It was Christmas Eve and we always celebrated that special night in a spirit of family togetherness.
‘Get lost, Lucy! I’m wrapping up your present,’ Gina screamed as I tried to enter our shared bedroom.
So I wandered back into the living room and for want of anything better to do, rearranged the tinsel and baubles on the Christmas pine tree. My father was in his customary chair, writing out cheques for each of us. He called it ‘doing his Christmas shopping’. Why he never took the trouble to buy us presents, I don’t know. It was a hot night and even though the open windows had screens on them, my father was occasionally slapping his ankles. Mosquitoes loved his Italian blood.
My twelve-year-old brother came into the room and asked crossly, ‘Who’s pinched the scissors and sticky tape?’
‘Gina is using them. You’ll just have to wait,’ I replied.
‘Andy, I’ve told you before not to swear!’ my father said, then, ‘Kate! Turn that bloody record off!’ as my mother turned up the volume on her favourite Christmas record.
‘Why? There’s nothing like the Hallelujah Chorus to brighten up a house at this time of year.’
Our dog began to bark and we only just managed to hear a knock on the door above the general din. The visitor was a tall dark boy of about seventeen, who was introduced by Gina as Rob Allen. Relieved, I moved a stack of presents off the couch to make room for him. Rob was handsome, after all.
‘Nice place you have here, Dr Runelli,’ he said.
‘Yes, I built this little shack myself a long time ago,’ my father replied. ‘And you, do you spend your holidays here, or are you a local?’
‘Holidays only, unfortunately.’ The boy managed a quick glance at Gina, who flicked back her long hair and smiled. I never knew my sister could look so pretty.
‘And what does your father do for a living?’ My mother could always be counted on to ask our friends that question.
‘Actually, it’s my stepfather. He’s a judge,’ Rob answered and settled more comfortably into his chair. ‘My mother owns Baxters Booksellers.’ Suddenly there was a loud crash outside, followed by a string of four-letter words. Rob groaned.
The door was pushed open and there in the doorway was Scott, grinning stupidly at us all. The smell of alcohol filled the room. To my horror he staggered towards the couch and flopped down beside me.
‘How’d ya be?’ he slurred into my face.
I raised my hands to block his kiss.
‘Shit! Can’t a man be friendly on Chrissie Eve?’
‘A friend of yours, dear?’ my mother asked, frowning.
‘Who the hell is this?’ my father demanded, also glaring at me as if somehow I were to blame.
Scott slumped against the back of his seat and gazed around the room.
‘How should I know—?’ I began.
‘I’m terribly sorry, Dr Runelli, this is Scott, my younger brother. He had a bit too much to drink at dinner,’ Rob explained smoothly. ‘He must have followed me here.’
‘Oh, I see,’ my father muttered. ‘And are there any more like him at home?’
‘Oh no,’ he laughed. ‘I have an older brother called Duncan who is doing Law at Melbourne Uni. He hopes to go to Oxford eventually. Then there’s Fiona, who’s only eight, but is already doing advanced maths.’ Scott fell off the couch and began to wrestle with our dog Buster on the floor. We all ignored them.
‘Where do you go to school?’ my mother continued the investigation.
Rob mentioned the name of a prestigious private boys school in Melbourne. There was a contemptuous snort from Scott as he picked himself up and fell into a chair.
‘You’ll appreciate our school when you grow up a bit,’ said Rob.
My brother was looking at Scott with interest. ‘How old are you?’ he asked.
‘Fifteen, going on twenty-five.’
Scott lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. At the appearance of a Marlboro packet, my father beamed and sidled over. He was always giving up smoking.
‘Smoke, mate?’ the boy asked.
‘Always good for a cough,’ my father the doctor replied as he took one.
They sat there, sharing an ashtray and smiling at each other through the haze.
‘So what team do you barrack for, Scott?’
‘The Pies, of course! Who else?’
With Dad and Scott now happily engrossed in an argument about football and the interrogation apparently over, Gina and Rob moved to a corner of the room to talk privately. Andy and I began to play cards while my mother went into the kitchen to do the dishes.
Andy had just beaten me for the second game in a row when I saw Rob pulling his brother to his feet.
‘It’s time to go home to bed. Come on,’ he said.
Swaying as he stood, Scott grumbled, ‘But I don’t wanna go yet. The doc and I were just starting on politics.’
However, he was pushed through the door and into the darkness outside. Rob said goodnight and shook my father’s hand. He looked at Gina, smiled, and was gone.
A neighbour’s dog began to bark and we could hear Scott’s voice, still complaining, fading into the distance.
Boxing Day. I sat up to examine the state of my tan. After two hours’ sunbaking, it was looking quite good. I adjusted my brand-new pink bikini and checked out what else was happening on the beach.
