Kate De Goldi
The 10pm Question
The bus roared to a stop. Cassino, their morning bus-driver, prided himself on a full-speed, accurate stop, the brakes singing, the air seizing, the doors sucking open precisely in front of the waiting passengers. Frankie and Gigs held their breath every time, anxious that Cassino should maintain his own high standards. In five years, he hadn’t failed them.
Cassino was big and brown and had an impressive boa constrictor tattoo running the length of his left arm. Like Frankie and Gigs he was a creature of habit; every morning as he took their coins, or slotted their bus cards, Cassino said the same thing.
‘And the code word is, fellas?’
They took it in turns, week by week, inventing the code word. You could never have the same one twice, and Cassino had a phenomenal memory for repeats.
‘Lorikeets,’ said Frankie. He’d been on a bird theme for a while. He’d even looked up a bird encyclopaedia for wacko bird names. Tomorrow he planned to roll out kittiwake, and the day after, widgeon. He was still debating about Friday—it would be either lily-trotter or capercaillie; both names made him laugh.
‘Fair enough,’ said Cassino, which was what he always said—even when Gigs had been on a bodily excretion theme and had worked his way from snot to earwax to bile to toe-jam to a grand finale of faeces.
‘Fair enough,’ Cassino had said, without a flicker.
They reeled down the aisle to their usual seat—the left corner of the long bench at the back of the bus. Frankie and Gigs had been sitting there for years and no one had ever argued with it—except Bronwyn Baxter who’d taken it into her head last year to challenge the arrangement. They’d worn her down, though, driven her to the front of the bus by speaking Chilun in a constant monotone from the other end of the bench seat.
Chilun was another code, a complicated language spoken by only two people in the world. Frankie had invented it one boring summer and taught it to Gigs. It was a mixture of pig Latin, inverted syllables, truncated words—and the odd bit of Russian. (Frankie and Gigs found Russian hilarious. Sometimes for a good laugh they listened to Ma’s old tapes from her Russian study days; in class, Frankie could always crack Gigs up by whispering ‘Fiodor, Fiodor, potselui menia pokrepche, across the aisle. It meant: Fiodor, Fiodor, kiss me more passionately.)
Frankie enjoyed languages; their different sounds and patterns interested him. His ear seemed to sort out their mysteries quickly. He was the best in the class at French; he’d picked up a bit of Italian from Mrs Da Prini, too; inventing Chilun had been a doddle.
Gigs wasn’t particularly interested in languages, but after four years he too had pretty much mastered Chilun. It was the ultimate non-violent weapon, Gigs reckoned. If you spoke Chilun long enough and repeated an offending person’s name at regular intervals they eventually got very fed up and moved out of earshot. Gigs used it against his little brothers and sister all the time. It was useful on the phone, too, Frankie had found, especially when Gordana was hanging about. (Nynodimus was Gordana’s Chilun name, but, amazingly, she’d never caught on…)
‘So,’ said Gigs, taking out his breakfast. He always ate breakfast on the bus. He had an arrangement with his stepmother: he could stay in bed every morning until the last possible minute—and thereby avoid his siblings—as long as he ate a decent breakfast on the bus. A decent breakfast, according to Chris, was a BLT (with egg) and a milk drink and fresh fruit. Chris made very good BLTs—they were top heavy with bacon and avocado. Her smoothies were legendary. And her definition of fresh fruit encompassed canned peaches. His own family might have top baking, but Gigs’s breakfasts always made Frankie a little envious.
‘The aunties,’ said Gigs, through a mash of pig and vegetable. ‘We should do them during the card game—they’ll be super stressed. Shotgun Alma.’
Alma was the eldest great-aunty and Gigs’ declared favourite. Frankie who was fond (most of the time) of all his aunts, secretly also favoured Alma. She was enormously fat and very funny; she smoked cigars and drank whiskey and liked to gamble on all her card games. When she’d had quite a lot of whiskey and a winning hand at Crib she sometimes demonstrated her ancient ballroom dancing skills. For someone so hefty Alma was surprisingly light on her feet. The flesh around her middle and arms shook alarmingly when she bossa novaed; sweat gathered in the folds of her chins, and her breath came fast and rattling; but her feet tripped and darted as daintily as any slim-line ballerina. Frankie found an Alma dance routine peculiarly mesmerizing.
Alma’d had dozens of boyfriends in her time but none of them, she maintained, had been good enough dancing partners to marry. It was Frankie and Gigs’ private view that all Alma’s boyfriends had run off for fear of being squashed. Literally.
