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Authors: John Marsden

Checkers

John Marsden accidentally put himself through the perfect training to become a novelist.

He read vast numbers of books, acquired a love of language, and became insatiably curious about other people. He also had a variety of jobs, 32 at the last count, including working in abattoirs, hospitals, morgues and a haunted house.

In 1985, rather to his own surprise, he found himself teaching English in the Australian bush, at Timbertop School. Noticing a complete lack of interest in reading among his Year 9 students he tried his hand at writing a short novel that he thought they might enjoy.

The rest is history. John Marsden is now the world's most successful author of teenage fiction. He has sold a million and a half books world-wide, and has won awards in Europe, America and Australia. His first love however is still teaching, and he spends most of his time running writing camps at his property, the Tye Estate, near Hanging Rock, Victoria.

You can visit John Marsden's website at:

www.johnmarsden.com.au

Also by John Marsden

So Much to Tell You

The Journey

The Great Gatenby

Staying Alive in Year 5

Out of Time

Letters from the Inside

Take My Word for It

Looking for Trouble

Tomorrow . . . (Ed.)

Cool School

Creep Street

Checkers

For Weddings and a Funeral (Ed.)

This I Believe (Ed.)

Dear Miffy

Prayer for the 21st Century

Everything I Know About Writing

Secret Men's Business

The
Tomorrow
Series 1999 Diary

The Rabbits

Norton's Hut

Marsden on Marsden

Winter

The Head Book

The Boy You Brought Home

The Magic Rainforest

Millie

A Roomful of Magic

The
Tomorrow
Series

Tomorrow, When the War Began

The Dead of the Night

The Third Day, the Frost

Darkness, Be My Friend

Burning for Revenge

The Night is for Hunting

The Other Side of Dawn

The Ellie Chronicles

While I Live

Incurable

Circle of Flight

First published 1996 in Macmillan by Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Limited
First published 1997 in Pan by Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Limited
1 Market Street, Sydney

Copyright © JLM Pty Ltd 1996

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted by any person or entity (including Google, Amazon or similar organisations), in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, scanning or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher.

National Library of Australia cataloguing-in-publication data:

Marsden, John, 1950–.

Checkers.

ISBN 978-1-74338-623-5

I. Title.

A823.3

All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

 

This electronic edition published in 2012 by Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Ltd
1 Market Street, Sydney 2000

Copyright © John Marsden 1996

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

All rights reserved. This publication (or any part of it) may not be reproduced or transmitted, copied, stored, distributed or otherwise made available by any person or entity (including Google, Amazon or similar organisations), in any form (electronic, digital, optical, mechanical) or by any means (photocopying, recording, scanning or otherwise) without prior written permission from the publisher.

This ebook may not include illustrations and/or photographs that may have been in the print edition.

Marsden, John.

Checkers.

EPUB format 978-1-74338-623-5

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www.macmillandigital.com.au

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To Albie, who jumped fences, chased rabbits,
and barked at life

A
CKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Many thanks to Kylee Ervine, Ros Alexander and Bronwyn Miller.

C
HAPTER
O
NE

It's so quiet. I don't know what the time is, maybe two o'clock, three o'clock. I think I've been asleep for a couple of hours; I'm not sure.

Sister Llosa's on tonight, with Hanna. Sister Llosa's a big suntanned yak, and Hanna's a shining white lizard who slips in and out of the rooms quickly and quietly. Most nights when they're on together they murmur away at the desk. It's like a lullaby. I don't hear the words but I hear their soft voices playing music with each other, Sister Llosa deep and dark, Hanna light and laughing.

Right now they're not at the desk, though. They might be in 109 with the new admission. He was yelling for hours when he first came in, but he's quiet now, too. Everything's quiet suddenly: there's no snoring, no hiss and grind from the lift, none of the bathroom promenades: the shuffle-shuffle-creak-piddle-flush-creak-shuffle-shuffle. That's the sound I hate most. I'd rather have screaming than that.

I'm glad I've got my own room now. I've always had my own bedroom, for as long as I remember. School camps are the only times I ever slept with anyone else.

‘Shared the room' with anyone else, I mean. God, I hate how everything you say sounds like it has to do with sex. I do hate that.

Last year at school we were talking about Daniel Morrissey and I said ‘Daniel sucks,' and Tanya said ‘Yeah, you'd know.'

