The King house was as full as it had ever been. People in all corners, snappy banter, smiles and wine glasses emptying. They were leaving the day after tomorrow. Goodbye to New Zealand forever. So a party had been called in their honour, in his father’s honour mostly, and the house was crowded. The Americans were of course the loudest, their laughter ringing through the halls like church bells, knowing how to hold an audience, knowing how to make a party happen.
There was no-one young at the party, apart from Richard. The younger people from the Embassy had already left, both of them, leaving together – there had been whispers, are they a couple now? More laughter. An older crowd was no problem for an embassy brat like him but he still felt on show. They were leaving, he was leaving, but dodging half-sloshed adults made the upcoming upheaval fade from view.
So many people! New bodies kept squeezing in the doors, even long after his father’s speech. How selfish was he not to have considered the dislocation his parents might be going through? He wasn’t even sure how much of a dislocation it was, they seemed so matter of fact about it. His father was a sensible man. He would have figured this out years ago, the secret to coming and going, how to hold your friendships at just that right level. He’d had to work it out for himself.
‘Oh, Richard,’ said Naomi, taking his arm, ‘I was just trying to talk to the Grinters about you.’ Richard’s mother didn’t drink often, and when she did it showed in her wide smile and easy laugh. ‘Why don’t you grab a plate of nibbles and go find them?’ So he passed through the throng with a dish of crispy fish savouries. Women hid their mouths and licked crumbs off their lips, and even the front corridor was full of people.
Daniel King was still holding court in the front room. ‘Ah, here’s the boy!’ he said as Richard came near. ‘My son Richard, everyone!’ Then he reeled off the names of those around him, more for their benefit than Richard’s. Richard nodded at them all politely, not bothering to try and learn the names. They’d all be history soon.
‘Why, he looks just like you, Daniel,’ said someone with a wry Kiwi accent.
‘Richard, I bet you’re excited to be getting home,’ said an American.
‘Sure. But I’ll miss New Zealand heaps.’
‘Heaps! He said heaps, Daniel, your son’s gone native on you.’
‘Loves that local air!’ said a Kiwi. ‘Or is it the local beer?’
‘Neither – it’s the charming people,’ Richard said. General laughter.
‘Hah! He has your knack for diplomacy then, Daniel! Let’s hope that’s the only one of your bad habits he’s picked up, huh?’
Richard displayed interest. ‘Bad habits?’
Daniel was ruddy faced beneath his beard, his eyes sparkling. He shook his head and everyone laughed. ‘Best that you don’t know, son!’ Everyone laughed. ‘We’ve had some times.’
‘And here’s to them, eh?’
‘Here’s to them!’ Daniel grabbed the man’s shoulder, the man Richard didn’t even recognise, and his voice was thick with drink and feeling, ‘You mad bastards, all of you!’
Richard felt himself drifting. He slipped away from them into the kitchen. Out the kitchen window was the old tree in the back yard, roots dug deep into the soil and limbs stretching high into the sky. He saw himself reflected in the glass, broken face overlaid on the tree. He wished he’d asked the girl her name yesterday. He wanted to know her name.
He hadn’t meant to kiss Kirsty that night at Jacob’s. It had just sort of happened. They’d both wanted it to happen. They were talking but they weren’t saying anything real and then she was in his arms and he was leaning down to kiss her. But he’d pulled away. He’d gone back into the party. He’d left her there. Again.
He’d been wrong. He’d messed everything up.
Scott pulled on his tuxedo. He hadn’t thought to listen when they explained how to wear it. What the hell was he meant to do with this bit? Was this the cummerbund? What the hell was a cummerbund? He squinted into the mirror. That looked kind of right. Kind of. Bugger.
The sun was coming through gloomy clouds, which made dressing up seem even more wrong. Scott was definitely not a dressing up kind of guy and the existence of weather just seemed to underline why it was a foolish pursuit. He’d much prefer to be wearing jeans tonight. That wasn’t an option, but still.
He stopped messing with the outfit and stared at himself in the mirror. All right, he thought, the time has come. Enough not thinking about it. That never works. I’ll just fuck it all up. We Collins’ always fuck it all up, and the only way I have any chance of not doing so is to think this through.
Paula. Date. Sexy. Like her. Simple. Maybe, always, too simple. But, she’s damn cute and good for the ego and somehow she seems to like me back. She was even upset that I was going somewhere else last night. That has to be a good thing, maximum good. I think. Never had a girl grumpy she couldn’t see me before now. Every incentive to look sharp tonight.
That was one side of the issue. Other side: Lauren. Longtime crush, admit it. Years of history, never any actual action because she only turns up once in a blue moon, and now with moon all blue there’s Paula on the scene. And Dennis as her partner anyway. Except that doesn’t mean anything. Lauren and Dennis doesn’t work, anyone can see that. If ever anyone wouldn’t work with Den it was her. Too much for him. There was no need in her, and Den needed to be needed.
So where does all that lead? Lauren’s there, sure, but Paula’s right there. And maybe I don’t wake up thinking about Paula, but so what? I go to sleep thinking about her. And most tellingly, amazing that its taken me so long to get to this point because it’s a clincher, there’s never been any real indication that Lauren likes me, not like that.
Maybe I don’t even really like Lauren. Maybe I used to, and now it’s just a habit. Maybe I just like the idea of her. For that matter, maybe I don’t like either of them. Maybe I just think I do.
Scott stroked his chin and realised he might need a shave. Shit. He leaned close to the mirror to check how much stubble was coming up, decided it was probably worth the effort.
Okay. Getting nowhere fast, but got to make the call. Attempt at defining question, then, the real question: who would I rather sleep with? Which is stupidly optimistic, but this is the ball and times are changing and so’s my luck by the look of things, and anyway would I jump in the water if I didn’t know how to swim? Of course, there was more to it than the prettiness factor, much more to it, there was more to a relationship than lust, but all other things being equal: which one would he sleep with, given the choice?
Actually, since the afterparty was at Paula’s enormous empty house but Lauren lived with the entire Curtis family, that choice might be somewhat illusory.
Shit – condoms. Never had to think about condoms before, because never had a chance of having sex before. Was this a chance? They come in three-packs, does that mean we have to do it three times? Was that an average or an upper limit? God, what if Paula found condoms in my jacket pocket while we were at the ball, what would that mean? She’d know where I was coming from, for sure, she’s worldly-wise enough for that, but she’d get it wrong because I don’t even know where I’m coming from. Condoms in my pocket is like, I’m so sure of what I’m about. Is that the wrong look? And Lauren – how can I take condoms when there are two people, and I’d be thinking different thoughts about them, but they’d both see the same thought, unless I wanted them to, but what if one of them noticed and I’d already chosen the other… No, no, no. No condoms. Except what if I need them? And besides: Lauren or Paula?
Yes. Well. That helped a whole heap. Scott turned away from the mirror and pulled out the bow tie. He was fairly sure it had been a bow when he’d collected it the day before but now it was just tie-shaped. That was not a good sign. He held it up to the light as though instructions would appear on the fabric.
There was a knock on the door and Scott’s father entered. He was wearing a singlet and brown cords and a lit cigarette dangled from his lips. ‘You all right?’
‘Figured you’d be getting ready.’
‘I am.’ Scott shrugged and turned back to the mirror. ‘Have to be at Mark’s pretty soon.’
‘What are you doing with that?’ Mr Collins gestured with the cigarette.
‘It’s the tie,’ Scott said.
‘Yeah, I know it’s a bloody tie. Here.’ Mr Collins reached around his throat to tie it properly. It took two goes, but on the second it looked perfect. ‘All right. What else? Oh, hell, a cummerbund. Know what to do with that?’
