"LAUREL" by Alessandra Azzaroni
© 2002 by Alessandra Azzaroni firstname.lastname@example.org http://au.geocities.com/vcastairwaytoheaven/index.htm
Written in Australia.
"In conclusion, I'd like to say that Australia does a lot for refugees, letting them into our land. Canada and us lead the world in taking in refugees. If some more countries helped out, we wouldn't have such a problem."
I stopped talking, and nodded my head, signalling that my speech was over. The people in my English class gave polite applause. But I thought I saw a group of people turn and murmur things to each other. About me, I guessed. I was famous among the Year Tens at Hedwood Secondary College for my speeches.
I wished I could lip-read. But I couldn't. Especially not without my glasses. I was short sighted, and I wore them for television viewing and seeing things in detail that weren't right in my face. I wasn't wearing them for my speech on an issue. I preferred not to be able to see people's faces clearly when speaking aloud in a situation such as this.
I sat down in my seat and yawned, covering my mouth lazily with one hand, and blinking because of the moisture in my eyes, due to the yawn.
"Fair speech," Narelle Briggs commented, tucking a lock of bleached blond hair behind her ear.
"Yeah, it was decent." I yawned again. Only five minutes to the end of class, and then the school day would be over. Chatter went around the room like buzzing bees.
With two minutes to go, Mrs Ingham read out the marks, in alphabetical order. "Michael, B. Hayley, B-plus. Laurel, A…"
An A was good enough. I wasn't like those people who had to get A-pluses all the time or they'd positively die. Like Deb Watkins, a friend of mine. She never said so in as many words, but I got the drift.
The bell rang, and we were dismissed. As we walked to our lockers, Narelle mentioned the maths test we were to have the next day. "I haven't made a cheat sheet yet, have you?"
I snorted with laughter. "As if I'd be that prepared! Of course I haven't."
"Wanna come over and make one up this arvo?"
"May as well. I'll never remember all those formulae on my own."
During the walk to the Briggs family home, I felt myself almost falling asleep. I jolted up, my black curls bouncing from the low ponytail. "Must be the weather," I commented. "Makin' me drowsy."
"Either that or you've been staying up far too late watching junk on TV."
"Nah, it's that bloody insomnia," I said. "Like it wants to kill me or something."
As we turned down Smiggin Road, Narelle took a whiff of the air, hard and long. "Do you smell something?"
I sniffed, and tried to decipher the scent. "Maybe someone left their oven on."
"Do ovens smoke?"
"How would I know?"
The farther we walked, the stronger the smell became. "Do you think a house is on fire or something?" she asked.
"Could well be." We walked on, and that's when I saw the flames. "Christ, a house really is on fire."
Narelle tilted her head up higher. "It's mine!" She dropped her bag and ran down, blond hair flying. I followed close behind.
I'll never forget that sight, of the house on fire. The Briggs' home was the largest on Smiggin Road, and it looked as though every centimetre of it was coated in smoke and/or flames. Already crisped pieces of wall and ceiling lay collapsed on the lawn, resembling burnt toast. The fire brigade was already there, extinguishing the flames bit by bit. Narelle and I stood on the footpath watching, pretty much in shock. Neighbours hung around, and I knew they were considering talking to Narelle, but probably decided that she wasn't the best for wear at the moment.
We stood unmoving as the last flames were extinguished, and we all waited for the smoke to clear. Two or three fire fighters gathered amongst the rubble, searching for the cause of it all. And if there were any survivors left.
"Mum was in there," I barely heard Narelle whisper, more to herself than to me. "Mum and Jack. Oh Hell, where are they?" She walked over to a neighbour. "Mrs Phillips, what on earth happened?" she asked, getting closer to hysterics.
"Oh, you poor, poor girl." Mrs Phillips started to cry, and pulled Narelle close. "We didn't know your mother was so unhappy and-"
She broke off, and I turned to look at what she saw. The police had arrived and were about to zip up body bags. Narelle ran over to them. "This is my house, where's my mum, where's my brother?" She started to cry.
The female constable looked down at the bags. "Maybe you can identify these bodies, then."
"Bodies? You mean they aren't alive?"
The constable peeled back the covers, revealing the faces of a middle-aged woman and a nine-month-old baby boy. Sharon and Jack Briggs. Narelle passed out then, and I stood on as a lonely spectator.
Later, Narelle was at my house. Mum hadn't come home from work yet. Narelle was calm now, though rather blank. "I think I know why she did it," she said.
"Hmm?" My eyebrows rose.
"It's Dad. He had an affair, and now he's off to Bali on a holiday. Maybe she felt so bad that she just had to cark it. Don't have a clue why she'd take Jack down with her, too."
I had no idea what to say. "Did the police call your grandparents?"
"Yeah. They live in Sydney, but they're coming down on the weekend to pick me up."
