Ashley's parents drove off down the track, leaving behind them a trail of dust and a teenager free to do whatever she wanted. After gossiping on the phone with her friends and bopping around the house listening to her Walkman, Ashley decided to ease the school holiday boredom by tackling a new piece on the piano. She was halfway through studying Mozart's Requiem at school, so she decided on learning Lacrimosa. That was the really sad piece they played at the end of the Amadeus movie where they bury Mozart in a mass grave because he was poor. It always gave her goose bumps.
Ashley was just about getting through the first page without any mistakes when there was a sound at the door. She thought it was just Kitty rubbing herself up against the screen, but when it turned into the familiar knock-knock rhythm, her heart flipped inside her chest like a pancake. She wasn't expecting anyone, and she lived so far out of the way that there was no such thing as someone dropping on by because they were in the neighbourhood. As she tiptoed down the hallway, she wished she hadn't let her best friend Jodie talk her into going to see The Shining at the drive-in because now her head was filled with axe murderers.
The tall figure was like a mirage silhouetted by the bright summer sun, and when she got closer, she nearly died. She'd prefer the axe murderer to Troy Marsden, the weird guy who lived on the property up the track.
Although they'd been neighbours for a while now, and caught the same bus and went to the same school and were in the same year, they'd never spoken a word to each other. It made sense. Ashley was an A-grade student. Troy was a dunce. She was into choir and athletics. When he wasn't wagging school, he either sat on his own or nerded out in the library. She was pretty in a farm girl sort of way and blended in well with her friends. Troy was a loner and stuck out like the long pointy nose on his freaky flat face.
The kids at school were mean. They'd call out “Ew, here comes The Troll!” and stick their legs out to trip him up. They called him The Troll not only because he was ugly and wore dirty clothes and had dirty long blond dreadlocks and facial fuzz, but because he lived in the mountains and caught fish with big, dirty hands. Or so they thought.
Ashley was never mean to him but she guessed ignoring him was just as bad. She'd drive Dad's old Ute to and from the house to the bus and never once did she offer Troy a lift, even when it was raining. She felt really bad about it, but knew it would be social suicide for her to have anything to do with him. Her parents didn't want her hanging around with his sort either, so she tried to not let it bother her. She told herself that it wasn't her problem. Her Dad always said, Life wasn't meant to be easy, and it was doubly true for teenagers.
So there they were, Troy the Troll standing at Ashley's front door while she stood in the hallway panicking. Anything could happen out here out in the bush and no one would know, she thought. No one would hear the screaming. She pictured her parents coming home and finding bits of her all over the house.
‘What do you want?' she asked him, her heart going like the clappers.
‘I'm goin' yabbying down the dam,' he said, fidgeting with his hands.
He paused. ‘Wanna come?'
‘Um...' she said, realising it was the first time she'd heard him speak and his voice was soft and gentle.
After what seemed like ages, he turned to leave, mumbling under his breath.
‘Wait,' she said. ‘Gimme a minute.'
Ashley bolted into her bedroom, closed the door and tried to think straight. Oh my bloody God, she thought. The Troll was asking her out on a date! It was insane. She knew she should walk out there and tell him to crawl back into his hole. Then she could go back to attacking Lacrimosa and pretend it never happened. Only part of her was intrigued and wanted to know what made this whacko bush kid tick. So she walked as casually as possible back down the hall to the door.
‘OK,' she said.
Her friends and family would tear her to pieces if they knew but this only made it all the more exciting. Uncovering the Troll would be her little secret. Her private summer project.
They walked in silence down the track and she started to wonder if she were here out of guilt. Deep down she knew how mean it was to treat someone so cruelly, and just because he was different didn't mean he didn't deserve respect. She couldn't help but think how awful it would be to have everyone in the world hating you.
‘How long have you been yabbying down here?' she asked.
‘Ages,' he said.
‘They're our yabbies, you know.'
‘No they're not, they're God's.'
‘God's?' she snorted, thinking he was taking Reverend Donnelly's preachings a bit too literally. ‘I suppose you reckon you can help yourself to our sheep and cattle as well, then?'
‘Pretty much,' he said, swatting the flies away from his face. ‘Possession is nine-tenths of the law, you know.'
So he wasn't a retard after all, she thought to herself. He was pretty smart.
‘What exactly are yabbies anyway?' she asked, hoping she didn't sound stupid.
He laughed, which meant he thought she was stupid. ‘Australian freshwater crayfish.'
Ashley was about to ask him where the fishing lines were when he squatted down beside the dam and his wiry arms tugged at a line tied around a nearby gum tree.
‘I set it yesterday,' he said. ‘Just gotta pull it out.'
‘Pull what out?' Oh my God, maybe he does catch fish with he bare hands!