Nothing, as usual. The tide was coming in. Andy was reading a comic book and Gina seemed asleep. My father, of course, wasn’t there – he hated the beach – but my mother sat in her chair, a newspaper spread out over her knees. Down at the water’s edge, some toddlers were trying to drown themselves. Heat haze shimmered above the sand and a catamaran skimmed across the sea. Somewhere a transistor was on, but not loud enough for me to hear the songs.
I sighed. I’d been coming to that beach all my life and frankly sometimes I wish I hadn’t. It was always the same. Boring. The only excitement we ever had was when some day-tripper got his car bogged in the sand launching his boat. Or when Buster decided to lift his leg against someone’s beach umbrella.
Still, a beach is a beach, I thought and lay back on my towel. I rolled onto my stomach, hitched up my bikini bottom and nestled my chin into a hollow in the sand.
I was almost asleep when I felt the vibration of approaching footsteps.
‘G’day!’ It was Scott’s voice.
‘Hi!’ Gina answered. ‘Where’s the rest of your family? I thought you’d all be down here.’ I knew she’d be hopefully scanning the beach for Rob.
‘Nah,’ Scott scoffed, ‘they’re all too damn lazy to walk down the track.’
There was a disappointed sigh and a pause in the conversation. I had just begun to raise my head from the towel when a huge dump of sand landed on my back.
‘Hey!’ Scott said. ‘Aren’t ya talking to me today?’
I leapt up, furious.
‘How dare you, you—’ I stopped, distracted. ‘Scott, what on earth are you wearing?’
‘Like it? I got it for Christmas. I don’t think I’ll ever take it off.’ He turned around slowly, like he was some kind of a model, showing off his new sheepskin jacket.
I couldn’t help myself, I just had to laugh. He stood there in the blistering heat, wearing shorts and a thick woolly coat.
‘Well, yeah, I know it’s hot but that’s why I cut off the sleeves. Anyway, wanna swim?’
‘But how can you go for a swim when you just said that you’ll never take off your precious jacket?’ I asked, somewhat smugly.
‘For you, sweetie,’ he replied, ‘I’d get completely naked!’
I heard my mother groan as she turned over the pages of her newspaper.
Scott proceeded to rip off his coat, then grinned and picked me up.
‘Hey!’ I screamed. ‘Put me down!’
He carried me into the sea, even though I was kicking and struggling with all my strength. Finally, when I felt the cold water around my waist, I bit him as hard as I could. He dropped me immediately.
‘Bitch!’ he shouted.
I fell into the water. When I surfaced again, he was waiting for me.
‘You weren’t really scared, were you?’ His blue eyes studied my face. ‘Sorry, maybe I was a bit rough.’
Before I could think of a reply, he swam off. I adjusted my bathers and tried to make a dignified retreat back to my towel. I thought I’d succeeded, until I saw the smirk on Andy’s face. Sometimes I’d like to kill that little brat.
When Scott returned from his swim he didn’t even glance in my direction. He flopped down next to Andy and together they began talking about different types of cars.
After a while Gina sat up and began madly brushing her hair. Following her gaze I saw Rob walking up the beach with two other kids. She waved at them and they came over. Fiona Allen was just a kid. The oldest of the family, Duncan, immediately fanned out his towel, sat down on it, adjusted his glasses and began to read a book. He obviously was not going to be a whole lot of fun.
Andy suggested a game of cricket. As everyone completely ignored my pained expression and began arguing about teams, I decided to head home rather than be forced to join in. I picked up my things, walked off along the shoreline and made my way up the track through the pine forest. Since it was a steep climb, I paused for a few minutes at the top to catch my breath. Looking back down over the beach, I could just make out my mother, standing ankle deep in the water, talking to someone. Her huge ridiculous hat always made her easy to spot.
The cricket match was in full swing. I watched Rob whack the ball hard, sending it into the sea. My sister Gina was jumping up and down enthusiastically. Scott raced off in hot pursuit of the ball and leapt into the water. Andy was flapping his arms, obviously encouraging him, while little Fiona was simply standing around looking useless. There was no sign of Duncan.
I’d barely turned away from the scene when I heard a loud shriek. Fiona was standing stock still, her hands over her mouth, and I saw Scott plunge underwater, half a second before a catamaran zoomed straight over the place where he’d just been.
I held my breath. An eternity passed. Nothing. I felt sick.
But suddenly a head bobbed up and there was Scott. He flung an arm into the air and cheerfully waved to the others. He’d got the ball. Fiona looked as if she might be crying.
I guess the whole thing made me wonder about Scott. I mean, what sort of person risks his life just to get a ball? Surely he must have seen the yacht so close in to shore and known the danger he was in? He really was a crazy kid.
My pounding heart began to settle. After all, it was really nothing to do with me. I shrugged my shoulders and continued to walk along the well-trodden track.