‘No, like this.’ Mr Collins started to demonstrate and stopped. ‘Shit, boy, you’d better have a proper shave.’
‘All right, all right. Just trying to help.’
Scott watched his father arrange his outfit with a tender expertise. He suddenly felt like a complete failure, ungrateful, insensitive, entirely wrapped up in his own world. His father hadn’t wanted things to work out this way. His father who knew how to bow-tie to perfection. This was just where they’d both ended up, and he had to stop punishing them both for it.
Together they checked out how it looked. ‘Not bad,’ Mr Collins said.
Scott nodded. ‘Not bad.’
‘My God,’ Naomi King said from Richard’s door. ‘You look just like your father.’
‘It fits great,’ Richard said, seeing himself reinvented in the mirror.
Naomi came into the room, red-cheeked from the afternoon’s drinking. Chatter continued downstairs as the party kept going. She fixed the back of his collar and stood on tip-toe to see over his shoulder. ‘Just like he used to look, at least.’
‘I guess his suit wouldn’t have been this nice.’
‘Remind me to dig out his old Prom photos some time. You’d laugh yourself silly.’ Naomi messed around with her son’s hair fondly. ‘How does it feel?’
Richard frowned. ‘Pretty weird. This is the last night with all my friends. I’m trying not to think about it too much.’
Naomi tried not to laugh. ‘I meant the suit.’
‘Your father’s son in every way. So what’s the plan?’
‘Well, there’s a thing first at Mark Johnson’s place in Petone. I figure I’ll drive out there and pick the car up again tomorrow.’
‘Oh, no, get a taxi, or look, when do you want to leave? People can take you, there are lots of people who are sober drivers here.’
Richard thought that sounded pretty convenient. ‘Five thirty maybe?’
‘Sandra and Bernard live that way, they can take you, I’ll go and ask them. Much simpler. Are you doing anything afterwards?’
‘There’s a gathering at James’ place after I think.’
‘Well, don’t let the party move here, even though we’re not in. We don’t want to have to clean up another party tomorrow, we’ll have enough to do with this one.’
‘You’re not in?’
‘No, we’re going up to Kapiti with Vishal and Kirsten. We’ll spend the night there. Didn’t I say?’
‘I think you mentioned it.’ He looked around his room. No more posters, nothing on the shelves. ‘Better than sitting around here, anyway. It’s kind of creepy with all our stuff packed.’
‘You read my mind.’ Naomi sighed. ‘I get the feeling that the house is finished with us.’
‘Yeah,’ Richard said, ‘I know exactly what you mean.’
Dennis sat on his bed and looked around his bedroom. The old alarm clock hummed softly like it always did, nine looking like five thanks to a busted LED. His younger brother was on the other bed fussing over a book of motorcycle photos, occasionally insisting Dennis look too. Dennis squeezed the boy’s shoulders. ‘You want to help me get ready, Joe?’
Joseph scrunched up his nose. ‘Don’t you know how?’
‘It’s a complicated business, this tuxedo thing.’
‘I’m not gonna go to my Ball,’ Joseph replied. ‘When I get to seventh form I’m not going, no way.’
‘We won’t want to have one, none of us will. Yuck! Who needs it?’
‘Yeah, well, you might think differently when you get as old as me.’
‘No!’ Joseph giggled in protest. ‘We won’t want one!’
‘Okay, okay. You going to help me?’
Joseph set to work. He was a good kid, bright and gentle. His teachers loved him and Dennis was proud of that. Maybe he could take some of the credit, sharing a room with him for so long. The two of them worked together to get the suit assembled and arranged. Satisfied, Joe slid off the bed and ran to get their mother. ‘Come on, come see!’
‘Coming, coming,’ Mrs Bourne replied from the kitchen. Dennis stood up straight as she entered. She was a big woman in every sense of the word, tall and overweight. One of her eyes was perfectly white, unveined, without pupil. ‘Oh, Dennis. You do look smart.’
‘I must get a photo. Don’t you look good!’
‘It looks all right.’
‘It looks wonderful. Are you excited?’
Joe jumped up and down. ‘Shall I get Minnie?’ Without waiting for an answer he belted off to fetch his sister, leaving mother and well-dressed son alone.
‘Always,’ he said.
‘Oh, Dennis. I’m so proud,’ Mrs Bourne replied.
Dennis checked himself in the mirror. Ready to break some hearts.
Adam sat on the computer chair in his tuxedo. He didn’t want to go out of his room, yet. There was no need to. No-one was there, Dennis and Kirsty hadn’t arrived yet, and Lauren was still getting ready. He had time.
He didn’t know if he could do this, actually.
He hated being nervous, and he was nervous, because of all the talking and the everything that was coming. He didn’t know how to make it all happen right. He just had to hope that it would go okay, he wasn’t Richard or Dennis or Lauren or anyone who just walked in and made it work out how they wanted. He’d never known how they could do that.
He was hungry. Maybe he should go and get something to eat. But as soon as he got up and went out the door, it would all be on. He’d be out of his room then, and it would have begun. As long as he stayed in here, that wasn’t going to happen.
Except it had to happen, eventually, of course. He wasn’t crazy. It was going to be a good night. Everyone had been looking forward to this night for months. He’d been looking forward to this night for years.
He didn’t want to go out of his room just yet.
Restless, he spun about on the chair. His hand reached out and picked up the stone Tau had given him. Stupid thing. He held it in his hand, enjoying the weight. It connected him to the earth. Movement, of course. It was a stone. It was everything that couldn’t move, or at least what we couldn’t see move, but it did. Everything changed. He could handle whatever was coming.
He looked at himself in the mirror. He thought about Kirsty. Tonight was the night, then.
‘Oh, God, I’m going to be so late,’ Kirsty said as he mother fussed around her. ‘I’m going to mess up this evening for everyone, just watch. What is wrong with this dress? God!’
‘It’s fine, dear. Just give me a moment, huh?’
There was a voice from the door to Kirsty’s room. ‘Gee, Mum, how can you enunciate like that with all those pins in your mouth?’
Kirsty pointed at him. ‘Out of here, Shaun. Out! Unless you’re going to help, and I don’t know how you can.’
‘Have fun tonight, okay?’ he said, smirking.
Kirsty glared at him. ‘Bugger off.’
Shaun backed away. ‘Someone’s nervous...’
‘Oh, bother,’ Sarah Rhodes said suddenly.
‘What? What? What’s oh bother? Mum?’
‘Don’t worry dear, we’ll just pin it in place.’
Kirsty shuddered. ‘The whole thing is just pinned in place!’
‘But it’ll look lovely.’
‘I won’t be able to sit down!’
Shaun’s voice came through the door again: ‘All part of mum’s plan, huh? Like a chastity belt, anyone gets too near to you they prick themselves...’
‘Are you still here Shaun?’ Sarah said in her sternest mum voice.
Kirsty looked at herself in the mirror. It did look good. She really hoped it wasn’t going to fall apart on her in the middle of the night. That possibility did not leave her feeling very comfortable. As if she didn’t have enough to be nervous about.
‘Is Richard going to be there?’ Sarah asked.
Kirsty almost jumped. ‘Who?’
Sarah looked up, her eyebrows showing Kirsty didn’t have a hope of fooling her. ‘The young man you fell in love with, dear.’
‘Yeah, he’ll be there. He’s leaving on Monday.’ Kirsty told her mum pretty much everything, after all. No reason to hold back now.
‘Are you over him then?’ Sarah asked.
‘Mum! I’m going to the ball with Adam.’
Sarah adjusted the pins carefully. ‘Sorry, love. I was just wondering, that’s all.’
Just wondering. God. Isn’t everyone?