From the muddy water, he lifted the green mesh net pulled taut over curved black wire and it was alive with muddy brown yabbies that looked like small lobsters. ‘This sort of net's called an Opera House.'
‘Because it looks like the Opera House! Jeez!'
‘Well I dunno what opera house you're referring to because it looks nothing like the one in Sydney.'
‘Whatever.' He opened the net, took out a dull brown yabby and swished it around in the water to get rid of the mud. ‘They blend in with their surroundings which is why these ones are brown.'
Blending in with their surroundings, Ashley thought, maybe that was the root of his fascination.
‘And see on top of these antennae?' He brought it in close so she could see. ‘That's its eyeballs.'
‘Ew!' She leaned back. ‘Gross!'
‘They keep your bloody dam clean so I'd be nice to ‘em if I were you.' He smiled and for the first time Ashley saw he had perfectly straight, white teeth, the total opposite of the rest of him.
‘And see this?' he said, flipping the yabby over. ‘See how its tail is curved under? It's hiding its eggs under there.'
‘How do you know so much about yabbies?'
‘Dunno,' he said, standing up. ‘Just do. Come on.'
‘Where are we going?'
‘To my place. I'll cook ‘em up for you.'
Her heart lurched. ‘But I don't like seafood.'
‘You will when you taste these.'
She was about to decline, but if she did go then she'd be the only one in the school who knew what his house looked like. So Ashley followed him down the weather-beaten track, wondering if she was making the biggest mistake of her life.
As he showed her around his home, it highlighted how different they really were. Ashley was an only child who lived in a big white farmhouse with hard-working parents. Troy shared a beat-up old caravan with his dole-bludger father ever since his mother died. She had her own room with dusty pink walls and a four-poster brass bed with a canopy. His room was a tarpaulin on the side of the caravan with a stretcher bed and sleeping bag. She had dogs and cats and fish and sheep and cows and horses. He had a pet kangaroo that he reared from a baby after rescuing it from its dead mother's pouch. They were chalk and cheese. There was no way they could ever be seen together in the real world, yet somehow, in the secluded bush without small town eyes judging them, they circled each other with increasing interest.
Troy made a campfire. He then took a large iron pot, filled it with water and rested it on the grate. Once the water was boiling, he dropped in a couple of still-squirming yabbies.
Ashley looked away as they tried to claw their way out of the pot. ‘That's so cruel!'
‘That's life,' he said.
After a few minutes, Troy plucked a yabby out of the boiling water. After it had cooled a bit, he cracked it open with an old nutcracker and handed Ashley some flesh with his bare hands before popping some in his mouth.
‘Good, eh?' he said with his mouth full.
‘Mmmm.' It was delicious and nothing at all like the seafood buffet at the RSL Ashley's parents dragged her to every month.
They stuffed themselves silly, gobbling up every last one and slurping down some really bad wine from a flagon. It felt like Christmas, only loads better.
That summer Ashley and Troy did loads of cool things, all of them secret. They climbed the mountain and had a picnic of Vegemite sandwiches and cordial while they watched the valley below. They went swimming in a creek that Ashley didn't even know was there. They played cards and listened to music. He taught her how to smoke and blow smoke rings. She taught him how to play Chopsticks on the bottom half of the piano while she played Heart and Soul on the top half.
The Troll really came out of his shell, just like one of his yabbies. The closest he and Ashley got to romance was when he let her cut his hair, but that was OK. What they had was better than romance. It was friendship.
When school went back, things returned to normal. The kids picked on Troy and he retreated back into himself. Ashley spoke to him once, but her friends gave her so much flack about it that she never dared do it again.
Then, a few days later, Ashley saw the article in the paper.
Troy Marsden, 14, of Rocky Creek, was found dead this morning on the Pacific Highway. He was hit by a passing semi-trailer and was dragged for over twenty meters. He died instantly on impact. He was walking home from the pub.
There was no inquest. No autopsy. No funeral announcement. Not even a mention of him at school assembly. But there was plenty of whispering in the corridors.
That afternoon, Ashley went down to the dam so she could be sad in secret. Sure enough, she found the line tied around the gum tree. She pulled the Opera House out of the water and saw one lonely yabby trapped in the net. She made a fire, and placed the yabby gently into a pot of warm water so that it would drift off to sleep before the water reached boiling point. Her dad told her that was the kindest way.
As Ashley ate the sweet flesh, she wondered if Troy's death was an accident or he'd just had enough of trying to blend into a life where he felt he didn't belong. Maybe the passing truck was Troy's pot of warm water.
Ashley put out the fire and walked home. She sat at her piano and, blinking through the tears, she played Lacrimosa from start to finish without one mistake.
©2005 Kimberley Smith
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