed a plan. He’d fucked everything up last night, but that was okay. Tomorrow was another day, and he was going to fire on all cylinders this time. Nothing could possibly go wrong.
Damon Taylor was shouting in Scott’s face. ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing? Is there a big S on your underwear I’m not aware of? Get the hell off the court and sit your ass down. I’ll deal with you later on. For christ’s sake!’
Scott’s face was burning red. Shame. He hated this feeling more than anything else. He hated how it made him hate himself so bad.
He deserved every word. He didn’t know what he’d been doing.
Lauren was in the stands. With Dennis.
Lauren was in the stands with Dennis.
Lauren was in the stands with Dennis.
They weren’t going to win.
They should have won. Scott knew they should have won. But they lost. He screwed up and they lost. Oh, man. He wanted to die. Death wouldn’t be so bad.
Lauren. And Dennis. Dennis and Lauren. Lauren said, ‘Almost.’
Scott rubbed his neck. ‘We should have won that. I played like crap.’
‘Ease up, Collins. You did okay.’
Fuck you, Dennis.
‘It wasn’t my best game.’ Scott smiled to show he wasn’t taking it too seriously, although he was.
Richard and Adam joined them, shaking heads and exchanging slightly rueful pleasantries. Scott tried to get his heart slowed down and his head straight. Dennis and Lauren, apparently. This wasn’t part of the plan.
Around them were the dregs of the crowd. Through the door to the gym were a couple of the sixth formers, laughing noisily and taking no-look shots at the basket.
Shane came up to them, bopping his arms about with enthusiasm. He went up to Adam and poked him in the belly, giggling. Dennis and Lauren laughed and joined in the chat, and Adam smiled too, but thinly, obviously upset by the loss.
Fuck you, Dennis, and Shane, as well. The pair of you.
James appeared at Scott’s side. ‘Damn. This sucks.’
Scott nodded. ‘I fucked up.’
‘Ah. Don’t worry about that. We all have bad days. Next week, huh?’
Scott was glad of the distraction from Dennis and Lauren. Phil came over to join them, and following along was Paula. Paula! As well! Everyone was here to see his humiliation. Splendid. She looked younger here than she had in the club. She caught Scott’s eye and smiled at him, and he gave her a nod.
‘Hey, what are you guys up to now?’ James asked. ‘We’re just gonna have a quiet one at home, watch a video or something. Come over if you want. I’m not in the mood for a party.’
Scott blanked on this. He wasn’t in the mood. He wanted to crawl under a rock. Actually, he wanted to drag Lauren under the rock with him so he’d at least get a moment alone with her. Fucking Dennis.
Richard stepped in beside Scott. ‘Hey, what’s happening?’
Phil clapped. ‘Richard! You were devastating out there!’
‘Not quite enough, though.’ He shrugged. Scott wasn’t going to argue. He hadn’t been at his best. But if they had to rely on Richard being at his best, they were screwed for semifinals anyway, because he’d be gone by then.
‘Not like this clown,’ Phil continued, indicating James, ‘he shouldn’t even have shown up tonight. Couldn’t shoot, couldn’t defend, couldn’t pass…’ James started slapping his face but somehow Phil kept talking through it. ‘Couldn’t do shit all except turn over the ball…’
‘You played well, James,’ said Richard, and because it was Richard the discussion ended there. ‘Hey, Paula.’
Paula smiled. ‘See, Phil? Everyone knows me.’ She glanced at Scott.
Phil admonished her. ‘You’re not as grown up as you think you are, little girl.’
‘Am too,’ she replied, then giggled. ‘I know precisely how grown up I am.’
‘And how grown up is that, exactly?’
‘Now wouldn’t you like to know?’
James said, ‘Video at my place. You guys should come.’
Richard glanced at Scott. ‘Yeah, that sounds cool. I’ll see how we go. See you outside?’
Phil and Paula headed out, and James went into the changing rooms. They’d only been gone a second when Shane appeared between Richard and Scott, gently swerving his pelvis. ‘Ooh, that Paula. Do you reckon he’ll score her tonight, Richie?’
‘Don’t ask me,’ Richard said.
Dennis joined them. ‘Why, you want a piece?’
‘I could take a number! Ha ha ha! She is a fine piece of ass! Wasted on Phil. Not that I don’t love the guy! But I wanna love the girl, you know?’
‘She is cute,’ Richard said.
‘I’ll make her bark,’ Shane said, slapping his own behind and thrusting his hips back and forth. ‘Oh baby baby!’
Dennis shook his head. ‘Good luck to him. Hey, come here. Sorry, guys, I just want to demonstrate to Shane that it’s actually quite difficult to get the ball in the hoop, you know?’
Shane growled, letting himself be led away. ‘Ha! I spit on you! How hard can it possibly be?’
When they had gone, Richard put a hand on Scott’s shoulder. ‘It’s not good news.’
Scott felt a familiar sinking feeling, although it seemed to be sinking deeper than it usually managed.
