Authors: Steven Herrick
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction
Praise for Steven Herrick
By the River
‘Herrick captures the essence of his characters with deft strokes … concise, eloquent
.’ Sydney Morning Herald
‘… highly emotional poetry that can induce tears of both laughter and sadness.’
‘The flawless rhythm of his writing and the bittersweet tales he tells make him a unique storyteller.’
Sydney Morning Herald
‘… delivers a powerful sense of authenticity and unforgettable lyricism.’
Sydney Morning Herald
‘As you listen to each character speak, you are drawn into their mind and feel part of their life.’
First published in 2011
Steven Herrick, 2011
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. The
Copyright Act 1968
(the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or ten per cent of this book, whichever is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has given a remuneration notice to Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) under the Act.
Allen & Unwin
83 Alexander Street
Crows Nest NSW 2065
Phone: (61 2) 8425 0100
Fax: (61 2) 9906 2218
Email: [email protected]
A Cataloguing-in-Publication entry is available from the National Library of Australia
ISBN 978 1 74237 459 8
Teacher’s notes available from www.allenandunwin.com
Cover and text design by Lisa White
Cover photo by Sally Mundy/Trevillion Images
Typeset and eBook production by
Printed in Australia by McPherson’s Printing Group
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
To José and Maria, Daniela and Daniela, with thanks for being such wonderful hosts while I worked on this book at Casa Dos Esteios
Steven Herrick was born in Brisbane, the youngest of seven children. At school his favourite subject was soccer, and he dreamed of football glory while he worked at various jobs, including fruit-picking. For the past twenty years, he’s been a full-time writer of books for children and teenagers, and each year he visits many schools in both Australia and overseas. His books have twice won the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, and have been shortlisted for the CBCA Book of the Year Awards on six occasions.
Steven lives in the Blue Mountains with his wife, Cathie, a belly-dancing teacher. They have two adult sons, Jack and Joe.
Visit Steven’s website at
I’m stuck in cross-city traffic, smelling petrol fumes and watching the man in the car beside me sing along with his iPod. He closes his eyes opera-style and lets rip. His double chin wobbles as he strains for the high note.
I press the button on my armrest and every window lowers, noiselessly. Is there a cyberspeed gadget somewhere among all these dials to transport me into the future, upstairs to the verandah room I’ve booked at the Shamrock Hotel, Hillston?
‘How long do you want to stay?’ the woman on the phone asked.
‘Six weeks, please.’
‘Yep. Forty-two days to be exact, arriving on Wednesday.’
‘No worries, mate.’
‘Do . . . do you want my name?’
‘There’ll be a room here, no matter who you are.’
In three days’ time, I’ll be facing a class of twenty-six Year Five students. I can see it now: the red-haired boy beside the window deep in thought, picking his nose; the girl with pigtails in the front smiling because she hated the last teacher; the big-eared boy at the back scowling because he hates all teachers. And me? I’ll be the tall curly-haired bloke, knees knocking, hoping my voice doesn’t crack when I say hello.
Earlier this morning, Mum bustled into my bedroom and opened the curtains.
‘Time to rise, James.’ She tickled my foot hanging over the bed. ‘You’ve got a long drive today.’
I gave her the finger with my big toe.
I kept my eyes closed, but I could feel her watching me. She sighed. ‘I wish you weren’t going. Who will I have to talk to?’
‘Dad, your friends at tennis, Mrs Reynolds, the book club . . .’
‘They’re not my own flesh and blood, they’re . . .’ She squeezed my foot, searching for the words. ‘. . . not my only son.’
An hour later, Mum, Dad and I stood on the back verandah, my suitcase at our feet. Mum handed me the lunchbox I’ve had since Year Seven.
‘Wholemeal salad sandwiches, James. And a peach, for your long drive.’ She patted my hand. A magpie sat on the back fence, chortling.
Dad slipped the keys to the gleaming red BMW M3, parked in our driveway, into my shirt pocket. He clasped both hands on my shoulders. ‘Drive carefully, Jim.’ We shook hands and his voice seemed to waver. ‘I’ll miss you, son.’
I leant in close and hugged him. Underneath the expensive suit, he felt thin and frail. He touched my back gently and, as we pulled apart, I noticed the grey hair peppering his curls.
‘Thanks, Dad. For the car.’
Mum wrapped her arms around me and kissed me on both cheeks.
‘I’m only going for six weeks, Mum.’
‘But it’s your first time away from home, James. Who’ll look after you?’
‘I’ll look after myself.’
She pushed a strand of hair behind my ear. ‘I could come with you, until you settle?’
She wiped her eyes with a handkerchief, then reached for Dad’s hand.
I flipped the suitcase into the boot of the BMW and opened the driver’s door, nervously adjusting the seat. Mum and Dad waved from the verandah as I reversed slowly out of the driveway. Mum blew me a kiss.