Lauren slipped out the side door and lit a cigarette. She didn’t want the Curtises to know she smoked. It was kind of a compromise, this secrecy, she wasn’t entirely comfortable with it, but they were being all hospitable to her so, you know. No point being a bitch just for the sake of being a bitch.
She leaned against the doorframe. She was mostly ready, actually. Just needed to have a relaxing smoko before diving in to the evening that lay ahead. A school ball, hell, how about that. They hadn’t really had a proper one of those back home, too small a school, everyone in the whole damn community was invited which was nice and all except for the fact that everyone was embarrassing to spend time with. This would give her a chance to experience what it was meant to be like. How precious. She really, really hoped it wasn’t going to be embarrassingly lame. The guys weren’t too bad company, all things considered, although they did have a wee bit of growing up to do before they were quite up to scratch. But, yeah. For their sake, she hoped it would go well.
She looked fucking hot, anyway. At least there was that.
Paula looked great.
She checked her hair out again, holding the mirror behind her and looking in the wall mirror. Looked good. Sweet. She was super fine.
This was going to be awesome. She’d be the envy of everyone at school, getting to go to the St Francis Ball! She already was of course. This would just make it even more that she was the envy of everyone.
She glanced over her room. It was in a state of absolute chaos, but that was okay, because mum and dad weren’t here to get upset, and the big party wasn’t going to include her room. No-one ever came into her room. She wanted to be part of the party, this time – there would be good people there. It would be so good for her.
This might just be the greatest night of her entire life.
Kane realised his butt had got numb so he shifted it around a bit then slipped back into the grooves in the sofa. He reached down to the floor and pulled up another can, cracked it open, and swigged the pleasingly cool beer within. ‘Another one mate?’
‘Yeah, why not?’ Phil replied, catching the can as it flew at his head. They settled back into the couch.
‘Fuck the time are we late?’
Phil squinted at the VCR. ‘Nah, we’ve got heaps.’
After a while, Kane said, ‘Fucking cool eh.’
‘I love this movie,’ agreed Phil. ‘Conan rocks.’
They kept watching.
Shane boogied around the room enthusiastically. It was a remarkably small room, barely large enough for the bed and chest of drawers, but somehow Shane managed to dance. The stereo played his trademark music, sex and ganja and a funky bass. He sang along with the verses and for the choruses he pumped his arms around and stuck his tongue out for the imaginary camera.
The room was incredibly neat.
He veered towards the mirror and started performing into it, arms punching and lifting and punctuating as he spieled out rhymes. The chorus arrived and he kept bobbing his head as he admired himself: scalp freshly shaved, a vision of white. White tux, white tie, white shirt, white shoes. He reckoned he’d give off glare. He thought briefly about wearing his white cowboy hat as well but decided that would defeat the purpose of the headshave.
The tape ended and he spun around to eject it. He knew exactly what he wanted to listen to next but he’d loaned it away to Dennis. Damn. Still, he knew all the words, and wasn’t he entirely self-sufficient in every way? ‘Dressed up bitches only in it for my dick, shake they heads no but they wanna taste of stick…’
He smiled as he sang. Tonight would be outstanding. He wasn’t going to settle for anything less.
‘So,’ Mr Curtis said, ‘what are you planning to do with your future, Dennis?’
Mr Bourne spread his hands. ‘Well, that is a good question, isn’t it Dennis? To be quite honest, I haven’t the foggiest notion what he’s up to. How about it, son?’
‘I might go to ‘tech,’ Dennis said, glancing at an equally glum Adam ‘I don’t know yet.’
Mr Curtis looked completely understanding. ‘I can understand why there’s some confusion. There are an awful lot of possibilities and it’s so important to make the right choice, isn’t it?’
Mr Bourne smiled under his moustache. ‘Absolutely, no question. But I’m not terribly worried about the boy, all the others managed to find their way eventually.’
‘Ah. There’s a difference, then. In our family Adam’s something of a trailblazer.’
Dennis and Adam watched each other and silently begged for it to end.
Mrs Curtis appeared in the doorway, gushing. ‘Excuse me gentlemen, if I could have your attention? May I present Miss Lauren Bargh!’ All four men stood up, and the gesture was completely overshadowed by what came through the door. Lauren was unexpectedly tall, high heels and her hair up, and between these two extended extremes was a gold-lined dress that it fit so well it could have been made for her. It began just at the beginning of her cleavage and clung to her body down as far as her knees, reflecting and catching the light, its simplicity and audacity startling. Her skin was brown and her make-up underplayed. The effect was breathtaking.
Mr Curtis coughed. Mr Bourne’s moustache seemed to thrash about before settling over a broad smile. Adam couldn’t think of a time when Lauren had even worn a dress before, let alone an outfit like this. He felt like she’d been hiding something from him.
Dennis stepped forward. ‘Wow,’ he said, vocalising what everyone thought. ‘You look fantastic.’
Lauren spread her hands. ‘Oh, this little thing…?’ She grinned foolishly and Adam recognised that, at least. ‘Sorry to keep you all waiting.’
‘Don’t worry, Kirsty isn’t here yet.’
‘Adam!’ Mrs Curtis said sharply. ‘Don’t be impolite. I’m sure Kirsty’s doing her best not to delay us.’
Lauren smoothed things over with a winning smile. ‘He didn’t mean anything like that,’ Lauren said. ‘But you know how we ladies do like fussing… There’s a bit more to girl outfits than their penguin suits, after all.’
‘Or baboon suits,’ Dennis said. Everyone looked at him but he didn’t explain. Only Lauren laughed.
‘Oh, we simply must have photos,’ Mrs Curtis said, picking up the camera she’d strategically placed earlier that day. ‘Can we have a few of just Lauren first?’
Lauren couldn’t protest, and then Dennis and Adam were pulled into a seemingly endless number of poses and combinations, and then the adults were pulled in as well, and finally Mrs Curtis insisted on getting Adam’s brothers out to join in the fun, managing to keep them involved for about three minutes before they fled back to their rooms.
While Mrs Curtis fussed, Mr Bourne and Mr Curtis made conversation, which as usual amazed Adam. The two fathers were as different as land and sea but they always found something to talk about. Adam and Dennis could only look at each other helplessly.
Lauren leaned in towards them. ‘Let them have their fun, guys. It’s the price we pay to set their minds at ease.’
Finally the doorbell rang. Mrs Curtis hurried up to announce the new arrival but her plans were ruined as Kirsty darted into the room, apologising fearfully. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, it’s a long sad story…’ She was wearing a simple black dress, perhaps a bit too small for her although the effect was flattering. Her hair was up and she was accessorised with dangly earrings and two necklaces, deftly chosen. It looked good, Adam figured, although he wasn’t really able to put his finger on just why.
‘You look great,’ Lauren said. Adam nodded agreement, unable to find words.
Kirsty smiled gratefully, making room for the woman who was following. ‘Thanks! Hi Adam, wow nice haircut! Lauren, Dennis, everyone, this is my mother Sarah…’
Greetings followed. Mr Bourne shook Mrs Rhodes’ hand so hard her whole arm shuddered. Kirsty gravitated over to Lauren (‘Wow – that dress is amazing, you’ll have everyone staring at you!’) while Adam and Dennis disappeared into the kitchen to fetch their corsages, just as Mrs Curtis had organised earlier. More photographs, girls only, partners too, girls and adult women, until finally Mr Bourne stood up and shook his car keys.
‘Oh, so soon!’ Mrs Curtis clasped her hands to her breast. ‘Have we got enough photos? I think we do. I hope I haven’t cut anyone’s head off!’
‘I think there are quite enough photos, dear,’ Mr Curtis said. Everyone made a beeline for the door.
‘Yes, yes!’ Mrs Curtis was flushed. ‘Have a lovely time!’