Adam and Lauren were talking. Adam broke off to beam at Scott. ‘So do you have a date for the ball organised yet?’
Oh, fucking hell. ‘No.’
‘You’d better get on to it, then,’ Adam continued. ‘Dennis asked Lauren! Isn’t that great? We’ll have such a good time!’
Scott looked at Lauren, and Lauren looked at Scott, and she nodded at him, and he had no idea what was going on in her head, and the last layers of his self-directed bullshit got burned away.
A wild roar erupted from behind them. Everyone turned to look as Dennis bounced towards them, laughing hysterically.
‘What?’ Scott demanded.
Dennis pointed over his shoulder, gasping for breath. ‘Shane just hit a half court shot on his first try!’
Shane stood at midcourt flexing his biceps, and his distinctive grin-shaped voice echoed: ‘Francis uber alles! Ha ha ha ha ha! Francis uber alles!’
Scott went home.
He wasn’t angry, really. He was sad. He was unhappy and sad and it was all his fault, he was sure of it.
Dennis and Lauren? Where had that come from? How had he not seen that coming? He should have seen that coming. What was going wrong?
He sat in his room, in the dark, brooding.
Dennis, who could have his pick of partners to the ball, had chosen Lauren. Dennis knew Scott liked her, he’d called him on it before. So what was this?
He couldn’t find any anger. Not yet. Maybe what he was feeling was what you get before anger really gets going. Because while he wasn’t fired up with rage, he was, very definitely, not happy.
All Dennis had done was ask a girl to a ball. He had perfect plausible deniability. Scott couldn’t say anything because then Dennis would win.
Was it because Scott had given up on him? That big argument in town that time, was this revenge for that?
Dennis was making a point. He was trying to show that Scott had made the wrong choice.
The phone rang and Scott sat up, surprised. He wasn’t in the mood. It might be one of those people wanting his father, always so angry at reaching the child and not the man. He sat there and let it ring on, waiting to see if his father would get it. There were no sounds of motion from the TV room. Seven rings now. Must be someone who knew the family to hold on so long.
Scott went downstairs and took the call on the tenth ring. ‘Hello?’
‘Hey, slowpoke! What, did I get you off the toilet?’
Scott grinned, his mood dispelled. ‘Hey Sands, how are you?’
‘I’m pretty good, big bro. Well, kind of good, I sort of sprained my ankle today playing netball.’
‘Oh yeah? Why’d you do that?’
‘Oh I don’t know, because I wanted to see how far I could twist it? What do you think, it was an accident, doofus! How about you then?’
‘All right,’ Scott said. ‘How’s mum?’
Sandra sighed. ‘Don’t ask so I don’t have to say. How’s Dad?’
‘Ditto. Why are you calling, anyway? Not to bitch about family.’
‘No, that’s what Christmas is for.’
‘Huh. Little sister, you have been practising.’
‘Lots of stupid boys at school, good to practise on.’
‘The opposite, actually. Look, do you have the number for Auntie Cathy’s bach? We need to talk to her and she’s there and we can’t find it.’
‘Oh, really? Hang on… got a pen?’ Scott read the number out. ‘Why is Mum after Cathy?’
‘Don’t ask me. Some favour to be asked, no doubt. God save us all. Thanks bro, anyway. Hey, that reminds me, have you had your formal yet?’
Scott’s eyes narrowed. ‘How does that remind you of my ball?’
‘Shut up! Okay, so Mum reminded me today and said I had to ask you. Is it soon?’
‘Yeah, it’s soon. But don’t make a big deal out of it, okay?’
‘You kidding? It’s a big deal! We want to see lots of photos, okay? Scottie in a tux, babe on his arm… Who are you going with? Anyone I know?’ Sandra waited for Scott to answer, and she noticed his hesitation. ‘Are there complications?’
‘Yeah, sort of. The girl I was going to ask, I got beaten to.’
‘Bummer! So get over her and ask someone else. I mean, hel-lo! Formal!’
‘That’s what I’m thinking.’ Scott didn’t actually know what he was thinking.
‘Let me guess, you’d been planning on this target girl for ages, and now she’s out of the running you’re stuck for ideas?’
‘Fuck, you have been practicing.’
‘Women’s intuition. Who else is there to ask?’
‘I don’t know if there is anyone.’
‘That’s bullshit. There must be someone. Stop being such a prick.’
Scott heard himself say, ‘Well, maybe.’
‘I knew it! Ask her. No excuses. Do it now, hang up on me and call her. Now!’
‘Easy, it goes like this, hi this is Scott wanna go to my formal?’ Sandra giggled. ‘Now now now! Bye big brother!’
‘Bye, little sister.’
‘Sometimes I wonder how the hell you get by without me telling you what to do,’ Sandra said. ‘Now call her!’ She hung up.
Scott wasn’t too sure about calling her.
He thought he might go around to her house instead.
She’d smiled, recognising him, leaning in so he could hear her. ‘Oh yeah, hi! I’ve seen you around, Scott, right? Are you going to buy me a drink?’