New Year’s Eve. The start of a whole new decade! It’s funny, but New Year’s Eve had never seemed such a big deal before. Now that I was fourteen, it loomed as a major event. I decided against wearing a dress and put on my best jeans and a new red shirt, then made the mistake of looking in the mirror. I was such a skinny, runty kind of kid. When would I ever start to grow?
We were having a party at our place. Lots of families were coming over for a barbecue and hopefully other people would turn up afterwards. I walked into the kitchen to find my mother rushing around frantically.
‘Where have you been? Take this out to the table,’ she cried, thrusting a large plate of buttered bread into my hands. ‘And grab the tomato sauce! Watch out that Buster doesn’t eat the bread!’
That’s my mother for you, always in a fuss about something. I wish I could describe her to you, but I can’t. Maybe it’s because I see her every day, or maybe it’s because she just looks like a mother – anybody’s mother.
Anyway, loaded up with food, I walked outside to find my father and Andy in front of the barbecue, fiercely arguing about the best way to keep the small flame alight. Naturally they were so busy with their fight that the fire went out.
‘How’s the barbecue going, Leo?’ my mother called.
‘Huh! Ask your son!’ my father shouted and stormed off.
Andy watched him go, then threw down a piece of wood and marched off in the direction of the beach.
‘What’s happening?’ Gina demanded, appearing from the bungalow.
‘Dad and Andy are at it again. They were meant to light the fire,’ I explained, rolling my eyes. ‘Hey, you look terrific!’
She really did, too. She had on a blue mini dress and was even wearing make-up.
Gina and I lit the barbecue and eventually people arrived. Buster did manage to steal a whole plateful of uncooked meat and Andy didn’t come home for hours, but apart from that, the meal went well.
At about nine o’clock, the Allen kids showed up.
‘G’day. Any tucker left? Rin Tin Tin is hungry.’ Scott grinned.
Beside him was a huge, beautiful German Shepherd, who took one look at Buster and began growling. Rob immediately intervened, grabbing his dog’s collar and marching off homeward with Rin Tin Tin.
All kinds of people were crowded around the barbecue, caught in the glare of the outside lights. My parents were drinking heavily – particularly my father – Italian music was blaring out of the old reel-to-reel tape machine that was set up on the table, and some people had begun to dance. My father leapt to his feet, shouting, ‘I’ve forgotten my dancing hat.’
‘No, Leo. No!’ my mother cried, but he was already running into the house.
He reappeared within seconds, putting on his Scottish beret as he ran.
‘Aha! Now I’m Angus McLeo!’ he laughed as he attempted the Highland fling.
My father was born in Italy but had come to Australia when he was six. When he’d been drinking, his concept of his national identity became confused. Scottish, Australian, Italian – it really didn’t matter. For me, he was simply a dag.
Just then Scott leapt into the light and threw himself in front of my father, joining him in the dance. Arms and legs flying, the pair whirled around the fire. Everyone clapped, shouting encouragement, but no one else dared to get to their feet. When the song finished, Scott yelled, ‘Hey, you haven’t seen anything yet, Doc. I’ll go home and get my hat!’
Ten minutes later he returned, panting, wearing a white Arab headdress, held in place by a piece of coloured rope. My father greeted this strangely dressed boy as if he were a long-lost relative.
‘Scott, my boy, you deserve another beer. Here’s to us!’ he said as the two of them downed their cans.
I headed into the house. A Beatles record was blaring and I could see that Gina and Rob were part of the large crowd dancing inside. Andy was sitting at the table, playing cards with two cousins. I talked to them for a while but a quarter of an hour with my brother is usually the most I could stand, so I soon wandered away in search of better entertainment.
But when I opened the door to the sunroom, I discovered Scott Allen, astride one of the saddles that we kept in there. I shouted at him, but it only made him jog up and down even more, on my best saddle! Andy came running when he heard me yell, then stood there like an idiot laughing at Scott, Arabian headdress brushed back, pretending he was riding a horse.
‘Stop! You’ll wreck it! Don’t you know it ruins a saddle to sit on it when it’s not properly supported?’ I snapped.
He completely ignored me as he continued to ride through his imaginary desert. Suddenly someone turned up the volume on the stereo and the song ‘Revolution’ came blasting through the open door. Thankfully Scott leapt out of the saddle, threw off his costume hat and danced into the next room, waving a clenched fist in the air.
Gina met him with an answering raised fist and together they danced wildly into the crowd. I checked that my saddle hadn’t been damaged before I too joined the dancing mob.
At five to twelve I went to the toilet and stayed there until ten past twelve, when I knew that I would be safe from all the kissing. Welcome to the 1970s, I thought, as I left the protection of the toilet to re-enter the party. ‘Here Comes the Sun’ was playing and everyone was dancing so wildly that the record kept skipping, making it difficult to stay with the beat. I danced for a while but there were too many slow tracks on Abbey Road and so eventually I decided to call it a night and headed for the bungalow that I shared with Gina.