‘Bye everyone!’ Kirsty said eagerly, falling into place beside Adam as Lauren and Dennis led the way out. The mothers watched from the front door as the party folded carefully into the Bourne’s car. Mr Curtis wandered the driveway ineffectually, looking for something to do.
‘Don’t they look grown up,’ Mrs Curtis said happily.
‘They look great,’ Mrs Rhodes said. ‘Goodbye, guys! Have fun!’
Everyone waved and Mr Bourne sounded the car horn and then they were out of the driveway and away down the hill.
Mark Johnson’s place was a red bungalow in a cul-de-sac off a Petone sidestreet. This meant it was a pretty quiet area, and most of the neighbours had turned up at their fences to watch and chat. The Johnson’s yard was full of young hoons dressed like exclamation marks and a full chromatic spectrum of dresses. Champagne bubbled and girls bobbed with whirring cameras. Everyone there who knew Mark Johnson was surprised. Apparently the parents, unlike the son, could in fact organise a piss-up in a brewery. Both his parents were there of course, floating through the crowd to exchange banter with those they knew. Mr Johnson had the knack of setting the guys at ease with a few blokey comments but he mostly left the girls alone, only stopping to get a smile from girls who seemed too concerned about the lack of familiar faces and the welfare of their hair and dresses to properly relax.
Richard watched the portly Mr Johnson chat happily with Mike and Brett and their dates and he smiled to himself. The way Mr Johnson was working the crowd reminded him of his Dad. Everything would go smoothly, because it was going to be a grown up night.
Movement beside and big Will slowed down to speak to him, looking fantastic in his suit, the lady on his arm smiling like she knew how good she looked. ‘Richard! Hey hey!’
‘Hey, Will.’ The two shook hands firmly. ‘Looking good, my man, looking good!’
‘You too, bro. Hey, this is my beautiful girlfriend Moana.’
‘Nice to meet you,’ Richard said to her. ‘You really look great.’
‘Thanks!’ she replied, her smile getting even bigger. She gestured down at what she was wearing, a mass of deep-red ruffles that still seemed somehow understated. ‘My auntie made the dress, isn’t it so awesome?’
‘Your auntie?’ Richard was impressed.
‘Don’t fall for it, man,’ Will warned, ‘her auntie’s an award-winning fashion designer.’
‘Aaah,’ said Richard. ‘I can see why. That outfit is spectacular. Or is it just the person wearing it?’
‘I like this one!’ Moana laughed. ‘Can we keep him?’
Will scowled. ‘Don’t get any ideas, Richard King. She mine.’
Scott interrupted, arriving on the scene: ‘What, you wouldn’t consider some kind of timeshare arrangement?’
Will clapped. ‘Scott! Hey, bro!’ He introduced Moana and the foursome chatted for a moment before Moana’s friends pulled her away, Will following dutifully. Then Richard and Scott turned to each other, looked each other up and down without speaking, and nodded in unison.
‘Looking good, Mr Collins.’
‘Looking good, Mr King.’
‘You’re ready to party hard and long?’
‘Primed, pumped and good to go.’
‘Want a drink? Wine, beer, soda…’
‘Soda! I haven’t heard you say that in years.’
Richard looked thrown by that. ‘Change is afoot, I guess.’
‘Just the beginning of your reversion to Americanity.’ They poured themselves wines at the refreshments table and Scott gazed around the yeargroup, marvelling at the transformation. ‘Man. Look at all this.’
‘And people say there are no miracles.’
‘Now I just get to chill out and have fun until Paula arrives.’
Richard looked pained. ‘Dude… you didn’t see her?’
Scott got a sinking feeling and resisted the urge to look over his shoulder. ‘You don’t mean…’
‘Scotty boy, I swear to God, you must have walked right past her, because I’m looking at her right now.’
‘Oh.’ Scott froze. ‘Oh, fuck.’
Richard nodded. ‘And hey, she’s looking at you.’
‘You’re not kidding, are you?’
Richard shook his head. ‘Still looking at you.’
He must have walked right past her, like, literally right past her. He must have seen her and not recognised her. Oh hell, this wasn’t good. Scott hustled over as fast as decorum would allow, wine spilling over the edge of his glass and on to his fingers. Thinking fast: what was he going to say? Apologies for missing her? Act like nothing was amiss? Maybe nothing was amiss, he just hadn’t seen her, maybe she was in the toilet or something. Geez. He hadn’t seen her! That would not go down well.
She was wearing a light blue dress that started halfway down her chest and finished halfway up her thigh. Her hair was wound sweetly around itself, some tiny white flowers worked in to complete the image. She looked spectacular. Unmissable, it might be said.
‘Hi Scott,’ she said brightly as he approached. ‘I thought you’d forgotten me.’
‘Uh, yeah.’ Oh-kay, so something might be amiss. His brain stalled. ‘Sorry about that.’
Paula seemed to let him off the hook. ‘This is my friend Karla. She’s a year ahead of me but we’re both in choir. Karla, this is Scott?’
Karla, a curvy girl in green, smiled tightly. Scott shook her hand. ‘Choir, huh?’ He needed a witty choir-related remark. ‘Look at you two, then. Like a pair of nightengales.’
Oooh. That wasn’t it.
Karla excused herself and Paula leaned over to him. She was wearing the perfume she’d had on in Ecstasy. ‘Did you see that corsage Brendan just gave her?’
Scott waved his fingers around helplessly. Corsage! He hadn’t organised a corsage! His mind raced. It wasn’t too late. There was a place just around the corner, he’d just walked past it, it was still open, he could – how could he forget about the corsage? What a nightmare. It wasn’t too late. He was a Collins, he was going to screw up. He cut her off: ‘I’m sorry, I really need to go to the bathroom. I’ll be right back okay?’
Paula leaned back. ‘I might go get a drink.’
‘You do that. Sorry. I won’t be long. Sorry.’ Scott backed away from her, stumbled against the door frame, and raced through the house towards the front door.
Mr Bourne pulled into Mark’s street. ‘It’s down the end,’ Dennis instructed from the back.
‘Righto,’ said Mr Bourne, moving up closer. They could see other people heading into the Johnson’s property, see glimpses of the back yard party around the side of the house. ‘This must be it, I’d say.’
Doors opened and closed. ‘Thanks for the lift, Mr Bourne,’ Kirsty said.
‘My pleasure, young lady. Now you all have a good night and stay out of trouble, alrighty?’
Dennis shut the last door and tapped twice on the window in farewell. As Mr Bourne pulled the car around the cul-de-sac, Scott darted out of the Johnson’s gate.
‘Hey,’ Lauren said to him.
‘Hi!’ Scott said. ‘Um, gotta go!’ He ran past them.
‘What’s he up to?’ Kirsty said.
‘Guess the date’s going badly,’ Lauren said.
Adam laughed. ‘Don’t be mean.’
They watched as Mr Bourne pulled up alongside Scott, and leaned out the window to talk to him. Scott raced around the car and jumped in the passenger seat. With a roar of acceleration the car took off down the street.
Lauren shook her head. ‘This is going to be worth hearing.’
‘Mr Bourne’s a cool guy,’ Adam said.
‘Yeah, I never thought I’d find myself liking a cop,’ Lauren agreed.
‘Bad girl, huh?’ Dennis said.
‘What, you haven’t worked that out yet? Silly boy.’
‘You’ll have to tell me about your crimes some time.’
‘Not until I’m convinced you won’t narc to your dad.’ Lauren stuck her tongue out. ‘Your brothers are both police too, right?’
‘Don’t worry. The only thing that runs in the family is looking good in uniform.’
‘So what uniform are you aiming for? McDonalds? Caltex?’
‘Priest. Hearing confession would be a laugh.’
Lauren shook her head. ‘Now that is scary.’
