CHAPTER 1 EXCERPT
The first time I spoke to Thomas Chan we were both waiting outside the Principal’s office. I was sure I was about to be expelled again; he was calm as a clam shell, playing chess on his iPhone. Thomas was the school nerd. He didn’t have to attend classes if he didn’t want to and he had his own desk in the Library. People didn’t dislike him, they just didn’t know how to talk to him. It wasn’t so hard really, you just needed to know three things: (1) he took everything you said literally, (2) he wasn’t interested in goss, and (3) he had absolutely no sense of humour.
“Who’s winning?” I asked him. He ignored me for a while — well, it was a stupid question.
“Can you play?” he asked without looking up. I guess he thought I’d say: “Oh no, I’m a girl, chess is too hard for me.”
“Oh, my Dad had a FIDE ranking. I play with him,” I said casually. That did the trick, the nerd shut down the game and gave me his full attention, as though it was some kind of present.
“What are you here for?” he asked. “What sin did you commit to be sent to the Office?”
“I biffed Gormley Gorgon. I think I broke his nose.”
“‘Biffed’? What does ‘biffed’ mean?”
“It wasn’t my fault. The big tub of lard started it. I was demonstrating how to break a board with a hammer kick and his face got in the way. I guess I’ll be expelled.”
“So when you say ‘biff’ you mean a certain kind of kick. Is that a karate term?”
“I’m a Taekwondo Black Belt.”
When Mum was young, she had been the Police College karate champion, but it was Dad who took me to Taekwondo and called me “Biff” the first time I broke a plank of wood with a kick. Mum was the Station Sergeant in our little town, which wasn’t such a difficult gig: at the top of her Wanted list were hoons in hotted-up utes pulling burnouts down Oyster Street. I guess she got bored. She was always applying for promotions, then refusing them at the last minute, because of Dad.
Dad was a champion surfer back in the 20th century, the king of the left-hand wave break that was born over Coal Cliff reef and pipelined nearly 100 metres before it fizzled onto the crystal white sands of Bluebottle Beach. When the surf was flat, Dad made fibreglass surfboards and welded wetsuits in his workshop under our Queenslander.
Most kids would freak at the idea of having a police sergeant for a mother, but Mum is pretty cool on the whole. She jokes, “If you’re going to have a juvenile delinquent for a daughter, you may as well be a full-time policewoman.” At least I’m pretty sure it’s a joke. We made a deal: so long as I don’t steal or take drugs I can do pretty much as I like. In Bluebottle Beach, that means surfing. On the other hand Dad, who spends half his life in the surf, is like a jailer when it comes to homework. I’d get home from school and usually Dad’d be under the house, sanding a surfboard and sharing a ‘rolly’ with his mate Long John.
I’d say, “Can I’ve a puff?”
Long John would answer, “It’s Bangalow Broccoli, mate. You don’t like broccoli.”
Dad would say, “There’ll be a pipeline running at high tide. Get your homework done and I’ll take you out in the jet ski.”
Dad’s other fixation was with hypocrites. Whenever a politician or a bureaucrat tried to justify something stupid on TV, Dad would argue back: “How can you say that, you bozo?”… “Where do you think we are, North Korea?”… “You think climate change isn’t real? Come surfing with me one day and I’ll show you the evidence!”
But, apart from these two fixations, Dad’s pretty cool too.
After I was expelled from Bluebottle Beach High School, half way through Year 7, for fighting, Mum was offered a promotion to Superintendent in Candybar, which was too good to refuse, though it meant we had to move and enrol at Candybar High School. I can’t say I was happy about it. Half the kids in Candybar had genius IQs — their parents were diplomats or professors — the other half pretended they were smart — their parents were in the public service or the army, or worked in real estate — like Uncle Rodney, my cousin Pandora’s dad. Mum’s’ police uniform now had silver buttons and pips on the shoulder and her Wanted list now included drug smugglers, crooked businessmen and terrorists. If I was going to be expelled in my first week at CHS, it would be pretty embarrassing for her. Dad would have shrugged and taken me out for a heart-to-heart beyond the breakers. But there were no breakers in Candybar and Dad was back in Bluebottle Beach sanding down surfboards with only Long John for company.
Cousin Pandora and I used to be in sync when we were little kids, but these days we moved in different circles: I was into surfing, detective novels and The Way of the Dragon; Pandora’s head was full of fashion, makeup and boy bands. Her best friend, Courtney Caldera was the most popular and beautiful girl at Candybar High (at least that’s what her public relations team put out). She was a YouTube ‘influencer” with about a million fans of her weekly What’s Hot for Teens videos, sponsored by the KT chain of Korean clothing and beauty boutiques. Courtney had the knack of tweaking the school uniform in almost undetectable ways to make it look fashionable and sexy: hem raised 10cm, waist lowered, shirt sleeves at half mast, tie loose, two buttons undone, plus styled hair, some discrete makeup and piercings and a tiny Chinese tattoo on the back of her neck. Every girl in the school tied themselves in knots to be one of Courtney’s Facebook friends, but the highest honour of all was to be invited to the CCLLC, the Courtney Caldera Ladies’ Lunch Club.
Pandora wangled me an invitation in my first week, though it was made plain that I was on probation. As well as CC herself and cousin Pan, there were only four other members: identical twins Phyllis and Abigail Ng, Gwendolyn Farnsworth, the principal’s daughter and a watermelon named Gormley Gorgon.
