Authors: Nova Weetman
Nova Weetman has been writing for eighteen years. As a screenwriter, she has written short films for Film Victoria including
Mr Wasinski's Song
(AWGIE nomination and winner Best Australian Short at MIFF) and has written for
Pixel Pinkie, H20
Buzz Bumble, Wild But True
Fanshaw and Crudnut
. Nova is the author of two middle reader books in the Choose Your Own Ever After series and two young adult novels,
The Haunting of Lily Frost
Frankie and Joely
The Secrets We Keep
is Nova's fifth book.
Also by Nova Weetman
A Hot Cold Summer
Play the Game
The Haunting of Lily Frost
Frankie and Joely
For Evie, a lover of sad stories
I don't know if you've ever seen a house burn, but it's not like anything else. It's nothing like the out-of-control bushfires that you see every summer on TV. It's more contained, as if the fire has its own plan. It seems to burn in on itself, like a marshmallow on a stick when you go camping. The smoke is thick and black and it plumes up into the air. And the fire just roars through, room by room, chewing it all up.
I watched it. Dad and I both did. By the time we drove up with our pizza boxes ready for dinner, the fire had already destroyed the back half of the house. It was a Thursday and I'd been at netball training. Dad had picked me up because he'd worked late. I'd started eating the pizza on the drive home because I was starving, but I dropped the crust on the floor when we drove around the corner. I could tell something bad had happened because there were four fire trucks. I remember counting them. And all our neighbours were out on the street. Like they were watching a sporting match or something. We didn't know where Mum was. Not until after.
That was six weeks ago. I've stayed in four different beds since then. The first night I slept at my best friend Bridge's house because Dad had to deal with the firemen and the police. I curled up next to Bridge and tried to sleep, but I couldn't. I just kept thinking about Mum. After that we stayed with Dad's brother for a bit, and then a friend of Dad's. One night we even crashed on the floor at Dad's boss's place. It's not something you think about until it happens. I'd always imagined that I'd sleep in my white wrought iron bed forever, not shuffle around like an orphan.
But now I have my own bed again and Dad and I are living in a flat of our own. And the best thing about living with just my dad is that, even in the world's tiniest one-bedroom flat, it almost feels roomy because there are only two of us. And one of us, that would be me, is on the small side, so it's like only one-and-a-half normal-sized people are squashed in together.
I have the bedroom and Dad has the couch. He says he doesn't mind, but I'm not so sure. It can't be very comfortable squashing up on our short, second-hand couch each night. But we don't have much of a choice right now.
My room is just large enough to fit the bed that Dad bought me at an op shop and my borrowed clothes that don't even fill a suitcase. I have a couple of other things too: a white porcelain rabbit, a red diary with a lock on it and an old clock that belonged to my grandmother. They sit on a ledge under my window so take up almost no room at all. After the fire there wasn't much left. These were the things I managed to salvage.
We're here in this new flat and this new suburb because of the fire. But that's a whole other story and not one I'm going to get into right now. Because if I do then I'll never make it to school on time. And it's my first day.
It seems strange to be starting mid-term, particu
larly when it's a Thursday. It's not like starting fresh on a Monday morning in term one, when everyone is just back from the holidays and they haven't seen each other for weeks, so they're all a bit uncertain even if they've been going to the school for years. This is one of those beginnings that can only feel like a
beginning, where everyone in class will stare and wonder why I'm there without actually asking. It's enough to give me a sick feeling in my tummy if I think about it for too long, so I'm choosing not to.
âYou ready, Clem?' asks Dad, poking his head into my room. His brown hair is sticking up at all angles this morning, which tells me a lot about his night. I decide it's best not to mention it.
âAs ready as I'll ever be,' I reply, using his favourite expression.
He smiles at me and I manage to smile back, amazed that after everything that's happened we can still smile at all.
âCome on, then. If we go now we can check out the neighbourhood.'
I start to follow him, but stop, patting my hair to make sure it isn't as crazy as Dad's.
âDad, do I look okay?'
He turns and gives me a dad sort of look. It's encouraging, as if he's trying to understand, but we both know hair really isn't his strong suit.
âOf course, honey. You look like you always do.'
âYou mean messy brown hair, a nose and dark brown eyes that look black if I haven't had enough sleep?'
He leans down and touches my cheek affectionately. âYou forgot the million freckles on your nose.'
âOh yeah.' Apparently I inherited those from my mum, but she isn't around anymore.
I bend down to retie one of the laces on my purple Converse, and notice the hole in my leggings. I poke at it and say, âNot sure how long these are going to last, Dad.'
He holds the door open for me so I can follow him out of the flat and into the stairwell. âAre those ones getting a bitâ'
I interrupt before he can finish his sentence. âAre you going to say small? Because we both know that's a lie.'
âWell, I was going to say tired,' he says. âAnd you'll grow.'