That's the kind of thing I mean.

It was the way everyone laughed at me, that's what I'm really talking about. You get scared to say anything, through fear of the laughing. Laughter's meant to be loving, wrapping itself around you like a hug, but when it's aimed at me it seems cruel.

I was better off than some people, though. Simone, I don't know how she stood it, being put down all the time, by everyone, even teachers. Trying to make a joke and listening to us, the cruel mockingbirds, as we told her what we thought of her joke. Trying to find a partner in Drama, waiting to be asked, and finally having to be put with someone by Ms Eddy, while the other person rolled her eyes and stood as far away as possible. Sitting on her own up the front of the bus when we went on excursions. I shivered when I watched Simone. I knew that could so easily have been me. What makes some people unpopular? Simone did everything right. She lives in Ralston Avenue, in a huge house with two Mercs parked in the drive; she goes to Mt Silver in winter and Providence Bay in summer; her father runs Conway Carpets and a heap of other companies. They won the Oaks four years ago with Admiral Sam.

I mean, what else do you have to do? How many points does it take? How many points do you need?

That's why I shivered when I looked at Simone. I'd counted my own points enough times. For years I'd looked at my friends and wondered. Sally, Zoe, Jana, Shon. Kym, before she moved back to America. What was it that they liked in me? If I'd made a mistake, would that have been it? If I'd had a different name, a different family, if I'd lived in Lennon or Everett West and wore clothes from Reward, would I have stopped being their friend and instead become a guest on Oprah? ‘Teen With No Friends' . . . ‘The Teen Everyone Hates' . . . ‘From Teen Queen to Freak Queen'.

Life seems so fragile. You walk down the centre of the highway, with the big trucks rushing past. They make the air shake. They blow you off your line. You stick out your arms, to get your balance. A truck hits one arm and spins you around. You stagger and fall, holding your arm and crying. Another truck rushes at you. There's no escape. Your body's just bones and flesh, that's all. There are too many things beating at you, blowing at you, hurting you and leaving bruises.

It's a miracle anyone survives to be a teenager. It's a miracle any teenager survives to be an adult.

There is noise out in the corridor again now. Lots of footsteps, people being busy, hushed voices. I can see shadows going backwards and forwards, passing quickly under the door. You can tell the staff footsteps from the patients'. The staff sound like they're going somewhere.

I imagine they're admitting another new patient. You get them in the middle of the night sometimes. That's when Esther came in, and Emine.

I wish I could sleep. I want to sleep; but the more I want to, the less I can. I never used to have problems with sleeping. So many new things have happened lately: this is just one more. It makes me wonder who's now inhabiting my body: what is this confusion of feelings and thoughts that I keep inside. It's not only the things outside that threaten my balance. The feelings storm through me, up and down and all around, crashing into each other and falling back, reeling and rubbing their noses. I contain them all but I often wonder what would happen if they broke out. The Luna Park of my mind would spill onto the streets. Whole cities would be overrun. Crazy desperate figures would chase each other across the landscape. It's important that I keep them inside, but it's all I can do to hold them there. They want to erupt. I'm saving the world by stopping them.

In the Dayroom yesterday Oliver said to me, ‘Maybe something good'll come out of our being here.'

‘What?' I said.

He thought for a long time then said, ‘Maybe we'll learn more about ourselves. Find parts of ourselves we never knew we had.'

‘But I didn't want to find any new parts,' I whined. ‘I was happy the way I was.'

I wasn't, of course. But I hardly knew it: that's the difference. Anyway, it's one of the games we play in here, pretending we were huge social successes in our past lives. Esther's about the only one who doesn't play that game, and Emine sometimes.

The noises in the corridor are getting quieter, duller. It seems darker now, and colder. I feel that I know every minute of the days and nights in here. I like that, in some ways. There have been times here, many of them, when all I've wanted was to get out, go home; other times when I want to stay in here forever. At this moment I want to stay forever. I feel safe here. They know me. I don't think they'll hurt me. I like the little things, the safe little things that never change: the queue at the nurses' station for medication, the games of table tennis in the Dayroom, the changes of shifts, even the corny way Dr Singh comes in each morning and says, ‘And how is Miss Warner today?'

I think he likes having me as his patient. Whenever either of us mentions my father, Dr Singh swells a little and looks important. I'm used to that, so I notice it easily.