Scott could smell her perfume when she leaned in close. Her arms were smooth and pale and bare to the neck except for spaghetti-string dress straps. A silver necklace, fragile-thin. The dress almost went down to her knees and at the top displayed no cleavage, but it caught the light in strange ways, shimmering metallic blue as it clung to her curves. Her eyes were on him when he looked back up.
She drank her cocktail in delicate sips. ‘Thanks. I like it.’
He watched her out of the corner of his eye. She was very pretty. She caught him looking. He glanced away, then leaned back in, his lips almost brushing the curve of her ear. ‘That perfume you’re wearing is great!’
‘It’s my favourite,’ she said back to him.
‘May’s got such a thing for Dennis. I guess he is pretty hot.’ Paula put her hand on the inside of Scott’s elbow. ‘Don’t you think?’
‘He kinda makes it hard for the rest of us to make an impression.’
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ Paula replied, curving like a cat in her little blue dress, ‘you’re not doing too badly.’
Arriving at the Travers house, thoughts circling. He rode his bicycle around the back and left it leaning against the house. He saw the pool through the trees. What he’d seen that night, that party. Waking up in an armchair, sleep-fugged, drunk, deciding to head home. Pausing, queasy, with his hands on the handlebars. Looking through the trees.
Dennis getting into the pool. A girl, naked, swaying drunk, getting in the water with him. Them embracing, he kept watching knowing it was wrong, embracing but Dennis held his head back from her. He held his head away.
Scott looked away from the pool. Betrayal both ways, then. He went inside.
It was very strange to be in James’ house without a party going on. He went into the kitchen, and Paula and James were in there. James was organising beers, by the looks, while Paula just leaned against the bench restlessly. She spotted him first, and smiled.
James checked him out. ‘Didn’t think you were coming, dude.’
‘Yeah, I thought I should. Is that cool?’
‘Sure. Give us a hand with these, eh?’
Scott went to help with the carrying. As he did so he turned back to Paula, who was waiting for him to look at her again. He found that indescribably attractive.
In the lounge, waiting, were Richard and Phil, already started on the fruits of the munchie run – popcorn, chippies, other shit. Scott sat down on the second couch. A moment later, Paula slid into place next to him.
‘Could you pass me some of that chocolate stuff?’ she asked him.
Phil sniggered. ‘Yeah baby, we know what you like!’
‘Geez, Phil! Do you always have to talk to me like that? Pervert!’ She stuck out her tongue, which only seemed to encourage him. ‘Protect me, Scott!’
Scott, surprised, looked at Phil, who didn’t seem to notice.
James distributed beers, dimmed the lights and settled into the big armchair. ‘Let’s get this show on the road then.’
Scott took a swig. He looked sideways at Paula, who was dimly lit by the television. She was impossibly pretty. Genuinely gorgeous by anyone’s definition. Any idiot could see that Paula was hot stuff. And she was sitting next to him and smiling at him and asking him to protect her. She was flirting with him. He hadn’t needed to even do anything.
Maybe Dennis had the right idea after all. Just go for it and let things fall into place around you.
After the movie, everyone was sitting around, talking. The beers had kept coming, which had got everyone nicely relaxed, and the disappointment of the basketball game seemed quite distant. Plans and strategies and effortful action all seemed faintly ridiculous. Scott was returning from his second trip to the toilet when he came across Paula in the kitchen. She saw him and grinned.
‘Hey, you. I want you to entertain me now.’
‘Sure,’ Scott said, pausing at the benchtop. He leaned against it and looked at her. ‘Not sure what I can do to keep you amused.’
‘I hope you’re not still brooding over that whole basketball thing?’
‘Nah. Well, maybe a bit.’ He thought about it. ‘Nah.’
‘Great! I think you’d gloom up the evening if you kept that up, huh?’
Paula bit her lip. ‘So, do you want to see my room?’
They went upstairs. Paula held the door open for him, then closed it. She kept the lights off, and walked over the window, drawing the curtains wide open. ‘Do you want to come on to my balcony?’
From the balcony there was a great view up into the sky, which seemed particularly full of stars. Scott looked down. He could see the front garden, green and fresh. He had an irrational urge to leap off the balcony and land in the grass. He thought that if he did, he might sink into the soil and become part of it.
‘I’m glad you’re here,’ Paula said. ‘I would have been so bored without you coming.’
‘Surely not,’ Scott said. He was tempted to say more, but settled on holding his tongue. It had worked so far. He was just rolling with things, easing back and letting it happen. It seemed to be working fine.
It was working better than fine. He’d never felt so successful in his life.
Hell, go for it. ‘Do you want to come to the senior ball with me?’
‘Okay,’ Paula said, ‘I’d love to.’
‘Cool.’ Scott thought about it for a second. ‘You don’t think James will mind, do you?’
‘Pooh to James, he can’t stop me.’
‘No he can’t. Awesome. I think I have to leap off this balcony now.’ He grinned at her. ‘Give me a kiss for luck.’
Paula leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.
He put his hands on the railing and vaulted over it. The earth rose to meet him.