When he was in the mood, Frankie found Alma a riot.
On the whole he really wasn’t in the mood today.
‘Okay,’ he said to Gigs, ‘you can do Alma and I’ll do Nell and Avis—but we’ll have to factor in who’s winning and how much they’ve had to drink. Hope it doesn’t prejudice the judges.’ (Mrs Oates, the Junior Dean, was one of the school judges and Frankie knew for a fact that Ms Oates didn’t approve of alcohol.)
‘Man, your aunts put it away, don’t they?’ said Gigs, in perfect imitation of Uncle George.
Put it away they certainly did. Uncle George had once said to Frankie that the aunts were the last great lady drinkers in the Western World. And he was all for it. Uncle George loved the aunts. It was a match made in heaven, Frankie reckoned. They were all four of them boisterous and loud and optimistic, and with big appetites for food and fun.
He sighed and stared out the window at the river, at the ducks, gliding, apparently happy, on the lit-up surface. Food and fun and fast hands of cards were great and, really, he liked them as much as Uncle George, but there was so much else to think about as well, and no one except him seemed to bother doing the thinking.
Worms, for instance. Frankie was pretty sure The Fat Controller had worms, which meant that he, Frankie, probably had worms, too, since The Fat Controller slept on—and often in—his bed at night. Frankie found the idea of worms almost as revolting as ants. He’d mentioned the worm possibility several times to Ma but she insisted The Fat Controller was fine. He’d have to deal with it himself, he supposed: get money from Uncle George, buy the worm tablets and make everyone in the house take the dose along with himself and the cat.
Then there was the smoke alarm. The batteries had passed the use-by date and were certainly flat by now; he’d asked Uncle George a thousand times to get new ones but, as usual, Uncle G kept forgetting. So Frankie would have to do it himself.
Third, school camp was coming up and he just knew the house would go to rack and ruin while he was away: no one would remember rubbish day; no one would get groceries; no one would vacuum or wipe the bench properly and ants would foregather, for sure; Gordana would stay at Ben’s too much and Uncle George would work late and Ma would have no one to run errands.
Fourth, there was a strange rash on his chest that was starting to greatly preoccupy him. He’d ask Ma about it tonight but he knew pretty much how the conversation would go and what would happen after that: ‘Honestly, Franco, I’m sure it’s just heat or something, or a bite, maybe—definitely nothing serious…’ And then Frankie would lie in bed trying to believe Ma but dwelling on all the things the rash could be: scabies, ringworm, flea infestation, meningitis, dengue fever, malaria, cancer, Ebola virus…the list was potentially endless…And then, he would have to ask Ma again the next night, and the next, and finally she would say, ‘Would you feel better if you asked the doctor?’ and he would nod sheepishly, and Ma would feel bad that she couldn’t take him, but she would ask Uncle George and Uncle George would say he couldn’t ’til Friday week because he was up to his eyeballs and it looked exactly like a heat rash to him, anyway, so Ma would ask Gordana and Gordana would say, oh, for God’s sake was he always going to be such an incredible freak?
The bus was picking up speed now, down Memorial Avenue, past his grandmother’s old motels, past Centennial Park where he and Uncle George used to have bowling practice when they visited Gran, past Bava’s where they’d always bought their ice creams. Those were the days, Frankie thought: when Uncle George had time to bowl 200 medium pacers and eat a three-scoop afterwards. He sighed again. Maybe he’d just go to the doctor by himself. Why not? He was twelve. He didn’t need a minder.
‘Want some?’ said Gigs, offering him half an apricot.
‘Ta,’ said Frankie. He chewed the fruit slowly, enjoying the plump sweetness, and mentally added apricots to the ongoing grocery list in his head, which frankly—ha!—he was rather tired of having to compile on behalf of everyone else.
‘You watch Get Smart? Gigs asked. Get Smart reruns were their favourite TV just now.
‘Tried to,’ said Frankie, ‘but Gordana was practically having phone sex with Ben right beside me on the couch.’
‘Really?’ said Gigs.
‘No, not really, just kissing crap. And loud.’
And that was another thing: Gordana. Frankie didn’t really care that his sister was habitually rude and mean to him, but he did care that she never did a thing round the house. All the work was falling his way these days—getting the groceries, delivering stuff for Ma, checking the post office box, buying birthday presents for the relatives. It was so unfair. And extremely unlikely to improve, as far as he could see. Gordana’d leave home next year, he just knew it. Like Louie. She’d go flatting with Ben or Christa or Tamara or one of her 47 friends (she’d counted them)—but she’d swan back home for laundry and dinners. He sighed yet again.
