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By James Roy
University of Queensland PressCopyright © 1999 James Roy
All rights reserved.
The trees behind Adam Desmond were full of mottled shadow, and by the time Danny saw the cricket ball rising at him, it was too late. He turned his head quickly to avoid the dark red blur. Too slow, and it crashed into his left ear, making his head hum. He clutched at his stinging ear, felt himself falling, heard his glasses clatter to the ground.
Near the mouth of the nets someone laughed.
"You OK, Daniel?" Mr Cullen, the history teacher, was bent over him, his hand on Danny's shoulder.
"I think so." Danny checked his hand for blood. There was plenty of it, collecting in a bright ragged puddle in the palm of his glove.
"You should wait till you've got your eye in properly before you try a shot like that," said Shaun Gilmore, and a couple of the other boys laughed.
"That's enough," scolded Mr Cullen as he helped Danny put his glasses back on. "You'd better go up and see the nurse."
"See the nurse? Good luck, Smell," said Shaun, and the other boys snickered again.
Danny tried to shake the ringing from his ear and began to fumble with his pads.
"Caleb, help him get that gear off and then go up with him, just to make sure he's all right. OK, let's not forget our helmets, gentlemen," Mr Cullen reminded the boys watching.
Danny and Caleb walked slowly up the grassy hill to the main school block. "Don't worry about what Shaun says — he's just being a show-off in front of the bigger kids," Caleb said.
"I know. He's right, though," Danny replied. "I shouldn't be playing with those guys. Adam Desmond's way too quick for me."
"What are you trying to prove, then?"
Danny shrugged. "I don't know."
He did know really.
The minute he got home from school, Danny went upstairs to the bathroom to examine his injury in the mirror. It pretty disappointing, really — just some dried blood and a band-aid. His glasses weren't even bent. He stared at his reflection for a long time, wondering what there was about Shaun Gilmore that he could make fun of. His nose was maybe a little too large for his face, but "Bignose" didn't seem all that clever. In fact, there wasn't much about Shaun Gilmore that you could make fun of. He was smart, popular and good at sport. He didn't wear glasses, he didn't have a weird haircut, and his parents didn't embarrass him on parent-teacher nights. Nothing like thick glasses and a turned-out eye. Nothing to spitefully remind him of in a crowded locker hall, nothing to make up for all the nasty things he'd said to Danny over the years.
Dad often reminded him that it was simply a matter of being patient, waiting for the glasses to do their job properly so they could get the final operation done at last. But that was easy for Dad to say, not being the one being picked on several times a day just because his eyes didn't point in the same direction. Danny wondered what his Mum would have said about it. He had no idea. It was so long since she'd died that most days he had trouble even remembering what she looked like.
Starting high school would have been tough enough even without having a deformity for people to make fun of. In primary school no one even mentioned it, except for Shaun, of course, and Shaun's mate Grant Hume. Of all the kids in last year's class, they had to be two of the three who were now going to St Lawrence's with Danny. The other was his best friend Caleb, so at least that was something.
He went down to the kitchen, took his dinner from the freezer, then went to check the mail. The flashing red light on the answering machine in the hallway told him that there was a message. He smiled as his father's voice said, "Hi, Dan, it's me. Hope you haven't forgotten it's Monday. I'll call you later from the courts. See you, mate." Dad played squash on Mondays and Wednesdays, and he always left the same message.
As he walked through the tiny garden with the fountain and the goldfish pond Danny noticed a car and trailer parked in front of the house next door, which was a terrace much like the one he and his dad lived in. A man and a woman were talking on the footpath. The man was tall and had a beard, while the woman was short, with very close- cropped black hair. There were a number of cardboard boxes piled up around their feet, along with a couple of pot-plants and a lamp.
"I guess that's the lot, then," Danny heard the woman say, and after they'd hugged quickly the man got into the car and drove away. She stood on the footpath and waved until he'd driven around the corner and out of sight behind another row of terrace houses.
"Hi there," the woman said, and Danny realised that he had been standing in the middle of his garden watching it all, and that now she was talking to him. "I'm Ellie, your new neighbour."
"Oh, hi," Danny answered, embarrassed to be caught staring. "I'm Danny. Danny Snell."
"What school is that?" she asked, pointing at Danny's uniform.
"St Lawrence's. It's just this big boys school."
He shrugged. "I've only been there a few weeks, so it's hard to say. It's OK, I guess."
Ellie's smile was warm. "Well, it's been nice meeting you, Danny. I guess I'd better get this lot inside." She bent to pick up the largest of the boxes.
"I can give you a hand if you like," he offered.
"Wow, a real-life gentleman!" she replied. "I thought they were a dying breed."
When they'd carried the last of the boxes into her cluttered hallway, she straightened up, wiped her face on the sleeve of her T-shirt and smiled. "Thanks again. That was really nice of you."
