Excerpt from “Bad Grass” © Cynthia Rowe, 2009
The chocolate had melted. She was sure.
Elizabeth Stubbs traced her finger over the gooey maps beneath the cellophane. Telling herself the biscuits would taste no different, she slid the packet deep into her knickers’ drawer to be eaten later. Or would she only admire the wrapping?
She was sweaty from the bus ride home. Her shirt was sticking to her armpits. She slung her backpack under her desk and unlaced her school shoes. Kicking them away, she peeled off her socks and padded across the carpet. The afternoon sun mirrored the flecks in her jellies as she scooped them up with a grunt, feeling as clumpy and awkward as her brother.
The mattress sagged beneath her weight. Soft toys went crabwise. Valance frills fluttered as she settled on the edge of the bed.
The front door slammed shut.
“Are you home, darling?” Her mother’s voice echoed up the stairwell.
“Yes, Mum.” Inserting her foot, Elizabeth adjusted the buckle.
“How did your English exam go?”
She could hear Florence mounting the stairs. “Good, Mum.”
“Well,” called her mother from the landing.
“It’s grammatically correct to say ‘well’!”
“The exam went well, Mum.”
“You must be famished after all that thinking.”
Florence’s shoes made a different squeak as she went back down. “I discovered a new cake shop in Kingston—Italian, the best on the Mornington Peninsula—and I bought you a teensy reward for studying so hard!”
“I told you. I’m not hungry!”
“You must be.”
“It’s too hot to eat. My pen melted all over the place and I just want a cool glass…”
“Don’t be silly. I’ll put the kettle on.” Her voice rose from the kitchen. “We’ll have coffee and you can tell me which essays you chose and why and what you wrote and—oh, everything. We can pig out—like sisters.”
“Yeah, right. You never eat anything, ever!” Elizabeth muttered.
Removing her school shirt, she pulled on a baggy top, eased a pair of drawstring shorts over her hips and went to the window to check out the Becker’s place diagonally opposite.
Her azure eyes scanned Ravella Crescent. She was just able to make out Stefan’s silhouette as he moved about his bedroom.
Elizabeth watched Stefan Becker often. She never told anyone, but she was sure Genna Perrier knew. Sensed it, somehow. Genna and Stefan hung out after school most days, hunting blue-ringed octopuses in the rock pools together. Elizabeth trembled with envy. She yearned to be funky like Genna, to have eyes so dark you could hardly see the irises.
A sigh burst from her lips.
Genna had a tan to die for. It was almost as if she were perma-bronzed, whereas Elizabeth’s skin remained wishy and pink no matter what the season.
Running a comb through her hair—“chic bob” her mother called it—she pulled her mobile phone from her backpack, plugged it into the charger on the dressing table. Skirting the life-size polar bear on the landing, she descended the stairs.
The dessert sat on the kitchen table. Beside the silver dish were spoons and two mugs of coffee.
Florence’s taupe shift toned with her hair—also cut in the same “chic bob”. “Da-da! Tiramisu!” she said.
“I told you, I’m not hungry.”
“Do you have an aversion to wog food, or are you dieting?”
“‘Wog food’? I hate it when you talk like that!” Pause. “No, I am so not dieting. I’m just kinda hot. I’m hanging out to go for a walk on the beach and, you know, clear my head.”
“But tiramisu means ‘pick me up’ and contains espresso and cocoa.”
“And mascarpone cheese and zabaglione cream and the others already call me, well, they say things, that I’m fat, and I totally dislike it.” She slumped onto the chair.
“Zabaglione? Does the word remind you too much of that dingy little shop on the highway—which I’m sure you never go into?”
Elizabeth tensed up, hoping her mother hadn’t poked around among her school socks and discovered the chop-chop. Illegal rolling tobacco padded with straw and purchased from Mrs B at the Zabaglione Woollen Shop.
She decided to change the subject. “Did you see Bron while you were in Kingston?”
“Briefly, dear.” Florence pleaded, “Go on! Just have a tiny bit! They say during World War 1 northern Italian women made this scrumptious dessert for men to give them energy to fight and return safely.”
“But it’s not healthy. Genna’s a raw vegan, and she’s really, really skinny.”
Florence’s eyes went from blue to slate. “Raw vegan? I’m sure you’re wrong. Namilly Perrier eats tinned food. I see her tossing the empty cans over the fence onto the vacant block of land next door. I’ve watched her pollute our environment, the flies, the disease…”
“She and Genna have separate kitchens.”
“So, why would you wish to emulate a family—with dysfunctional eating habits? What would that Euro friend of yours know about diet?”
“Genna’s not from Europe. She’s a Caldoche, born in New Caledonia.”
“Your father said a New Caledonian has just moved into the house on Ti Point.” Florence twisted her pearls around her forefinger.
“Yes, and I wonder why a New Caledonian would come here? Do you think he’s a relation of Genna’s?”
“Can’t be. She’s adopted.”
“Yeees. I remember Namilly Perrier turning up in Ravella years ago, small child by her side, some ugly furniture—and no husband!” Florence buried a spoon in the fluffy concoction.
“Let’s forget about Genna.” Pulling the dessert out with a plop, she handed the spoon to Elizabeth. “Please try this. The food will give you lots and lots of energy. You need energy to study.”
“Oh, all right.”
The shaved chocolate skimmed down Elizabeth’s throat.
“Which topics did you choose?” Florence sipped on her coffee, making tiny slushy noises.
“Aren’t you having any? It’s great! Try it before it goes all melted and disgusting.”
“I’ll have some in a minute. First tell me about your essay topics, the ones you liked best.”
“Well, I was hanging out for, you know, the one on—remember I talked to you about the amazing book, Not Without My Daughter, written by Betty Mahmoody?” Elizabeth’s cheeks bulged as she spoke.
“Was that the poor woman with the frightful terrorist husband? And wasn’t there a movie—”
“Moody wasn’t a terrorist, Mum, only a Muslim.”
“Same thing.” Florence took another sip of her coffee. “They all believe they’ll go to paradise if they kidnap or maim.”
“That’s so not true! Moody was pressured by his family. That’s the reason he changed.”
“And what did the others think of the exam—Stefan?”
“Oh, he hated it. Like he said he thought the whole thing was totally biased towards us chicks.”
“Vince Becker was telling Joe he plans to have Stefan learn about the service station business with a view to taking over after he graduates from high school.” Florence pushed a packet of cigarettes around in circles on the shiny surface of the table.
Elizabeth gave her spoon a final lick. “Nup. He so won’t do that. Stefan will never go IDB.”
“Into daddy’s business.” She pushed the empty dish away. “Nope, Stefan’s into nature, stuff like blue ringers and marine spiders, Palaeozoic rocks thrown up by the seismic activity of Selwyn’s Fault.”
“He’ll never make money from nature.”
“I’m off.” Elizabeth turned to leave.
“Where are you going?”
“For a walk. I told you!”
Easing the front door to behind her, Elizabeth headed for the gate. If only her mother weren’t so clingy, overprotective. Had Bron caused that? About to tug at the latch, she hesitated. Guilty from having eaten the dessert, she made sure the coast was clear. She pushed her finger to the back of her throat, bent over.
The tiramisu rose up.
She hawked the dessert into Florence’s prized azalea bushes.