‘Could you stop sighing,’ said Gigs. ‘You’re just like Chris. She’s always sighing, she doesn’t even know she’s doing it. She sighs when she’s eating, when she’s reading, when she’s looking something up in the phone book…the phone book especially. The minute she gets it out of the drawer she starts this massive sighing campaign.’
Gigs had finished his breakfast now. He tidied away his plastic containers and bottles and settled back to read his comic book. Frankie surveyed his best friend’s freckled face with great fondness, and some envy.
Gigs never seemed to worry. His life was a steady, tidy progress from one activity to another. If he had a task (breakfast, say; or getting his watch fixed; or doing his trombone practice; or buying an ice-cream; or finishing a maths project) he just did it. He didn’t think about the nutritional value of the breakfast or the ice cream (Gigs never worried about fat intake). He didn’t dwell on his maths ability, or his chances for Boys’ College next year, or his batting average, or whether blowing a sustained forte passage on the trombone might accidentally trigger a brain haemorrhage.
There were no detours or distractions, or interruptions by any one of a catalogue of pressing problems. Gigs didn’t worry about his household, his parents, his health, his safety, his future, the probability of earthquakes, global warming or McDonalds taking over the world. He was a funny guy, and a smart one—and the smartest thing about him, in Frankie’s view, was that he never, ever, ever worried.
Frankie dreamed of having such a disposition. If only you could win a temperament like that in Lotto, or get it through mail-order, or bid for it on eBay.
The bus came to a precisely judged stop outside the midtown terminal where most of the kids at Frankie and Gigs’s school boarded. Cassino had a comment or a quip for everyone—except, of course, the Kearney brothers, Seamus and Eugene. They’d been getting the cold shoulder from Cassino for nearly a year now—ever since they’d set fire to the seat nearest the back door. Cassino was a kind and easy-going guy, everyone knew; he let kids eat on his bus, he let them sing loudly, even get physical; he let people on for free if they’d mislaid their cards; he often waited for kids who were running late. But even Cassino had his threshold; damage to his bus was something Cassino neither tolerated nor forgave. Gigs and Frankie reckoned it’d be a cold day in hell before Seamus and Eugene cracked even a faint smile from Cassino. Frankie had often thought that earning Cassino’s permanent wrath would rank as one of life’s more unbearable punishments.
‘Wasim Enegue arcnarum multiplicitum et feralum? Gigs muttered. (Eugene Kearney’s spots are growing in number and size and repulsiveness.)
‘Gigantum Saccum et maladits personalitonium,’ said Frankie. (Too much McDonalds combined with an evil personality.)
Frankie slumped in his seat in alternative to sighing. He didn’t really feel like analyzing his schoolmates in Chilun. Usually it was a great way of passing the last half of the bus ride to school, but this morning his litany of worries was causing an irretrievable gloom to settle on him, heavy as a saturated tramping blanket.
It was strange the way this happened. He’d noticed it often. One week he’d be bouncing along relatively happy, only a couple of minor problems itching his subconscious. A week or two later the problems would have burgeoned and multiplied until the list of matters to solve dominated his thoughts and none of his usual pleasures could give him a scrap of comfort.
He sank lower in the seat and frowned at the semicircle of rolled up bus tickets describing the wide arc of the seat back in front of them. There were hundreds, jutting like white porcupine quills from the gap between the seat leather and the aluminium frame. He and Gigs had been building the quills for five years now and it was quite a sight. It was another example of Cassino’s extreme tolerance; he’d never mentioned the bus-ticket stash, but he’d never interfered with the project, either.
‘February 14th,’ said Gigs, suddenly. ‘Hot damn, it’s Valentine’s Day. We might get cards.’
‘Fat chance,’ said Frankie with infinite gloom.
‘Norbo B, Norbo B,’ whispered Gigs. This was their Chilun name for Bronwyn Baxter. Gig’s was convinced that Bronwyn Baxter had her eye on Frankie.
‘Shuddup,’ said Frankie. ‘I don’t believe in Valentine’s Day. Loada crap.’