"Guess you'll be staying at our house 'til then, right?"
"If your mum says it's okay."
I didn't think Mum would mind. My mother was pretty easygoing. She was an interior designer with a major Australian firm. She'd raised me on her own. I didn't know much about my father, except that he and Mum had had "issues", as she called it, not long after I was born. I think Mum had his contact phone numbers and addresses, but never did he get in contact with me.
"You doing alright?" I asked Narelle.
She shrugged. "Nup. But I will be. Guess I'm still in shock, you know?" Suddenly, her face took a turn, and she stood up with fury. "How could she do that? If you want to kill yourself, that's your business. But how could she get Jack involved? He was so young. He could've grown up to be a brilliant bloke, and she just cut him down. Why did she want to hurt us?"
Her raving went on, but I didn't listen. I probably should've, seeing as she was my best friend, but I never did like to hear people complain about things. That's why I often tried to keep my mouth shut. Mostly, though, I failed, so I really was a hypocrite.
It was Tuesday, so there'd only be a few days before the weekend, when her grandparents would collect her. I was actually feeling quite awkward about having Narelle live here. After all, she'd just lost her possessions and two family members. It was kind of disturbing.
On Thursday, we came home to see my mother home early from work. She was sitting at the kitchen table. Slowly, absentminded, she stirred her cup of coffee, over and over again. Her black bun had wisps floating out of it, and her green eyes stared blankly at the surface of the table.
"Mum, are you alright?" I asked.
She looked up, stopping her stirring. She looked so tired and worn out that she looked like she was just going to drop. "Nup. We're going down."
Narelle tactfully left the room, to give us some privacy. I sat down at the table. "What happened?"
"What happened? What happened!" she scoffed miserably. "They're shutting down our firm, that's what!"
"Well, did you expect this? Did they give you any warning?" I asked.
She snorted. "Yeah, like they'd actually consider us," she said sarcastically. "They just decided 'nup; we don't want you' and off they went."
I wasn't quite following. "Meaning…?" I prompted.
She sighed, and looked a bit more alive. "It's a Sydney owned company. They just decided to keep the Sydney and Perth bases, and chuck the Melbourne and Brisbane ones."
I nodded, getting the drift. "And what's going on with you?"
She shrugged. "I need another job. And fast. We may be reasonably comfortable now, but our money's gonna start fading pretty soon."
"Which means we'll be buggered."
"That's right. Which means I'll have to…" She trailed off, looking out into the distance.
"Do what?" I asked, trying to bring her back to what was happening here and now.
She jolted, and looked back at me. "Well, I'll have to do something, won't I?"
I was still confused, but I nodded. "Yep, you will."
Later that evening, with Narelle lying in a sleeping bag on the floor, I was worried. Worried about Mum and I. She'd lost her job, and soon we'd be short on cash. She may have to go on the dole, and I may have to go get a part-time job. What about if things go really bad, and I had to be sent into child welfare or something? That couldn't really happen, could it?
"I'm alright," Narelle suddenly said from the floor. "I can handle this. It doesn't matter if Dad's on holiday with his woman. It doesn't matter if Mum set the house alight. It doesn't matter if Mum killed herself. It doesn't matter if she killed Jack, as well."
How can she say it doesn't matter? I thought. Of course it matters. How naïve are you, girl?
"Yes. Yes," she murmured as she rolled over. "Everything's gonna be okay."
Soon she was fast asleep, but I was wide-awake, and quite frightened. Narelle didn't seem quite on the level. She seemed a bit… off. And it wasn't right. I instinctively knew that something bad was going to happen.
The next morning, Narelle said she was sick. I didn't know if she really was, but Mum let her stay home anyway. I guess she figured that due to the family situation - or therefore, lack of family - Narelle was entitled to a day off.
Mum, however, was already going off for job interviews. During the evening before, she'd got out her phone number book and looked for people who could possibly help her.
I went off to school as always, but something was bothering me. I didn't know exactly it was, but it probably was the feeling I had felt the night before - that something bad was going to happen.
I walked home with a backpack full of folders and textbooks - maths and science tests to study for, French translations to do, Asian Studies notes to copy and an English essay to write.
I unlocked the door and sludged through, heaving my bag onto the carpet of the lounge. I yawned and stretched. "Naz, are you awake?" I called out. I didn't hear anything, so I went up the stairs of my split-level home in the direction of the bedrooms and bathrooms.
"Naz?" I called out again. I knocked on my closed bedroom door, but again there was no answer. I walked in anyway, and I wished that what was in front of me was just my imagination. Narelle was sprawled out cold on the carpet, with an empty water glass on the table and empty Herron paracetamol packaging lying around the floor.
Empty. It was nowhere near empty the last time I had seen it. I'd just opened that packet on Monday, to ease a toothache of mine. I hadn't taken any since, and I didn't think that Mum had, either.