"That's all right. I don't mind."
"I'll get us a drink." She climbed over a couple of cartons which were stacked in the kitchen doorway. "Now, glasses first," she muttered to herself as she began rummaging through boxes packed with kitchen stuff wrapped in crumpled newspaper.
"It's OK," Danny said after she'd been searching awhile. "I'm all right — don't worry about it."
"No, no, they're right here," she said, finally holding up two glasses triumphantly. She grinned. "Now I've just got to find the cordial."
"Really, it's fine," Danny insisted. "I'll just have some water if you like."
Ellie smiled and looked embarrassed. "Thanks," she said as she filled the glasses from the tap and handed him one. "Sorry about that. Always disorganised ..."
Danny stood in the doorway and drank his water quickly. Ellie leaned against the bench and sipped hers, watching him. "What happened to your ear?" she asked.
"Cricket ball," he explained. "I should have been wearing a helmet."
"Always wise," she agreed.
"I probably shouldn't have been playing cricket at all, actually."
"No? Why not?"
He took off his glasses and pointed at his troublesome eye.
"Oh, I see," she said.
"You mean you hadn't noticed?"
She shook her head.
"Most people notice straightaway, even though my glasses do straighten it heaps. I mean, they don't usually say anything, but they don't have to. I can tell."
"They just kind of smile and look away quickly. That sort of thing."
"Well, I didn't pick it up," said Ellie. "Anyway, what does it matter? It just makes you unique."
"Yeah, that's what Dad says."
"Your dad's a smart guy."
"Well, I should go," Danny said, finishing his water and handing his glass back. "I've got homework and stuff."
"Well, thanks again for your help, neighbour. I'm sure we'll see each other again."
He'd just sat down at the kitchen table and taken out his folders and books when he heard a knock at the front door. It was Ellie.
"Me again," she said apologetically. "Are your folks home?"
"No, just me."
"Why?" Danny asked cautiously.
"I left some stuff in my brother's car, and my phone's not on yet. I was hoping I could use yours. I promise it won't take long."
"Sure." He pointed. "It's just there in the hall."
She thanked him, and he went back to his books. Her voice rose and fell for a while just a low conversational murmur, then Danny heard her hang up.
"So you really did come home to do your homework," she said from the doorway.
"I mean, I didn't think that boys your age did their homework without being nagged."
Danny smiled. "I guess I'm not really like other boys my age."CHAPTER 2
Danny's stomach churned all the way to school the following day. He watched the houses, cars, stations silently slip by the windows of the train, all the time dreading what was to come. Overnight his ear had gone a weird bluish-purple colour, and he knew that Shaun would notice it and have something to say the moment they ran into each other. Shaun the primary school Captain, Shaun the captain of the cricket team at their old school, Shaun who'd made 157 not out against Roseville in a club game two Saturdays ago. Mr Whaley the science teacher — Caleb called him the Fat Controller — was also the coach of Shaun's club team, and he'd made an announcement to the whole class on the following Monday morning. Shaun's chest had puffed out as Mr Whaley went on and on about what a great player he was, and how everyone should keep their eyes open for a bright young player batting at number three for Australia in a few years time.
"Hear that, Smell?" Grant had whispered to Danny, poking him between his shoulder-blades. "Keep that eye open. Both of them, if you can." Then he and Shaun had cracked up. If they found such a simple childish comment so amusing, Danny hated to imagine what they'd make of a real injury sustained playing cricket.
As always, Caleb was waiting for Danny beside the little newspaper booth, which was perched at one end of the station overpass with its bum hanging over the tracks. "Ooch!" he said when he saw Danny's ear. "Is it sore?"
"No, not really. Only when you touch it. So don't!" he warned as Caleb reached a hand towards it.
"So what did your dad say? Did he think it looked tough?"
"No, he said it made me look stupid for not wearing a helmet."
"Well I think it's tough."
"You don't count."
Danny and Caleb were already sitting at their desks in the science room when Shaun and Grant came in. They slid into the row behind, and Shaun immediately kicked the back of Danny's seat. "Hello, Smell," he said.
"Hi," Danny replied reluctantly, remembering what Dad always said about returning greetings, even to people you don't like.
"Morning, gentlemen," Mr Whaley said as he came in and dumped his pile of books on the front desk. "Ready for another big day? What better way to start it than with science, featuring my personal favourite, geology."
Everyone groaned, and Mr Whaley smiled, just a slight twitch of the mouth, which was as close to a smile from him as anyone had ever seen. He opened his textbook, searching for his place, and that was when Shaun began.
"Hey, Smell, want to come down to the nets again at lunch-time?" he whispered. "You were a real hit yesterday."
"No, you mean he was really hit yesterday," Grant murmured, and they giggled.
"I wonder if they write their own material," Caleb muttered to Danny.
"So how about it?" Shaun asked. "I'm making special time just for you, so I need an answer."