They went in through the house and out into the back yard, full of people. Faces turned to see the new arrivals. Dennis made a flourishing bow to the crowd. Lauren curtseyed, not missing a beat. There were smiles and laughs. Adam and Kirsty exchanged glances, a moment to take a breath, and then they entered.
Richard came over to them, all smiles, brandishing his camera. They let him take a few shots. Dennis put his hand around Lauren’s waist but couldn’t keep it there after the photos were done.
‘You girls look amazing,’ Richard said. His eyes met Kirsty’s and they smiled at each other.
‘What was Scott doing?’ Adam asked.
Richard looked blank. ‘He was doing something?’
As Adam told Richard what they’d seen, Dennis asked Lauren what she wanted to drink. ‘Great idea!’ she said. ‘Drinks, folks. Kirsty, come help me. You boys do your boy talk.’
Adam, Richard and Dennis watched the girls go. They were leaning in close as they walked, chattering, and Lauren put her arm around Kirsty as they laughed. ‘What are they talking about now?’ Adam asked, wary.
‘Us,’ Dennis said.
Shane turned up. ‘I am supreme master kickass of balls!’ he said to the assemblage. ‘This is my beautiful assistant!’ His partner smiled uncertainly as Shane struck a pose.
Richard pulled out his camera. ‘Smile, guys.’
Shane pulled the girl in close to his cheek and pointed at the camera. ‘I steal your soul! Ha!’
Dennis went over to him and rubbed his bald head. Shane rubbed Dennis’ head-stubble in return. Adam and Richard exchanged glances. ‘Look at those two,’ Adam said. ‘Shane is totally crazy. How did he find a girl who’d go with him?’
‘I guess some girls are so keen to get dressed up they’ll go with anyone.’
Adam frowned. ‘That’s so cynical.’
‘Well, either that or Shane has a sensitive side we know nothing about.’ Richard fiddled with the camera settings, adjusting for the encroaching dusk. ‘So, glad you’re here?’
‘Yeah,’ Adam said. ‘Now that it’s starting, it’s kind of okay. I’m still sort of nervous though.’
‘Kirsty looks happy to be here.’
Richard finished playing with the camera, and slapped Adam on the arm. ‘You’ve got nothing to worry about.’
Scott tapped Paula on the shoulder while she was talking with Karla and some other friends. He set his smile, ready for action. ‘Paula,’ he said when she turned, ‘you look really lovely tonight and I thought you’d like one of these.’ He held out to her a delicate corsage, soft folds of blue and white.
‘Oh!’ Paula was obviously thrown. ‘Is that for me?’
‘Yes, of course, that’s where I had to get away to, to pick this up, because I’d organised it in advance and just had to pick it up... Sorry it took so long, it got a bit complicated, but I, you know. I organised it in advance.’
Paula bit her lip. ‘Oh, right. I wondered where you’d gone.’
‘Well now you know. Shall I pin it on you?’ Scott tried hard to be dashing. All of Paula’s friends were watching him. Paula didn’t object as he went in and set it in place, terrified he’d stick the pin into her. ‘There you go.’
Paula stroked the blooms with one finger, considering them. Then she spun around so her friends could see. They were smiling at her, and Scott figured he’d done well.
‘I’m going to see how I look,’ Paula said, and rushed off inside. With Paula gone, Karla and the other girls looked at Scott wordlessly. He smiled at them. They smiled back. He had no choice but to run away.
Adam and Kirsty and Richard waved Scott over to join them. He walked over, his hands to his temples, and said ‘Argh!’
‘What’s going on, man?’ Richard asked.
‘Argh,’ Scott replied.
Adam was starting to look worried. ‘Is something really wrong? Why were you running outside?’
‘I am the fuckup. That was an emergency corsage mission.’ Scott narrowed his eyes. ‘You know, guys, I’m not very good at this.’
Kirsty was trying to figure it out. ‘What, you forgot your corsage?’
‘I forgot to organise one. And then I get here and she’s talking about this other girl’s corsage and I panicked. Totally.’
Kirsty was amazed. ‘What, and you got one from nothing since we last saw you? No way!’
Scott shrugged. ‘There’s a place around the corner that wasn’t shut, and Mr Bourne, um, he sort of pulled his badge on the girl in the shop.’
There was a stunned silence.
Richard grinned. ‘You got Dennis’ dad to use his police powers to get you a corsage? Seriously?’
Scott looked confused. ‘It all just kind of happened. But she’s got her corsage now.’ He looked around. ‘Are Dennis and Lauren here?’
‘Over there.’ Richard nodded towards where they were standing, talking to James and Sasha. ‘So where is Paula?’
‘She’s gone inside. God, I should go and find her, shouldn’t I? Maybe I need to check a mirror myself, I didn’t mess up the outfit when I was running down the street like a moron?’
Kirsty smiled at him. ‘You look sharp.’
‘Hopefully so sharp that I cut my foot off next time it gets near my mouth. Everything I say comes out all stupid, and then I make it worse when I try to fix it.’
Adam patted Scott on the shoulder. ‘Just relax. It’s just a fun thing, remember?’
‘Yes, don’t worry,’ Kirsty said in consoling tones. ‘It’ll all be fine. Girls love corsages.’
‘Corsages suck!’ Lauren said.
‘I think they’re nice,’ Kirsty said.
Lauren shook her wine glass in disagreement. ‘No way! We hate corsages. Really. They are so uncool! Except don’t tell Adam, his mum made him get one.’ She giggled again. ‘I can’t believe Scott went on a corsage mission. Oh my God, that’s so funny! Who is this girl he’s with?’
Richard, listening with amusement, shrugged. ‘Her name’s Paula. She’s okay.’
Lauren gave him a funny look. ‘Is she?’
‘Well, you can find out for yourself in about three seconds.’
On cue, Scott surfaced from the crowd near the patio. Paula was at his side. ‘Hi guys,’ he said. ‘Paula, this is Lauren and Kirsty, and you know Richard.’
‘Hi Paula, nice to meet you,’ Lauren said keenly. ‘I really like what you’ve done with your hair.’
‘Thanks, it turned out all right, didn’t it? I had to spend ages on it, you know?’ Paula glanced at Scott, who tried to remember if he’d singled out her hair for a compliment. She looked back at Lauren appreciatively. ‘That dress is really pretty on you. Did you have it made?’
Lauren grinned. ‘Just lucky, I guess.’
Richard took a step sideways, bringing Kirsty with him so they could talk out of earshot. ‘What do you reckon?’ he asked.
Kirsty glanced at him, smiling quizzically. ‘I think her corsage looks lovely.’
‘Liar,’ Richard said.
She poked him in the side. ‘Shouldn’t you be taking more photographs?’
‘Shouldn’t you be rescuing Adam from Kane?’ Richard pointed over the other side of the yard, where Kane stood under a light, drinking beer from a can and talking loudly right in Adam’s face. Adam was so close he had to turn to avoid getting spray in his eyes. Kane’s date was sitting next to him with her arms around Phil’s date, the two of them giggling wildly as Phil mimed some Conan sword-strokes while balancing on one of the garden chairs.
Kirsty smiled. ‘He can handle those guys.’
‘I know,’ Richard said. ‘He can handle pretty much anything.’
It was dark, and getting cold. People were preparing to make the move to the venue proper.
‘We good to go?’ Scott asked. ‘I’ll go and get Paula.’
‘Do it,’ Richard said. ‘I’ve got a taxi-van coming, we can all jump in that.’
‘What about those two?’ Adam said. ‘What are they doing?’