The thing is, I like being short. I always have. I've noticed that people treat you differently when you're small, especially if you're a girl. I like that people underestimate me. Especially when I'm lined up for a race and waiting for the gun to go off. My old Little Athletics coach used to joke that I was a firecracker. And my best friend, Bridge, and my other friends at my old school used to call me cute. But I don't want to think about my old school right now. If I start to imagine Bridge sitting next to someone different in class it will just make me teary. I know I had to leave, but knowing it and doing it are really different things.
So instead I say, âSure I'll grow, Dad. By the time I'm your age, I'll be a giant.'
He pretends to laugh, mocking me in his playful way. Obviously I don't want to stay this height forever. But while I'm eleven and one month, it suits me just fine.
âWill you be right walking home this afternoon, honey?'
I give Dad a look and he shrugs.
âCourse, Dad. Not like I can get lost around here.'
I think Dad picked this flat because the roads are straight and simple. There aren't any roundabouts or tricky corners that can catch you out, not like where we used to live.
Our old house was a white weatherboard with a hallway down the middle and rooms running off either side. There was a bay window at the front that I used to curl up in to read a book while I waited for Dad to come home from work. Our house was surrounded by other old houses on a wide, winding street with trees that dropped leaves all through autumn. The parents spent their weekends sweeping them up, and the kids spent their afternoons spreading them out again. There were swings hanging in the front yards and trampolines in the back. Everyone knew each other. It was awesome.
The flats we live in now are nothing flash. There are four flats upstairs and four down, the bricks are brown and the whole place is like a sharp-edged box.
We've only been here a week, in our downstairs flat, and I haven't seen anyone in the yard yet, so I have no idea who it is we hear walking around upstairs in the morning, or listening to music beside us in the night. And so far all of the faces I've seen are looking down.
Dad nudges me as we walk past some people covered in tattoos. The woman even has an image of a snake along one side of her face. I wonder if it ever scares her when she looks in the mirror. We didn't see many tattoos in my old neighbourhood. Maybe the odd one on an arm or a leg, but not a fully inked skin suit like these two have. I kind of like it. It makes me think that everyone is a bit different around here. Just like me and Dad.
âWhat are you doing today, Dad?' I ask.
âMaybe I'll get something for dinner this morning,' he says, âand then I have to go in to work to talk to the boss about when he wants me back.'
We turn off the main road and start heading down a side street.
âSix weeks is a long time off,' says Dad. âImagine what the
is looking like now.'
I grin at Dad testing me on the type of plant he's talking about. I play along. âIs it wattle something? If I can remember do I get to choose what you buy for dinner?'
Dad works at the botanical gardens. He's one of the plant experts, a horticulturalist. He knows almost all of the Latin plant names and spends a lot of time looking after the native Australian plants. He used to take me there when I was little. I'm glad he's going back to work because it's not like we have any sort of garden at the flat. Not like our old house. Although there is a bit of a courtyard there that could do with some love.
âNope. Wrong answer,' says Dad. âWattle something doesn't cut it.'
âOh no! Don't make curry again, please,' I beg, remembering the taste of the chilli three nights before.
âWhat about roast chicken? And chocolate pudding?' asks Dad. âSound good?'
Roast chicken and chocolate pudding are what I always have for my birthday dinner. It's been the same since I was four. But I've already had my birthday and because it was only two weeks after the fire and we were sleeping on someone's floor, w
d eaten beans on toast that night.
So this must be my belated birthday dinner or starting-at-a-new-school dinner.
âExtra potatoes?' I ask, grabbing Dad's hand.
He swings my arm. âWill a kilo cut it?'
âDepends. You planning on eating any?'
âThe girl's a joker!' he says loudly, and I don't even care who hears.
My dad's not the sort of dad you'd notice. He's not super tall â must be where I get it from â or super big. He's just an ordinary dad: bit scruffy, bit daggy. But he has a wicked sense of humour that always makes me giggle even when I'm cranky or sad. He just knows how to make me laugh.
Mum used to hate it when we'd get started. She could never quite keep up and her jokes just weren't funny. She said it made her feel left out. It didn't mean we actually tried to leave her out. It just happened naturally. Like when you have a friend at school who just gets you. No matter what mood you're in, they can read it. That's what my dad does with me. And my best friend Bridge, too.
Ahead I see lots of kids walking. They're noisy â laughing â like going to school is about the most fun you can have on a Thursday. I hope they know something I don't.
My feet have started to itch inside my Converse. So I shuffle on the spot, trying to trick them. But the itch is growing as if I'm about to run a race. Dad says it's adrenalin and that I need to change it into power so it makes me run fast. But I wonder what the point of adrenalin is right now. It's not like I'm gearing up to run anywhere â unless I can turn and run away.
âThere it is, Clem,' says Dad as we reach a tall wire fence.
I look in. There is a horde of kids on the other side, as busy as a hive of bees. Balls are being bounced. Monkey bars are being swung on. Conversations are happening everywhere. And I'm out here. Looking through holes in the wire, wondering how I'm going to do this.