At lunch time it was blazing hot. I took my place with them on the bench under the only tree in the playground, and unwrapped my organic rye bread and garlic hummus sandwich.
“Ohh, what’s that stink? Did somebody fart?” hooted Gormley, holding his nose. Cross-eyed Gormley thought he could insult anyone because his uncle was Ghastly Gorgon, a fat cat who had donated the bench we were sitting on and who owned the KT clothing chain as well as about 100 hotels around the world. Courtney had bent the rules to make Gormley an honorary lunchtime “lady”, which was lucky for Gormley, because everyone else in the school hated him.
“Does one of you ladies have a dog turd on her shoe?” he simpered.
“It’s Bethany’s lunch,” giggled Phyllis Ng.
“OMG!” Courtney shook her blonde curls and stared wide-eyed at my sandwich, “Bethany Potts, why is your bread black?.”
“It’s rye bread,” I explained. “It’s good for you.”
“It’s wog bread,” pronounced Gormley. “We don’t like wogs here, do we ladies? Is Potts a wog name, short for Potchinsky or something?”
Pandora tried to stand up for me: “Bethany’s mother is a police Superintendent.”
“What does she superintend, school crossings?” Gormley squeaked.
My temper had got me into trouble before, but I gritted my teeth and answered politely. “She’s in police intelligence.”
“Uncle Ghastly says ‘police’ and ‘intelligence’ are morons.” Gormley smirked around at the ladies, expecting applause for his cleverness. But I’d had enough.
“The word is oxy-moron, you lame-brain. It’s Greek. It means a contradiction in terms. Police intelligence is what keeps drugs and terrorism out of this country and lets people like you sleep safely at night. You’re the only moron around here.”
Courtney took a ladylike sip from her box of açai berry and guarana juice. “Bethany, you’re new here. Rule Number One of the CCLLC is never criticise another member of the group… at least not to her face.”
“I don’t think that thing on Gormley’s shoulders qualifies as a face.”
That stung. He stood up and pointed at the brass plaque screwed to the back of the bench. “You nasty little bitch. No wonder they expelled you from your last school. Move your skinny butt off my uncle’s bench.”
I was determined not to lose my temper. I sat tight and looked the other way. Bad decision—he snatched my sandwich and peeled it open.
“What is this? It looks like cat vomit.”
I stood up and faced him, took a deep breath and expelled it slowly while assuming the first position in the Taekwondo Pomsae : feet evenly balanced, arms and hands loose and relaxed. I said quietly, “Give it back, if you know what’s good for you.”
“What if I don’t?”
“I’ll biff you.”
“Biff you. I warned you.”
“Ooo I’m sooo scared!” Gormley simpered. “What will you biff me with, your deadbeat dad’s surfboard?”
I guess Pandora realised she’d blabbed too much about her cousin and it was her duty to mediate.
“Please Gormley, give Bethany back her sandwich,” she asked sweetly. “ You can have some of my pecan halvah.”
Gormley lowered the sandwich a little. “What’s that? Is it foreign?”
“It’s Turkish. I made it myself.”
“Hal-eye-va,” sneered Gormley “Sounds like sal-eye-va,” and he coughed up a gob and dribbled it out his fat, ugly lips. Disgusting.
Even Pandora has her limits and insulting her cooking was a step too far. She turned on Courtney: “Why doesn’t Rule Number One apply to Gormley?”
Courtney closed her lunch box with a snap. “Bethany is on probation. She needs to learn to control her emotions if she wants to remain in the club.”
“Bethany’s a karate black belt. I’ve seen her break a plank of wood with one fist.” She turned on Gormley: “Apologise to both of us before you get hurt.”
“Oooo, I’m scared!” Gormley looked me up and down. “I reckon this skinny little surfer chick couldn’t break a Tim Tam with an axe,” and he raised my sandwich above his head in triumph.
I took another breath and as I expelled it slowly, began the moves of Pomsae Koryo — the routine I had done perfectly for my black belt. I bowed to the members of the CCLC, slowly raised my arms to shoulder height, turned side-on then launched myself into a 2-part kick aimed at the sandwich in Gormley’s right hand. I was wearing my Doc Martens, but the result would have been the same with bare feet.
It wasn’t my fault that Gormley chose that moment to swing around and poke his tongue out. My right foot connected with the exact centre of his nose. The crunch reverberated around the playground. Gormley swayed, his eyes went even more crossed, then he toppled to the ground like a tree. Blood oozed from between his fingers as he clutched his nose and mixed with the tears from his eyes. School children converged from all corners of the playground and I saw a teacher pushing his way through the crowd towards us.
I turned to Pandora. “Thanks Pan, but I’m only a First Dan Black Belt. If I’d been Second Dan, I wouldn’t have missed.”
“Gormley never gets into trouble, ”said Tom. ”His uncle has just donated an indoor swimming pool to the school.”
“So Gormley gets to be the victim and I get expelled?”
“I don’t think you’ll be expelled,” said Tom seriously. “Even the teachers hate Gormley.” He held out his hand. “My name is Thomas Chan, by the way.”
I shook his hand. “Bethany Potts.”
“I’m going to call you Biff. Do you mind? By the way, I’m your next door neighbour.”
“I know. You’ve been spying on me for the last week.”
“It’s hard to ignore you.”
“My father is a genius.”
“Does he often forget to wear his trousers?”