Lauren and Dennis were eyeing each other up over full glasses of red wine, holding them out like sabres. A small crowd had gathered. As the audience cheered, they put the glasses to their lips and drank, hard and fast, sucking down the vino in rapid gulps, never breaking eye contact. Lauren finished first; she slammed the glass down hard on the table. It snapped off at the stem. Everyone laughed, including Dennis.
‘Its gonna be an interesting night,’ Richard said.
Scott stood next to Richard as he paid the taxi-van driver. He didn’t have any cash left, but standing there was kind of like moral support. Rich didn’t ask him for money anyway.
They joined the other four in the carpark. It had got dark and cold and the wind was blowing fiercely off the water. The moonlight rippled on the surface, cold and soft. Their destination was a stocky wooden building standing alone on the waterfront, guarding over the beach, light streaming from the windows of its upper level.
‘Come on,’ said Paula, hurrying. Her hair was ruffling ominously. Scott followed along, leaving the other three to take their time.
‘It’s a nice night,’ Kirsty said, looking oceanward.
Adam squinted. ‘Yeah, except for the wind.’
‘I’m going to miss the wind,’ said Richard. Kirsty looked over at him and he was looking back at her. Her arm was in Adam’s. Dennis and Lauren followed along, side by side.
There was a foyer at the top of the stairs and through from there was the ballroom. To their left a great raft of tables had been laid for dinner, dozens already seated. To their right was the band on a small stage and beside that the dancefloor, tiled and gleaming and noticeably empty. Immediately before them was the welcome line. Mrs Denning and the Principal and some Board members gladhanded each arrival, Mrs Denning rolling her eyes at the inane small talk. It was odd to see her with lipstick on. ‘Hi Mrs Denning,’ Richard said.
‘Don’t say a word,’ she replied.
There was space enough for all of them at one table, but Paula had maneuvred to Karla’s table and the seats remaining there. Scott looked helplessly at his friends and veered to the bar with Richard.
‘Seats chosen, it seems,’ Richard said.
‘Yeah, well, whatever makes her happy. Guess I’ll see you later.’
They clinked glasses. ‘Stay strong, brother.’
Scott settled next to Paula and placed her drink in front of her. She was chattering away to her friends, and Scott couldn’t quite lean around her to join in the conversation. She smiled sweetly at him once, then turned back to the glamour girls. Scott let himself fade into the background. He considered getting up to work the crowd, but that might be bad form since he’d just sat down. Lauren wasn’t looking at him. Good that she wasn’t, being ignored by Paula wouldn’t make him seem more attractive. Anyway, Lauren was wasting her time with Dennis, so, and he was there with the cutest girl in the room, right?
Being ignored by the cutest girl in the room. Way to go Collins.
Lauren tried to keep her laughter under control as she told the story. ‘So he’s running through the streets with this mask on, and he’s jumping around, and everyone’s stopping to watch. And this kind of thing doesn’t happen every day down there…’
‘Unlike here in the big smoke,’ Dennis said innocently.
Lauren flashed him a big smile. ‘You know what I mean! So he gets it into his head that he’s going to meet traffic at the stop sign off the through-road, and so a car rolls up to the sign and he bursts out of the bushes in front of it, and Natalie and I are both in tears, in absolute tears by now. I mean, this was supposed to impress us? And so the car stops and he jumps about in front of it waggling his head back and forth, and then he just kind of stops. And we are hidden over the road, pissing ourselves, but we shut up because we realise he’s all still so something’s wrong…’
‘And he’s still wearing the mask?’ Kirsty asked, giggling.
‘Yes, he’s still got the mask on,’ Adam confirmed, knowing the story.
‘Oh, that mask was not gonna come off, no way. And he stares like a hedgehog as the doors open – this is the first car he’s tried it on with! – and all these guys get out. And suddenly he’s standing there with his hands on the bonnet wearing this crazy mask and looking at three huge gang members with their leathers and patches and chains, you name it, and I swear to God his knees were actually knocking together.’
‘And he just stayed there?’ Dennis asked, genuinely intrigued.
‘There was a moment – like a standoff. And then pum! It all goes nuts and he’s out of there into the bushes! And these guys all watch for a second, and then they all slam the doors to the car, and pum! They’re off after him, right! He’s got a goddamn gang chasing after him!’
‘Been there,’ Dennis said.
Lauren was charmed. ‘To Murchison?’
His smile didn’t waver. ‘You want to call it that?’
‘Anyway,’ Lauren continued, ‘So I’m laughing, and Natalie’s laughing, and this fourteen year old kid’s about to have his nipples torched for trying to impress us so even though we’re laughing we know we have to help him somehow. No way were we going near those guys, though. But we reckoned he’d head for the ditch, so we sprinted around the back way and got there just in time to see him scrabbling through the dirt, trying to scale the far side, and he was still wearing the mask! I mean, if he’d taken it off he could have just wandered away and they wouldn’t have had a clue!’
‘So what happened?’ Kirsty asked.
‘Well, that was when the guys from the car turned up. They clustered around and we saw Ernie freeze, try and shrink into the shadows, but he wasn’t going to be able to get out of the ditch without being seen. So they’re all there watching and he’s down there hiding, counting down the last seconds of his life probably, and then Natalie just screams! She just cut loose, and so I joined in, and we were having this screaming competition there, and when we ran out of breath we were laughing so hard we could hardly keep quiet. So we’re clutching each other trying not to bust a gut and we have a perfect view, we can see Ernie hunched in the dirt and we can see the guys above him and they have a little discussion among themselves, and then they come to a decision. And they all unzip, right there, and bring them out, and take a piss into the ditch! All of them, at once! And of course, this sets us off again, because all Ernie can see through his mask is three Black Power guys pissing on him!’
Adam smiled and looked around the group. ‘That’s crazy.’
‘It’s true, every word,’ Lauren said, her palm raised.
‘So then they left?’ asked Kirsty.
‘Yep, hopped into their car and drove away. I think Ernie burned the mask.’
‘And after all that, did he ever actually get anywhere with you?’ Dennis asked.
‘He should be so lucky. Well, he did end up messing around with Natalie one New Years, but that’s another story entirely…’
‘Poor guy,’ Dennis said with exaggerated sympathy. ‘He got played so bad…’
Lauren smirked. ‘And I thought you’d been there.’
The buffet was an impressive spread. Five salads, a selection of cold meats, a smiling waiter carving up beef and lamb, roast potatoes, roast kumara, a seafood assortment and a selection of breads to round it out. The queue wound through the dining area, an alternating succession of gowns and black suits. Also, one bald guy in a white suit waving his arms around.
Scott was between Paula and Cindy, Miles’ girlfriend. He’d never much talked to Miles and had never met Cindy, so conversation was somewhat strained, especially because she seemed to lack even two braincells to rub together. Nevertheless Paula valued her presence highly. Scott had the sudden realisation that their table was unique in that the males weren’t sitting with their friends but were deferring to the friendships of their partners. That was all part of the coup, of course. Paula was mixing with the elite of a higher year group and thereby securing for herself a place in the most desired circle at her school. Not that Scott had any particular problem with that, more power to her.
It was just a bit unnerving that she seemed not to want to talk to him at all.
Kane was forking an enormous amount of cold chicken on to his plate. He was trying to tell a joke about a chicken, not with much success. Phil was right behind him, gently pushing. Kane stumbled back into his partner, who found herself pressed up against Brett’s back. Appropriately enough for someone partnered with Kane, she rallied by shoving Brett hard to clear some room. Brett’s lurch hit his partner and also Mike’s, drawing shrieks from one and a curse from the other as she tumbled to the floor. ‘And the old rooster challenged the new one to a race,’ Kane continued, oblivious.
Scott had seen the whole thing and it was painfully obvious that Mike’s girlfriend was having trouble regaining her feet. He remembered seeing her stumbling at the preball, she’d been hammered then. By the time she was vertical Mrs Denning had arrived like a force of nature.