Another reason I don't want to leave at the moment is the painting on the wall in this room. It's dumb to like it, because it looks nothing like Checkers. But I pretend it does and I lie here liking it. The dog in the painting is about half the size of Checkers and reddish-brown instead of black and white, and he's lying on a rug in front of a fire, which Checkers never did, because although we had a fireplace we never had a fire.

In this dark room, if I look at the painting and look away quickly, I can make it seem like it might be Checkers.

Getting Checkers was one of the two perfect nights of my life. The other was my twelfth birthday, where it just so happened that everything went like a dream and everyone left saying it was the best party they'd ever been to. There have only been two perfect nights, but I don't complain about that. If I have a complaint it's that both nights lied to me: the perfection was pretence. But sometimes I think it was still worth it, almost. On those two nights I thought that life itself was going to be perfect.

Dad came home with Checkers, but with no warning. It had been such a normal evening. I was in my room doing homework. To be exact, I was halfway through a project on AIDS. Mark was watching ‘Captain Comet': I'd deliberately left my bedroom door open so I could hear. Mum was in the kitchen. I don't know what she was doing but I can guess. Cleaning. We had the whitest kitchen in the southern hemisphere but she wasn't risking having anyone take her title away. We had a cleaning lady come in but it was never enough. Mum polished tiles till it looked like they were painted.

I'd argued and pestered and plagued everyone for a dog. Mark wanted one too, but not in the way I did. He wanted a dog because I wanted one, because all his friends had one, because that's what kids have. He's so materialistic that it scares me, and revolts me. He didn't think of dogs as dogs, just as more objects to collect.

Anyway, I heard Dad drive in, much earlier than usual. And he stopped in the driveway, too. That was odd. I glanced through the window. He was already out of the driver's seat and doing a funny kind of John Cleese walk to the door, long strides that were getting him to the house in a hurry. He looked very intent, very concentrated. I thought he'd forgotten something, that he was calling in on the way to a meeting to pick up some notes or grab a clean shirt or give Mum a message. I turned back to my project and wrote ‘with their friends or family, or in a hospice', then I became aware of the yabber of excited voices from the kitchen. I went out and there they all were: Dad beaming and hugging Mum and talking flat out, Mum smiling and looking pleased and letting herself be hugged and Mark hugging himself, going, ‘Bonus, bonus, we'll be so rich.'

‘What's the party?' I asked.

‘We can have anything we want for our birthdays,' Mark said, all in one breath, really fast, like he couldn't believe it and wanted to scream.

‘Within reason,' Mum said quickly.

I started to realise what must have happened.

‘You got the contract,' I said to Dad.

He nodded hard, with his lips pressed tight together.

‘But you're not allowed to tell anyone,' Mark said.

I started to feel excited, too. Like, I don't think I'm materialistic, and I hate the way Mark is, but I'm not Mother Theresa, either. The possibilities were opening in my mind like flowers and I thought, ‘Jeez, this could be huge.' They were all watching me, waiting for my reaction, and I said, ‘Wow, God, fantastic, Dad. You did it!'

‘Oh well, with a little help from my friends,' he said modestly.

But I felt they were somehow disappointed with me, that I hadn't quite been able to show enough excitement. Not spontaneous enough. So I kept going, but I think I went on too long then. ‘That's great, Dad, fantastic. You legend. You actually did it. Jack must be so rapt.'

He let go of Mum and went to the fridge. ‘It'll make a big difference to us,' he said. ‘It'll be the end of our financial problems. I'll be able to get you all the things I've always wanted, all the things I've dreamed of us having.'

‘Can we really have whatever we want for our birthdays?' I asked.

But Dad had paused, ice tongs in one hand, glass in the other. ‘Oh!' he cried. ‘How could I forget?'

He dropped everything on the bench and rushed outside. We all stared out the window to see what he was doing. He was already back at the car, opening the rear door. As we watched he pulled out a large cardboard box, about the size of Mark's old stereo speaker. He carried it triumphantly but awkwardly up the path and through the door, as we crowded around, curious to see what our new life was already bringing.

‘Lucky I didn't leave him there,' Dad said. He put the box on the table. ‘Poor thing wouldn't have been too happy.'

I heard a soft rustling from the box and realised it was something alive. I knew at once what it must be. I untied the string carefully, trying to stop Mark from getting under my elbow, and I opened the box.

And there he was.

Checkers.

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