Months later, remembering that moment, Frankie would smile to himself. He liked to go back over that little exchange, drawing it out, remembering his bleak mood, enjoying the before and after. Having declared his disgust with St Valentine he was just preparing to submerge himself fully in his slough of despond when the new girl got on the bus.
Months later Frankie liked very much to remember that though February 14 began badly and showed every sign of becoming a real horror, in fact, it marked a turning point in his mood and fortune, because at 8:36am the new girl boarded Cassino’s East-West school bus.
The new girl tripped up the steps in her beige Ug boots, popped a bus card, gave Cassino a wide smile, tossed her hefty dreds, and strolled down to the rear of the bus where Gigs Greenlees was ruminating on the possibility of valentines and Frankie Parsons was prostrate and maudlin on the brown bench seat.
The new girl was smallish and round and had a very tanned face. She wore jeans and a bright red tee shirt, saying you gonna? I’m gonna. She wore gold sleeper earrings and a tiny diamond stud in her left nostril.
‘Is this the dormitory, or can people actually sit here?’ she said to the slumped Frankie. Her voice was unusually deep, and husky like the chain-smoking torch singers Uncle George listened to.
‘I’m Sydney,’ she added. ‘Can you believe this is my fourth school in nine months? No? I’m having trouble with it myself. Salted liquorice?’ She held out a brown paper bag and the bangles on her hand made a brief musical rattle.
‘Ta,’ said Frankie, raising a languid arm and digging in the bag. He looked at the black pebble sweet then put it in his mouth. It was as odd as its donor, but he quite liked it.
‘You?’ said Sydney, passing the bag over Frankie to Gigs, who was staring a little defiantly at her.
‘No thanks,’ said Gigs. ‘Hate that stuff.’
Sydney sat down and Frankie slid up the seat until he was quite straight again. Gigs gave him a look.
‘Nogis golody callistus freakano. Dispatchio presto,’ he said. (What a colossal cheek. Have to get rid of her fast.)
‘My Dad sent me this stuff,’ said Sydney. ‘From Holland. You can get it here but I don’t like to rain on his parade. Not a bad breakfast substitute, if you’re running late. Which I usually am. Or, rather, my mother usually is…’
‘Nollis gannat negey comadonatus,’ said Gigs, staring straight ahead at the bus-ticket quills. (Lordy, she’s a talker).
‘Good scheme,’ said Sydney, pointing to the quills. ‘A bus installation. I like it. Urban art.’ She leaned into the seat, examining the quills. Then she sat back and rolled up her own ticket, correctly fashioning the point in the particular way Frankie and Gigs had pioneered years ago. She wormed the new quill carefully into the seat gap and smiled round at Frankie.
‘Nozdoreeshna!’ said Gigs. (Oh my God!). His voice had a distinct tone of outrage.
Frankie looked at Sydney and back at Gigs.
‘Glasnostov aginwia tarlick?’ (Are you going to answer me or what?)
‘Is he actually speaking Russian or just being a complete idiot?’ said Sydney. She pulled an iPod and earphones from her bag. Her bag, Frankie noticed, was covered in drawings and words. It looked old and well worked-over and loved. He looked up at the bag’s owner.
‘So,’ she said, ‘he’s speaking Russian—maybe—and you’re a mute. Once again, I hit the jackpot. Why is it I never end up at schools with normal people? Could you even tell me your name?’ She bulged her eyes at Frankie. They were brown eyes, with dark, blunt eyelashes. Her raised eyebrows were thick half-moons.
‘Frankie Parsons,’ he said, and surprised himself by holding out his hand. He could feel Gigs stiffen beside him.
‘Frankie Parsons,’ repeated Sydney, taking his hand. She gave him the trademark wide smile. ‘Sounds like a Country and Western singer. Or a mafia boss. Or maybe a famous tennis player.’
‘Nozdoreeshna!’ said Gigs again.
Frankie let go of Sydney’s hand and tried a small smile. He felt suddenly and inexplicably cheerful.
‘So,’ he said, and picked up Sydney’s iPod, surprising himself once more. ‘Nice machine. Wouldn’t mind one of these. My brother’s got one, too. Are you planning to stay very long at this school?’
Kate De Goldi has written three young adult novels and a collection of short stories. ‘The 10pm Question’ is an extract from her forthcoming novel of the same title. Her most recent publications are two picture books, in collaboration with artist Jacqui Colley: Uncle Jack and Clubs: A Lolly Leopold story. Billy: A Lolly Leopold story is forthcoming this year. Kate lives in Wellington, New Zealand.
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