‘Fourth gay rooster in a row!’ crowed Kane happily.
Paula turned then, and Scott met her eyes. ‘Hey. Looks good, huh?’
‘I need to know, who was that that just got removed?’ Paula asked in hushed tones.
‘Shhh! I guess, yeah. What was her name?’
‘Hell, I don’t know,’ Scott said. ‘Linda? Something like Linda.’
Paula rolled her eyes. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll work it out myself.’
Scott watched her hair swing around towards him again. It was becoming increasing clear that this was going badly, badly wrong. What had happened to how she’d been just the other week when he’d invited her? What had happened since last night when she’d been disappointed he was going into town? This was all very, very confusing. And it kind of sucked.
Ahead of him, the white suit reached the front of the line. ‘Fooood!’ Shane crooned as he loaded meat on his plate. ‘I’m gonna eat it with my mind!’
The waiter carving the beef smiled warily.
‘What, kicked out?’ Lauren asked, disgusted.
Adam nodded sadly. ‘That’s what they said.’
‘I wouldn’t get too upset, it’s only Mike.’
‘So cold, Den,’ Richard said.
‘No, I’m sorry but that is bullshit,’ Lauren continued. ‘Sure they were dumb, but throwing them out? Couldn’t they just get a stern talking-to and a sit-down?’
Richard shook his head. ‘Not really, the school came real close to banning alcohol at these things. They have a lot riding on this.’
‘She’ll be so embarrassed! It’s just sad,’ Kirsty said.
‘Yeah, well, she should never have got into that state,’ Den said. ‘Someone should have been watching her. Making her go up to the buffet when she’s off her face? Not a genius plan.’
‘Speaking of food, I’ve had plenty,’ said Lauren, changing the subject to something happier. ‘And I can’t help noticing that the dance floor is getting darker and funkier by the minute.’
Adam smiled. ‘It’s pretty cool, isn’t it.’
‘Watch for the jinx,’ Dennis warned lazily. He gestured to the stage beyond the dance floor where three middle-aged men with matching bald patches conferred over their instruments, two guitars and a synthesiser. ‘They’re called the Parachutes. Mike told me their biggest claim to fame is a tune for a corn chip advertisement.’
Richard chuckled and looked them over. ‘We needed a better ball committee. One that doesn’t get its own members kicked out of the ball.’
‘I’m sure they’ll be fine,’ Kirsty said firmly.
The trio struck up a jaunty number and the lights on the dance floor blinked into swirling action. The transformation couldn’t have been more complete – suddenly it was disco. James and Sasha appeared on the dance floor, quickly followed by Tane and his new girlfriend. ‘Whoa, they didn’t waste any time,’ Adam said with admiration. More couples followed, then groups of girls together.
‘Looks like it’s all on,’ Lauren said. There was a conspicuous silence. ‘Is this not a dancing table then?’
‘Shall we go up?’ Adam asked Kirsty.
Dennis and Richard looked at each other.
Kirsty was unconvinced. ‘I can’t dance very well.’
‘Don’t worry, you’ll be a lot better than me,’ Adam replied as he stood. He started to extend his hand to Kirsty but pulled back nervously as she rose, trying to disguise the move as a gesture to the others. ‘Um, anyone coming?’
Lauren coughed pointedly and held out her hand to Dennis.
‘Don’t worry about me,’ Richard said. ‘Gonna let my dinner settle, do some more mingling. Go on, off you go.’
Kirsty stuck her tongue out at him. ‘He’s just a grump. Come on, Adam.’ Richard watched them head for the dance floor, and when he saw Kirsty reach out and take Adam’s hand, he smiled.
Miles and Cindy extracted themselves from the table and headed towards the dancefloor, and Scott breathed a sigh of relief. That only left Paula, Karla, and that other girl in the wine-red dress whose name he had forgotten. Scott concentrated on finishing his food and not saying anything stupid. Paula had her back to him, which he figured was probably not a good sign. On the up side, the back of her neck was very pretty, and whatever he’d done, he couldn’t be making it worse when she wasn’t looking!
These were, he knew, meager comforts.
What he needed was a strategy. He hadn’t really done anything to make her ignore him, not as far as he could tell. In fact he thought he’d done all right since the corsage.
Karla’s corsage was gone.
How had he not noticed that? It was the corsage that had started that whole thing, and it wasn’t there any more.
Wait a second.
He leaned forward, peered at Paula’s breast. She saw him looking, half-turned, expectant.
‘Ah, nothing,’ he said, leaning back.
Paula’s corsage was gone too. Both of their corsages were gone. Wine red wasn’t wearing one either.
Mr Bourne had pulled a badge to get that corsage. Scott had spent every dollar in his wallet on that corsage.
It must have been when she went to the bathroom with Karla. They’d ducked out and he’d twiddled his thumbs and munched on cold chicken and smiled gamely at anyone who looked. Then they had come back and Paula had settled next to him, and now there was no corsage.
He checked the dance floor. Cindy was there, corsageless. Was this some kind of conspiracy? It must be girl politics. Had he done something wrong? Had he screwed up? Of course he’d screwed up. He was a Collins.
Okay, whatever. Forget the corsage. He still had some options. If he just got her on the dancefloor it would be on, that was how they’d first met in that club, she’d liked his dancing then. He backed himself to dance okay. When Karla and that other girl finally buggered off to see their dates, then he’d have his chance with Paula, just the two of them. It would work out fine.
It would work out better than fine. See, he knew why she was trying so hard to make an impression on the older girls, and she’d be impressed that he understood, and then they’d dance and he’d be grooving and then maybe it’d go to slowdancing and she’d snuggle up to him.
Paula stood up. ‘Scott, I’m going to have a dance now, all right?’ She smiled at him and went off with Karla and the girl in the wine red dress.
Richard sat down with him. ‘Hey man. Not dancing?’
‘I guess not.’
‘Nothing. She’s way more interested in those girls than in me. Maybe she’s gay.’
‘Maybe you need to get the hell up and dance with her?’
‘Yeah, right. You’ve got to roll with things, Rich. Not everything works out how you want it to. I get that.’
‘Get up there and go to her, man. She’s your date. Why not go for it?’
Out the window the dark harbour stretched away from them, water cresting below the distant lights of the city. ‘That’s a good question,’ Scott said. ‘I think it’s because she doesn’t want me going for it.’
‘Well, tough for her. She’s here as your date. If you don’t go for her everyone’s going to be saying you’re the one who’s gay. You want that?’
‘Fuck you,’ Scott said.
Richard pointed at the window. ‘Look out there. Now focus on the reflection.’
Scott did as he was told. There was Paula, transparent, dancing over the water.
Richard put his hand on Scott’s shoulder. ‘There is your opportunity.’
Paula saw him as he approached. Karla and wine red watched him as he said ‘I’m here to dance with the most beautiful girl in the room.’ He felt his heart thump, and her smile was her answer.
‘Hey, there’s Scott,’ Adam said. He and Kirsty were dancing near the band, and he was having a grand old time, and Kirsty seemed to be having fun too because she was smiling a lot. It was going great!
‘Good for him, those other two girls were monopolising his date,’ Kirsty replied. ‘I don’t like the look of those two. They look like trouble.’
‘You think so?’
Kirsty nodded, shifting herself to dance a bit closer to Adam. ‘There’s girls like that at my school too. They sort out their social groups according to who can be the most ruthless to those outside of them.’
‘You don’t think they’re being mean to Paula, do you?’
‘Worse. They seem to like her.’