I was shocked to the extent that I couldn't think or move. So I just stood on the spot, and stared.
I don't know how long I stood there, but I finally got my wits about me and went to the kitchen to fetch the telephone. I didn't want to call Emergency 000 for some reason, so I decided to call Mum on her mobile phone. I just had to hope that she wasn't in an interview.
She answered with a whispered hush. "Hello?"
"Mum, are you in an interview?"
"Not yet, but they're going to call me in soon. Why, what's wrong?"
"It's Narelle. I think she's… overdosed? Overdosed on Herron?"
"You sound unsure, Loz. Are you alright?"
I could hear the motherly concern flood through the line, and it comforted me. "I'm scared, Mum."
"Oh, Loz," she sighed. "Look, you call the ambulance and I'll come home when I can. Leave me a note to say which hospital you're at. And find me the number of her grandparents. Can you do that for me?"
"Yes," I said quietly.
In the background, I heard the clicking of high heels. "Alisa Ardwell? Mr Myer is ready to see you," a voice announced.
"Be right there." I heard Mum stand up. "I've gotta go now, Loz. You take care of yourself, alright?"
"Okay, then. Bye, love!"
It was true. Narelle really was dead. Her grandparents were taking the next flight from Sydney to Melbourne. I think they blamed Mum and I. We were supposed to look after her for four days, until Saturday, but we couldn't even make it that far.
But it wasn't our fault that Narelle suicided… was it? I mean, we didn't hassle her. She was just upset about the deaths of her relatives, and the way in which they had been taken. There was nothing wrong with Mum and I… was there?
At home that night, when it was just Mum and I, she was off in the clouds a bit. She was having a serious think about something, and I wondered what about.
My mother was brilliant. She had an eye for detail and a mind crammed with creative ideas. She was tall, and had an hourglass figure. With a toss of her curly black hair, people would turn to look at her. Her emerald eyes could hold people entranced. I'd seen it happen. And she had a down-to-earth way of saying things like they were. She was professional and in control. I was damn proud to have Alisa Ardwell as my mother.
Then there was me. I wasn't particularly brilliant. My mind had several empty rooms. I was tall, and I knew I was going to get a figure like Mum's. I could toss my curly black hair, and some people would say, "I like your hair". But inside they were probably wondering why I hadn't dyed or streaked it yet. My ice blue eyes didn't cause commotion. I did say things as they were. I wasn't professional, and I was nowhere near being in control. Perhaps I was just ordinary.
I'd often wonder about my father. I think I must have shared some common features with him. My complexion was naturally - without assistance from the sun - a little on the tanned side. But I didn't even like the sun. I hated summer, and Melbourne summers in particular were unpredictable. Hot and hazy one day, bucketing down with rain the next.
I had to have got my father's eyes. Without a doubt. A colour like that just doesn't pop out of nowhere. It had to have come from somewhere. I certainly wasn't talented enough to invent something like it.
I'd finished my dinner, but Mum had barely touched her plate. "You not hungry?" I asked.
"Mm," she answered vaguely. She stood up. "Think I'll use the phone now."
"You do that."
She left the room, and I was wondering; what was it with her? She didn't seem her usual self. I wasn't my usual self. I would have thought that my best friend's death - suicide, even - would have me in tears for days on end. Instead, I was just a bit blank, and empty. As if my emotions were off taking a holiday in Barbados, or somewhere else. Somewhere I'd like to be.
I'd gone to bed early. It was a habit of mine. If I was at home and I was bored or tired, I'd just sleep. Often it was easy to drop off, and this time I was fine.
But a knock on my door jolted me awake. "Mm?" I sat up sleepily, cleared my eyes and smoothed my hair.
Mum opened the door and stuck her head inside. "Sorry to wake you, but we have to talk. Can I come in?"
"Just as long as you don't turn the lights on."
She opened the door a bit wider and came in. I scooted over, and she sat on the bed, legs lying in front of her. "Well, I've just been on the phone."
"The phone is good."
She looked at me strangely, but went on. "I've decided that you need a change of scenery. You know, what with Narelle, and my job - or more to the point that I don't have one."
"I can't exactly take a holiday now," I shrugged. "There's still one and a bit months left in the first term of school."
"I'm well aware of that, Loz. That's why you'll be doing correspondence school for a bit."
I furrowed my eyebrows in thought. "But you said a change of scenery."
"Yep. Is the USA a big enough change of scenery for you?"
I was fully awake now. "What? The USA? You've got to be joking; we can't move there!"
"I'm not moving anywhere."
"Then why am I going and you're not?"
She groaned. "I'd have a better chance of getting a job here, among other things."
"Then whom will I be staying with? I don't want to be a backpacker!"
"You won't have to be. I've already organised accommodation for you."