I changed into my pyjamas, grabbed some paper and a biro and got into bed. I wrote at the top of the page ‘My New Year’s Resolutions – 1970’ and then thought for a while. Finally I wrote my list: ‘1. Buy a miniskirt and some boots. 2. Get my hair cut into a bob. 3. Be kinder to Andy. 4. Learn tennis. 5. Get all A’s for English.’ That’ll do, I decided. Outside people were still talking and laughing around the barbecue, and I heard Dad invite Scott to go with him to another party. I switched off the light and in spite of the din, drifted off to sleep.
I awoke the next morning to the sound of rain hammering on our corrugated-iron roof. Maybe 1970 isn’t going to be such a great year after all, I thought, and went back to sleep. When I opened my eyes it was ten-thirty. Still raining. Going into the kitchen I found an absolute disaster zone, with dishes and leftover food everywhere. My parents were obviously still nursing heavy hangovers in bed. As there’s never much to do when it isn’t beach weather, I took my breakfast back to bed and began to read Jane Eyre. I was just at the part where Jane was locked in the red-room when Gina woke up, grabbed some clothes and disappeared. I continued reading for the rest of the day, undisturbed.
By evening the sky had cleared. I got up again to discover the big clean-up was underway and so I quickly escaped, unnoticed, out the front gate. I ambled down the track and onto the beach. Removing my thongs, I felt the sand damp and cold between my toes.
I wandered along the shoreline, enjoying the peace and tranquillity until I heard a shout. Turning around I saw Scott racing towards me, his sheepskin jacket flying out behind him.
‘Oh hello, Scott.’
Suddenly I was rugby-tackled to the ground.
‘Do you always have to attack first and talk second?’ I grumbled as I picked myself up off the sand. He just grinned.
‘So how’s your head? Bad headache?’ I asked hopefully.
‘Nup, I felt a bit crook this morning but now I feel fine. Great party last night!’
‘Yes, it was.’ I didn’t know what else to say.
Scott made me feel very uneasy, although he didn’t seem to notice. He slouched along beside me, hands in his jeans pockets, as we walked up the beach.
‘I really wish my stepfather was more like your old man,’ he sighed.
‘In what way?’
‘He’s a big-time judge at some city court and so he acts like God at our place. Everything the old bastard says to me begins with, “Now Scott, my boy, don’t . . .” or “Goodness, not at the dinner table . . .”’ Scott wagged his index finger at me.
We both laughed.
‘Anyway, he’s boring. Hey, I’ve got a car, did you know? An old Holden, a beaut little paddock-thrasher. We’re on twenty acres at home in Eltham, which means I’ve got plenty of room to drive around. My mates help me ’cos the car’s a bit stuffed. Omo hangs onto the door to stop it from opening and Spike changes the gears – it takes two hands. Another mate has to sit out on the back, holding the exhaust pipe on with wire. We always go for a burn when one of us has got enough money to buy petrol.’
He looked at me to see if I was impressed. I frowned to show that I wasn’t, but he continued anyway, telling me the details of one particular time when they smashed into a tree. Suddenly he looked down at me and said, ‘You’re bloody short, aren’t you?’
I stopped walking and glared at him. He had hit on a sore point.
‘So? I can’t help that, can I?’ I shouted.
‘Hey, wait a minute. I wasn’t criticising. I think you’re kind of cute that way.’
But he had chosen exactly the wrong word.
‘Cute?’ I sneered. ‘When you’re short, you’re never beautiful or graceful or sophisticated. No, you’re always just cute! Everyone pats you on the head when you’re small. “Oh, isn’t she cute!” people say, patting away. What am I meant to do – wag my tail? “And how old are you, dear? . . . Well, well, are you really fourteen? You’re so little, you certainly don’t look your age!” It’s not my fault that I look young, and they should know enough to shut up. They can all go to hell and so can you, Scott Allen!’
I picked up some rocks and flung them furiously into the sea one after the other.
Gradually I began to calm down. I turned around to find that Scott was still there, drawing patterns in the sand with a bare foot and looking at me strangely. He bent down quickly, grabbed a rock and handed it to me.
‘Thanks,’ I said and threw it as far as I could.
‘My name’s Scotchie.’
We both threw rocks at the sea for a while.
‘Let’s keep walking,’ he suggested.
The colours of the sunset shifted and changed while we walked along the beach in silence. The waves rolled in and the seagulls bobbed up and down behind them. Eventually night began to fall, so we headed back up the track. We reached my driveway and when I turned towards the house, his tall shape continued to move along the road.
‘Scotchie?’ I called through the darkness.
‘See you later.’