Dennis came into view. ‘It’s a regular hoe-down,’ he called across to them. Kirsty laughed and Adam turned to see him properly, losing the rhythm in the process. Dennis and Lauren seemed to be having fun too, which was great, Dennis was goofing and Lauren’s smile was so crooked it had corners. And Scott was dancing with Paula, so that only left Richard.
‘What?’ asked Kirsty, missing nothing.
‘You look like you’ve had a thought.’
‘Oh…’ Adam bit his lip. He didn’t think it was the best plan to mention Richard in front of Kirsty. Not when things were going so well, not mention him like that. ‘Sort of. Um.’
‘Go on, share.’
‘Okay,’ Adam said reluctantly. He looked sideways and had an idea. ‘Do you think, um, I should be worried about Lauren and Dennis?’
Kirsty took a look. ‘They seem to be getting along fine.’
‘Ah.’ She took another look. They were holding hands and doing something like the twist, laughing wickedly. ‘I reckon she knows what he’s about.’
‘I think so. She’s not stupid, Lauren.’
Kirsty danced a bit closer. ‘So stop worrying, and have fun, okay?’
Adam nodded, and held her hands.
Richard was pleased he still had film in his camera when he came across perhaps the greatest photo opportunity of the night. Shane was sprawled on a table with his legs in the air, white trousers bicycle-kicking in time with the downtempo music. He lifted his glass high above his face and spilled some wine from it. Miraculously, most of it went in his mouth. Richard assumed the crying girl in the corner was Shane’s partner, but it was hard to tell because she was covering her face with her shawl. As he looked at the display, his mood soured. He didn’t want to celebrate this.
‘Shane, you are a disgrace,’ he said, flicking some parsley off the white waistcoat.
‘I think my head is in a salad,’ Shane replied pensively. ‘I can feel the beans.’
‘Just trying to add to your notoriety, huh?’
‘Because I’m notorious! Notorious and furious, five-oh coming out fo’ us, whack them niggaz in dey face and get inside dey bitches…’
‘Your call, Pennywise,’ Richard said. ‘Mrs Denning is coming over.’
‘Bring her on!’ Shane yelled, and burped.
Richard stayed put as Mrs Denning arrived and peered down at him. ‘Stand up, Shane. Don’t behave like an animal or you’ll be sent to the pound.’
‘Do you like it animal, huh? Doggy style?’ He started laughing, finding himself hilarious.
Mrs Denning grabbed his collar and hauled him up. ‘Don’t cut the evening short for yourself, Shane, or for everyone else.’ Shane saluted her, moonwalked a few steps, then sauntered off in precisely the opposite direction from his crying partner. Mrs Denning turned resignedly to Richard. ‘Sometimes I wonder why we do this. Give you lot the opportunity to act grown up, and you take the chance to demonstrate with as much enthusiasm as you can that you’re not.’
Richard shrugged. ‘I think it scares some of them. Oncoming headlights.’
Mrs Denning barked a laugh. ‘The roadkill generation. Same as last year, Richard, and the year before that. Only the names and faces change.’
‘Don’t you get sick of it?’
She nodded. ‘What I can’t get my head around is why you lot never do.’
‘And that’s all from us for now, we’re off for a break, in the meantime the music will continue so don’t lose that dancing feeling…’
The Parachutes demobbed and disco music switched on. The dance floor evacuated except for a few brave couples, including a few slightly worse-for-wear adults. Scott managed to engineer his and Paula’s exit route to pass near Adam.
‘The Parachutes, huh? They’re not bad,’ Adam said gamely.
‘No, they’re worse.’ Scott checked to see if Paula would react to his comment. Nope.
‘Aren’t you having a good time?’ Adam asked.
‘Sure I am, but I can cook a good time out of any old ingredients.’
‘Thanks a lot,’ Paula said from his side.
Scott failed to come up with a save. ‘Sorry,’ he managed.
‘I’m going to see Karla, okay?’ she said.
‘Okay.’ He watched helplessly as she abandoned him again. All that good energy from dancing was already squandered. It was hopeless.
‘Wow,’ Adam said. ‘Is she mad at you?’
‘I don’t know,’ Scott said. ‘I have no idea at all.’
Adam stared at him.
‘Nothing,’ Adam said.
‘Bullshit.’ Scott prodded his belly. ‘Spit it out, what?’
‘Um, I dunno. I’m not good with advice. But maybe you just need to stop trying so hard? You should just trust yourself, you know?’
Lauren and Kirsty appeared. Lauren wasn’t impressed. ‘The band finished? Suck!’
‘They’re just on a break,’ Adam said.
The music was playing. Scott listened to it. Adam and Kirsty were talking, and maybe that was working. Maybe it was happening this way for a reason. Maybe it was happening this way because this was how he was making it happen. Wasn’t that possible? He knew this song. It was the perfect song for this exact moment. Roll with it, and trust yourself, because why the hell not?
‘Lauren,’ he said. ‘Do you want to dance?’
She glanced at the dancefloor, which was mostly empty with the band on break.
‘Come on, just this song.’
Lauren gave him her hand and the twosome doubled back to the dancefloor. Scott saw Paula watching him. That had to be bad. Too late now. There was plenty of room under the disco lights, everyone could see, but Lauren didn’t care. She was wearing a fine gold dress. Scott didn’t care either.
‘I had to dance with you for this song,’ Scott said into her ear.
‘It was your favourite when we first met and played cards all night.’
Lauren smiled at him. ‘Good memory.’
‘I remember everything,’ he said. The tempo was slow. Scott pulled on her hand and with the slightest awkwardness their bodies closed together. Scott experienced the small oddness of her being actually much shorter than him. It wasn’t how he thought of her.
It was immediately apparent that neither of them knew how to dance.
‘I didn’t know you could waltz,’ he said.
‘I’m not waltzing, this is the foxtrot,’ she replied.
‘Well, as long as no-one stands on anyone, we should manage okay.’
She gave him a sideways look. ‘Why didn’t you ask me?’
‘Ask you what?’
‘To come here with you, dumbass.’
Scott hesitated. He didn’t know what to say.
She smiled. ‘Because I would have said yes.’
A light blue swatch of colour caught his eye. Paula and Dennis were out there too, dancing together. Paula had pressed herself tightly up against Dennis, her blue heels following his shoes in lazy circles. She looked very peaceful there, and Scott knew at once this was how it should have been.
Scott cut off Paula just before she reached Karla and wine red. ‘Paula? Uh, could we step over here a tick?’
‘I’m going that way,’ Paula replied.
Scott nodded, determined to get to the point. ‘I just, you know, all the people around,’ he said. ‘Um. Look, this hasn’t exactly been... I don’t even know what I’m trying to say here.’
Paula’s face was like porcelain with a tiny mask smile. ‘I think maybe we should just hang around with our own friends for the rest of the night, huh?’
Scott nodded. Paula started to push past him. He put a hand up. ‘Hang on!’
She paused. ‘Do I want to hear this?’
‘I was just wondering what happened to the corsage.’
Paula’s eyes narrowed. Then she shrugged. ‘I ditched it. It was ugly. Corsages are so hugely uncool. Which you would have known if you ever listened to anything I ever said.’
‘Right,’ Scott said.
‘And dancing with that Lauren girl like that, that was so humiliating! What, are you in love with her, is that it?’
‘Yeah,’ Scott said.
Paula’s face was red and her voice wavered and rose, ‘Then why did you even invite me?’
‘I liked you too,’ Scott said.
She stared at him. ‘This isn’t what I wanted tonight to be.’
‘Things work out funny ways, sometimes,’ Scott said. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Screw you.’ She pushed past him.
He watched her go. It wasn’t a nice feeling. He didn’t want her to be hurt, but, fuck. If she didn’t get it then she didn’t get it.
He noticed everyone around was watching him. He shrugged, put his hands in his pockets and went to find the others.