"Just ignore him," Caleb said in a low voice.
By now Mr Whaley was droning on, reading from his book about igneous rocks and basalt formation, but Caleb's voice made him pause and look their way, glaring out from under his thick black eyebrows. Then he cleared his throat and read on.
"You didn't answer me," hissed Shaun, leaning forward so his chin was almost resting on Danny's shoulder. "Cricket or not?"
"I don't think so, but thanks for the invitation," Danny replied.
Mr Whaley stopped again. "I hope I'm not interrupting you boys," he said. He glared at them for a second or two longer than necessary, scowled down at his page for a moment, then turned to write something on the board. As he did, Shaun leaned forward again.
"Is this a real bruise, or did you borrow Mummy's make-up to make it look worse?" As he said it, he grabbed Danny's swollen ear and twisted it, hard.
"Aaargh!" Danny yelped, leaping to his feet and spinning around to face Shaun, his books sliding to the floor as he bumped the desk hard with his hip. His ear throbbed and stung, and tears sprang into his eyes.
"Mr Snell!" roared Mr Whaley, slapping the whiteboard marker down and coming around the end of his desk.
Danny took a deep shuddery breath, quickly picked up his books and sat down, staring at his folded hands. "Sorry, sir," he mumbled.
By now Mr Whaley was standing in front of him. "Is the Philistine war cry completely necessary, son? On your feet and explain."
Danny stood, looking hard at the desk as he wondered what his next move should be. Should he say in front of everyone what had really happened? Was there any point, when Mr Whaley's favourite student was the true culprit? He could feel every set of eyes in the room fixed on him. He wondered if thick glasses magnified tears and made them more noticeable.
"I'm sorry, sir. I got a fright," he said finally, and the whole class laughed, especially Shaun and Grant.
"A fright?" said Mr Whaley loudly. "A fright? What, short of a herd of stampeding wildebeests coming through that doorway, could give you a fright like that?" He was getting warmed up now, and seemed to be enjoying the show he was putting on for the rest of the class.
Caleb had his hand up. Danny knew exactly what he was going to say, and scowled down at him. Mr Whaley noticed immediately.
"'Your cohort, Mr Snell?" he asked. "In that case you can both leave. Go on, collect your things and get out. I'll deal with you both straight after this period."
As they were leaving, Danny heard Shaun saying, "It's so hard to learn when others are disrupting the class, sir."
Except for Danny and Caleb, the lunch-time detention room was empty. They sat quietly while Mr Nash read his newspaper at the front desk. From time to time he felt in his lunch-box for another sandwich, which he would proceed to chew with soft sticky noises.
"This is so boring," Caleb muttered beneath his breath.
"It's meant to be boring — that's the point," said Mr Nash, who had excellent hearing.
Dad read the letter through once, then lowered it and looked at Danny. "Have you read this?" he asked.
Danny shook his head.
"It says you caused a major disruption m Mr Whaley's science class."
"I guess that's kind of true, only it wasn't my fault."
Dad took off his reading glasses. "Then tell me what happened."
"It was Shaun Gilmore. He's always doing stuff like this. He kept bugging me, and then he grabbed my sore ear. It really hurt, Dad."
"And did you explain to Mr Whaley what happened?"
"No. Caleb was going to, but he got a detention as well. It wasn't our fault, Dad, honest."
"Then maybe I should have a word."
"No. Can't you just sign the letter and forget about it?"
"Hmm," said Dad, putting his glasses back on and reading the letter all the way through again. "What to do," he said to himself when he'd finished. "So is this the same Shaun Gilmore you've told me about before — the one from primary school who gives you grief about your eye?"
"Rotten little beast," Dad said to himself. He held his arms wide. Danny went over and Dad hugged him. "Sorry, Dan, I'm really sorry. Hopefully it won't be too much longer before we can get this eye of yours sorted out for good."
"Are you sure they can't do it earlier?"
Dad looked pained. "I don't know, Dan. Maybe I'll ask the new woman next door about it — she's a nurse. Have you met her?"
"Yeah. I helped her move some boxes in yesterday."
Dad smiled. "You're a good lad."
"Even when I yell in Whaley's science class?"
"Even then."CHAPTER 3
"What did your dad say?" Caleb asked Danny as they walked from the station the next morning.
"Nothing. I just told him what happened. How about you?"
Caleb grimaced. "It wasn't pretty."
"Are you in trouble?"
"They said — I think this was it — that they're 'watching me closely'. You know, my marks and that."
"But your marks are great."
Caleb just shrugged. "Well anyway, they reckon that the scholarship's only just enough, so I've got to really work hard and not cause trouble. Because if I lose that scholarship ..."
"Did you tell them that you didn't do anything?" Danny asked. "Did you tell them that it was just me?"
Excerpted from Captain Mack by James Roy. Copyright © 1999 James Roy. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
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