I stop for petrol at the first service station in the Blue Mountains.
Beside a sign advertising three Cornettos for six dollars, a small white cross faces the road. Inscribed on it is
Matthew – 2001
. Matthew’s cross has a single rose tied with blue ribbon at the base.
I fill the tank and look across at the houses opposite. A timber cottage is overgrown with roses and lavender, bottlebrush and a single bloodwood tree. A man sits on the verandah watching the traffic thumping past.
‘Are you heading west, mister?’
She’s wearing a flowing black dress and her tangled hair tumbles across her eyes. She brushes it back and smiles at me: lip gloss but no make-up.
No need for make-up.
‘S-sorry?’ I stammer, big feet shuffling, eyes downcast.
She repeats it, slowly. ‘Are you heading west?’
If I say yes, how do I then say no to offering her a lift? If my mate Pete were here, he’d cheekily cock his head and ask her name, grin and say, ‘Sure, I’m going wherever you are.’
I don’t want company. In movies, hitchhikers talk because they think it’s payment for the ride. Witty conversation about places they’ve been to, jobs they’ve had, friends they’ve lost.
I wish I could speak another language, suddenly switch to Spanish and reel off sentence after sentence to show I don’t understand, that ‘sorry’ is my only English word.
She leans casually against my car, her bag slung across one shoulder. One bare shoulder. I look across the highway at the man on the verandah, as if he can get me out of this.
‘How about we toss a coin for your answer? Heads, it’s west and a lift.’
Look at her, you idiot!
‘Tails, it’s still west, but no lift.’
My tank is full. I hold the nozzle like it’s a karaoke microphone and I’ve forgotten the lyrics. She called me mister, but she’s older than me.
‘Okay . . . you toss,’ I say, putting the cap on the tank.
My hand is shaking.
She plonks the oversized vinyl handbag on my car and rummages inside for her money.
I fumble a dollar coin from my pocket. It bounces on the duco and rolls under the rear wheel. I quickly kneel down to retrieve it.
Petrol fumes, cast-off chewing gum stuck to the bitumen, an oil stain, and she’s wearing big boots, lace-ups . . . bare legs.
Stop gawking at her legs. Stand up!
She takes the coin from my hand and tosses it high. We both track its spin, then she catches it, flips it on her wrist and calls, ‘Heads.’
I lean forward.
Tails. Tails. Please.
She smiles faintly, holds her wrist towards me, the coin balancing. Before I have a chance to check, she tilts her arm and catches the coin as it drops.
‘Heads it is!’
She opens the passenger door, but waits until I nod agreement. What can I do?
She keeps the coin.
She’s tall, willowy, and those big army boots unnerve me. She hitches her dress loose around her legs and settles into the seat.
‘Can we have some air?’
I point to the button. ‘Elec . . . elet . . . power.’
Under the stare of someone so beautiful, I struggle to get the words out.
The wind blows the damp smell of mountain pines through the car. I slowly pull out of the service station driveway, my eyes scanning the traffic and Matthew’s memorial. The ice-cream sign spins in the breeze. The man on the verandah stands and walks into his garden. How many times a week does he cross the road to add a rose?
All that fresh air and the faint smell of her perfume makes me cough. I dare not ask too many questions or she’ll think I’m trying to chat her up; too few and the space between us will expand and crush my wavering confidence. When I reach into the glovebox, my hand brushes her knee, but she doesn’t move. Where are my sunglasses?
I flick open the centre console. Did I leave them at home?
She points to the dash.
‘Thanks. How did you know?’
She smiles but doesn’t answer.
‘Where are . . . how far are you going?’ I ask. Please let it be the next town, twenty minutes away.
Her voice is assured. ‘The further, the better.’
What is she escaping from? A jealous boyfriend? A job she hated? Anxious parents? No, that would be me.
‘I’m not running away from anything,’ she says.
James Spalding: a geeky open book.
She smoothes the folds of her dress. ‘I’m going home. It’s . . . a long way.’
She doesn’t look like a country girl, not with her dangling ruby earrings and black painted fingernails. They’ll go down well on the back of a horse, cracking a whip.
‘I haven’t been home in years,’ she says quietly.
I surrender. This girl is a few steps ahead of Mr Obvious.
‘I can tell what job you do,’ she says playfully.
‘G-go on then.’
She clicks her fingers. ‘You’re a teacher.’
‘How the hell . . .’
She points to the union sticker on my lunchbox in the back seat and says, ‘You barely look old enough, if you don’t mind me saying.’
And you don’t look like a cowgirl.
As I’m glancing at her, a car skids in front of us, screeching tyres and smoking rubber. I swerve into the parking lane, my brakes sharp, whining. She jolts forward in her seat.
We look at each other without saying a word.
A dog wanders slowly past my grille, tail waving, like a smile.